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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Drumpfenreich 100 Days: Less is More....

....I am not arguing for a minimalist Presidency, but making an exception in this case.  With President Trump, the less he does, the better, and if he did nothing at all, that would be just all right.  Because anything he does will be wrong.


The administration has really not accomplished anything it was trying to do.  The one notable exception was the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and that would have to be laid mostly at the feet of the Republican senators who allowed pragmatism to rule over principle and abolished the filibuster as applied to the Court's nominees.


Mostly, but not entirely:  the Democrats in the Senate botched it, too.  Their best play was to extend the debate to the maximum, then allow cloture, then fight it some more.  Now they have no principle or rule to back them when the next, more critical Court replacement comes up.


Unfortunately, there is a long, long way to go. I cannot rely forever on his inability to demonstrate any competence, there is every possibility that his team can learn about how to accomplish its objectives, and Congress will eventually help out, as it did with Gorsuch.  A regressive tax plan is coming, a stupid healthcare bill will eventually be voted upon by both houses of Congress (filibustering methods are unlikely to contain it, now), and there is likely to be some sort of ridiculous "infrastructure" bill that will pad the wallets of his cronies and favorites (that's probably where wall money will go, as well).


The bottom line for me is simply no new stupid wars.  If that happens, we can all consider ourselves lucky to make it to 2021.   In the meantime, I like Legit PAC (look it up) to work for voter protection and take money of elections, and the DLCC and DGA to offset some of the Republicans' edge in the states in 2018.   I will be looking for opportunities to forgive repentant Trump voters for their sin.


Shutdown for the wall:  By the above logic, I shouldn't be opposed; however, "non-essential" government service shutdowns is exactly what Trump is trying to accomplish through his appointment of incompetents, ideologues, and cronies to all the agencies that help people.  Drumpf has shown the door--feed my swamp shark lobbyists to continue to study the problem, without actually funding the expense of building it.  Damage limitation is the name of the game.  


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Looking up from our Collective Navel

Yes, I know it's "America First", and as an American I can hardly say that's totally wrong (just mostly), but still that doesn't mean it's "America Only".  So, some thoughts about some events in other countries which may interest some in our self-absorbed populace.  And/or beyond.

France
The French go to the polls tomorrow in one of the most significant elections--in any country--in decades. The question, in a narrow sense, is whether the French will go down the road of Brexit and Trump, or whether they will thumb their collective nose at that trend toward populist nationalism. Beyond that, the election's outcome could prove decisive for the future of the Euro, and even of the European Union.

France's central government, as mandated in the constitution for its Fifth Republic (since 1958), bears many similarities to the US':  bicameral legislature, independent judiciary, and a strong executive headed by its President.  One area in which the French improved greatly on the US' system is in its election for President. The fairly open contest provides for direct election if a candidate receives a majority in the first round; if not, the two candidates with the highest number of votes have a runoff some two weeks later.

This year's election is wide-open, with the final outcome difficult to predict. The incumbent, Socialist Francois Hollande, decided not to run for re-election, a decision that was almost universally supported.  Both Hollande's center-left party and their major party opponent, the center-right successors of the legacy of Fifth Republic titans Charles deGaulle and Georges Pompidou, were riven with dissension, with surprise candidates emerging from their primaries, but then weakening.  The Repubicains (the Gaullists) rejected both of their establishment leaders, Alain Juppe and former President Nikolas Sarkozy, in favor of Francois Fillon, who promptly got caught up in a nepotism scandal.  The Socialist primary voters rejected their establishment candidate even more dramatically,  rejecting their leaders from the current government in favor of a candidate further to the left, Benoit Hamon.

The collapse of the major parties has opened the way for not one major third-party candidate, but three of them.  The true third-party is the National Front, headed by Marine LePen, the daughter of the party's founder, whose mission has been to bring her party's anti-Semitic (Jews and Moslems), ultra-nationalistic postures more into the mainstream, in order to make her and her party's candidates electorally viable.  She has been surprisingly successful at that, at least as regards her own candidacy.  Then there are two true independents who have risen to be serious contenders:  one is a renegade former Socialist cabinet minister who has never been elected and who espouses a bland, centrist, Gaullist-type message ("Let's Go Forward!"), Emmanuel Macron. The other is Jean-Luc Melenchon, who rejected both the Socialists and Communists for an iconoclastic, anti-EU, left-wing candidacy.  As the campaign has progressed, Melenchon has steadily taken support from Hamon in polling.

The issues driving the election are many:  the future of France's contining in the EU, the Euro, and full participation in NATO, the restive Muslim majority, the reaction against that minority's growth and the militants within it,  the reaction against immigration more generally, the weakness of the parties,  and a general debate about the changing nature of the French economy.  I would say many of these will be addressed more in the parliamentary elections a month or so after the second round of the Presidential elections, when the French will know who their new leader will be--and will either reinforce or choose to restrain that person.  This round seems to be mostly about the personalities of the leaders, and of their parties.

With five candidates sharing significant shares of poll support, there is really no chance one will emerge as the victor in the first round, so the objective in the first of this two-act drama is just to finish in the top two.  Macron captured support from the early leader, Fillon, when his scandal persisted and rose as high as the mid-20's in percentage but has fallen back a bit (many are disgusted by the lack of substance in his platform), while Fillon's support in the polls has stabilized around 20%.  LePen's has been fairly steady in the low 20's, while Melenchon has tracked upward and is in the high-teens, while Hamon's has fallen to high single digits.

Given these poll numbers, which apart from the trends mentioned have shown a lot of stability, there are four serious contenders for the two top spots. A lot of attention will be given to the "winner" who gets the most votes, but the one who finishes second will be exactly equally a winner, and may well be the favorite in the second round.  I will discuss each of the six possible combinations briefly:

Macron vs. LePen - This is the most likely outcome, and would provide a clear decision point for French voters--continue the postwar and EU paths, or reject them entirely for nationalism.  The standard wisdom is that all others would rally around Macron to avoid LePen's winning, but the standard wisdom could be wrong.  In particular, Macron is distasteful to the left.  Still, he would be a substantial favorite going into the runoff.
Macron vs. Fillon - This would be a surprise outcome and would represent a reversion toward normalcy in the final days, surprising because the primaries have suggested anything but normalcy.  Macron would be favored because of Filion's compromised position.
Macron vs. Melenchon - Many of LePen's supporters don't really agree with or care for the National Front's history of antisocial tendencies, so Melenchon, who shares many other positions with LePen, could capture the second spot with a late surge.  This would end up like Macron vs. LePen, but with a more typically French leftward flavor.; I'm thinking Melenchon might pick up some LePen votes and could win.
Fillon vs. LePen - This was the originally-expected matchup, before Fillon's troubles.  It could still end up as a more conventional all-vs. LePen contest, but with many on the left sitting it out it would not be a sure win for him.
Fillon vs. Melenchon - See Macron vs. Melenchon.  This may be the least likely of the six matchups; it would represent the voters' rejection of the standard wisdom that the final choice would end up being Macron and LePen.  That surprise outcome would suggest caution how the second act would play out, as well, though it would superficially appear to be a standard left vs. right contest.  In the Fifth Republic, those have gone to the right in times of crisis--which the current environment suggests may be the case.
LePen vs. Melenchon - This would be a disaster for the European Union and the Euro, as both are opposed to France's continuing its participation in those institutions.  Would both try to exceed each other in their extremist rhetoric or would they try to capture the middle?  Again, the conventional wisdom would suggest the latter, but this is not a conventional year.

Predicting the Outcomes - My preferred site to play the odds, predicit.org, does not have "markets" on those six outcomes; instead they have ones for the first-place person in the first round, the margin in the first round, the eventual President, and then for the chances of each of the four major candidates of making the second round.  That betting shows a clear expectation that Macron or LePen will finish first, a slight preference for a 3%+ margin for that candidate, and 85% and 81% chances for LePen and Macron, respectively, to make the second round.  There is decent respect for the odds of an upset in second, though:  with Fillon and Melenchon each at 19% to make the second round (doesn't quite add to 100% because of the gaps betwen yes and no prices), with each having 10% or better chance of being ultimately elected if they make it through.

My own betting is on either Macron or, to get a good return on a very small investment, the longer-shot Melenchon (I bought his shares very cheaply, early).  I think some Fillon supporters will ultimately be disheartened and drift to the safer alternative, Emmanuel Macron, and . that it will be very close between Melenchon and LePen for second place.  I have some money on the second choice in the betting to finish first (Macron stands at 41% there, vs. LePen's 56%).
My pick: Macron 27%, LePen 23%, Melenchon 22%, Fillon 18%, Hamon and others 10%.  I will hold off on second-round prediction until after this one, but if these are the results, I would think Macron will be a big favorite to win ultimately.

Finally, on this topic:  An avowed ISIS supporter killed a police officer on Paris' famous Champs d'Elysees the other day and was then killed.  Continuing on the Islamic terrorist theme, the incident could play into LePen's candidacy, as Donald Trump kind-of suggested; however, he hedged on it, perhaps perceiving that it might also play exactly in the opposite way, as the French may react toward rejecting the isolation of the Muslim majority and tend toward one or more of her opponents.

