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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Icons of Corruption

...of the Judiciary:  Brett Kavanaugh
There will be a shared pretense of Senators carefully considering the Supreme Court nominee's record, of interviewing him privately and publicly to hear his noncommittal responses, followed by both sides lining up around party lines for the final advise-and-consent approval.  The notion of impartial justices ruling purely on principles of law has completely given way to political power plays, completing a transition evident late in the last century (bitter, partisan confirmation hearings) and confirmed by the historic disaster of the Bush v. Gore decision.

Kavanaugh is "qualified", in the sense of having the resume one would expect of a Supreme Court justice, applying typical vetting criteria (law background, practice as a Supreme Court clerk and as a senior judge).  The most important criterion, though, is the political one, and that will determine how the votes will fall.  Kavanaugh is a proven party hack (Bush acolyte, drafter of Clinton bill of impeachment) and thus is a fair replacement for Anthony Kennedy (another hack).   Some analyses suggest he will be substantially further to "the right" than Kennedy--that will be seen in the fullness of time..   What I expect is that he, and Chief Justice Roberts as well, will behave themselves politically, trying in their decisions and opinions to temper the radical right-wing views of Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito, in order to reduce public criticism of the Supreme Court and try to preclude its extremism becoming the basis for a wipeout defeat of their party in 2020 (and possible court-packing following that by victorious, vengeful Democrats).

The strategy of the timing of the Kennedy resignation and Kavanaugh nomination is a political one: it's designed to allow the Republicans to use the united (or near-united) Democratic opposition in the midterm elections to support their claim that it is Democratic obstruction which is impeding their ability to govern.  Not very original, but it may well work to inspire more of their base to turn out and avoid serious damage in the 2018 election.  This nasty piece of business (the confirmation) will wrap up before November, most likely in late September--that's something that Senators of both parties will be able to agree upon:  for Mitch McConnell, it eliminates the risk of a bad election outcome preventing confirmation, and for Democratic candidates in close elections, it gets the distraction out of the way so they can campaign.

For those who insist on the importance of parsing nominees' public statements in the confirmation process, I would suggest focusing on Kavanaugh's answer to one question (which must be asked):  Does your interpretation of the Constitution include an affirmation of individuals' right to privacy?  That is the fundamental finding behind Roe v. Wade, and the question of a fundamental right to privacy is one which will come up in other, very important contexts throughout Kavanaugh's term in the Court.  Kavanaugh is reputed to be "textualist", which suggests he would be negative on the question if he were to answer honestly (I don't expect him to do that, though--he will only betray his true views later, when it's too late.)

I see little chance that any of the Republican senators will defect from lockstep support of the second Drumpfian Supreme Court nominee.  If none do, it may appear that certain vulnerable "Red State Democrats" up for re-election are off the hook, in terms of their votes being decisive.  This notion led some  Democrats to argue that these vulnerable candidates should be free to vote according to "their conscience"--more like their conscious evaluation of the net political benefit to go one way or the other.  No doubt Manchin in W.Va., Heitkamp in N.D., Tester in Mont., McCaskill in Mo., Donnelly in Ind., and Nelson in Fla. will closely monitor polling of their constituents' preference on the confirmation vote (in crosstabs with party registration and intention of vote on the Senate race itself). and will let that data guide their individual consciences. 

I don't get to vote on these races, except in response to the constant emails I get* asking for money (all of these incumbents are actively soliciting me through email except Heitkamp--she seems to be more interested in independents than Democrats).  One thing I can guarantee all these candidates is that they will not get any more money from me if they vote to confirm.  (I just surprised myself by making a contribution for Manchin in response to an attractive email solicitation, and Nelson and Donnelly have received money from me in the past.)   For me, there is one factor that should override for any true Democrat:  let's call it the "Merrick Garland factor".

In this regard, I have added one "litmus test" issue (in this case one specifically for Democratic Senators) to the short list of my absolute requirements for those seeking my support (most meaningfully, through my contributions):  common-sense on guns (no one advocating more guns gets my support); no denying climate change; and openness to major electoral reform (gerrymandering, Electoral College, campaign financing limitation).

...Of the Executive Branch (Scott Pruitt)
A hallmark of the Drumpfian "philosophy" of governing is to appoint incompetents and destructive administrators to Cabinet positions.  There are so many examples: Ben Carson at HUD, Rick Perry at Energy, Betsy DeVos for Education are three clear ones.  Maybe the worst appointment of all (except for the non-Cabinet appointments of Michael Flynn, and then later John Bolton, as  his National Security Adviser)  was Scott Pruitt, who proved to be toxic in every way.  Trump was tolerant of his wasteful spending and self-aggrandizing paranoia, positively supportive of his anti-environmental approach to environmental protection, but he ultimately became politically harmful.  So he had to go, but the departure was eased for Drumpf by the fact that he will be able to replace him with a pollution industry lobbyist who was Pruitt's deputy.  More damage to follow.

...Of the Legislative Branch (Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy)
The most serious corrupting influence on our Congress today is the emergence of massive PAC money, and worse, "dark money" from donors whose identities do not have to be made public.  To be honest, this is a problem that plagues both parties and many candidates, and the necessity of constant fund-raising and placating major donors is more than a distraction from true legislative activity.

I am singling out Nunes and Gowdy for the disrespect they have engendered with their perversion of the Congressional power of investigation (which is supposed to be for the purposes of aiding legislation).  Nunes has been colluding with the White House in trying to undermine the Mueller investigation through the House Intellligence Committee which he chairs,  and Gowdy has made a fool of himself in the House Oversight Committee, first with the Benghazi investigation and now with the shameful attacks on FBI agents.

...in the White House itself  (Trump Conflicts of Interest and the Russian Oligarchs)
As I have said before, with the Trump administration, there are no conflicts--only interests.  I leave it to the investigative reporters to detail all the ways in which Trumpian greed intersects with Drumpfian policy (here and here are a couple of relevant links I can recommend).  The key storyline is this:  critical to the survival of the Trump enterprise, in the time around and since the Great Crater, has been the sale of high-end real estate to Russian oligarchs.  For the buyers, this was a proven safe way to get money out of Russia and into legitimate assets:  this is generally referred to as "money laundering".  It is not that the purchase of US real estate is in any way illegal; it's more where the money came from that is shady and that makes these buyers shady.  Most are connected with the regime of Putin, the biggest oligarch/money launderer of them all.

So, Trump Org.  finds them good to do business with, and he isn't going to turn on these "friends"; instead he becomes an apologist for Russian provocations.  He seems to have no problem with Putin's agenda item of trying to weaken the West and their alliances, as America's allies have snubbed Russia and coddled the Ukraine, which has gone back and forth but is currently antagonistic toward Russia.  For its part, Russia has found Ukraine a suitable target for its expansion and disruption efforts.

Meanwhile, the Trump offspring are free to make hay from their political connection to the President, and they will make the most of it while they can.  Other Trump cronies, like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are wealthy enough, but still encouraged to find an angle to benefit if they so choose.

The Russia/Trump collusion to help the Republican win the 2016 election was just business:  there was no intention to betray the US or even to break laws, just that there might have been a few statutory limitations that got in the way.   Russian hacking of Democratic databases, and infiltration of Facebook, are only standard practice, the illegal parts generally deniable or protected by national boundaries, and the only interruption in the activity will be to build new cover when necessary.

This is what is going on; the only remedy seems to be the will of voters to defeat Drumpfites, if it can be mustered, this year and then again in 2020.   All of what I say here will come out eventually (even without the Trump tax returns, though those will likely become part of the story), but I have no confidence at all that it will sway Republican voters, Republican legislators, or Republican judges from their great partisan suck-up to this petty dictator.


*Over 200 emails asking for money on June 30--every single one referring to their second-quarter deadline at midnight.  When will they learn that I don't care about their deadlines?  In fact, I would prefer to have lower numbers come out of those deadline reports from the Federal Election Commission, in order to reduce the dollar arms race.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Sports Update

World Cup Knockout Rounds
48 of the 64 games have been played, and still we know very little about the ultimate outcome of the World Cup.

I posted my excuses for not seeing much of the first round in a comment recently; despite that, I am willing to stick my neck out a bit and look forward to the rest of the tournament.   It is only after the first round that one can actually do this, because now we can see the matchups ahead.  The big change in the outlook from what one would have foreseen going in was the unexpected elimination of Germany--kudos to Mexico and South Korea, who defeated them (and for that matter, Sweden, who were unlucky to lose to them). 

The next two rounds can be thought of as little grouplets of four--teams need to get through two wins to make it to the semifinals, which is generally the mark of a successful World Cup campaign (unless you're for Brazil or Germany).  The semifinal and the final are showtime; the drama is at the center.  There is much less drama, or glory, in these next two rounds, but with no single team standing out, there will be the fog of battle, with four teams emerging.

Top Left grouplet  (round of 16 games today) - What I would describe as an ugly group.  France and Uruguay are two of the three teams who won all three games in the first round (Belgium is the other), but that means nothing now--it is more a reflection of the opponents they drew.  Argentina barely survived, as they also barely made the field, but they are still there.  And Portugal played the in the most exciting match of the first round  (the 3-3 draw with Spain).  This is a bloody mess; I would guess Uruguay gets through.

Top Right grouplet (Sunday) - Spain vs. Russia, in Moscow, is an interesting game; Spain should be a big favorite but Russia is playing well.  The key game in the group should be the quarterfinal between Spain and Croatia, and I would lean toward picking the Croats, in an upset. 

