Wednesday, April 29, 2009


This post is essentially composed of a quote from the preface of Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (Pantheon Books, New York, 2008), a book I can recommend to everybody with interest in biology. By posting this text, I am greeting a colleague and friend who is right now struggling with comparative anatomy. I am also celebrating the year of Darwin, which had not yet been marked on this blog.

"This book grew out of an extraordinary circumstance in my life. On account of faculty departures, I ended up directing the human anatomy course at the medical school of the University of Chicago. Anatomy is the course during which nervous first-year medical students dissect human cadavers... This is their grand entrance to the world of medicine, a formative experience on their path to becoming physicians. At first glance, you couldn't have imagined a worse candidate for the job of training the next generation of doctors: I'm a paleontologist who has spent most of his career working on fish.
It turns out that being a paleontologist is a huge advantage in teaching human anatomy. Why? The best road maps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals. The simplest way to teach students the nerves in the human head is to show them the state of affairs in sharks. The easiest road maps to their limbs lies in fish. Reptiles are a real help with the structure of the brain. The reason is that the bodies of these creatures are often simpler versions of ours.
During the summer of my second year leading the course... my colleagues and I discovered fossil fish that gave us powerful new insights... That discovery and my foray into teaching human anatomy led me to explore a profound connection. That exploration became this book."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Harsh sentence for Nicky Reilly

Nicky Reilly (photo copied from the Guardian, original source PA.)

I first blogged about Nicky Reilly on June 26, 2008. These days, I googled his name to check for any news on him and saw that he was tried and convicted in January. Below, I am quoting most of a Jan. 31 report from the Times:

"Nicky Reilly, Muslim convert, jailed for 18 years for Exeter bomb attack
Adam Fresco, Crime Correspondent
A vulnerable Muslim convert who was persuaded by extremists to attempt a suicide bomb attack was jailed for a minimum of 18 years yesterday.
Nicky Reilly, 22, who has Asperger’s syndrome and a mental age of 10, was described by his lawyer as the “least cunning” person ever to have been charged with terrorism...
At his trial in October last year Reilly, from Plymouth, Devon, who appeared in court as Mohamad Abdulaziz Rashid Saeed, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and preparing an act of terrorism.
Sentencing him to life imprisonment at the Old Bailey yesterday, Mr Justice Calvert-Smith said that although the attack was “an unsophisticated attempt”, Reilly was a “significant risk” to the public.
After his conviction, counter-terrorism officials said that extremists had taken advantage of his low IQ to groom him.
Reilly, who has an IQ of 83, had first been taken to see a pyschiatrist when he was 9 and tried to take an overdose at 16. Kerim Faud, representing him, said: “He may comfortably be deemed to be the least cunning person ever to have come before this court for this type of offence.”
He is thought to have met British-based Muslim radicals in internet cafés near his council home, which he shared with his mother.
Security sources said that radicals encouraged him to visit internet chat rooms and other websites, where he encountered men based in Pakistan who helped to mould a violent hatred of the West. He discussed with the men what his targets should be and they directed him to bomb-making websites.
In a suicide note left in his home he paid tribute to “Sheikh Osama” (bin Laden) and called on the British and US governments to leave Muslim countries. He said that Western states must withdraw their support of Israel, and that violence would continue until “the wrongs have been righted”.
On May 22 Reilly put his plan into action... When he arrived at the Giraffe restaurant he ordered a drink and sat for ten minutes before heading to the lavatory to make the bombs.
Fortunately for the 24 customers and 11 staff in the restaurant and the 20 more people lunching outside, the bombs exploded in the cubicle.
Mr Justice Calvert-Smith said yesterday: “I am quite satisfied that these offences are so serious that only a life sentence is appropriate. This defendant currently represents a significant risk of serious harm to the public.
“The offence of attempted murder is aggravated by the fact that it was long planned, that it had multiple intended victims and was intended to terrorise the population of this country. It was sheer luck or chance that it did not succeed.”
He accepted that the attack was unsophisticated but added: “Those who attempt to commit suicide and in doing so murder other people are almost invariably unsophisticated in many aspects. That lack of sophistication saved many Londoners on July 21, 2005.”