Germany 
The German elections will not be until late-September, but it makes sense to follow the discussion of France with this one, because the French election will provide signals that should directly affect the German ones.  If France takes an anti-EU turn, Germany (and Italy, in its next Parliamentary election, probably in 2018) will have to decide whether to rally around the multinational flag or go in a nationalistic direction.  Germany has its own major immigration issue--less terrorism, but large numbers of Turkish workers and the largest share of refugees from the Middle Eastern bloodbaths.

The German election may become a referendum on the fate of the EU, but it is also likely to be a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has served since 2005 and is seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Merkel's stances in favor of a united Europe and providing refuge have drawn great praise globally--in the wake of Trump's election many consider her the de facto Leader of the Free World--but those stances are widely unpopular at home, even in her own center-right party.

The current German government is a "grand coalition" of the two major party groupings, Merkel's center-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democrats) and the center-left SDU (Social Democrats).  The SDU pulled a clever move in leading up to the elections by bringing in as their leader Martin Schulz, former head of the European Parliament and a well-respected political operator.  The selection of Schulz brought an immediate lift to the SDU in polling, and it is now about at parity with Merkel's party.  There is a long way to go, but Merkel is now threatened on both sides, with also the possibility that voters may have wearied of her as head of the government after such a long reign.

If the election ends up being Merkel vs. Schulz leading the major parties, there may be a big opportunity for some anti-EU party (could be on the left or the right), and that may end up being the big story as opposed to whether Germany tilts center-left or center-right. Still, Merkel and the future course of her career remain the critical aspect in the broader, historical sense.  She remains a very impressive figure, the face of the country's great success in the past decade or so.   I am making some small bets against her--I bought Schulz as Prime Minister after the election at 3%, and it rose after his selection as high as 36%, but I've been taking profits recently, waiting to see what dynamic the French elections' results will have there.

Britain
Prime Minister Theresa May made a move last week that surprised all, but in retrospect does not seem at all irrational.  By calling for early Parliamentary elections in June, she put her brief government at risk when she did not need to do so; however, the conditions appear extremely favorable for her.  She is looking for a strengthened majority for her Conservative party to be able to pursue more confidently a difficult negotiation for withdrawal from the European Union, and she is likely to get it.

The main reason she is likely to succeed is not the popularity of Brexit, for which she has become the chief executor (after having opposed it in the referendum).  If there were a new referendum, it would probably lose, but there is not going to be one for the U.K, much as some opponents of the policy might wish. Instead, it is the weakness of the main opposition party, Labour, which gives her reason for confidence.

Jeremy Corbyn was supported strongly by the Labour party's membership, but his staunch old-left positions have little support beyond there (and there's plenty of grumbling from party colleagues who have to run behind his leadership).  Corbyn has taken the ineffective posture of grudging support for Brexit as the will of the electorate, though he was opposed (and his constituency's opposition to Brexit was lukewarm).  On the contrary, the Liberal Democrat party, almost wiped out as a parliamentary faction in the last election, has ridden its opposition to Brexit as a new raison d'etre, and stands to multiply their quota of MP's by a factor of 5-10 (which will still leave them as numerically unimportant).

The other major party which has opposed Brexit is the Scottish National Party; their stance, which is in line with the overwhelming majority of Scots, should help preserve their foothold in Parliament (and continue to undermine Labour's representation from one of their former strongholds).  The big question for the Scots is whether the SNP, and the Scottish parliament, will move to demand a new referendum on leaving the U.K. this year, or Scotland will wait until 2018 to decide, once the terms of the U.K.'s withdrawal from the E.U. should be more clear.

Middle Eastern Affairs
We start with Turkey, which had a referendum on a new constitution approved by a slender 51-49 margin last weekend.  This was a big victory for President Erdogan, giving him a lot more potential control over the political system and allowing him to remain in power another 10 years or so.  Erdogan, ever more Putinist in his methods, had stacked the deck nicely for this outcome; the voting was challenged for alleged irregularities, but the final authority on the election result was a council that Erodgan had packed with his supporters (or more precisely, purged of his opponents).  I think the best hope for Erdogan opponents is to be patient, wait for the nationalistic surge which followed last fall's coup attempt to fade, and build a never-Trumpian kind of national resistance to Erdogan, voting him out at the next opportunity by such a wide margin that he can not hope to "trump" the outcome.  They would be a long long way from that today.

I have read that President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has been approved to run for re-election by the religious council, as he would require under their constitution.  This suggests that his relatively moderate regime, which counter-balances the aggressively expansionist Revolutionary Guard faction, is meeting with the continued approval of the country's Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has shown surprising ability to outlive his potential successors.  Iran has so far stayed within the terms of the multi-party agreement which prevents it from developing nuclear weapons for ten years, though the ballistic missile test they did recently was a provocation which could easily have flared up all kids of retaliation and counter-retaliation.  So far, not a disaster.

Somewhat to my surprise, I would say the same about the US policies toward Iraq and Syria thus far in the Trump administration.  Admittedly, my bar is low--to get through four years of Trump/Pence without entering massively into a new stupid war--but we are now about one-twelfth of the way through, somewhat safely.  The attack on the Syrian airfield after the chemical weapon attack on civilians was, although contrary to international law, a reasonable warning to the Russians:  they need to perform their role as guarantor against Syria using those weapons (as was agreed during the Obama administration), and the Russians should not feel they have a free hand to do absolutely anything they want there (though it's pretty close to that).  In both Syria and Iraq, the war against ISIS is proceeding, steadily, toward military victory.  The key will be what happens in the aftermath of freeing Mosul, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria, from the Islamist tyrants.

Korea
This is the area where I think we have the greatest danger of falling into that massive, stupid war.  If that happens, it will be through a miscalculation, either by our side or by North Korea's--probably not by China, Japan, or South Korea, all of which would just wish the problem (of nuclear-armed, psychotically-ruled North Korea) would just go away.

I actually agree to some extent with the Trump national security team that the policy of trying to engage North Korea constructively, which has been pursued for over 20 years, by administrations of both parties, has not worked well, and that the reason is that the North Koreans have broken every agreement. That does not determine what the policy should be, though, and one could fear the worst.

In the case of the recent US naval maneuvers and the North Korean failed missile launch, though, I think the danger was not as great as it may have seemed.  In my mind, the mission of Secretary of State Tillerson to China to discuss the North Koreans had a specific purpose:  is it your turn to cyberhack their missile launch, or is it ours?  Whichever was decided, it seemed to work.  I would suggest that we and they take turns--that way both know who's doing it, both get practice, the North Koreans will be confused by the two different attack strategies being applied to their systems, and then both China and the US can apply all their methods when the real crux of the matter comes, as it eventually will.


Friday, March 31, 2017

A Most Unusual Dream Event

I promise you, I was actually sleeping for this--it was not some conscious or semi-conscious thought piece that I "dreamed up".  Fortunately, it was experienced shortly before the alarm woke me, so I remember it well. 

A group of us were in the office.  Then, something strange happened:  someone pressed the Start button on the copier, but nothing happened. No error message, just--nothing.  We looked out the window; everything was frozen still, no movement. We tried a couple other things, similarly ineffectually.  Somehow, we determined that time had stopped.

We sat and discussed.  Eventually--I would say it was 'after awhile", but that's not quite correct--we came to the conclusion that there was nothing we could do, no more cause and effect.  For example, to cook something you need to apply heat over time. A copier would be quicker, but still there is a sequence.

Our discussion turned to the question of what we should do, if and when time started up again.  We were grateful when it did, knew exactly what we wanted to do first, second, etc. and that pretty much ended the dream.   Like many of my dreams, it was quite vivid, and both then and now seems to have captured the experience for me in a way. that seems real  I'm sure it's partially the result of seeing too many movies with the same point of departure, though their stories weren't quite the same as my experience.

Now, upon reflection in the light of day, a few points I take away:

  •   First,  I would conclude that always living in the present is not exactly what we think it means.   Neither does "the fierce urgency of now" (to quote President Lyndon Johnson) seem as accurate. 
  •   Second, my experience suggests to me that maybe it's a good idea, sometime each day, to freeze time and take an extended moment to plan what to do. 
  •   Lastly, now I have some empathy for the experience of those ghosts that may or may not be haunting us.  The point is not whether you can be seen; it's what's the use of being seen if you can't do anything? 


Monday, March 06, 2017

On the Difficulty of Flushing the Great Orange Turd

We Be Sweden'
I apologize for the quiet time here--really, I've been quite busy--but I think it has been appropriate for me to refrain from reacting to every antic coming from this colossal jerk we now have occupying the office which combines head of state, Commander-in-Chief, and chief executive of our Federal government.  I am trying to model the behavior; we must not get so excited when he does something that appears to have a psychotic disregard for the truth, as with his twittering; neither should anyone get excited when he performs a normal duty of his task adequately well, like reading his Teleprompter to a joint session of Congress or signing a "mulligan" order correcting the egregious legal oversights of his first effort at a Muslim ban.

