Saturday, February 6, 2016

Nine Candidates, 5 Losers, 5 Possibilities (Updated GOP Handicap)

       Some endorsement, Rick.

Where does the time go?  I haven't blogged about the Republican race in almost three months.  What's most remarkable is how little has happened in that time. Of course there's been a steady stream of gossip and gaffes but the only changes have been the elimination of candidates who were never going to win the nomination.  (For the record, I thought Huckabee and Santorum might over perform in Iowa, but they very much did not and now they are gone.)

What we have left is nine candidates that are pretty easily divided into three tiers of three candidates. Each candidate is listed by their chance of winning the nomination. (With the change from December in parenthesis.)

I. Three Contenders.
1. Marco Rubio 55%. (Up 1 from 54%).
The establishment has clearly rallied to him.  He now has the most significant nomination in the field, although as the video above shows they haven't all been very helpful. Most impressively he got the media to believe that his third place finish in Iowa was somehow a bigger story than Ted Cruz winning or Trump coming second.  If he comes 2nd in NH, the establishment will do black flips to line up behind him.

2.. Donald Trump 20% (Up 3 from 17%).
Six months ago a 2nd place finish in Iowa would have seemed like an unbelievable accomplishment. But he underperformed slightly and I do think there's something to the idea that he has a ceiling for how many people are willing to vote for him.  He will win New Hampshire, but the most important number will be what percentage of the vote he gets.  If he gets under 30% in a state that is his best chance for a win will not be a good sign.

3. Ted Cruz 15% (Down 2 from 17%)
Winning Iowa should be a boost but it has become very clear in the last few months that the establishment doesn't merely dislike him, they loathe him and they worry about him becoming the face of their party.  If he comes in the top three in NH and wins South Carolina, then he will bill be around for months.  But NH has a history of rebuking the Iowa winner and I thin he is going to be somewhere in the middle of the pack on Tuesday.

II. Three Middlers.
4. John Kasich  5% (Up 4 from 1%)
I've always been a little bullish on Kasich.  I think he's the best candidate for the GOP because he will carry Ohio and it will be harder for the Democratic nominee to portray him as an extremist.  He has placed all of his chips on New Hampshire.  If he doesn't finish 2nd or 3rd, then he will probably drop out.  But a second place finish will be an enormous boost to his campaign and it would probably prevent the rest of the establishment from rushing to endorse Rubio. He also has a winner take all primary in Ohio that has 99 winner-take-all delegates waiting to be won by someone. He's a long shot, but he has a chance of being the big story on Wednesday morning.

5. Jeb Bush 1% (Down 1 from 1%)
I never thought I could feel sorry for a member of the Bush clan but the repudiation of this man's campaign is painful to any observer. He is much smarter than George W. Bush and it must be very frustrating to know that he will never be the political equal of his idiot older brother, but that's life.

6. Chris Christie 0% (Push).
His greatest contribution to the race is the above video.  His second best contribution would be to do poorly on Tuesday and get the hell out of the race.  He's an abrasive jerk but even in a year of abrasive jerks, I am glad to watch him flame out.

III. Three Also-Rans.
7. Carly Fiorina: I think the GOP made a mistake by excluding her from the last debate but I for one am glad to never have to hear her voice again.  She might have been a decent stealth VP candidate, but her grating style and her willingness to lie about anything under the sun are disqualifiers. She will not be missed.

8. Ben Carson: I'm still not sure if he ran for President because he wanted to win or because he wanted to make money by elevating his public profile.  Either way, he will not be president. But I think he is angry at Ted Cruz' stunt in Iowa and that might make him hang around a little longer to split the evangelical vote. If that tips the nomination away from Cruz, the party will be grateful to him.

9.  Jim Gilmore. Twelve votes in Iowa, surely hundreds to come in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire predictions.
Trump will win.  I think he will get about 32%.  If Rubio comes second, he heads south as the heavy favorite. If Kasich comes 2nd, the race will be re-oriented.  Cruz just needs third place.

The upshot of NH will be that four candidates will be left: Trump, Rubio, Cruz and whoever does best among Bush, Kasich and Christie. I think Bush and Carson will stay in, no matter how poorly they do in NH.  SC should be a good state for them. Christie will drop out unless he finishes in the top four.  I hope that Fiorina also drops out, but she probably doesn't have much else to do with her days so maybe she'll hang around for awhile.

