Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Bulgaria’ Category

HakPakSak Resumed: Four Months, Four Books, Four Subjects, and the Fight for Energy Efficiency

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 17, 2010

Since late August, I’ve neglected to post to this site and to my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org (which has been offline intermittently while I search for a new server to host it).  The cause : a constitutional inability to take the keyboard equivalent of a “bus-driver’s vacation,” i.e. to write for pleasure while also editing, translating, and re-writing long-copy texts embodying the thoughts, intents, and foibles of others rather than my own. Thus, as a first step towards reviving both weblogs, I’ll mention the publication of two new volumes in the realization of which I played peripheral but work-intensive roles as well as the surprise republication of a third volume and the rediscovery of a fourth. For those who follow the “professional” (i.e. corporate and institutional, consultancy and communications) sides of my work, I should also write that I spent much of October editing and revising the presentation of a major financing agency of the European Commission for the Copenhagen climate change conference. A good part of the presentation focused on opportunities and strategies for cutting energy consumption and improving energy efficiency in urban contexts and the movement of people and goods, matters relevant to other research I am doing while attempting to navigate my way through the present “crisis.”

Meijer de Haan: A Master Revealed


The first of the four volumes alluded to in the title of this entry is Meijer de Haan: A Master Revealed, published by Editions Hazan and edited by Jelka Kröger of the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. The book gives an illustrated overview of the life and work of De Haan, a minor impressionist painter best remembered, if at all, as a pupil of Paul Gauguin and a friend and correspondent of Theo van Gogh, the brother of the famed painter Vincent. De Haan, born and raised in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, was one of the first Jews to enter the mainstream of Dutch art and one of the first Dutch painters to follow Vincent van Gogh into the avant garde of European art. My own role in the project was that of Dutch-to-English translator/editor of most of the essays comprising the volume, a task valued by the better contributors but stubbornly resisted and resented  by authors of contributions in need of serious fixing. More rewarding was the opportunity to recast into English De Haan’s letters to Theo van Gogh and selected correspondence between Theo and Vincent. Most upsetting was to trace the stories of all of De Haan’s Dutch-Jewish associates and pupils up to their deportation and murder by the Germans and their willing Dutch sycophants during the Second World War. In all, it was a pleasure to work with Jelka Kröger and her indefatigable understudy Sara Tas to articulate the story of De Haan and lend background to his work. The volume was compiled and published to accompany the first-ever major exhibition of De Haan’s work. The exhibition has been on view at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam and will move to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris sometime early in 2010. Selected pages of the book can be seen in Issuu format on the website of the volume’s designers.

Mapping Istanbul


Last October I had the pleasure of joining the staff of Garanti Gallery (an art foundation supported by Turkey’s Garanti Bank) in Istanbul for several days of marathon work sessions evaluating and revising sections of text for the gallery’s latest publication, Mapping Istanbul, a cartographic translation of a range of socio-economic data attempting to give overview, shape, and updated definition to the ever-growing and increasingly amorphous megalopolis that Istanbul has become. The maps themselves embody  the input of a score of contributors including the decade-long research, data-crunching, and mapping  efforts of social geographer Murat Güvenç of Bilgi University, Istanbul (more on Prof. Güvenç and his work, including his upcoming exhibition presenting in cartographic form the demographic, economic, cultural, and physical transformation of Istanbul over the last 100 years in a subsequent entry). Maps for the present volume were designed and produced by the Istanbul-based architectural and design practice Superpool, with whom I am happy to be collaborating on other studies related to urban growth and change. Texts accompanying the maps were written by a host of contributors (me amongst them) and range from the explanatory to the highly subjective. Mapping Istanbul is the third in a series of books portraying and redefining Istanbul conceived and published by Garanti Gallery. The first, Becoming Istanbul, is a sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-serious, and all too often erroneous glossary of things, places, concepts, and impressions that comprise Istanbul– from the rings and tweets of the akbil (electronic bus, ferry, tram, and metro token), to the customs of the hamam (traditional turkish bath), to the one-time cluster of popular film production companies along a street call Yeşilçam, and the long-ago and very brief flight of a Zeppelin over the city’s historical peninsula; the second, Tracing Istanbul, portrays the changing, sprawling, and ever-expanding city through aerial photography.

The End of a Love that Never Began


On a recent visit to Sofia, I discovered that Krayat Na Edna Nezapochnata Lyubov (The End of a Love that Never Began), a volume of autobiographic reflections by Bulgarian acoustical scientist, cinema sound-man, and humorist Georgi “Johnny” Penkov, has been republished. The book first appeared in 2001 and contains amongst its many illustrations masterful photographs of Sofia and its inhabitants taken in the 1920s and 30s by Johnny’s father and a number of somewhat less masterful candid and posed portraits I took of Johnny and associates at Johnny’s 60th birthday celebration in 1993 — a memorable event that Johnny has promised to reprise in 2053 and again in 2113 — and during Bulgaria’s winter crisis of 1996-7. The book also contains a reproduction of a 1950s Bulgarian secret police report on Johnny, obtained years later under what passes as Bulgaria’s version of the U.S. “Freedom of Information Act.”  The report, by the way, concluded that Johnny posed no dangers to the Bulgarian state and society.  Soon after the initial publication of Johnny’s book, a friend, R., skimmed through my autographed copy. R.’s father had entered Bulgaria’s secret police at the top of its hierarchy at the founding of Communist Bulgaria in 1944 but, due in part to his pride in his Jewish identity and his discomfort at obligatory participation in ritual denunciations of Israel and Zionism, later fell through the ranks and out of the police and ended his work life as a porter at the metal smelting plant at Kremikovski just outside of Sofia. (Kremikovski, a relic of the application of Stalinist-style shock industrialization to the traditional agricultural- and food processing-based economy of Bulgaria, now stands idle if I am correct). R. paused when he came to the photo of the secret police report in Johnny’s book . He pointed to the signature at the end of document and said of its author: “Ah, Uncle X., a dear man, he always brought us gifts and helped when my father was in trouble.” Might Johnny’s seeming persecutor really have been his angel?