I don't care if he takes a call on his (unsecured) cellphone while at dinner in his club with the Japanese Prime Minister to hear that the runt North Korean dictator--an insecure attention-seeker like Trump himself--has ordered the launch of another faulty medium-range missile.  What's Trump  going to do about it, anyway?  I don't care if he tweets in the middle of the night a random libelous accusation he heard from some radio ranter (Mark Levin) picked up by a fake news blog (Breitbart)--although I would love to see President Obama sue him for libel, he will not do so. All it really did was call attention to the fact that his campaign staff was going rogue beyond all bounds in their contacts with Russian spies, following the foolish direction of some ridiculous impulse.  And I really don't care if he mouths off in some speech about a non-existent terrorism problem in Sweden based on some dated Fox News program he watched instead of reading his briefing books.

The point is, we all have to stop paying attention to the stuff that Donald Trump emits as though, I don't know, he were the President of the United States or something.  Even if that's what he may be. I know it's tough for the officials of other nations, not being able to go by what the President says, and having only a bunch of psychopaths and sycophants around him to help interpret the nonsense, but that is the unfortunate reality that faces us, in all likelihood, for another 1400 days or so.  I feel sorry for them, and I feel shame for us.

That Ineradicable Blemish
Call that election what you will--an aberration, a fluke, a travesty, a mockery of a sham, a theft, a usurpation, a coup, a waking nightmare, a consensual hallucination, a sin against humanity, a predictable result of a flawed electoral system,  or just simply a blunder of historic proportion--we are not going to escape magically from this mess.

The principal reason that we should not deceive ourselves is that Trump has proven, through the course of his campaign, during the transition to power, and in this seemingly endless but actually brief period of his administration, that there is nothing he can do or say which will disqualify himself from the office.  For his removal by legal means, it will require his (rock-hard but minority) popular support to crumble, followed by abandonment by the rank and file of his party, which has so far been almost universally cowed by his capacity to cut down his opponents.  It would take a betrayal of almost unimaginable proportion or an act of utter madness, plainly visible and undeniable, to cause them to act.  The Democrats can do nothing on their own, so there is no use agitating for them to try.

As for the journalists, "the enemy of the people",  they will make the effort, with integrity and persistence. Those with some honor and dignity will be governed by their professional ethic to rake the muck, to dig out the leaks, to try to interpret the chaos, but theirs is a thankless, futile task when it comes to Drumpfistan. We have the example of Dan Rather,  a veteran journalist, finally loosed from the bonds of network conformity and totally free, and practically apoplectic at the lies and misbehavior without precedent in his lengthy career of observing them (even from Nixon), but it makes no difference.  He just has an opinion, and just like an asshole, most everyone has one, and his doesn't count much more than anyone else's.   Particularly in the anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-factual environment of Donald Trump's Washington (or Mar-a-Lago).

So, they will go after Jeff Sessions, that miserable little toady and closet racist:  what difference will it really make if they get him?  Yes, he is about the worst choice possible for Attorney General, but if he goes, Trump will find someone yet worse, just to spite everyone.  I'm sure Steve "Race" Bannon would feel he could do the job, could convince Trump, and the Republican Senate would confirm him.

Now, there is another possibility to rid ourselves of Trump sooner than January 20, 2021:  he could die.  I am little impressed by the robustness of his health:  he is 70 years old and overweight, with poor habits. Or someone could put poison in his ketchup or something.  (If his advisers really had his interests at heart they would taste his food for him.) If something like that happened, I wouldn't mourn for a minute.  As for the Wherever Man, :an early involuntary departure might be his best option to escape the disastrous natural outcome of his governance, and he probably knows it.

Still, it's nothing upon which to build hope:  even if Mike Pence and Trump's team of evils, that Cabinet of scoundrels, cretins and true enemies of the people, were to disappear almost entirely, along with the President pro tempore of the Senate (whoever that is) and Paul Ryan, leaving only the Designated Survivor, we'd probably still be in the same position we have now:  at the mercy of an unloved, unqualified misanthropic hack and an unfettered Congress hostile to the interests of most Americans and most everyone else, too.

What I want to contribute toward is a group that will assist people in getting the ID's they will need to overcome voter suppression in those states that are trying to impose it.  An enraged and empowered anti-Trump electorate is our only hope for the immediate future.

AND NOW...A few choice insults: 
(courtesy of that honorable soul, John Oliver, and my invaluable DVR)


  • Trump dominates the media like a fart dominates the interior of a VW Beetle
  • (referring to his press conference) But what is it essentially but random sparks and flames sputtering out of a damaged asshole?
  • America's wealthiest hemorrhoid
  • A walking-talking brushfire
  • An ill-fitting suit filled with chickens coming home to roost
  • This sentient circus peanut
  • A racist voodoo doll covered in cat hair
  • An old piece of luggage covered in cheese whiz. 

Sunday, February 05, 2017

January, 2017: HIghlights of a Bad Month

I am not going to rehearse the depredations and madness of this past month, nor complain about my personal problems, but instead try to find some joy. 

Clash of the Ages
I'm not saying they were "aged", but the combined ages of the four singles finalists in the Australian Open this year were 136 (average: 34) set all kinds of records. What's more, the combination of unexpected circumstances which brought the finalists together produced a renewal of two of the greatest rivalries in the sport's history, with matches will rank among their best--a sort of climax of the careers--and the comebacks--of each.

Venus (36 years) vs. Serena Williams (35) - The Williams sisters have played against each other many times, and many times in the finals, but I have never seen a better quality match between the two.  For Venus, reaching the final was a gigantic accomplishment, her first Grand Slam final since 2009, and a triumph over the immune condition which has limited her play for years.  Serena's comeback was not nearly so extreme; she had dropped all the way to #2 last year (she regained top ranking by winning the tournament) after a long reign on top, the decline mostly due to shoulder issues which dogged her last year.  Both were in fine form in the final, with Serena coming up with the edge in a few key points.

I should mention the contribution of unseeded Coco Vanderweghe, a third American in the semifinals, who helped make the Williams sisters' final possible by eliminating #1-ranked Angelique Kerber and Williams nemesis Garbine Muguruza before falling to Venus.

Roger Federer (35) vs. Rafael Nadal (30) - I am a fan of The Fed--the way he plays is so graceful, his behavior on the court is always respectful, and the things he says so intelligent--so it has been tough for me to watch his struggles in the Grand Slam events the past few years.  He has actually been mortal; he never goes down without a battle, but he has not been winning those battles (the last of the 17 Grand Slam titles he held was in 2012).  Novak Djokovic, in particular, seems to have his number in recent years, and there are others.   This time, though, both Djokovic and #2 Andy Murray went down unexpectedly in the early rounds, opening up the draw for these two veterans to face off once again in a final (not that the path was an easy one).

One who historically had the edge on him was Rafael Nadal, the youngster among these four, but one who has a lot of miles on his legs. It's true that many of those defeats Federer has had against Nadal in the majors came in the French Open, which we all know Nadal owns.   Federer had some back issues last year and took time off, and he came back with some improvement in his game, which is most impressive at his advanced age.  In particular, he addressed the vulnerability to the high-bouncing shot to his one-handed backhand with a new, low, flat shot down the line that won many key points.  The match was an interesting one, with a decent number of service breaks, momentum shifting back and forth, but no tie-breakers required.  Federer won 6-3 in the fifth; Nadal was clearly disappointed and grim-faced, but he is also returning from extended absence, and the French Open is coming up.

Chelsea! --  Jose Mourinho is dead to me (he suffers at Manchester United), while Antonio Conte rules--OK!  Conte comes from extended success leading Juventus in Italy, and he shows himself weekly to be both an emotional leader and a sound tactician.  After a slow start in September, the team turned itself around and shed the underperformance shown last year.  A string of victories followed, featuring a new playing formation (3-4-3, the three central defenders firming up the middle, with the four midfielders moving both forward and backward fluidly, and a potent attack), a couple of major new contributors (Kante, Alonso) and changes in the lineup, but really a very similar, potent, talented crew, just more motivated.

The Other Football-- I'm not that devoted of a fan, but I have to say I like any game that Alabama loses, and the fourth-quarter battle with Clemson was worth losing sleep for.  Similarly, the Green Bay-Dallas fourth-quarter battle brought back memories of their epic battles in the '60's, only a lot more dynamic these days.  Dallas lost, but the emergence of their two rookie stars at quarterback and running back, with a proficient supporting cast, suggests the Cowboys are finally back to having some claim to earning that overrated label they have had as "America's Team".  As for the Packers, their win didn't prove too significant in the grand scheme, as they were crushed the following week, but Aaron Rodgers showed once again his class.

