Sunday, January 27

Gee, that's a gorgeous song and a glorious duet

Two YouTube Comments, to which I add a hearty "Same here!":
Sadly, if it hadn’t been for looking at Wikipedia for details about this Armando Manzanero classic, I probably would have never heard Miss Natsukawa’s beautiful contribution to the catalog of duet versions of this song. Now that I’ve heard her voice, I will seek her other artistic endeavors.  
I love this version better than the other existing versions, too. I love the way Rimi sings this song. Besides, Rimi’s clear, penetrating voice makes a really good contrast with Bocelli's deep, warm voice. Thanks for uploading.
English-language version of the lyrics for "Somos Novios"

"It's Impossible" 

It's impossible, tell the sun to leave the sky
It's just impossible
It's impossible, ask a baby not to cry
It's just impossible

Can I hold you closer to me
And not feel you going through me
Split the second that I never think of you
Oh, how impossible

Can the ocean keep from rushing to the shore
It's just impossible
If I had you, could I ever want for more
It's just impossible

And tomorrow
Should you ask me for the world, somehow I'd get it
I would sell my very soul and not regret it
For to live without your love
It's just impossible

Can the ocean keep from rushing to the shore
It's just impossible
If I had you, could I ever want for more
It's just impossible

And tomorrow
Should you ask me for the world, somehow I'd get it
I would sell my very soul and not regret it
For to live without your love
It's just impossible


What's the world coming to? In UAE non-Muslims are increasingly able to worship openly.

"The U.A.E. will display its more accommodating stance in February when it hosts Pope Francis for the first visit by a sitting pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The pope’s itinerary includes engaging in an interfaith dialogue and celebrating Mass at a sports complex with a capacity of around 120,000."

In Arab Nation, Christians, Buddhists and Jews Emerge to Worship
U.A.E. celebrates religious tolerance and prepares to welcome Pope Francis
By Asa Fitch

Jan. 27, 2019 8:00 a.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal 

[See the WSJ website for photographs and a chart of percentages of religious denominations in U.A.E., "where most of the over nine million people are expatriates."]

DUBAI—Every Friday, on the fourth floor of a hotel conference center in this Arab business hub, several thousand Christians arrive to worship in two-hour shifts at what may be the world’s best-hidden megachurch.

There is no sign outside the center to guide people to Fellowship. The Protestant congregation sprang up roughly a decade ago in a place where Islam is the official religion, non-Muslim practice has long been closely monitored and sanctioned church buildings are limited and regulated.

But restrictions on places of worship have gradually loosened in the United Arab Emirates. The government has designated 2019 the “year of tolerance” to reinforce the idea that, in a region torn by conflict, people of diverse cultures and religions can find common ground.

The U.A.E. will display its more accommodating stance in February when it hosts Pope Francis for the first visit by a sitting pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The pope’s itinerary includes engaging in an interfaith dialogue and celebrating Mass at a sports complex with a capacity of around 120,000.

Fellowship started with a handful of people, but now attracts roughly 4,000 a week from all religious backgrounds to services at two hotels. The services reflect the opening to non-Muslims in the U.A.E., which has accelerated in recent years as the government cultivated ties with Western powers that value the freedom of worship and explored ways to undermine the pull of Islamic extremism.

As a result, a Buddhist temple catering to Sri Lankans, Cambodians and Thais is now operating out of a villa in Dubai. Leaders of a Jewish synagogue, which had been operating in secret, revealed its existence recently. A large Hindu temple is under construction. The religious institutions serve a population composed almost entirely of expatriate workers from Asia, Europe and beyond.

Rulers in the U.A.E. have allowed the establishment of churches since the 1960s, and have traditionally been more religiously permissive than neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, which bans any form of non-Muslim worship.

But religious freedoms here have limits. The U.A.E.’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship as long as it doesn’t clash with public policy or morals, according to the U.S. State Department in its religious freedom report for 2017. The country’s laws also prohibit blasphemy and non-Muslim proselytizing.

The U.A.E. shows little tolerance for political Islam, too, and authorities provide guidance for the content of sermons in mosques, the State Department said.

The U.S. government has been supportive of the U.A.E.’s push for tolerance, and State Department officials have met with local religious leaders, according to people who attended the meetings, amid efforts to foster better religious understanding across the Middle East, partly to combat terrorism.

The path toward open worship in the U.A.E. hasn’t been without its bumps.

There are about 45 officially sanctioned church buildings in the country, but more than 700 Christian congregations, leaving them to share limited space for services. In the lobby of the Evangelical Church center in Abu Dhabi, the capital, a board lists more than 50 congregations that worship there. Church services in the U.A.E. generally take place on Friday, the Muslim day of worship and a day off for most residents.

Local religious leaders said they would like to see more land allocated for church-building. But many also recognize that it isn’t their decision to make.

“There’s certainly a need for it,” says Rev. Andrew Thompson, the British chaplain at St. Andrew’s, an Anglican church in Abu Dhabi. “But I also caution Christians to say at the end of the day it’s not our country, and I’m concerned about the sense of entitlement.”

In Dubai, the phenomenon of hotel churches began a few years ago, after the Christian population became too large for designated church facilities. Congregations started meeting all over the city, but authorities eventually banned the practice last year, citing existing regulations for religious institutions.

