Sunday, November 23, 2008

Disappointed enemies

As the end of the year is approaching, time comes for various analyses and generalizations. An unescapable subject, esp. in a US election year, is the development of current global war (usually referred to by the misnomer "war on terror" while I prefer to call it "war against the West"). Does either side seem to win so far?
The US election results seem to indicate a loss, or at least a perception of loss. Of course Barack Obama may turn out to be a good President after all. This is unlikely but by no means impossible - history knows much stranger things. However, nothing can ever erase the fact that he was elected with the promise of "change", which, to my opinion, inevitably implied that USA had been going in the wrong direction. This, in turn, matched 100% the claims of America's enemies. To sum up, on Nov. 4 US voters agreed with US enemies that America was bad as it was and needed a change. Of course I may be wrong and I'll be thankful to each opponent who points to me some more benign logic behind the "change" slogan; however, my overall impression is that logic had only a marginal (if any) role on Nov. 4.
On the other side, our enemies are also facing problems. There haven't been major successful terror acts on Western soil since 2005. And the increasing recruitment of people with mental retardation and other mental disabilities as suicide bombers, apart from demonstrating the unlimited evil of the recruiters to anyone who had doubted it, also shows that they may be running short of neurologically typical volunteers to blow themselves up.
More than two months ago, Highlander wrote a post titled US 2008 elections: a cloning apparatus. It was followed by an interesting discussion not only about the (then upcoming) event but also about Israel, Palestine, Arabs, nationalism, citizenship etc. One of the participants was LouLou, a young lady living in the UAE but officially a Moroccan because of her father's Moroccan origin. She said many interesting things and here I want to cite one of them:
"It reminds me of a speech by Al Zawahri soon after Sept. 11 in which he was saying something to the effect that Al Qaeda carried out Sept. 11 to energize and mobilize 'the ummah' to join their jihad and how disappointed he was that 'the ummah' failed to respond and support the Mujahideen. He was clearly expecting some kind of mass universal Islamic suicide-bombing spree. It didn't happen because reality is 'the ummah' is not and has never been an ideological/cultural/political monolith capable of a single, unified response in the manner he dreams about... When this tide of Islamism has receded in the same manner that Arabism receded in the 70's, we will be left with a few Islamist intellectuals and writers here and there lamenting the failure of their grand scheme and attributing it to external conspiracies and 'perceived betrayal' by millions of people whose loyalty was never actually pledged to said scheme."
(For those who are as blissfully ignorant about the term "ummah" as I was in 2001 - it designates the global Muslim community.)
After Sept. 11, I hoped and almost expected that ordinary Muslims would start a powerful movement to reform Islam and many would leave it altogether. (I mentioned this once, again on Highlander's blog, but don't remember on which post.) When this didn't happen, I was disappointed. I realize now that my expectations and demands on Muslims have been, and maybe still are, too high. Human beings cannot en masse acquire superhuman qualities. If we discuss people like Ali Sina, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Nonie Darwish, we can say about them whatever we like (depending on the viewpoint) except that they are typical individuals and everybody can do what they have done. Most people just cannot and therefore the process of defanging Islam, if happens at all, will take generations.
LouLou and I have many differences in our views (and little affinity to each other's personalities), but despite this I find what she says noteworthy. I hope she is right in her rather optimistic prediction. And I owe her thanks for picking and translating those words of Al-Zawahiri. It is good that whenever Islamists say something in a non-English language for limited circulation, there is always a kind soul to translate and post. Now I know that after Sept. 11 al-Zawahiri was disappointed like me, possibly even more. I can only wish him more disappointments with each coming year.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Souvenir from the summer

