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 were the 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 the 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 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
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 >>

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 (; 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 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 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. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Some Sporting Weekends

Seems that the owners of the Big Game have been persecuting those who use the official name of the professional American football championship in vain (or especially without the sponsor's name in front of it, now).  I was never one to refer to the SB in that fashion (I did a search), usually my name for it is the Stupid Bowl.   That's because, historically, the games tended not to be very close:  with the emotions so wound up, typically a team would get out ahead and then blitz the opposing quarterback silly and win by outrageous margins, while the announcers are forced to try to keep viewers watching somehow to justify their ridiculous advertising rates.  It's been a little better--the games, that is, I don't have an opinion of the trend in quality of ads-- in the last decade or so.

I don't have a favorite NFL team, but I do have a default rooting interest against the perennial champions in all the team sports.  This year's matchup was a fair one, of the top regular-season teams, from each conference, and they delivered a very strong game that ranks among the best--whatever the ratings.  t was a high-skill, closely-contested, fairly low-drama affair that followed expectations until the moment Tom Brady finally got sacked and fumbled late in the fourth quarter. The story of backup QB Nick Foles, who performed admirably, and proved superior in the key category of quarterback as pass receiver (not one you'll find in many fantasy leagues, for sure), is just as compelling a QB hero story to me as T.B. going for his Nth (poor Gisele in the owner's booth!) or the improbably-named Joe Montana, or some other popular future TV star like Peyton Manning or Bret Favre.  (But not as compelling as Colin Kapernick, when he first emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, that Monday NIght football game. Kapernick's story will make a better movie someday.)  I

I gave the Eagles about a 27% chance of winning the game, 5-2 odds. I didn't find that particular bet out there, but then I wasn't looking for bets on the Super Bowl.  I don't like betting on the spread on any of these sports, and to me the over-under, while statistically sound, doesn't have much relevnce to the game itself.  It's just a random variable with a probability distribution (though a different one each game depending on the circumstances).

Mowinckel Rules
I will admit I was somewhat anxious about the timing and location for the Winter Olympics.  It's bad enough that the town is a short distance from the heavily militarized border with North Korea; beyond that, note that Russia's team has been banned from the games because of the history of state-run doping. In that sense, the detente between north and South Korea-for the games, epitomized by the combined Korean hockey teams, offers two intentional thumbs in the eye (or is it both eyes) to the low-value TrumPence Korea saber-rattling strategy, and a great relief for fans that violence is not likely to spoil the fun.

I have been much more engaged with this year's Winter Olympics than the last couple ones.  I didn't see much of Sochi, but it seemed like a bummer to me; the Vancouver games were at a difficult time for me personally and I couldn't spare the time then.  The people who have emerged as young heroes this time, like Chloe Kim, the Korean skeleton genius (didn't get the name), Red Gerrard, the improbable Ester Ledecka (the snowboarder who won an Alpine event with borrowed skis), are very inspiring.

My favorite, though, is Ragnhild Mowinkel (rain-Hild, Mowinkel like Bullwinkel) a Norse woman who surprised everyone, including herself, by winning two silver medals in Alpine skiing--apparently she is the first woman to win medals from Norway in Alpine events.  She epitomizes the Viking Mystique: With the superior performance of the Norwegian men in Alpine skiiers supplementing their more typical successes (men and women) in the Nordic events, they are the runaway leaders in the national medal race.  It's the go-to country, as in, "we could only hope to go to Norway if we have to go into exile".   Certainly it's not producing people who would go to a shithole like this one.  But, I mean 'shithole' in the good sense-the importance of feces in the cycles of human and biological affairs is often underestimated.

It's hard to ignore the nationalistic element of the TV coverage of the Olympics, but i try.  Most of the ads, too, though I have to say I like the one for California Almonds that shows the US curler laying down a rock for the bored kids swiffing the kitchen floor.

Maybe I'm just getting to be a softie, but I'm also more amazed, and less bored, than ever before with the figure skating competition.  First, it seems like they finally have a scoring system that fairly determines outcomes. The quality of the top performances is sometimes breathtaking:  I'm thinking of the Japanese men's gold medal winner (and his teammate), the top two pairs dance teams, the Russian women!   And the Americans....

Look let's get real about this--anytime an American wins a medal in any Olympic sport, besides freestyle skiing/snowboarding or the bogus short track speed skating events, it's a major success. The point is, it always has been.  Look, we showed up, we tried.  I like the spirit--and the apparent amateur nature--of the US  men's hockey team (eliminated in the quarterfinals, in a "shootout"). These are not our games--we are participants.  I'm OK with that.

To make my point more clearly, Stupid Bowl is at heart a big, overhyped TV  show (think of the three-hour pregame, or the halftime extravaganza), but it offered a quality sporting event this year.  The Olympics are a quality sporting event despite the network's efforts to make it an entertainment program centered around nationalistic cheerleading.

Some Quick Hits
Basketball:  Now that we are finally getting past the trade deadline and the All-Star break, the real NBA season can begin.  I'm afraid I'm serious: the first two-thirds of the regular season seem to be little more than a warm-up for the pre-playoff exhibitions (the remaining regular season games) and the playoffs.  LeBron James finally has the teammates he wants, and he's ready to rally his team from their mediocre performance to crush the Eastern Conference opposition.  I will expect Spurs' coach Popovich to pull a rabbit out of his hat and suddenly put a healthy, rested Kawhi Leonard out there, with a similarly healthy and rested Rudy Gay, to supplement a mostly-young, partly terribly-old (Ginobili, Tony Parker) team that has learned to play well without them.  Will a boost like those two put them into Warriors-challenging territory?  We may find out in the second round of the playoffs; they could pull an upset of historic proportions.  The Houston Rockets have something to say, too; they want a shot at Golden State in the Western championship round--it may not happen that way, they may have to wait until next year, when the new scheme might have them playing each other in the finals.

