30 September 2014

Ghost house

Rico says that he can remember people and events in every room in his childhood home in Palo Alto, California, even though it's long been bulldozed and replaced by the immense Google-stock-funded complex in the photo above.
Starting at the back of the house, Rico remembers a tender moment in the guest bedroom with Susan Nelson, a fellow camper at Plantation Farm Camp, who ended up for a day at his house, en route to her home in Arizona. (Tall, blonde, and beautiful, she considered herself 'too mature' for Rico, who was only fourteen or so at the time, so nothing, alas, happened, though Rico would've been happy to oblige.)
Next door, in his bedroom, Rico remembers his father throwing the door open during a sleepover with school friends, and ordering Rico to 'look at that wall', the kid in the middle to 'look up at the ceiling', and the other one to 'look at the other wall', and all of us to shut up...
In the master bedroom, Rico remembers his mother calling him in to check out a mysterious lurker at the fence line, who turned out to be Patricia, a schoolmate who had run away from home and (amazingly) walked miles to find Rico's house. (She was the young woman with whom Rico had given up, gladly, his virginity the previous year; it turned out she was being molested by her father.)
In the dining room, Rico remembers his mother dropping into her dinner plate when he innocently asked where his father had gone on an apparent business trip (Rico's clue was being unable to find his father's hairbrush, which Rico was prone to use to smash down his then-unruly curly hair after school), only to discover that his father had left the house and wasn't coming back. (Fifty years later, he still hasn't, though they both later remarried.)
In the living room, Rico remembers his mother's famous basket-with-green-ribbon-and-gold-ornaments Xmas tree, which always flanked the fireplace.
In the library, next to the front door, Rico remembers apologizing to his father (then a cigar smoker) for 'breathing the same air' when he went in to get a book.
In the back yard, then only dry grass to the fence line, overlooking the not-yet-Silicon Valley buildings of Stanford Industrial Park, Rico remembers his childhood dog, Dinkie, bounding over the grass in great leaps, the better to see where he was going. (All these years later, Rico still apologizes to his mother for taking the dog, her favorite, down off the Hill, as it was known, on a bicycle expedition; the dog later went on his own and got run over on El Camino Real, leading his mother to speculate that he was in pursuit of 'some bitch'; probably a reference to his father's departure, rather than a real incrimination of the dog...)
The spare bedroom was usually rented to Stanford students. In the adjacent laundry area, Rico nearly died in an unused floor freezer, thanks to Kim Kitterman...
On the other side of the carport (past an immense acacia tree shading the patio) was the workroom, where Rico once took out his frustration over his then-bad relationship with his father by severely beating the poor workbench with a hammer (leaving many dents), for which, all these years later, he apologizes to his father.
All in all, a lot of momentous things, growing up. Rico says he misses the old place (built originally by Carl Mydans when he came home from World War Two), though the new house is probably even nicer...

Kim Jong Un breaks both ankles

Buzzfeed has an article about the North Korean leader (the one in the Mao suit in the middle), who had a little accident:
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has been mysteriously missing from the public eye for almost a month, was hospitalized in mid-September of 2014 for surgery on both of his ankles, a South Korean newspaper reported. “I heard that Kim Jong Un injured his right ankle in June after pushing ahead with on-site visits, and ended up fracturing both ankles because he left the injury unattended,” a source was quoted as saying in The Chosun Ilbo.
An intelligence official told the paper that Kim is overweight, and his injuries may have been caused during a lengthy tour of North Korean military installations while he was wearing Cuban heels.
The North Korean leader reportedly underwent surgery at Bonghwa Clinic in Pyongyang, North Korea, which is reserved for high-ranking officials in the country, and remains there in recovery.
In a 8 July 2014 image made from video of the North Korean leader at a commemoration ceremony, many said Kim Jong Un appeared to be limping as he made his way across the stage.
Kim has not been seen in public in almost a month and missed a 25 September 2014 parliament session, the first he has failed to attended since coming to power three years ago.
Speculation about the North Korean leader has been swirling since Kim has been out of the public eye, including the possibility that he has gout, has been drinking and smoking too heavily, and even that a coup had taken place in the country.
Rico says it's too bad he didn't break his neck... (He wears the heels to try and be taller, the vain little punk.)

Judges will 'have to pay the piper'

Chris Brennan has an article in the Philadelphia Daily News about some bad judicial behavior:
Ron Castille (photo), the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, says any judges snared in the pornographic-email scandal unfolding in Harrisburg at the state Attorney General's Office will "have to pay the piper".
Castille, speaking yesterday on a conference call with reporters, said he has asked Attorney General Kathleen Kane in a letter Thursday, followed by a telephone call, for the names of any judges who sent or received the hard-core pornography. Castille also wants copies of the emails. "I want to make sure that, if they are involved, they have to pay the piper," Castille said. "It's just sad for us as a branch of government if anyone is involved in this type of activity."
Castille said the emails, if judges exchanged them, could cause problems two ways under the state's Judicial Code of Conduct:
Using state computers to exchange the explicit emails would violate that code. A conflict of interest is also possible if a judge exchanged emails in private with a prosecutor who appeared in his court to argue cases. "If you're emailing back and forth with the Attorney General's Office as a judge, it might show you have a conflict that will require you to recuse yourself from these cases," Castille explained.
Kane put on display for reporters a selection of the emails discovered in the archived in-boxes of top deputies under Governor Corbett when he held the post of attorney general. Those emails were found during a review of how Corbett handled the child sexual-abuse case that sent former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to prison. Kane's staff has connected the emails to former top deputies who went on to high-ranking jobs when Corbett became governor. That includes state Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Chris Abruzzo, former Secretary of Legislative Affairs Chris Carusone, former press secretary Kevin Harley (now an adviser to Corbett's re-election campaign), and Glenn Parno, who oversees oil and gas regulation for DEP.
Corbett has requested copies of all the emails, not just the selection that Kane showed reporters. Lynn Lawson, the governor's communications director, said he is still waiting for Kane to provide him with that information.
Rico says that stupidity isn't relational to high office; these guys were idiots...

Restaurant gives a discount to gun owners

Noah Rayman has a Time article about gubs in Louisiana:
A local restaurant owner in Louisiana will give a ten percent discount to any customers that show him their guns, and not the arm-muscle kind.
Kevin Cox, the owner of Bergeron’s Restaurant in Port Allen, Louisiana, is bucking a corporate trend by encouraging, rather than banning, firearms in his Cajun food establishment. Cox said he’s frustrated with chains like Target, which requested in July of 2014 that customers not bring their weapons into stores, NBC33 reports.
“I keep hearing so much about people banning guns,” Cox told NBC33. “Target’s banning guns and other people are banning guns. Don’t they realize that that’s where people with guns are going to go? I want to take the opposite approach. How can I make my place safer?” Cox said some fifteen to twenty people take him up on the offer every day. “I just need to see a weapon. I need you to be carrying a gun,” he told NBC33, which has a video about the place.
Rico says you won't see that sign in Philly, though a lot of people do anyway...

Of course it is

Rico says he doesn't cheat, or plan it, but it's always 11:11 when he checks the time...

