How the Islamic State Was Won

James Harkin in Harper's:

ImageIn the summer of 2012, as the initial demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad gave way to armed conflict between government and rebel troops, the Syrian army began pounding parts of its biggest cities with missiles and barrel bombs. The aim was to wipe out the regime’s armed opponents, but the result was to destroy the country’s social fabric and displace whole communities — leaving millions of Syrians with little to lose. Groups like the Nusra Front took control of towns across the north, and foreign jihadis flooded into Syria to join the fight. I’d seen them myself when I went to Aleppo in the spring of 2013. On the way into the city we were surrounded by countless shiny SUVs with tinted windows and black Islamist flags hanging off the back. At one point, as we waited in a traffic jam, a North African jihadi on the back of a truck fixed me with a stare and waved at me to put my camera down.

Now Nusra’s biggest rival for power in the north is the Islamic State — even though, until February 2014, ISIL was, like Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. But the marriage had always been uncomfortable. ISIL sprang from Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was led by a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi had angered Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s leadership by slaughtering Shias in Iraq. After Zarqawi’s death in a U.S. air strike in 2006, the group went into decline until a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over, in 2010. Baghdadi started as a low-level street fighter during the American occupation of Iraq and is reported to have done some time in a U.S. Army prison. It was his decision to move the group into Syria’s stateless rebel areas in 2013 that changed its fortunes radically — and pushed its differences with Al Qaeda into the open. Al Qaeda’s aim had been to build a terror organization powerful enough to take the battle to its enemies in the West, but ISIL saw its mission as more religiously purist and more constructive — to improve the piety of Sunni Muslims and build a government around them. After ISIL began competing with the Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda declared it was severing ties with the former.

More here.

Cubans exemplify sustainable living—whether they want to or not

HarpersWeb-Postcard-WorkersParadise-622Chris Lewis at Harper's Magazine:

In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.

Cuba owes this ecologically lean development to strong social programs, a dedicated cadre of conservationists, and, despite revolutionary leaders’ grand visions, a chronically erratic economy. “Cuba hasn’t been able to develop like it has wanted to. Cuba has wanted to increase its level of consumption—and now wants to even more, in fact—but it hasn’t been able to,” said Isbel Díaz Torres, head of the Havana-based environmental activist group Guardabosques. “It hasn’t known how. It has chosen bad international allies to do it on many occasions. And so that has brought us to the place we are now with low consumption, but it’s not because of a policy of ‘we’re going to consume less to have less environmental impact.’ In fact, the policy has always been the opposite.”

more here.

walter benjamin and technology

Jahromi_loc_imgNeima Jahromi at The Nation:

In 1916, the young Benjamin praised Cervantes’s method—“only by becoming humor can language become critique”—and would render similar scenes on the radio. In one of his most popular broadcasts, “What the Germans Were Reading While Their Classical Authors Were Writing,” he notes that 18th-century Germans discussed mountains of second-rate literature in the same breath as the works then being composed by their great masters. After an academic claims that newspapers belong in the hands of even the least-educated people, a pastor named Grunelius remarks, “I am better placed than anyone to survey the appalling epidemic of reading to which our public has fallen prey…. The bourgeois girl who belongs in the kitchen is reading her Schiller and Goethe in the hallway.”

Benjamin took up the idea again late in his life, albeit with a much more somber tone. Among a collection of fragments under the title “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he argues that any cultural historian who studies the landmark artistic achievements of the past must see that “they owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.”

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Aldous Huxley versus the Mesomorphs

P18_Melechi_1195228hAntonio Melechi at the Times Literary Supplement:

Whatever his shortcomings as a novelist of character and dramatic action, there was certainly no denying the staggering panorama of ideas that Huxley, a self-styled professor of nothing-in-particular, could navigate in his fiction and essays. From the history of scissors to Chinese ceramics, Vedic scripture to medieval gastronomy, his reach was telescopic. But Southern California, his adopted home, ushered him towards a new role. Frustrated by his moderate success as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Huxley found sustenance in a diet of mysticism and mescaline, hypnosis and dianetics. Writing for Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post, lecturing to ever-more crowded auditoriums, Huxley took the question of human potential writ large as his intellectual lodestar. What non-revolutionary measures could the godless society pursue to expand the heart and mind? How could co-operation and collectivism replace the urge to control and dominate?