Bottom Left (Monday) - For me, the two teams that most look like world-dominating Cup winners are Belgium and Brazil, who should meet in the quarterfinal.  If they get through their next games:  I don't see Belgium having trouble with Japan, but the Brazil-Mexico game could be a highlight of the tournament.  Let's go with Brazil from this group.

Bottom Right (Tuesday) - This is a fairly weak grouplet.  England has looked good; they have a good test against Colombia, though Colombia may not have their star player, James Rodriguez.  The winner of that match should be favored over the Sweden-Switzerland winner (two countries whose shorthand names always confuse).  OK, England.

As for the look-ahead to the final, I would ask the reader:  is Moscow part of Europe?  If the answer is yes, then pick England, Croatia (or Spain/Belgium); if not, then the winner should be Brazil (or Uruguay or Colombia).   This based on historical precedent of location of games/region of winner, which has been broken only once in recent history (2014, when Germany won in Brazil--that wasn't supposed to happen, ask any Brazilian).

The predominance of the European and Latin American teams in getting through the first round is obvious:  no teams from Africa (Senegal deserved it but was edged out by Japan though a hinky tiebreaker), Japan the only one from Asia, and Mexico the single standout from the North America/Caribbean configuration.  Old school.

MLB:  The halfway point
The pennant races are a tale of two leagues with completely different stories:  it is the best of times for the National League, with 9 or 10 teams battling for the five postseason spots.  Nothing is assured, and there are some genuine surprises, like all three division leaders at this point (Atlanta instead of Washington, Milwaukee instead of Chicago, and Arizona instead of Los Angeles).  Those three favored teams are also very much in the mix, though, and their proven talent may win out.  There should be some exciting races which go down to the end.

It will be the worst of times for the American League, for which all five teams for the postseason are virtually assured, barring a collapse.  There will be an attempt to hype the importance of the Yankees vs. Red Sox for first in the East, or for Houston vs. Seattle in the West, and currently there is a hype effort in favor of the Oakland A's chances, but the A's are seven games out from the second wild card spot.  They are the only apparent challenger to the Assured Five (Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, and Mariners).

The most interesting baseball story is the continuing emergence of exciting young players.  This year the focus is on Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Braves and two-way start Shohei Ohtani of the Angels (I keep thinking Acuna-Ohtani, sounds like "Hakuna Matata").  Both are recovering from injuries right now but have shown huge potential.  Rookie pitchers are taking longer to emerge (and Ohtani may have to give up on the pitching portion of his emerging stardom), but there are some strong second-year efforts from Blake Snell (Tampa Bay), Aaron Nola (Philadelphia), and reliever Josh Hader (Milwaukee).

In terms of hitting stars, many familiar names among the leaders (Trout, Harper, Judge, Betts, Arenado), but also some surprising ones--J.D. Martinez, Jesus Aguilar, Nick Markakis, Scooter Gennett.  Overall, though the AL race looks dreary for the second half, the game looks healthy to me.

NBA Offseason Shuffle
The stasis at the top--Golden State vs. Cleveland in the Finals for the fourth year in a row--had to give way --thankfully--and the Warriors aren't going anywhere.  So the question for this offseason is whether any team can brew up a viable challenger to them.  Last year's effort--the Houston Rockets with MVP James Harden and Chris Paul came ever so close (the other synthetic effort, with Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George on Oklahoma City, fell way short).   The buzz is that the Lakers are trying to put together a super-team; I like the Celtics if they get one more star.  The main pieces are Lebron James, who has once again decided to take his talents away from Cleveland; Kawhi Leonard, who somehow became disenchanted with the best franchise in sports, the San Antonio Spurs, and George.   All (for next season) will be revealed soon.

Finally, the college basketball outlook for next season is starting to clarify, now that the NBA draft is over (who's left?) and the commitments from incoming freshmen/transfers are nearing completion.  Kentucky is standing tall as the favorite, with yet another top freshman recruiting season, a key transfer, and a couple of valuable holdovers (despite having six underclassmen players drafted by the pros).  That's pretty exciting for me and the other Wildcat fans.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Anthony Kennedy

The swing vote on the Supreme Court submitted his resignation today, going out as he went in:  a Republican regular.  He held back on his plan, waiting to see how he could be most useful to the party (staying in longer or going), and when Trump's White House asked him if he would resign, he gave them what they wanted.

Unlike most things the Trumpsters do, this was a carefully prepared plan.  Trump has gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with Kennedy, and the White House, after consulting with Majority Turtle McConnell, decided to push the button. 

It is a sad fact that the timing is more about giving the Republican, party something new to make their campaign around, motivating their still pissed-off base to show up, than it is out of concern that they have to move before the elections' result is reflected in the new Senate. 

I really don't think that fear of a Democratic takeover drove the calculations, they were just making sure.  And there is surely nothing the Democrats can do to block this right-wing takeover ploy, if the Republicans stick together.  For Trump, that means picking a nominee who is smart enough not to give away his positions on ending abortion, undoing gay marriage, reversing Obamacare's constitutionality, and other outrages. The Democrats can not successfully filibuster this past the end of this Congress, though they could make the electoral campaign season difficult.  But that would only hurt the many Democrats who need to campaign to protect their seats.  So, unless Susan Collins and some other Republican will stand up against this nominee--I see a 49-49 vote as a possibility, with Pence the tiebreaker--Trump could indeed pick someone who is a party hack, like Kennedy.

Many Tea Party types were furious at Kennedy, who did not always vote with the four extremists (at least three, with Chief Justice Roberts the fourth) and go along with the right wing view.   Many thought he was too unpredictable, but I would characterize him as very much a moderate Republican with libertarian tendencies.  Just the kind of Republican who it is hard to find today, and it seems Kennedy was really a little less independent, a little more willing to play ball with his hack movement  than he may have seemed.

He may be remembered for some decisions that enabled progress, but he will also be remembered for this craven retirement and for Bush v. Gore.   Now the new swing vote will be Roberts, unless Trump goes for someone ideologically to Roberts' left.  That would not be a bad strategy if the goal were a quick approval, but I really think the point is to drag it out and point to the Democrats' united, but futile, negative stance during the campaign.  The Democrats will respond "Merrick Garland" and the public will say "Who?"

The Democratic organizations will cite this struggle as a reason to give them money.  This argument makes no sense to me.  All promises that anything Democratic supporters can do will make a difference are illusionary (except maybe those who reside in Alaska, Arizona, or Maine).  The real point is that this must be the LAST Republican Supreme Court Justice.  Ever.


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Cultural Observations

Civility Wars
Let's start with Robert DeNiro's "F--- Trump" expostulation at the Tony Awards.  It was bleeped on live US TV by the six-second buffer manager, but it got out elsewhere and went viral on the Internet.  So, mission accomplished?  I would say not.  He was heavily criticized, even by those who agreed with the sentiment, and it provided an excuse for Drumpfites to gleefully equate the bad behavior of their political opponents with their hero's misbehavior.

I don't care so much about that; we are not required to be respectful to the Orange Dingleberry Who Happens to be Head of State and Chief Executive, (may he eat something foul and sicken beyond recovery), but I do question the efficacy of the comment, which I would add was unscripted and completely out of context.  The sentence is in the imperative form, telling us to do something which I have absolutely no desire to do.  I don't really care about his love life, with Melania, Stormy, or whoever; in fact, it's pretty grotesque even to think of it.

Instead I would have preferred "Depose Trump!"  meaning both to remove him from office and also suggestion to subject him to making a deposition, a formal testimony under oath, which would be a good means to putting him permanently on defensive, if not on the way out (see Clinton, Bill, and Lewinsky, Monica).

Next, the Incident at Red Hen, the restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, when the owner turned away "Trump's Mouthpiece" (as she was called, quite accurately) Sarah Huckabee Sanders, not allowing her party to dine there.  Again, I have no quarrel with the underlying sentiment, and I would assert both that she has the right to deny service based on her political opinion and that Sanders, in a public venue, is fair game for members of the public to rebuke or otherwise take her to task.  In Sanders' defense, I will say that her job is a thankless one and an easy target for attack:  press secretaries for all Presidents have to prevaricate, obfuscate, and even lie on occasion at their boss' direction, though Sanders is worse than most in both frequency and manner of the false and fallacious.

I would say, though, that the owner's action is probably a net bad-for-business choice (maybe she accepts that gladly), and that there was a better way to handle it. It was discreetly handled by both parties, so the ruckus was all later. I say, do your job, allow her to be served, but then put her in the arena and let the public have at her.  Something like what the cast members of "Hamilton" chose to do when they saw Mike Pence in the audience.

Then we come to TV comic/political commentator Samantha Bee, who called Ivanka Trump a "feckless c--t".  Everyone focused on the pejorative reference to the female sexual member of the  "female member of the Administration", as Sanders later described her.  Very little attention was paid to the real point, the "feckless" aspect--and again, I do not want to go there literally, to imagine what is involved with that organ's being truly feckless, but I suspect the word choice had something to do with a similar-sounding adjective suggesting a lack of sexual activity.  Anyway, the point was supposed to be that Ivanka should be using her presumed influence with her classic clueless old fart father, to get him to stop being such a (euphemism alert!) deadhead about the DACA Dreamers, for whom she is believed to be sympathetic.

