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Sunday, August 21, 2016

What I Learned in Paris

A few weeks ago our family spent a week in Paris, and it wasn’t nearly enough. The museums, the sights: What can I say? I can’t wait to go back. We weren't there long enough to enjoy it all. So, what did I learn?

Parisians like to eat out, and they like to eat late. Cafés are everywhere and most are crowded (especially at night). In fact, it isn’t unusual to see a group still eating and drinking at 11 and 12 at night. I could adjust to such a life style. Many of the cafés offer WiFi, but they are spotty at best (sort of like the air conditioning). Moreover, you often have to wade through a number of web pages; it's obvious that the goal of many is to get your email address so that they can send you advertisements.

The Paris metro (subway) is amazing. I was impressed 35 years ago, and I still am. You can get to within a few blocks of almost anywhere in Paris. In fact, I read somewhere that when asked residents often identify where they live by the nearest metro station.

Versailles is stunning. I missed it the last time I was in Paris, and I'm glad I didn't this time. Talk about the excesses of the rich. No wonder there was a revolution. That said, I’m glad that the revolutionaries left Versailles alone (at least for the most part).

Craft beer in Paris is quite good (as, of course, is the wine, but I already knew that), which was a pleasant surprise. Craft brewing isn’t as big in Europe as it is in the United States, but France may be a leader. One would think that Germany would be, but because of some very old purity laws (“Pure, Cheap, and a Bit Dull” “Pure Swill”), Germany appears to be falling behind. The "Hoppy Paris" website is quite helpful. Some of our favorites included the various "Frog" pubs, "Paname" (nice view along the Bassin de la Villette), and Brewberry Bar, but there are plenty of others.

Paris's pastries and other deserts are excellent. We ran into an excellent eclair shop, L'Eclair de Genie, which is in Paris's Marais district. My favorite desert? Limoncello liqueur poured over lemon sherbet or sorbet. Unbelievable. Could've eaten it all night if given the chance. Probably a good thing that I wasn't.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Crooked Hillary? Compared to Whom?

When I hear Donald Trump and his supporters complain about "crooked Hillary," my immediate response is "Compared to whom?" To Jesus? Sure. Other politicians? Some (not all). Donald Trump? Give me a break.

Trump is one of the most ethically-challenged "politicians" around. His unscrupulous business practices are well-documented ("New bio 'Trump Revealed' offers troubling portrait"), and commentators on both the left and right have highlighted how Trump repeatedly contradicts previous statements and then denies what he said initially. See, for example, the conservative website Red State's article on Trump's claim that he was always against the Iraq War in spite of evidence to the contrary (Trump Repeats The Lie That He Was Opposed To The Iraq War “From The Beginning”). Or check out Stephen Colbert's "Trump vs. Trump" debate ("which was held" back in January):

Bottom line: Trump may claim he always tell the truth (he says that so often I think he actually believes it), but he's lying. He isn't any more honest than Hillary. In fact, he's almost certainly worse.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

What I Learned In Italy

Italy has so many things to see. In Rome there’s the Coliseum, the Forum, Palatine Hill, the Vatican, the Pantheon and so on, and not too far from Rome is Pompeii, which is a heck of lot bigger than I ever imagined. In Florence there’s David, the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, and the Ponte Vecchio bridge (and Pisa’s not too far away). And Venice? Well, to quote Indiana Jones, “Ah Venice.” However, insights such as these are not earth shattering; they can be found in any travel guide. What follows are some of the things I “learned” during our recent family trip to Italy (Paris insights will follow shortly).

Restaurants: Only eat at restaurants that open after 7 or 7:30 (at least in Rome and other large cities). They thrive on their (usually deserved) reputation for offering high quality food and don't have to open early in order to attract unsuspecting tourists. By contrast, poor restaurants have to open earlier in order to attract customers. To be sure, new restaurants probably have to open earlier because they have yet to build their reputation, but new restaurants probably represent a small proportion of restaurants from which you can choose.

Gelato: Only purchase gelato from a place where the gelato looks like in the picture above and not like in the picture below. Why? Because when gelato is piled high, it almost certainly contains preservatives that keep it from melting. It may look prettier, but it probably isn't the best on the block.

Grappa: An after-dinner drink similar to brandy, except that it’s made from grapes. I learned about it while reading a Donna Leone Commissar Giuseppe mystery (which are set in Venezia), but I’d never tried one until arriving in Roma. I can’t say I’ll continue to drink it, but if it's good enough for Commissar Giuseppe, then it's good enough for me.

