Wednesday, February 26

Idlib: Erdogan blusters, Assad slogs on.

[Pundita Editorial Comment: sigh.]

"We’re the hosts there." Erdogan says Turkey won’t pull back from Syria’s sovereign territory, gives Assad ultimatum to retreat
26 Feb, 2020 11:28 / Updated 3 hours ago

Reiterating his usual rhetoric on Syria, the Turkish leader has ruled out withdrawal from Idlib, where his forces back rebels fighting the government. He also gave Damascus some time to retreat beyond Turkey’s observation posts.

“We will not step back in Idlib. We are not the guests in this realm, we are the hosts,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a meeting of his AK party on Wednesday. Vowing to bring “the regime’s attacks” to an end, Erdogan said Ankara is giving Damascus time to pull forces back from Turkish observation posts, but that time “is expiring at the end of the month.”

Erdogan said he'd tried to secure Donald Trump's support before gettig tough on Idlib, “but there is no support yet.” He said: “It seems that we will have another meeting this time.”

Situated in Syria’s northwest, Idlib is the last remaining bastion of anti-government rebels and Islamist militants, who have held grip over the province since as early as 2011.

Hostilities escalated dramatically in recent weeks as the Syrian military renewed its offensive in an effort to capture strategic towns in the province and unlock the M4 highway connecting Aleppo – once Syria’s second most populated city – to other parts of the country.

Damascus’ push prompted Turkish military to deploy thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tanks in order to reinforce their militant allies battling Bashar Assad, while also accusing Syrian troops of bombing civilians and shelling its soldiers.

Meanwhile, Ankara has demanded that Russia pressure Assad into bringing his operation in Idlib to a halt.

However, Moscow insists that the Syrian army is acting within its own territory and has every right to restore sovereignty and quell Islamist insurgency; it also insisted that Turkey failed to separate the 'moderate opposition' from the terrorists – a key provision under the 2018 Sochi accord, which set out several “de-escalation zones” across Idlib.



Tuesday, February 25

Melania in India

Casting rose petals in honor of Gandhi.


Monday, February 24

So how's your immune system holding up these days?

Quote from a Reuters report today headlined Battle against coronavirus turns to Italy; Wall Street falls on pandemic fears.  
"Liang Wannian of China's National Health Commission said while the rapid rise had been halted [in China], the situation was still grim. He said over 3,000 medical staff had become infected, most in Hubei province surrounding Wuhan, probably due to the lack of protective gear and fatigue."
I note that the World Health Organization's list for the public of Basic protective measures against the new coronavirus doesn't include avoiding fatigue. It's only in the section "How to cope with stress during 2019-nCoV outbreak" that WHO gets around to mentioning the need for enough sleep in the context of maintaining a "healthy lifestyle," including 'proper diet, sleep, exercise, and social contacts' to cope with the stress of worrying about 2019-nCoV.


Sunday, February 23

Fingers crossed

Only time to post this blurb from MoA today, posted at 14:19 UTC:
An hour ago the Russian air force bombed a convoy of Jihadis and Turkish soldiers near Jabal al Zawiyah. Syrian artillery fired on another Turkish convoy. There were Turkish casualties in both incidents. Erdogan can do nothing about it except to order his troops to retreat.

So here's hoping Turks will back off.  

More later tonight or tomorrow. 

Thursday, February 20

What if it's the other way around? Soy oil first, then heavy computer use?

The general view is that heavy use of computers contributes to emotional distancing, difficulty with establishing and maintaining personal relationships. But heavy use of something else may do the same. That would be soybean oil. 
A scientific study, published in January, found that soybean oil has profound negative effects on the hypothalamus of male mice. (The researchers didn't study female mice but are probably doing so as I write these words.) The hypothalamus regulates mood and behavior.

If you think, 'That's just mice," think twice. Mice make a good substitute for human subjects in such research.