Only three churches—including Fellowship—were allowed to continue meeting in hotels following an appeal to Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family who has been the country’s minister of tolerance since 2017.

Concerns about Christian congregations that couldn’t meet because of that move came up in discussions between a delegation of American evangelical leaders and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed in November, according to several people who were there.

The Ministry of Tolerance didn’t respond to requests for comment about Emirati policy.

Local religious leaders said they are encouraged by gradual progress and are hopeful for the future. Many of the evangelicals came away from their meetings reassured that the problem stemmed not from deliberate persecution of Christians but from the lack of clear bureaucratic procedures to approve new churches, according to members of the delegation.

At a recent Fellowship service, there was no sign of security forces or government monitoring as people shuffled in and out. In a conference-center ballroom, a nine-piece band led by a Filipino woman in stonewashed jeans sung a rendition of Matt Redman’s Christian pop hit “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord).”

Tim Maxson, one of the church’s pastors, led Communion for a congregation that looked like a cross-section of Dubai’s expatriate workforce, a mishmash of nationalities including Filipinos, Kenyans, Australians, Americans, South Africans and Indians.

“We have Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Mar Thomas, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Assemblies of God,” said Jim Burgess, the Oklahoman who became Fellowship’s first full-time pastor about 10 years ago. “People,” he said, “are not as concerned about the label as they are with what’s inside.”



China's slowed growth rate is relative

Blurb from From The Economist's January 23 Daily Dispatch:
China’s economy: Slowness is in the eye of the beholder
China’s growth rate for 2018, which was announced on Monday, gave rise to pessimistic headlines. At 6.6%, thanks [due] in part to a trade war with America, it was at its weakest since 1990. But a closer look at the data gives reason for optimism. China’s economy is growing from a much larger base than before and domestic demand has more than plugged the gap from a falling trade surplus. Though there were some worrying signs, China’s economy remains buoyant.
Now that says nothing about the extent to which Beijing's accounting methods have been puffing up China's growth rates lo these many years, but The Economist has a good point. If you're going to accept the data at face value, then you have to accept that the weak growth rate is relative.


Thursday, January 24

La Mafia del Poder en California?

"Yet [Mexico's new president] faces tremendous opposition as well, especially from the political and economic elite, which he calls 'la mafia del poder' – the power mafia – and whose grip, he believes, must be broken if the system is to be reformed."
It turns out that income inequality in the U.S. state of California is worse than in Mexico. That's saying a lot, given the situation for Mexicans. From Michael Massing's January 20 op-ed for The Guardian, 
Who is more dangerous: El Chapo or Carlos Slim?
... With a GDP approaching $1.15tn, Mexico’s economy is now the 15th largest in the world, but its per-capita income of about $9,000 ranks just 70th. According to the Gini scale of income inequality, Mexico is the world’s 19th most unequal country – more so than even Nicaragua, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Chad. A shocking 43.6% of Mexicans are considered poor. ...
But as Spencer Morrison pointed out a year ago at his National Economics Editorial website, "Were California a country it’d be the 17th most unequal nation, ahead of Mexico and Guatemala."  The quote is from his article, California’s Income Inequality Now Worse Than Mexico’s; Poverty Level Highest In America, which notes:
... over the last few decades, California has built one of America’s most lavish welfare states. There’s just one problem: it’s not working.
The sad truth of the matter is that California’s poverty rate is the highest in the country, at 20.6 percent. This is based on data from the US Census Bureau, and modified so as to account for differences in the cost of living between states. And if you’re a skeptical “progressive” then don’t worry, even Politifact confirms this finding.
As bad as that sounds, perhaps the more embarrassing statistic is that income inequality in California is at an all-time high. This should be obvious to anyone who’s actually been to California and seen the proliferation of tent cities and urban slums: [video]
Inequality can be encapsulated in a number called the Gini Coefficient (GC): “0” is perfect equality, where everyone earns the same income, while “1” is perfect inequality, where one individual earns everything (leaving none for anyone else). Importantly, a higher GC means more inequality.
In California the GC is 0.488. This is the second highest of all America’s major states, behind only New York, and it is also far higher than the national average of 0.479—which itself is inflated by absurdly high GCs from large liberal states like California and New York.
But it’s only when looking at the global context do you really get a sense of how bad it is. If California were an independent country, it would be the 17th most unequal country on earth, according to data from the World Bank. It would rest comfortably just behind Honduras (at 0.511), and ahead of Guatemala (0.487) and Mexico (0.482).
Now compare this to the other “social democracies” that California is wont to compare itself with: Canada sits at spot number 111, while Norway is way down the list at number 153 (out of 176 countries).
In terms of inequality, California has more in common with banana republics than the “social democracies” it emulates. Perhaps they should get their own house in order before lecturing the rest of us on the benefits of socialism.
California's government has a different view of the situation, pointing to a large number of American indigents that municipalities across the U.S. have 'shipped' to California because of the state's generous welfare benefits, a severe shortage of low-income housing in the state, and in general all and everything except socialism.    