Craft Beer: It's tough to find craft beer in Italy. Like most European countries, the beer market is dominated by traditional lagers, most of which won't satisfy fans of craft brews. Nevertheless, craft breweries are popping up here and there that are quite good. For instance, Brewdog brewery, which is based in the U.K., has opened breweries in Roma, Firenze, and Venezia. The one in Roma is conveniently located near the Coliseum, which can be a welcoming site if you’ve been standing in line in the hot Roman sun in order to see the Coliseum, the Forum, or exploring Palatine Hill.

Lodging: In Roma, Firenze, and Venezia we stayed at apartments reserved through VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner), and it was definitely the way to go. No more expensive than staying in hotels or bed and breakfasts, they all had kitchens, washers and dryers (which came in handy with the hot weather), and were centrally located.

That’s all for now. Maybe I’ll update this post as (of if) I remember more…

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A (Very) Brief History of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State (IS), Da’ish, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has attracted the world’s attention with its rapid expansion in Iraq and Syria, its brutal treatment of religious minorities (e.g., Yazidis, Christians), and its well-publicized beheadings of hostages. Its origins can be traced back to 1999 when it was founded by Abu Musab al Zarqawi as Jama’at al Tawhid wal-Jihad (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad). It changed its name in 2004 to Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafiadayn (Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia—more commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI))—when it pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

The group became notorious for its involvement in the broader Iraqi insurgency after the U.S. invasion in 2003, not only for its violent attacks on coalition forces, but also for its suicide bombings of civilian targets and televised beheadings of hostages, sometimes by Zarqawi himself. AQI established control of Sunni neighborhoods where they enforced strict rules of behavior, such as banning smoking and music and listening to speeches by moderate clerics. Zarqawi was killed in June of 2006 by a U.S. airstrike, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri succeeded him as the group’s leader. In that same year, it merged with several other insurgent groups, calling itself the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC).

In October of 2006 the MSC declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), naming Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its Emir and al-Masari as its Minister of War. The group’s stated goal was to seize control of the western and central areas of Iraq and turn it into a Sunni Islamic state. However, its indiscriminate use of violence led it to lose popular support and helped give rise to the “Sunni Awakening” where many former militants joined with coalition forces to combat it.

From 2008 to 2010 ISIS was on the run. In 2008 it was driven out of many of its safe havens, and its leaders declared that the group was in a state of “extraordinary crisis.” By 2010 thirty-four of its top forty-two leaders had been either captured or killed, including Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over as the group’s new leader (a position he has retained to this day), and he immediately began replacing the leadership vacancies, many of whom had served as military and intelligence officers under Saddam Hussein.

Helped along by a host social and political factors, including the heavy-handed policies of Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, which alienated the Sunni community and led to protests in 2012, as well as the rapid withdrawal of coalition forces, ISIS began to make a comeback. The group actively sought to regain the ground it had lost in 2008, and when Iraqi Security Forces attempted to close a protest camp in Ramadi that led to a Sunni uprising that forced the ISF out of Fallujah and Ramadi, ISIS seized control of the cities. ISIS also declared the beginning of a new offensive that sought to free ISIS members held in Iraqi prisons, and in 2013 the group carried out simultaneous raids on Taji and Abu Ghraib prison, apparently freeing more than 500 prisoners.

After the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, al-Baghdadi sent ISIS members with guerilla warfare experience to Syria in order to recruit fighters and establish local cells, and in 2012 Jabhat al-Nusra (more commonly known as the al-Nusra Front) was founded by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. It grew rapidly and gained popularity among Syrians opposed to the Assad regime. In 2013 al-Baghdadi announced that ISIS had established and financed al-Nusra and that the two groups would merge and become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, al-Jawlani rejected the merger, claiming that Baghdadi did not consult him or anyone else from al-Nusra. Al-Nusra’s resistance to the merger could have been because al-Qaeda had ruled against it, something that Baghdadi ignored, ultimately leading al-Qaeda to cut ties with ISIS in 2014, putting an end to their 10-year relationship (Al-Qaeda did not sever its ties with al-Nusra, however..

Another reason might have been due to the differences between the two groups. For example, while al-Nusra appears to be focused on overthrowing the Assad government, ISIS is more interested in extending its rule to areas it has conquered. And while al-Nusra pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, ISIS was far more ruthless, carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately. Moreover, al-Nusra is seen by Syrians as being more of a homegrown group than is ISIS, which many describe as a foreign occupier. Regardless of the reasons, the merger between al-Nusra and ISIS has not gone as smoothly as Baghdadi had hoped. In fact, the two groups have sometimes fought one another. That said, some al-Nusra branches have pledged allegiance to ISIS.