A train to nowhere in Siberia

The BBC has an article by Anna Kaminski about traveling in what, previously, had been a bad direction— Siberia:
I woke up when the train’s soporific rocking and chugging came to an abrupt halt, momentarily disorientated. I was somewhere along the Baikal-Amur Mainline (known as BAM), the three-thousand-kilometer-long railway that runs through northern Siberia. I was heading west, towards home. It was 8 am, and around me the denizens of the open-plan platzkartny (third class) carriage were starting to wake up. There were two new passengers on the bunks below who had got on in the middle of the night, somewhere west of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Andrei, who looked like a Russian George Clooney, was drinking a liter can of Baltica beer and heading north, beyond the town of Neryungri, to work in a mine. Yura was returning to Tynda, his hometown, because the mining company he worked for near Khabarovsk hadn’t paid him for four months. “Some friends called me, told me that there’s a job back home,” he said.
The BAM was originally conceived in the 1930s as a hugely ambitious engineering project that would blaze a path through some of Russia’s least hospitable terrain, creating easier access to Siberia’s vast mineral wealth and facilitating colonisation of the region. Running parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway, from the Tayshet junction in the west all the way to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast, one of its goals was to help divert heavy freight traffic from the more famous rail line. But despite costing around billions of rubles to build, with construction not fully complete until 1991, the Baikal-Amur Mainline remains underused.
Unlike the busy cities along the Trans-Siberian, which have undergone rapid change over the last few years due to increased train traffic and an influx of foreign travelers, the towns along the BAM remain part of the land that time forgot, their Soviet architecture virtually unchanged. The BAM is only four hundred kilometers north of the Trans-Siberian, but the difference is palpable: BAM passengers tend to be predominantly local and poor and, with the exception of Severobaikalsk (the jumping off point for Lake Baikal), very few foreigners ever climb aboard.          
“Have you ever had caviar?” asked Valera, a blond man with a scar on his cheek. He was off to work in a gold mine north of Tynda, and his sister had given him a tub for the road. We ate it with big spoons, washing it down with hot, sweet black tea. Tanya, a twenty-year-old from the village of Fevralskoye, halfway between Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Tynda, fended off Andrei’s drunken advances firmly, but with good humor.
Everyone wanted to know what life was like in my home country, the UK. How much does a one-bedroom flat cost? How much is a loaf of bread? What’s the weather like? They fell about laughing when I told them that, for decades, the UK’s coldest weather was -12C. Yura said that in winter, the temperature in Tynda drops to -47C. “When we moved to Khabarvosk, where it doesn’t get below -30,” Yura said his son asked: “‘Dad, when are we going to have winter?’”
Outside, the dense forest seemed endless. We stopped at the tiny settlement of Etryken, one of several built to service the heavy freight traffic that never really materialized, despite the railway bisecting Russia’s rich mining districts. A number of mining projects planned during the last years of the Soviet Union never came to fruition, turning settlements into ghost towns as the younger generations fled to the cities to find work.
I talked into the night with Nikita from Khabarovsk. Despite completing university, he was looking for work in the mines to be able support his family. “All I want is to live and work with dignity, to earn enough to raise my child, to go on holiday sometimes and to know that my job is stable,” he said.  He added that he was tired of the corruption, the bureaucracy, the rudeness, the lack of patriotism: “Everyone just grabs a piece for themselves. Russia is divided into ‘clans’ and, if you’re not part of them, it is difficult to get anything done.”
The next morning we alighted at Tynda, the unofficial BAM capital, nearly seven thousand kilometers east of Moscow. The station building was covered with gigantic faded posters celebrating the railway’s 35th anniversary in 2009: “the road built with love”. The railway is a Soviet triumph of man over nature, built in an inhospitable land of extreme winter cold and mosquito-cloud filled summers. But it was only in the later stages that the work was done by idealistic young Komsomol (Communist Youth League) members; between the 1930s and 1950s, the railway was built with the blood and bones of at least half a million people, including inmates in gulag labor camps and Japanese prisoners of war.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t locate Tynda’s main attraction: the statue of the BAM worker, depicted as a muscled man wielding a sledgehammer. BAM’s most prominent monument, it is symbolic of the sheer effort of building the railway and a supposedly spectacular example of Socialist realism. I walked the entire length of the main street, passing a giant hammer and sickle sculpture, Hotel Yunost (ul Krasnaya Presnya 49; 7-41-65-643-534), where travel writer Dervla Murphy stayed while penning Through Siberia By Accident, identikit concrete apartment blocks and several shashlik (grilled meat skewer) stands. Instead, I stumbled across the BAM History Museum (ul Sportivnaya 22) next to a replica barracks where BAM workers lived during the railway’s construction.
Anna Nikolayevna, the middle-aged curator, proudly showed me around the lovingly collected exhibits that included Evenki reindeer herder artifacts (a shaman’s outfit, fur-lined hunting skis); a 1980s telephone switchboard used for communication between BAM towns; and faded photos of the men and women who built the railway. Lowering her voice in a conspiratorial fashion, she informed me that the statue of the BAM worker was taken away in the middle of the night a few years ago; no one knows where it’s gone.
Back on board, en route to Severobaikalsk, the land become mountainous and we passed dense forest bisected by wide rivers and glacial streams. A low-hanging mist obscured the foothills of the craggy peaks. My neighbours this time were Galya, a retired matron who moved from the Urals to Siberia in the 1970s to work as one of the BAM Komsomol volunteers, lured by the triple pay incentive; and Valera and Nastya, married carriage attendants on home leave. Galya informed me that life in Communist times was “like paradise”, and that she’d been able to save up for apartments for herself and her children. She gave me sausages and home-grown tomatoes, refusing to accept anything in return. Valera came back from socializing in another carriage, drunk and covered in blood. He’d had too much vodka, lost his mobile phone, and accused of one of his co-drinkers of stealing it. “Poor Nastya, she must suffer with a man like that,” I commented. Galya was unsympathetic: “They’re as good as each other; she left her husband to be with him.” Then, with over-familiarity typical of older Russians, she  told  me that a woman of my age should start having children. I was relieved to alight at Severobaikalsk and leave her behind.
If Galya represented the old Soviet order, then Anya, also alighting at Severobaikalsk, was the best of new Russia. Devoted to conservation, she was part of the Great Baikal Trail project, an environmental NGO dedicated to promoting ecotourism in the Baikal area. Every summer, local and foreign volunteers converge on Lake Baikal, the oldest, deepest, and largest lake on Earth, to signpost and improve the hiking trails that skirt the water. Jennifer and Joy, American volunteers accompanying Anya, were from the Lake Tahoe area in California, part of an exchange program for Russian and American students to learn about conservation and ecology.
Before getting back on the BAM and heading onwards to  Western Russia, I said my farewells to Lake Baikal. It was a rainy and cold night, and the four of us were soaking at the rustic Goudzhekit hot springs; heaven for a traveller who hadn’t had a bath in months. I floated around with a stupid grin on my face. “In the winter, when it gets to -40C, it’s even better,” Anya said smiling.
Rico says he'll pass on the cold, thank you...


The BBC has an article about new software:
Social media network Ello is currently receiving up to thirty thousand requests an hour from people wishing to join its platform, its founder has told the BBC.
It was initially designed to just be used by about ninety friends of its founder Paul Budnitz. But the bike shop owner, from Vermont, opened it to others on 7 August 2014.
It has been dubbed the "anti-Facebook" network because of a pledge to carry no advertising or sell user data. However, some experts have cautioned that it might struggle with plans to charge micro-payments for certain "features".
The site has a minimalist design and does not appear as user-friendly, at first glance, as more established networks. It has already survived a reported Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, a targeted flood of internet traffic, which briefly knocked it offline over the weekend. "We're learning as we go but we have a very strong tech crew and back end," founder Paul Budnitz told the BBC. "It's in beta and it's buggy and it does weird stuff, and it's all being fixed as quickly as we can."
Budnitz added that he was "flattered" by the "anti-Facebook" description, but said that was not the way he saw his service. "We don't consider Facebook to be a competitor. We see it as an ad platform, and we are a network," he explained. The network will eventually make money by selling access to features, Budnitz added. "Like the app store, we're going to sell features for a few dollars," he said.
Members can already check out features in development on the page and register their interest.
Ello has a minimalist design, and has attracted thousands of new users. However, the traditional model of a free-to-use network has historically been the key to success, said James McQuivey, an analyst at tech research firm Forrester. "Over all the other social media experiences, from Whatsapp to Instagram to Pinterest, the reason they work is because they're free," he told the BBC. "You don't invite your friend to connect with you if it costs your friend money. Even in the world of digital music, you can pay for services, but most people don't. Ello is walking into a habit which consumers already have about digital services that they can't change on their own." McQuivey also suggested that people's attitudes towards advertising and data mining might not be as negative as they seem. "We may all think we don't like advertising, we may believe we think it's wrong for companies to profit from our personal data, but our behavior suggests these companies give us what we want and we don't mind what they do in return," he said. "The fact is nobody has ever made a significant move away from any internet provider because of advertising or data."
Rico says it, like commercial television, is the curse of making money...