Contrast that with the Patriots, the team America has learned to hate. If I cared more, I would hate them, too, the way I used to hate the Yankees and Celtics in my childhood. They win--consistently--and arrogantly, and let's face it, somewhat dishonestly.  So it will be my great pleasure if the offensive brilliance of the Atlanta Falcons and their quarterback Matt Ryan (just named MVP) continues today. Frankly, I do not expect it.  Despite some injuries and setbacks, the Patriots have lost nothing; they even won most of the games when Tom Brady was forced to sit out his suspension early in the season.  They are three-point favorites, which I think is a small spread for this team which has proven itself with four titles already, against a team that has never won.  I am expecting the usual pattern--one not present so much in recent years--in which a couple early breaks go for the team that has its head together, then it's playing catch-up and often goes downhill fast. I'm predicting the hated Patriots will win, Super Bowl-li, by  20 points or more, and I will be switching channels by the third quarter. I hope I'm wrong.

Late-Season Films 
I don't like the strategy of limited release in December with a broad release in the new year, trying to avoid the crowded schedules of the holidays but still getting Oscar consideration.  And I don't even think it works that well, either at the box office, or, maybe even in the Oscars themselves--the full release between Thanksgiving and Christmas seems to be the winning route, if you've got the vehicle.

This does not mean that we should discount those that chose to release late, though, just because of that dubious strategy.  I would like to praise a couple of films that gave me no chance to review before January:  "Lion" and "Hidden Figures".  They have in common certain elements:  true inspirational stories that were remarkable but not well-known, particularly effective capture of their time and place (both India and Australia, in the case of "Lion"), a strong ensemble cast, and the classic triumph over adversity. One quibble about each:  Dev Patel is a versatile actor and a rising star, but does he have a problem breathing through his nose?  He should occasionally close his mouth--it makes one seem more serious if you can.  With regard to "Figures", the wrong person got nominated for Oscar:  it should have been Taraji Henson for the lead role, not Octavia Spencer (who's won already).

One late release about which I have little positive to say is "Silence"--in keeping with my general intention for this post, I will just say those two things:  the filming of the scenery (and the sets in China) were striking, worthy of the nomination for cinematography, and the role and performance of the actor who plays the Japanese inquisitor (Issei Ogata) was a highlight.  Otherwise, though, I thought it was rather painful to watch.  Somewhat predictable, with none of the three male leads well used; I thought "The Mission" (1986) did a similar kind of story better.  Sorry, Martin!

I still have some work to do to complete my viewing of worthy films released late (if I can still find them):  "Manchester by the Sea",  "Fences", and "20th Century Women" are still on my must-see-if-possible list, while   "Jackie" and "La La Land", on the other hand, are on the other one: will-see-eventually-but-choose-not-to-pay.

Post-Inauguration Post-Mortem--
Sorry to end on a down note, but let's celebrate their achievements: 

Mary Tyler Moore - She made it after all!  Her acting career can be defined by three greatly different roles:  her loving mother and homemaker Mary Petrie, wife of the character played by the titular star in the "Dick Van Dyke Show";  Mary Richards, news director for a news station in Minneapolis (Note:  both named "Mary", both TV shows--the second, of course, was "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"--centered on TV, both boasting superior ensemble casts); and a very different role as the nasty, overbearing mother who made all the problems in "Ordinary People".  I didn't enjoy the last of these (looking at imdb.com, I rated it a 5 out of 10), in this case reflecting my own difficulty accepting an entertainment centered around a distasteful character, but I credit her for taking on a role out of her comfort zone and playing it to the hilt.
John Hurt - An extremely versatile actor who featured his characters, not himself.  I will remember him chiefly for his starring role in "Elephant Man" and for having the eponymous character erupt from his chest in "Alien", though he had many, many others.
John Wetton - Like Greg Lake, who died the previous month, Wetton was a talented musician who learned that, in King Crimson, you can be the front man and still be second fiddle.   He did a lot later, helping found Asia and playing with many others.  Still, I like his work with Crimson ("Larks Tongue in Aspic", "Starless and Bible Black", and "Red") best; in fact, there's a good argument that those were the band's best three albums ever.
Yordano Ventura - An extremely promising, already accomplished (two World Series, one championship ring from 2015), 25-year old pitcher for the Kansas City Royals who died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.  Sorry, but this is happening too often with baseball players--more than PED's, I'd like a little more attention to getting word out through the players association to take steps toward ending drunk driving (in cars, boats, motorcycles, etc.) amongst the membership.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Worst President Ever?

It's a bit early after just 10 days (just 1451 to go!), but Donald J. Trump is on a path which could make him easily the worst President of the United States in our history.

The ones who are ranked worst historically (see this 2015 ranking of the US Political Scientists) are typically ones who were relative non-entities, ones who died early or served a single, ineffective term.  The names sinking to the bottom of that list are Buchanan, Harding, Andrew Johnson, Pierce, William H. Harrison (who served less than two months); I would add Chester A. Arthur, Millard Fillmore, and the unelected usurper Rutherford B. Hayes to their list.

Trump's pattern--the manner of his election (of elected Presidents, only Hayes lost more decisively in the popular vote than Trump, and of course his campaign set new lows for the nature and ugliness of his rhetoric), the characteristics of his Cabinet nominees (nearly all are unqualified, disqualified, elistist, or actively opposed to performing their assignments, or all of the above), and his early posturing around executive decisions--all suggest he could end up in a category of his own:  inept, disengaged, but enormously damaging. (OK, those are exactly the characteristics historians use to describe Buchanan, rated the worst until now.)

Here are some damaging things Trump has already done--mind you, these are the easy actions, not requiring any negotiation with legislators, merely his interpretations of fulfilling the campaign promises he chooses to recognize:
  • His bizarre insistence that voter fraud robbed him of a popular vote victory.  It doesn't matter, the investigation is certain not to support his claim (the "registered in two states" canard is both irrelevant and has already backfired, with many of his cronies "guilty" of this non-crime), and may lead to a report that describes in ugly detail the suppression of voters that occurred.  
  • His order to restore black sites to detain suspected terrorists--a return to extrajudicial persecution and probably torture. 
  • Suppression of agencies' normal processes of communication, awarding grants, and, secretly, all mention of "climate change" from the White House website. 
  • The emerging disaster--coming particularly from Health and Human Services Department nominee Price in his confirmation hearings--in the administration's direction on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act and the associated Medicaid grants. 
  • Attorney General nominee Sessions' statements that he will not recuse himself from investigating Trump's conflicts of interest, Russian hacking and its effects on the election, or voter fraud. 
  • The announcement of the commencement of his long-promised, stupid border wall, to be paid for with taxes on imports, instead of the Mexican government's support, which clearly will not be forthcoming.  (At least it may create some jobs, and then they could continue their work to take it down when it's proven to be ineffective or unnecessary.)
  • Preparation for massive deportations, threatening local jurisdictions that won't cooperate with them. 
  • The continued suck-up to Russia, and the formal re-affirmation of FBI Director Comey, one of the chief enablers of Trump's electoral victory. 
  • Last--for now--but not least, his announcement regarding the promised "extreme vetting" of refugees and prospective immigrants from certain countries (all predominantly Muslim, none of them ones where Trump has his investments, though religious minorities--such as Christians--may be exempted).  It has already created massive confusion, a judge's injunction, and widespread protests, partly because it was so poorly written, partly because it is so blatantly bigoted and xenophobic, and partly because (as Pope Francis has stated) it violates the principles of those who call themselves Christians.  
What to Expect Next from the Drumpfenreich
I expect him to throw a three-year-old-type temper tantrum when Senate Democrats use normal cloture procedures to extend the approvals for selected Cabinet nominees (those with huge conflicts of interest, lack of qualifications, or incomplete vetting).   He has consistently shown no understanding of the levers of government.

When his approval ratings continue to drop, he will look to make a deal to get income tax cuts ("for all", but especially for the wealthiest and corporations), infrastructure spending (look to see who--which companies, which states--will benefit), discretionary budget cuts, and entitlement spending adjustments.  Congressional Republicans will go along, but Democrats will not; without the entitlement spending adjustments (i.e., cuts to benefits), his program will lead to massive increases in deficits, as graded by the Congressional Budget Office.  He will whine about their methods.

Some country will want to test his bluster--I'm thinking Iran, or North Korea, possibly the Taliban, hopefully not Russia right away.  He will threaten, they will call his bluff.  I'm really hoping this does not lead to us entering a stupid war right off the bat, but I'm almost certain this will happen in the first 18 months.  I remember commenting in early 2001 that so far, Dubya hadn't gotten us into a war, so I graded him a passing "D".  Then came 9/11.

What Should We Be Doing? 
1)  Moderate Expectations - Democratic opposition is not going to prevent the confirmation of any of Trump's Cabinet nominees.  No amount of calls, letters, political contributions is going to change this.  Slowing them down, providing a spotlight on the worst cases, will have the desired effect of highlighting the inadequacy of Trump's choices, and will increase their vulnerability later.   The same argument applies to Trump's Supreme Court nominee--he will be approved, in the end, unless there are severe deficiencies (I don't see that happening with the three named finalists).  The yardstick to use is whether the nominee is worse than Scalia--for me, a very low bar.  Stopping one nominee could lead to the risk of a worse one being named:  I believe that happened with Bush and Harriet Miers, which led to Alito, which I would say was a bad outcome.

