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!