A penalty for praying

The BBC has an article about overreaction by the NFL:
An American Muslim NFL player has been penalized after celebrating a touchdown by dropping to his knees in prayer. Husain Abdullah scored for the Kansas City Chiefs as they defeated the New England Patriots, 41-14. Officials penalized him for breaking "excessive celebration" rules by sliding on his knees and pressing his forehead to the ground after scoring.
It is unclear if the fifteen-yard penalty was for sliding or praying, but an NFL director said the decision was wrong.
National Football League rules state that "players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground", but there is an exception for going to ground for prayer.
Michael Signora, the NFL's vice president of communications, tweeted: "Abdullah should not have been penalized. Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons." American football fans took to social media to point out that there were plenty of Christian players who marked their touchdowns with signs of deference or religious tributes.
Abdullah, 29, told the Kansas City Star newspaper that game officials had said nothing to him at the time, but the Chiefs' coach had told him he had been penalized for sliding.
"I don't think it was because of the actual prostration that I got the penalty," he told the AP news agency. "I think it was because of the slide."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, called on the NFL to explain the reason for the penalty. "To prevent the appearance of a double standard, we urge league officials to clarify the policy on prayer and recognize that the official made a mistake in this case," spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
Abdullah, a devout Muslim, missed the entire 2012 season to go on a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca with his brother, another NFL player.
Rico says that the NFL is being stupid, but any religion is stupid...

Netflix releasing its first original movie

Time has an article by Elizabeth Barber about Netflix:
Netflix is planning to release its first original movie, a sequel to Ang Lee’s martial-arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and so charting new territory for the Internet-streaming firm.
Netflix said that it is partnering with independent producer The Weinstein Company to release Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend to all subscribers on 28 August 2015. The film, directed by Hong Kong’s Yuen Wo-ping, will also premiere at the same time on some global IMAX theaters, but it will not hit mainstream cinemas, Netflix said.
The deal between the streaming service and the production house threatens to upset to the traditional model of releasing movies: put them out first in cinemas, and then wait months before making them available on DVD and streaming services, including Netflix. Indeed, Netflix said the film is the first of several feature movies it has in the pipeline.
Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, told The New York Times that the deal would prove to Hollywood that moviegoers are consuming films in new ways and are also ready for a new way of releasing films. “What I am hoping is that it will be proof that the sky does not fall,” he said. “These are two different experiences, like going to a football game and watching a football game on television.”
Netflix, which this month expanded into the European market, has already released its own original series, including hits like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. The company releases all episodes of each show all at once, letting consumers binge-watch rather than suffice with weekly doses.
“The moviegoing experience is evolving quickly and profoundly, and Netflix is unquestionably at the forefront of that movement,” said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., in a statement.
Netflix’ new film will star Michelle Yeoh (photo), who will reprise her role from the original film as warrior Yu Shu Lien. Donnie Yen, of the Ip Man franchise, will star as Silent Wolf.
Rico says he looks forward to it...

Religion and the "burned-over district"

DelanceyPlace.com has a selection from The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand:
One of the most fervent outbursts of religion in American history was in western New York state during the Second Great Awakening, roughly 1790 to 1850. Nationally, during this time, there was a profusion of new sects and denominations, and the number of preachers per capita tripled. Western New York saw so many revivals and new sects, including Mormonism, that it became known as the "burned-over district" (see map).
'There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains greater influence over the souls of men than in America,' wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, and the remark has been cited many times since as a rebuke to people who prefer to see a secular morality prevail in American public life. It's true that the role of faith in the formation of American values can be underestimated by nonbelievers. But it's also the case that when de Tocqueville visited the United States, in 1831 and 1832, religious exuberance was at an unusual pitch. Even if de Tocqueville had not been the amazingly quick study he was, he could scarcely have missed it.
The Second Great Awakening, which had begun in New England at the turn of the century, had spread westward, spinning off denominations as it went. Between 1776 and 1845, the number of preachers per capita in the United States tripled. Methodism, in the eighteenth century an insignificant offshoot of Anglicanism, grew to become the largest church in the nation; Mormonism, the Disciples of Christ, Universalism, Adventism, Unitarianism, the many Baptist churches, and the African-American church, along with Transcendentalism and a number of spiritually-based humanitarian movements, including abolitionism, all emerged in the same period. It was a sectarian frenzy.
It was also, taken as a whole, a mass movement, and its tenor was populist. As Protestant revivalisms tend to be, it was pointedly anti-clerical, and it therefore mixed a great deal of popular superstition and folk therapeutics with traditional Christian mythology. From one point of view, the Second Great Awakening, which lasted from 1800 to the eve of the Civil War, was, as de Tocqueville interpreted it, a kind of democratization of European Christianity, a massive absorption into American popular culture of the Protestant spiritual impulse, stripped of most of its traditional hierarchies and formalities. But from another point of view, it was the last blast of supernaturalism before science superseded theology as the dominant discourse in American intellectual life.
For a dissolute young man looking to be struck by evangelical lightning in the 1830s, western New York State was the place to be. The spirit of revivalism had arrived there in the 1820s, and it persisted for so long and generated so many diverse sectarian waves that the region began to be called the 'Burned-over District' or, sometimes, the 'Infectious District'.
Rico says the only difference between the Second Great Awakening and the Middle East today is that they didn't carry Kalashnikovs...

History for the day

On 30 September 1938, British, French, German, and Italian leaders agreed at a meeting in Munich that Nazi Germany would be allowed to annex Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland.

Rico says yeah, and we all know how well that turned out...

Quote for the day

"It just boggles the imagination and is deeply destabilizing in terms of public confidence in the Secret Service and how it is carrying out its mission."

REPRESENTATIVE GERRY CONNOLLY, Democrat of Virginia, about security on the day an intruder entered the White House.

Rico says he wonders if they'd been happier if the Secret Service had just shot the poor sumbitch...


Rico says that his nocturnal schedule is now so synchronized with his cats (not a real photo of them, sorry, but similar), that they don't even have to stomp him to get up and feed them...

29 September 2014

A pilot’s view of New Zealand

Rico's friend Dave forwards a link to a splendid video about flying in New Zealand.

Married in Venice

Sam Frizell has a Time article about a celebrity wedding:
Hollywood’s most-eligible bachelor is officially a bachelor no more. George Clooney (photo, left) married the human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin (photo, right) in Venice, Italy, in a private ceremony. A brief statement from Clooney’s representative, Stan Rosenfeld, was the only communication on the marriage, which has seen a lot of hype, but few remarks from Clooney.
Clooney, 53, was joined by friends to celebrate his marriage to the 36-year-old Alamuddin at Aman, a luxury hotel overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice. Families and close friends, including Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and the Oscar-winner’s producing partner, Grant Heslov, were in attendance, according to People.
Clooney had managed to keep their courtship out of the spotlight until he shared the news of their wedding date on 7 September 2014.
The couple was married by close friend Walter Veltroni, who is the former mayor of Rome, Italy.
Rico says that his impending nuptials won't be covered in People...