Yet the bottom line, at least on paper, is that the state is among the richest regions in the entire world. From Wikipedia's article:
California's $2.9 trillion economy is larger than that of any other [U.S.] state, larger than those of Texas and Florida combined, and the largest sub-national economy in the world. 
If it were a country, California would be the 5th largest economy in the world (larger than the United Kingdom, France, or India). 
The Greater Los Angeles Area and the San Francisco Bay Area are the nation's second- and third-largest urban economies ($1.253 trillion and $878 billion respectively as of 2017), after the New York City metropolitan area. The San Francisco Bay Area PSA had the nation's highest GDP per capita in 2017 (~$99,000) and is home to three of the world's ten largest companies by market capitalization and four of the world's ten richest people.
So something about California's income inequality isn't quite adding up, and it's the same for Mexico's. To return to Massing:
That destitution is the root cause of many of Mexico’s other ills. Drug trafficking, violence, corruption, impunity, migration – all are outgrowths of the country’s high unemployment, low wages, poor schools, inadequate healthcare, farmers without land, youths without jobs. These conditions seem all the more intolerable in a country so blessed with resources, including fertile farmland, vast oil reserves, deep-water ports, a temperate climate, stunning beaches, and a population that the OECD ranks the most hard-working of the 37 nations surveyed.
Yes. Mexico's masses are hard-working people -- and they are careful listeners, a point I made some years ago on this blog, which makes them quick studies. No need to repeat an instruction 20 times over to a Mexican worker. 

Mexico's new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is clear about the country's root problem, as Massing notes:
... López Obrador’s Morena party also won control of both houses of the Mexican Congress and of many state governorships, giving him enormous power. Yet he faces tremendous opposition as well, especially from the political and economic elite, which he calls “la mafia del poder” – the power mafia – and whose grip, he believes, must be broken if the system is to be reformed.
While every lurid revelation of the Guzmán trial has been breathlessly noted, the power of this mafia has gone largely unremarked. The group is dominated by a dozen or so oligarchs and their families, who have a lock on such key economic sectors as telecommunications, media, mining and banking.
Repeated forecasts of rapid development for Mexico have come to naught due to the suffocating hold that this small circle of super-connected individuals continues to have over its economy; by eliminating competition, they can keep prices high and profits surging. ...
In short, Mexico's government created a Frankenstein Free Market Economy (free when we want it to be, not so free otherwise) that is a sure-fire prescription for mass destitution, as post-Soviet Russians learned the hard way.

Does California have anything like this Frankenstein economy? Would that be a factor in the great disparity between incomes in the state? I don't know enough about California to have a considered opinion on the questions. But it could explain much if the state has developed a kind of oligarchy that's masked by large welfare schemes.

One thing I do know that could be pertinent to California is that much of what's called 'free market capitalism' is itself a Frankenstein; it's actually companies started and/or supported with government help.  

In any case, Mexico definitely has an oligarch problem:
While every lurid revelation of the Guzmán trial has been breathlessly noted, the power of [La Mafia del Poder] has gone largely unremarked. The group is dominated by a dozen or so oligarchs and their families, who have a lock on such key economic sectors as telecommunications, media, mining and banking. Repeated forecasts of rapid development for Mexico have come to naught due to the suffocating hold that this small circle of super-connected individuals continues to have over its economy; by eliminating competition, they can keep prices high and profits surging.
At the center of the power elite is Carlos Slim. His estimated net worth of about $60bn places him seventh on Forbes’s international rich list. This one man’s wealth is equivalent to more than 5% of Mexico’s GDP. The core of his empire is América Móvil, Latin America’s largest mobile phone company; its longtime domination of Mexico’s telecommunications industry has kept the nation’s phone rates among the highest in the world, costing the economy an estimated $25bn a year.
Slim also owns nearly 17% of the New York Times, making him its largest shareholder. Like other American news organizations, the Times rarely writes about him and the ways in which he and other Mexican oligarchs have used their power to stymie the tax policies, public investments and income transfers needed to enable more Mexicans to enjoy the type of comfortable middle-class life depicted in Roma, the recent acclaimed film set in Mexico City in the early 1970s.  ...
Spoken like a true socialist. Massing should pay a little less attention to public investments and more to government policies that stifle business competition in Mexico. I can only hope that Amlo will do the same.


The solution is to build the wall between California and the rest of America

Then put signs all along the Mexican-U.S. that show a little arrow pointing to California with the caption that reads (in Spanish, of course) "Thataway for jobs and free health care and housing."

As to how California would fare if kicked out of the American union -- the regime could appeal to the International Monetary Fund for help. I can't wait to see the kind of austerity measures the IMF would impose on California in exchange for keeping the new country afloat. You may trust the first loan condition would be scaling back on bloated welfare programs.  

Then California could borrow from the World Bank to build a wall all along their border and Mexico.



When will the U.S. government shutdown end? I can tell you when..

It will end two days after the American mainstream media are no longer able to hide the fact that a great number of the furloughed "nonessential" federal jobs are just that.

As to the financial hardship endured by nonessential federal employees who aren't getting paychecks during the shutdown -- many jobs in the U.S. private sector are going begging because companies can't find workers to fill them. Three-hundred thousand or so former federal employees should be able to do the work even when a job requires retraining, which most if not all companies will be glad to provide; that's how desperate the companies are for workers.



Al Qaeda methodically expanding reach in India by 'going local'

January 23, 2019
The Soufan Center
[H/T Joshua Landis/Carl Fountain - Twitter]

Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda has survived, due in large part to a deliberate strategy focused on gaining the support of the masses by “going local.” Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the youngest affiliate of al-Qaeda, is in many ways the realization of that new strategy. Western counterterrorism circles are slowly recognizing the viability of al-Qaeda’s reach into South Asia, as AQIS appears to be building its capabilities throughout the region as other terrorist groups, including the Islamic State’s regional affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), bear the brunt of global counter-terrorism operations. 