Bee's comment was wrong on several levels: 1) the presumed influence part--Donald is notoriously hard to persuade about anything, and his view of his daughter is that she is a shiny object which reflects well upon him, nothing more; 2) Ivanka's sympathies clearly take second place to her main objective, which is to exploit her privileged position to make lots of money for the family; and 3) the word choice, as I suggested above, was totally a distraction.  For which Bee apologized.

Should Bee have been fired?  That's an economic decision made by the TV network, for their good or ill.  I know that the career of Kathy Griffin was totally disrupted when she made a joke in bad taste about Drumpf being beheaded (though she is on the rebound).  I will say that George Carlin's "seven words you cannot say on television" are being violated, as Bee did, with great frequency these days;.

 I will not judge the balance of increased freedom vs. decreased civility tested in these cases.  I will say that things are heating up and emotions are high, what with an impending Congressional midterm election that is looking very close (both House and Senate),  with the proposals to remove the protection for pre-existing conditions from the ACA healthcare plans, and with the frenzy about the separation of children from their undocumented parents.  This latter is just another example of the intentional cruelty with which this administration governs, only this time it was exceptionally badly calculated in a political sense.

Real Quick Reviews

The Death of Stalin - some will like it, some won't. I thought it was great political satire, with good casting, and close enough to the truth.

Black Panther -  Like last year's "Wonder Woman", a successful move to establish that everyone deserves an escapist superhero that resembles and represents.  The cultural complexity of Wauconda (I prefer the Illinois town spelling) was the product of a lot of careful thought.

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury has died, so there is no longer any effective control over the content (which seemed to be distorted, focusing on the Orwellian, instead of the anti-intellectualism at the story's center).  Latest generation's likely response:  Yawn--what are books, anyway?

Ocean's 8 -  I give the writers some credit for the effort to revive the tired scenario (complex revenge heist), which is at least an entertaining one.  It looks to have been a lot of fun for all the various famed damsels, which was probably the main point.  I would also credit casting for the discovery of "Awkwafina", who I think could be a rising star for Generation Z.

Trailer for "A Star Is Born" - we're talking about Lady Gaga as a movie star.  I'm buying it; hopefully the movie itself will be more than a third round of retread.

Music:  Is the Resistance translating into our culture yet? I have no doubt about where most of the musicians' heads are at, but will they dare to come out and say it?  I'm looking to the Boss (Springsteen) to be the ringleader (springboard?) of a resistance movement in music, but not this year.

March for our Lives:  Remember this?  It was about children pleading for a change in the system which has incubated and facilitated school shootings.  I say nobody gets to bleat about the separation of the children from their parents unless they are also on board with some "common-sense gun reforms".


Obit Dept (way overdue)

Rusty Staub Mar. 29 -- a fine American (he was American, not Canadian, right?  sometimes the borders get obscured--see Joni Mitchell, Samantha Bee....) and a fine baseball person.  An especially good pinch-hitter (look it up if you need to know). I hear the restaurant was good, too

Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemalan strongman Apr. 1.  RIP--as in, rip his corpse out of the grave and leave him for the vultures to eat.  He ordered the annihilation of thousands of his countrymen, focusing on Native American peasants. Evil that should be remembered.

Roger Bannister Mar. 3 - remember the concept of the amateur athlete?  Bannister, the first to break the four-minute barrier for a mile run (unaided), was a medical student.   There's been about a 7% improvement in the time for the distance since 1954, though the race isn't run much these days (the Olympic distance of 1500 meters predominates, but the IAAF still keeps track of the record for this one non-metric distance--the 100-yard dash, not so much).

Stephen Hawking, Mar. 14 (age 76)--How did he live so long with ALS?  He must have been a genius.  Thank you for your insights, sir, and may we be worthy of them someday.

Cynthia Heimel - Feb. 25 -- She was one of my heroes, back when she was teaching me more about how women view sex than I was getting elsewhere (late '70's?)  I read her columns in the Village Voice, and I hungrily digested her humorous "Sex Tips for Girls".  My one gripe was that I didn't care for her taste in men (sensitive cowboy types, as opposed to smartass overeducated ones), but that was clearly none of my business.

Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth (May 14 and 22) - These two leading American writers will now be linked through the proximity of their deaths.  They were similar in one sense, being prolific, highly-observant writers who peaked during a very interesting period in this country, the late 20th century.  Wolfe was quite a sight to see around town in NYC, unmistakable for his Richie Rich clothing.  His writing was highly colorful, both nonfiction (one of the "New Journalists") and fiction.  I was partial to "The Right Stuff" (about the early US astronauts) and "Bonfire of the Vanities" (social commentary in novel form about white privilege--must've been somewhat autobiographical, no?)   As for Roth, he was perhaps too prolific--I got tired of multiple novels on the same subjects.  My favorite Roth piece was a withering satire play about Nixon and his cronies, "Our Gang"--generally forgotten today, though it might be instructive for understanding the Drumpfenreich White House.

Charles Krauthammer June 21 - His ugly puss haunts me; I saw more of it than I would have liked to have done.  I would describe him as a latter-day William Buckley, someone who insisted on his view of conservative purity, but did so with dignity.  For that, and for some late evidence that he repudiated Drumpfism as not consistent with his brand of conservatism, I will (mostly) respect his passing.

Walter A. Bahr June 18 - star, and last survinving member, of US soccer team that achieved a huge upset, of England in the 1950 World Cup, 1-0.  Aged 91.  Again, amateur athletes achieving greatness.

Wayne Huizenga Mar. 22 - (Modern capitalist - owner of Waste Management, Blockbuster Video, Florida sports teams)  I will say that WM still leads its field, unrivaled.  The other enterprises haven't held up so well.

World Cup and Politics
I close with some comment about a news story you may have missed.  The World Cup of soccer is truly culture, global culture, but, like the Olympics, has more than a little nationalism involved.  In one of the first round matches, Switzerland defeated Serbia, 2-1.  The two goal scorers for Switzerland's team, which is amazingly diverse in its team members' origins (somehow all Swiss--reminds me of when that landlocked country won the top prize in sailing, the America's Cup), were both Albanians by birth, of Kosovar ethnic origin.  You will recall that much of the latter portion of the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990's (after the Bosnia war got settled) had to do with the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.

Anyway, these two Kosovar/Albanian/Swiss players made a signal with their hands after scoring their goals which was seen as being a reference to the double-eagle on the Kosovo flag.  The Serbians in attendance took exception to this form of celebration--I don't know about the Serbian players.  There is a specific rule in the FIFA handbook stating that the penalty for provocative behavior is a two-game suspension.  If that is applied to these two, it will be a likely deathblow to Switzerland's team, who have some legitimate hopes after a surprise draw against Brazil in their first game (along with defeating Serbia).  The pivotal aspect of interest  was that the players' symbolism didn't relate to something Swiss, like what--chocolate?  but to their own transnational background; it was indeed a form of taunting the Serbs, but does it deserve the Swiss getting a TKO (boxing term: technical knockout)?

Stay tuned to see how this delicate soccer diplomatic rhubarb gets settled.   I will include an update for my preview of the knockout rounds of the Cup, later this week.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Turkey's Presidential Election

Today is the day that Turkey has the first round of its Presidential election.  This is under a new constitution, approved by a narrow (and disputed) margin in a referendum, one that gives expanded powers to the head of state.   The vote today is a critical step in President Erdogan's bid to achieve Putinist rule in his country for himself and his party.

The usually-fractured opposition has allied itself, sort of.  Some of the parties came together around agreed candidates, but the real news is an agreement among all of the opposition parties to rally around the non-Erdogan candidate in the second round, if there is no majority.  The fractional approach in this round is a tactic to maximize non-Erdogan vote in the first round and try to deny him a majority.  It may be very close, once again, and once again, Erdogan may win with the help of some friends' ballot-box stuffing.

Still, I agree with the opposition's tactic of participating in the election--not boycotting it--even though there is hardly a level playing field (the media is overwhelmingly under Erdogan's thumb, and the integrity of voting certification is questionable).  The boycott approach--tried recently in Venezuela--makes it certain that nothing positive can be accomplished, whereas a forcefully-contested political battle, carried all the way to its end, could have a massive effect, even if Erdogan gets what he wants from the election itself.

As I've expressed before, what happens in Turkey is pivotal for many different geopolitical frames--the European Union (defeat of Erdogan could re-open the possibility of Turkey's entering it), the Middle East (Turkey's a player in the Syria civil war, and is a leading participant in all the other regional negotiations/disputes), and international relations with Russia.  The re-emergence of strong civil democratic values in the country--something Erdogan has been repressing particularly heavily in recent years--could be a turning point in the politics of Islamic countries, as well, if he were eventually defeated--in this election, or in the runoff, or by mobilization of opposition forces afterward.

I do not have positive expectations on the actual count, as the stakes may be too high for Erdogan not to interfere, but the fact that the opposition has jelled is very meaningful, at least at this moment.

Here and here is additional information which I found interesting on this event. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Games of the Year

Three of them in this week (a special one, ending tonight, Monday), for three different sports.  Let's start with the prospective one, to be played tonight.

Warriors at Rockets - Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference Finals series
It's not for all the marbles, but it would give them a pretty good edge in the tiddlywinks battle for the Championship.  Either Western Conference winner will be a prohibitive favorite over the Cleveland LeBrons, who gutted out their own Game 7 win last night against the Celtics.

