Friday, May 22, 2015

Palmyra again

It is really strange when I read the media coverage of something terrible, like ISIS consolidating its hold on Palmyra, and see a mention of a particularly place I remember:
On Palmyra’s few shopping streets, metal gates rolled down, shuttering businesses like the Zenobia Café, named for a legendary queen of ancient Palmyra.
Almost all of the time that I spent in Palmyra during my brief 2005 visit when I wasn't wandering the ruins or sleeping, was sitting at the outdoor tables at the Zenobia Café. I took the below picture while sitting there (see all those goods from one of the town's few shopping areas!)

Old Men in Palmyra Town

(click to embiggen)

I wonder where those four are right now.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The real "job creators"

Does this mean the Republicans will push to give immigrants a massive tax break?

I like my coffee like I like my nights: dark, endless, and impossible to sleep through

Hurray, it's cold turkey day!!! Long-time blog readers, or even relatively short-time readers may recall that every year, for no good reason (or maybe several so-so reasons) I decide to torture myself by swearing off caffeine for a solid month.

Don't believe that I am actually sadistic enough to do this to myself every fucking year? Read the archives dude!!! Like: this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this and this,  and most recently this.  Yeah, okay, there is no link for 2010, because Kazakhstan.

Anyway, today is the day, even though originally tomorrow is supposed to be the day. But then I decided that this solid month would be a little less substantial than usual. Indeed, it will be insubstantial on May 26, 2015, when I will still be mostly off caffeine but I will be allowed to eat chocolate for that one day only in the midst of an otherwise solid month. That decision meant I had to back up the no-caffeine start date to start one day earlier, meaning today, because later I would subtract out a day, meaning May 26. Therefore, assuming I did the math right, one solid month minus one day, plus one day, should still equal a solid month, asterisk. (the asterisk being a footnote that the solid month is not solid in the sense of being continuous even though it would have all the days with an insubstantial ghost day hovering there on May 26).

Back to today (in truth we never left. That day always travels with us), today I go cold turkey off of caffeine. That means no coffee (not even decaf coffee because it has a little bit), no tea, no chocolate, none of those fizzy caffeinated drinks that I don't drink very often anyway, nary a single chocolate chip or chocolate flavored anything for fear that there may be a molecule of caffeine in there somewhere for a solid month asterisk, ending the morning of June 22, 2015. It has only been a few hours and I already can't wait.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Where is Zenobia when we need her?

There goes Palmyra.

Obviously whatever atrocities ISIS will impose on the Tadmuris is the real tragedy. But I still shudder to think what they will do to that amazing site I visited almost 10 years ago.

Yes, ISIS is destined to decline

This piece ignores the differences between "in decline" and "destined to decline."

ISIS has had its ups and downs in the past few months. For a while, it they had a bunch of losses. The Shiite militias in Iraq had stopped ISIS's advance towards Baghdad. They lost Hadatha dam and they lost the battle of Kobani. More recently, things have gone better for the group. They took Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, which put them closer to Damascus, and they are moving towards Palmyra. In fact, the Assad regime is slowly losing as other rebels groups have consolidated their control over Idlib province. While Idlib is under the control of al-Nusra and other rebel groups rather than ISIS, Assad's recent losses are good news for ISIS.

But recent successes do not mean that ISIS is not destined to decline in the future. I am confident that the group cannot sustain itself simply because its model is unsustainable. It can rack up victories in the short term, which will boost its recruitment and make further victories more likely. But the Islamic State's basic problems are still there: it is not very good at governing the places it controls, all of the powers in the region dislike the group, it has no above-the-board trade with the outside world and no prospect to have it any time in the future. ISIS is very good at attracting the violence-prone young Muslims from around the world and convincing other militant groups to pledge affiliation with ISIS. And it has been shown some talent at making the most of the he advantages that happen to come their way. But in terms of building a long term political entity with staying power, I don't think they can do it without diluting their "brand"--that is, becoming more pragmatic which would undercut the group's strengths.

