ISIS Revenue

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015

According to U.S. Department of the Treasury officials, ISIS is taking in $500 million from oil a year — and that’s not their only source of revenue:

Yet even if the U.S. finally weakens the group’s oil income, Bahney and other analysts in the U.S., the Middle East, and Europe contend, Islamic State has resources beyond crude — from selling sex slaves to ransoming hostages to plundering stolen farmland — that can likely keep it fighting for years. In any case, $500 million buys a lot of $500 black-market AK-47s.

Islamic State got into the oil business long before it captured global attention through barbaric beheading videos in the summer of 2014. It seized Syrian border crossings to profit from oil smuggling. And it tapped a network that’s operated for decades, dating to at least the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein evaded sanctions by smuggling billions of dollars’ worth of oil out of Iraq under the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food program.

Most often refined in Syria, the group’s oil is trucked to cities such as Mosul to provide people living under its black banner with fuel for generators and other basic needs. It’s also used to power the war machine. “They have quite an organized supply chain running fuel into Iraq and [throughout] the ‘caliphate,’?” says Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, using the militant group’s religiously loaded term for itself. Because the U.S. apparently believed the real money for Islamic State came primarily via selling refined oil, rather than crude, last year’s strikes heavily targeted refineries and storage depots, says Bahney. He and other experts say that strategy missed an important shift: Militants increasingly sell raw crude to truckers and middlemen, rather than refining it themselves. So while Islamic State probably maintains some refining capacity, the majority of the oil in IS territory is refined by locals who operate thousands of rudimentary, roadside furnaces that dot the Syrian desert.

Pentagon officials also acknowledge that for more than a year they avoided striking tanker trucks to limit civilian casualties. “None of these guys are ISIS. We don’t feel right vaporizing them, so we have been watching ISIS oil flowing around for a year,” says Knights. That changed on Nov. 16, when four U.S. attack planes and two gunships destroyed 116 oil trucks. A Pentagon spokesman says the U.S. first dropped leaflets warning drivers to scatter.

Beyond oil, the caliphate is believed by U.S. officials to have assets including $500 million to $1 billion that it seized from Iraqi bank branches last year, untold “hundreds of millions” of dollars that U.S. officials say are extorted and taxed out of populations under the group’s control, and tens of millions of dollars more earned from looted antiquities and ransoms paid to free kidnap victims.

The taxes bring in real money. One example: Islamic State allows policemen, soldiers, and teachers in its territory to atone for the “sin” of having worked under religiously inappropriate regimes—for a fee. Forgiveness comes in the form of a repentance ID card costing up to $2,500, which requires an additional $200 a year to renew, according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tami, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who closely follows the group.

Arguably the least appreciated resource for Islamic State is its fertile farms. Before even starting the engine of a single tractor, the group is believed to have grabbed as much as $200 million in wheat from Iraqi silos alone. Beyond harvested grains, the acreage now controlled by militants across the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys has historically produced half of Syria’s annual wheat crop, about one-third of Iraq’s, and almost 40 percent of Iraqi barley, according to UN agricultural officials and a Syrian economist. Its fields could yield $200 million per year if those crops are sold, even at the cut rates paid on black markets. And how do you conduct airstrikes on farm fields?

For his part, Bahney contends that the group’s real financial strength is its fanatical spending discipline. Rand estimates the biggest and most important drain on Islamic State’s budget is the salary line for up to 100,000 fighters.

Charles Krauthammer’s Conversation with Bill Kristol

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Charles Krauthammer has a conversation with Bill Kristol that more or less starts with the Reagan Doctrine he named while still a conservative Democrat:

Star Wars of Ancient Greece

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Aaron McConnell clearly had some fun with his Star Wars of Ancient Greece line:

Star Wars of Ancient Greece Boba Fett

Star Wars of Ancient Greece Chewbacca as Minotaur, Han

Star Wars of Ancient Greece Leia, Kenobi, Shade

Star Wars of Ancient Greece Luke, R2-D2, C-3PO

ISIS in Afghanistan

Friday, November 20th, 2015

I watched the latest Frontline, ISIS in Afghanistan, and had a few thoughts.