Those who know me will confirm that I am definitely not a fan of Islamic extremism - or, for that matter, of any thing Islamic.
However, the harshness of the sentence raises my outrage. 18 years! I know of many Palestinian failed suicide bombers who were non-disabled and nevertheless were treated much more leniently by Israeli courts. Justice must be driven by more serious considerations than the knee-jerk feelings of people concerned for their own safety. Reilly has mental disabilities, which in any civilized country should mean not to hold him responsible the way a typical person would be held after doing the same thing.
I also think that some disability advocacy and self-advocacy movements may be doing a disservice in such cases. In recent times, they often make efforts to portray people with mental disabilities as identical to non-disabled people in all respects except in the need of some extra services. As the Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered stated, "Our mission is to ensure that people with disabilities (a) are treated as equals, (b) are given the same decisions, choices, rights, responsibilities and chances to speak up to empower themselves, and (c) are given opportunities to learn from mistakes, as everyone else". However, in real life there are too many mistakes that can be made only once. I understand that nobody wishes to be stereotyped as a person with decreased ability to tell right from wrong, but I fear that the demand "Give us all the rights and responsibilities of the non-disabled" is leaving people like Nicky Reilly behind.

To end this post (in fact, as an instant update to it), I am quoting a comment to Fresco's report in the Times:
"Prison? Secure hospital accommodation surely, and all since the support he needed earlier in life was absent or inadequate. I fear the real terrorists were the first people to accept him and warmly (but falsely) welcome him in. Tempting, for a depressed outsider.
(adult with Asperger's) Chris , Launceston, UK"

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Together or apart?

It is still discussed whether disabled children should be educated separately from non-disabled or together with them, but nowadays most people accept the latter opinion - even for disabilities that affect the very process of learning, as well as interacting with other people.
On Feb. 25, S. Ravishankar published on the WIP site the article From Marginalized to Mainstream: A Call for Inclusive Education in India. It reflects the author's personal experience as mother of a special needs girl who moved from India to America to seek better education for her daughter. Here are some quotes: "Through our own experiences, I’ve come to believe that the kind of change India needs will only come when society fosters sensitivity to the concerns of special-needs individuals by mainstreaming them with typically-learning children of their own age... In our search for a private tutor, we chanced upon two highly-trained and experienced teachers specializing in special education. Our child did quite well under their tutelage, but being a gregarious individual, needed to interact and socialize with typically-learning kids. Richard Riser, director of the London-based educational organization was quoted in India Together saying, “Special schools are dead-ends for special-needs children. They promote isolation, alienation and social exclusion"... India has a long journey ahead. A change in attitude towards people with disabilities will only come when more disabled people are included in regular schools and the workforce; they must be given the opportunity to participate in society as individuals of equal standing. Educating them alongside other children is the first step towards a more tolerant and well-adjusted society." Another interesting observation is that the quality of education was directly proportional to teachers' wages.

I discussed the article with some autistic friends and one of them replied, "One thing the author said bothered me:"Our child did quite well under their tutelage, but being a gregarious individual, needed to interact and socialize with typically-learning kids." What, other disabled kids aren't good enough?"
I said, "I think this is a very important question and it has come to my head, too... The current school system is set so that the education of each student heavily depends on the level of the other students in the classroom. As a result, each parent wishes his child to be among better performing children. If the child is above average, then classmates at the same level are acceptable, but if the child is below average (for any reason - disability, poor language skills, poor socio-economic background), then the parent doesn't want his child to be among children in a similar situation because they would allegedly "keep him behind". My opinion is that some way must be found for the education system not to depend on young children as co-teachers and rely on them - teaching should be responsibility of the adult professionals. Then parents will stop regarding other children as mere tools in the education of their children (or,alternatively, as obstacles to good education)."
Another mother added, "One thing that bothers me about this especially with autism in mind is that many parents assume that children learn social skills simply from being around other children. I can attest to the fact that that is simply not the case. Children on the (autism) spectrum do not pick up social skills by osmosis... Other children can be very unpredictable to an autistic child and that is the reason they may not enjoy being around other children... I seriously doubt that self absorbed children would even try to figure out a way to engage an autistic child. I was either ignored or made fun of in school by all but a few and I see the same thing with my son when he is in an environment with typical children. I would prefer my son to be in a class with peers who may take an interest in him. Right now he is in an autism unit at school and actually has friends because they share interests... He is very limited in speech but he writes their names and smiles and points to their picture excitedly as if to say this is my friend."