2) Dig In When Necessary - One place will be on cuts to Medicare and Medicare  (Social Security should be a non-starter, as there is no case for change at present); another will be on the replacement package for the Affordable Care Act.  There is no reason for any Democrat to support any of the likely proposals, and without that, there will be no cuts/replacement.  

A third case would be on the next replacement for the Supreme Court, depending especially on who is being replaced.  Use the same principle of change in level of harm: Justice Thomas--fine, whatever;  Justice Kennedy, or any of the four "Democratic" justices (one was nominated by a Republican)--extreme sensitivity.  For at least the next two years, we should not expect the "nuclear option" which some Republican mouthpieces will run on about:  the opportunity to set the rules (relating to filibusters) for this Congress has passed, and it won't happen.  2019-2020 could be a different story, depending on circumstances.

3) Do not get sucked into the Bushite-style jingoism - This was the fatal mistake of the Democrats in the early post-9/11 days.  They voted for Bush's program out of fear of getting hammered in the 2002 elections for lack of patriotism, and they still got whipped.  And, the Iraq War/Patriot Act collar ended up on a bunch of them for the rest of their careers. This time, it will need to be clear that the war fever is due to the Drumpfite bungling of diplomacy.  And it will be.

4) Work on unifying, and expanding upon, the 54%.  Trump's victory was a fluke, the result of a combination of circumstances and lack of a successful, unified opposition to him.  The majority of Trump voters will never get that they have been duped--the big payday, the expert management, the great inflow of jobs, they will never "get it".   Some, especially those who voted for Trump as the lesser of two evils, are already starting to get it.   We are willing to "forgive"; there is no shame in shedding Trump and admitting one's error, only the shame we all must bear as Americans.

The opposition candidate we should work for will successfully counter Trump without dividing. Right now, I'm thinking Sherrod Brown of Ohio is a good candidate (Gillebrand maybe a running mate)--which makes Brown's 2018 re-election campaign a personal priority.

5) Keep the base mobilized - There is plenty of excitement which needs to be maintained.  It's not a question of money; don't let them play you.  The main points are to pick the right spots (so far, so good), avoid violent encounters and provocateurs (can only lose), weed out Drumpfian spies and conciliators (there is no compromise with Trump himself, and little with Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell), and own the weekends.

6) Minimize harm when possible - First target is Steve "Race" Bannon; this racist megalomaniac is totally out of control.  It was Nixon's cronies, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, who compounded and reinforced his paranoia. Somebody needs to ban Bannon.  If Trump needs him for political advice, fine--that will only hurt Trump in the end (same with the likes of Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer)--but he should not be allowed within earshot of any national security or foreign policy discussion.  We want Trump to fail--sorry, we do, he can not be rescued and allowed to succeed in spite of himself--but it should be because of the myopia of his own program. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Looking Back without Anger

There's a lot of talk about "holding Donald Trump accountable"--as if we actually wanted him to keep his promises.  I am nearly the opposite--I want him to go back on all of them.  With some, the result would be an improvement; with the others, he would alienate his base and make it impossible for him to be re-elected.  That would seem to be the best possible outcome, given that he completes his single term.   That, and not getting us into a stupid war.

Now, holding Barack Obama accountable--that is a different question, and one on which I have prepared my expectations from the very beginning.

On the Issues -- The Ten-Point Program:  10 Years Later
Let me be clear:  this was my 10-point program for the 2008 election, not Barack Obama's.  I did do a subsequent post comparing mine to his and found plenty of similarity, but this was one I outlined ten years (plus a month) ago, in December, 2006.  This was two months before Obama officially announced his run, but it was clear at this point that he would, and I set these down as the basis for my evaluation of the candidates on the issues.

On the issues!  That's how far we have fallen; ten years ago we were considering a host of possible candidates (Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards on the Democratic side; John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, George Pataki),  respectable, proven politicians who had meaningful, considered positions on the principal issues.  In this last general election campaign, the issues were barely noticed (somehow "conflicts of interest" got overlooked, too), and we remained mired in controversies about emails and pussy-grabbing.

Anyway, to begin my retrospective on the subsequent 8-year Obama presidency now about to end, let's review the progress, or lack thereof, on the issues around which I built my hopes and long-term expectations at the time.  Here they are, in order:

1. Get control of climate-changing gases.
2. Preserve our biosphere.
3. Rebuild our relations with the world.
4. Visualize our children’s / grandchildren’s society, and the implications of that vision.
5. Reform the UN Charter.
6. Get control of armaments.
7. Establish clearly the political dimensions of privacy and of permissible government intrusions into it.
8. Provide health care to our people.
9. Electoral reform.
10. End the "War on Drugs" (or at least give it some focus on the more harmful ones).

I would say, looking at the Obama Administration's accomplishments, that they did not do half-badly against these ambitious goals.   

The good:  On the #1 priority, the Paris Conference agreement was a huge step forward, and I do not believe the Trumpists will be so blind as to reverse or withdraw from it (perhaps overly optimistically), and even if they do, it will survive four years of Drumpfen depredation.   #2 is a big, long-term one, but the recent executive actions Obama made with regard to offshore drilling, the dreaded tar sands pipeline, and expansion of protected lands show that they had the right idea. Obama made huge progress with #3, however, it is reversible progress, and Trump & Co. will do a lot of damage to that progress, maybe more than the original gains since the Bush era.  

We will come back to #8 in a moment, but I would give the greatest credit to Obama's efforts on #10. Decriminalization of marijuana was always going to be a second-term initiative, at best, and would have needed a Congressional majority which was never present.  Still,  the progress on reducing the harm of Federal mandatory sentencing rules, the commutation of many excessive sentences for non-violent drug offenders, and the tolerance shown toward states adopting liberalization of marijuana--even for recreational purposes--turned a corner in the decades-long, failing "War on Drugs".  There is still a real possibility of a U-turn--the Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions would probably favor one, while Trump, though non-committal, seems inclined to leave the status quo. 

Health Care (#8)--the mixed bag: Well, Obama tried, he really tried.  There were flaws in the initial concept, which borrowed heavily from Republican free-market approaches.  Perhaps they were necessary: For this to succeed, Obama and his team needed to line up the willingness of the private insurers to support the exchanges in the states.  He was able to make the other two key compromises with Congress:  to define the juice which needed to flow to make it work (the additions to Medicaid made available to states), and the individual/employer mandates and taxes to make it fiscally sound. 

The biggest failure was a political one:  too many states' regressive governments gambled on creating failure through denying their own constituents the benefits of increased Federal aid   In the long run, such a policy would have been self-defeating in a number of ways, but the short-term refusal to accept "Obamacare" worked as a political rallying cry, and we are now here.  What will happen seems unclear from the variety of Republican postures, but I think it is clear:  They will take the unilateral step of "ending Obamacare", while preserving its most popular features.  Private insurers will get an even better deal, the individual/employer mandates will wither, and the question of thee Federally-funded expansion of Medicare to all age groups (the so-called "public option" which Obama's team eschewed), exactly contrary to Paul Ryan's inclinations, will return as a major political issue for 2020. 

Bridges Too Far:   I put #4 and #6 in this category, long-term goals which could never be accomplished in one eight-year administration, especially with intransigent partisan opposition, ones that were overly ambitious in this contentious political atmosphere. #4 is all about making the adjustments in taxation and endowment benefits needed to stabilize the long-term fiscal approach (and de-escalate the generational conflicts now emerging with the retirement waves of Baby Boomers).  There were programs put forward which could have been the basis for bipartisan negotiation (the only way this can happen), but they died due to the Republicans' phony obsessions with debt limits and their threats to shut down the government to get a balanced budget (where are those concerns now?).  As for more controls on armaments, nuclear and otherwise, Obama had the will, but the prospects soured when Russian President Putin decided to pursue instead a policy of Cold War revanchism in the Crimea and Ukraine.  The agreement with Iran, brokered with the assistance of all the major powers, was a significant achievement preventing a new wave of proliferation in the Middle East: let's see if it holds, or if Trumpian freelancing will destroy it. 

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: On the U.N. (#5), Obama gave the organization  the respect due, no more or less.  There was no leadership, and the organization is now in serious trouble due to the reactionary wave of xenophobic nationalism; already reduced to a debating society, the will to continue funding the essential functions of the Security Council and General Assembly at an adequate level may once again be endangered.  I'd have liked to have seen some structural recognition for the rising power of responsible nations like India, Germany, South Africa, and Brazil.   It's still possible, but I also admit that nine nations with veto power is nine too many. 

The limits on government intrusion into private communications (#7) remains a sensitive area, and one about which advocates of a right to privacy can only be pessimistic.  The odious Patriot Act from the hysterical post-9/11 period was rolled back somewhat, but notions that Americans can speak and act, secure in the protections which enable truly free "speech" are illusory.  Meanwhile, TV cameras monitoring everything, designed to reduce various forms of crime, are functioning largely to protect property rights, not individuals' ones, and we are all ever more dependent on the digital realm, which is also tending toward increasing vulnerability. Nothing good happening here. 