These photos are taken in the village of Rasnik. The stork nest is located not far from our summer house. The images aren't very good, so I have to explain what is happening. Initially, one of the parents is in the nest with the two young. Then the second parent flies in (both adults can be seen in photo No. 6) and the first one flies out.
I have blogged before about this nest and its inhabitants. One of the storks that used to live there was killed by a stone three years ago; its partner disappeared the following spring. Then in 2007 another pair came to the nest but left it without hatching young. And now, the same or another pair has returned and reproduced.
The photos are dated July. Three or four weeks after they were taken, the young could fly well and the entire family left the nest. I hope they are now well under another blue sky, while here cold winds are tearing down the last leaves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Two words about the US elections

A week ago, Sen. Barack Obama was elected US President. I wanted to write about him before the elections, particularly why I thought it wasn't advisable to vote for him, but I was too busy and missed the opportunity. Now, I'll abstain from bashing him until he has been President for 100 days, as tradition requires. I don't want to be like those Arab dictators who began lecturing the poor man what to do 2 months before he was even sworn in.
So let me just share my thoughts about the phenomena accompanying Obama's victory. I mean all those crowds of people totally out of control, shouting, crying, fainting etc. I have never seen or heard of adults behaving this way without being under the influence of a psychotropic substance. In backward countries like Bulgaria people are quite susceptible to messiah politicians promising the Earth but, frankly, I never thought the same to be possible in an advanced post-industrial country with established democracy such as the USA. I briefly visited a couple of my favourite US-based blogs and other sites. In a number of them, I found accounts of the authors crying when they heard about Obama's victory. How sad. (No, don't expect any links from me here. If an online friend decides it's a great idea to post nude photos of herself, I won't link to them, either.)
To be sure, Obama's opponents were far from perfect; and those always seeking the bright side should be glad that USA, the leading nation in science, was spared the disgrace to have an antivaxer President and a creationist Vice-President. But the pros seem to end here.
As far as I can grasp something rational in the "hope" and "change" abracadabra (most of which, however, clearly works well below the brain cortex), Americans want to renounce their role in the world. They are tired of being good, intrepid, strong and devoted. They are tired of bringing light to the world and receiving mostly hate in return. They want brilliant isolation, keeping all their money at home to pay their own mortgages and letting dictators and terrorist do whatever they wish. I don't know whether this would be good for the USA. It surely wouldn't be good for the world. But if this is what the Americans want, who am I to judge them?

Don't buy stolen things

Several days ago, as my friend was travelling in a tram, two or three Gypsy women raided through it and her cellular phone disappeared from her bag. Usually in such cases people rush to blame the victim ("Why didn't you look after your things?"), so let me mention that pickpockets know their job well and, besides, my friend was a bit out of touch with the surrounding because she was just returning from a funeral.
The phone had been bought via monthly payments, so my friend for a couple of months will continue to pay for a device she no longer owns. However, she is not a material person and easily got over this. She regrets only the digital photos she had made, about 40 files that were stored only in the phone. "They stole my moments," she complained to me.
The police apparently aren't in a hurry to do anything. They said, "Cellular phones are often found but it takes a long time." As far as I know, the mode of operation of a cellular phone allows it to be located within hours.
I don't want to muse now about these nasty Gypsy thieves who make a living by preying on hard-working people too poor to afford a car. They are miserable creatures, how good that we weren't born in one of their families to grow up like them. Neither am I going to rant about our police. We all know that it isn't there to help us. I am now thinking of the white, educated, law-abiding Bulgarians who buy a second-hand phone without much thought about its origin and then brag about the good deal. These people are the reason why cellular phones are stolen. If pickpockets couldn't sell so easily what they steal, they would pick only a few cellular phones to supply themselves and their family members.
So my appeal is: Don't buy a second-hand cellular phone unless you know and trust its former owner. In countries like Bulgaria, there is much chance for the phones offered for sale to be stolen. The same holds true for second-hand computers, car radios, CD players and many other devices.