The Macedonian Dialects of Western Sofia


When in Sofia, I rarely have to phone people. Sofia has more than doubled in population over the last 20 years (from one million to about two and a half) and much of its economic life has moved to its periphery but, nevertheless, the center of the city is sufficiently frequented and sufficiently compact for one inevitably to encounter acquaintances, whether one wants to or not. One long-time acquaintance who I inevitably (and gladly) bump into within days of my arrival  is Angel Angelov, a present-day professor of linguistics at Sofia University and a popular underground folk and protest-singer during the last years of communism and the first chaotic years that followed. Long ago, when I first applied for a Fulbright grant to Bulgaria, Angel went far out on a limb to officially vouch for my competence in spoken Bulgarian. In the late 1990s, Angel published a study on the lingering of linguistic influences of the early-20th century Macedonian refugees who settled at the western edge of Sofia (Pravilata na Ezika v Stolichniya Kvartal) and, for some reason, chose as its cover illustration a photo of an oddly windowless and door-less balcony of an early 20th century Sofia residential building that he had seen at an exhibition of my photographs (Note: The photo is a sufficiently worthy metaphor for Bulgaria that I submitted it — tongue in cheek — to the competition for a new national symbol and coat-of-arms prior to the country’s entry into the European Union. Needless to say, my entry was not accepted. The winning design? A traditional comic-opera imperial lion and shield affair, the stock symbol of 19th-century contrived nation states in search of a pedigree and European identity.).  Coincidentally, I had come across my copy of Angel’s book only days before running into him during my most recent visit to Sofia. Also coincidentally, Angel and I encountered each other in the Sofia University station of the Sofia Metro, which now unites the traditionally disparate eastern and western sides of the city. The very same Metro and its transcendence of a more than century-old invisible barrier between two halves of a city is one of the subjects I have been writing and photographing about in my spare time these last months. An attempt at a humorous precis will appear in an upcoming post here or at Bubkes.Org.

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Posted in Books, Bulgaria, Cities, Environment, Istanbul, Jewish History, Sofia | 8 Comments »

Living the News: Health Care Refugee

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 21, 2009

Soon after the inauguration of US president Barack Obama, I posted an entry commenting on Pete Seeger’s  inaugural day performance of Woody Guthrie’s  “This Land is Your Land,” including near-forgotten verses of the song that had gone underground during the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.

Since then, another of Guthrie’s songs has been on my mind, “Dust Bowl Refugee.” Dust Bowl Refugee was Guthrie’s ode to the plights of American farmers during 1930s who, driven off their farms by drought, soil erosion, and bank foreclosures, trekked westward, working, when they could find work, as migrant agricultural laborers and casual laborers. (For the lyrics of Dust Bowl Refugee, click here).

My own present-day version of Dust Bowl Refugee has a title of its own, Health Care Refugee. I’ve spent most of the past winter in Istanbul, Turkey, partly out of preference and partly out of necessity. Indeed, you might say that I am a health care refugee.

My Netherlands-based health insurance — a policy I inherited from a job in the Netherlands in the 1970s and that I have maintained throughout my “career” as a peripatetic freelancer over the three decades since — recently stopped covering all but the most critical emergency medical treatment in the US.  Not surprisingly, the insurance company had finally balked at the astronomically over-inflated costs of medical care in the US.  But, niggardliness and tighter strictures on policy claims also mark a shift by Dutch insurers from a culture of dedication to policy-holders to dedication to investors and shareholders instead. Even as far away as the once rigorously social democratic Netherlands, it seems, decades of US prating against “socialism” and in favor of leaving individual and social welfare to the whims of an imagined “market place,” has cast its indelible shadow.

My alternatives were simple: Pay for needed health care out of my own pocket in the US (impossible), go to the Netherlands to seek treatment (this would require renting and maintaining an apartment there), go to Bulgaria (where I already maintain an office), or seek treatment in Turkey (where I had the chance to  “apartment sit” and the opportunity to avail myself of  library and research facilities).  The only two feasible options, thus, were Bulgaria and Turkey. The inadequacy of Bulgarian health care, the state of Bulgarian hospitals, and the characteristic unwillingness of Bulgarian doctors and dentists to admit and honor the limits of their know-how and abilities made the decision easy — I headed to Turkey.  And, thus, I joined the growing ranks of health care refugees.

What state of inequality or desperation would it take for health care refugees (with means and without) to compromise a counter-flow eastward and southward to worldwide flows of economic, human rights, and life-style refugees moving westward and northward?  The subject of flight is finally being broached in the press and in commercially sponsored studies (see, for example, this March article in the New York Times and a few paragraphs buried in this report from an accountancy-consultancy firm).

Balkan Medical Corruption and Under-Reporting

Last month, the Times also posted this article on corruption in hospitals in Romania, a situation not unlike that which causes me to do anything to avoid hospitalization in Bulgaria.  The article, however, is characteristic of much of the reporting on the eastern Balkans that appears in the Times, i.e. it treats long-standing problems and developments as freshly discovered news.  This particular story appears about 19 years too late.  Is this because the Times had consider the eastern Balkans to a news backwater or a training ground for reporters with no knowledge of the locale or interest in doing  research.  Or is it because in the 1990s and the Bush years, the US press was so self-satisfied with the “fall of communism” and the “end of history” that anything the “free market” brought with it, including inequities and corruption, seemed laudatory?  Well, better late than never, although…

Lobsters or Lard?  The Times or the old New York Post?