Frontline correspondent Najibullah Quraishi seems rather… credulous. Apparently Afghan fighters are defecting from the Taliban to the new, better-paying Islamist group, ISIS — and ISIS is running schools where they teach the children how to fight unbelievers.

Only no one at the school they visited seems to know much about gun-handling. The boys at the ISIS-run school have clearly never handled the guns before, and the teacher doesn’t seem to have many technical pointers to offer.

Also — random thought — I can remember reading years ago — in Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen, I believe — that blond hair is attractive because it suggests youth, and that seemed odd to me, because I hadn’t noticed kids being blonder than adults while growing up. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, the difference in color between children and adults is stark. Almost all the adults have dark hair and skin, but many of the children are blond.

Servants without Masters

Friday, November 20th, 2015

Singapore’s government has an extensive guest-worker system — which creates some dynamics Harold Lee found jarring:

There, in the flesh, was a middle-aged Filipino woman who was just there to attend to my needs, as a guest of the family. I was expected to ask her to wash my clothes, for example, and prepare whatever I wanted for breakfast. And for all my admiration of the political needle-threading of Singaporean immigration policy, this situation completely freaked me out. It made me intensely uncomfortable to have someone hanging around just to attend to my needs, and tell them to do menial chores for me.

And yet, when I thought about it, I realized that I had no problem with janitors or baristas doing dirty work for me. My emotional reaction was not really about being an American with sturdy frontier values of self-sufficiency. I was perfectly happy to farm out menial work — as long as it was done by a faceless worker in a uniform, rather than a single person I was expected to have a relationship with. This incongruence was one of the major lessons I took from my trip to Singapore. Even after I returned to the Land of the Free, I kept being struck by the ease with which I blithely accepted the service of servants as long as they were framed as business transactions with dehumanized service workers.

And I noticed that the same blind spot applied in the other direction, in people’s attitudes towards submission towards superiors. The very word “submissiveness” tends to raise people’s hackles in our culture, but in fact we are happy to accept it — if and only if it’s submission to a faceless institution, rather than to someone’s personal authority. In an old-school apprenticeship, the master essentially runs your life for seven years and can bring you back if you run away, possibly with a flogging for good measure. This seems incredibly coercive today, and is probably one of the reasons apprenticeship and other forms of demanding mentorship are in short supply. But at the same time, it’s considered completely unremarkable for someone to go into nondischargeable debt to go to grad school and work hard to satisfy every whim of their professors. For a more barbed example, it’s considered entirely unremarkable for a woman to be submissive to her boss, but sounds terribly suspect to expect her to be equivalently submissive to her husband.


It’s a sort of inverse Confucianism — a system where authority can only be exercised by people who deliberately do not engage in one-on-one superior-inferior relationships.

This reminds me, oddly enough, of George Fitzhugh‘s very Southern view of slavery as the best form of socialism.

Tomorrow Land: Disney in Space and Beyond

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

I may have picked up Tomorrow Land: Disney in Space and Beyond on a whim a decade ago — even though I was never really a space geek — but it stuck with me.

I grew up in an era when we took going to the moon for granted — but anything equally ambitious seemed ludicrous.

Nick B. Steves recently watched one of the included pieces and noted the civilizational confidence of post-war America:

This talk of civilizational confidence reminds me of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (and the new Amazon show), where the victorious Nazis go on to drain the Mediterranean.

The Confucian Heuristic

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Harold Lee explains the Confucian heuristic:

Like a lot of people, Confucius was bothered by “bad inequality” — the kind of hierarchy where the elites actively oppress the poor and the lower class at best toils away, and at worse foment short-sighted peasant rebellions. The usual Western response to bad inequality is leveling — knock down all hierarchies as “elitism” and “privilege,” and even everything out until there’s no concentration of power such that anyone can oppress his fellow man. Sometimes that can be a helpful approach, but there are several side effects.

One is that while some kinds of inequality can be gotten rid of — wealth, family inheritance, ethnic inequalities, and so on — there are many more you can’t touch. Some people are more diligent than others, you can’t change that. Some are more politically savvy, some are taller, better looking. If you suppress all sources of inequality that you can, often you end up just increasing the importance of things you can’t touch. Knock down aristocracy, and you simply get meritocracy that privileges diligent, politically savvy nerds instead. And while we’ve developed some social technology to at least channel selfish impulses in prosocial ways, we haven’t yet invented the analogue of capitalism that channels height inequality into prosocial behavior.