This paper takes a fresh look at the emergence of AQIS— its leadership, funding sources, and future role as a dominant actor in the global jihadist movement. Moreover, this paper assesses the group’s ability to target the U.S. homeland and its assets abroad.



Tuesday, January 22

We're living with governments designed to work in the 19th Century. Now what?

Residents converting city space to a food garden

Residents converting a typical city park into foraging gardens growing edible plants

The observation in the title of this post applies whether the government is liberal democratic or authoritarian. So, beyond all the political rhetoric about improving government, humanity has what's called a 'white elephant' on its hands; i.e., "a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of."  (The origin of the term is "from the story that the kings of Siam gave such animals as a gift to courtiers they disliked, in order to ruin the recipient by the great expense incurred in maintaining the animal.")

The simple truth is that our huge numbers, and the sheer number of problems in this era and how they intersect, can't be dealt with effectively by 19th Century of government, which depends on a system of bureaus administered in a top-down fashion. A big problem with these bureaus, as I pointed out in a 2014 essay The Devil and Departmentalization, is that they have a way of inexorably expanding while their chiefs jealously guard information in order to protect and increase their budgets.

In other words, bureaus lead to compartmentalization of knowledge and expertise -- one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing, so to speak.  

Result? Well, there's a theory that al Qaeda had such a free run at the United States back in the day because the CIA wouldn't share information with the FBI that if acted upon by the two agencies in a coordinated fashion might have averted 9/11.

In any case, we've continued with a hopelessly outdated form of government administration because -- what's the alternative? Of course, alternatives have always existed; one simply needs to read world history that goes back before the time of Frederick the Great to find them.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, even before the Germanic kingdoms, even before the Romans and the Ottomans, even before Egypt's pharaohs, villagers and nomadic tribes the world over were managing to deal with community issues without bureaus.

But peoples today want an alternative that reflects their particular problems, many of which are products of entire societies trying to hammer the square peg of the 20th Century into the round hole of the 19th Century.

The alternative for our era boils down to many ad-hoc Do it Yourself approaches, worked out by groups of people who get tired of waiting for their government to do something for them and find ways to do it themselves. Eventually, the best of these DIY approaches will be integrated and codified and form the basis for a more formal type of government that large numbers of people find acceptable.

Between now and then is, well, messy, as is all guess-and-by-golly innovation, especially when it runs afoul of Defenders of the Status Quo. 

As to the argument that the defenders won't let the DIY approaches get far enough to be a challenge -- that was largely true up until the turn of this century. But today the internet is allowing unprecedented numbers of people to learn in agonizing detail just how much the status quo screwed up during the past century, even in the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nations. 

Indeed, I could spend the next 48 hours plugging in links to reports about horrific mistakes made by governments that took even good ideas and turned them into disasters and used huge amounts of money to fob off terrible ideas on unsuspecting millions of citizens.

Such reports are depressing and even frightening reading, and their existence on the internet has created a kind of two-tier reality. Most of the reports never make it into the mainstream television news, which is still the bastion of the status quo. But within less than a generation a large and fast-growing number of people who get much of their news from the internet has read enough depressing reports to be clearly aware that government in its present form is a white elephant. Many of these same people are sharing knowledge around the world about DIY approaches they've used to solve problems affecting entire communities, and that have worked.  

And it's to be remembered that the status quo is still useful and will remain so. Both the DIY urban farming projects I highlighted above have received government assistance. So it's not either-or, and it has to be that way to avoid anarchy and outright chaos in societies.

Little by little, but eventually a critical mass of innovation builds up, and so the status quo itself evolves.


Monday, January 21

Weather for Martin Luther King Day in Washington: bitter cold, brilliant sun

After howling throughout the night the wind was still so fierce by late morning it turned the 20-degree temperature into a 4-degree wind chill event -- Arctic weather for the city. This Washingtonian spent the holiday hibernating. After waking from a long nap I viewed online photos of the hardy souls who participated in and lined up to watch the annual MLK Day parade in South East D.C. Better them than me, I shivered, after seeing one troupe of paraders in sneaker footgear. 

Reporter Mike Murillo for WTOP (all-news radio for D.C.), which posted the photo and others from the parade, interviewed one parade-watcher:
“It’s really, really, cold,” said Ben Ado, of Ward 8. But coming to the event had become an annual tradition for him for many years, he added.

Though the cold may have kept some people away this year, Ado said over the past few years, the parade has diminished in size. “It’s kind of sad to see the parade getting smaller and smaller. They used to go all the way like, I think, about a 3 or 4-mile radius,” Ado said.
I think Ben should take heart. If the plan was to tamp down the importance of a federal holiday honoring Dr. King by placing its date in the dead of winter, it backfired. Martin Luther King Day is becoming an important American national holiday; one reason is that falling as does on a Monday, it makes a three-day break in an otherwise dreary month. 

And because the holiday is remarkably free of commercialization Dr King's lessons and hopes for Americans can be heard above the din of consumerism. This was signified this year by the cloudless sky that arched over the parade route and gorgeous sun shining down all who attended the parade, no matter their race or creed. This, after months of mostly cloudy skies and rain in the District followed by a snowstorm.


