Thursday, November 26, 2015

Original Refugees

Obama and others have likened the Syrian refugees to the Pilgrims. Do they realize that this isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for open immigration? They do know how that one played out, right?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Nothing Can Go Wrong

When I pointed out the danger of East-West escalation in Russia's decide to intervene militarily in Syria, more than one correspondent assured me that that couldn't happen. Now Turkey has shot down a Russian jet, and, apparently, killed the pilots.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Collateral Damage: Refugee Backlash

The backlash against Syrian refugees after Paris was as predictable as the tsunami after a magnitude 8.0 quake. Naturally, the nativist right-wing, here and elsewhere, is running with it. No, it's not entirely rationale, and the refugees are overwhelmingly innocent victims of forces they had no part in generating, but that's life: harsh, unforgiving, and random.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the West continues to look helpless against ISIS. This not only fuels the refugee crisis but increases suspicion of governments who want to accommodate refugees.

An unfortunate side effect, especially of the rising tide of anti-Muslim propaganda, is likely to be increasing alienation of the Muslim population. Assholes like Trump and Rubio feed the beast, but the rest of us will reap the consequences.

My advice to Obama - do something or get the heck off the beach.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Astro FOTD: Lonely Planets

Our galaxy, The Milky Way, appears to have a couple of hundred billion "rogue" planets without any stars to call their own. Some of them were kicked out of their systems of formation early in their history (it is suspected that our own system lost one or more planets in this fashion) and some probably formed on their own, in a process analogous to star formation in giant molecular clouds.

See, e.g.,

Not so Crazy

Some French Artists of 115 years or so ago imagined the year 2000. They got a lot of ideas right even if the details look oddly primitive.


October 2015 was the hottest October in the satellite temperature record. It will likely also be the hottest in the surface measurement record.

Since the satellite record is a talisman of the denialist crowd (it can be construed to show less recent warming than the surface record), I decided to surf some of the flat-Earther commentary. Responses ranged from "I don't believe it" to "OK, but it doesn't matter" to "the pyramids were built to store grain."

The doesn't matter answer was by far the most prominent.

Monday, November 16, 2015

To Be or Not to Be

Or, rather, as Hamlet eventually admits, to do, or not to do.

It turns out that these decisions are mediated by different neurotransmitters, and that the inhibitory ("not to do") processing i the brain develops slowly through adolescence.

Yet another reason why teenagers are batshit crazy.

A popular instrument used by researchers to test inhibition is the Go/ No-Go task in which subjects are told to press a button (the “Go” response) when a certain letter or picture appears, and not to press it (the “No-Go” response) when the letter X appears. Several studies have shown that children and adolescents generally have the same accuracy, but the reaction times, the speed at which a subject successfully inhibits a response, dramatically decrease with age in subjects age eight to twenty. In other words, it takes longer for adolescents to figure out when not to do something.

Jensen, Frances E.; Nutt, Amy Ellis (2015-01-06). The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults (p. 55). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Why so? Because the teenage brain is primed to learn. Synaptogenesis, creation of new synapses, far outruns deletions of old ones, and that means excitation outruns inhibition at the neural level - but not only the neural level.


NPR's Fresh air has an interview with a veteran student of France and terror that suggest that the radically secular policies of France are a major provocation to its Muslim population. The terrorism and the resulting strengthening of the extreme right are likely to increase the provocation.

Josh Marshall on ISIS

Josh Marshall is no right winger, but he too seems to think it is time to end ISIS. A couple of excerpts:

I don't know what the precise best policies here are. But I do have a clear idea of several of the building blocks. The first recalls something I said a few weeks ago, which is that it is folly to be actively engaged against both sides in a civil war, which is effectively what we are now doing. Such a policy may have a cynical logic when you have two hostile entities which you want to see wear each other down and pulverize each other - much as we did during the Iran-Iraq War in 1980s. That is not the current situation. The Assad regime, while bloody, does not in any way pose an immediate threat to the United States. We need to redefine our Syria policy around the goal of the physical elimination of ISIS as a territorial entity and the physical elimination of its top leaders. If that means accepting the continuance of Assad family rule in at least rump Syria than we need to accept that - even though he's backed by regional adversaries Russia and Iran. Again, how serious are we about eliminating ISIS? I'd say not very serious if we're still hung up on Assad.