In debates on the relative worth of weblogs and the traditional press, I almost always weigh in in favor of the “mainstream media,” but the Times’s Balkan coverage makes me wonder.  So does this recent piece from Jane Brody’s venerable reporting on personal health.  The thrust: Americans who live on steak and lobster and “creme brulee” now should discover the what she calls the basics that got us through the last depression — potatoes and fruit, she writes, rather than white flour and lard, the diet of the poor today.  Americans who live on steak and lobster? Who is she talking about?  Not people on my planet and not people hurt by the present state of the economy.  And fruit rather than flour and lard in the Great Depression?  In the richest of households maybe.  What readership (or, more probably, advertising demographics) is the Times targeting?  Makes me long for Dorothy Schiff and the old New York Post, let alone the belated Bronx PM and the old National Guardian (all “google-able” for those who don’t know them).

Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Health Care, Media | 1 Comment »

In Bulgaria – In Principle

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 25, 2009

Another country, another language, other realities …

I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria this past Sunday night and quickly made the transition back to the Bulgarian language and to looking at the world through its constructs.

My favorite expression in Bulgarian is “po printsip,” literally “in principle” but actually the foundation for a separate reality in which all is as it should or at least could be. The positing of a parallel realm makes the imperfections of the more immediate world seem illusory and unworthy of thought or attention.

On Monday morning, I ventured out onto the iced-over streets of Sofia (note: Sofiotes do not clear sidewalks of ice; winter is winter and ice is part of it) for chores, a stroll, and an early lunch. My first stop was the dry-cleaner. A sign posted over its entry promised two-hour cleaning but when I asked when my trousers would be ready for pick-up I was told to come back Wednesday. When I mentioned the sign outside, the clerk replied, “Yes, po printsip everything could be ready in two hours but we haven’t done two-hour cleaning in years.” My next stop was an academic bookstore to track down a title on the history and geography of medieval Thrace. “Do you have the book?” I asked the clerk. The response: “Po printsip we do, but we don’t.” “Well, will you have it sometime soon?” “Po printsip we will, but it is out-of-stock and out-of-print.”

Unencumbered by purchases and free of the obligation of reading the book, I walked to a familiar non-fashionable neighborhood restaurant famed amongst local television and radio types for its grilled spiced meat patties and accompanying cabbage and carrot salad, baked beans, and reliably pure grape brandy. I had stopped at the restaurant at 8:30 the night before but had found it empty and closed. I asked the waiter if the restaurant still worked on Sundays. “Yes,” he answered, “we’re open every day from eleven in the morning until eleven at night, po printsip.” “Po printsip,” I affirmed, “but you were closed last night. “Yes, we were but, po printsip, we are always open.” I remembered a conversation I had in the same restaurant many years ago with a very beautiful colleague who worked at a nearby film studio. “Well,” I said, observing her wedding-ring, “you are married.” “Yes.” “And,” I added with obligatory Balkan flirtatiousness, “you are faithful to your husband?” “Yes,” she replied,“… po printsip.”

Enough said. It is 4pm and I should finish up the day’s work, po printsip.

Posted in Bulgaria, Language | 13 Comments »

Why Look Forward When One Can Look Back?

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 3, 2009

2009.  An economic crisis that begins to cut very deep, violence in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia flexes its natural gas muscles, hatred in Europe.  The end of eight years of economic, environmental, civic, and martial wrecking under the Bush administration and four decades of conservative irresponsibility and divisiveness. A new American president positioned to change the ethos of the land.  A questioning of the racist and elitist underpinning of conservative political values and economic dogmas — in parts of the West at least.  Doubts as to consumerism, exurbia, and much-touted miracle  trends such as the “flat world” about which the likes of  columnist and author Thomas Friedman cranked out thick volumes.

A few years ago, on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org, I posted a New Year’s entry about Dutch-Jewish cabaret singer Louis Davids that contained a link to a humorous and touchingly dated newsreel musical clip he presented for New Years Day 1936.  In the clip, Davids sang an ode to a world stilled scarred by the Great Depression and in which Hitler flexed his muscles, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, the tax man hovered menacingly, forecasts of sun yielded rain, and aspirins cured hangovers.  For 2009, I offer (to the very many among you who understand Dutch, know history and have links to interwar Holland!) the very same song and (to all of you regardless of language or fields of interests or ethnic or social ties) its wishes for Well-Being and Blessedness in the year to come.

On Bubkes.Org, I also start the year by turning to the past, taking a few medium-format and 35mm black and white photos I shot more than a decade ago as starting points and as metaphors for considering recent economic and politic trends and their parallels with past events in obscure places.  I begin with a photo of an obscene mural in a Bulgarian housing estate and the lessons it offers for understanding economic crises, individual morality, and the history of western art, and continue with a photograph of a Turkish sidewalk weighing scale operator as an occasion to ask whether small enterprises and ordinary people will some day qualify for bail-outs or “pump-priming” infusions of capital.  The next pieces will consider face-lifts — architectural and politica — and gangsters, graveyard iconography and under-reporting by the New York Times

As to “pump-priming,” the collapse of four-decades of Republic economics and the Republican’s self-serving denigration of the New Deal and “socialism” has brought a resurgence of Keynesian thought and maybe even of Keynesian practice, which did its job well in America during the 1930s as an economic tonic, a symbol of action and unity, and, maybe, as the very last alternative to revolution.