A related problem is that in telling a story about eliminating inequality, this leveling frees up the new elites — the winners in the new “emergent inequality,” to deny that they’re in fact elites. They’re just average Joes like anyone else, and feel therefore feel no sense of obligation towards the losers of society. And when they’re in competition with the weak, they see it as a contest between equals and have no compunction about using their strengths to exploit them, all cloaked in egalitarianism. (This is in fact a criticism that has been leveled against meritocracy — the winners feel like they have earned their advantages, and therefore feel no noblesse oblige.)

Confucius took a different tack — he said hey, there’s always going to be inequality, let’s not kid ourselves. Instead, let’s formalize it into really visible hierarchy, and, crucially, tie great power to great responsibility. Rather than wrangle with abstract notions of status, he prefers to emphasize the personal interactions between superiors and inferiors. So he spends a lot of time talking about rights and responsibilities in different kinds of relationships, and promoting rites — think “etiquette” — to make it clear that the weak respect the strong, and that the strong have obligations to the weak. If you’re going to be king, you’d better protect your people. If you’re going to be a mom, the kids have to obey you and take care of you in your old age, but you’d better raise them well. No weaseling out.

Earlier That Day

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

French first responders were very, very prepared for the recent attack:

According to Matlack, Paris hospitals and ambulance crews have been rehearsing what to do in response to a mass shooting since the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January.

Parisians hospitals even did a simulation of a mass shooting earlier on Friday, the day of attack. Nearly every surgeon in Paris had gone through the simulations by the time the terrorists attacked.

That’s an odd bit of synchronicity…

Visualize yourself doing this

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Michael Yon shared a sad photo from the aftermath of the attack and went on to make this point:

We are at war.

We must retrain our minds that we are not sheep to be slaughtered.

An attack like this would never have been so successful in Israel.

The Israelis would have slaughtered them with bricks and whatever was at hand. This might explain at least in part why hijackers do not go for El Al, the Israeli airline.

There is no chance that an airplane full of Israelis will go down to hijackers without a fight.


There are endless examples throughout time of bum-rushing an armed attacker and succeeding. Some of our troops recently did this on a train and were lauded as heroes in France.

Another US veteran recently did this during a school shooting in America. He got shot up, but he broke the attack.

In the US and British militaries, if you are caught in a close ambush, you are taught and trained to immediately fight into it. Remember — you are in their kill zone. They prepared in advance. Your best chance is to bust their plan to pieces. Waiting for them to run out of ammo is not a plan.

Aggression. Ask a Marine infantry NCO or Officer what his plan is should he not know what to do and find himself confused. His answer will be ATTACK! Because attack is what works most often. It does not always work, but when you find yourself in a terrorist attack, your day is already going down the pipes. Your schedule just changed.

On 9/11, passengers on the first aircrafts that crashed, our good people, did not know what was happening so they perished like sheep. If they knew what was coming, no doubt they would have attacked like wolves. But on the last airplane, Americans figured it out and bum-rushed the terrorists. The airplane still crashed and they all died, but they thwarted the attack and may have saved hundreds or even thousands of others.

Of course if the attacker is wearing a suicide belt, you may die. Come to grips with it. We all die. If not now, it is coming later. If he is carrying an AK-47 or a sword, you may die. Okay. Escape, hide, or attack. Do not wait to be slaughtered.

First option — unless you are law enforcement or a Soldier — is to escape. Second option is to hide. Final option, kill that son of a bitch. Bum-rush him.

Take his rifle and shoot him in the head.

He might be wearing a vest — when you are very close shoot his head twice and keep moving. If the rifle is out of ammo, kill him with the rifle butt or something else. Smash with all of your strength.

No time for hogtying him. There might be other terrorists and there is no time for pleasantries. Just kill him and keep your weapon pointed at potential enemies. Be very careful not to cause innocent casualties. Can be hard to do.

For targets father away, aim center mass and fire.