Osama was wrong

Osama bin Laden believed people prefer the strong horse.  No, people prefer the steady horse. What use is a strong horse if without warning it keeps bucking and throwing you to the ground, or for no seeming reason decides to run around the race course the wrong way?

The political system of the United States, as it's worked in the modern era, makes steadiness of purpose impossible when it comes to foreign relations. The peoples of the Middle East have discovered this bottom line about America the hard way. 

Americans of misplaced faith theorize the U.S. government is unpredictable on purpose -- a clever keep everyone else off balance. The problem with the theory is that people on the receiving end of such behavior don't tend to make a distinction between unpredictability and unsteadiness. For this reason alone the United States needs to leave the Middle East, before Americans are treated with open contempt throughout that part of the world.   


Attn. Israeli Defense Force! Losing face is NOT a sign of End Times.

Well. What to say when the defense force in a nuclear-armed country goes completely off the rails? I think by now Bibi has recovered from Trump only giving him a five-minute warning that he was going to announce to the world his intention to remove U.S. troops from Syria. But I'm afraid the IDF chiefs interpreted the short warning as a slap in the face to the entire state of Israel.     

An unnamed spokesperson for the Israeli military hurriedly tried to rationalize the IDF's latest assault on Syria, or maybe he was just being sarcastic; either way, DEBKAfile's straight-faced report on the IDF's bizarre narrative would be funny if this wasn't a nuclear-armed fortress state under discussion -- and if the assault hadn't killed four Syrian servicemen, damaged the Damascus International Airport, and directly challenged Putin.        

Most extensive Israeli attack ever on Soleimani’s military resources in Syria
Jan 21, 2019 @ 5:12

"The IDF decided it could afford to let Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s first operation as IDF chief of staff be a flop."
Early Monday, Jan 21, the IDF struck Iranian Al Qods forces, command centers and ammo dumps in Syria for 50 minutes in volleys of guided missiles from the air and the ground. Syrian and Russian sources reported that Syrian air defenses intercepted at least 29 Israeli missiles, coming from three directions – Lebanon and two northern Israeli regions of Galilee and the Kineret (Sea of Galilee). 

The IDF called this its most extensive operation ever against Iranian Al Qods chief Qassem Soleimani’s forces in Syria and issued a statement warning the Syrian army not to retaliate against Israeli territory, citizens or military forces. The Mt Hermon area and ski sites were placed off-limits to civilians as of Monday. Before midnight, a series of explosions were heard across Damascus.

DEBKAfile’s military sources add: The earlier attack by four Israeli Air Force fighter jets on a target south of Damascus international airport during the day on Sunday was clearly the signal for a broader Israeli clash with Russia and Syria over the continued IDF offensive for evicting the Iranian military presence from Syria.

The Israeli military had five incentives to go forward:

  1. This first IAF air raid failed to connect to target [sic].
  2. Syrian aid defense responses to the Israeli raid were closely synchronized with the Russian Khmeimim Airbase in Latakia and the Russian national air defense coordination center at Air Force HQ n Moscow.
  3. Israel’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister and newly-appointed IDF Chief of Staff were faced with a tough decision over whether to climb down on its campaign against Iran after being warned off by Russia against attacking Damascus or its airport.
  4. The IDF decided it could afford to let Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s first operation as IDF chief of staff be a flop.
  5. The Syrian ground missile fired into Israel and intercepted by its Iron Dome defense battery over northern Golan could not go unanswered, especially when it was not the first. A Syrian missile flew over central Israel on Dec. 26. The assumption at the time was that an Israeli posture of non-response would result in expanding Syrian ground missile volleys with Russian backing for every Israeli air strike over Syria.
    Therefore, Sunday night, Israel took up the challenge, threw the gauntlet down for Moscow, Tehran and Damascus, and turned its back on Moscow’s warning to stay out of Damascus’ skies. Urgent conferences are no doubt taking place in and between the three capitals on their next steps.


Sunday, January 20

Something a little strange happened to me

One day back in summer while washing my hands I noticed what looked to be 'age spots' on the back of my left hand. Light brown circular unraised pigmentation scattered like freckles, largish freckles. I don't know about you but generally, I don't pay attention to the backs of my hands so I didn't know if the spots had just appeared or been there for several days. I then glanced at the back of my right hand. No spots.

I thought without interest, 'Huh.'  

Age spots aren't unusual for someone my age. So, beyond checking, whenever I remembered, to see if the right back of the hand was sprouting any spots, I paid no mind to my discovery. Nor did I ponder why age spots would appear on one hand but not the other.

Sometime later -- I can't remember exactly how long, maybe a month or two -- the battery in my wristwatch died. I removed the watch from my left wrist and made a mental note to take the watch to a jeweler to have the battery changed; I prefer to go to a particular store all the way out in Virginia for these battery changes so this is how I have ruined more than one watch because the dead battery sat in there for so long it leaked. 

Sometime later -- I can't remember exactly, maybe a week later -- I happened to look down at my hands while I was washing them.

All the age spots on the back of my left hand had vanished.

From the time I first noticed the spots until they were gone there had been no change in my routine, no change in the soap I used, and I don't use hand lotion unless it's the dead of winter and my hands start feeling like sandpaper, but this hadn't been the case during the period in question. 