Whoever wins SC and or NV will be very strong going into Super Tuesday. But I think those states will not be won by the same person and mostly likely there will be three or four candidates winning states well into the spring months.  I think a brokered convention is a real possibility.  If you add up the probabilities of the candidates above you get 96%.  I'm leaving a little wriggle room for a brokered convention that turns to a consensus compromise candidate that all remaining camps can live with. Right now the only name that I can think of filling that role is Mitt Romney.

Five possible nominees, in order:  Rubio, Trump, Cruz, Kasich and Romney.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Thoughts on Pearl Harbor Day.

Seventy four years ago today, the Empire of Japan killed more than 1,000 American servicemen at Pearl Harbor. Over the next 44 months, more than 100,000 Americans were killed in the Pacific theater and several times that number of Japanese died at American hands. We interned thousand of our own innocent citizens because they had Japanese ancestry. They tortured American prisoners of war. We incinerated two of their biggest cities with atomic weapons. And then we stopped butchering one another. But rather than humiliate our defeated enemy, we did something truly remarkable. We waged peace in a way that had never really been tried before. No two nations have ever gone from such brutal warfare to such deep and abiding respect for one another. And the benefits for both have been immeasurable. The seventy years of cultural exchange, economic integration and shared political values that have followed is one of humanity's greatest achievements. That is what we should remember on December 7th.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Nothing Finale About It (The Walking Dead Season 6 Midseason Finale)

                                       This is a much better breakdown of TWD than I will ever write.

I am of two minds toward this episode. On the one hand, it a pretty tense and well-directed episode. The show runners also deserve some credit for tying something different this season.  Instead of using the Midseason finale to wrap up a bunch of loose ends they merely pushed the action forward and left almost everything in doubt.  But there are (at least) three significant problems with the episode.

A. Economy and Conservation of Characters.  This is probably a budgetary issue but I notice that as the seasons progress and the cast grows incrementally, they do not use some characters in episodes where they should be playing a significant role.  Last night's episode should have included Heath and Aaron, but they did not appear.  I guess the producers saved sizable checks in the process, but it does create some holes in the plot.  They are supposed to be good and trusted fighters, leaders of the new community. Presumably they were somewhere doing something to deal with this threat but we won't find out until February.

As for conservation of characters, I realize that the show is now committed to keeping the key characters alive for long enough that each of their deaths has meaning.  Previous midseason finales brought the deaths of Sophia, Oscar, Hershel & the Governor, & Beth respectively. I guess Deanna had more screen time and lines than Oscar ever got, but I actually felt more sadness when he died during the raid on Woodbury than when Deanna died last night.

B. The Wolf Fight Was Lame.
This is probably a direct result of the need to conserve characters but when Morgan knocked out Carol and then the Wolf knocked out Morgan, all I could think of was one of those lame WWE brawls where the referee lays around pretending to be unconscious while the bad guy gets away with some cheap shot on the good guy. And the Wolf's decision to no kill anyone rang false to, at least superficially. But there was one line in the scene that might be setting up something real.  (This will not justify why Tara, Rosita and Eugen stood staring at the door for several seconds instead of running to retrieve the 9MM and machete left lying on the floor next to Carol and Morgan.)

Going in to last night, I assumed that Carol or Morgan would not survive the episode. I know think they will both make it through this exchange and that the next story arc might involve Morgan bringing Carol back from the brink of insanity.  This would explain why they created the silly controversy over whether Morgan should stay or not. Even if he won't kill humans, he's a hell of a lot more useful than Father Gabriel, for instance. He will kill more than enough Walkers and train enough people in Akido to earn his gruel and shelter.

All of the social media response focused on how reckless Morgan was but I would argue that it was Carol who was being rash. There was no reason to have that fight during the siege. Carol knows she would have the support of the group to kill that Wolf after the hoard passes by. There's not much chance of him doing any damage in the interim.  She wasn't being cautious, she was being impetuous and Morgan merely stood by his principles.