Scotland vs. England

DelanceyPlace.com has a selection from A Short History of Europe by Gordon Kerr:
Only days ago, the citizens of Scotland came close to voting their independence from England and, with 45% of the vote cast for independence, the matter is still far from settled. Scotland has long bristled at its ties to England. It fought two nation-defining wars of independence against England, the first from 1296 to 1328 (in which William Wallace gained fame), and the second from 1332 to 1357, and retained its independence after each. However in 1603, James VI, the Stuart king of Scotland, whose family had ruled Scotland for almost two hundred years, was given the throne of England after a succession dispute since he was great-great-grandson of England's Henry VII. He immediately moved to England, the largest of his realms, only returning to Scotland once in 1617. He ruled as James I and is still famous for his sponsorship of the King James translation of the Bible. The Stuarts were enforcers of the state religion, the Anglican church, at a time when Protestantism was rising in both England and Scotland. The Stuart kings and queens ruled both independent kingdoms until the Act of Union in 1707 merged the two kingdoms into a new state, the Kingdom of Great Britain. The attempt of the Stuart king James II to reimpose Catholicism cost the Stuarts their dynasty:
For some monarchs, absolutist ambitions brought dire consequences. In the case of the Stuarts in England and Scotland, they resulted in revolution, execution and, ultimately, the end of their dynasty. The crowns of England and Scotland had been united in 1603 on the death of Elizabeth I, when James VI of Scotland was offered the throne and also became James I of England. His son, Charles I (who ruled from 1625 to 1649), made life and worship very difficult for the Protestants in Scotland and England; Presbyterians and Puritans, respectively. His ill-considered attempt to impose the Anglican Prayerbook on the Scots resulted in them invading England. Then, as he tried to get Parliament to pay for an army to fight the Scots, they rebelled, issuing the Grand Remonstrance against him, condemning the policy that had led to this situation. Bloody civil war broke out in 1642 and Parliamentary troops, mostly Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), defeated Charles at the Battles of Marston Moor in 1644 and Naseby in 1645. Charles I was eventually captured and executed in 1649. 
England became a republic for the only time in its history, with Oliver Cromwell as, effectively, head of state for the next eleven years. From 1653 to 1658, he was officially designated Lord Protector of England. On Cromwell's death, however, the Stuarts were restored in the shape of the former king's son, Charles II (who ruled from 1660 to 1685). When Charles died, his brother, James II (who ruled from 1685 to 1688) rapidly displayed that he had learned nothing from the problems encountered by their father. Indeed, he espoused the Catholic cause, and even showed signs of wanting to reign absolutely. It proved too much for the English, who deposed James in a bloodless coup known as the Glorious Revolution, and offered the throne to the Protestant Dutch aristocrat, William of Orange (who ruled from 1689 to 1702), James' son-in-law. In 1689, William and his wife, Mary (who ruled from 1689 to 1694), became King and Queen of Great Britain after their acceptance of a Bill of Rights that, amongst other things, made the monarch subservient to the law of the land. Britain's future as a constitutional monarchy was secure, and a model was created for the rest of Europe. 
Rico says he always remembered the line of succession as Jimmy, Charlie, Ollie, Charlie, Jimmy...

History for the day

On 29 September 1957, the New York Giants played their last game at the Polo Grounds, losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates 9-1. The Giants moved to San Francisco, California for the next season.

Apple for the day

The New York Times has an article by Paul Mozur and Shanshan Wang about Apple:
When Apple’s latest iPhones went on sale this month in Hong Kong, Singapore, and New York City, among the hip urbanites and tech-obsessed was another group clamoring for the devices: Chinese scalpers looking to make a premium by flipping the phones to smugglers.
But the gray market for the new iPhones has already dried up, even though they will not officially go on sale in China for a few weeks, at the earliest. Wholesalers who helped orchestrate the smuggling of tens of thousands of the phones into the country are now slashing prices to move inventory. At an electronics market in central Beijing, one retailer was recently selling the low-end iPhone 6 and 6 Plus for 6,500 renminbi to 8,800 renminbi ($1,060 to $1,436), down from 12,000 renminbi to 15,000 renminbi ($1,960 to $2,450) just after the release.
“Stocks of the iPhone 6 are way too high right now,” said one wholesaler of smuggled iPhones in Beijing’s northwestern tech hub, Zhongguancun.
Four years ago, the iPhone 4 was a status symbol, with the black market booming before the product was officially introduced. Today, the iPhone is simply one option among many, as local companies like Xiaomi and Meizu Technology rival Apple in terms of coolness ,while charging less than half the price.
A spokeswoman for Apple declined to comment on the smuggling.
The primary route the iPhones have taken into China is via Hong Kong, according to the wholesaler, who declined to be identified because of the illegality of some parts of the operations. Scalpers organize Hong Kong customers with local identity cards to preorder phones that the scalpers then collect outside the store, paying about $325 extra per phone. The phones are then smuggled to wholesalers in Guangdong, across the border from Hong Kong, and from there are shipped to cities across China.
When the prices were high, early last week, the wholesaler said he was making more than $163 per sale. But his profit margins have dissolved as prices have fallen. “This year the scalpers’ losses will be big,” he said.
China is a fast-growing market for Apple, which competes with Samsung for control in the high-end smartphone segment. In January of 2014, Apple brokered a long-delayed deal with the country’s largest telecom company, China Mobile, which has helped bolster sales. The largest smartphone market in the world, China accounted for 15.9 percent of Apple’s revenue in the last quarter.
The new models will help Apple solidify its position in the country. In China there are about fifty million iPhone users, according to Kitty Fok, a managing director of the research firm IDC. She estimates that the company will sell about four million phones a month, as customers swap their old iPhones for the new ones.
But both Apple and Samsung face stiff competition from local brands, which have been offering cheaper phones with high-end features. As Samsung’s sales slipped this year, the company was replaced by Xiaomi as the country’s largest smartphone maker, according to the market research firm Canalys.
“The local players aren’t only playing the price game,” Fok said. “They have products that cater to the local market, big screen sizes, optimized connectivity for China, and dual SIM cards.”
The Chinese government is not making things any easier. An intensifying crackdown on corruption in the country has led officials, who in the past were known to spend big on luxury products like iPhones, to tamp down on lavish purchases. The government has also signaled that it would take measures to curb government reliance on electronics made by foreign companies, after disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden about United States government surveillance. In a statement issued this month, Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, said the company had never cooperated with the government of any country to provide access to customer data.
At a conference this month, Wei Jianguo, the director general of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, said that the Shanghai government had told its employees to use Huawei phones instead of phones produced by Apple or Samsung, according to a transcript posted on the news portal Sohu, one of the sponsors of the event.
Three government officials in Shanghai and Beijing said they had not heard about any formal notice to stop using foreign phones and said many in their departments still used iPhones. One of the officials in Beijing, however, said people in his office refrained from bringing in Apple computers or iPads, because they are a more conspicuous display of wealth.
Out of the gate, Apple is already a step behind with the iPhone 6. Last year, the company released the latest model in China at the same time it did in the United States, Japan, and parts of Europe. This year, the release has been delayed as Apple awaits government approval, an often slow and unpredictable process.
The iPhone 6 is likely to get the final license before China’s National Day celebrations on 1 October 2014, according to a person with knowledge of the plans who works for one of China’s state-owned telecom providers. If that happens, the new models will most likely begin selling in China a few weeks later. The delay gives the smugglers a bit more time to get rid of their stock.
The recent scene at the electronics market in Beijing— a multistory mall crowded with stalls of vendors selling everything from calculators and hard drives to surveillance cameras and smartphones— was not encouraging. Only a few customers browsed in the narrow walkways. No stalls openly displayed the new iPhones. On request, the vendors could procure the devices from a wholesaler. One vendor said the market for the phones was far worse than in past years but said he hoped a new crackdown on smuggling by customs officers would help push their price back up.
In recent days, Hong Kong’s marine police have played a cat-and-mouse game with smugglers who use speedboats to take iPhones into China. Recently, the police ran off several men in a mangrove swamp loading boxes of iPhones into a flat wooden boat that would ferry them out to a nearby speedboat. They seized three hundred iPhones, according to a statement from Hong Kong customs. In other instances, customs has found hundreds of phones concealed in the axles of trucks and in hidden compartments in cars.
A report from China’s state-run Xinhua news service said the government would auction off two thousand iPhone 6s it had seized in the southern city of Shenzhen.
The vendor at the electronics market said that one way smugglers skirted the stricter enforcement was to walk the phones across the border two at a time. Usually those crossing the border take the phones out of the packaging to convince customs officials that the phones are their own, he said.
Tearing off the plastic on what appeared to be an unopened iPhone 6, he showed how the screen was already dotted with the fingerprints of whoever brought it into China. “Right now, at our market, you won’t find a phone that is actually in its original packaging,” he said.
Rico says he's just as happy to be able to walk into an Apple Store and buy one...