The big question of tonight's game is whether Rockets' point guard Chris Paul will be available.  He injured his hamstring in the final minute of his team's win in Game 5; had to sit for their thrashing in Game 6 at Golden State.

I have often seen a pattern with the recovery from hamstring injuries in baseball.  The mistake, from the point of view of best handling of the player, is returning him too early; then the player can re-injure himself, more severely the second time.  It's in everybody's interest, in the long run, to be careful, but this is different.  I am not sure about the starting lineup, but I would look to see Paul for about 15-20 minutes tonight.  Coach D'Antoni will want to maximize Paul's participation in key ball-handling situations, like to break a Warriors' run, or, if possible, down the stretch.

Game Preview - Houston is a 6-point underdog--at home, the benefit of outplaying the Warriors for the best record in the regular season--a point-spread that may become volatile as the tip-off approaches.  I expect nerves and low-shooting percentages early, in the second half, the emphasis shifts to defense (against transition, for example).

 Eventually some of the many keen outside shooters on both teams will emerge as accurate tonight,, which will make for an explosive Late Third/Early Fourth Period (it will only seem geologic, though the nose level could be volcanic), making a bet on the Over/Under very tricky.   Key matchup for me is the one inside, the battle led by Draymond Green vs. Clint Capela--who will be the one to make the right moves underneath during that critical period, and who will get the fouls?
Refereeing is critical in a Game 7; they will "let them play" up to a cerain point, then tight to get control during that stretch.  At the end, though, if the game's outcome depends on a critical possession, the pressure on the referee can become severe, leading to unpredictable outcomes.  Personally, I see the game coming down to something like that (as Games 4 and 5 did), in which case I'd give the home team a real puncher's chance for the upset.

That assumes Paul is able to be on the court at the end for such a finale.  We don't know, but bettors putting money down at this point are weighting the chances of a close finish with Paul vs. an easier Warriors' win without him. (The pros will be able to adjust the odds in their favor with late bets, perhaps with inside information on how Paul's stepping as he's coming into the locker room. Sports gambling, it's a thing, and it will soon be legal nationwide.)

 In terms of the Finals which will anticlimactically follow tonight's game, I will do the obvious and pick the Western Conference winner against the overmatched Cavaliers in six games.  Though it could be five.

Real Madrid vs. Liverpool - Champions League Final -
From what I've seen, the games in the final of this, the premier club championship, that of the region (EU, plus a few) can be all-out affairs with drama in the final moments.  This one wasn't like that, as the end was certain given the events of the previous 20-30 minutes, but the second half had more than it's share of drama.

The match-up could hardly have been more classic, in European club history term; both are storied franchises.  The Kiev arena looked suitably spectacular. The unusual fact about the game is that both finished in safe Championship League-qualifying positions in their respective domestic leagues, but well out of contention for first.   It suggests a subtle strategy may have been in play, a little risky but successful.  (Liverpool's automatic qualification--as fourth in the English Premier League--was not assured until the last weekend of league play, and second in the final would not have qualified them.) it was a good match of proven veterans (Real) vs. young upstarts, playing hot.

The hottest player coming into the match was Mohammed Salah of Liverpool.  Real captain Sergio Ramos took care of him a third of the way through with a wrestling tackle that sprained Mo's shoulder and took him out of the game (Egyptian fans are praying it will not take him completely out of their World Cup appearance in June.)  The balance of the game shifted slightly toward Real after that, but it was still scoreless at halftime.

The first big break came on a stunning error by Liverpool goalie Loris Karius.  On a routine clearance, he threw the ball to the side, too close to Real's Karim Benzema, who stuck out his leg and deflected it right into the goal. Liverpool battled back to tie it, which set up the winning goal for Real, a classic bicycle-kick, over the head, touch off a long cross by storied Welsh forward Gareth "Christian" Bale.  Bale, who was hugely overpaid as a Real player until that very moment, had come in as a reserve minutes before--so give credit to Real's coach, the legendary Zinedine Zidane, who was as wowed as everyone else by the brilliance of the strike.  Bale scored another, later, on a long shot that Karius misplayed, but that was the moment that will go forever into the Champions League highlights film.

Baseball Regular Season - Indians vs. Astros 
To be honest, there was another titanic single-game struggle in the battle for dominance in the American League recently, with two completely different teams, the Yankees and Red Sox, with a similar story of drama.  It depends on whether you credit more those two emerging monsters of the AL East (New York and Boston) or the non-East teams which have been most successful in the past couple of postseasons.  The Astros and Indians are both slightly ahead in close races in their divisions now and look viable if they get into the postseason, regardless of where their regular-season record will rank among playoff teams.

The matchup of two quality starters (Gerrit Cole for Houston; Trevor Bauer for Cleveland) produced a  fairly normal 3-2 Indians lead through seven innings.  The Astros, led by superstar sparkplug second-baseman Jose Altuve, on an incredible hitting roll, broke through for six runs off Bauer and relievers in the eighth.  Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Cleveland came back against closer Ken Giles and others in the Astros' bullpen for five runs to send it to extra innings.   Each team scored a run in the 13th inning, then Evan Gattis won it in the 14th, 10-9, with a walk-off homer (his second of the game) for Cleveland, 10-9.

No doubt, there will be other games more decisive; in the postseason, certainly, and probably in the regular season as well, both will remember this one though.

Bonus Coverage:  World Cup Preview
I'm no sure how much I will be following this year's soccer World Cup event in Russia, starting in about three weeks.  I'm going to be very busy with a move, and frankly, the three national teams I root most for--the US, Italy, and Holland--were each eliminated in the qualifications (the US, most embarrassingly so).

The big question is whether there will be a rematch of the marquee matchup of the 2014 World Cup, when Germany humiliated Brazil in the semifinal, 7-1, en route to winning the championship.  Brazil has performed brilliantly in the difficult South American qualifications, and Germany's team is largely intact.  If I read the draw correctly, they would only meet in the final--unless one of them does not win its group, in which case they would meet early, in the round of 16.   The general rule, which Germany rudely violated in Brazil in 2014 by crushing Brazil's expectations and Argentina's hopes in the final, is that a European team wins when the Cup is held in Europe and a South American wins otherwise.  Moscow is, technically, in Europe, so that would point to Germany (or some other European team).

After those two, there is a second tier of teams that could have entirely credible ambitions of reaching the final, or even winning it all:  Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and France.   England seems to have one of its better teams, as does Mexico and South Korea.  The top World Cup teams are all packed with international stars; the differentiating factor is how well they mesh on those relatively rare occasions when they all get together.

I will be rooting for Iceland to duplicate the magic it showed in the 2016 European Cup, when it pulled off upsets until finally being defeated by the tourney winner, Portugal.  Iceland will do well if it can finish in the top two of a tough group, with Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria, and make it to the round of 16.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Electoral Strategy for 2018


Trump is a sadist; he causes pain in everything that he does.  Many have tried to give him back what he deserves, but it seems the only pain he can feel comes from the feeling that he is losing.

We have a chance to punch him the mouth this year; to make him feel that pain for a change. But it has to be a loss that is clear-cut, unambiguous.

Not only that, if that were to happen, then the Republican party regulars would turn on him and he'd be on the way out, one way or the other. Whether they would be able to rescue their party is a separate question, less important for now.

End of Trumpism--the Headline
(as I would rank order on likelihood) 
1. Trump Defeated!  ( in the 2020 Election)
2. Trump Quits! (Before 2020)
3. Trump Dies!  (anytime OK)
4. Trump Announces He Will Not Run Again (most likely in early 2020, when the recession hits)
5. Trump Wins Re-Election, Civilization Crashes, Drumpfsterfire Blazes until Snuffed in Resulting Chaos... (I'd guess late 2022)
6. Trump Is Impeached and Convicted! (could even be in second term)
7. That 25th Amendment Coup-because-Trump-is-Crazy Thing! (Since it didn't already happen...)

I have full respect for the job that Robert Mueller is doing, but I don't expect the investigation to lead to a decisive outcome.   I like that it's an irritant to Trump, and the distractions it provides keep the White House from being more effective. That's entirely a positive factor, though far outweighed in magnitude by the damage the servile legislators and sycophantic staffmen (the only kinds left in the Republican Congress and adninistration) enable Trump's mad policy flailing to "win".

Beating the Drumpfists
 (and I do mean giving them a beating)

Developing a winning US electoral strategy, as usual, begins with Florida and Ohio, just like in the Presidential elections.  In this case, it is only partly and indirectly because of their status as the key swing states in the Electoral College.  In 2018, there are critical state elections that will make a difference for all branches and levels of government.  Both states will have contested elections for governor and for senator, as well as a number of critical House races and battles for control of their legislatures. 

Then, the control of those statehouses will be important in the brief leading period before the 2020 campaign begins, as they have the ability to affect voting procedures, which have been fiercely contested in both for obvious reasons--so much is at stake.  Frankly, too much.

For me, the single most important election for 2018 will be that for the re-election of Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio.  It will be a pure test of political drawing power for both parties, and they are throwing everything into it.  (Trump was there last weekend on "official White House business"--to get the taxpayer to pay for it--and he will no doubt find other reasons between now and November.)

Brown is a solid candidate, a good campaigner and positioned somewhere in the spectra of populism and progressivism between Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.  In other words a strong, representative Democrat.  He will be facing a handpicked Republican Congressman whom Trump endorsed over the weekend (though I imagine the Drumpfster doesn't know him or what he stands for.) No matter,  Jim Renacci will be bound to appear to be a pro-Trump, anti-Kasich kind of stooge. 