C. This Whole Season is Rick's Fault.

I have to credit the Onion's AV Club for reminding me of this but the whole damn season's problems are Rick's fault. It was his stupid idea to lead the Walkers away from the quarry and slow march them 20 miles away. There were much smarter ways to deal with the problem.  Fire comes to mind, but even thinning the crowd with sniper fire makes more sense than trying to lead that entire herd up a two-lane highway for a day and a half.  And oh yeah, Rick ran back to Alexandria with a couple hundred Walkers on his heels.  Why the hell didn't he use the Guts trick earlier?  Or, as this Blog has argued earlier, make some effort to thin the herd at the walls with sling shots, rocks, arrows, etc.

Rick's biggest failure of leadership is to not implement all of the "Best Practices" he should have learned from other survivors. Alexandria should have Walker Pits, pikes outside the main gate, rats in wheeled cages, remote noise makers, and most importantly that sewer line that Aaron knows about should have been cleared out by now.  It's time to admit that Rick has balls but he's not very bright. Maybe Michonne needs to do more of the thinking going forward.  And that leads me to the good things about last night's episode.

1. Michonne finally has a story arc that doesn't involve killing people.
Michonne may be the most under-utilized character in the show.  Rewatching season three was almost painful to see how brooding she was for the first entire season. When they began to let her lighten up, she became much more likable but Deanna is right: she needs a purpose in life. I was really hoping that she and Rick would become a couple but they seem to have decided to avoid the Moonlighting Trap there.  So maybe Heath will be the lucky guy in the coming episodes. That's probably bad for his survival chances but it would be nice if Michonne got to show a softer side.

2. The Wolf May Do Something Human.

The Wolf tells Dr. Denise "you're what I like about people" just before taking her hostage.  I think this may be setting the stage for him to do something human. Maybe he will lead her through the hoard and decide to save her life at the last second.  He seemed to like her and maybe the hour spent listening to Morgan's story did some good.  I don't know why, but I think this story will end heroically.

3. The Saviors Will Amp Things Up.
The best scene last night was not part of the episode. The 2 minute prologue of episode nine set up what happens next to Darryl, Abraham and Sasha.  They are pulled over by a gaggle of nine bikers who demand possession of their weapons as a tax for Negan.

So far the best bad guys have not lasted very long. Shane was only really bad for one episode. Gareth was in three episodes. Joe's group was in two.  Only the Governor got a full season and a half of story time. And he was written so inconsistently that those episodes do not hold up well in hindsight. Negan seems likely to be a better villain, because he will be both ruthless and rational.

The exchange with Darryl, Abraham and Sasha is telling. Those bikers are bad ass, but they are more toll collectors than headhunters. It's pretty clear however that the penalty for not paying the tax is very heavy.


I don't know how the interaction will go but there's no way Darryl, Abraham and Sasha go without a fight. And there's no way that Darryl doesn' end up riding one of those bikes back to Alexandria. Maybe that's the trade off for giving up the truck and their weapons.

Consider the language used by the other saviors in Chapter six. The Saviors may be a mafia, but that implies a certain amount of exchange. Protection for extortion money. Of course the nitty gritty is much dirtier than that, but I don't think Negan's goal is to kill everyone in his way. He would rather tax them and benefit from their labor.  That has real potential to feed even better story lines. I can't wait to see how The Walking Dead screws it up.

More Specific.

- Glenn and Enid will be instrumental in saving the day. Glenn and Maggie will adopt her.
- Abraham will either die in Episode 9 or Episode 16.
- One but not both of Jesse's idiot sons will die in episode 9.
- Father Gabriel will do something heroic in episode 9, perhaps to save Judith.
- Rosita will not survive season six.
- There will be a point in the second half of the season where love is all around us. Rick and Jesse, Michonne & Heath, Glen & Maggie of course, Carl and Enid, maybe Carol and Morgan.  At some point the group is going to commit to living, and that means loving. Then it will all go to shit.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

No Way Out (The Walking Dead Season Six Midseason Finale Predictions)

                                 Video Contains Comic Spoilers for the Current TV story line

A couple weeks ago I resumed watching old episodes of The Walking Dead on Netflix. I watched the finale of the first season and every episode of seasons two and three.  So before talking about tonight's midseason finale, I want to offer a little perspective on the series as a whole.