More Apple for the day

The BBC has an article about Apple in Ireland:
The European Commission will set out its case soon against Apple's tax arrangements in Ireland. The report is part of a broader EU investigation into tax policies in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The Commission is examining whether these countries have unfairly favoured multinational companies including Apple, Fiat, and Starbucks.
The EU will make its case that Apple's tax arrangements with Dublin amount to illegal state aid. The Commission will also outline its reasons for launching an investigation into Fiat Finance and Trade, which is resident for tax purposes in Luxembourg.
The Commission will argue that backroom tax deals it believes were struck between Apple and the Irish government and Fiat and the Luxembourg government could constitute a breach of EU regulations on state aid.
"Ireland is confident that there is no breach of state aid rules in this case, and has already issued a formal response to the Commission earlier this month, addressing in detail the concerns and some misunderstandings contained in the opening decision," Ireland's Department of Finance said.
Ireland's corporate tax rate is set at 12.5%, but Apple enjoys an effective rate of tax of 2%, due to the way it channels overseas sales through its subsidiaries.
Ireland's flexible approach to tax is designed to attract investment and jobs to the country. But other European countries say their treasuries lose out, as corporations funnel profits through Irish-registered companies that are not resident for tax anywhere.
Apple has denied that the company agreed any special tax arrangements with Dublin.
"There's never been anything that would be construed as state aid," Apple's chief financial officer, Luca Maestri, told the Financial Times newspaper. Apple says it pays all the tax it owes.
Under EU law, state financing for individual companies is heavily restricted. However, previously, tax arrangements have not been considered. In June of 2014, when the Commission announced it would be conducting in-depth investigations into Fiat's tax affairs in Luxembourg, Starbucks' in the Netherlands, and Apple's in Ireland, Joaquin Almunia, vice-president for competition policy, said state aid rules should be applied to taxation. "Under the EU's state-aid rules, national authorities cannot take measures allowing certain companies to pay less tax than they should if the tax rules of the member state were applied in a fair and non-discriminatory way," he said.
When the inquiry was first announced in June of 2014, Apple said: "We have received no selective treatment from Irish officials. Apple is subject to the same tax laws as scores of other international companies doing business in Ireland."
Commission spokesman Antoine Columbani confirmed that the outline of the case against Ireland's tax policy towards Apple would be made public soon. "The decision will set out the Commission's reasons for opening an in-depth investigation," he said.
Following publication in the Commission's Official Journal in a few weeks' time, interested parties will have one month to submit responses. Once the Commission has reached a judgement, the EU has the right to recover illegally granted state aid from the company in question. This could amount to billions of euros, if Apple is found to have received benefits it was not entitled to.
The EU's move comes as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development begins a broader crackdown on aggressive tax avoidance by multinational companies.
Rico says he enjoyed his few visits to Apple in Ireland; a great bunch of folks. (And if you think Apple did not go to Ireland because of the tax benefits, then, as Tim, an old Apple Ireland hand, used to say, "yer smokin' yer own dope"...)

‘Yes Means Yes’

Time has an article from The Associated Press about the latest law from California:
Governor Jerry Brown announced recently that he has signed a bill that makes California the first in the nation to define when “yes means yes” and adopt requirements for colleges to follow when investigating sexual assault reports.
State lawmakers last month approved SB967 by Senator Kevin de Leon, a Democrat from Los Angeles, as states and universities across the US are under pressure to change how they handle rape allegations. Campus sexual assault victims and women’s advocacy groups delivered petitions to Brown’s office on 16 September 2014, urging him to sign the bill.
De Leon has said the legislation will begin a paradigm shift in how college campuses in California prevent and investigate sexual assaults. Rather than using the refrain “no means no”, the definition of consent under the bill requires “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity”.
“Every student deserves a learning environment that is safe and healthy,” De Leon said in a statement. “The State of California will not allow schools to sweep rape cases under the rug. We’ve shifted the conversation regarding sexual assault to one of prevention, justice, and healing.”
The legislation says silence or lack of resistance does not constitute consent. Under the bill, someone who is drunk, drugged, unconscious, or asleep cannot grant consent.
Lawmakers say consent can be nonverbal, and universities with similar policies have outlined examples as a nod of the head or moving in closer to the person.
Advocates for victims of sexual assault supported the change as one that will provide consistency across campuses and challenge the notion that victims must have resisted assault to have valid complaints.
“This is amazing,” said Savannah Badalich, a student at UCLA, where classes begin this week, and the founder of the group 7000 in Solidarity. “It’s going to educate an entire new generation of students on what consent is and what consent is not… that the absence of a no is not a yes.”
The bill requires training for faculty reviewing complaints so that victims are not asked inappropriate questions when filing complaints. The bill also requires access to counseling, health care services and other resources.
When lawmakers were considering the bill, critics said it was overreaching and sends universities into murky legal waters. Some Republicans in the Assembly questioned whether statewide legislation is an appropriate venue to define sexual consent between two people. There was no opposition from Republicans in the state Senate.
Gordon Finley, an adviser to the National Coalition for Men, wrote an editorial asking that Brown not sign the bill. He argued that “this campus rape crusade bill” presumes the guilt of the accused.
SB967 applies to all California post-secondary schools, public and private, that receive state money for student financial aid. The California State University and University of California systems are backing the legislation, after adopting similar consent standards this year.
UC President Janet Napolitano recently announced that the system will voluntarily establish an independent advocate to support sexual assault victims on every campus. An advocacy office also is a provision of the federal Survivor Outreach and Support Campus Act proposed by Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Susan Davis of San Diego, both Democrats.
Rico says it's been a long time coming...

28 September 2014

International scam for the day

From: inoussakabre@ig.com.br
Date: September 28, 2014 at 17:29:57 EDT
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Subject: My Dear Friend


My Dear Friend

Contact Me To My Private Email Address inoussakabre@rediffmail.com

I am working with one of the prime bank here in Burkina Faso, can you help me repatriate the sun of 6.2 million dollar to your oversea account based on percentage.


Your Name...
Private Telephone...

I expect your urgent response if you can handle this project.

Mr Inoussa Kabre.



An 'invisibility cloak' to rival Harry Potter's

Caurie Putnam has a Yahoo News article about science mimicking the movies:
Watch out Harry Potter, you are not the only wizard with an invisibility cloak.
Scientists at the University of Rochester have discovered a way to hide large objects from sight using inexpensive and readily available lenses, a technology that seems to have sprung from the pages of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter fantasy series.
Cloaking is the process by which an object becomes hidden from view, while everything else around the cloaked object appears undisturbed. "A lot of people have worked on a lot of different aspects of optical cloaking for years," John Howell, a professor of physics at the upstate New York school, said recently.
The so-called Rochester Cloak is not really a tangible cloak at all. Rather the device looks like equipment used by an optometrist. When an object is placed behind the layered lenses, it seems to disappear. Previous cloaking methods have been complicated, expensive, and not able to hide objects in three dimensions when viewed at varying angles, they say. "From what we know, this is the first cloaking device that provides three-dimensional, continuously multidirectional cloaking," said Joseph Choi, a graduate student who helped develop the method at Rochester, which is renowned for its optical research.
In their tests, the researchers have cloaked a hand, a face, and a ruler, making each object appear "invisible" while the image behind the hidden object remains in view. The implications for the discovery are endless, they say. "I imagine this could be used to cloak a trailer on the back of a semi-truck so the driver can see directly behind him," Choi said. "It can be used for surgery, in the military, in interior design, and art."
Howell said the Rochester Cloak, like the fictitious cloak described in the pages of the Harry Potter series, causes no distortion of the background object.
Building the device does not break the bank either: it cost Howell and Choi a little over a thousand dollars in materials to create it, and they believe it can be done even cheaper.
Although a patent is pending, they have released simple instructions on how to create a Rochester Cloak at home for under a hundred dollars.
There is also a one-minute video about the project on YouTube:

Rico says if you want to see behind your semi, it'd be a lot easier to just mount a television camera on the back of the load...