I see the NBA is reconsidering its "one and done' policy with regard to college players.  They're probably thinking of just eliminating it--I would suggest going the other way to "two and done".  Despite the inequity, denying these future millionaires their gratification another year, making them work for nothing with insufficient career insurance, it would produce a better sport, both at the college level and the pros.  Not enough veteran savvy, too many talented youngsters with poor team skills.

P.S. There is one spirited contest remaining for the regular season:  a multi-sided battle of sneaky tanking strategies among eight different teams for the worst records, which will lead to higher draft picks.  The bad teams will find phony reasons to shut down their best players for the most minor injuries in order to help their chances to do badly.  The trade deadline moves had several aspects of this, for example the Bulls' trade of Nikola Mirotic, who failed to get with the program after returning from a long injury (his teammate busted his face with a fist in a team practice) and played his best ball, causing the Bulls unexpectedly to go on a lengthy win streak.  He had to be traded.  i love the NBA; the skill levels and athleticism are off the charts, but this is very bad.  The league has to change the rules so there is much less benefit in the draft lottery for finishing at the very bottom; instead, the teams that just miss the playoffs should get more chances to get good draft picks.

Soccer: I have to give the multi-millionaire Arabs who own Manchester City football club the credit due to them, as they have supplanted Chelseas's Roman Abramovich as the most effective big-time investors in producing a powerhouse English Premier League team.  They have a chance to tie, or even surpass, crosstown rival Manchester United's greatest single-year accomplishments.  As for Chelsea, they are in a decent shape to stay in the Champions League--next year--by finishing in the top four.  There are five very strong teams battling for the three open slots available behind Man City,.  As for this year, by getting nosed out for second in their first-round group, they ended up drawing Barcelona in the round of 16.  They are proving to be a worthy opponent, which means after their 1-1 draw at home (great strategy, almost, to keep Barca from getting that crucial away goal) they are probably in trouble in the rematch.  If they score first, they've got a real shot at pulling off the upset, but otherwise it is likely to go downhill very fast.

Baseball:  Speaking of multi-millionaire investors producing winning teams, the big preseason question is whether the Yankees have bought themselves into a chapionship team--I'm tempted to say, "again".  Certainly the signing of top slugger Giancarlo Stanton, to go with the Yanks' 2017 rookie breakout power sensation Aaron Judge is the stuff of Yankee legends:  Ruth-Gehrig-DiMaggio, Maris-Mantle, Mattingly-Reggie (that' was a trick; they never played together), regardless of whether they can take over the AL.  The defending champion Astros, hungry and unfulfilled Indians, and the RedSox all will try to make life difficult for them, as they can compare offensively and--at least the first two--probably have better starting pitching.
In the National League, the Nationals seem to be fading, leaving the Cubs and Dodgers as the big-time power brokers.  The Cubs stepped up, in the wake of likely allowing their formerly superstar starter Jake Arrieta to depart, by paying big money for Yu Darvish, the mercurial Japanese pticher who couldn't get it done for the Dodgers last year.  The Dodgers have plenty more where Darvish came from, though--I don't mean Japan, the Angels got the big Japanese name this year in Shohei Ohtani, who could be a crowd-pleasing sensation--I mean their bench: the Dodgers have six or seven potential ace starting pitchers, starting with the ace of trumps, Clayton Kershaw.  As for the Reds, they appear to be in Year 4 of an eight-year rebuilding program.  I just hope Joey Votto lasts long enough to still be playing then.

Tennis: My tennis world is still agog at Roger Federer's triumph defending his Australian Open title.  He didn't have to get past Rafael Nadal this time, but I think his level was such that he might have been able to do it again this year.  As for the women, the 2018 story will be when Serena returns.  It may not be real soon, but the crown remains empty until she comes back and has a go at taking it back.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Total (Political) War

The current shutdown exercise--emphasis on "current"--is a relatively minor skirmish in the larger battle for power which is going to be fought--in the trenches, in the air, on the beaches--for 34 more months, without any break, and at tremendous financial expense.

Setting the Stage, Sticking My Neck Out with Prediction
The ultimate objective is the 2020 election, one which may determine the long-term future of this nation.  I do not believe I exaggerate: If after all this chaos, dysfunction, and madness, the Trumpian Republicans can succeed in retaining power in 2020, I would view our future to be an accelerating downward spiral into insularity, a diminishing role in global affairs, and constant domestic strife, aggravated by massively increasing inequality and an exploding debt.  To keep power, the oligarchy will move toward despotism, and what is left of our rights and freedoms will become a sad joke.  We can see some portents of their ways, and the lengths to which they would go, in the recent examples of the manipulation of the Supreme Court nomination process, in 2016 and 2017, and the efforts to suppress votes which the Republicans are attempting in several states where they have the power to do so,

2020 is the great prize, and although we are looking at it from great distance (in political terms),  there is every reason to think it will be a banner year for the Democrats.  For one thing, in the same way that the Democrats will be defending many Senate seats this year in red states, in 2020 the Republicans will be on the defensive, trying to hold seats in states that tilt Democratic.

I would guess there is better than a 50-50 chance that the US economy will be either in recession or not long out of it by 2020, with the most likely scenario in the meantime being a ramping up of inflation.  That would be due to the growing budget deficits, to suppression of trade leading to higher import costs, and the labor shortage-- incredible in this age of shrinking demand of labor, but created by the public's demand for more jobs and the politicians' willingness to bend policy to support the desire--which is now finally driving up wages.  The Fed is trying to move up low interest rates sufficiently to contain it, but politics are making it hard:  first an unneeded tax cut, and next will be a burst of additional spending on "infrastructure"--likely to end up being a massive pork-barrel spending on low-priority developments to further pay off well-connected Trump sycophants. If inflation starts surpassing acceptable levels, there will be little choice but to jack up rates, and that will lead to the recession I would predict for 12-24 months from now.  I don't think it will be a mild one, either:  the bursting of the bubblicious markets, the return of consumer overindebtedness, and the failure to learn enough lessons from the last recession in reducing the risk in our financial structure suggest to me that this will be one that leads to stagnation, a sharply weakened dollar and a sharp increase in unemployment.