And this:

What I do know is this. ISIS is a genuine threat to us and our allies. In recent weeks, they've killed more than a hundred people in Paris, downed a Russian jetliner and appear to have carried out major attacks in Beirut and Ankara. They are a real and present threat. Assad is not a clear or present threat to us. Our policy is a contradiction and a losing one. We can deal with Assad later. In Washington circles it's become a conceit. Our policy in Syria should be to destroy ISIS. Everything else can come after that.

I would add that if we destroy ISIS in convincing enough fashion, some of the other players might be at least a little intimidated.

End the ISIS Caliphate?

The existence of a so-called Islamic State dedicated to terror has proved to be a rallying cry for terrorists around the world, as well as a source for terrorists, terrorism propaganda, and instruction. So the debate has begun over whether it's time to erase that state. There are many reasons why the US and Europe have hesitated, including the cost, especially in soldiers lives, and the manifest failure of regime change projects in Iraq, Syria and Libya. In addition, such a move would further upset the already disrupted Sunni-Shiite balance.

Despite the risks, there is a growing feeling that some kind of strike back is needed, some way to show would be terrorists that their tactics are hurting their cause. Christopher Dickey has an article entitled After Paris, Is It Time to Roll on Raqqa, the ISIS Capital?

It includes this quote:

Thus a CIA veteran with long experience hunting Osama bin Laden and trying to outmaneuver ISIS, speaking privately, tells The Daily Beast, “Everybody is going to respond to this thing with solidarity, tying little ribbons on trees and that sort of bullshit,” when what’s needed, in his opinion, is “to drive a stake in their heart.”

How would you do that?

“Put together a force of 6,000 or 7,000 airborne soldiers and just take Raqqa. Don’t issue warnings. Don’t assemble tank columns. Train the force, then use it,” said this gentleman, a veteran of the clandestine services, but not of the military. “They have made Raqqa the capital of their state. Take it and you have changed the ground immediately. You can’t fight ISIS with baby steps, and what happened in Paris gives you the immediate rationale to do something strategic. Otherwise? They are winning.”

Talk, as they say is cheap. Actual execution probably would not be. And once captured what do you do?

I think we have ample evidence that a crash course in introducing the inhabitants to the blessing of democracy doesn't work. The other extreme is a Roman style "Carthago delenda est" style campaign - leave no stone on a stone, and sow the soil with salt.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"This is an Attack on All Humanity"

Obama to world. I like Obama, but I really hate that kind of bullshit rhetoric. It wasn't an attack on "all humanity" it was an attack on France, intended to punish it for real or imagined deeds against Islam. One of the things wrong with Bush's idiotic wars was that they were waged under false pretenses - one of them being that we were trying to bring the blessings of liberty to Iraq and Afghanistan. Incoherent rationales lead to incoherent strategies which lead to disastrous results. As a result, Bush let the perpetrators (bin Laden and Saudi Arabia) escape while wading into the idiotic Sunni vs Shiite conflict with both feet.

It appears that the Paris attacks were done in the name of ISIS, for actions against ISIS, and if so, the appropriate action is revenge against ISIS. We probably can't destroy it, but we could erase its geographic presence. If terrorist get the message that terror hurts their cause, they might hesitate. They will only be encouraged if the response is pious platitudes piled into pyramids of nonsense.

Even rather primitive and tribal peoples understand revenge, but they are rightly suspicious of bullshit rhetoric.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Terror and Repression

How far should France and the World go to repress the kind of terror we saw tonight? Would cutting off the head of ISIS, by destroying its territory utterly, help? Internally, how much civil liberty does one need to sacrifice?

Of course we don't know any details yet, but allowing ISIS to exist and occupy territory may not be an option the world can still afford. Destroying the so-called Caliphate may take boots on the ground, and once that is done, then what? Recent history is not encouraging.

What about purely internal measures? Again, the details of who the attackers were are crucial. The worst case might be that they were radicalized French citizens. Reputedly there are thousands of radicalized French Muslims already under surveillance. If the attackers are among them, or closely linked, mass roundups of suspicious characters might occur.

If French Muslims cannot manage to control their most radical elements, then they are likely to suffer a more general repression.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Girlsplaining at Slate

I expect that I've complained in the past of the sexism and general incoherence embodied in the term "Mansplaining" and all its variants. That's the origin of this piece's title (It's called irony, for the clueless). That and the Slate article titled "Sexism Mansplained" for Michelle Goldberg's article here.

I found it pretty hard to make any logical (I hope that's not a purely mansplainist concept) connection between the Slate title and the article, which seemed to be mainly about some Sanders supporters trying to use Hillary's gender against her.