The party nominees for the governor's race will be determined in the primary Tuesday but are likely to be Mike Dewine, a nasty Scroogian sort with proven electoral ability, and Rich Cordray, a Democratic former Lieutenant Governor, but better known nationally as former Director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (the "CFPB").  He was, in fact, the only Director of that agency until Drumpfist henchman Mick Mulvaney took it over recently, in one of these painful, chaotic bureaucratic power struggles that the Drumpfists so enjoy, and immediately set himself seriously about destroying it.  Anyway, Cordray will get the blame in ad after ad for over-regulation, and he is bland, and I am not optimistic about that one.

Sherrod Brown is rated as having a Hillary-like 80% chance (on Predictit), but I am scared:  his not winning would blow the whole deal. Whatever else happens, if he loses, the punch in the mouth be softened.  We all know too well about the diverse Ohio electorate:  if Brown's organization can deliver turnout in the big cities and their suburbs, and also rally the disaffected blue-collar voters who were critical in Trump's win in the state, he will have shown the way to the national party for 2020.  More on this later.

Florida is not quite as exciting but also a top priority  In the Senate, there is real danger because Senator Bill Nelson, a bland, blameless liberal, is running for re-election (fourth term) against the odious, term-limited state governor Rick Scott.  Scott is an opportunist, a crook, and an elitist but, like Trump, has been able to con enough voters to have won signal victories--twice!-in Florida.  This case is about as pure a straight-up test as there could be of Trumpist vs. Democrat.  As the incumbent, Nelson is a slight favorite, but this could be a mirage.  In the governor's race, I would favor the chances of Democratic ex-Congresswoman Gwen Graham, the daughter of Florida Governor (and Senator) Bob Graham. As we know, picking up that office can be a matter of national importance, as we saw in 2000 with Jeb Bush.

The Next Tier
Florida and Ohio went wrong in 2016, but the real killers in the Presidential contest were Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, each of which moved the needle just a bit to the right and drove us all off the cliff.  They are also finely-balanced politically, and recovering the electoral majority in these states is a worthy battle. It is a battle that both parties will be poised to fight with excessive effort and money invested.

As states which had leaned Democratic in national elections before 2016, all three have Democratic senators running for re-election.  It is an important fact for the 2018's that all three--Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania--are now considered likely winners (80% or so).

Loss by any of them would be a major Democratic disaster, so if the race is tight near Election Day, the appeals for TV ad money will be hysterical (meaning not funny, but screechingly constant).  Do not be tempted--when they say "your contribution will be triple-matched" it means the national party has already given enough to cover three times what Viewers Like You are expected to contribute.  My view is, they should have built their get-out-the-vote with early money and local candidates' organization.  If they did that, they will be OK; if they didn't, too bad for all of us.  Pennsylvania's local contests will be particularly important because of the court ruling overturning the Republican-gerrymandered House districting of the state, giving the Democrats several pickup opportunities.

There is one more member of this group of medium-sized northern battleground states;  Minnesota did not go for Trump, but it has been very close in all recent Presidential elections..  This year,  Minnesota Democrats are actually defending two Democratic senate seats, an unusual occurrence caused by the resignation of Al Franken (let's not go there, now).  Amy Klobuchar is running for re-election and should be favored, but the Republicans will aim at replacement Senator appointee Tina Smith, who is running to keep it now for a full term.  There is also a rare opening from the end of term of a Democratic governor, which will be a lively and expensive contest.

Additional Senate Battlegrounds
When you start with a 51-49 Republican Senate edge (Democrats need to gain two for control) and the Democrats defending ten seats which Trump won in 2016, every closely-contested one is vital, and these states--mostly smaller, with less expensive TV markets--will be subjected to a deluge of ads.  If I were managing a moderate Democrat defending against some wingnut Republican--likely to be the case in five different states which went heavily for Trump (IN, MO, ND, MT, and WV) --I would look to de-escalate.  Defend against the absurd attacks ("no, I'm not a Communist"), but try to tone down the rhetoric and spending level.  These Democratic candidates have to follow a fine line--yes, I'm a gun owner, no, I'm not opposed to working with Republicans--but the way was shown to them by the Conor Lamb special election campaign in Pennsylvania.

The story is different in those four states (AZ, NV, TN, TX) where Republicans are defending Senate seats and facing serious threats.  The problem for the Republicans is that the simple Trumpist story line does not appear to be enough to win these normally Republican states, due in large part to the success the Democrats have had in fielding credible candidates.

Ted Cruz in Texas is something more (or less) than a mere Trump acolyte, and his desperate race to hold off a historic shift in the balance of power between the parties is another big story for the election.  I have been fooled before by popular Texas Democratic candidates who max out in the mid-40's, and Beto O'Rourke appears to be another. I won't believe it's possible he wins until I see a poll that shows Cruz five points behind.  But, if that happens, that would be the Democratic equivalent of the Republicans' winning Sherrod Brown's seat, a major party win regardless of the final Congressional seat count.


Senate Seats Most Likely to Flip 
(State, Party, and likely candidate of incumbent party, current Predictit odds)
Arizona, R, Martha McSally,* 72%   (Jeff Flake's seat)
Nevada, R, Dean Heller, 70%
Missouri, D, Claire McCaskill, 53%  
North Dakota, D, Heidi Heitkamp 52%
Tennessee, R, Marsha Blackburn,* 52%
Indiana, D, Joe Donnelly, 47%
Florida, D, Bill Nelson, 39%
Montana, D, Jon Tester, 38%
West Virginia, D, Joe Manchin, 32%
Texas, R, Ted Cruz, 30%
Wisconsin, D, Tammy Baldwin, 22%
Minnesota, D, Tina Smith, 22%
Ohio, D, Sherrod Brown, 19%
Pennsylvania, D, Bob Casey, 15%. 

*Nominee not currently seated. 

I hope you get the gist of it:  two very good opportunities for Democratic gains pickups at the top of the list, and a lot of uncertainty, in primarily Democratic-held seats, after that.  It would be a true wave result--a left hook in the jaw--if the Democrats could hold that two-seat gain.  Otherwise, a miss.   In my betting, I'm looking at the Democrats picking up 2-3 and the Republican 2-3 (my guesses would be ND and IN going over, maybe FL).  Predictit.org has the chances of Democrats gaining control at about 38%.

And the House...
Like the Senate, 2018's House campaign is a target-rich environment with battles scattered throughout the country. Republican members are fleeing the Paul Ryan-led partisan suckfest shipwreck, with the lead rat being Ryan himself.  An unprecedented number have decided to run for other office, have term limited themselves, or otherwise headed for the hills.  The majority of those did so from varying combinations of Drumpf-induced nausea mixed with fear of losing (a few due to exposed misbehavior).

I am looking for--but have not yet found--a table which shows the incumbents of both parties who are running for re-election. Since historically those people win about 90% of the time, in good times and bad, it would be the best way to build a table of the likely score for estimating outcomes based on the toss-up races--of which I expect there will be money.  This has been due partly to the power of incumbency, and partly to the choices of those who don't see victory happening.

Ballotpedia has a number of lists which show who is running for this and that, or for The Hills (my term), but not a list of those who are remaining and running again.  My rough count is Democrats have about 175 of those seats, Republicans about 195.  Between those 65 or so that are up for grabs, and a dozen or so really good Republican-held incumbent targets for defeat (few will go the other way), the Democrats need to make up about 20 seats.  It can be done, but the Democrats will need something like a 10-point national margin to have such a big win.  They are now at about 8%  in current polling (likely voters), but the pros from both sides are feeling that this will happen.  A recent Pew poll suggests likely voters prefer the Democrats on issues by about 57-41, so the question is how many of those will actually vote, and vote according to that (as opposed to the candidates themselves and their particular positions).

 Predictit has chances of Democratic control of the House at about 68%, which to me is too high by 10% or so--thus I am currently betting primarily on Republican control, hoping to take profits before Election Day.  They have a new market set up on the four combinations of control, the odds of which should reflect how the two contests are distinct but correlated.  Current values:  D-House R-Senate 42%; D-House D-Senate 30%; R-House R-Senate 30%; R-House D-Senate 4%. (Totals do not equal 100%).

Lastly, a couple of tips for harassed folks like me receiving dozens or hundreds of appeals for money:
1) Do not be moved by the ones saying "we are doing well" or "we are not doing so well", or "they are spending money against us".  Those were all scheduled appeals using whatever news of the moment inevitably points to the need to ask for money.
2) Do not be moved by the ones saying they have a deadline.  The deadline is theirs, not yours; as suggested before, it is more sound to ask for money for developing a ground game (until the last month) rather than those other reasons, and responding rationally to late appeals will rely upon a sophisticated analysis of current probability that is too much to expect of anyone.
3) Again, don't try too hard to give tactically in the close races.  It's too complicated to really keep up with it this year, and I am tired of contributing to candidates I don't really know who are about to lose close races.

I do endorse contributing to Democrats--exclusively so this year, unless there is some Republican who runs by explicitly repudiating Trump (and I have not seen that yet).  It is the right way to respond to the Republican tax bill which has largely eliminated the tax incentive for charitable contributions.  I'm shifting about 60% of my annual charitable give to politics this year.  Then we'll see; I keep hoping for de-escalation of political expense, which I consider to be a clear example of what is called The Cost of Bad Quality (a/k/a waste).