Then there is the destruction of the Republican brand which the GOP and its alleged leader, the accidental President, are just doing to themselves.   Even with all the basic measures of the US economy going great right now, the public is disenchanted with this one-party government, with the performance of the President, and with the direction the country is going.

Thank goodness for that!  If it were otherwise, if this past year somehow conned a majority of Americans into thinking they were being governed well, then there would be reason for despair.  Instead, we are encouraged, we are furious, and we will not be bought off by something like the phony appeal of the recent tax bill. 

2018: A Historical Analogy
This year's midterm elections are an important and necessary phase in this war, though its result is unlikely to be a decisive one. The Republicans would need a substantial reversal in the current trends to be able to maintain the degree of dominance they have today in both the Federal and state governments, while the Democrats' absolute best outcome would be to reduce their deficit in governorships and state legislatures while gaining narrow majorities in the House and, more unlikely, in the Senate.  It is inconceivable that we will come out of 2018 with the Republican side not in control of the Federal judicial and executive branches. Almost certainly, this year's result will be a closer contest for governmental power, with no reprieve at all from the continuous war of words, and immediate transition to the early stages of the 2020 general election.  Still, the contests this year will be critical in setting the terms of the legislative battles to be held in the 2019-2020 Congress, and of  contests in basically all the swing states, like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, Minnesota and Florida:  all of them have contested battles both for the governors' office (and control of state legislatures) and for a Senate seat (and for some, two Senate seats).

If I were looking for a historical reference to which to compare this stage of the war, I would say that 2018 could be the equivalent of the Battle of Stalingrad for the opponents of the Drumpfenreich;  the event that turns the tide, the one that gives its opponents a view of a possible victory, though the path ahead be long and bloody. Stalingrad was a long, cruel campaign of attrition and destruction, and the Democrats will have to endure, cold-bloodedly, months of hardship, tremendous cost, and frequent setbacks, just as the Soviets did. 

The 2018 campaign will have three fronts--the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the state elections (the great majority of states have their governors' races in the midterm).  There are different conditions in each battle.  With the states, the Republicans have a huge lead which will certainly be reduced; in the House a great deal of uncertainty is present, but the Republicans are on the run; and in the Senate the Republicans have an edge, in terms of the relatively small number of seats they need to defend, while the Democrats have to defend both many seats and many in which their party is the weaker one in the state.  More on this later.

The Current SNAFU
I expect the current shutdown to be resolved quickly--maybe today.  It is about getting agreement on the short-term legislative agenda in Congress:  how long to temporarily fund the government this time, when the immigration debate will be held and under what rules.  It is true that both parties' stubbornness created this dysfunction and thus share the blame; it is also true that both sides are effectively taking hostages:  the Democrats are using the shutdown to force a debate on immigration, and specifically on the status of the DACA recipients (children of undocumented immigrants who have long maintained residence here, but who have been exempted from deportation--at least, until Trump's executive order will take effect in March).  The Republicans' hostages are the DACA "Dreamers" themselves--they are using the Democrats' commitment to preserving, or improving, the Dreamers' status in order to get more immigration restrictions, and Trump is using it to get funding for his Stupid Wall with Mexico--something the Democrats would never otherwise consent to doing.

The Senate Democrats are on dangerous ground:  forcing this shutdown--and it is true that they did do that, by withholding their votes Friday night from allowing a continuing resolution to come to the floor for a final vote--should not backfire on them in a big way.  On the other hand, though, the actual debate on DACA will be painful for them, as the Republicans will try to load up as much misery as they can onto a relatively straightforward question of allowing them to stay--something the Republican leadership and the President have said they are willing to do.  A large portion of the Republican Congressional contingent is against that, though, and they will force their leadership to add more border restrictions, funding to start the Stupid Wall--and then they will still vote against it.  If this bill gets loaded down excessively with poison pills, or worse, if it does not pass--and the relevant history of the past two decades is that, as an immigration bill gets broader, its support gets weaker--then the Democrats will be in a bad spot.  They cannot afford to let go the small bit of leverage they have, with must-pass government funding, until they get what they want, and that might mean a longer, more brutal shutdown later.

The fact is that the Republicans have the trump cards (sorry!) in this deal, and the Democrats are in a somewhat desperate position, having made commitments that they do not have the power to fulfill.  The turtle/weasel cross heading the Senate, the talking sphincter in the White House, and the epitome of white male privilege in the House Speaker's chair are going to seek revenge on the Democrats for making the Republicans' governance look ineffectual.  The fact is, though, the Republicans own their inability, and this first year of Drumpfite chaos only confirms what was apparent during the Bushite Misrule (2001-09):  the GOP is no longer fit to govern, and becomes less so each year.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Excerpts from The Saga of the Talking Presidential Sphincter

Was this the tipping point finally?   I could easily see Trump pull a Sarah Palin on the whole country and pass the baton to Mike Pence.  Bad as Pence would be, I have to prefer that to this monstrosity and embarrassment.

I've heard a lot of criticism of Michael Wolff, and it may be warranted, but I really enjoyed the article in New York Magazine about the Trumps on Election Night (an excerpt from the book).  Wolff makes a great analogy using Mel Brooks' movie "The Producers"--the campaign that was intended to lose dramatically failed to achieve its objective.  And won instead.

My wife:  "Stephen Miller is a putin'bot."

Nicholas Kristof  said in a Times editorial last weekend argued that 2017 was the best year in History.  He's right in a statistical and globalist sense, but it's a very misleading lede.  Short term great, but by any other measure of time, a disaster.
 He gets to the point about two-thirds of the way through, which is that the potential human value present in this moment provides urgency to do something about the threats to it.
He's right, but our focus should be on addressing the "mortal threats" he mentions briefly.

Josh Marshall had it right:  It just doesn't matter whether Trump is mentally ill--if there were any doubt.
Here's a quote I liked from a Washington Post update this morning:

He's one of multiple Trump picks who couldn't pass muster with a GOP-controlled Senate, yet continues to wield immense authority within the government. 