Science writer Peter Andrews, who has a degree in genetics,  outlined the horrifying discovery of the researchers in a January article for RT:
But what is really shocking about the [Univ. of California - Riverside team's] latest findings is the effect soybean oil seems to have on the brain.
From Alzheimer’s to autism
The study is published in Endocrinology, a scientific journal, and it shows that when soybean oil is fed to mice it has major impact on their hypothalamus, an area of the brain crucial for regulating mood and behaviour.
More worryingly, it even affected over 100 of the mice’s genes, including one for controlling oxytocin, the love and bonding [empathy] hormone. Soybean-fed mice showed lower levels of oxytocin in the hypothalamus. 
Other genes affected had to do with metabolic and hormone pathways, including the insulin pathway, synonymous with diabetes. There was also upregulation of genes associated with anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
Considering the evidence, the authors believe that soybean oil could increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism.

However, there is no concrete proof yet that soybean oil causes these conditions, since this research was conducted on male mice only. But mice are used as a model organism for human health for a reason, as a mammal species they have similar tissues and genetics to us, and it is reasonable to provisionally project some of the authors’ health warnings onto humans.
This team of researchers has been studying soybean oil for several years; it was the team that found the oil induces obesity and diabetes in mice. In the wake of that bombshell discovery, you may trust food engineers were flogged by soybean lobbyists to find some way to reduce said harmful effects -- and they did.

And so the soybean industry was saved.  

Now the other shoe has dropped. To return to Andrews' article:
Is the GM version better?
There is a genetically engineered form of soybean oil that has a lower linoleic acid (LA) content, and this form is healthier for the heart. The authors also fed mice this form to see whether the results would be any better, but the low-LA form had a similarly detrimental effect on the mice’s brains.
There's more about the findings in Andrews' article and the many other articles that were published for the general public in the wake of the study's January 17 publication, and of course in the published study, but that's the gist.

It's not only autism, per se, that would come into question; there is a range of autistic-type disorders including Asperger's in what's called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Put another way, many Americans exhibit traits that suggest they suffer from ASD even if they're not autistic. The traits dovetail with the emotional problems found in many if not most heavy computer users.

But does the difficulty in establishing personal relationships come initially from the heavy computer use, or was it always easier for the ASD types to communicate with people via a machine intermediary?

The scientists are still a way from understanding the effect of soybean oil on mice brains, let alone human ones; however, that didn't stop Poonamjot Deol, the lead author of the January 17 study, from issuing a strong warning:

“If there’s one message I want people to take away, it’s this: reduce consumption of soybean oil."

But how, Dr Deol? For at least a generation Americans have been raised on the stuff -- many, from birth in infant formulas and baby food. Soybean oil isn't only used for cooking; it's now in so many processed food products it's easier to ask what processed ingestible it's not in than where it can be found.  The other day I saw the oil listed as an ingredient in a reputable brand of melatonin pills -- OTC pills to aid sleep.

Soybean oil is incredibly cheap; it became the staple oil additive for restaurants, bakeries, fast food franchises, and food service providers of all kinds -- think hospital meals, school lunches, prison meals, military meals, food programs for the elderly and homeless. Or just read labels in grocery stores to realize it's ubiquitous in the American diet.

Workarounds?  What about switching to other oils? Coconut oil was used as a control in the study and it didn't effect the hypothalamus.  But substituting coconut oil on the huge scale demanded by the food industries might not be doable. However, the researchers might find other oils that together with coconut oil could save day. And food engineers might be able to pull another rabbit out of the hat.  

But we are here now, with large numbers of Americans who don't get enough sleep and consume in large quantities a vegetable oil that is likely very bad for their brains.

So, a nation of sleepwalkers who don't have much empathy for each other when they have to come face to face. I'd call that a perfect storm.


From "Yanxi Palace" guide to surviving office politics

No joke, there really is such a guide -- more than one, as a matter of fact. Just one of the reasons The Story of Yanxi Palace annoyed the powers that be in Beijing. That too, is no joke. The series was banned from rebroadcast on Chinese television.

Here's what was going on in the above scene in Episode 2. Start at the 2:51 minute mark.