Much like with The Wire, Season 2 of the Walking Dead is its most divisive. There is less action, by far than any other season and lots of people complained about the slow pacing and rustic setting of the season.  But watching it now, with the benefit of what creative decisions would be made in the future was a striking experience. Put simply, the show was a lot better than. It was a show about intelligent characters adjusting to a new reality Their motivations were consistent and the emotional payoffs were big, because they were believable moments. The heart of the story was a love triangle, and we all knew who to root for. It all culminated in a somewhat absurd shootout at the farm, but not even that could take away from the season-long story arcs. It was a much better show then.

Season three brings a lot of changes, and most of them hurt the show.  The biggest problem was the casting of David Morrissey as the Governor.  He just was not right for the part. His accent is too forced and his motivations are all over the place. I think the writers were striving to make him complicated, but they wound up with a character that was merely inconsistent. 

The central story of season three is not a failure. The battle with Woodbury sets up a nice arc about the need to stay civilized in face of the world's brutality.  Michael Rooker's performance as Merle Dixon almost makes up for the poor casting choice for the Governor. But almost every episode is marred by one of our heroes doing something truly stupid and Andrew Lincoln loses his grip on the Rick Grimes character after Laurie's passing. Lincoln plays a good Rick, but that level of madness is just outside of his range, and those scenes are less haunting than they should be. 

The other huge change is the decision to stop killing major characters. At the end of the 4th episode of season three, Rick's group is down to just eight people: Rick, Darryl, Glenn, Maggie, Herschel, Beth, Carol and brand newborn Judith. In the first 23 episodes of this show, there was a real sense that almost any character could die. In the fifty episodes since, only 2 of those 8 have died and at leas one of them (Beth) was a very minor character. (Andrea was still alive but presumed dead by the group. The group had not yet met Michonne.)

Most of the deaths since season three episode four have been either bad guys or glorified red shirts.  A few others, like Bob and Tyrese were developed just enough to give their passing some meaning. But the show has clearly made the decision to conserve the original group for as long as possible, and that's probably a good business decision. The other thing that stands out when you watch the old seasons and episodes is that the show works best when it centers on the characters we care about. For me those are, in rough order: Darryl, Rick, Glenn, Maggie, and Michonne. Of the characters introduced since Seas.3/Episode 4, only Aaron seems interesting enough to attain that status. 

The Glenn story line from season six is most emblematic of this problem.  They led us to believe he was dead and then kept us in suspense about it for three full episodes, only to reveal that he was alive after all. In the meantime we learned that he's going to be a father and last week he seemed to take the first steps towards adopting Enid. This is all meant to up the stakes in his story line going forward. We like Glenn and that makes the show much better.

Now to the matter at hand. Tonight's midseason finale. At least three story lines will be tied up tonight: the breach of the Alexandria walls, the Wolf that Morgan spared in episode two, and the return to town of Darryl, Sasha and Abraham.  (Conveniently with a RPG launcher.)

The Midesason Finale Predictions.

A The Wolf.  The one rule of this show is that if someone's not included in the "In Memorium" segment of the Talking Dead, than he or she is not dead. And if someone is kept alive when they should be dead, that decision will comeback to get someone killed. The simple story line would be to have the Wolf kill Morgan, but I think the show runners have bigger things in store for Morgan this season.  

At the start of this season Scott M, Gimple described Carol as the safest character on the show. He explained that this was because she has become so valuable to the group and so capable as a fighter. But I think this was one of his many misdirects. I think the Wolf will Carol tonight and I think there will be some tie in with Jesse's younger son. Maybe she will die trying to save him in some way. Carol seems less necessary to the story now that Jesse appears well positioned to be both surrogate mother to Judith and a fledgling killing machine.

B. The Breach of the Walls. The worst aspect of this show is how stupid the main characters are whenever the show needs them to be. For the last 2 episodes they have sat passively by as a herd of zombies gathers at the walls. No effort made to thin the herd at all.  This is more than 2 years into the apocolypse. By now they should have some strategies for dealing with this. Consider: big knifes stuck to the end of long sticks, sling shots, Morgan's rat cages on wheels, and most obvious of all, Rosita using a gun with a silencer. There should have been an attempt to kill as many walkers as possible. Every dead walker is one less way to die and it's utterly crazy that our heroes have not figured this out yet. But no, for dramatic effect we have to believe that Rick and Deanna and Carl and Rosita were all too stupid to do any of that. And now Alexandria's walls have been over run.