Pick a few races that matter to you, and--now that the national Democrats are about done putting their fingers on the scales of primary contests--give to the DCCC, to the DLCC (aids state legislature races), and Emily's List.  Yeah, I know they only endorse women--this year, I think that's pretty sound strategy for me.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

K-Armistice Day; a Ripple in Time

I congratulate the South and North Korean Presidents for agreeing to meet each other, and then announcing the end of hostilities between them during that meeting. 

So,  how does the US relate to this?  We keep our distance and see how it plays out. Mostly the US has contributed by being less relevant:  Once the Koreans got the US out of the picture, a moderate South Korean and an ambitious young North Korean dictator found they could agree on next steps very quickly.  What will come next is far from certain, as it is unclear how far the South would go to accommodate the North (would they ask the US military to leave the peninsula?), or how much Un can be trusted to keep the peace, but it is at least a signal accomplishment to end the state of war that has existed between the two countries for three generations.  

Will Trump claim credit for it?  No surprise; he is already saying he did it all by himself.  Does he deserve credit for it?  Not that much, but, to give him some his due, he "stirred the pot", and this is what was able to be brewed up afterwards. 

Civilizing Waves

I suggest an analogy as a way to think about the history of the world.  Civilization is like a broad, deep, low-lying plain rising gradually out of the sea.  We can then think of various perturbations--movements of various kinds, like nations, tribes, religions, mass migrations, military forces of conquest--as waves rising out of the sea and washing over the land surface.  Most of them have a relatively short duration before they reach their "high-water mark", and then roll back into the sea, but they often leave something behind, their contributions to the collective human experience and knowledge.

Some of those waves are very tall, but not so deep (front to back); they hit hard and go far but recede quickly.  Examples would be the surge of Napoleon in Europe, or the Mongols in Asia.  Most of the dynasties of Chinese history would be more like tidal surges which rise, swamp everything, and slowly sink in.  Then there a few monster waves:  the rise of the major religions, the double-crested wave of the classical Greek and Roman expansions, and then there's This One. 

There was a massive Earthquake, which we sometimes call Modernity, other times the Enlightenment, and the red-hot magma fueling this tsunami is the power of reason to interpret facts, the philosophy known as empiricism.  The rumblings go back farther, to the Renaissance, which accompanied also the Age of Exploration for the Western European nations, which certainly made a big splash.  The big wave, though, has been the surge in science and technology, which has been breaking for some 200 years now.  The chaos of the Twentieth Century has been an outcropping upon which this flood has broken and been diverted in unexpected ways (Communism, Fascism, the Cold War), possibly less forceful now, but still leaving behind incredible quantity of detritus (like the Internet, smartphones, robots).

The Korean War has certainly been a central fact in Northeast Asia; equally so the long postwar tensions and the separate paths North and South  Korea have taken since then.  I would put it in the context of 'stuff' left behind by that major flow called the Cold War which resulted from the modernizing monster wave being powerfully broken by the rock of World War II.   It is high time for it to settle into the landscape. 

The First Armistice: A  Centennial 

2018 is the 100th anniversary year of the original Armistice Day--November 11--which ended World War I (in the US, Armistice Day has since been renamed as Veterans Day).  1918 marked the US' emergence as the undoubted pre-eminent power, due to the exhaustion of the European powers in the Great War (Germany, Russia, France, Britain) and the catastrophic, colonialized condition of the East and South Asian societies.  The fifty years that followed, 1918 - 1968, 50 and 100 years ago, were defining in terms of America's relation to world history  Cultural game-changers like mass electricity, radio, television, and film created a global culture that was centered on the US as the critical market, cementing the fame of both home-grown talent (such as Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe) and foreigners who could crack through (the Beatles and other English Wave bands, Elizabeth Taylor, Sofia Loren).  This was capped by incredible accomplishments in aerospace engineering, nuclear weapons and power, and the rise of the space program.

The developments in the US' forms of participation in global affairs were dramatic and confounding, as the pendulum swung violently. During the period after 1928, the US went from providing the security for the war settlement terms to refusing to ratify participation in the international organization it had proposed.  A desperate effort by traditional America to keep the country from fulfilling its leadership role prevailed through much of the avoid its leadership, as the unstable international system it had birthed toddled, wobbled, then fell over the window ledge.  US'-sponsored democracy in Europe seemed headed for military defeat, until the extremist societies turned against each other in self-destructive frenzy  (in 1941, with Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, and with the attack on Pearl Harbor) .  

  We seemed to have learned a lesson, as the efforts after WWII to set the tone, containing totalitarian advances by championing decolonization and  development.  But, by the end of the 50th year of the period, it became apparent that the limits of American willingness to extend itself and its allies in foreign affairs were being reached with the seemingly unwinnable Vietnam War. 

I would say that The Decline ("The Long Way Down") began there.  Fifty years ago this time of year was the time when Bobby Kennedy's campaign was on the verge of a breakthrough, until he was cut down  (like his brother's, an assassination we have never quite come to understand). In the chaos that followed,  a new form of reaction arose, one that was never fully defeated and has arisen, once again, in these times.  1968 ended with an election in which a moderate Democrat (Hubert Humphrey)--viewed as too accommodating by many of his party--fell substantially short in the Electoral College despite a near-draw in popular vote. (Sound familiar?)

Yes, we dominated the next 50 years.  We had little choice but to protect our global empire, established even more clearly after the collapse of the Communist one, though the will was often lacking (think of the Senate authorization of the first Gulf War, clearly justified by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but which barely passed).  Now, we are clearly in a retreat mode with regard to our leadership in the world; while our objective has always been to execute policies which ultimately benefit ourselves, the philosophy in the past has often been that helping the world--to settle conflicts, help development, promote freedom and  international trade--would be the best way to accomplish these.  Now, the willingness to look for those mutual benefits is either gone or greatly reduced. 

The result is that the current American hydraulic force on that great plain of civilization is one of an undertow, pulling some of our great contributions back out to sea.  We are still a force to be reckoned with, but the admiration the Obama Administration engendered in the global community is gone--or worse.

From Bill Maher's New Rules this week:  Trump always says he's 'looking out for the little guy'.  Turns out he was talking about his dick. 

He definitely read him the Riot Act'. But not exactly:  I looked up the original Riot Act and found this: 
Riot Act of 1715 (repealed 1967) .authorized local authorities to declare any group of twelve or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and thus have to disperse or face punitive action.--Wikipedia. 

That's more like a Trumpian thing.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

March sports report

Can Anyone Here Play This Game? 
The primary feature of this season in college basketball has been the inconsistency of the top teams.  In the regular season, and in the top conference postseason tournaments, the top-seeded teams have proven the ability to lose unexpectedly.  Fine, but all this is but the prelude to the main event--the NCAA tournament.

The first two rounds of the tournament (I don't count the preliminary "First Four" as a round) had a large number of upset results.  This is not truly surprising, as almost every top team runs across one or two tough challenges:  the test of the potential championship team is the ability to pull those games out.  What does seem different to me this year is the fact of multiple  games in which highly-ranked teams were blown out by lower-ranked ones.  We start with #1-ranked Virginia's 20-point loss to a number #16 seed, UMBC; also in the first round, #4 Arizona losing to #13 Buffalo by 21.  In the second round, #2 North Carolina lost by 21 to #7 Texas Tech and #4 Auburn lost to #5 Clemson by 33.  Parity is when the mid-majors , weaker teams in the big conferences, or champions of lower-rated leagues keep it close against the big boys (an example being #11 Syracuse throwing a nasty zone and defeating #3 Michigan State).  These blowout losses by high-rated teams reflect lack of preparation, or of motivation.  Which is hard to understand if these players and coaches are really focused on the here and now, and not their NBA futures.

I will generalize and say that most of the teams left are ones that have flawed regular seasons but come in to the tourney with a hot streak. The one exception is Villanova, which looks like a potential champion, with both an excellent regular season and strong performances in the first two rounds.  The left side of the bracket is pretty well decimated, with Kentucky and Michigan coming in hot and looking like favorites to make the Final Four, being also the highest-seeded survivors in their regions (UK at #5 and MU at #3).  The fourth spot will likely be decided by a final-eight showdown between Duke and Kansas: #1 and #2 seeds, each packed with talent and 7 regular-season losses--a lot for teams seeded #1 and #2.

The most interesting game of this third round will be the matchup of #11 Loyola-Chicago and #7 Nevada:  the first team won with last-second baskets in both rounds, while Nevada came from 22 points down to win its last game.  There's a lot more I could say about it, like how the Ramblers of Loyola won the first NCAA championship I can remember in my life and haven't been close since then, but I see it as a prelim to the regional final, where I would expect that game's winner then to lose to Kentucky. The Wildcats, my perennial fave which I will defend against all derision or snark, are an extreme Caliparian team (or I would call them "callipygian", which means with a big tail end), starting five freshmen, and their late-season run has changed this team's theme from "they should come back" to potential Final Four and raising three or four to potential "one and done" status.  They find themselves unexpectedly favored after seeds 1-4 in their region all lost in the first two rounds.

I have heard the NBA is reconsidering the "one and done" rule.  I would suggest they treat the colleges like the developmental league they are and agree to subsidize certain draftable freshman players to stay on for one or two additional seasons; if they actually do change it, more likely they'll go in the other direction and reinstate straight-to-pro high schoolers.  I hope not; LeBron James and Moses Malone notwithstanding, it's not in the interest of the players affected, the NBA teams themselves (who will pay more for less), or, more obviously, the health of the college game.