Friday, November 07, 2008

On the stem cell controversy

Let me begin with a quote from Maria Rossbauer's report Unproven stem-cell therapy ban published in Nature journal on Aug. 20:
"The Bulgarian deputy minister for health has resigned over the country's decision to ban the use of a controversial stem-cell therapy to treat neurological disorders. The therapy, which since 2005 has been carried out on around 250 patients at St Ivan Rilski Hospital in Sofia, contravenes European Union regulations and is of unproven value, the Bulgarian health ministry ruled on 8 August."
Subscribers to Nature can read the whole text here.
I wasn't going to blog about the stem cell controversy, after it had a relatively happy ending, but on Oct. 3 our Faculty Board decided to "condemn the unethical and unscientific statements of members of our community (Prof. Bobev, Prof. Svinarov, Prof. Kremenski) in the campaign against the (Department of) Neurosurgery on the occasion of stem cells". Bulgarian readers can find the protocol of the Faculty Board session here. The three condemned professors apparently blew the whistle and this led to banning the therapy.
I am not a doctor, let alone a neurosurgeon, but let me share my thoughts on the subject.
First, bone marrow contains hematopoietic and mesenchymal stem cells. Both belong to the connective tissue, which isn't close to the nervous tissue, so I think it isn't very likely for these stem cells to "convert" and differentiate into neurons. Therefore, to my opinion, this low probability hardly justifies injecting bone marrow stem cells into the brain or the spinal cord, which is invasive and (I guess) not 100% safe procedure. At least not until the treatment has been shown to work in an animal model.
Second, after this experimental treatment has still been given a try, I think that after a reasonable number of treated patients (much fewer than 250) the results must have been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication, no matter whether they have been negative or positive. The team claims positive results - improvement in as many as 50% of patients. However, without a publication it is unclear whether this improvement has been detected in a "blind" manner (i.e. by people unaware of the treatment) or by the treating doctors or even by the patients themselves. In the latter cases of course we cannot distinguish real improvement from placebo effect.
Third, what I disapprove most in the story is that the patients have paid for the therapy. I think that people undergoing experimental medical procedures must never pay (in some cases they may ever receive payments).
Still, I wouldn't like to condemn anybody because I want to believe in the good intentions of all people involved. However, I don't understand why the Faculty members haven't given such a benefit of the doubt to their opponents. So I wish to express solidarity with the three condemned professors.
Thanks to the colleague who informed me about the above cited documents (you know who you are).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Back to business

After my long maternity leave, I have been back to work for almost two months.
It is refreshing to resume the job one likes and, to be honest, to have a break from the never-ending and brain-devouring work of a housewife. However, there are always "buts".
We are stuck in life like spoons in a cup of puree: if a spoon is taken out, its place stays for a little, then the puree fills it without a trace. You feel it every time when you "return" to a place where you have been absent for a long time: life has intruded into what has been your place.
The most difficult bit is the condition of my lab. It actually belongs to the Medical University, resp. to the Bulgarian government, but I call it mine because I have contributed to it, the criterion used by Exupery's Little Prince to call the little planet his own. Unfortunately, few of my colleagues value the lab as much. Or at least they don't understand what a working lab looks like. They think the important thing about a lab is being clean and tidy. So things making it untidy should be cleared away, even if they are e.g. balances needed to weigh substances and prepare solutions.
The analytical balance had been moved to a corner without proper care. Now it is out of order and I am desperately trying to find someone - anyone - to fix it. There used to be two skilled men at our Faculty able to do this job. Now, one of them has died, the other has retired and nobody can tell me his phone number. It sometimes seems to me that all people in this country who could do something have emigrated, retired or died.
The technical balance had just disappeared. After some - how to say? - balance-hunt I found it in a corner in the restroom, and nobody could tell me how it got there. Actually, I don't really want to investigate it. This means to look back into the past, and I prefer to look to the future.
Last week, a colleague needed to weigh some substance. She asked me, "After all these affairs, have you a working balance of any kind?" I pointed to the long-suffering technical balance recovered from the toilet and she used it successfully. I was so proud of my lab. I hope it will be again what it used to be, and even better.
I wish to write about many things, but there is so much work to be done that I have all but stopped blogging. Please have patience with me.