Paul Krugman wrote these words about Keynesian thought and policy as a conclusion to What to Do: The Power of Ideas in the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the New York Review of Books:

As readers may have gathered, I believe not only that we’re living in a new era of depression economics, but also that John Maynard Keynes—the economist who made sense of the Great Depression—is now more relevant than ever. Keynes concluded his masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, with a famous disquisition on the importance of economic ideas: “Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

We can argue about whether that’s always true, but in times like these, it definitely is. The quintessential economic sentence is supposed to be “There is no free lunch”; it says that there are limited resources, that to have more of one thing you must accept less of another, that there is no gain without pain. Depression economics, however, is the study of situations where there is a free lunch, if we can only figure out how to get our hands on it, because there are unemployed resources that could be put to work. The true scarcity in Keynes’s world—and ours—was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding.

We will not achieve the understanding we need, however, unless we are willing to think clearly about our problems and to follow those thoughts wherever they lead. Some people say that our economic problems are structural, with no quick cure available; but I believe that the only important structural obstacles to world prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men.

Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Philosophy, Photography, Politics | Leave a Comment »

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008

gatewaysofiamedium

A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure and the Artificiality of Nations: The Internet, Balkan Crossings, and Border Radio

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 10, 2008

Over the last few years I have been involved part-time in the study of the origins and consequences of national identities and nation states.  Countries organized around homogeneous “peoples” united by common religions and languages and sharing common histories, destinies and exclusive title to geographic entities are artifices that came to the fore during the Romantic Age, that solidified during the 19th century, and occassioned wars and genocides in the 20th.

On the work front, I am now involved in a project to create an institute for the study of the history and future of infrastructure — especially the infrastructure of “connectivity” as manifested in the Internet.  Issues of internet infrastructure, national identity, and nation states overlap.   On the surface, the Internet appears to transcend geographic boundaries that delineate nation states and also has provided a platform for enabling individuals to shape their identities and live their lives according to self-defined clusters of interests and allegiances separate from the nationalities stamped on their passports. But, the cables and fibers that comprise the infrastructure on which the Internet rests remain divided and clustered according to national boundaries and regulated and controlled within the contexts of nation states — just as are water, energy, and telephony.

Balkan Crossings

The absurdities of dividing infrastructure — traditional and new — along nationally-defined lines becomes palpable as one moves from the centers of nation states to their edges.  I often travel by night train from Sofia in Bulgaria (once a part of the Soviet Bloc and now a member state of the European Union)  and Istanbul in Turkey (a country that, in its post-1923 incarnation, developed its economy and infrastructure largely on its own).  Trains in both directions between Sofia and Istanbul approach the Bulgarian-Turkish border at 3 a.m.  State-railway-owned electric locomotives are removed from the trains just before they enter the infrastructure-less strip of no-man’s land that parallels the border itself. The trains are then shuttled from one country to the other by jointly-maintained diesel-powered locomotives. Passengers’ passports and baggage are checked once at the Bulgarian checkpoint and again on the Turkish side.  The glowing lights of towns visible from stations on both sides of the border are lit by separate nationally-defined power grids and their residents drink from separate nationally-defined water supply systems.  Telephoning or checking email from the border can be shockingly expensive, a glance at the screen of one’s mobile phone shows that signals switch back-and-forth between those of Bulgarian, Turkish, and Greek service providers (Greece’s northeastern border with Bulgaria and Turkey is only a few kilometers away).

Border Radio

Last month, US National Public Radio’s On the Media program broadcast The X Factor, a piece on the history and phenomenon of Border Radio.  Border Radio refers to the radio stations whose immense towers sprouted on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border during the 1920s and 1930s.  Most of these stations were “fugitives” on the run from US broadcasting and truth-in-advertising regulations and were welcome in regulation-free Mexico in part due to the revenues they produced.  The first of the Border Stations was set up by a patent medicine peddling Kansan with an MD degree from a diploma mill in Chicago and a thriving practice in curing male impotence through goat gonad transplant operations. The station was established as the doctor’s own proprietary advertising and marketing device for gonad transplants and associated medicines but soon became a thriving business in its own right.

As more such stations were founded, other flamboyant figures flocked to Border Radio including faith healing preachers who talked in tongues and announcers who moved beds into their broadcasting booths so they could have sex while speaking on the air.  More profoundly, as Border Radio grew it came to reflect the mood and tastes of the American heartland.  East and West Coast based  mainstream radio with its big-band music, movie-star guests, and limp comedies and soap-operas fared well in New York and Los Angeles but the rural states of the former Confederacy and the dust-bowl stricken plains needed a voice of their own.

From its physical location just outside of the US, Border Radio came to mirror rural America and also to reshape it.  Border Radio played a role in solidified and promoting commercial country music and, through the legendary Brooklyn-born disk-jockey The Wolfman, spread rock ‘n roll through the American heartland.  On the political front, Border Radio’s religious programs brought the worldview of rural pentecostal Christianity into the age of broadcasting, feeding the creation of what ultimately became America’s powerful religious right.

Central to the influence of Border Radio was its infrastructure– million-watt clear-channel frequencies whose waves were said to be strong enough to fry flocks of birds in mid-flight and whose signals not only blanketed  America’s heartland but also caromed off the stratosphere to listeners in the South Pacific and in KGB listening posts in Moscow.  Like the Internet, national boundaries were superfluous to Border Radio and, also like the internet, by creating an alternative to the mainstream of its time, Border Radio shaped a new mainstream in its own image.

