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What draws ‘lone wolves’ to the Islamic State?

The recent attack on a bike path in lower Manhattan once again compels us to ask: Why do people pledge allegiance to the Islamic State?

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the attack, isn’t a devout Muslim. He cursed and came late to prayers, according to acquaintances who talked to The New York Times. So why would he want to be a martyr?

As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, I have spent the majority of my professional life studying the region, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about IS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have long looked at how radicalization occurs, some new ideas are emerging.

Of lone wolves, flaming bananas and machismo

Like this recent attack in New York, many IS attacks around the globe are carried out by individuals the media have dubbed “lone wolves” – that is, freelancers who act without the direct knowledge of the IS leadership. To avoid glamorizing them, the RAND Corporation prefers the term “flaming bananas.”

There are two theories as to why these individuals pledge allegiance to the group. The first is that they get “radicalized.”

Radicalization refers to a step-by-step process whereby individuals become increasingly susceptible to jihadi ideas. First, they cut themselves off from social networks such as family, which provide them with support and a conventional value system. They then immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture. They might do this on their own, or a jihadi recruiter might bring them into the fold. Either way, the result is the same.

Some observers claim IS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Rather than presenting a religious rationale for the group’s actions, IS propaganda tends to focus on the violence the group perpetrates. IS has even released a video game based on Grand Theft Auto 5 in which, rather than stealing cars and battling the police, the player destroys advancing personnel carriers and shoots enemy soldiers.

Perhaps, then, the radicalization model is wrong or not universally applicable. Perhaps there’s something other than religious zealotry at play.

Consider the widely reported story of two would-be jihadists who, before they left Birmingham, U.K., for Syria, ordered “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” to fill the gaps in their knowledge.

Newspaper stories time and again puzzle over the problem of how it happens that individuals who go on to join IS were found in bars, even gay bars, or had Western girlfriends and smoked and drank almost up to the time they committed some act of violence for the group. The most common explanation is that their dissolute lifestyle was a cover.

After the driver of a truck ran down and killed 84 people in Nice, France, for example, the French interior minister was at a loss to explain how someone who drank during Ramadan – which had ended a week and a half before – could have radicalized so quickly.

Former French President Francois Hollande in Paris in September 2016 at a memorial service for victims killed by terrorism in France.
AP Photo/Michael Euler

A number of experts have argued that the radicalization model should be replaced by, or supplemented with, a different model.

Rather than joining a radically different religious counterculture, individuals are attracted to IS, these experts argue, because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalized, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.”

Could it be that IS volunteers are drawn to a value system that asserts an aggressive machismo, disparages steady work and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification? Could it be that they are attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal values, thrill-seeking to the point of martyrdom and the diminution of women to objects of pleasure?

The ConversationIn this reading, IS more closely resembles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Westernized enlistees are familiar than its more austere competitor, al-Qaida.

James L. Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Site Redesign

I registered back on September 4, 2000 (or perhaps before… but that’s a long story). The original site was very very old school white on a black background with a very fancy (for the time) slide out menu on the left. The whole site was hand-crafted. Adding something new meant hand writing another page. Ah, ancient history. Since then, I migrated the site to WordPress (while keeping at least some of the old look). Then I migrated in lots of my old writing from various places. And then I went to a responsive theme so the site worked well on mobile. And and and… I kept avoiding a full rewrite because there were too many things buried in corners that I was worried about breaking. But, eventually, it’s time to break a few things.

Yesterday, I broke everything and started rebuilding on top of the WordPress 2014 theme (aka a Theme That Always Just Works). I wanted to do a few unusual things, like the centered 4til7 graphic, and not muck up the stock theme so the site has a teeny tiny child theme to hold (basically) a couple of tweaks to the CSS style sheet that gives the site it’s look.

My writing is still front and center but now you’ll only see an excerpt ending with a ‘Continue reading’ link that will take you to the full piece. The lengths of those excerpts are all over the place but I’ll be standardize them.

Beyond that, there are really only two pages. I’ve updated the About page and added quotes (Shortest: “Wow!”). And I’ve redone the Contact page using a lean custom contact plugin.


Between when I wrote the post and shared it with the world, I added more new features: Subscribe and Support. Subscribe let’s you join my mailing list. Support exists in place of advertising and makes a list of suggestions of ways (many free!) you can support my writing and work.