To answer these and other questions, Huxley plundered psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, anthropology, psychopharmacology and evolutionary biology. According to his own definition, he was now a “pontifex”, a bridge between science and the general world, a kind of freelance human engineer. But like the hapless Theodor Gumbrich, the inventor of the world’s first pneumatic trousers, from Antic Hay (1923), Huxley’s rapport with new scientific research and technology was sometimes seriously misjudged.

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Sweet and sour green beans for Thanksgiving!

Dear Reader,

As you may already be aware, I have recently published a cookbook of South Asian food for beginners. I don't have any turkey recipes in the book but I thought I would share with you a recipe for a vegetarian side dish (one of my favorites from the book) as a way of thanking you, on this day of gratitude, for being a 3 Quarks Daily reader.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at 3QD!

In this recipe, you can skip the fennel seeds, kalonji (nigella), and methi (fenugreek) seeds if you don't have them. It will still be very good, even if a little less authentically South Asian (the difference those ingredients make is subtle). You'll be surprised at just how good this is, I say with confidence! (Or you may register complaints in the comments!) You can just double (or even triple) the amounts of everything if you have a lot of guests coming. Do try it:


  • 4 fluid ounces (120 milliliters) oil
  • 1 teaspoon yellow or black mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon kalonji (nigella)
  • 1/4 teaspoon methi (fenugreek) seeds (optional), they add a certain depth but are not necessary
  • 1 large onion (12 ounces or 350 grams), chopped finely
  • 5 medium sized cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 16 ounces (450 grams) green beans, ends trimmed off and then cut into 1 inch (2.5 centimeter) lengths
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 fluid ounces (180 milliliters) of water
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 limes' worth of juice (60 milliliters).


  • Heat the oil in a large frying pan (or a large pot) on high heat for two minutes.
  • Put in the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, kalonji, and methi seeds (optional), and fry for 1 minute.
  • Add the onion and fry for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Add the garlic and fry for 1 minute, stirring frequently.
  • Add the cayenne pepper and turmeric and mix well.
  • Add the water, green beans, sugar, and salt, and turn heat down to medium-high (7 on a scale of 1 to 10), stir well once or twice, then cover and cook for 10 minutes.
  • Uncover and turn heat to high and cook while stirring for 3 more minutes, or until most of the water is evaporated.
  • Turn heat off and add the ground black pepper and lime juice, and mix well.
  • Taste and add salt and lime juice if needed.
  • DONE.

This recipe makes about four servings as a side dish. Oh, and there is much more information about the cookbook here:

Sean Carroll: This year we give thanks for an area of mathematics that has become completely indispensable to modern theoretical physics

Sean Carroll at his own blog, Preposterous Universe:

ScreenHunter_1516 Nov. 26 20.20Now, the thing everyone has been giving thanks for over the last few days is Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which by some measures was introduced to the world exactly one hundred years ago yesterday. But we don’t want to be everybody, and besides we’re a day late. So it makes sense to honor the epochal advance in mathematics that directly enabled Einstein’s epochal advance in our understanding of spacetime.

Highly popularized accounts of the history of non-Euclidean geometry often give short shrift to Riemann, for reasons I don’t quite understand. You know the basic story: Euclid showed that geometry could be axiomatized on the basis of a few simple postulates, but one of them (the infamous Fifth Postulate) seemed just a bit less natural than the others. That’s the parallel postulate, which has been employed by generations of high-school geometry teachers to torture their students by challenging them to “prove” it. (Mine did, anyway.)

It can’t be proved, and indeed it’s not even necessarily true. In the ordinary flat geometry of a tabletop, initially parallel lines remain parallel forever, and Euclidean geometry is the name of the game. But we can imagine surfaces on which initially parallel lines diverge, such as a saddle, or ones on which they begin to come together, such as a sphere. In those contexts it is appropriate to replace the parallel postulate with something else, and we end up with non-Euclidean geometry.

More here.