The spirit of scientific inquiry be darned; no way am I going to put a wristwatch with a working battery back on my wrist to see if age spots reappear on the back of my hand. I am already doing a stint as a human lab rat. Blood pressure medication nearly put me in the hospital so then I said, 'I'll do it myself,' not having any idea at the time how much research and experimentation the DIY approach to lowering blood pressure would entail.  

Nor do I have the time or interest in looking into whether wearable digital technology can have unusual effects on the body.  

Could it have been a coincidence? Maybe. Then again it could've been God's way of saying, 'Do not wear a machine you know nothing about for hours every day for years on end, fool.'

Take your pick. I've made my choice. Whenever I get to the jewelry store in Virginia, I'll be shopping for a watch that needs to be wound once a day to work. And I think I'll be carrying the watch in my purse rather than wearing it when I go out, which was the only time I wore a watch anyhow.

But I will venture that if there is a connection between the battery and the spots, this showed up only during my Golden Years, and obviously, they weren't exactly age spots even though they looked just like age spots.         


Sunday, January 13


Trump Tweet posted 45 minutes ago
Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it re-forms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone ...

35 minutes ago:
... Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey. Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria - natural enemies. We also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!


Who's going to create and maintain the 20-mile safe zone? From RT's translation of the Tweets, it seems Trump intends Turkey to do it. As to the location of the nearby existing base -- RT thinks it means Iraq. We'll see. 


Saturday, January 12

I'll return January 20

Until then, best regards to all,

The Tweet

On December 14, in a report headlined America's Hidden War in SyriaLiz Sly, the Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief, passed a claim that the U.S. had considerably more troops in northeast Syria than was known to the public:
Officially, they number 503, but earlier this year an official let slip that the true number may be closer to 4,000. Most are Special Operations forces, and their footprint is light. Their vehicles and convoys rumble by from time to time along the empty desert roads, but it is rare to see U.S. soldiers in towns and cities.
Five days after the report's publication, in the early morning of December 19, President Donald Trump made a cryptic, confounding statement on his Twitter page:
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
Within moments of the Tweet, chaos ensued as national leaders put frantic calls to the White House asking for clarification while their defense and intelligence agencies and journalists at top newspapers around the world tried to make sense out of the Tweet. After all, by the Pentagon's own reckoning, there were still an estimated 14,500 Islamic State fighters in Syria. What on earth was Trump implying in the Tweet? 

By the afternoon of the 19th, after White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders had done a masterful job of putting lipstick on a pig for a passel of completely confused reporters, it was dawning on U.S. congressional leaders that James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, had been as surprised as everyone else when Trump had given him a head's up on the night of the 18th that he'd decided to remove all U.S. troops from Syria.

Bob Corker, outgoing Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was so confounded by Trump's decision and so alarmed by the chaos it touched off that he told reporters“I’ve never seen a decision like this since I’ve been here in 12 years. It is hard to imagine that any President would wake up and make this kind of decision, with little communication, with this little preparation.”

I'd say it's even harder to imagine a President having to learn from the Washington Post that the Pentagon was running its own war in the Middle East.

Does that solve the mystery of Trump's December 19 Tweet? I'll put it this way: I wasn't in the room, although I wouldn't have wanted to be in the room if an aide read out to Donald Trump choice passages from Liz Sly's report -- and I don't think James Mattis would've wanted to be in the room in that circumstance, either.

It could explain many things, but then that would mean Trump actually had four days to prepare his December 19 Tweet.

America's Hidden War in Syria
By Liz Sly
December 14, 2018
The Washington Post

[Please don't miss the photos accompanying the report.]

RAQQA, Syria — This ruined, fearful city was once the Islamic State’s capital, the showcase of its caliphate and a magnet for foreign fighters from around the globe.

Now it lies at the heart of the United States’ newest commitment to a Middle East war.

The commitment is small, a few thousand troops who were first sent to Syria three years ago to help the Syrian Kurds fight the Islamic State. President Trump indicated in March that the troops would be brought home once the battle is won, and the latest military push to eject the group from its final pocket of territory recently got underway.

In September, however, the administration switched course, saying the troops will stay in Syria pending an overall settlement to the Syrian war and with a new mission: to act as a bulwark against Iran’s expanding influence.

That decision puts U.S. troops in overall control, perhaps indefinitely, of an area comprising nearly a third of Syria, a vast expanse of mostly desert terrain roughly the size of Louisiana.

The Pentagon does not say how many troops are there. Officially, they number 503, but earlier this year an official let slip that the true number may be closer to 4,000. Most are Special Operations forces, and their footprint is light. Their vehicles and convoys rumble by from time to time along the empty desert roads, but it is rare to see U.S. soldiers in towns and cities.

The new mission raises new questions, about the role they will play and whether their presence will risk becoming a magnet for regional conflict and insurgency.

The area is surrounded by powers hostile both to the U.S. presence and the aspirations of the Kurds, who are governing the majority-Arab area in pursuit of a leftist ideology formulated by an imprisoned Turkish Kurdish leader. Signs that the Islamic State is starting to regroup and rumblings of discontent within the Arab community point to the threat of an insurgency.

Without the presence of U.S. troops, these dangers would almost certainly ignite a new war right away, said Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Self-Administration of North and East Syria, as the self-styled government of the area is called.