History for the day

On 28 September 1924, two United States Army planes landed in Seattle, Washington, having completed the first round-the-world flight in 175 days.

It is good to be the prince, especially in Hawai'i

The New York Times has an article by Jon Mooallem about real wealth:
Larry Ellison Bought an Island in Hawai'i. Now What?How the tech billionaire came to own 87,000 acres, three hotels, a wastewater-treatment plant, a cemetery, and 380 cats.
Rico says the cats were extra...

Apple for the day

The New York Times has an admonitory article by Jeff Sommer about the new iPhone 6:
$199 Apple iPhone 6 Is Fiction, if Not Fantasy
Investors as well as consumers might want to look closely at the purchase plans that carriers are offering for Apple's new iPhone 6.
Rico says he hasn't seen the two-hundred dollar offer, but that would be tempting...

Land grab

The New York Times has an article by Andrew Higgins about an unlikely real estate deal:
A Chinese businessman with deep pockets is looking to buy land in Norway, creating a frenzy of speculation about moves by China to gain a permanent foothold in the Arctic.
Rico says it's a damn shame we let them go capitalist...

27 September 2014

More Apple for the day

Time has an article by Alex Fitzpatrick about Apple's 'problems' with the new iPhone:
Apple's stock is recovering after it took a sub-$100 dip on reports of a faulty software update and bendable hardware. After launching two new iPhones and a new mobile operating system, iOS 8, last week, Apple had a rough few days. Sure, it sold a record ten million of its new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus models over the weekend, setting them up to be its most successful phones ever. But no company can escape the headaches that come with almost every new launch, and Apple had three problems marring an otherwise spectacular introduction.
First, iOS 8, Apple’s new mobile operating system, inexplicably launched late last week without promised apps that used a health and fitness feature called HealthKit. Then, early this week, reports flew around social media and tech blogs showing the iPhone 6 Plus, the big granddaddy of the two iPhone 6 models, was easy to bend; some people claimed the phone bent when sitting in their pockets for extended periods, others bent the phones on purpose to prove it was possible, and everybody loved calling the whole thing “bendgazi.” Finally, Apple quickly rolled out an iOS 8 update intended to fix that HealthKit problem and other minor issues, only to quickly pull it after users complained the update had caused their iPhones to lose the ability to make phone calls.
“We are actively investigating these reports and will provide information as quickly as we can,” an Apple spokesperson told several tech blogs in a rare public statement about the iOS 8 update problems. Several days later, Apple rolled out iOS 8.0.2, which took care of the bugs iOS 8.0.1 was supposed to fix, plus patched up the brand-new bugs that update introduced. Apple later said only about forty thousand of the millions of iPhones out there in the world were affected by the iOS 8 update problems. Still, the company apologized “for the great inconvenience experienced by users” related to the issue.
While initially mum on the bending issue, late this week Apple said only a small handful of iPhone users formally complained about bent devices. Still, in a rare move, it decided to lift the veil on on its testing process, showing the world the rigorous quality control testing it conducts on every new device. That’s the latest sign the typically tight-lipped Apple is opening up: Apple also recently directly addressed an iCloud security flaw that led to the exposure of celebrities’ nude photos. Those minor moves toward transparency show an Apple that’s taking a different tack from years prior; back in 2010, late CEO Steve Jobs infamously made a non-apology apology for an iPhone 4 problem that prevented the device from making calls when it was held a certain way. While Apple acknowledged the issue and sent customers a special “bumper” case to fix it, Jobs still said the problem had been “blown so out of proportion it’s incredible”. That’s not the kind of language we’re hearing from the company under Cook, who also issued a public apology after the company replaced the widely-liked Google Maps app with its own Apple Maps back in 2012, a move met with much scorn from users and tech writers.
Even still , Apple investors initially balked at the news of the update problems and bending issues, sending the company’s stock dipping below $98 by Thursday’s closing bell. That’s a decent little dip for the world’s most cash-rich company, but there isn’t much reason to fret. Apple is still selling its new iPhones hand over fist, and it appears poised to sell its upcoming Apple Watch hand over wrist in just a few months. The company may have a little headache now, but it’s got plenty of aspirin in the medicine cabinet. Indeed, by the end of the day on Friday, it seemed Wall Street had gotten over it: Apple climbed nearly three percent on the week’s last day of trading action, ending back above $100.
Rico says we should all have such problems...

History for the day

On 27 September 1964, the Warren Commission issued a report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