Last, and most egregious, only negative progress was made on electoral reform (#9) during Obama's watch.  More and more is being spent every campaign to produce less and less of substantive result. Voting rights are being eroded to prevent fictional electoral fraud; elementary measures to increase voter turnout are spurned. Finally, I included in my announcement of my 10-point program in 2006 that we must eliminate the Electoral College; my opposition is not partisan (nor is mine to the Citizens United world of unlimited spending), and I pointed out in 2009 that Obama must not be deceived by his apparent advantage from the E.C.  What the Electoral College produces is randomized havoc which undermines the legitimacy of our elections, and that is not not new news, nor fake. 

A Few Items I Didn't Include in My Program
Filling The Great Crater - In 2006 the collapse of the economy was two years away but nowhere in sight (except to a handful of people--see "The Big Short").   I do not fault the Obama Administration's handling of the economic crisis which he inherited one bit.  Given the limitations of his job and the willingness of Congress to spring for remedies, he did nearly the best possible.  I don't feel the Dodd-Frank bill did enough to prevent a relapse (requiring huge capital for banks with the combination of investment trading and consumer assets could have done it), and I don't feel enough was done--after the crisis was ended--to punish some of the worst offenders in investment banking, and credit rating agencies, but still--given the way I feel about "job creation", I cannot and will not complain

The Middle East/Russia - Obama had a very clear mandate to keep the US out of new wars in Asia and to get us out of the ones we were in.  With the single exception of the surge in Afghanistan (barely memorable now), he did not violate his mandate.  The ballyhooed use of "soft power" did not turn out to be all that was suggested (if not promised).  Two signal successes for it were the above-mentioned Paris Conference agreement on climate changing emissions and the Iran nuclear agreements; otherwise, though, it failed badly when put to the test in the Arab Spring (Egypt, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula), and with ruthless countries like Syria, Iraq, Russia, and, most unfortunately, Turkey, Israel, and the Palestinians.  With Syria, I would not say our intelligence was too bad--most of the groups we decided not to back ended up being about as bad as Assad was; with Russia and the Ukraine, I would say we did too little, though we were right not to overpromise--the fact remains, though, that Russia had promised (in the Budapest agreement) to protect Ukraine, in exchange for its giving up its share of Soviet nukes, and we did not punish Russia nearly enough for overtly violating its promises. Our President-elect should be reminded that, with regard to that, a deal is a deal, and deal-breakers must not be rewarded, no matter how seductive their propaganda may be to a narcissist's ears. 

The Racial Thing - I guess I was not expecting race relations to blow up in the way that they did--around allegations of police bias toward blacks, and whites claiming to be under-privileged by left-center government. My greatest concern in this area was that there be an attempt on Obama's life, and the consequences of that.  So, given that did not occur, things did not go as well as I would have thought. And here we are, with reactionary forces ascendant.  Do I blame Obama, though?  Of course not--I blame the Republicans for their dog whistle approach to stirring up resentments, and I blame the canine humans who responded to them. 

Finally, The Democratic Party - I do think Obama and his team deserve a share of the blame for the amazing failures of the party which climaxed with the 2016 disaster. They weren't particularly generous about sharing resources in 2010, 2012, or 2014, and the support provided in 2016 didn't turn out to be too effective.  Particularly at the state level, Obama's popularity and governing successes were not well translated into local campaigns. This past year was supposed to be the year the wheels came off the republican Party; the bolts holding them on were extremely loose, but it was the Democrats instead that got ejected from their vehicle with a brutal face-planting.  I accept that reality, though I do not consider it definitive and still feel their opponents are the ones that history will find in the dustbin. 

By my critical analysis (let no one say I am insufficiently critical of our President) and scorekeeping, I have: 
  • Five big successes (#1,2,3, 10, plus the  response to the Great Crater)
  • Two very large mixed bags (#8, and the Middle East/Russia)
  • Three areas where my expectations were simply too high (#4, 6, and the Racial Thing); and 
  • Four areas where I was disappointed (#5, 7, 9 and the Democratic Party). 
I know, I am falling into the trap of which I accuse others--expecting too much of a US President. Guilty. I am grading on the curve, though, and by the standards of postwar Presidents, I rate him in a tie for second, behind only Eisenhower, tied with Truman, who shared some characteristics with Obama (dropped into a hot mess, good with the allies, far-sighted, but left some sticky foreign entanglements himself), and just ahead of Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan.   In the all-time list, he would be in the back half of the first quartile, somewhere between 7th and 11th. *

We will be missing him--daily--for the next four years, at least. 

*Top 6:  Lincoln, Washington, FD Roosevelt, Jefferson, T Roosevelt, John Adams; Obama grouped with Jackson, Truman, Wilson, and Madison. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saskia Van der lingen

My longtime acquaintance, friend, and relative by marriage died yesterday in Granada, Nicaragua. The cause of death was an antibiotic-resistant blood infection.

Saskia was a very intelligent person.  Fully fluent in four languages (at least--English, Spanish, Italian, and French), she had an excellent eye.  She was a skilled photographer (old school), and had a successful career as a young woman as a fashion editor (an assistant at Vogue--she said her experiences there with Polly Mellen were the real basis of "The Devil Wears Prada"--and a more senior role with Details). She was very generous:  her trademark was the quality of her gifts, which were carefully considered, sometimes way too expensive, and always included with a kind, loving note.  She was a great hostess and a great cook.

Born and raised in Rome, Italy to expat parents--her Dutch father and American mother (and named for Rembrandt's wife)--she was a true internationalist, with friends all over the world. She hated the very idea of Donald Trump:  At least she will not have to endure seeing him as our President.

I would not say she was a person of moderation, with the way that she loved--married twice, to a charming Frenchman and a handsome Spaniard--danced, partied, or, on occasion, hated.

Saskia was a person who lived life to the fullest extent.  Though she died relatively young (early '50's), who's to say that's wrong?   I am just sorry for her daughter, her sister, and others who loved her (one wonderful man was with her at the end).

Losing someone you know well makes you acutely aware of your own mortality.  Live accordingly.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Manchurian President (-elect)

Now we hear that the Russians had a dossier of compromising information on Presidential candidate Trump, and they were not hiding that fact.  What they did with it is not yet reported, though clearly they chose to release publicly their Clinton research and not that on Trump.  Perhaps they let Trump know what they had; perhaps it helps explain why Trump has never said a negative word about Russia and its government in this campaign or afterward.  Of course, maybe they didn't need to tell him what they had; he might already have known it.  At the least, the classified (but leaked) report indicates that the US intelligence agencies briefed Trump on the alleged existence of the dossier.

I recently had the occasion to see the '50's movie "The Manchurian Candidate", a fictional story about American soldiers in the Korean War (1948-53) who were captured, "brainwashed" and sent back to America to act, against their own will, to promote the objectives of the Communists--in this case to help, through targeted assassinations, the Presidential candidacy of an extremist demagogue.  I was not particularly impressed by the movie's verisimilitude--in particular, they seem to conflate inaccurately the effects of brainwashing and hypnotism, and to overstate the range of actions a brainwashed/hypnotized person might take.

Still, the question remains:  can the malign influence of a foreign power reach even to the White House? How could we know?  One thing is clear, there is an unmistakable tendency from Trump, in his statements and in his nominees for office, to take the most positive view possible of Russia, its actions, and its own public posturing.

On Electoral Tampering
Intelligence reports now publicly released make clear their unanimous assessment, with "high confidence", that the Russian government sponsored interference in the Presidential election, with a clear intention to undermine the integrity of the election, and an apparent intention to damage Secretary Clinton's candidacy.

We can be offended by the lack of fairness of the Russian interventions.  I don't think we have the right to call this unprecedented or something previously unthinkable.  There is evidence that, among other intrusions in other nations' politics, the US itself involved itself in the affairs of our close ally, Italy, during the Cold War, favoring the anti-Communist Christian Democratic party (and against the Italian Communists).

What isn't fair, though, is that only the Russians should get to try to influence the US Presidential elections.  Our elections results affect every country in the world, and the campaigns go on for so long, it should be very tempting for many countries to get involved, though they may have more ethical scruples than Russia.  There are two sad facts about this:  one is that virtually all of our friends and allies would have expressed their preference for Hillary Clinton, with whom they worked successfully and whom they respected; and the second is that American voters wouldn't really give the slightest consideration to what the rest of the world might think.  It's true that the President is only responsible to the American electorate, and only has direct responsibility for American government, but if we claim to be the leaders of the free world, we might want to know what the rest of the free world would like to follow.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Lightening Up...Or Trying

Movies: 2016
I'm very happy for Hollywood that 2016 set all-time records for box office--contrary to the current perception that television rules, the money still seems to be in the movies.  Netflix is OK, I guess--I still have some problems with the concept that only getting to watch what they select for you, whenever you want, is somehow better than a broader selection of choices with limited time selection (especially since the advent of the DVR somewhat frees up the time limitations), but in terms of the experience, for me there is no contest.  Movies affect me much more deeply.