“They have to stay. If they leave and there isn’t a solution for Syria, it will be catastrophic,” she said.

But staying also heralds risk, and already the challenges are starting to mount.

A Turkish threat to invade the area last month forced the United States to scramble patrols along the border with Turkey, which has massed troops and tanks along the frontier. Turkey regards the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party inside Turkey, as a terrorist organization and fears the consequences for its own security if the group consolidates power in Syria.

Syrian government troops and Iranian proxy fighters are to the south and west. They have threatened to take the area back by force, in pursuit of President Bashar al-Assad’s pledge to bring all of Syria under government control. The government and Iran have been cultivating ties with local tribes, and the U.S. announcement of its intent to counter the Iranian presence in Syria may, in response, further encourage such ties.

Tribal loyalties

Away from the front lines, the calm that followed the ejection of the Islamic State from Raqqa and the surrounding territory is starting to fray. A series of mysterious bombings and assassinations in some of the areas retaken from the militants up to three years ago has set nerves on edge. Most of the attacks are claimed by the Islamic State, and a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, said there is no reason to believe the Islamic State is not responsible. “We know they’re regrouping in those areas,” he said.

But there are widespread suspicions that any one of the regional powers opposed to the U.S. presence and the Kurds’ pursuit of self-governance may be seeking to destabilize the area, finding allies among disgruntled Arabs uncomfortable with the prospect of being governed long term by the Kurds.

The Kurdish forces have sought to include Arabs in their self-governance experiment but retain dominance over its structures at every level, Arabs complain.

This is a part of Syria where tribal loyalties often trump politics, and the tribes are being courted by all the regional players with an interest in ultimately controlling the area, according to Sheikh Humaidi al-Shammar, the head of the influential Shammar tribe.

At Shammar’s outsize mansion, which rises improbably from the empty desert near the Iraqi border, dozens of tribal leaders gathered one recent Friday for his customary weekly divan, sweeping into his cavernous reception room dressed in gold-trimmed robes and flanked by pistol-wielding guards.

The guests ranged, Shammar confided, from sheikhs affiliated with the Assad regime and his ruling Baath Party to representatives of the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army rebels and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — a spectrum of those competing for control in northeastern Syria.

Shammar has allied his tribe with the United States and the Kurds, and he has contributed fighters from his small Sanadid militia to battles against the Islamic State. But, he said, he has many concerns: namely, that the U.S. talk of countering Iran will suck the region into a new conflict and that the area’s Arabs will be cut out of any deal that is eventually reached with the Kurds.

“Everything is uncertain. We are part of a global game now, and it is out of our hands,” he said.

His son Bandar, who leads the Shammar militia, said the tribe supports some form of new arrangement for the Kurds in Syria “because they are our brothers and they sacrificed a lot,” he said.

“The main concern of the Arab population is that one ethnicity, the Kurds, is going to build a state for Kurds and impose their authority on the others,” he said. “The coalition created the SDF to be multi­ethnic, but really people see it is not like this. It is a solo actor which authorizes everything and controls everything.”

‘It’s a matter of time’

Kurdish leaders say they are working hard to convince the Arab community that their plan for governing will include it. Education sessions are being held in Arab areas to try to bring Arabs around to the views of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Turkish Kurdish leader who inspired the YPG’s ideology, said Saleh Muslim, a senior official with the Democratic Union Party, the political wing of the YPG.

“We are very sincere about living together,” he said. “It’s a matter of time. Maybe we need three or four years to make it stable.”

Whether the Kurds have three or four years is unclear. U.S. officials hope the American presence will bring leverage in negotiations over an eventual settlement to end the Syrian war, with the aim of securing some form of autonomy for their Kurdish allies as well as rolling back Iranian influence.

But there is no such settlement in sight, and there may not be one. Assad has prevailed against the rebellion elsewhere in Syria and has shown no inclination to make concessions. The expectation among many residents, Kurds and Arabs alike, is that the government will eventually restore its authority over the area.

After Trump said the troops would soon be withdrawn, many here began planning for that eventuality, including the Kurds, who launched talks with Damascus for a direct, bilateral settlement. The talks went nowhere, and now the Americans are staying — but Kurdish officials say they are keeping open channels of communication in case Trump changes his mind again.

“Everything is very complicated and no one knows which way to turn. We don’t know who is against whom and who is with whom,” said Amjad Othman, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Council.

All the challenges and complexities of northeastern Syria seemed to be concentrated in the small, strategic town of Manbij. Located beside the Euphrates River, it was liberated from the Islamic State by Kurdish forces over three years ago. Now, to the north, lies territory controlled by Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army allies, and to the south by the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran.


In the middle are the Americans. It is one of the few places where the U.S. military has a conspicuous presence. There are three small U.S. bases in and around the town, supporting an American effort to keep apart Turkey and the Kurdish-affiliated Manbij Military Council, according to officials with the council. So far, diplomacy has worked to tamp down the tensions, and the U.S. and Turkish militaries recently began conducting joint patrols along the front line.

But attacks, carried out by assassins riding motorcycles and planting roadside bombs, are occurring with increasing frequency behind the front lines. Local officials believe groups affiliated with the Syrian government and Iran are behind some of these, according to Mohammed Mustafa Ali, who goes by the name Abu Adil and is the head of the Manbij Military Council. “We are surrounded by enemies, and they all want to come here,” he said.