Tearing Myself from "March Madness"...
to normal martial/Martian sports activity.  (Speaking of which, I dream of a pro volleyball game played in a low-gravity Mars arena--I think it will happen before 2100.) 

The NBA heads toward a brief spasm of relevant regular season games early next month when the wild and tight battle for seeding positions (or just making the playoffs, in the Western Conference) will climax.  There may also be a one-downsmanship competition for the worst record (and best chances at a very early first-round draft pick), though that will likely be determined a week or more before the season's end, after which the best losers will simply have to continue to lose. At the top of the house, the Houston Rockets, with their supreme backout duo of James Harden and Chris Paul, have emerged as the most likely challenger to the Golden State Warriors' dominance, but either or both could be susceptible to a surprise playoff loss in earlier rounds against dangerous teams like San Antonio, Oklahoma City, or Portland.

Baseball's new season is shaping up as a few teams with outsized talent (Dodgers, Cubs, Astros, Indians, and the Yankees) and a lot of teams at various stages of rebuilding.  My Reds seem to be about halfway through a six-year program to dive deep and slowly resurface.   The game is subtly changing, with more strikeout pitchers, more emphasis on relievers and on home runs--to me, a little less intricate and fascinating, but, you know, "chicks dig the long flies".  Or so it is said.  The Yanks' signing of Giancarlo Stanton to make a 1-2 power combo with Aaron Judge feels scarily familiar with the shadow of previous Bronx dynasties, and with the Yanks now boasting a true ace now in Luis Severino, I feel threatened.

Chelsea Rule is not all OK this year, and I'm afraid that yet another top coach has about played out his string.  The 3-0 defeat at Barcelona--the best club team in the world-- is not shameful, but the team has underperformed for Antonio Conte this year.   With that game having eliminated the Blues from the Champions League, they are now down to one possible trophy, having reached the semifinal of the F.A. Cup, and they have a challenging path to finish in the top four and remain qualified for the Champions league next year.   At least Manchester City--far and away the best English team this year--was recently eliminated from the FA by Wigan, so they won't win everything.  They may reach the heights of a Champions League final, if they get a favorable draw in the next rounds; they are that good. This next round, they are matched against Liverpool, the team that gave them their only Premier League loss so far this season, but I'm not expecting this team to be their nemesis.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Post-Pre-Oscars Posting Analysis

(Post-Oscar text in bold italics like these. See my 2/25 comment after the 11/25 "'Fall' Movie Preview" posting.)

I've now seen almost all the movies I mentioned in the preview (exceptions are "Call Me By My Name", "Phantom Thread", and the J. Paul Getty and Eric Clapton ones).

For anyone waiting for my choices before placing their bets on Oscars tonight, here they are:

Slam Dunk (Doesn't matter what I prefer, this is what is): Best Picture "The Shape of Water" (I don't believe "3 Billboards" will win, except as a feint in the announcement); Best Actor Gary Oldman "Darkest Hour"; Director Guillermo del Toro "Shape";  Animated "Coco"; Original Screenplay "Get Out" (Peele's "consolation for the night")--better not be '3 Billboards', as I thought the screenplay was the worst part of it. One would think "Phantom Thread" would have to win Costume Design.

Six for six. Peele's was the riskiest choice, because the category was so strong.  But as I said, "This is Us."  (or as SNL brilliantly satirized last night, "This is U.S." 

Interesting races--two-favorite categories:  Lead Actress--Frances McDormand vs. Sally Hawkins.  I think Frances will win, though I'd prefer Hawkins.  Both make feminist statements, which I think will be the winning cause of the night (over gays, blacks).
Adapted Screenplay--I would say it's between Aaron Sorkin for "Molly's Game" and James Ivory for "Call Me By Your Name".  Maybe the Wolverine one ("Logan"), if they want a crowd-pleasing choice.

Nothing wrong here; I wasn't sure but felt Oscar would take the opportunity to crown Ivory's career and reward him for his crossover to screenwriter in this film. The Merchant-Ivory collaboration remains the gold standard for modern execution of a certain type of film. 
  

Multi-faceted ones--
Both supporting acting ones:  Male - I like Willem Dafoe in "The Florida Project" over Plummer as Getty or the powerful but understated performance of Richard Jenkins in "Shape", with Harrelson and Rockwell splitting votes for "3 Billboards".  Female - I think it has to be Laurie Metcalf for "Lady Bird", though all the nominees seem deserving of consideration.

Original Score will be an interesting face off between three noisy symphonic types who may divide the old school vote (Hans Zimmer, John Williams of course, but also, Alexandre Desplat--ninth nomination, one win) and a couple of more interesting ones: Carter Burwell (100th credit, 1 previous nom) and Jonny Greenwood of one of my favorite rock bands, Radiohead (there's a reason for me to see "Phantom Thread"!) I'd go with Burwell, on the merits.  Also Original Song, though I think Mary J. Blige will win it (consolation prize, not Supporting Actress) over the "Coco" one (the more traditional choice); my wife likes the one from "Call Me..." by offbeat rock musician Sufjan Stevens.

Then there is Cinematography--without Chivo in the race, it is more wide open than usual.  I could go with any of the noms; I would think Dan Laustsen for "Shape" should be favored.

Amazing!  I went 0-for-5 in this section.  I should have seen Desplat winning for score and Roger Deakins for cinematography.  On the supporting actor categories, I should have consulted fivethirtyeight.com before posting, to remind me of the solid data (relating to the correlations between certain previous award winners to specific Oscar winners) to have expected Rockwell and Allison Janney. 

Not so interesting two-way:  The Sound ones, between Blade Runner and Shape of Water, Film editing, Shape and 3 Billboards, Visual Effects, between Blade and the Star Wars one; and Production Design, Shape and Dunkirk. I'd go with Shape (twice) on sound, Blade on Visuals, 3 Billboards film, and Dunkirk, production.

The rest: I have no clue.  Maybe the "Aleppo" one for Documentary Feature (take that, Gary Johnson!)

I basically had each of these more technical awards individually wrong, though the overall results that Dunkirk, Blade Runner and Shape of Water would lead the voting was directionally right.  

The Oscar program quality I would rate as average; there were moments, particularly with women, children, and minorities, and I liked the true surprise registered on the faces of  those winners of the multi-faceted races  that I guessed wrong.  The best part was the series of montage sequences of old winners around the 90th anniversary theme, particularly to introduce the winners of the acting awards.  I am not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel or his comedy choices, though I am appreciative of his willingness to be human on screen. 

I think my results show that there is both a high degree of predictability, and of pure randomness, in the  winners--the lesson for smart bettors is to pick their spots, and avoid the other categories, as well as the overall winner count lotteries.   Fivethirtyeight's analysis was 8-for-8 perfect, but they stopped there and shared my closing about the rest:  "haven't a clue".  

Saturday, February 24, 2018

My Monthly Rant: A Plug (Unpaid) and a "Tweet"

This is from a group that calls itself "The Resistance" in its email communications. This  headshot picture of Trump seems to shown him in hellish flames (also very Wizard of Oz).  That is what "inflammatory" is all about.  I am not endorsing all this site's policies--although I agree with a boycott of direct Trump Co. companies and some of their enablers--I recognize that a boycott that is too broad is impractical.  But I do like their way with words. 



Join the Resistance
Dear 
How long will it be before Trump tries to arm fetuses?  Only for self-defense, of course.
In the wake of the mass shooting at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Lyin’ King thinks he has a solution.  Guns for teachers. 
Well, at least he didn’t suggest bazookas for boys.  Or grenades for girls.
Would someone please explain to the Short-Fingered Vulgarian that crossfire is unlikely to end the problem of assault-weapon attacks in schools? 


Would someone please explain to the Talking Yam that his “brilliant” idea would fall victim to the simplest possible countermeasure?  The countermeasure called shoot the teacher first?
Just how dumb is this latest Trump-twaddle?
You could make a better argument for universal Facetiming to class.
You could make a better argument for mandatory bullet-proof vests for all students.
You could make a better argument for refusing school admission to anyone unless he or she is naked.  (Go try to conceal an AK-47 when you’re nude.)
And here is the ultimate better argument: Donald Trump should not be President of the United States.
Please contribute to $10, $25, $50 or whatever you can spare to the most important issue in America today: how to save us from the ignorance, asininity, imbecility, obtuseness, brainlessness, recklessness and outright idiocy of Donald J. Trump >>

http://www.lockhimupnow.org/trump_lies


And, for the RNC: 

a reply I liked (second-hand) for their request on Twitter for comments and suggestions: 


1) Stop the corruption within your administration.
2) Sign the sanctions against Russia
3) Stop taking blood money from the NRA and sign common sense gun legislation
4) You broke our healthcare-fix it
5) Clean Dreamer Bill
6) Stop tweeting like a crazy loon

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Italian Elections 2018

What could be less interesting, right?  Wrong! I won't say that this is a world-history making event, since Western civilization's continuation or development no longer depends on the fate of  political struggles in Rome (OK it's been awhile since that was the case), but I find it to be a subject with important ramifications, for both Europe and the US, as well as a fascinating case study.

Modern Italian culture, in all its facets, has been a particular interest of mine, ever since I "discovered its existence"in plain sight, Christopher Columbus-like, about 40 years ago.   A little background on the national scene follows--please bear with me and I will try to be brief. Then I will go into more depth about the likely outcomes and the major personalities involved. 