Update 2

Basic social sharing (Twitter, Reddit, Email, Facebook and LinkedIn) is done via a second custom plugin. In this case, the custom plugin is because many of the existing plugins have nasty issues (e.g. grabbing people’s info to use in spam campaigns). Combine that with the amount of time it takes to restyle the various options and it was faster to build a plugin. The plugin is an initial release. Let me know if you encounter any problems or have suggestions for improvements

I replace the Subscribe menu button with Stay in Touch which lets you subscribe to my Newsletter, the RSS (News) Feed of new posts, go to my Twitter page or Contact me. I changed Support to Supporting.

And more is still coming.


The Great Stock Market Crash of 2016 – part 2

The day before US markets opened this year, I was talking to my wife and I said the US Economy will crash and then Donald Trump will be elected. I’m not sure what went through her head but her face said I love you but, honey, please. Almost everyone still viewed Donald Trump’s chances candidacy as being more than one of those weird blips as crazy. Almost everyone viewed the US economy as fundamentally sound.

The new day, the first day of trading for the US markets, was brutal and things stayed brutal for a while. The VIX (uncertainty index) was frighteningly high. Oil and oil companies took a beating. The news out of China was ugly.

But, things seemed to settle down. The professionals kept saying, meh, it’s going to be fine. But, when you dug into the numbers things were, at best, weak.

Unemployment has been low but hiring has been week and people have kept exiting the workforce. The monsters –Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google and Microsoft– have been hiring but everywhere else it’s been hold the line or let people go. Economic growth has been edging towards stagnant. And the US Markets have been shuffling sideways for about a year. I’m not the only one who’s been seeing this. For instance, Goldman Sachs announced a few days ago that investors were exiting the market in droves. The only real demand for stocks right now has been companies doing buy-backs; and even that has been dropping off.

This morning, I traded tweets with an economist (Steffen Christensen, @Wikisteff) after he tweeted “I just realized that the current and recent US output gap suggests a recession is imminent”. For historical reasons, I’ve been expecting the market to crash in October but Brexit appears to be this crash’s Lehman Brothers moment.

Tonight, by the time I checked the vote for Brexit only about 25% were reporting. The yes votes were winning with over 51%. And the yes votes stayed above that to the bitter end. Somewhere around 50%, it was all but mathematically impossible for the “no” votes to overtake the lead the “yes” camp had. And, at around 60-70% of the vote counted, even the very careful BBC was forced to call uncle and admit it that #Brexit was going to pass.

Long before the BBC called it, the “oh no they really are going to #Brexit” hit the Asian stock markets, the pound went into free fall (reaching a 31 year low last time I checked) and gold went north with a vengence. As I write this, the DAX is down 8%, The FTSE100 is down 9%, the Nikkei 225 is off 7% and and the broadest US stock market composite, the S&P 500, is down 5%.

I’ve been planning to write this piece for months. The S&P 500 was going to be my illustration. The S&P 500 is just an average of the stock prices of a big basket of US stocks (where “500” is just the number of companies represented).

If you look at a chart of the S&P 500, you’ll see a blue line representing the price. That number jumps around a lot. So, a lot of traders will average that number over a long period of time. The pink and red line are long-term averages. If the stock price is a car slowing down and speeding up in traffic, the long-term averages really tell you the car’s basic momentum. Get rid of the annoyance of stop lights and traffic jams and that average gives you a really good idea of how fast you’re getting somewhere. And those numbers have been going flat: they’ve been converging on about 1845 for some time.

That really isn’t surprising because they are just an average. If you squint at the blue line, it’s been basically been doing the same thing. For almost two years, it’s been going up and down a lot and it always ends up basically where it started.

In essence the stock market has been moving sideways; it’s been stalled and settling down to 1845.

Technical traders will sometimes talk about ‘support’. That’s short hand for finding the last two, ideally three, low points. For the S&P, they’re February 11, August 25 and October 15, 2014. On those dates, the S&P 500 has been almost identical: 1825-1867. Support is important because that’s essentially what buyers thinks of as the low value of the market. Every time it’s hit one of those support numbers, people have rushed into buy and the price of stocks has bone back up.