A city still in ruins

Frustrations are building, meanwhile, with the acute lack of funding for reconstruction, impeding the effort to win hearts and minds in Arab non-Kurdish areas, Kurdish officials say. Earlier this year, Trump cut the $200 million that had been earmarked for essential repairs to the worst damaged areas. Though that sum has been replaced by donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it is a fraction of the billions of dollars required.

It is in Raqqa, the biggest city in the part of Syria where U.S. troops are based, that the frustration is most keenly felt. The city was devastated by the U.S.-led airstrikes that accompanied the SDF’s four-month offensive to drive out the Islamic State, and a year later the city is still in ruins.

Signs of life are returning, with shops and markets reopening in some neighborhoods. About half the population has returned, squeezing into the least damaged buildings, sometimes living without walls and windows. Most roads have been cleared of piles of rubble that were left by the bombardments, but blocks on end are wrecked and uninhabitable. The water was restored in September, but there is still no electricity.

Without more financial support, there is a risk that Raqqa will “devolve into the same vulnerability ISIS found when it first arrived, a ‘fractured city ripe for extremist takeover and exploitation,’ ” a report by the Pentagon’s inspector general said last month, quoting a State Department official.

The anger on the streets is palpable. Some residents are openly hostile to foreign visitors, which is rare in other towns and cities freed from Islamic State control in Syria and Iraq. Even those who support the presence of the U.S. military and the SDF say they are resentful that the United States and its partners in the anti-ISIS coalition that bombed the city aren’t helping to rebuild.

And many appear not to support their new rulers.

“We don’t want the Americans. It’s occupation,” said one man, a tailor, who didn’t want to give his name because he feared the consequences of speaking his mind. “I don’t know why they had to use such a huge number of weapons and destroy the city. Yes, ISIS was here, but we paid the price. They have a responsibility.”

He spoke wistfully of life under the Islamic State, when, he said, the streets were safe. His business was good because foreign fighters flocked to him to get themselves decked out in the Afghan-style outfits of baggy pants and tunics that were favored by the Islamic State.

Now the city is half empty and customers are few.

Everyone says the streets are not safe now. Recent months have seen an uptick in assassinations and kidnappings, mostly targeting members of the security forces or people who work with the local council. But some critics of the authorities have been gunned down, too, and at night there are abductions and robberies.

And there is graffiti, often appearing overnight, a sinister reminder that the Islamic State is trying to stage a comeback.

“Remaining in spite of you,” said the writing scrawled in black paint on the collapsed wall of a destroyed building on one recent morning, a reference to the Islamic State’s slogan, “Remaining and Expanding.”

The paint was fresh. 



Friday, January 11

Plague of locusts descends on Mecca

It's been going on for a few days now and it's a big enough story to have gotten RT's attention. The report includes video and photos from various Twitterites. The caption, in Arabic, for the following photo is:
In the name of God the Merciful, we sent them flood, locusts, lice, frogs and blood verses of the hinges Vstkbroa and were criminals people

Google's Arabic might leave something to be desired, but I think there were floods in Saudi Arabia just a few days ago, so with the locusts, all that's missing is the frogs, lice, and blood. 

From the RT report, kudos to the Mecca sanitation department, which has been working overtime to clean up the locusts, but I do question the spraying of massive amounts of insecticides down water drains.   


Syrian State News Agency: Air defense intercepted most Israeli missiles fired toward Damascus

SANA has confirmed the breaking news that Sputnik reported a short time ago:

Syrian Air defenses intercept hostile missiles launched by Israeli warplanes, down most of them
January 12, 2019SANA 

(DAMASCUS) A military source affirmed that the Syrian Air defenses intercepted on Friday night hostile missiles launched by the Israeli warplanes and downed most of them.

The source said that “ at 11:15 before midnight Israeli warplanes coming from Al-Jalil area launched many missiles towards Damascus area and our air defenses intercepted them and downed most of them.”

He added that damages of the aggression were limited to an ammunition warehouse in Damascus airport.



"Syrian Air Defences Respond to Enemy Attack, Down Several Targets - Reports" BREAKING NEWS - UPDATED 6:20 PM ET

Sputnik breaking news  00:48 - 12.01.2019 . Details to follow


6:15 PM ET

Sputnik has updated their initial report, as follows. Note the file photo of an S-300 firing, and the caption (scroll across the photo) accompanying the update, which suggests, at least, that Syrian air defense deployed the Russian S-300 in the shootdowns. We'll learn more details later. For now:.     

(updated 01:28 - 12.01.2019)

Syrian air defenses have responded to an Israeli airstrike over Damascus and managed to shoot down several targets, local media reported.

According to Ikhbariya broadcaster, several targets have been shot down during an enemy attack over Damascus, Syria.

A military source told Syrian SANA news agency later that Israeli jets fired several missiles towards the vicinity of Damascus, most of the missiles were downed.

According to the source, the airstrikes caused damage to a warehouse at Damascus International Airport.

A source in Syrian Ministry of Transport confirmed to SANA later that the Damascus International Airport traffic was not affected by the strikes.

Previously, a Sputnik correspondent reported that Sounds of explosions were heard in Syria's capital of Damascus, noting that it was yet unclear what caused them.

The sounds of blasts were first heard at 11:30 p.m. (21:30 GMT) on Friday and they continued into Saturday.