More on this theme in subsequent entries …

Posted in Bulgaria, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, National Identity, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

VRM and Health: A Country Without Databases, Individual-Oriented Medicine, and “Tasty!”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 30, 2008

Further to yesterday’s entry on VRM (Vendor Relations Management) and health care

In The Evidence Gap: A Call for a Warning System on Artificial Joints the New York Times reports that a plethora of unsuccessful joint replacement operations could have been avoided in the United States had there been, as there are in most other industrialized countries, national data bases of patients’ experiences.  Application of VRM to health issues not only has the potential to ensure delivery of properly individualized health care but also to assess and address the needs of groups of individuals and to broadcast the results back to policy makers and the medical industry at large (sadly, medicine is an industry in the US rather than part of a social net or service delivery infrastructure).

Two Health-Related Footnotes:

1. Individual-Oriented Medicine: Two days ago, I visited a “Park Avenue” (i.e. top-draw, high-priced) eye doctor for diagnosis and treatment of what I thought was damage to my right eye.  After a 20-minute examination for which I was changed US$ 395.00, the doctor said my eyes were fine but that I should see a dermatologist and have a general physical exam.  That evening I described my symptoms to a friend who for years works on-and-off as a translator at the office of a Russian-born Brooklyn eye doctor with a primarily Russian immigrant clientele.  Over the phone, my friend was able to diagnose what ailed me as a minor but persistent virus-related affair and suggest interim treatment.   He pointed out that even while functioning in the midst of the US insurance pyramid, some physicians in Russian immigrant neighborhoods still manage to respond to the situation of the patient rather than artificial distinctions between medical disciplines.

2. Tasty!  A recent posting on the New York Times’s Well Blog reported an overturn of the common-wisdom of the last decades re:eggs and cholesterol and also reported that alcohol is good for one not only because of cardiac benefits of red wine but also because drinking enhances quality of life.  Several years ago, over lunch in a restaurant garden in Sofia, Bulgaria, I asked my fellow-diner, an overweight hard-drinking ex-journalist suffering from high-blood-pressure and high-cholesterol, why he had ordered tripe-fried-in-butter, sausage, and feta cheese for lunch.  His answer: “Because it is tasty!” (Zashto e vkusno!)”  After I lectured him pedantically on the evils of cholesterol and sodium, he stared at the plate of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers that comprised my lunch and replied: “You will die of too little ‘tasty’ long before I die of too much cholesterol!”

Posted in Bulgaria, Food, Health Care, Media | Leave a Comment »

Grandmother S. Redux: The Benefits of Early-Morning Schnapps and Mega-Doses of Red Wine

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 4, 2008

A couple of summers ago, I wrote a newspaper piece about my former summertime host and guru, Grandmother S. of the Black Sea village of K. in northeast Bulgaria, and the lessons I learned in her garden (click here for the full text and photos). Grandmother S. was well into her 80s at the time and still worked non-stop at subsistence farming. Her secret? Every morning at sunrise she drank a full-to-the-brim juice glass of homemade grape brandy on an empty stomach. “Styefko,” she used to tell me, “my brandy will give you the energy to work and will disinfect your stomach as well. But,” she advised, “drink it in the morning; morning drinking is good for the health, evening drinking is for alcoholics only.”

So, I took Grandmother S. up on her challenge. For three months, I arose at dawn and, before I allowed water, coffee, oatmeal, or yogurt to touch my lips, I downed a juice glass of Grandmother S.’s best homemade grape brandy (made with no seeds and with no sugar added to kick-start fermentation). The daily schnapps made me feel full of energy and raring to go. The only problem: I couldn’t think. Turning off the brain might help when faced with a day of hoeing vegetables but it can get in the way of writing, photographing, and even consulting.

I am reminded of Grandmother S.’s advice by Doc Searls’s link to this article in the New York Times announcing that red wine may be “potent” (sic) in preserving human longevity. Apparently, laboratory mice do better on treadmills when dosed with the equivalent of 35 bottles of red wine and humans may prolong their lives by drinking four five-ounce glasses of red per day. The article does not say whether the four glasses should be downed morning or night — but ever since the Judith Miller and Jason Blair affairs, I’ve tended to trust Grandmother S. more than the “newspaper of record.” From tonight on, I’ll keep my corkscrew next to my alarm clock.

Coda

Click here for a taste of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’s famed song Gimme that Wine. And, as the chorus of the song goes: “Unhand that bottle!”

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Food, Health Care, Innovation, Links, Media, Music, Work | Leave a Comment »

The Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal to Help Meet Them, Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists, Blues and Lenya

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 3, 2008

Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal

This week’s podcast (The Prosecutor) from listener-supported Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life begins with a soft-spoken and cogent fundraising appeal from the program’s chief commentator, Ira Glass. Glass reports that ever since the station began its experimental podcasting of weekly episodes of This American Life a year-and-a-half ago, weekly downloads of the program have risen to 400,000,, and in some weeks have even exceeded a half-million.

This successful podcasting service, Glass continues, is free to the program’s listeners but not to the station. In Glass’s words: “… the bandwidth itself to do that much internet traffic costs our home radio station $152,000 this year.” His appeal is for each subscriber to the program’s podcasts to donate a single dollar per year to offset these costs. Such a minuscule donation would cover the program’s bandwidth bill three-fold. Of course, Glass acknowledges the sad fact that most internet users are unwilling to pay for the value they receive and, so, he suggests that responsible listeners give $5.00 each thereby making up for the unfulfilled donations of four slackers.