In June 2014, ISIS proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate, with Baghdadi as its caliph, and renamed itself the Islamic State (IS). As a caliphate, ISIS claims religious, political, and military authority over the world’s Muslims, but most Islamic governments and Muslim leaders have rejected ISIS’s claim. Baghdadi and his core allies have been able to maintain strength and enforce their authority throughout the areas ISIS controls via alliances with similar minded and violent groups. In August, after ISIS captured the towns of Zumar, Sinjar, and Wana, the United States simultaneously launched a humanitarian mission to protect religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, as well as an aerial bombing campaign to protect Americans in Iraq and support Iraq in its fight against the group.

In short, Donald Trump's claim that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are co-founders of ISIS are absurd. The group has been around for longer than they have been (or were) President and Secretary of State, respectively. One could argue that the rapid drawdown of troops created a vacuum in which ISIS was able to recover and expand. As I noted a couple of years ago ("What To Do About Iraq?")
In one of my very first posts ("Leaving Afghanistan Smartly") I recounted a remark by counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who was one of General Patraeus's advisors in Iraq during the "surge" and an opponent of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the first place: "Just because you invade a country stupidly doesn't mean you have to leave it stupidly (see Tom Rick's book, "The Gamble" page 29).
We would have been smart to have heeded Kilcullen's advice. Unfortunately, we didn't. Although the invasion of Iraq was ill-advised, it was just as shortsighted to leave the country in such a hurry. Rather of removing all of our troops, we should have left a small force behind that could have continued to secure the safety of the Iraqi citizens. Instead, we now have a humanitarian crisis on our hands. ISIS is showing no mercy to religious minorities, who have been told to leave or die. Many in the West have seen video clips of Iraqi Yazidis fleeing for their lives (see above), and for the first time in 1600 years, there are no Christians living in Mosul ("ISIS and Mosul's Christians").
However, when conservative radio show host, Hugh Hewitt, stated that he understood Trump to mean "that he (Obama) created the vacuum, he lost the peace," Trump objected. "No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton" ("Donald Trump: I meant that Obama founded ISIS, literally").

I recently read that the Republican National Committee Chairman, Reince Priebus, told Trump that he'd been better off going on vacation after the Republican Convention ("Exclusive: The Republican Party’s Chairman’s Warning to Donald Trump"). Remarks such as those about the Kahn family, 2nd Amendment People, and Obama as ISIS's founder have kept the focus on Trump rather than on Clinton weaknesses (e.g., new revelations about her emails) ("Trump's Gaffes Steal Clinton's Blunder Thunder"). A simpler solution would be for Trump just to keep his mouth shut, but that seems to be an unlikely scenario.

Note: The history of ISIS is adapted from a paper I wrote with my colleagues Dan Cunningham and Rob Schroeder for a presentation at the 2015 ASREC (Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture) conference in Boston, Massachusetts.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Someone Needs to Reign Draymond Green In

Someone needs to reign Draymond Green in. I'm not sure who should or who even can, but he seems to be getting increasingly out of control. First, during the season he was pulled over for driving over 100 mph. Then after the season, he got in a minor brawl with someone (a college football player), who was taunting him. And a couple of days ago he posted a picture of his, well, you know, on snap chat (claimed he hit the wrong button -- but why did he take the picture in the first place?).

All of this is too bad. He's a lot of fun to watch. But even on the court he needs to reign things in. Personally, I think the flagrant foul he received in the 4th game of the NBA finals was a bit of a stretch, but he shouldn't have put himself in a position such that getting it (it was his 7th) would cause him to be suspended for a game. However, he did, he was suspended for game 5, and it probably cost the Warriors the NBA championship.
(Note: The Warriors probably would've won game 5 if Green had played. They had the momentum and they were playing at home. What's worse is that during the game the Warriors' center, Andrew Bogut, was injured and could not play the rest of the series. Bogut is one of the best defensive centers in the game, and one could make a case that had he'd been healthy, the Warriors would've won either game 6 or 7 (probably game 7). Still, as I noted last year ("What Makes a Winning Combination? Talent, Luck, and (Sometimes) Chemistry"), winning championships is a combination of skill and luck. Last year the Warriors had both. This year they didn't.)
I'm not sure what the answer is. Draymond's talented, he's fun to watch, and he seems like a good guy. However, I worry that he's moving in the wrong direction. Hopefully, I'm wrong. Or, if I'm right, someone will help turn Draymond around and point him in a more productive direction.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Yes, Kevin Durant is a Golden State Warrior

Kevin Durant's decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors has been greeted with joy by
Warriors' fans and disdain by fans of virtually every other team in the NBA. As several commentators have pointed out, next season the Warriors will no longer be seen as the lovable underdogs but instead as the NBA's most hated bullies, which is interesting considering that signing players like Durant is exactly what the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics have been doing for years, and no one seemed to mind. However, now that the Warriors have done it, it's somehow immoral. Oh well. I'm sure most Warrior fans can live with it.