I really think ISIS is doomed. Although it is going to be terrible for the people in Iraq and Syria until it reaches its ultimate and (I believe) inevitable demise.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Back in 2009, I tried to figure out the relationship between the "Cossacks" and the "Kazakhs." While the people themselves are not directly related, the names may be related. The Kazakhs named themselves "Kazakh" (really "qazaq") because it means the "free people" or "free wanders" in their own Turkic language. The Cossacks are Slavic, not Turkic, people. But when the Cossacks emerged as a Russian or Ukrainian speaking community in the 14th or 15th century, they were influenced by Turkic peoples who lived nearby (like the Crimean Tatars). The Cossacks adopted the name "Cossack" (казаки́), a Turkic-derived word meaning "freed men," just as they adopted some of the horse riding culture of their Turkic neighbors.

So anyway, I have all that in mind whenever I read about the Cossack bike gang in Texas. I imagine they borrowed their name from the Russian Cossacks (who in turn based their name on a borrowed Turkic term). Maybe they are invoking the idea of free riders (only with a motorcycle instead of a horse) they associate with the word "Cossacks", just as the Cossacks adopted the name Cossack to invoke the free riding Turkic horsemen. Or maybe the gang took their name from the soviet made Cossack brand motorcycle, thus taking a name from a brand that invoked the Cossack people who invoked the Turkic horse riders.


Ben Carson doesn't know that poor people can't afford stuff

I wonder what he thinks "poor" means:
[Mr. Carson] said on “Fox News Sunday” this month that it was “condescending” to argue poor people could not afford to pay the same tax rate as rich people.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Smugglers are bad! So sinking their boats is good

It is amusing to see the EU officials spin this as an operation to crack down against "people smugglers" even though their real goal isn't about the smugglers as much as stopping the people who are being smuggled-- aka the "migrants" (who really should be called "refugees").

Saturday, May 16, 2015

False Flag!

I wonder how long it will be before Sy Hersh publishes an article claiming that U.S. forces were handed Abu Sayyaf by the Pakistanis.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Approaching Tadmur

I have visited Roman-era ruins in about a half-dozen countries. Palmyra/Tadmur was by far the best one I have ever been to. Unlike every other Roman site I have seen, the ruins of that ancient city stretch out for an area that is city-sized, giving a real sense of the entire ancient city. Plus, the site has pre-Roman tombs, and an abayyid-era citadel. It's hard to imagine how much will be lost if ISIS conquers the site.

TPA issues

There are two issues about the vote in Congress over Trade Promotion Authority (aka "Fast Track") that don't seem to be getting a lot of attention.

First, the TPA bill being considered will give the President the ability to enter trade deals that Congress is not allowed to amend for the next six years. The current debate over TPA, including the surprise defeat of TPA when virtually the all of the democrats turned against the President, have been presented as a debate over the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty. But that soon-to-be-completed treaty is just the trade deal that happens to be immediately in front of us. The same bill that will require Congress to only give an up or down vote on that deal will limit Congress to an up or down vote for any trade deal that is finalized until 2021.

Maybe you like President Obama and trust that he won't agree to a deal that undermines all of his domestic priorities. But if the current TPA bill becomes law, it will give more leeway for not just this president to negotiate trade agreements, but also the next president, and possibly also the president after that. Which is crazy. We don't even know who these people are yet. Why take away our representatives in Congress's check on that authority?

Second, why does this fast track scheme, where Congress pre-authorizes the President to enter into trade deals by imposing the requirement that when the deal is later submitted to Congress for ratification, Congress can only give an up or down vote, only apply to trade deals? Why doesn't Congress ever pre-authorize the president to enter into any other kind of deal with foreign nations? The differences between how Congress treats a major trade deal and the deal with Iran are pretty stark. Why is that? Are trade deals more important than arms control deals?