Tuesday, February 18

The Empress gives Wei Ying Luo a teaching about forbearance

One of the almost uncountable lessons from The Story of Yanxi Palace. (The series is 70 episodes.) It's something of a plot spoiler to show this part, but not in the grand sweep of the story's events. Here the emperor's wife gives a teaching to Wei Ying Luo, her favorite servant, who is hell-bent for justice to be served on two of the most powerful persons in the Forbidden City -- the emperor's brother, Hong Zhou, and the brother's mother, the Concubine Dowager Yu. 

Ying Luo is the empress's favorite for good reason; in short order her quick wits and courage foiled plots against the empress and others in the Forbidden City who didn't deserve a ghastly end. In doing so she's gotten into so much hot water that at one point when she's brought before the emperor he snaps, "You again."

Yes. But the empress's challenge is to keep Ying Luo alive -- and for this, Ying Luo must learn to control her temper and practice forbearance.  

A couple notes:

> The woman who is upset at learning Wei Ying Luo has been sent to the dowager's palace is the empress.  

> As to the hand that's referenced by the dowager -- a bloody severed hand was placed in the ice chest that the dowager received, and she blames Ying Luo, who as much admits she did it.

You can start at the 25 minute mark, which provides a few minutes of background to the empress's conversation with Ying Luo, which ends at the 39:17 mark:

A return to The Tale of Sathya Sai Baba and the Two Rascals

"Now here we arrive at the part in my tales about Sai Baba where I ponder whether I should provide you with my analysis of the incident's social, religious and spiritual implications, or just tell the story. [tossing a coin] Ah. I see you were lucky this time."
-- Pundita, from The Tale of Sathya Sai Baba and The Two Rascals, published April 2016

A few days ago a Sai Baba devotee, Himanshu, ignored my poke at myself and wrote that he would be interested in my analysis of the tale.

My interpretation, so many decades after the man I call Ravi told me the story, is that Sai Baba wanted Ravi to understand that even the most powerful must sometimes make concessions to human frailties and by so doing, bind their power in order to accomplish something.



Thursday, February 13

"Victorious Tweets did not help, Turkish-led forces got clobbered by evening."

SouthFront's newfound sense of humor sometimes goes a little overboard when they try too hard to mix humor with straight-up war reporting-- but I'm thankful for the laugh moments they provide in this seemingly interminable nightmare called the Syrian War. The above quote is from their February 12 report, SYRIAN ARMY GIVES TURKEY FLICK ON NOSE IN NAYRAB, SECURES ENTIRE ALEPPO-DAMASCUS HIGHWAY, which delivers some great news. 

I can only pray SouthFront's estimate is correct regarding how NATO bosses will respond to Erdogan's trademark combination of whining and threats.  ( "... the most likely concrete move by the “allies” will be to slap Turkey on the back and advice to send more Turkish troops to die on behalf of al-Qaeda-linked Idlib groups.")   

Below is the entire report. (For more detail on the Battle of Saraqib, see SouthFront's February 6, SYRIAN ARMY LIBERATED SARAQIB AND TURKISH OBSERVATION POSTS FROM MILITANTS)

[February 12]

For the first time in about 8 years of the war, Syrian government forces have established control of the entire M5 highway, which runs from the border with Jordan through Damascus, Homs and Hama to Aleppo.

During the first half of February 12th, the Syrian Army and Iranian-backed militias recaptured the Rashidin 4 district from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other foreign-backed al-Qaeda enthusiasts in western Aleppo. By the end of the day, pro-government troops had taken control of Khan Asal and entered the villages of Abu Shalim, Wadi Shuha andWadi Al-Kabeer. 

The Syrians also attacked “moderate beheaders” in Kafr Nuran, but were not able to break their defenses there. The interesting fact is that on February 10 army positions in the nearby area of Kafr Halab became a target of at least two suicide bombing attacks. Apparently regular suicide bombings conducted by members of Idlib groups are a strong signal of their democratic ideology.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its comrades complain that the ‘Assad regime’ successes in western Aleppo were the result of dirty tricks, such as the massive usage of artillery, air power, heavy military equipment and unexpected manoeuvres.