Any decent technical trader reading what I just wrote will point out what’s obvious to them: if the price goes below both of those numbers, especially if the volume drops (whoops… that was the Goldman Sachs report), people will run for the hills because they have no idea where it’s going to stop. While it may bounce a time or two as some people “bargain shop”, the price basically keeps going south.

If you zoom out, you’ll see that the last time, the US stock markets went into free fall (in 2007), they went from a bit over 1500 to under 800. The S&P 500 keep dropping for eighteen months and lost almost half of it’s value. And once it started dropping the bad news in other areas snowballed. The US financial industry nearly collapsed. Two US car companies and multiple major banks had to be, essentially, bought by the Federal government. And the list could go on for pages.

The drop before that (the one straddling 9/11) was almost identical. The S&P dropped from a bit under 1500 to a bit over 800. The drop took (wait for it) eighteen months and took out many of the early internet startups and decimated much of the telecom sector.

The current magic 1825-1867 range is only about a 170 point drop (8%) from thursday’s close. When I sat down to write this, overnight trading already had the S&P down by 5%. There’s a good chance that the US stock markets will open down by 8%. Tomorrow is very likely going to be an absolute blood bath on stock markets around the world and, if the last two US economic crashes are any indication, the stock markets will continue to drop until over a year into Donald Trump’s presidency.

And, besides the fact I’ve seen Donald Trump’s Presidency coming (oh the joy of being a prophet), the basic fact of life in US presidential politics is that whatever party holds the Presidency when the economy crashes gets murdered come November. And that makes a certain amount of sense because a party’s candidate is carrying the mantle of the policies of the party’s time in the Presidency. In this case, Hillary Clinton has been explicitly running on Barrack Obama’s record in the White House. In the public’s mind, that record on economics was just nuked.

When I talk about After 2016 being a fundamentally different world, the US Economic crash and the Donald Trump presidency are, unfortunately, just the beginning. Over the coming days and weeks and months, I will continue to flesh out what “After 2016” looks like. I just wish I’d done my job, turned into the wind and began sharing that sooner.


Note: Originally released around a bit before midnight Mountain on 23 June 2016. Line editing completed an hour later. Thanks to Steffen Christensen (@Wikisteff), for the some of the information cited. And, any blame for mistakes, etc., lies squarely on my shoulders. Suggestions welcome and comments remain open for a week.


Thankful Tuesday

My wife and I now live on different continents because, believe it or not, that’s the shortest route to where we’re going. Right now, it means she lives west of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and I live in what is soon to be the greater Boulder-Denver-Colorado Springs area. She’s been here for a few weeks before she returns to the Netherlands so I’ve been on an un-announced vacation from posting.

I haven’t stopped coming up with ideas. I’ve scribbled down several great ones. But, I’m going with a simple one, thanks and peace to all of you through words to four:

@derickijohnson Dericki Johnson for the great comment I finally just approved and for reposting one of my articles:

Intentional Community and Space

To my friend Jer in Houston and Joe in Dallas, for sharing words. Know I’m there for both of you in and out of medical establishmentarianism even when I’m scarce on Facebook.

And to my wife, for believing in a way that makes everyone else crazy.


Scanning Station

Now, for something that will seem completely different because it looks, somehow, a little practical.

I used to use an all-in-one to scan stuff. And it always took up a huge amount of my time just to get the beast to work, use it (especially stuttering iiinn NNNammeeess wwwiiitthh a number keypad) and keeping the beast up to date and running.

Once I got a phone that was at least 12MP, I switched to using to using that as a scanner. “Installing software” is searching the app store for CamScanner. It’s the best free scanning app I’ve found and it runs on both iOS and Android. Now, naming is just as fast as thumbing a short tweet. I added a fold-up stand so the camera is instantly lined up with the document. And, for the final touch, an overhead light.

Scanning artsDFW with a Phone and fold-up scanner stand
Scanning artsDFW with a Phone and fold-up scanner stand

This is a first pass. I’ve learned to get something working well-enough and then constantly tweak it to work it better. The craftsmanship comes later. At this point, instead of sharing my first draft recipe, I’ll explain what’s behind each of the key choices I made.

If the light is even slightly uneven, the pictures give it away any so I hung the light (a cheap hardware store clamp light) overhead and put in a high wattage bulb to compensate for the angle.