--James Hohmann, "The Daily 202", Washington Post, Jan. 18, 2018, talking about Sam Clovis, who was humiliatingly recalled from a nomination for the US Dept. of Agriculture.   I like the phrase "multiple Trump picks" and variations of it:  "multiple Trump pricks", "multiple pump tricks"

An interesting question from the respected Quinnipiac polling agency asked respondents to give him a grade from A to F, a much better one than whether someone approves of him or feels we're on the right track:  much more information value.  This poll, before the "shithole" comment had 39% grade him an 'F', then 17% a D, only 11% a C, 16% a B, and 16% an A.  (Clearly the 'I don't know/No answer' portion is omitted from their quote.)  My calculation of their average is a 74, right in the middle of the 'D' range.

If we consider our expectations about a Trump presidency after Election Night, I would agree with this rating:  he hasn't gotten us into a new stupid war--yet.

I remember feeling somewhat similarly about Dubya in mid-2001 (actually writing it--probably in  The difference is that those who would've given Dubya an F would probably only grade him in the 60-75 range, while Trump is probably distributed uniformly over the 0-75 range.  Actually, that's very generous to him, as is the 60 average I gave him in coming up with the 74 average:  I would personally give him an overall rating (not compared to my expectations) to be about a 17.+

"Archie Bunker with a twitter feed"
 - Josh  on Don Lemon, CNN

+Obama would probably be about a 93--topic for another day, based on a measure that is not subjected to my interest but to humanity's, and to the notion of a free, somewhat democratic America's as a key factor in our species' continued viability.) The randomness of Trump's behavior is wholly negative from the point of view of the world, but not entirely so from the American one (first, if only narrowly or currently so).

Thursday, January 04, 2018

2017: My Year in Songs

My New Years Eve was spent at home:  we were working on a plan to go to see Murder by Death downtown, but as the freeze deepened, we made a late decision to bag it.   The highlight of the evening was the performance by Keith Urban (yes, Nicole Kidman's husband) at a Nashville Eve rally, playing--basically solo guitar--and singing trademark songs from among the musicians who died in 2017.  It included a verse and chorus or two from--among others--Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden), Glenn Campbell, Chuck Berry, and finished with a performance of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'".

I should have mentioned Petty's passing earlier, but I can't count myself among his foremost fans.  I don't think I ever purchased a product just of Petty and/or his Heartbreakers, nor did I attend any concerts:  for example, this year at New Orleans' JazzFest I watched Lorde, though Petty was playing at the other end of the Fairgrounds.  With hindsight, I'd have to say that was an error, though it's not a criticism of Lorde:  she may well have multiple decades of performing ahead of her, while Petty had barely a season.

I always respected his music, though.  He's a genuine American rocker of merit.  As a keyboard maven, I loved how well much of Petty's music featured Benmont Tench.  My favorite song was the one which I would say initially brought him into the big time, "Refugee".  It doesn't get much play anymore, as it's kinda politically incorrect both toward the object of his scorn and to impoverished foreigners, but I love the edgy energy in it.  I would also mention "Breakdown", "The Waiting", "Even the Losers', "Runnin' Down a Dream", and "Listen to Her Heart". 

 "Where's the Revolution?"-- Depeche Mode
You see the theme, though from Tom Petty's music:  modern American male angst.  He's dealing with interpersonal relations, performing the essential popular music functions of expressing empathy and providing consolation, but he's not making a statement of any kind.

There was too much of that in 2017; I am a little disappointed, but I think to some extent the shock of the 2016 election and what it means to us all has been a little hard to process.  Rock musicians' minds were elsewhere, not paying much attention, and for the most part haven't snapped to it yet.  I'm not even sure it will happen in 2018, but I feel confident the rage (or counter-rage, if you prefer) will rise by 2020.  I would guess the one most likely to voice it is Bruce Springsteen, but we shall see--maybe Bob Dylan's songwriting brain hasn't given up the ghost yet.  Of course, it took rap no time at all to react, in variously virulent and vicious voice.

Yes, veteran Brit rockers Depeche Mode did put out and promote a song with the above subtitle.  The style was quite typical, the radical, provocative words clearly enunciated (as opposed to the usual mumbling or vocal distortions all too present in all popular music genres these days, though the lyrics now can easily be found by the curious on the Internet); however, I don't think D.Mode ever got their answer, and I'm not too many heard the question.

A couple of honorable mentions from foreign bands that can afford to take a stand:  Arcade Fire--their new album "Everything Now" continues the social commentary, disguised in disco format, with the title song and with "Creature Comfort", but that's both Canadian and not really new content from them.  Still much appreciated.   U2's new album is more topical than their previous one and has some oblique references to the fact that the nature of this republic today is contrary to their concept of America.  Again, foreign and not a new theme for them.

What was a little more surprising to me was the lyric to the Killers' "Run for Cover", as that all-American band is among the last I would look to for political commentary.    It includes the lines, "It's even worse when the dirtbag's famous" and "he's fake news".  But, unfortunately, Brandon Flowers does not seem to be referring directly to Trump but seems to be voicing the complaint of a guy whose girlfriend is ditching him for a Trump voter.  Still, some political conscience from a rock band.

Radio, Radio
I got a car this year with Sirius XM, and it has no CD player!  As a result, I have been listening to digitized radio a lot this year.  Here are my top 10 stations (I'm going with the minimal rental level, but I am not just grifting off their free feed):
10.  ESPN Radio
9.  CNN
8. Deep Tracks (SXM #28) - offbeat playlist of obscure cuts from whenever and whoever
7. 820 am - I'm getting NorMan Goldman better than ever. No FM interference from the local Polish station on this feed.
6. Lithium - grunge and near-grunge
5. Classic Vinyl--'60's and '70's, good stuff only; way better than the 80's based Classic Rewind (the cassette period), which plays too much bad Zeppelin.
4. 101.1 FM
3. 93.1 FM -- my Chicago rock stations; gotta set the radio to these when I go in the parking garage.
2. altNation - yes, my chosen genre
1. Spectrum - goes across it; past and present, mostly good selections

And please don't waste your effort by advising me to go with some ipod or Apple tunes or Spotify or Pandora, etc.  Don't need it, not buying it.