Yet Turkish artillery support and military equipment did not help them regain the initiative near Saraqib, in eastern Idlib. Idlib groups announced a major advance there on February 11 and attacked the village of Naryab. A supposed MANPAD missile launched from the area of Turkish positions in Qaminas shot down a Syrian military helicopter killing all on board. 

The Turkish Defense Ministry announced that Naryab had been cleared of ‘Assad forces’ and claimed that 51 ‘regime fighters’ had been ‘neutralized’, and that 2 tanks, a gun position and a weapon depot belonging to the Syrian military had been destroyed in Idlib clashes. However, victorious tweets did not help and Turkish-led forces got clobbered by the evening. The Syrians restored full control over the town. According to pro-government sources, up to 40 militants were killed there. Several airstrikes also hit joint positions of Turkish troops and Idlib militants near Qaminas. The damage and casualties caused by these strikes remains unclear.

At the same time, the city of Idlib itself appeared to be a target of several airstrikes. According to reports, 6 civilians were killed. Over the past years, Idlib rebels have learned to successfully place their military positions, weapon depots and HQs in close proximity to civilian infrastructure.

The US and other NATO members that broke a few lances with Turkey over its operations against Kurdish groups in northern Syria, its participation in the Astana format, the S-400 deal and other cooperation projects with Iran and Russia, are now hurrying to show their ‘decisive support’ for the Erdogan government.

The NATO secretary general condemned ‘Assad attacks’ on Turkish troops. Mike Pompeo said that the US would stand by its “NATO ally Turkey” and announced that Jim Jeffrey was going to Ankara “to coordinate steps to respond to this destabilizing attack.” In response, the Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar asked NATO allies for “concrete” moves to stop the ‘Assad aggression’. The only issue is that the most likely concrete move by the “allies” will be to slap Turkey on the back and give advice to send more Turkish troops to die on behalf of al-Qaeda-linked Idlib groups.


A reminder that we're not omniscient

Austan Goolsbee's article today for the New York Times up-ends the widely accepted explanation as to why so many malls in the USA are closing for lack of business. His analysis, titled Never Mind the Internet. Here's What's Killing Malls, is absolutely stunning, the more so because it's not grounded in math or arcane economic theories. It relies on common sense and close study of factors other than e-commerce that got short attention for years because 'everyone,' including this writer, had accepted the explanation that e-commerce was chiefly responsible for the large number of mall retailers going out of business.

His analysis is also a humbling lesson. Omniscience is not given to humans, but we constantly overlook this in our determination to identify a new situation as quickly as we can.

Goolsbee is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, so I think this is an instance where an economist is really earning his salary. 


Eight GOP senators join with Democrats to pass Iran War Powers Resolution

Trump can't veto the resolution but neither is he compelled to obey it. So the vote isn't saying much but it's a start.

US Senate Passes Iran War Powers Resolution Limiting Trump's Executive Authority
February 13, 2020

The US Senate has passed its own version of a resolution previously passed by the House seeking to limit US President Donald Trump's ability to unilaterally make war against Iran via the 1973 War Powers Act.

The nonbinding resolution enjoyed bipartisan support, winning the votes of all 47 Democrats as well as eight Republicans who agreed that Trump should have been forced to seek the approval of federal lawmakers before ordering the January 3 airstrike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.
“The last thing this country should do is rush into or blunder into another war in the Middle East. And no matter who our president is, no president is smart enough to, on their own, make that kind of a decision without deliberation,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who introduced the resolution, told Politico on Wednesday. “The logic of the idea just gets more and more persuasive the more time that elapses after 9/11.”
Like the House bill that passed last month, the Senate resolution is nonbinding, meaning Trump cannot veto it, but neither is he legally compelled to obey it. This is the second attempt on which the two legislative houses have united to try and rein in Trump's warmaking power; the first was last year's attempt to bar US support for the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, which Trump vetoed.
The War Powers Act of 1973 was implemented in the closing days of the Vietnam War in an effort to block future presidents from unilaterally taking the US into a major conflict, as US President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1964. While the law recognizes that the president has the power to deploy US forces into combat without a formal declaration of war, it requires them to give Congress at least 48 hours notice and establishes a 60-day time limit. Military operations beyond that scope require congressional authorization.