I plan to respond to Glass’s appeal by putting my money where my podcast-listening ear is and donating $5.00 to support the free distribution of Glass and colleagues’ excellent show. I challenge all those involved with me in debates on the future of internet infrastructure and fellow followers of Doc Searls’s worthy Project VRM (an attempt to gear “markets” to the wants and needs of individuals) at Harvard Law to do the same. Dare to join me?

Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists

Recently, during a walk through the Garden of Tsar Boris III (in communist times the Garden of Freedom) in Sofia, Bulgaria. I encountered a gathering of “anti-fascists” commemorating the anniversary of the denouement of the Second War World in Europe. Bulgaria had been an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany during the Second World War but switched to the side of the Allies following the Soviet occupation of the country in September, 1944. Those Bulgarians who fought against the Nazis after the country changed sides have been relegated to a historical purgatory in the post-communist era in which the rhetoric of anti-communism has come to outweigh the memory of anti-fascism. There were fewer than 200 people, most of them quite old, at the anti-fascist gathering. On the other hand, rallies of Bulgaria’s antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim Ataka party (which won 25% of the votes in Bulgaria’s last presidential election) still attract thousands.

Only hours before the stumbling across the gathering in the Sofia garden, I had heard the word “fascist” used in a more contemporary context. In an interview on the weekly podcast of the BBC’s Front Row, the 82-year-old American literary doyen (and eternal curmudgeon) Gore Vidal responded to a request to forecast the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election by saying that “… the likeliest outcome is that the Republican party, which is not a political party in any sense that Britain might know, (but which) is a mind set of crypto-fascists, will steal it from any Democrat who wins it, as they did with Albert Gore … they are quick to steal, look at the mess they’ve made.” And this is only the beginning of Vidal’s take on the party of Bush and McCain! The Front Line interview also includes Vidal’s recollections of fellow post-war literary giants Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. Bravo to Gore Vidal on all accounts!

Blues and Lenya

As an antidote to exposures to fascism, or to an excess of radio talk shows, two musical podcast suggestions: For a regular doses of the blues, try The Blues File. For background and anecdotes covering the all types of music and musical personalities, subscribe to Sarah Fishko’s excellent Fishko Files with, as a delightful, haunting, and anti-fascist starting point, this broadcast treating the great Lotte Lenya, wife of Kurt Weill and iconic interpreter of the music and lyrics of Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and others.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Infrastructure, Internet, Links, Literature, Media, Music, Podcasting, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The US Economy, a Balkan Backwater, the IMF and the EU, and a Disclaimer on Clairvoyance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 4, 2008

Last August, in an entry entitled Balkan-Wards: Falling Dollar, Faulty Infrastructure, and the Lessons of the Bulgarian Lev, I noted that the US dollar had not only sunk below the Euro but was plummeting towards parity with, of all things, the Bulgarian Lev, the currency of a corrupt, partly-criminal, agricultural-based Balkan country with a population of less than 7 million. I described the prospect of US Dollar/BG Lev parity as symbolic of the similarities between government policies and behavior of business elites in the two countries: wholesale looting of companies and public coffers, insufficient investment in infrastructure and human resources, get-rich-quick real estate booms, economies geared toward speculation rather than production, banks entangled with insurance companies and property developers, and contempt and disregard for the poor. I also pointed out that while the US dollar heads south at high-speed, Bulgaria’s currency happens to be holding its own — the latter the result of long-term intervention in the country’s fiscal affairs by the International Monetary Fund and, more recently, the massive and seemingly inexhaustible influx of infrastructural, development, and investment capital from Brussels aimed at bringing Bulgaria up to some semblance of par with fellow EU member states. In the face of this, my own modest proposal was that the US should consider following Bulgaria’s lead, i.e. to invite in the IMF to take over fiscal affairs and to consider applying for membership in the European Union.

Back in August, when I wrote the piece, one US dollar bought 1.40 Lev. Yesterday, one dollar bought only 1.20 Lev, a marked step forward towards US equivalence with Bulgaria. Indeed, over the past eight months, the US economy has continued to sink under the weight of the sub-prime loan, mortgage, and housing market fiasco and the ongoing lunacy of Bush’s (and Hillary’s and McCain’s!) war in Iraq, casting an-ever-more-grim pall over life in the US and causing havoc amongst investors worldwide. Last month, in this story in the New York Times, Paul Krugman reported that a senior IMF official now suggests that it may be time for a “bail-out,” a public-financed rescue of the US financial system. My questions remain: Is the US competent to run its own financial affairs and might it not be time for a massive rescue package from Europe?

That I was able to foresee the continued fall of the dollar and beat the experts in suggesting the need for intervention in America’s financial system and policy-making is anything but clairvoyance. A life of regular work stints abroad and of regular returns to New York has given me a “stop-motion”-like overview of developments in the US and of changes in the post-war world. Not least, visiting and working in Bulgaria on-and-off since the fall of Communism provided me with my own bench-scale surrogate for the US economy, a laboratory mock-up of the application and effects of deregulation, economic liberalism, and US Republican-style values and policies on the one hand, and fiscal intervention and massive infrastructural investment on the other.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Politics | 2 Comments »

Hiatus — A few words and a few links re: articulation, organizational change, the GOP, the 1960s, mysterious and enticing doorways, the forgotten wooden mosques of the eastern Balkans, and a bodega in the Bronx

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2007

These weeks I have been a bit busy with work proposals and ongoing research projects. One of the results: Somewhat of a hiatus in substantive postings to HakPakSak. For the moment, however, the following links should each be worthy of at least a peek…

Re: my “core business” of articulation, communication, and change, look at this comment I posted some weeks ago on JP Rangaswami’s weblog Confused Of Calcutta and a worthy comment-on-the-comment as posted by Stephen Smoliar at his weblog Rehearsal Studio.