That being said, the movies that draw the crowds generally have a different sensibility from mine. There is one exception, which I will get to shortly.  The only movies in the top 20 of box office receipts in the year which were not "superhero" comic heroes or cartoons were "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story", "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them", "Jason Bourne", "Star Trek Beyond", and "Central Intelligence".  The first four, I would say, continue the theme of total escapism; only the last, a comedy with Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson which I had totally forgotten, is the only exception to the rule that extreme absence of reality is what drove financial result (it was #20).

I'm not immune to the appeal of such movies:  one figures in my top 5, two in my bottom 5, while one of them (the Star Trek movie), I saw, I paid for,  I enjoyed it,  but I had forgotten I had seen it. Mission Accomplished!

My Top Five Movies of 2016: 

  • Arrival
  • Rogue One
  • Moonlight
  • Hell or High Water
  • Free State of Jones

Honorable Mention:  Birth of a Nation, Allied, Queen of Katwe, Youth, Where to Invade Next, Hello My Name is Doris.

Comments: "Arrival" is my favorite movie of the year, and I'm hoping Amy Adams will win her long-deserved Oscar for her performance.  "Rogue One" is the Star Wars movie I liked best, by far, since "Return of the Jedi".  "Moonlight" is a touching story, beautifully filmed, and one with a critically-important message.  "Hell or High Water" feels real to me, and is also very entertaining. The other movies are all underrated, flawed, but valuable.

Serious Movies I Have No Right to Judge - though those with * I criticize for their pseudo-2016 release strategy:

  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Hidden Figures*
  • Jackie*
  • Silence*
  • La La Land
  • Captain Fantastic (did they have a release strategy?)
  • Fences*
  • Lion*
  • Loving
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Patriots Day*
Comments: "La La Land" and "Manchester by the Sea" are considered the other main contenders for Best Picture along with "Moonlight".  I will see both of them eventually but am in no hurry; I do not feel that we have a lack of escapist show-biz kid self-worship that "LLL" is going to fill, though--I will be rooting against it, though that may be in spite of my feelings after I actually see it.  Both had the late release more right--general release on Christmas is the tried-and-true approach. "Hidden Figures" could be the sleeper for the Oscars, but its late release (why?) will hamper it.  "Silence" may be the movie Martin Scorsese had to make for decades, but it looks like a miss to me.  "Captain Fantastic" is probably the one of all this list I most want to see; I simply missed it because it never came close to my area.


A Few Movies I Did Not Like:


  • Nocturnal Animals
  • The Lobster
  • Suicide Squad
  • Knight of Cups
  • The Divergent Series: Allegiant
  • Superman v Batman:  The Dawn of Justice
Comments:  With the exception of the last two, which I just saw on TV after their runs, the others actively disappointed me.  There were other movies, such as "Race", "Snowden", "Sisters", or "Hail, Caesar", which were about what I expected, but no more.  "Office Christmas Party" and most of the cartoon movies fall into a category I would describe as "No Objection to seeing them, but I will wait and see them for free".


Sports at the Moment
Though arguably this is exactly the time when the fate of 2017's baseball teams are being determined, there is really no news to report.  The Hall of Fame election this year looks to be a total PR disaster, no matter who is or isn't elected.  For the record, my choices this year would be  Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ivan Rodriguez, Tim Raines, Fred McGriff, Lee Smith, and Vlad Guerrero.

Next, I must brag on my team in English soccer.  Chelsea is on a 13-game win streak--no losses or draws in 13 league games--which has lifted them to the top of the table.  They will be challenged to continue the streak, which would be a record, against Tottenham on Wednesday.  Chelsea has simply got everything going well right now.  Off last season's disaster, they have no Champions League distractions, and new coach Antonio Conte has them extremely well focused.  I think he's going to be a keeper (not a goalie).

I am very critical of the structure of college football, but I would not say there is a lack of talent, sometimes even excitement.  Yesterday's Rose Bowl, won 52-49 on a last-second field goal by USC over Penn State, was clearly the game of the year.  It goes to show that the playoff system as it is now will always be about those #5/#6 teams proving they should have been it.  On the other hand, though there are way too many bowl games, the variety and structure does tend to bring teams of similar ability to face off, with the decisive factor being motivation level. The final should be a ho-hum win for Alabama, assuming they aren't checked out already.  I don't think their obsessive, hectoring coach Nick Saban will allow that to happen.

The NFL playoffs and the NBA playoffs both look somewhat predictable at this point.  Dallas and New England are large favorites to meet in the Super Bowl, and Golden State and Cleveland to meet, for the third straight year, in the NBA championships.  College basketball, on the other hand, has the most exciting playoff system in sports, and  this year should be no exception.  Although the laws of probability still apply, there is plenty of room for surprise.

Before the Door Closed on 2016...
Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds stepped through it.  Both were highly intelligent actresses who played a variety of roles, on screen and in life.  Fame was hard on them but they were never defeated.  I identify Reynolds, above all, as the "Unsinkable Molly Brown", a movie role now largely forgotten by the world, but which I will never forget.  Look it up.  The manner of Debbie Reynolds' death, directly following her daughter's, was remarkable. As for Carrie Fisher, one can certainly say she lived a full life.

It is fair to say that 2016 had an inordinately large number of notable persons who passed away, but I feel that this is not a transitory, one-time occurrence.  Those born in the first years of the baby boom have been dominating our news in all areas for many years; now many of them, particularly those who lived hard, loved hard, consumed hard, are passing on.  There is no objective measure of this, but I suspect we're in for a few more years of famous folks falling fast.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Now They Went and Did It

The official vote of the Electoral College will apparently be:  Donald Trump 304, Hillary Clinton 227, Colin Powell 3, John Kasich 1, Bernie Sanders 1, Ron Paul 1, and Faith Spotted Eagle 1.  What is wrong with this picture (apart from the outcome)?

One of those talk-show panels on Sunday was discussing this Electoral College vote--they all agreed that the human element should be replaced by a strict point system.  Yes, that would remove the embarrassment of the votes for the five recipients who were not Presidential nominees; however, I think embarrassment is exactly the feeling we should have about this antiquated, anti-democratic, randomizing system we use to select our President.

The question of whether our Founding Fathers preferred the Electoral College to a national popular vote is way off-base:  there was no popular vote for President in most states until much later.  It was not even considered.  The Electoral College system proved itself unworkable by the second contested election, in 1800.  After that, they fixed some of the obvious flaws in that original formulation, but it really hasn't gotten better.  Look up the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, 1960, 1968, and, most recently, 2000, 2004, and 2016 (of course).   In all of them the Electoral vote outcome differed sharply and meaningfully from the popular vote outcome, and in five of them, completely opposed it.

I support that legislation, driven by states, to make a binding compact that their states will cast their electoral votes for the winner of the popular vote--once 270 states' worth of electoral votes agree to it. I support it, even though I hardly believe it's foolproof, because it's the only route that seems possible right now--the Republicans have now convinced themselves that the Electoral College is their new best friend, the only protection against rule by the urban elite mob, even though just months ago, the talk was of the Democrats' "electoral college lock".

I credit the Republican strategists for recognizing that the Blue Wall was not impenetrable; the evidence that the Upper Midwest was vulnerable was present, as the margins have been very small in several states in recent elections (though consistently in the Democrats' favor).  Pennsylvania, the state most decisive in the result (along with Florida), was the huge surprise, the bridge too far that had been the Republicans' impossible dream in several recent elections.

Of course, radical that I am, I advocate pulling the thing out by its roots and going with the popular vote, but with a twist.  All voters would get to select their first and second choice of Presidential ticket.  If no candidate gets a majority, the two top vote-getters would have an "instant runoff":  only those two would remain in the contest, and  second-choice votes would be allocated to them, from among those votes that did not go to them in the first round.

As for those who agitated to overturn the result from Election Day, it was always a bootless exercise, one that had no chance and little justification.  Even when the result, equally tainted, was much closer in 2000--Bush won by two electoral votes --there was no chance of changing the outcome. No mere elector would take the responsibility to overturn the system--We are stuck with The President for the 46%.

The next vain effort will be the one to try to convince VP Joe Biden and the Democratic Senators to suspend the rules in that moment before the new Senators will be sworn in and vote for Merrick Garland. I'm not familiar enough with the Senate rules to know how it really works (definitely not like that), but I feel the Democrats do owe Garland a motion for a vote, one which will be blocked--it should have been done long ago; however, that kind of mischief on that day can never work.

What About Aleppo? 
The question which was Gary Johnson's downfall in his pretension to be a serious Presidential candidate will not go away.  60 Minutes had a segment on Friday about the "White Helmets", the trained volunteers who try to dig out survivors in Aleppo, Syria when their houses are destroyed by Syrian/Russian bombs. It was truly heartbreaking to watch, and one can only feel sadness for the civilians being killed so barbarously in this Civil War--though Civil Wars are always like this, to be honest.