Nine myths about ISIS

Rico's friend Kelley forwards this Vox article by Zack Beauchamp about ISIS:
Myth Number One: ISIS is crazy and irrational
If you want to understand the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, the first thing you have to know about them is that they are not crazy. Murderous adherents to a violent medieval ideology, sure. But not insane.
Look at the history of ISIS' rise in Iraq and Syria. From the mid-2000s through today, ISIS and its predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, have had one clear goal: to establish a caliphate governed by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law. ISIS developed strategies for accomplishing that goal; for instance, exploiting popular discontent among non-extremist Sunni Iraqis with their Shia-dominated government. Its tactics have evolved over the course of time in response to military defeats (as in 2008 in Iraq) and new opportunities (the Syrian civil war). As Yale University political scientist Stathis Kalyvas explains, in pure strategic terms, ISIS is acting similarly to revolutionary militant groups around the world, not in an especially crazy or uniquely Islamist way.
The point is that, while individual members of ISIS show every indication of espousing a crazed ideology and committing psychopathically violent acts, in the aggregate ISIS acts as a rational strategic enterprise. Their violence is, in broad terms, not random, it is targeted to weaken their enemies and strengthen ISIS' hold on territory, in part by terrorizing the people it wishes to rule over.
Understanding that ISIS is at least on some level rational is necessary to make any sense of the group's behavior. If all ISIS wanted to was kill infidels, why would they ally themselves with ex-Saddam Sunni secularist militias? If ISIS were totally crazy, how could they build a self-sustaining revenue stream from oil and organized crime rackets? If ISIS only cared about forcing people to obey Islamic law, why would they have sponsored children's festivals and medical clinics in the Syrian territory they control? (To be clear, it is not out of their love for children, whom they are also happy to murder, but a calculated desire to establish control.)
This isn't to minimize ISIS' barbarity. They've launched genocidal campaigns against Iraq's Yazidis and Christians. They've slaughtered thousands of innocents, Shia and Sunni alike. But they pursue these horrible ends deliberately and strategically. And that's what really makes them scary. 
Myth Number Two: People support ISIS because they like its radical form of Islam
You have probably heard that ISIS has a degree of popular support among some Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Muslims. That's true: without it, the group would collapse. People sometimes assume that this says something about Islam itself: that the religion is intrinsically violent, or that Sunnis would support the group because they accept ISIS' radical interpretation of the Quran.
That's all wrong, and misses one of the most crucial points about ISIS: the foundation of its power comes from politics, not religion.
Let's be clear: virtually all Muslims reject ISIS' view of their faith. Poll after poll shows that violent Islamist extremism, and especially al-Qaeda, are deeply unpopular in Muslim-majority countries. The bulk of ISIS' victims are Muslims, many of them Sunnis (ISIS is itself Sunni). A popular revolt among Iraqi Sunnis, beginning around 2006, played a huge role in defeating ISIS' predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq. That revolt was inspired, at least in part, by anger at ISIS' attempt to impose its vision of Islam on Muslims who disagree.
ISIS' vision of Muslim life is pretty alien to actual Islamic tradition. Fundamentalist Islam— like most religious fundamentalisms— is a modern phenomenon. Fundamentalist groups, frustrated with modern politics, harken back to an idealized Islamic past that never actually existed. The al-Qaeda strain of violent radicalism owes more to twentieth century writers like Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb than the actual post-Muhammed caliphate.
So if Sunnis disagree with ISIS' theology, and don't like living under its rule, why do some of them seem to support ISIS? It's all about politics. Both Syria and Iraq have Shia governments. Sunni Muslims aren't well-represented in either system, and are often actively repressed. Legitimate dissent is often met with violence: Bashar al-Assad gunned down protesters in the streets during the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reacted violently to a 2013 Sunni protest movement as well.
So Sunnis understandably feel oppressed and out of options. Some, then, seem to be willing to wait and see if life under their fellow Sunnis in ISIS is any worse than it was before. ISIS, for its part, appears to be attempting to exploit this concern: that's why it's set up community, child-care, and medical services in some of the Sunni communities it controls.
That doesn't mean ISIS is morally better than Assad or Maliki: the group is still hyper-violent and genocidal. It's just that outreach to Sunnis is part of their politico-military strategy. 
Myth Number Three: ISIS is part of al-Qaeda
The key thing to understand about ISIS and al-Qaeda is that they are competitors, not allies, and certainly not part of the same larger group. ISIS used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the group split apart from al-Qaeda in February of 2014 because it wouldn't listen to al-Qaeda HQ's commands, including orders to curtail its violence against civilians. (That's right: it was too violent for al-Qaeda.) This ISIS-al-Qaeda divorce is a key reason why ISIS is so unremittingly violent, yet many people still lump the two groups together.
For years, al-Qaeda was the clear leader of the global jihadist movement. The loose network of militant groups, internet forums, and "lone wolf" individuals saw al-Qaeda as the gold standard, and many pledged allegiance to it or established some kind of junior-partner working relationship.
When ISIS broke off, it upended everything. By taking a chunk of territory the size of Belgium in the heart of the Arab world, ISIS had come much closer to the end-goal of an Islamic caliphate than al-Qaeda ever had. All of a sudden, it didn't seem so clear that Islamist groups around the world should pledge themselves to al-Qaeda. ISIS fought openly with Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and outperformed it on the battlefield. Today, ISIS controls far more territory in Syria than does Jabhat.
This ideological competition drives ISIS to be more violent. "They're in competition with al-Qaeda, and they want to be the leader," says JM Berger, the editor of Intelwire and an expert on violent extremism. According to Berger, one way they do that is by broadcasting images of their military prowess worldwide. In the sick, screwed up world of Islamic extremism, images of massacres are a show of strength.
When ISIS executed American journalist James Foley and put the video on YouTube, or when it declared its intention to wipe out Iraq's Christians and Yazidis, it's not doing it just because they can, although among individual militants indulging a sick desire is certainly part of it. At a broader level, this part of ISIS' plan to beat al-Qaeda and spread the ISIS brand globally.
The worst part is that there's some evidence this plan is working. Even before ISIS' rapid advance in June of 2014, ISIS was wresting groups in Tunisia and Libya away from al-Qaeda's allegiance to their own. There have been ISIS-linked suicide bombings as far afield as Malaysia. 
Myth Number Four: ISIS is a Syrian rebel group
It is true that ISIS opposes Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria, and the two constantly fight one another in Syria. But calling ISIS a "Syrian rebel group" misses two critical facts about ISIS. First, it's a transnational organization, not rooted in any one country, with lots of fighters who come from outside the country and are motivated by global jihadist aims as well as the Syrian war specifically. Second, Assad and ISIS are not-so-secretly helping each other out in some crucial ways, even as they fight. ISIS and Assad are frenemies, not full-on opponents.
For one thing, ISIS predated the Syrian civil war. It started as al-Qaeda in Iraq in the mid-2000s and, after that group was defeated by Iraqi and American forces around 2008, reformed in the same country. Between 2008 and 2011, ISIS rebuilt itself out of former prisoners and  ex-Saddam-era Iraqi army officers. ISIS did not grow out of the Syrian rebellion: it took advantage of it.
Now, it's true the war in Syria benefitted ISIS tremendously. It allowed ISIS to get battlefield experience, attracted a ton of financial support from Gulf states and private donors looking to oust Assad, and a crucial safe haven in eastern Syria. ISIS also absorbed a lot of recruits from Syrian rebel groups— illustrating, incidentally, why arming the "good" Syrian rebels probably wouldn't have destroyed ISIS.
In a weird way, this has all benefitted Assad. The Syrian dictator has vigorously pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy during the war. He's tried hard to push the sectarian angle of the civil war, making it into a life-or-death struggle for his Alawite (Shia) and Christian supporters against the Sunni majority. ISIS' extremism has helped convince Alawites that defecting the rebels means the destruction of their homes and communities.
And Assad has also used ISIS to divide his other opponents: the moderate Free Syrian Army, other Islamist groups, and the United States. One way he's done that is by focusing Syria's military efforts on the moderate Syrian rebels, leaving ISIS relatively unscathed. By allowing ISIS and other Islamist groups to become stronger at the expensive of other rebels, Assad made it much harder for the US to intervene against him without benefitting the rebels. And ISIS and moderate rebels have begun fighting against one another, further dividing the war in a way that's beneficial to Assad.
In essence, Assad and ISIS seem to have made an implicit deal: ISIS temporarily gets a relatively free ride in some chunks of Syria, while Assad gets to weaken his other opponents. The two sides still hate each other, but both benefit from the status quo. 
Myth Number Five: ISIS is only strong because of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki
There's a theory that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is solely, or mainly, responsible for ISIS' resurgence in 2014. It's true that Maliki's policies enabled ISIS' rise. But blaming him alone misses the real drivers of sectarianism in Iraq, and the complicated, multi-faceted sources of support ISIS enjoys.
Maliki did a number of things that unintentionally enabled ISIS' rise. He used Iraq's counterterrorism laws to imprison Sunni dissenters. He exploited laws that prohibit Saddam-era officials from holding office (a number of those officials had been Sunni) to boot Sunnis out of the upper echelons of the government and military. He arrested peaceful Sunni protestors, and aligned himself with non-governmental Shia militias that had slaughtered Sunnis during the post-invasion civil war. And that's only a partial list of Maliki policies that turned Sunnis against the Iraqi central government, and thus toward ISIS.