(Additional note--1/11/18:  I did this list spontaneously, without reference to my Sirius dial, and butchered it somewhat.  I forgot to include '80's New Wave station '1st wave' (belongs between #4 and 5 above), and Billy Preston (The Beatles--belongs between #8 and 7, as it works--sometimes--in variably-sized doses, but sometimes is impossible), but I should've had NBA and MLB Radio paired--'clubbed', as some might say--with #10, which I mislabeled, and probably should've found a mention for NPR and some of the jazz stations--disappointingly mainstream--as also mentioned. ) 

My Top 5 Songs of 2017, with some Additional Notes (and links to them)

5) "Feel It Still" - Portugal. The Man.  Revival music--I prefer that to "throwback"--is doing just fine, though Amy Winehouse is gone and Adele dormant.   This group achieved overnight success after 20 years of effort.  I mention also New Orleans Revivalists' "Wish I Knew You" and Rag 'n' Bone Man's "Human".  But 'Feel It Still" is something special, and I like the reminder that there was once a 1966 (or was it 1986?)

4) "Dear Life" - Beck.  The Grammys are hard to figure.  Back in the '70's and '80's, they were so good at recognizing the value of the big acts after they reached their peak.  Now that they are finally cottoning onto rap, it makes me wonder what's the next big thing.  In the case of Beck, they gave him the album of the year for the wrong album for his unexciting product "Morning Phase", then two years later he puts out "Colors", which brings back the verve and variety of his early work, with some lyrics that actually tend toward intelligible meaning this time around (though the wordplay is no less).  The best song is "Dreams", but that came out two years ago.  This song is a very respectable one, though; it's title is a play on the cliche phrase "holding on for dear life".  Beck asks, musically, Why?

3. "No Roots", Alice Merton.  Not a rebellion against roots music.  Really, it does have a rootsy feel, but it's  self-referencing metaphor.  She's a young woman has lived the itinerant life of which she sings, or so she says.  Not to be tokenist, but I should also cite 2017 efforts from some other rising young women of alternative rock, such as Lana del Rey, Lorde, and Julia Michaels.

2. Napalm, Conor Oberst.   The prolific transplanted Nebraskan lives at the conjunction of rock, folk, and country, and in his current format mixes styles from song to song.  On 2017's "Salutations" album, the best song for my money is this anarchist chika-chika rocker which seems like somewhat overt homage to Bob Dylan in his "Rainy Day Women" period:  full of fun and meanness both, ready for trouble.  His lyrics are pushing boundaries but he admits he's "still on the fence":  basically, his political instinct centers around trusting none of them.

1) The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, The National.  The initial appeal was the musical composition, with some interesting tone sequences, a very strange guitar lick repeated every so often, and a canonical guitar solo I would describe as thrilling.  The lyrics are somewhat impenetrable, especially the title, but seem to be about a deep interpersonal crisis of some kind, delivered convincingly.  I've heard it many times, and it always provides an emotional lift. At the end of the day, though, to quote the song, "I can't explain it...ah...any other/Any other way..."   and that is why we need music, after all.

Honorable Alt-Mention:  2017 was also a good year for alt-J, LCD Soundsystem, 
War on Drugs, Cage the Elephant, and Spoon. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

They Can Do No Right (continuing thread)

Grover Norquist and Donald Trump shared a dream, and it has come to life in the form of the Republicans' tax bill.   It combines a hatred of public services (Norquist) with faulty economics (Trump).  Every day reveals new monstrosities hidden within it.  It favors fossil fuels and looks to handicap renewable forms of energy; it also opens the Arctic to spoilage through oil drilling. It is actively hostile to our prized higher education system in a variety of ways.  It will create a situation in which the Republican Congress will be "forced" by budget restrictions to do things like cut the cost of living adjustment for Social Security, and find cuts in Medicare.  Of all the many bad provisions, the worst I have heard yet is one that would facilitate dark money political contributions (not publicly reported) becoming tax-deductible.

I don't expect that it will matter that the tax cuts for individuals will fade out while the corporate tax cuts are permanent:  most of these provisions will be repealed when the Democrats regain control, which I expect will happen in the 2020 elections.  But that will be OK for the Drumpfsters; their intention is merely to facilitate some massive short-term wealth for themselves; in Trump's case, it would seem that the key provisions are the reduction in pass-through taxes for his businesses and in the reduction or abolition of the estate tax.  Then the oligarchs will be able to watch from secured enclaves as the inflation-recession-social unrest which will eventually follow from this abomination of public policy continues to consume our democracy, even after the venal scumbags are gone from office.

The Republicans' conference committee will hash out the relatively minor differences between the two bills; things like repealing the individual mandate (added by the Senate, it would indirectly save a few hundred million in health care subsidies, which can be plowed back into more benefits for the rich) will be taken on; the conference committee report can not be filibustered by Democrats;  the compromises offered to Sen. Collins for her vote can now be ignored (unless McCain or Flake flake off from their pro-Tax Scam votes); the only question is when.  I am betting against it being before the end of the year, inspired by the general incompetence, but the odds are against me.

Moving on:  What do you do if you have a piece of responsible gun legislation, backed by both parties, and even by the NRA, to close loopholes such as the ones that facilitated the massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs?  Why, pollute it with a ridiculous "reciprocity" provision allowing the worst concealed carry states' laws to prevail over more reasonable ones!

What do you do if there is bipartisan agreement, and a prompting from President Drumpf himself, to provide legal status for Dreamers to remain in the US (through the so-called DACA program)? Why, pollute it with a requirement for Democrats to fund the stupid, totally unneeded, provocative and dysfunctional Wall with Mexico! That way, none of these things ever come to pass, and Trump can blame the failure to fulfill his campaign promise on Democrats' unreasonable demands.

Alabama Values
Roy Moore says that he wants to "bring Alabama values to Washington", as though that would be some sort of improvement.  Tonight, we will find out which are the values a majority of Alabama voters may have.  I don't think it's a question of Moore's State Christianity advocacy:  that would probably pass easily there.  Instead, it seems to be a question of whether picking up sixteen-year-old girls is consistent with their values, and the answer is not clear-cut.