It is indeed strange how adults think that involuntary coexistence, which they wouldn't wish for themselves, would do wonders for children. This discussion reminded me of Estranged's March 11 post Kindergarten, part 2: Silvia, most of which I am translating below:
"One of the first things I saw at kindergarten was a child swallowing the ENTIRE soap in the bathroom. The teacher got angry and shouted that he would soon vomit. After a short silent waiting, her words came true and the child really vomited the soap. It was a disgusting sight. I was seeing such a thing for first time in my life, but I did not show my surprise to the others. That place was the hell for me and I was preparing to consider all sort of shocking things as normal.
The sight of the vomited soap did not prevent me from eating my lunch because I was already taught that I had to eat 100% of the meal in all cases, no matter how I was feeling.
However, I first checked my lunch for hidden surprises. In that place, paranoia was the only way to survive. As I was checking my milk, a drop from the spoon fell on my pants. I dried it quickly. At that moment, I heard the teacher telling all children, "See, he stained himself because he is Zhilov."
The only purpose of these words was to offend me publicly, this was quite evident. Something else, however, bothered me. I asked myself, Why did she say "Zhilov" (his family name - M.M.) and not "Vesko" (his first name)? What had my Zhilov family name to do with dropping milk on my pants? Since when does the name given to you determine your spoon-holding skills? Would I use the spoon better if I had been born with another child's name?
I was trying to discover in her words some hidden sense but it evidently didn't exist. It was just a stupid and illogical attempt to insult. For umpteenth time, adults were making fools of themselves by talking nonsense. This worried me because it meant I couldn't rely on adults at all.
Finally, I figured out the true meaning of those words. It came after a little while: "You boast that at the age of five you play the piano and can read... (I had never boasted, my grandmother was bragging about me and doing me much harm.) And at the same time you cannot drink a cup of milk. You are like Silvia."
Meanwhile, Silvia was sitting under the table and rolling a boiled egg in the dirt and dust. This statement also failed to offend me. I was really like Silvia and not ashamed of this.
Silvia was the first girl I befriended. We were both five years old. However, she behaved like a baby. She couldn't talk, and her drawings were meaningless scribbles.
Silvia and I weren't Real Children. One of the first things I learned was that I was required to play with a ball. Every Real Child in the world should be able to do this. However, I was seeing a ball for first time and had no idea what I was expected to do. Silvia and I were staying in the yard, and after some trials I learned how it was done. (Silvi, to my regret, couldn't, though I tried to teach her.) At the third day, I already had a good personal ball-playing record. I was glad but, interestingly, I had no illusions. I didn't expect my success to lead to my recognition as a Real Child - I already knew that there was nothing fair about the entire business, so it wouldn't matter even if I had managed to stand on my nose.
I protected Silvia from the real children. They said I was her boyfriend...
Later, I left the kindergarten. I was hearing stories about how Silvia's classmates at school humiliated her. They forced her to drink water from pools and to eat mud. Then Silvia went to a special school and - oh wonder! - after several years became a relatively normal person. A feat I never managed to do.
Silvia surely does not remember me, but I do remember her. I have changed the name of course."

The term "Real child" is interesting. Independently from Estranged, the Chaotic Idealist last year wrote in a post titled Real People:
"I started a conversation with a random stranger.
Me: "I've got Asperger's. It's like mild autism. I guess nowadays I'd have been a special ed kid."
Her: "That's OK. I like special people just as much as real people."...
I wonder if that's common? Do people really think we're not as "real" as other people? And what does "real" mean?... "Real" is probably an unofficial synonym for "normal"."

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Be careful with dates

In a follow-up to my March 12 post, I am copy-pasting a yesterday report from the Cambridge News site without any modification or comment.

"Trial moved due to anniversary
A STUDENT accused of throwing a shoe at the Chinese prime minister has had the date of his trial moved because it clashed with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Martin Jahnke, a 27-year-old Cambridge University student, was due to stand trial between June 2 and June 4, on charges of causing harassment, alarm, or distress to Wen Jiabao.
But magistrates in Cambridge today agreed to change the date of the trial after hearing that June 4 is the anniversary of the massacre, when Chinese soldiers killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.
The trial will be held from June 1-3."