My sense is that when cry-baby James convinced the NBA's powers-that-be to suspend Draymond Green for the 5th game of the NBA finals, the Warriors' management decided that from that point on it would no longer be the NBA's nice guy but instead would be the NBA's new LA Lakers (or Boston Celtics). That's not to say that they weren't targeting Durant before. It's just to say that they probably became more determined after. We'll see how it all works out.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Why Brexit Is (Probably) A Bad Thing

The decision of British voters to leave the European Union (EU) will probably be a bad thing, not only for Britain, but also possibly Europe and the rest of the World. Why? Well, aside from the fact that Russia's Vladimir Putin thinks it's a good thing, no doubt because he thinks it will weaken Europe and help Russia, here's a few reasons:

1. Capital investment: Economic uncertainty reduces capital investment, which is necessary for economies to grow, innovate, and thrive. In fact, on July 1st The Financial Times reported that deals worth £650m had been pulled as a result of the Brexit vote. And uncertainty will continue to reign until Britain and the EU negotiate the terms of their divorce. The best case scenario is for EU members to quickly agree to keep Britain as closely tied to the EU as possible without being a member. It would be similar to the relationship that Norway and other countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) have with the EU. Such a relationship would have its costs: EEA members make large payments to the EU, and they have to observe all EU single-market regulations without having a say in drawing them up. However, this would also mean accepting the free movement of labor, which the Brexiters campaigned against (see below). Thus, a more likely scenario is that the negotiations will drag out, which will prolong uncertainty, reduce investment, and hurt Britain's economy.

2. Free trade and open markets: Although open markets have deleterious effects, there is little doubt that they contribute to an economy's long-term growth. The answer isn't to restrict trade, but to put in place social safety nets (e.g., single-payer health care) and educational advancement options that help those displaced by a rapidly changing economy. To be sure, Brexiters argue that by leaving the EU, Britain can negotiate its own trade agreements with non-EU countries and not be subject to EU trade regulations, which Brexiters argue restrict free trade, thus making it easier for Britain to trade with the rest of the world. That argument, however, is problematic. First, almost half of Britain's exports go to EU countries -- not having access to the EU single market will hurt the very people the Brexiters claim to be protecting. Second, Europe has negotiated scores of trade agreements that Britain would need to redo, and as The Economist notes ("Divided We Fall"), Britain "would be a smaller, weaker negotiating partner. The timetable would not be under its control, and the slow, grinding history of trade liberalisation shows that mercantilists tend to have the upper hand."

3. Free movement of labor: Research has found that immigration positively affects a nation's economy. Immigrants contribute more to a country's GDP than they take away, but they are often seen as the problem. As The Economist noted a couple of weeks ago ("Divided We Fall"):
Leave has warned that millions of Turks are about to invade Britain, which is blatantly false. It has blamed strains on public services like health care and education on immigration, when immigrants, who are net contributors to the exchequer, help Britain foot the bill. It suggests that Britain cannot keep out murderers, rapists and terrorists when, in fact, it can.
And, as FiveThirtyEight recently reported ("The U.K. Can't Block Immigration If It Wants To Keep Its Finance Industry"), Britain will not remain one of the financial capitals of the world if it insists on restricting immigration. Why is that important? Because Britain's financial services industry accounts for about 11% of all tax revenue.

4. Scotland and Ireland: Scotland voted to remain in the EU and now is considering another referendum to gain independence from the UK, so that it could rejoin the EU. That would probably be bad for both economies. And in Ireland, the 1998 Good Friday Peace Accord, which has helped reduce the tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the last 18 years, "required" that both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland remain in the EU. Many see the sharing of British and Irish national sovereignty within the EU "as an important softening of the bipolar choice between British and Irish dominion in Northern Ireland... [a decision to leave the EU] will be seen by many nationalists as a reconstruction of political and even physical barriers between the north and south of Ireland, which the Good Friday agreement was designed to reduce" ("Troubles Redux: Brexit Would Put the Good Friday Agreement in Jeopardy").