As I have said before, do not trust the polls on this one:  people will lie to pollsters about their willingness to vote for the child molester.    I suspect that the Fox News poll which has Jones ahead by 10 points that came out yesterday (!)  was what i would call a troll-poll:  designed to draw out Republican fence-sitters and make Democrats complacent.  It is easy to produce such a distorted result through sequencing questions strategically:  Q1:  Would you vote for a candidate who is accused of molesting children?  Q2:  Will you vote for Roy Moore? 

In, I have a small amount of money on Jones (at 20% probability), hoping against my expectations.  In other bets, I am expecting a margin in the 4-8% range, that 5-10% of votes will be write-ins, and that Moore will win Mobile county but lose Madison county (Huntsville area). 

Again, this is a very important election--no comparison to the previous special election House races in its importance for the 2018 campaign cycle, which has now officially begun.  Even in a wave election, which 2018 may well be, the Democrats will be hard-pressed to take back the Senate.  This is because of the numbers of seats they must defend, and the level of difficulty for many of those states, as opposed to the relatively few opportunities.  More on this later.

Trump Stuff
His slimy stance with regard to the Moore candidacy tells it all:  no principles, no consistency, even of message.  Confused by conflicting advice, his actions accentuates the contradictions in his brand.  His interests compel him to seek that vote in the Senate; his inclinations drive him to believe the man against his female accusers; but he'd just as soon not be seen in public next to the creep.  Still, the Moore campaign, and the resignation announcements of Rep. Conyers and Sen. Franken have revived the issue of Trump's own accusers, who may finally have their day to air their grievances, apart from the chaos of last year's campaign.   I don't expect these to bring him down--he certainly would not have the dignity or sense of shame to resign, as Franken has done--just as I don't expect the Russia investigation to lead to impeachment, but I am encouraged by the wear and tear on his psyche and body and the paralysis these things tend to create in his White House.

My ranking of the most likely ways we will get rid of him:  1)  Defeat in 2020 by Democrats; 2) Rejection for re-nomination by the Republicans after the disastrous 2018 election; 3) Death; 4)  He just quits, due to health, sufficient wealth gains, or he just gets bored or frustrated with it; 5) Forced out due to insanity; 6) All other ways, including impeachment.

Hats off to Emmanuel Macron for creating a program to give grants to scientists to "Make the Planet Great Again"--nobody can devise a better insult than a Frenchman.  Have at 'im, E-Man'!

Donald Trump, "I fart in your general direction!"--a French poseur, in Monty Python's Holy Grail 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Fall Movie Preview 2017

It's after Thanksgiving, and we are finally getting to 'The Good Part" of the 2017 film season.  The rush at the end of the year is as bad as ever; OK, I'm used to it by now.  The one thing that bothered me this weekend was that the Winston Churchill dramatization (Darkest Hour), one of my three must-see movies of the season, was not available to be seen locally this weekend--it had been promised.  Maybe it's a new strategy of delayed gratification, but if so, count me as an opponent.

So Far This Year
I've been pretty much absent from the box office, particularly for the big hits.  I did see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (#3 in 2017 box office) and Lego Batman (#11), sequels I chose to watch based on my appreciation of their predecessors:  both were disappointing, mediocre.  I caught Wonder Woman (#2) on a plane; it was probably a bit more substantial and entertaining than I expected.

Next, three charting movies that I saw and have to credit--for some intrinsic quality and for the courage to stand up and show themselves before the last month of the year.  Blade Runner 2049 (#29) was a reasonably good follow-up to the 1982 cult sci-fi classic.  It preserved the look and feel which made the original one special.  The plot was excessively convoluted--in that regard, not that different from the first--the special effects lived up to expectations, and (slight spoiler) I was so happy to see Edward Olmos (in a cameo).

Dunkirk (#10) is the real standout from the first 11 months--Christopher Nolan proved himself once again as one who can dramatically realize ambitious action concepts in a way that is pleasing to the public. I don't know about others' impressions, but I didn't see many true surprises, though there were some impressive jolts.  I would expect it to be among the top nominated films but not finally a winner of many Oscars.   Timing will be a handicap; everyone loved it last summer, but the spotlight has moved on.

There there's Get Out (#12)Satire is my favorite film genre, but I would say it barely qualifies, either for quality of the humor or for that scary, offbeat caricature of reality that the best ones achieve.  I would call it a well-made horror film with the usual quota of surprise, which is often enough for success:  the one unusual aspect was that it was a splatter film told from a black man's perspective, and thus notable for that difference. It will probably get more recognition than it really deserves.

Other films I would endorse but that didn't do quite so well financially:  Wind River (#63), The Zookeeper's Wife (#92), Their Finest (#139), The Florida Project (#130), and the documentary Jane (not ranked, that I could tell).  The last of these shows the art of the documentary, putting together nearly-lost clips from Jane Goodall's initial efforts to live with the chimps back in the '60's, along with interviews with her and others some 50 years later.   Florida Project turns the Disney ideal on its head with a touching story of kids in a seedy Orlando motel--amateur actors, except for Willem Dafoe's excellent performance as the only true adult on the scene. Their Finest and Zookeeper's Wife are stimulating tales set during World War II, worthy but not much celebrated.  Wind River is an under-appreciated film, scenic and well-photographed, a fair portrayal of the intersection of Native America and Capitalist America with strong lead performances by Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner.

The Big Three
Darkest Hour (Nov. 23?) - For Gary Oldman, a veteran of many and varied roles, this is the chance of a lifetime and he took it seriously.  It should be compared to Lincoln; like Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, Oldman has the chance to take this portrayal of a first-tier Great Man and make the character his own.  Lincoln won only one Oscar, for Best Actor for the title character, Darkest Hour might have the same result. Regardless, I'm most eager to see it.