I’ve never liked actually seeing the glowing bulbs, especially really bright ones, so I’ve angled the clamp light so the bulb can’t be seen while working (and, gravy, it can’t be seen from essentially everywhere else in the room).

Since three points define all surface in space, it’s hung with a triangular mount rigged up with a standard ceiling hook, some twine and the clamp that came with the light. The direction of the light is adjusted by turning the ceiling hook.

The power cord is routed out to a wall (a more finished solution than what I used is twist-tieing the cord to a screw set in the wall) and down to a powerstrip. “Setting up to scan” is tapping a power strip switch and putting the phone in the stand.

Just like the other things I make, this will never be finished unless I sell or gift it one. it will be changed and tuned and improved. What’s mattered and matters more than the specifics is the approach. It’s an approach that’s driven by the slow vibe, by focus on simplicity and by starting with what I have on hand. That’s easiest to illustrate with the materials here. The only thing that I purchased for this project was the fold-up scanner stand (maybe $12 on Amazon). The rest of the materials? Repurposed from years of stuff field deliveries.

Scanning Station: twine, ceiling hook, clamp-light, fold-up scanner stand
Scanning Station: twine, ceiling hook, clamp-light, fold-up scanner stand



an Open Letter to my Son

Today, my son tried on two of his mother’s dresses. It felt like he was expecting me to be shocked or turn judgemental. Why? On one level, it would take a whole lot more than a guy in a dress to surprise me. It’s not my job as a parent to be shocked or judgemental. In my experience, it’s really hard to be a good parent when ‘freaked out’ is how you’re acting. All a freaked-out parent can ever really say is BAD BAD BAD BAD. It doesn’t even work with dogs. Why do we think it can work with people?

Especially when, at the heart of things, he’s asking the quintessential human question: “who am I?” Sexuality is just part of that. The rest of us can share our journeys with him but, ultimately, my son has to answer the question himself. No one else’s words will ultimately ring true to him. It’s only when he understands enough to answer himself that words will really matter. And it’s only when it’s his answer that he will choose who becomes.


Happy Day formerly known as Columbus Day

In Grad School, we talked about Old Dead White Guys. It was short hand for the fact that the vast majority of books that we read were by  white males who were distinctly older when the author’s picture was taken and who, by the time most people read them, were dead. They were typically from the upper reaches of society in terms of wealth, power or connections. There’s an older more direct way to put it: the victors write the history.

There are many problems with this. Even the proverbial Capitalist Pig would pick up on the obvious: white males just are not that big a slice of humanity. There’s a reality gap here… Business opportunity! Everyone else missed it! Woot! And he would then rush off to plan his conglomerate’s next subsidiary.

In less greedy terms, the brilliance of the vast majority of humanity has, until relatively recently, been effectively invisible. When I went to school, the old story was still holding on: the heroic Christopher Columbus and the ensuing wars to defend white settlers against attacks by Indians. Christopher Columbus was the proto-American who raised a fortune in royal venture capital and came in peace to the new world and, before his company tragically failed, hosted the world’s first series of international trade exhibitions at the Spanish Court.

That story changes significantly when you look at from the other side. When Europeans arrived, governments and countries had existed in the Americas for more than a Millennia. The Americans connected the continent with trade routes: international trade, particularly in luxury items, was old hat. The same thing is clear in religion, astronomy and so on through many areas: the Americas developed societies and cultures comparable to those in every other part of the world.

Those who followed Columbus invaded, conquered and destroyed hundreds of countries; destroyed much of the knowledge and thought discovered and developed over millennia by those original Americans; and through disease and warfare killed almost all of the original Americans.

Because we now talk about both sides of the story of Europeans arriving in America, it’s certainly become unfashionable to celebrate Christopher Columbus. He’s come to symbolize what happens when we only care about the story the victors tell, how we forget the rest. It’s said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. What happened in the Americas, is not some cultural equivalent of evolution through survival of the fittest. It’s the forgetting of art, thought, belief and very lives of the vanquished. There is no better way to guarantee history will not be known than to disappear it and destroy it. We discovered another part of our collective soul and then systematically destroyed it.

Christopher Columbus lead Europe into the Americas and we made him into the ultimate Old Dead White Guy. We even named a day after him. Perhaps, instead of forgetting him, we should remember him. He is the beginning of one the greatest examples of what we loose when everyone but the victor is disappeared, destroyed and forgotten.