Re: Politics in America look at Bob Herbert‘s recent Ugly Side of the GOP. Now that the New York Times has opened up its former “premium” internet content to all readers, Hebert’s hard-hitting to-the-point columns can once again be read online free of charge.

Re: The 1960s and the reunion of two former philosophy students and friends, look at these kind words from North Carolina writer, thinker, and convinced Quaker Tom Brown.

Last, for a look into my parallel avocational worlds of photography, architectural history, and Balkan and Ottoman history, go to this new posting on my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org.

Oh yes … not to forget … Oh Word. My recent two-fold posting on Paul Lafargue’s manifesto The Right to Be Lazy and the photocopy shops of Istanbul gained mention on Rafi Kam’s hip-hop weblog Oh Word‘s Around the Horn links. I am a long-time fan of Rafi’s and Dallas Penns humorous and very insightful minimalist video Bronx Bodega (click here to watch it on YouTube). I’m a jazz fan, not a hip-hop fan — but I am born in the Bronx!

More to follow…

Posted in Architecture, Articulation, Bulgaria, Change, Links, Media, Photography, Work | 2 Comments »

More Balkan Lessons: Health Care Data and the Benefits of Dog-Eared Files and Messy Desks

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 19, 2007

One of the frustrations of working outside of the US on and off for much of my life is that Americans often react with irritation or hostility when I describe to them the benefits of “Big Government” in European social democracies. It seems beyond the comprehension of many Americans that Western European countries have actually developed and maintained powerhouse economies while also attending to an ethos of social responsibility and egalitarianism — to paraphrase the tone of Bush and Co.’s Iraq War rhetoric: How could cowardly, self-indulgent Europe surpass the world’s number-one democracy? Now, to their benefit and credit, Americans are beginning to wake up to the fact that they have cheated themselves and allowed themselves to be cheated, and that other nations have surpassed the US when it comes to taking care of their citizens. Michael Moore’s new film “Sicko” makes this point with Moore’s usual delightful bombast while the New York Times sums up the sorry state of affairs in this more somber editorial.

Health Care Chaos and the Democratization of Records

In a recent posting on the implications of the ever-narrowing gap between the US dollar and (!) the Bulgarian Lev, I described some facets of the economy and tone of post-communist Bulgaria and possible lessons to be learned from transformations and chaos in this small Balkan Republic over the last two decades, i.e. since the implosion of Communism. In the posting, however, I neglected to mention health care. Depending on which side of their country’s deepening gap between rich and poor Bulgarians fall, they have private or state insurance and visit expensive medical and dental clinics or are served by the country’s rank-and-file GPs and dedicated but overworked and ill-equipped public hospitals.

The single, but admittedly accidental, benefit of this unmanaged flux is that, for the moment at least, many Bulgarians have control of their own medical data, albeit without the adequate tools to administer them. Most Bulgarian doctors have neither the desire nor space to store records. Thus, their patients carry their own x-rays with them and pick-up and store their own blood-test and lab results. As a result, patients have a full set of printouts, film, and hands-scrawled charts with them most of the time — even if carried in dog-eared folders and stored on messy desk tops and in jumbled desk drawers. If they are interested and capable, and have sufficiently confrontational personalities, possession of such documents give them an inside track into understanding and maybe even managing their own conditions and treatment. Thus, once again, accidental circumstances in Bulgaria point to solutions for problems Americans face, in this case getting medical records out of the file cabinets and off the desks of doctors and, even if in duplicate, into the hands of the patients to whom they rightfully belong. The next step of course would be to set advanced information technology to work to support patients in setting data to work for their benefit and the potential benefit of others. The New York Times editorial linked to above underscored the urgency of this issue:

“Shockingly, despite our vaunted prowess in computers, software and the Internet, much of our health care system is still operating in the dark ages of paper records and handwritten scrawls. American primary care doctors lag years behind doctors in other advanced nations in adopting electronic medical records or prescribing medications electronically. This makes it harder to coordinate care, spot errors and adhere to standard clinical guidelines.”

Not Just the Province of Giants

Some days later, the Times reported that Google and Microsoft have entered into the medical information management fray. But, as I wrote following a meeting with Vendor Relations Management activists at the Oxford Internet Institute back in July, there are numerous opportunities for grass-roots information projects (in this case a proposed community-based project serving diabetics in the UK) that can turn us all into managers rather than victims of medical care. We needn’t wait for industry giants, even if well-willing, to do the job.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Digitization, Health Care, Identity, Infrastructure | Leave a Comment »

Balkan-Wards: Falling Dollar, Faulty Infrastructure, and the Lessons of the Bulgarian Lev

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 18, 2007

For much of my life I’ve worked outside of the US, far from my native New York. Over years of longer and shorter work stints abroad I became hyper-aware of two irreversible (and unrelated) trends: The premature graying of my hair and the continuous decline of the US dollar. To some extent the ongoing fall of the dollar is as natural a phenomenon as my hair turning gray. At the close of World War II the US economy comprised well over 3/4 of the world’s economy. In the half century since, European and Asian economies have recovered and expanded and new economic giants have emerged, thus ending the dollar’s one-time hegemony and bringing its worth back into proportion to that of other currencies.