The Shape of Water (Dec. 1) - This is Guillermo del Toro's bid to join fellow Mexican directors Inarritu (Birdman, Revenant) and Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men) atop the field of auteur-superstars.  It's a somewhat supernatural tale set in a 1962 research lab.  del Toro has done some good films in the past--Pan's Labyrinth was visually interesting, and commercial products Pacific Rim and Hellboy have earned some favorable comment, but this is something different, bigger, and more promising.

Phantom Thread (Dec. 25) - may not end up pleasing very much--it's a romance set in the 1950's, in a context of fashion, none of which is among my sweet spots--but I will see anything starring Daniel Day-Lewis, made by Paul Thomas Anderson, so i guess this will be the one.  Could be the one I end up rooting against, but I need to give it a fair viewing.

Out Now or Soon--May or May Not Be Actually Coming Soon to a Theater Near You
The movies coming out in the current time period are the ones where Hollywood is putting out a small bet, in the hopes they can catch fire.
I saw Murder on the Orient Express last night--you should put the Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot story on the side, either you like such things and you know the outcome or you don't---the main balance is between the scenic pulchritude of the train passing through incredible landscapes (for me, positive), and excessively close and extended views of Kenneth Branagh's overgrown Poirotesque moustache (for me, not so much).  It features a monster cast, and I was so happy to see Derek Jacobi in a good role.

I am looking forward to seeing Lady Bird; I've seen a lot of previews and hope the full-length version will contain still more surprise. Last Flag Flying may or may not be a winner (though director Richard Linklater has a good track record), but the featured cast of Lawrence Fishburne/Steve Carell/Bryan Cranston is sure interesting.  Call Me By Your Name (Nov. 24?) has a strong critical buzz, an auteurist (Luca Guadagnino) adaptation of a serious (James Ivory) script set in Italy.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Mudbound are ones I would see in a cinema if I can, but I have my doubts.  Three Billboards features Coen Brothers' favorite actress Frances McDormand in a very different kind of role, angry and profane, as she challenges the police's failure to investigate the crime in her family; Mudbound focuses on families, a poor black one and a landowning white one, in pre-segregation Mississippi.  Both are getting the "limited engagement" treatment, which will probably be swiftly followed by a move to premium cable.  There's I Love You, Daddy, which stars Louis C.K. in a creepy role and was pulled just before its scheduled release when his creepy true-life story came out recently:  I presume I will not be seeing that one at all.   Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel (Dec.1) has the usual strong cast and a familiar movie setting (old-time Coney Island); could be a little "too Woody", though I am not one of those who will reject the art for the misdeeds of the artist (Roman Polanski's The Pianist permanently cured me of any tendency in that area) Finally, there's Roman J. Israel, Esq. an offbeat Denzel Washington vehicle about a straight, nerdy lawyer whose life goes off the rails.

Squeezing In Later
The P.R. for these late-month partial-release Oscar trickers is just now gearing up.  I see a couple of Best Actress nominees coming from these films, briefly noted:
Molly's Game (Dec. 25)  has Jessica Chastain (underappreciated in Zookeeper's Wife, above) in a lead role as a real-life woman who hosted huge-money poker games in Vegas and New York , and presumably survived to tell the tale.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool  (Dec. 29) - stars Annette Bening in a special role as an aging English star who takes on a younger man, who presumably lives to tell the tale.
Downsizing (Dec. 22) - is a near-future satire along the lines of Honey I Shrunk the Kids or Land of the Giants or Fantastic Voyage, if you recognize those versions (on the comedy/sci-fi spectrum) of people literally getting small, in a relative sense.  I saw the preview last night; it looked fun.
All the Money in the World (Dec. 22)  is not going to be much fun, but could be meritorious.  The true story of the kidnapping of the grandson of the richest man in the (1970's) world, J. Paul Getty, who was incredibly stingy; it could be somewhat grim and/or gruesome.  I hope it is not pulled because it has Kevin Spacey as Getty.
Two more full-length documentaries of note, which should make that race interesting:
Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (Nov. 24) --Those are musical time bars, I presume, but they could be the alcoholic ones, too. Clapton's life is quite a roller coaster and some aspects of his autobiography are controversial.
The Rape of Recy Taylor (Dec. 15) --A study of a black woman kidnapped and raped by white males in 1944 Alabama.  Very timely.

My last mention is The Post, which combines Steven Spielberg's direction with two of the greatest stars of our times, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, to tell the story of the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers (secret documents about the Vietnam War) by The Washington Post.  Streep plays Katharine Graham, publisher of The Post, and Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the executive editor.   I feel that Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture winner, may have gotten to this subject area (embattled media) first, but the star power is undeniable Oscar bait.  This one's timing and content (challenging the state) could be tricky--Mr. Fake News Drumpf may attack it.  That could have the double effect of limiting the box office (those three don't really care) and stimulating the resistance juices of the Hollywood voting types.   They need a distraction from the sexual harassment stories, which is tarnishing their brand.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Sticky Subject

When i was growing up, other guys would speak admiringly of some miscreants they knew, saying, "He don't give a shit."  The idea was that those non-giving individuals were fearless in their transgression, or at least heedless of the consequences of their actions.  I tended to avoid those folks, because I did (give a shit).   I figured those people would get me in trouble, probably for doing things that I didn't care about and dragging me down with them.

Those shitfull folks (not giving same, not scared shitless)  had what I would call a developmental flaw:  little or no impulse control.  It is not at all uncommon in young people; it usually is something that adults can master, if they choose to do so. One can hope they somehow could have skated through without serious harm, something I was fortunate enough to have done on some occasions--I was/am no angel--but I know that was not the case for many, particularly the ones who imagined that they could do whatever without any regard for those who might object, or who might have been harmed.

Sex Crimes
The current rash of sexual assault/harassment/rape allegations exhibit a peculiar phenomenon in our society:  People (so far, all men) whose impulses toward misbehavior have been reinforced by their positions of power, so that they feel immune from the consequences.  What they were not immune from, though, was a sickness that made this kind of behavior habitual, with all kinds of plotting,  premeditation, and some use of threats to insulate themselves. Such appears to have been the case with Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Mark Helperin, Louis C.K., Anthony Weiner, and (for me, most tragically) the brilliant actor Kevin Spacey, as well as others still prominent but not household names.