It was rather pathetic to see our UN Ambassador Samantha Power take the Syrians and Russians to task--"Is there nothing that can shame you?"--or to hear President Obama declare that the blood of these people is on the hands of Syria and Russia.  And yet we do nothing about it.

Well, someone did something about it, today.  A Turkish man killed the Russian Ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in the capital, Ankara, shouting out that his act was revenge for Syria and Aleppo.  I can't endorse the violent response to violence, and I don't know whether  the Ambassador's deeds themselves provide cause for revenge, but I will say this:  atrocities such as those committed by the Syrian government and its allies have consequences.  President Assad's day is coming, and others should also be subjected to punishment for their war crimes.

It appears that the slaughter may be nearly over;  there is a truce now which is permitting the evacuation of civilians.  Where they go, and what awaits them, people don't seem to be saying; at this point, though, we are just praying for this to end.  Unfortunately, in Syria this will then give way to the next slaughter, and the one after that.  Meanwhile, the civilian hostages in Mosul are starving.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Some Quick Hits

On the Rapidly-Approaching Advent of the Drumpfenreich
Conflict of Interest - As Trump himself has said, there is none.  It's all about his self-interest.  See, no conflict!
Blind Trust - Trump already has it; it was conferred upon him by about 65 million deluded voters.
Celebrity Apprentice - He should have President Obama host it, and he can be the apprentice who gets pushed around.  I would pay to see that (he could keep his share of the profits).
Intelligence agency disrespect - Fits perfectly with Trump's persona; he has no respect for anyone's intelligence except his own.
Power without a Mandate - We are about to see an experiment come to life before our eyes:  Can a radical movement which has majority opposition, but controls all the levers of government impose its will?  If it is ruthless enough and/or clever enough to provide the "bread and circuses" the public demands, it could succeed.  We have plenty of examples from history, though not in American history (Russian Revolution, Fascist coup of Italy, rise of Nazism)--though it is near sacrilege to suggest, the  closest in our history might be Abraham Lincoln's rise to power . The test of Trump's triumph of will comes in 2020--short of major scandal, there will be only internal dissent before then which can stop him and the Republicans--and the answer will likely be determined by a small number of voters.  0.1% of national voters moving from Trump to Clinton in four states--Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida--would have given Clinton as decisive an Electoral College "landslide" as the one Trump claims.

The Russia/Putin Thing - It's hard to be sure how this dynamic situation may play out.  The facts are all in dispute, regarding anything the Russians may have gotten from their hacking efforts on the Republicans.  Probably not much, as frankly, the Wikileaks from the Democratic Committee were not all that impressive.  There is no doubt that Putin & Co. wanted Trump to win, but little reason for them to think their efforts were making a difference. Unless....unless their technique is so good that they were able to hack voting tallies in the key states and erase all trace of their efforts.  Something we will never know.

The Cabinet - It's basically looking like a suicide pact:  anti-labor man in Labor, anti-environmentalist in the EPA, an Education Secretary who wants to gut the public schools.  Same for Interior; State looks like it will go to a fossil-fuel dealmaker with deep Russian ties--a recipient from Russia of the Order of Friendship.  The only ones who look as though they will be committed to the mission of their agencies are Defense and National Security.  (And Trump can forget about CIA helping out; at least FBI might...) Heidi Heitkamp will be given a job with Agriculture; she will take it to avoid the embarrassment of losing her Senate re-election, and the Republicans will get another  Senator (by replacement).  Trump's best appointee is probably South Carolina Nikki Haley, but he picked her for a job he could neglect entirely (Ambassador to the U.N.), and to get a critic out of the way and elevate a supporter (the state's Lt. Governor). Then there's Attorney General-to-be Sessions:  he will be hopelessly bottled up by courts that will block him at every step.   Finally, his legislative liaison seems to be  Speaker Ryan, who will be turned loose to cut agency budgets and entitlements left and right;  the apparent governing strategy will be to shrink the government's regulatory and services to grow the military.

Though I believe that, short of clear misbehavior by the nominees, a President should be able to get the Cabinet he or she wants, Trump will be getting the worst advice in the world--not least from his co-chiefs of staff, Reince "Rancid Priapus" Priebus, to provide the views of the sell-out party establishment and Steve "Race" Bannon, that of the loony extremists. Still, I don't think it will quite play out the way his advisers may want:  the civil servants will put up resistance to anything too radical in the way of self-destruction.  If Trump has any redeeming quality, it will be the benefit in this case that he doesn't listen to anyone very much.

The Taiwan Call Gambit - I don't object to the President-elect's taking a phone call from the President of Taiwan.  It should have been, and apparently was, a carefully-considered move  taken under advisement.  In itself, it is not a big deal, though it violated protocol around the US official "One China" policy it has maintained, under the People's Republic's careful watch, for forty years or so. The US does not need to slavishly follow China's dictates, and this was perhaps an opportune moment to show that.  Still, Trump must be extremely careful--there is no more certain way to escalate tensions with China to the point of actual military conflict than to go too far with Taiwan, such as endorsing its President's aspiration to make it into an independent nation.  He must not listen to people like John Bolton, who I hear is due to be Deputy Secretary of State, who will get the US into a war at every possible opportunity.

France and Italy - So, what nation will be next to join the nativist, nationalist bandwagon? I have heard that South Korea, in the wake of the popular insurrection leading to the President's impeachment, but I really don't understand the dynamics of that country to have an opinion.

France has the opportunity coming up; Marine Le Pen has all the elements of a Trumpist upset in the making.  She gets the benefits of all the racist, bigoted dog-whistle support derived from her father's movement; she is much more intelligent and nuanced in her platform than he.  Still, the smart money is on the nominee of the center-right party, Francois Fillon, who may be able to rally support from all the parties to his left if the alternative is Le Pen.  The Left is its usual, fractured self:  incumbent President Hollande, suffering from one of the lowest approval ratings I have seen for a head of state not under indictment, has opted not to run again, so his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, is the likely nominee for the Socialists; however, there are at least a couple others who will run from leftist parties, which will make it difficult for Valls to finish in the top two and reach the runoff.

Italy has just resoundingly rejected the referendum to reform the Constitution and make its upper house non-elective, seemingly on the model of Britain's House of Lords.  Hard to imagine this would be viewed as an improvement, but the real point was to take away that body's ability to prevent legislation, which it has frequently done in the past.  The defeat led to the immediate resignation of Matteo Renzi, probably the most intellectually honest and uncorrupted politician Italy has had in the last century (with the possible exceptions of Enrico Berlinguer and Aldo Moro); the good news, is that, in Italy's republic, defeat does not mean disappearance--political careers all seem to go on indefinitely.  There will be a caretaker government headed by Renzi's party, which still has a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, which could persist as long as 2018.  When the elections come, though, we should beware a possible combination of the non-partisan, populist Five Star Movement somehow combining with the nativist Northern League (those "takers" from the South being their Other, along with all the other foreigners) to follow the Trumpist trend.  I would look for the movement to fall apart before that can happen, though.

So, What Country Can Claim to Lead the Free World in the Meantime? - Germany is one obvious candidate; though it doesn't seem to want to lead in the usual way. which is probably a plus.  Angela Merkel's Germany has shown great leadership in maintaining the European Union and in providing refuge to asylum seekers. Now, she will be put to the test in Germany's national elections; there is a lot of resentment, even within her party coalition, but I see no one who can refute her stands who has the stature needed.

There are a couple of candidates from the Third World, nations with vital, contested democratic elections.  Indonesia, under its Obamaian President Widodo, and India, the largest democracy in the world,  Think about it.

More Folks Heading for the Exit
John Glenn - Glenn is an exception to the rule proposed by one of my friends never to trust a man with two first names.  He was the most trustworthy person one can imagine.  His life story would make a great movie (should be played by Ed Harris, who had the role of Glenn in The Right Stuff): Marine, test pilot, astronaut, Senator, Presidential candidate, the fall in the bathtub, his wife and her conquering of stuttering.  Although altogether good, it would not be boring.  I have to admit that I wanted Senator Glenn to get the Democratic nomination in 1984--send a cat to catch a rat (Reagan), I thought.  He turned out to be a very unsuccessful candidate, unfortunately, though it's hard to imagine he could have done worse than the party's ticket (Mondale/Ferraro) did.

Greg Lake - Only months after his more famous bandmate, Keith Emerson, progressive rock guitarist Greg Lake has died.  He was one of my favorites in the 1970's; he was idealistic and talented.  His first major claim to fame was as bass player, vocalist and contributor to the first two King Crimson albums (he knew Crimson's mastermind Robert Fripp from school days); then he saw a major opportunity joining with master keyboard man Emerson of The Nice and drummer Karl Palmer (Atomic Rooster).  ELP made it big for several years, with Lake's lyrics and guitars providing a counterpoint to Emerson's showy instrumentals. When the world passed him by, he eased into a quiet retirement in the English countryside.  Smart.