Christopher Columbus is the ultimate accidental anti-hero. Instead of forgetting him from the holidays, we could tweak the name of the holiday. We need to a bit of anti-memorium and a hint of anti-lesson. We could do that just by adding to the name: Columbus was an Old Dead White Guy Day.


weren’t exactly Dog ate my Homework (The Stuff Field)

Buddhism says that everything is an illusion to which at least one man replied they were (still) really great noodles. Other people say the only meaning events and things have is that which we give them. If that’s true, why not reimagine the forces that shape our lives as a set of fields comparable of those of the fundamental forces of physics including gravity, electricity.

The first one I noticed is the Stuff Field. For a while we were so poor

Stuff field as the event horizon nears collapse

that at the end of every month, we waited for G*d to parachute in the rent. Even though we couldn’t pay for the bills and afford food, the stuff. still. just. showed. up. I don’t mean that people brought us stuff. I mean that it literally just showed up. Maybe it was abandoned, maybe it fell off a truck, maybe it appeared out of thin air. Things just appear in the living room, on the driveway, on the backporch, in the trunk. When I tell people that there is a Stuff Field in America, a field that just naturally pulls stuff to everyone who lives here, the recognition shows up on their faces and they start nodding.

Over the last few years, the assortment of stuff that the field has pushed at us has spread into every room in our house: drinking glasses, a push broom, some hand tools, recycling tubs, scrap lumber and on and on until it’s become a standard part of the flow of stuff that eventually passes on from us to others. The latest thing the stuff field has pushed at me is an aqua green women’s bike. After three days of walking out with my first cup of coffee to ponder its aqua green stuff-ness, I surrendered and rolled it on to the porch. It has, by the way, two flat tubes but is otherwise functional and looking to be adopted by someone who appreciates its particular stuff-y-ness.

My wife and I keep discussing this American Stuff Field. We both agree that the stuff field is (on one hand) completely made up idea, and (on the other) a poetic way to reslice some truth about living in America today out of the illusion. And, this poetic truth can be tested. Like a science theory, it’s a model and it makes a prediction about stuff just showing up in essentially inexplicable ways. Help me test my theory. If you can think of at least one notable item that has “just appeared” in your life, comment or tweet it with the hashtag #stuffField


Weblogging that’s not so Hopelessly ugly

Screenshot from 2015-10-13 has existed, almost continuously, since the mid ’90s. I say “almost” because I forgot to renew one year. Records say the domain was created on 4 Sepember 2000 but that’s the second time the domain was created. I forgot to renew the domain. If that sounds weird on multiple levels, you’re right. Automatic reminders weren’t wired into the world yet. Unrenewed domains were not immediately scarfed up by domain squatter robots. We weblogged instead of blogged and the number of domains was in the hundreds of thousands instead of hundreds of millions.

Back then, young whipper snapper, real men hand-coded websites in html while trudging uphill through six feet of snow and fighting off raiders with muskets to the left of us. Then a few years later, we trudged uphill through more snow, migrated to php and bolted on CSS when rain didn’t kill the dialup connection while fighting off indians to the right of us.

By the time I recreated the registration, I had managed to do something that was and is very difficult to do: build a website around a black background that is beautiful, readable and unique. A few years ago, I finally broke down and migrated the whole thing to WordPress. And, oh boy, did that look refuse to migrate. I’d created something too unique. After I realized it was going to take a full, ground-up, redesign to make it work, I quickly put finishing the migration into backburner mode. Many moons have passed and has stayed in ugly mode.

’90s style “Under Construction” signs exhibiting the the frenetic epileptic motion typically of animated versions.

I could live with that until I began my escape from programming and cranked my posting back to it’s ’90s pace. It’s time to de-ugly the house. Doing this right will take some time, but I’ve started the process. I promise not to put a ’90s carton art yellow ‘under construction’ image up. Well, besides that one.


a Flash of Micropoems

Last night a flash of micropoems galloped through my head. A few of them:


prepare Kids for Life

even Monopoly can be
a Teachable Moment

1. Capitalism is Ruthless
2. do not mess with Mom



floatn Gauze

Frogsong baseline
Leaves rustlesweep
Windchimes waterfall

even cars
fear to break this

the Quiet is roaring



on hearing a Micropoem

she insisted

I paused


  the Wind said everything