A Self-Destructive Economy

In recent decades, however, the US has compounded this change. The country appears to have gone out of its way to sabotage its own economy and debase its currency in the process. From the social ethos of the New Deal and the Great Society, and even the business ethos of the Eisenhower years, the US slipped into a culture of short-term gain and long-term disinvestment. Corporate looting ala Enron and Worldcom and obscenely astronomical “CEO” compensation, the near-incomprehensible waste and corruption of the four-year-long debt-financed war in Iraq, and the public and private sector’s cavalier attitudes towards investment in the human and physical infrastructure requisite to productivity and social stability (cf. the pathetic state of US health care and the headline-grabbing failures of levies in Louisiana and bridges in Minnesota) undermine confidence in the US and its currency and prompt international investors to shift capital elsewhere.

When the dollar first dipped below the Euro, I smiled at the irony. The very same US that now shuns investing in its own physical and human infrastructure by passing the buck to the whims of the so-called “market” had, long ago, under the Marshall Plan (see this current New Yorker article), provided the long-term loans and investment capital that helped rebuild Western Europe’s war-shattered physical plant, kick-start its post-war economic recovery, and give it the confidence to proceed on its own. In the fifty years that followed, Europe built slowly and steadily on this foundation and today surpasses the US in many measures of productivity and quality of life. But I can barely raise a smile as I watch the dollar continue to fall, heading high speed towards parity with … the Bulgarian Lev!

Parity with Bulgaria?

A few weeks ago, in the Bulgarian capitol city, Sofia, I sold dollars to buy Lev (BGN). The rate: US$1.00 = BGN 1.40. Twenty years ago, in the final years of the Communist period, one dollar bought three to four Lev at the official rate and twenty to sixty on the black market. During the political crises and hyperinflation that wracked Bulgaria during the mid-1990s, one dollar bought more than 3,000 Lev. Ten years ago, the Bulgarian Lev was placed under the supervision of the IMF and linked to the German Mark (at BGN 2.00 to DM 1.00) and subsequently to the Euro. The IMF currency board required that Bulgaria curtail its borrowings and honor its debts. The Lev has remained constant at BGN 1.95 to the Euro ever since and by riding the Euro’s coattails has risen steadily against the dollar.

It is an odd state of affairs when the US dollar is closer in value to the currency of a small and corrupt Balkan republic than it is to the common currency of its major economic rival, the European Union. Bulgaria is a country of fewer that 8 million inhabitants with an economy based largely on agriculture and food processing as well as on — to share an open secret — the laundering of monies from the drugs and weapons trades and from fortunes looted from the treasuries and industrial infrastructure of Communist-era Bulgaria and the former Soviet Union and still siphoned away from the immense black economy of present-day Russia.

Robber Barons and Infrastructure

A memorable feature of the years leading up to Bulgaria’s accession to membership in the European Union, i.e. to its becoming subject to European laws and fiscal regulations, was the regular headlines in the Bulgarian press of the gangland-style broad-daylight murders of flamboyantly wealthy local banking, insurance and holding company directors, many of them one-time athletes with ties to the seamier sides of the security services of Bulgaria’s past regime. Conveniently, these short-lived moguls took with them to their graves the secrets of the identities of their institutions’ initial investors and depositors.

A decade ago, an American ambassador to Bulgaria confided in me that US government was quite pleased with Bulgaria’s new gangster capitalists, adding, quite approvingly no less, that “… they are really no different from our own robber barons.” I disagree. Some of America’s 19th century robber baron industrialists left behind not only the social and physical scars of their depredations but also the full infrastructure on which late-19th and early-20th century economies were based on — railroads, steel mills, oil refineries, etc. They also established concert halls and universities and bequeathed their art collections to public museums. What the Bulgarian moguls have left behind, other than an undeniable multiplier effect engendered by their personal spending, is an immense real estate bubble, the outcome of black money being poured into land buy-ups, up-market housing, and the development of overcrowded, jerry-built seaside and mountain resorts. The Bulgarian robber barons have also left behind hundreds of so-called “credit millionaires,” cronies awarded with large bank loans destined for default.

Infrastructural development in Bulgaria — roads, airports, harbors, human resources, education etc. — was abrogated by Bulgaria’s new robber barons and the country’s recent neo-liberal governments both. Indeed, Bulgaria’s new rich do as little for their country as America’s under-taxed top earners do for theirs. Fortunately for Bulgaria, the EU stepped into the fray, spending and continuing to spend billions of Euros in an attempt to bring Bulgaria up to snuff for integration into the European economy and into European society and also to rectify the tremendous inequalities of income and opportunity that arose in Bulgaria following the end of the Communist period — such inequality due in part to the restitution of real property to the descendants of pre-Communist-era title holders and to the exclusion from the mainstream economy of the country’s large Roma (Gypsy) population.  Some EU programs are inefficient and naive and others are boondoggles for western contractors and consultants and their well-connected Bulgarian partners, but the overall positive results are visible to anyone who has visited or worked in Bulgaria over the years. The longer-term historical ironies are equally striking as Europe takes over the mantle of prescient investment and aid that the Americans wore during the Marshall Plan years, and as the US continues to fail on all fronts in the reconstruction of Iraq (the US has been mired in Iraq for longer than it took to help defeat Germany and Japan in World War II and commence their post-war regeneration).

Lessons or Ironies?

As the dollar sinks closer to the Bulgarian Lev, the US might consider learning from Bulgaria’s recent experiences. One could almost think the unthinkable: Might the US benefit from having the IMF set up a board to oversee its currency? Might the US benefit from membership candidacy in the EU and the consequent eligibility for proper inspection and maintenance of its physical infrastructure and for bringing its social welfare, income distribution, medical care, and quality of life up to European standards, standards that owe much to the size and spirit of America’s Marshall Plan? More on this …

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, History, Infrastructure | 2 Comments »