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The cow that wanted no subsidies

I have already mentioned on this blog Vassil, who lives in the village of Rasnik next to the summer house of my mother in-law. Of all villagers whom I know, he is the best and the one with whom I really can talk, however different our lives have been.
During his most active years, Vassil has been a miner and a steel worker. He has told me how in the Socialist era he had to get up at 4 am to reach his workplace in time, because he hadn't zhitelstvo (permission to live in a particular city) that would allow him to rent an accomodation closer to his work. Democracy gave him the right to live wherever he wished and he prefered to return to his village after retirement. He couldn't step on the rails of a typical Bulgarian retiree, staying idle in some overcrowded urban flat and complaining that his pension doesn't suffice for anything. He chose instead to become a subsistence farmer in a village without regular water and electricity supply, sewage, pavement and - possibly worst of all - doctor.
Vassil is living with his wife and his sister, whose husband died many year ago. Both he and his sister have sons who live elsewhere. Vassil is the main worker in the household. With the help of the women (and of his son on weekends), he manages a cow, a dozen of sheep, about 20 chickens, two dogs of the Karakachan breed and, in most years, a pig. These animals produce much of the food consumed by the three subsistence farmers and even something remains to be sold. We occasionally buy from them fresh eggs and milk. Last year, they even found time for volunteer work on the construction of a new Evangelical church in the village. It is small, resembling an ordinary modest house and located just beneath our house.
At age 70, Vassil is hopelessly behind the modern fashions in farming. He can work without rest and pasture his cow in any weather, but he could never fill and submit forms to the EU buraucrats in order to receive taxpayers' money for nothing. I regularly argue with my husband about European farm subsidies. I am against them, he says that they must be sound after they are universally accepted in the EU. He said once, "Without subsidies, our farmers will be driven out of business - from where will you buy milk then?". I answered, "From Vassil's cow - she wants no subsidies".
On Sunday, we saw Vassil's wife coming back from church. She told us that Vassil had suffered a brain stroke 20 days earlier and was still in coma in a hospital. His loved ones could only pray for him to come back alive. The two women knew, however, that even in this case he would never be the pillar of the family again. He would depend on their care, and they were prepared for it. They started to dispose of the animals they couldn't look after. The cow had been sold the previous day (Saturday). Talks were under way with some relations to take over the sheep. Even the chickens were to be reduced in half. How easily our deeds go away.
Update: Vassil died on May 29.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

NATO countries bullied by their "ally" Turkey

Image: a cartoon of Prophet Mohamed, by Kurt Westergaard, downloaded from the Mohammed Image Archive, originally published in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. It is inserted in this post as blog action against Islamism. I intended to abstain from publishing Mohamed cartoons out of respect to Anglo-Libyan, but an event of these days became the straw breaking the camel's back.

First, let me quote a report from Independent:

"Danish Prime Minister elected secretary-general
By Brian Brady, Sunday, 5 April 2009
One of the most troubling disagreements of the two-day summit was finally resolved towards the end of the gathering, when the Danish Prime Minister overcame Turkish opposition to become Nato's new secretary-general. Anders Fogh Rasmussen (pictured) was heavily backed by the biggest European powers, but his campaign to succeed Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was threatened when Turkey objected over his failure to ban Denmark-based Roj-TV, seen as the mouthpiece of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also complained that Mr Rasmussen had failed to sanction those responsible for a Danish newspaper's publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed in 2005 (emphasis mine - M.M.). However, Turkish officials said Ankara dropped its objection after the US President Barack Obama answered Mr Erdogan's "objections" during a private meeting. Mr Erdogan told Turkish television that he had received "guarantees" from Mr Obama that one of Mr Rasmussen's deputies would be a Turk – and that Turkish commanders would be present at the alliance's command."
Daniel Pipes is more open about the concessions: "The Dane won the job only after engaging in intensive negotiations with Turkish president Abdullah Gül hosted by Barack Obama. Fogh Rasmussen promised to appoint at least two Turks and publicly to address Muslim concerns about his response to the cartoons. More broadly, Erdogan announced. Obama "gave us guarantees" concerning Turkish reservations about Fogh Rasmussen. The hoops that Fogh Rasmussen had to jump through to win Ankara's support can be inferred from his cringe-inducing, dhimmi-like remarks on winning the appointment: "As secretary general of NATO, I will make a very clear outreach to the Muslim world to ensure cooperation and intensify dialogue with the Muslim world. I consider Turkey a very important ally and strategic partner and I will cooperate with them in our endeavors to ensure the best cooperation with Muslim world." "
So much about the "secular", "civilized", "model", "democratic", "Westernized" etc. Turkey - as soon as you get down to real business, you find yourself confronting the ugly face of Islamism.
Nizo once commented on my blog that what is important is not the type of the dominating religion but the separation of religious institutions from the state, which has been achieved in the West but not yet in most Muslim countries. This is a serious opinion, but I think recent events prove it wrong and show that as long as you have Islamic background, you can separate as much as you wish and still, when the moment of truth comes, it will be to no avail.
When I ask what the hell is the benefit of having Turkey in NATO, people keep telling me that "it has the 2nd largest army in the alliance (after USA)". In my humble opinion, this is nonsense. What is the use of an army, big or small, if you aren't sure whether it is with you or with the enemy?
Now, what to do with NATO? Change its decision-making process from consensus to majority? Good idea, but it is exactly Turkey that would oppose and prevent it from happening. Dismantle it altogether? Maybe we'll have to, who knows... My sympathy to the people of Denmark, and also to the decent people of Turkey.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Opinion about headscarves-in-school controversy