Atheism in the Ancient World

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in the New York Times:

1122-BKS-Goldstein-master675-v2The philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, beloved by generations of Columbia University students (including me), was known for lines of wit that yielded nuggets of insight. He kept up his instructive shtick until the end, remarking to a colleague shortly before he died: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” For Morgenbesser, nothing worth pondering, including disbelief, could be entirely de-­paradoxed.

The major thesis of Tim Whitmarsh’s excellent “Battling the Gods” is that atheism — in all its nuanced varieties, even Morgenbesserian — isn’t a product of the modern age but rather reaches back to early Western intellectual tradition in the ancient Greek world.

The period that Whitmarsh covers is roughly 1,000 years, during which the Greek-speaking population emerged from illiteracy and anomie, became organized into independent city-states that spawned a high-achieving culture, were absorbed into the Macedonian Empire and then into the Roman Empire, and finally became Christianized. These momentous political shifts are efficiently traced, with astute commentary on their reflection in religious attitudes.

More here.

How Fairness Develops in Kids Around the World

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_1515 Nov. 26 18.07You're sitting at a table with a friend and a stranger offers you some candy. Hooray! Who doesn't like candy? But wait! You're not getting the same amounts. One of you gets four delicious pieces, and the other gets a measly one. Does that feel unfair? Do you bristle? Do you forfeit your candy and your friend’s candy, because they’re unevenly distributed?

For decades, psychologists have argued that the answers depend on how old you are, and whether you're the one with the bigger or smaller share. Adults seem to reject inequality of any form, and will pay a personal cost to avoid it even if they stand to get a bigger slice of the pie. Children are more nuanced.

In 2011, Katherine McAuliffe and Peter Blake showed that 8-year-olds, like adults, will reject any unequal offer. But younger children, aged 4 to 7, only bristle at situations when they are disadvantaged. In other words, they'd take the four pieces of candy, thank you very much, and screw the other kid.

“They start out with this very self-focused idea that they recognize unfairness when it’s unfair to me,” says Blake. “It takes more years for different psychological processes to kick in before they can flip that, and say: What's unfair to you is also unfair in general.”

These and other experiments have shown that our aversion to advantageous inequity (when we get more than others) is distinct from our aversion to disadvantageous inequity (when others get more than us). These two reactions involve different parts of the brain. They appear at different ages. They appear in different species: Chimpanzees and capuchins don't like disadvantageous inequity, but they'll tolerate the advantageous kind just as much as 4-year-old humans.

Now, McAuliffe and Blake have found that this distinction also depends on where we come from.

More here.

the rise of fascism in the United States

Editorial in The Feminist Wire:

Last week, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump expressed support for a database of Muslims in the United States, a registry so that “we” can keep track of “them.” Trump, of course, is no friend to civil liberties. We know this from his 1989 advocacy of the death penalty for five Black New York boys whom police had forced to confess to a rape and attempted murder they did not commit and Trump’s subsequent refusal to apologize to the boys in the face of exculpatory evidence so overwhelming that the state has dropped the charges. The youths (now adults) have been awarded millions of dollars in compensation for their wrongful imprisonment and received an apology from the state. But Trump is not alone.

But let’s be clear about what just happened: in a nation founded on principles of religious freedom and expression, a major candidate in a presidential race has suggested that we target, profile, and “manage” a group of people on the basis of their religious beliefs and presumed ethnicity. This is fascism, not democracy, and it represents the fullest expression of the state’s racist and xenophobic biopolitical impulses. Little surprise that pundits are connecting Trump’s comments to Nazi Germany. Hitler, who felt it useful for governments that “men do not think,” moved far beyond registries and special identification badges to containment and extermination. Hate is a slippery slope, but the U.S. has an insidious history of draping itself in the mantle of patriotism while squelching human rights both here and elsewhere.

Trump’s Islamophobia, shared by all too many around the world, in which the Other becomes a datapoint to be managed rather than a human being, and Congress’s anti-refugee bill embody a “logical” connection between biopolitics and fascism. Michel Foucault theorized biopolitics as the application of political power to human life, with “race” positioned as a technology of classification. Achille Mbembe moved beyond biopower, which he saw as insufficient to account for contemporary forms of killing, to necropolitics, locating the sovereign state’s right to kill in histories of colonization. Fascism is an ideal political form for the expression and operation of necropolitics, allowing the authoritarian state to decide whose lives matter.