Italy since World War II has prospered spectacularly, but unevenly.  By most measures, Northern and Central Italy are on par with the most developed countries of Europe, but the Southern part of the boot and Sicily have lagged.  This has been true much longer; one could say that the initial disparity present at the founding of the modern state (mid-19th century) has never been remedied.  The Parliamentary state has consistently disappointed people's expectations, but there is still strong support among the people for democratic ideals.  The Italian economy is recovering more strongly recently after a long, slow recovery from the Great Crater, but it is still a difficult place to do business, for many reasons.  The wealth of the people comes from their great assets:  land and people, and to a large extent, the interaction of the two. 

Why Does It Matter? 
I will make this quick.  It is a significant country in Europe, and if its election is won by the right--which has various Trumpian characteristics among its leaders, including xenophobia, corruption (though probably not with Russia so much), immigration, turning the economy to the favor of the wealthy, and clownish behavior--it will be very harmful for the European Union as we currently know it.  Many of the center-right coalition openly advocate going the Brexit route, and Italy, unlike Britain, is a core member of the EU initiative from its very earliest form in the postwar EEC.

If we think more narrowly, the result is also significant for the US, in the sense that it is yet another very relevant test of democracy and of the public desire, or lack of desire, to reject tribalist and ultra-nationalist thinking, and thus a possible portent of upcoming US political soundings.  Unlike the US, Italy has  a very real current immigration problem--poverty-stricken people coming over to Italy in boats from Libya (after migrating there from many other Third World countries), and there is also a general Italian view that the country has not been properly supported by the rest of Europe in handling this peaceful, but unwanted, burden of handling mass migration. 

The Scenarios and Their Chances
So, to the political structure (of the moment):  This parliamentary election will be conducted March 5 under different rules from the last one, five years ago.  (In a somewhat rare occurrence among Italian governments since the postwar republic replaced constitutional monarchy, the Parliament remained intact for the full five-year term.)  The new Parliament will be composed of a mixture of proportional representation and "first-by-the-post" election of individual districts by plurality (like the US House).  The distribution of seats among the parties for the proportional portion* is somewhat apparent from the opinion polling--opinion moves fairly slowly, in general. The wild card is how the individual seats may play out, as the balances are very fine.  There are a number of possible coalitions, in classic Italian fashion.

On this one, I have some small skin in the game (predicti.org); I will make some references to the market they have on this election:  "Who will be Prime Minister on July 31?"
Here is my list of  the possible outcomes, in order of likelihood:
1) Generally unclear, no coalition easily identifiable.    This has two major variations:
a) totally indecisive result, and everyone sees that it's so (no party or coalition above 30% or so)--the Parliament might seat, make some new rules, or not, but just call a new election.
b) no surprises in the outcomes, continuing discussions, no new outcome on the horizon.  This could go on for a very long time--the 7/31 deadline is a good reference point, as it is shortly before the midsummer break called "ferragosto" when everyone, and especially the politicians, shut it down and go on vacationIn this case, there could be a continuation of the caretaker government that has been running since the collapse of the Renzi government (see below).  Paolo Gentiloni is the Prime Minister, from the Partito Democratico (yes, the Democratic Party, and it is very comparable to the US one).  He's a dignified, moderate techno-bureaucrat; few would regret the result, though it would be a defeat for: 


2) The Center-right coalition.  This is the only currently-announced coalition that has any chance to get close to a governing majority by itself. The leader of this combination of five parties is none other than Silvio Berlusconi, back for another run at it after his conviction and retreat from the scene.  His party is called Forza Italia (I would translate it as "Go, Italy!"), and it's the only one of the alliance that has meaningful national appeal.  The problem is, because of his conviction, he's supposed to be ineligible to actually serve in the new government.  So, there's a very interesting range of possible PM's.  My money (in predictit.org) for this scenario is on Antonio Tajani, the most respectable of the leaders of Forza (FI).  His odds have surged--I bought him at .14 a month ago and he's up to .33 (on a .01 to .99 scale, pre-election;  after it's decided 7/31, values will go to 0 to 1.000).  Good gains so far, and I may hang around to see if I can make more.

3) Center-left coalition.  There are two big parties in this (potential) space:  the PD (Dems), who had control of Parliament the last five years, and the one-of-a-kind Italian invention called Movimento Cinque Stelle ("Five Star Movement", abbreviated as M5S).  It just missed five years ago, when headed by a sharp-tongued comedian, Beppe Grillo; it has shown some staying power after some purges and other separations se and is now headed by an emergent 31-year-old talent, Luigi di Maio.  Its themes have been opposition to the Establishment and all the other parties, use of 21st-Century technology to create democracy, bloc voting, and eternal internal squabble.  If di Maio has conquered that last tendency then he would be truly deserving of leadership, but probably not as the PM this time around.
They (M5S) and the PD will be the leading single parties in the proportional vote (as they were in 2013) dividing 50-60% of the total.  The question is whether these two could get together; every early indication is no (M5S has sworn off all alliances), but that underestimates the Italian impulse to conspire:  I believe that if the PD and M5S both became convinced that their alliance (after the election, of course, first they have to attack each other all through the campaign) were necessary to prevent someone like Berlusconi winning, they might find a way. 
If there were to be an actual agreement, I would think the likely form would be to agree upon someone unexpected, neither Gentiloni nor di Maio (and not PD leader Matteo Renzi):  they could find some sap from another of the many tiny parties sprinkled through this range, maybe someone who won their district but whose party didn't reach the 3% threshold level for proportional representation.  (In predictit.org terms, all Yes bets would then lose;  if you liked this theory, you'd bet No on everyone and make a relatively small profit.)  More likely that M5S would fulfill their promise of non-participation by abstaining for some center-left variation of government formation, thus allowing it to happen. 

4) "La Truffa" - Somehow, the center-right find some tricky way to put Berlusconi at the head of the government (despite his not being in the Parliament):  they make a law to allow it? 

5) A PD-dominated government - This is a variation on #1 in which the PD does surprisingly well, such that they--and any smaller partners they can find--get to 40% or so of the Parliamentary seats.  Then, suddenly, a government headed by Renzi would become a possibility. 
The problem is Renzi, for my taste the best prominent politician--intelligent, honest, uncorrupted--that Italy has had for a long time. (At least since the deaths of Aldo Moro and Enrico Berlinguer, for those like me who've been following this stuff for decades.) Naturally, everyone hates him--except for his admirers, who have become a lot less numerous since he became a loser.  That happened with the electoral referendum last October.  He openly staked his career on it, a valiant but ultimately and totally unsuccessful crusade to make the company more governable by making it less democratic. 
Shards of his old support have since dropped off to various splinter groups (and the M5M) since then. He is now seen by the left as a would-be Napoleon who betrayed the working class; most of his remaining appeal is to the moderate left wing of the former Christian Democrat party, from whence he came.  I would say his game now is to let someone else try for a few years--and eventually fail.  He would hope to maintain his role until when he could then make a comeback.  He's still only 43. 

Additional Notes
It is rather unlikely that the scenario will present itself immediately from the electoral results (though we will not have to wait long to hear them--the polling is very efficient, as is the tabulation).  Instead, certainty that there will be no electoral majority, and the multiplicity of parties, will mean that the outcome will take weeks or months to emerge.  A recent article in The Economist suggests an obscure southern Italian party (Noi con l'italia--"we are with Italy"), recently formed, could get a surprising number of local district wins and become a critical factor.  In the respected Italian weekly magazine L'Espresso, a writer under the name of "corleone" (could he be from Sicily, perhaps?) points to the elections for the President of the two houses of Parliament (scheduled for March 23, or 18 days after the general election) to get a clue where this thing will be going. 

The other alternatives to Tajani or Berlusconi as PM for the center-right range from scary to laughable; the most noteworthy miscreant after Silvio is Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Lega Nord (Northern League), who leads a party popular in the North whose supporters are tired of the welfare queens and foreigners from Third World countries getting all their tax dollars.  You can see the appeal, right?  His party will be the second-largest in the center-right coalition, earning 13-15% and winning a number of constituencies. He is pretty much disqualified from being the PM because of the intense distaste everyone else has for him, but he would be a force* in the government if it happened:  I imagine he would then be able to lobby for sending the Italian navy down to patrol the Libyan shores, a provocative military stance that could either work--stopping the boatpeople, and their exploitative aggregators, at the Libyan ports--or start actual conflict.  (Libya was an Italian colony for decades, until the Fascists lost it during WWII.)

I have a lot of (very cheap) shares on Renzi, who is currently viewed as a longshot with no chance; a few on Gentiloni, hoping to average down sometime down the road; and a moderate bet on Tajani (another for which I will add more shares if his price drops).  I have No bets on Berlusconi, Salvini, and Di Maio.   The current polling--Wikipedia is maintaining an excellent graph which shows each data point for each party over time--indicates eight parties will make it past the 3% threshold (while several others will win seats through having localized strength.  If you'll permit me to use the TLA's (two-letter acronyms, or three-letter acronyms) I reviewed above, one gets, approximately, the following current values for those who name their choice:  M5S 28%, PD 23%,  FI 18%, LN 13%. Left Alliance 6%, 5% for a neo-Fascist remnant now called Fratelli d'Italia ("Brothers of Italy", a quote from the first line of the national anthem), and about 8% for others. 

*Sorry for the word, couldn't resist.