In recent years, there has been a trend among Bulgarian ethnic Turkish and Muslim women and girls to wear headscarves (I've mentioned this in one of my earliest posts, Headscarves in the lecture room). Media report that Islamic foundations support in different ways headscarved women and their families and organize summer schools to teach girls why a good Muslima must wear a headscarf; and the local people, unaware or unwilling to believe that the only free lunch in this world is the cheese in the mousetrap, happily bite the bait. Right now, emotions are surging because of the elections scheduled for June.
While headscarves definitely aren't my favourite sight, my personal opinion is that they must be allowed in mainstream secondary schools. The reason is that it is most likely the parents who insist on the headscarves, not the girls themselves. And if we forbid a schoolkid to attend public school with her head wrapped, we are likely to infuriate the pious Muslim dad and, as the Bulgarian proverb says, to pick out eyes instead of putting makeup on eyebrows (i.e. to cause harm instead of good). It is quite likely that the father will force his daughter to drop out of school as soon as this is allowed (under Bulgarian law, this means at age 16) or even earlier. Hence, the efforts of government to give students counterweight to their fundamentalist families are likely to have the opposite effect, making the young women even more powerless by depriving them of high school diploma. It is also possible that the father will transfer his daughter to a Muslim school where headscarves are allowed. There, we expect less science and math and more Islam to be taught. Is this what we want?
On March 30, Lyd (who tries her best to see Islam as good) wrote a post titled Religious symbols at school. Her thesis is that banning these symbols is pointless because religion is so deeply ingrained in culture and history that many schools are even named after saints. Commenter Klei then wrote something that I find worth being translated and posted here, though it differs from my own opinion:

"Suppose that headscarves are banned not because they are a religious symbol but because they are a type of hat. Here, we are touching a thing called "discipline" which, to my opinion, is among the most useful forgotten inventions of ancient people.
The school has the task to prepare children for life outside school, and not only by giving them knowledge but also by training social interaction types "equal to equal" and "small unimportant student to big important teacher". The ability to protect ourselves from bigger boys who mock us is much more important for later life than, say, the information in which regions of Bulgaria apricots are grown.
Hats are not allowed at school, period. Children must learn that RULES exist. In this case, it doesn't matter how important the rules are, how useful they are and whether there is some deep reasoning underlying them. This is _school_. It has two functions - forcing you to use your brain and at the same time putting you into the socially acceptable frames.
If somebody insists on wearing a headscarf despite the ban on wearing hats, he shows that for him the artificial pointless limits imposed by religion are more important than the artificial pointless limits imposed by his society. THIS is dangerous, and not only for the individual in question.
I value freedom much, but it must be deserved. And it is deserved by accepting the values of the society you are forced to live in - or by moving to another society which has values closer to your heart. If somebody insists on keeping his wife at home, hiding her from the world and stoning her, and if she doesn't mind it - let them go to a suitable country. THIS one here is a secular one. If you are religious, be religious only within the norms allowed by society. And stop crying and demanding these norms to be expanded."