Look for other attackers to shoot. Shoot them all. Take their weapons and reload and look for other attackers to shoot. Let others do first aid. You are now a Soldier and must defend those who are giving aid until the police come — and when the police come, get away from those weapons!

Tell the cops what happened. Go home. Take a long shower. And get some rest.

Visualize yourself doing this. Mentally prepare yourself to fight and kill him by any means at your disposal, including smashing his head in with a fire extinguisher, which can also be used as a “smoke screen.” Be prepared to kill and to die doing it.

Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralisation (EAER)

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Tooth decay is normally removed by drilling, followed by filling in the cavity with an amalgam or composite resin, but a new treatment, called Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralisation (EAER), accelerates the natural movement of calcium and phosphate into the damaged tooth:

A two-step process first prepares the damaged area of enamel, then uses a tiny electric current to push minerals into the repair site. It could be available within three years.

The Unintended Consequences of Recording the Police

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Greg Ellifritz discusses the unintended consequences of recording the police:

As citizens record officers with increasing frequency, what do you think the officers are likely to do?  If there’s a high probability that no matter what an officer does (good or bad) will end up on YouTube in a video critical of police, cops will simply stop working.  You see, cops are rarely disciplined for NOT doing something.  They get in trouble when they ACT, particularly when the action the officer takes turns out badly or has some undesirable political ramifications.  The easiest way to prevent that is for the officer to stop doing ANYTHING that has the potential of being videotaped.  The officer can drive slowly to calls of violence in progress (claiming that he would be putting the public at risk if he drove any faster), arriving just in time to write a stellar report without catching the criminal or stopping the crime in progress.  People don’t videotape cops writing reports.  That’s not exciting.  It’s when the cops are interacting with criminals that the cell phones come out.  A simple solution to avoid being taped would be to AVOID INTERACTING WITH CRIMINALS.  How do you think that would affect long term crime statistics?  Would it be a net positive or net negative for society if cops stopped arresting people breaking the law?

Since it’s obvious that a crime in progress isn’t the only thing that will cause people to break out the cameras, cops will start avoiding interactions with citizens as well. I could have easily driven past the man flagging me down for help. If I was ever questioned about it by supervisors (unlikely), I could always claim that I didn’t see the man or that I was trying to catch up to a traffic violator. I could claim I was en route to another more important call. There could be any number of valid reasons why I didn’t stop for help.

Driving past a person flagging me down for help would ensure that I don’t get videotaped. Avoiding all citizen contact would ensure that my face doesn’t end up on YouTube. I could sit all day in a parking lot doing nothing and virtually ensure that I don’t get taped. The worst thing that would happen is that I might get some kind of reprimand for lack of “productivity.” A written reprimand is a far better option than having my face on a negative YouTube video that goes viral.

So if cops stop arresting criminals and go out of their way to avoid having any type of contact with citizens, would society be a better place? If the goal of the folks with the video cameras is social reform, that’s what they’ll get. But the reform that will happen won’t be a positive one. That makes me think that maybe these folks filming the cops don’t really want social reform. Maybe they want a world where criminals go unchallenged. Maybe they place their own fame and notoriety above the goal of living in a better society. If personal notoriety and unchecked criminal aggression is your goal, then by all means keep filming cops who are loaning their cell phones to stranded construction workers.

The truly sad aspect of where this is heading is the long term effect that it will have on the ability to hire quality police candidates. If I was a conscientious and intelligent person, why would I even consider being a police officer as a career when I know that whatever I do, good or bad, will end up on a video sharing site with a negative spin? Why go through the hassle? Quality candidates will have better career options that don’t involve their unintended starring role in the next viral video.

Pesticide against Hezbollah and Assad

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Israel treats Sunni militias like ISIS as pesticide against Hezbollah and Assad:

While the US was intervening to attack the Sunni jihadis, the IDF underlined its view of the real enemy by knocking down one of Assad’s antique fighters out of the sky.

That ancient MiG wasn’t downed because it was a threat to Israel, or because it was over the line. It was downed as a gesture. Bibi and his Likud allies are sulking, because the way they see it, we’re bombing the wrong Syrians. The Israeli elite has always wanted the US to intervene in the Syrian Civil War — but not against the Sunni jihadists, as we’re doing now. They want American planes and drones to obliterate the other side — the Alawites’ Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its Hezbollah allies.