But it is simply incorrect to assign most of the blame for ISIS' rise to Maliki. For one thing, Sunni anger at Iraq's government, a quasi-democracy that empowers the Shia majority, runs much deeper than this one man. "Even if Maliki weren't in power, there are some Sunni grievances that any Shia government would have problems with," Kirk Sowell, a risk consultant and full-time Iraq watcher, says.
To take one example, many Sunnis wrongly believe that they're the largest demographic group in Iraq. This belief, spread during Saddam's time to justify Sunni minority rule, leads Sunnis to see any government they don't head up as fundamentally unjust. Neither Maliki nor his also-Shia successor, current Prime Minister-delegate Haider al-Abadi, can fix that.
More to the point, ISIS isn't just an Iraqi problem. Its base in Syria today is just as, if not more, important than the land it controls in Iraq. They've gotten funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, and wink-wink-nudge-nudge help from Syria's Bashar al-Assad.
The really important takeaway here is that Maliki's political defeat does not mean ISIS will wither away, nor that Baghdad political reforms could solve this problem alone. The Abadi government will need to undertake deep, structural reforms if it wants to address Sunni grievances. The Sunni community will have to reject ISIS and come to terms with the Shia majority. And even if all of that happens, ISIS will still have its base in Syria. 
Myth Number Six: ISIS is afraid of female soldiers
A bizarre meme going around claims that ISIS is really afraid of fighting all-female Kurdish military units. The theory is that ISIS fighters believe that if a woman kills you, you don't get to go to Paradise.
The truth is that ISIS' approach to women is much more complicated— and troubling— than Western stereotypes about Islamists would suggest. ISIS has its own female brigades, and the group uses them to enforce its deeply misogynistic ideology.
The "ISIS is afraid of female fighters" theory comes from a stray quote in a Wall Street Journal piece about Kurdish advances against ISIS. It quotes a female Kurdish soldier as saying "the jihadists don't like fighting women, because if they're killed by a female, they think they won't go to heaven." Note that it's not an ISIS fighter, a scholar, or necessarily someone who's interrogated an ISIS fighter: just a random Kurdish soldier, who may not be super-familiar with ISIS' ideology.
What we actually know about ISIS' approach to women, however, paints a rather different picture. ISIS has all-female battalions, called al-Khansa'a and Umm al-Rayan, that operate in Syria. ISIS female fighters wear full burqas and carry rifles; they exist to force other women to comply with ISIS' vision of sharia law. "ISIS created them to terrorize women," Abu al-Hamza, a local, media activist, said in an interview.
ISIS' use of women is part of a rising trend of jihadist women claiming roles in violent Islamic extremist groups. "There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited and morbid one," Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on violent Islamism at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, told The Atlantic. "Many of them are eager to portray themselves as strong women, and often make fun of the Western stereotype of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman.'"
ISIS is dedicated to oppressing women, and uses rape as a weapon to terrify the population into submission in territory it controls. Somehow, perversely, it has managed to enlist large numbers of women to help in that awful effort. 
Myth Number Seven: The US can destroy ISIS
You've probably heard it a million times: if only the United States stepped up its bombing campaign in Iraq, launched a combing campaign in Syria, or did more to help moderate Syrian rebels, it could destroy ISIS. In fact, the administration's big new escalation in Syria and Iraq is explicitly aimed at destroying ISIS.
The reality, however, is disappointing: there is no magic American bullet that could fix the ISIS problem. Even an intensive, decades-long American ground effort— something that is politically not on the table— might only make the problem worse. The reason is that ISIS' presence in Iraq and Syria is fundamentally a political problem, not a military one.
American aircraft are very good at hitting ISIS targets out in the open: on roads or in the desert, for example. That's why US air support was extremely effective in clearing a path for Kurdish and Iraqi forces to retake the Mosul dam in mid-August of 2014.
But American airpower is much less useful in dense urban combat, where it's also likely to cause unacceptable amounts of civilian casualties. In response to a stepped-up American bombing campaign, ISIS could hunker down in fortified city positions. That would force the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces to engage in bloody street-to-street combat. Historically, the Iraqi army has a bad track record in those fights. It spent a good chunk of early 2014 trying to dislodge ISIS from Fallujah, a city near Baghdad. It failed to permanently push them out, and killed a lot of Sunni civilians in the process.
What if the US also stepped up its campaign in Syria, arming the Syrian rebels and bombing ISIS positions? A pretty comprehensive review of research on arming rebels, by George Washington University's Marc Lynch, suggests that wouldn't have helped even back at the beginning of the civil war. The "moderate" Syrian rebels are too diffuse, and fighters shift in and out of alliances with ISIS and other radical Islamists.
The US plan to intervene in Syria against ISIS today short of a full invasion requires enlisting either Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who benefits from ISIS' existence, or the moderate Syrian rebels, who are disorganized and hard-pressed by Assad already, to coordinate a major offensive. That seems improbable, to say the least.
Even if the United States reinvaded Iraq to destroy ISIS— which there is no indication it would do— there's no guarantee that even this would succeed. The United States did defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq in the late-2000s, but it had lots of Iraqi help. The Bush administration's 2007 troop surge would have failed if the Sunni population wasn't already turning against al-Qaeda there.
"I take the somewhat modest position that the action of six million Iraqis may be more important than those of thirty thousand American troops and one very talented general," Doug Ollivant, the National Security Adviser for Iraq from 2005 to 2009, told me. Without changing Sunni views of ISIS and the Iraqi government, a stepped-up US ground presence might only further infuriate the Sunni population.
The key structural causes of ISIS' rise, the multi-sided Syrian war and Iraqi sectarian tension, cannot be solved by American bombs alone. The US can block ISIS' advances in some places, as it is doing in Iraqi Kurdistan, but eliminating ISIS is outside its power. 
Myth Number Eight: ISIS will self-destruct on its own
You occasionally hear, especially from supporters of the Obama administration's cautious policy, that ISIS will eventually destroy itself. ISIS' view of Islamic law is so harsh that no population would want to live under it for long, so a Sunni revolt against ISIS is inevitable. And ISIS will overreach: its desire to expand to new territory exceeds its actual military power, meaning that a devastating counterattack is inevitable.
This is certainly possible. But ISIS is not headed in that direction yet. That's because ISIS is both smarter and stronger than many people give it credit for.
ISIS learned from the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq, its predecessor group. Though ISIS still insists on imposing its extremist interpretation of Islamic law in the territory it controls, it also sets up institutions that look a lot like a proto-government. They've installed health care clinics, run public forums where ISIS operatives socialize with adults, held activities for children, policed neighborhoods, and collected taxes. 
Myth Number Nine: ISIS is invincible
Reading the news of ISIS' conquests in Iraq and Syria, and even its recent foray into Lebanon, you might get the sense that ISIS is unstoppable, that it'll sweep Iraq, and really, truly, establish an extremist Islamic state in Iraq and eastern Syria.
This isn't true. ISIS is smarter and more effective than it used to be, and it's too strong to collapse on its own, but it's still quite vulnerable. The Iraqi government, with Kurdish and American help, really could make major inroads against ISIS.
In June of 2014, when ISIS was sweeping Iraq, there were panicked predictions that Baghdad was about to fall to ISIS' advance. It didn't. ISIS didn't even try to take the city, likely because it knew it couldn't dislodge the huge concentrations of Iraqi troops there, or hold a majority-Shia city that would never accept it.
Iraqi demographics place a natural limit on ISIS' advance. Even high-end estimates of ISIS' strength, some fifty thousand troops, make it much smaller than the Iraqi army or Kurdish peshmerga. It'd be impossible for ISIS to take and hold majority Shia areas, where they'd be totally unable to build popular support. The Islamic State's borders in Iraq are limited to northern and western, Arab-majority, Sunni-majority Iraq.
That's a damning problem for ISIS. All of the major oil wells, which provide 95 percent of Iraq's GDP, are in southern Iraq or Kurdish-held territory in the northeast. ISIS can't advance on the Shia south, and a joint US-Kurdish campaign is reversing its gains in Kurdistan. ISIS has huge financial reserves for a militant group, maybe up to a billion dollars. But that's a relatively small amount for a government, and any attempt to actually govern northwestern Iraq in the long run would lead to economic disaster.
"It'd be a permanent downward economic spiral, like Gaza, basically," Kirk Sowell, a risk analyst and Iraq expert, says. An ISIS mini-state is just not sustainable.
When you pair the inevitable economic crisis in ISIS-held Iraq with ISIS' brutal legal system, it seems like Sunnis will eventually tire of the group. That discontent may not be enough on its own to end the group's rule, especially if it still believes the Iraqi central government would be worse for them. But it creates an opening for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reach out to disaffected Sunnis. He might be able to make allies among Sunni tribal militias.
Meanwhile, ISIS may alienate some its core Iraqi allies: militias who support a Saddam-style Sunni dictatorship. They're generally secular and no fans of ISIS' vision of Islamic law, and are only allied with it to fight the government. If ISIS' Sunni allies turn against it, and the government does a better job making its rule look attractive, ISIS may lose the Sunni population and most of its gains in northern Iraq. Again, that's not inevitable, and will require some tough political changes in Baghdad, but the point is that ISIS is far from invincible.
ISIS' hold in Syria, though, would be much, much harder to dislodge. It's hard to imagine either Assad or moderate anti-Assad rebels mounting an effective military campaign against ISIS in the near term. But rolling back ISIS in Iraq, and containing it to Syria, would be a major victory, though an incomplete one as it would leave ISIS with a chunk of Syria. Still, this would limit the group's reach in the Middle East and blunt its global appeal. And when Syria's civil war finally does end, whenever that happens, eliminating ISIS will be the winning side's first priority.
Rico says this shit is a long way from over...

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