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:

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 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.