Boys being bad is, unfortunately, a widespread fact of today's life and I would say further, part of the weird mating rituals we have in many societies.  What is different in these cases was that these guys' positions of power acted as a deterrent to their victims' normal ability to fend off or respond to unwanted advances; what is different now is that these persons have decided not to suffer in silence anymore.  I applaud their courage, and I am somewhat impressed by the broader community's effort to try to change this ugly aspect of the very sticky and complex intersection of sex and power, a discussion that is going who knows where.  It is beyond my ability to predict; it is going well beyond the cases of famous people and having effect on all workplaces.   I can see some liberation coming out of this, for women and maybe even for men, who may learn to play the mating game more adroitly and less crudely in the future.

The Al Franken case is a bit different: Franken's story is a unique one, as I cannot think of any other comic who has made the transition to an active political career.  Comedy generally has a dark side, which makes it more affecting to the emotions, and comedians generally have to find their way to humor through trial and error--some lines work, some don't, and some offend. At the time of Franken's offense against Leann Tweeden, he was a humorist, not yet running for office; the victim of his naughty, harmful pranks was someone who, frankly, was putting herself out as an object of sexual desire (I was unfamiliar with her career; just Google her and you will see).  At this point, unless there is some evidence of a more widespread pattern of behavior, I would cite this as an isolated incident of lack of impulse control:  this is not to excuse it, he has apologized, he will no doubt be punished (probably more than others, because of his willingness to own up to it), and I think it will limit his career. 

What I object to is Donald Trump making judgments on Franken when he has failed to own up to his own behavior, even to the point of refusing even to acknowledge the many complainants or just calling the women liars and mocking them,.  It's outrageous, but that's just the norm for this miserable excuse of a human being whom we have mistakenly (and somewhat accidentally) elevated to a position of supreme power.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean-brain 
The case of Roy Moore, the Senate candidate from Alabama, is yet another. I denounced this obtuse, hypocritical bigot weeks ago when none of the allegations of borderline pedophilia had yet surfaced.  I rejoice that these women have come forward to address the pattern of stalking and groping underage girls which he exhibited (though he has denied the sexual assault aspects, the pattern of searching out, dating, and seeking to seduce the girls is factual); it makes the likelihood of the horror of him serving in the US Senate much less--they have performed a public service.

There is some difference from the pattern of the others' behavior--the events were some forty years ago, he was at most locally famous back then, and it seems as though he may have outgrown that infatuation and borderline criminal behavior.  (A 14-year-old is underage, even in Alabama.)  He seems to have been faithful to his wife of some 30-plus years, who was 24 when they married.  So, I don't oppose his taking office because he's sexually creepy, I oppose him because he's a monster in every regard.

All Eyes on Alabama
Lots of focus on the state that is "the South's South", as John Oliver memorably put it.  The U. of Alabama's Crimson Tide football team took its accustomed place at the top of the standings last weekend after a memorable combination of #1 and #3 losing while #2 Alabama squeezed out a narrow road victory over Mississippi St.  I couldn't imagine how Georgia could have been rated above any Alabama team when both were undefeated, but that's all over now.  Alabama still has tough tasks ahead, including an intra-state showdown vs. Auburn, the team that defeated Georgia, next weekend, but the path to yet another national championship for them is now clear.

The special election in Alabama next month will be the beginning of the midterm battle, with hugely important stakes.  To some extent, Moore's race (the election one, not the racial one) mirrors a possible 2020 national election if Trump is still in office and running for re-election.  Radical right-wing Republican nominee running against the establishment sector of his own party, and that establishment totally flustered and uncertain how much to oppose him.  A plausible but less-known Democrat hoping to benefit from the chaos, in either a two-way or three-way race.

The current race could go in any of several different directions:  a Washington Post article lays them out nicely, and ranks them in likelihood.  For me, the only acceptable outcome is 2b):  the race goes forward, as is, and Moore loses.   We must all do what we can--without provoking Alabama voters too much, so that they vote against their interests in a defensive stance against outside interference--to make that happen.  I gave to Democrat Doug Jones' campaign long ago; I think the money is flowing in nicely for him and he will run a sane campaign without stooping to the salacious, looking to let Moore flounder and sink in his tar pit.

Make no mistake, the outcome of this race is extremely important.  The two-vote Republican margin in the Senate (really, three-vote with Mike Pence remaining as the tiebreaking vote) will be very difficult to overcome in 2018 without this seat.  The Democrats really only have two likely candidates to pick up seats in 2018 as things stand today (Arizona and Nevada), and plenty of difficult ones to defend.  In this Thanksgiving season, I have to give Turkey-neck Majority Leader McConnell a modicum of credit for coming out strongly against Moore, even at the risk of losing a critical vote for his agenda;  it was strategically and morally more important for him to retain something of the high ground on this issue of sexual harassment, and to protect the Republican establishment's interest in defeating this radical upstart.

 One cautionary note:  I would not put any stock in the polls which show the Democrat Jones leading--there are doubtlessly people who will not admit to pollsters that they will vote for Moore despite what a monster he is (I call this "the David Duke effect"); the unknowns are if there will be a meaningful alternative for those who would prefer not to vote for either Moore or Jones, the extent to which that unknowable effect is present, how many will come home to the Republican as Moore's backers try to counter the perv problem, and how many Republicans just stay home.  Clearly, the Republicans start with a large potential majority in this race, but they are squandering it with their unwise choice of a nominee.

Final note; I was preparing a line about how President Trump should use his traditional Thanksgiving ritual of pardoning a turkey for one of his own house turkeys, like Jeff Sessions (who I would say is in serious danger of proceedings against him for lying in public to Senate committees); Jake Tapper got there first with this week's "State of the Union" cartoon on CNN (which he draws himself!).  Tapper concluded with the suggestion of Michael Flynn, who was in fact an (undisclosed) lobbyist for the foreign nation with the same name as the animal. Bravo, Jake.