More here.

Let’s Watch Father Carve This Handsome Bird

Sadie Stein in The Paris Review:

This vintage video from the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually gives a very good primer on carving—frankly, it’s the best guide I’ve found, and the thigh-meat trick is indeed neat, even if the announcer’s chummy tone can grate. (Be sure to watch long enough to hear him intone, “There goes that drumstick for a hungry boy!”)

But it raises other questions. Mainly: What is “turkey time,” and why is it separate from “carving time”? Best of all is the rather menacing, passive-aggressive coda: “You can carve without these directions, but you can probably carve better with them.” As a random drunk in a bar once slurred at me when I said I didn’t want to go to the pier with him, “Fine, whatever, just thought you might want to see the Statue of Liberty!”

More here.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs


Maria Popova reviews Lisa Randall's Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe in The NYT Book Review:

A good theory is an act of the informed imagination — it reaches toward the unknown while grounded in the firmest foundations of the known. In “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” the Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall proposes that a thin disk of dark matter in the plane of the Milky Way triggered a minor perturbation in deep space that caused the major earthly catastrophe that decimated the dinosaurs. It’s an original theory that builds on a century of groundbreaking discoveries to tell the story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, how dark matter illuminates its beguiling unknowns and how the physics of elementary particles, the physics of space, and the biology of life intertwine in ways both bewildering and profound.

If correct, Randall’s theory would require us to radically reappraise some of our most fundamental assumptions about the universe and our own existence. Sixty-­six million years ago, according to her dark-matter disk model, a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos hurled a comet three times the width of Manhattan toward Earth at least 700 times the speed of a car on a freeway. The collision produced the most powerful earthquake of all time and released energy a billion times that of an atomic bomb, heating the atmosphere into an incandescent furnace that killed three-quarters of Earthlings. No creature heavier than 55 pounds, or about the size of a Dalmatian, survived. The death of the dinosaurs made possible the subsequent rise of mammalian dominance, without which you and I would not have evolved to ponder the perplexities of the cosmos.

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Mind, Language, and Metaphilosophy: Early Philosophical Papers


Paul Churchland reviews Richard Rorty's Mind, Language, and Metaphilosophy: Early Philosophical Papers in Notre Dame Philosophical Review:

This glowing collection includes Rorty's earliest publications — from 1961 through 1972 — and his earliest attempts to deal with the broad landscape of problems that engulfed our discipline in the second half of the 20th Century: most centrally (for Rorty), analytical reductionism, the mind/body problem, the distinguishing or defining feature of the mental, and the proper methodology for philosophy itself. The arc of Rorty's adventures here mirrors the arc of our professional concerns generally in that period, not least because Rorty was an influential contributor to those discussions, but also because he addressed in depth the work of his most prominent philosophical contemporaries, such as Carnap, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Strawson, Sellars, Quine, and Dennett. His insightful commentaries on these figures, and others, are worth the price of this collection all by themselves.

But a larger issue shapes the relevance of Rorty's essays here. Despite an initial philosophical education that was decidedly classical, Rorty was captured by C.S. Peirce's late 19th-century pragmatism, a philosophical perspective that never left him. And that fertile perspective dominates all of his philosophical activity throughout these essays. For example, given the basic pragmatist conviction that the ultimate function of cognitive activity is to survive in and to navigate the peculiar environment in which one happens to be embedded, a philosopher is very unlikely to find plausible a story that attempts to reduce or translate all empirical statements into a unique and philosophically basic vocabulary of sensory simples. For the sensory vocabulary we happen to use is also plastic, is also in the business of helping us to navigate the world, and is ultimately to be evaluated by the pragmatic virtues that drive and select our conceptual resources generally. Understanding our sensory access to the world is indeed of major importance, and it commands constant evaluation and reevaluation. But our first-person sensory judgements themselves do not constitute an independent touchstone, forever free from pragmatic evaluation. According to Rorty, they are an integral part of the overall epistemic contest. Classical empiricism is thus pushed aside.

More here.