Nobody ever seems to mention it, but the supposedly fearsome IS now owns the ground right under Israel’s Golan Heights fortifications, after moving in in June 2014 when the weary SAA, tired of being shelled by the IDF, moved out.

So IS has been in place right there on Israel’s border for months now—and there’s been no attack from Israel. Yes, folks, you might actually get the impression that the Israelis — who know a thing or two about threat assessment — just don’t take IS very seriously.

In fact, IS is a convenient little irritant, as seen from Jerusalem, a useful way to annoy the real enemy—the Shia-Alawite-Iran bloc.

A Superforecaster on Superforecasting

Monday, November 16th, 2015

A superforecaster reviews Superforecasting:

While superforecasters had ordinary-seeming day jobs, they were an unusually smart and knowledgeable group. When tested, they scored at least a standard deviation higher than the general population on tests of fluid intelligence and at least a standard deviation higher than the general population on tests of political knowledge. Many were retired or — like me — were employed less than full time, so they could spend hours every week researching the questions and breaking them down into manageable parts. If the question was whether Ebola would spread to Europe, they pored over epidemiological models, studied airline screening procedures, and read papers on the possible sexual transmission of the disease. They updated their forecasts often.

Superforecasters also scored highly on measures of “actively open-minded thinking”. That is, they are not committed in advance to any one idea of how the world works. They treat their ideas as hypotheses to be tested, rather than premises to be built on. They look for facts and arguments that might call their views into question. They generally see events as determined in part by chance rather than attributing them to divine will or fate. They approach problems from a variety of different angles. They are unusually willing to consider that they might be wrong.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into “foxes”, who look at problems from a different perspectives, and “hedgehogs”, who “relate everything to a single central vision”. The dichotomy comes from the Greek poet Archilochus’ line that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Tetlock found that people who were confident there are simple, readily-available explanations for events — whether they were realists or liberal idealists, Marxists or supply-side economists — were practically worthless forecasters. People who saw themselves as foxes, who thought politics was complex and unpredictable, and who were willing to consider different points of view were consistently more accurate. Foxes were better forecasters.

The superforecaster writing that is Robert de Neufville, an associate of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute:

He has degrees in political science and political theory from Harvard and Berkeley. As one of the top 2% of forecasters in IARPA ‘s experimental Good Judgment Project forecasting tournament, he qualifies as a “superforecaster”. He was one on the forecasters interviewed for Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. He has contributed to The Economist and The Washington Monthly, and for several years wrote the Politeia column for Big Think. Follow him on Twitter here.

Can Videogames Make You a Better Race-Car Driver?

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

A few years ago Top Gear put an iRacing champion in a real race car and found that he was virtually prepared — but not at all physically prepared.

The Wall Street Journal now reports that videogames can make you a better race-car driver:

The first time that Brendon Blake, a 41-year-old physical therapist from Flowery Branch, Ga., careened around the nearby Road Atlanta racetrack, his instructor was taken aback. Mr. Blake, despite being a total beginner, was fast. That’s because, long before he’d enrolled in the one-day racing class, he’d “driven” the same course hundreds of times. It didn’t matter that he had done so virtually, in the Xbox car-racing game “Forza Motorsport.”

“The instructor sitting in the passenger seat said he was surprised I knew where to place the car on the track,” said Mr. Blake of that maiden drive, about four years ago. “I recognized every single corner and knew where the race line was and where all the apexes were — all from the game.” Since then, Mr. Blake — who plays using a force-feedback steering wheel and mock pedals like those shown below — has taken his 291-horsepower Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution to courses all over the country, from Tennessee’s Nashville Speedway to Talladega in Alabama. He pays about $250 a day for further driving instruction on “track days,” when average Joes can rent time on a course that’s not being used for a race.

Pertinaciously Obstinate

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

David Hume addresses the “trolls” of his time in the first section of his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

Disputes with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except, perhaps, those with persons, entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy, from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity, superior to the rest of mankind. The same blind adherence to their own arguments is to be expected in both; the same contempt of their antagonists; and the same passionate vehemence, in inforcing sophistry and falsehood. And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.