So who dies at the hands of the hoard?  Obviously a couple Alexandrians will die. Maybe Rosita too if they are clearing the way for an Abraham/Sasha romance later this season. Obviously this chaos is going to play into the Wolf's story line. It seems inevitable that he will get someone killed and probably equally inevitable that he will die too.

They certainly planted the seed that Jesse's older son wants to kill Carl. If they stick to the comic book, that will not happen but Carl may wind up wounded. That could set up some awkward moments between Rick and Jesse. 

Death Prediction Probabilities for Tonight's Episode:
(Besides the obligatory Alexandrian red shirt or two)
1. The Remaining Wolf: 95%
2. Carol  60%
3. Jesse's Older Son: 55%
4. Jesse's Younger Son: 55%
5. Rosita 40%
6. Morgan 30%
7. Tara 25%
8. Abraham 20%
9. Deanna: 15%
10. Deanna's Remaining son: 10%
11. Father Gabriel 5% (He is beyond useless on this show, but we must have at least one actor from The Wire in the cast.)
12. Tara's girlfriend the Doctor 3%. (I don't think they hired an actress of her quality just to get one extremely chaste kiss on the lips. Plus, she will have to treat whoever gets wounded tonight.)

Safe: Rick, Darryl, Carl, Michonne, Judith & Eugene. (Believe it or not Eugene becomes an important character over time.)

The one nice moment we are sure to get is Maggie being reunited with Glenn. Of course it will probably happen 10 seconds before Carol or someone else we care about dies.

The Rest of the Season:

The second half of the season will focus one new groups, It has been widely leaked that the character of Paul Monroe (aka "Jesus") will appear in the second half of the season. Last week Darryl ran afoul of Dwight, who in the comic books is part of the group known as "The Saviors". And the biggest leak of all is that the part of Negan has been cast for the season finale. 

So tonight's episode will probably leave Alexandria in a certain amount of chaos. The group may patch the fence and move back in but it seems likely that they will have to seek refuge elsewhere. I think it's possible that Enid has connections elsewhere, probably on Hilltop. 

But I'll speculate more on that sometime between now and February.  As frustrating as this show can be, it still keeps me hooked.  The premise is just that cool.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

We'll Always Have Paris

The GOP Field: 14 Candidates Who Would Never Do This

On Friday November 13, 2015 a series of coordinated, sophisticated terrorist attacks were conducted in Paris. One hundred and thirty people were killed. The Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility for the act. In the week since the attack there have been several raids in France and Belgium and an uptick in the military strikes against ISIL, Including France deploying its only aircraft carrier to drop bombs on Raqqa, Syria, the city which has been ISIL's de facto capital.

The domestic conversation has focused mostly on the issue of whether or not to accept refugees from this crisis, with every single Republican presidential candidate saying no to Muslim refugees. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have somehow been even worse, saying that they would only allow Christian refugees.  President Obama has been overseas all week and has been very consistent that he will not change the process for screening and accepting refugees.  At least one Governor, Mike Pence (R-IN) has turned away refugees from him state and about 30 other governors, mostly Republican have said they will do the say.

This post is meant to record my impressions of the tack and my expectations for what will happen next. I will organize the topics roughly from most to least important. And I can remove all suspense by telling you that I don't know how to fix the biggest issues here.

I. Climate Change.

This mess was created by the decision of the Bush administration to depose Sadaam Hussein in 2003 and a drought in Sryria. That drought forced many farmers to abandon their land and head to Syria's cities. The tension in those cities contributed to unrest that coincided with the so-called "Arab Spring" of 2011. This conflict eventually turned into a full-fledged Civil War. The chaos created by that Civil War and the ongoing problems in Iraq created a situation that allowed ISIL to thrive.

If you're reading this and anticipating push back from some obnoxious relative at Thanskgiving: bookmark this link.  They won't read it, but they at least you will know you tried.

II. The Refugees

In the days since the attacks, the most pressing issue has been the fate of the more than three million refugees created by the war in Syria. In addition to the aforementioned Governors, Poland and other EU nations have also backed off from commitments to receive refugees.

A lot of these decisions are based on two related fears, which are rooted in very different degrees of reality. The immediate fear was that the attackers in Paris were people who came to Europe as refugees from the Syrian conflict. So far all of the identified attackers were French or Belgian nationals. A Syrian passport found at the soccer stadium may have been a forgery planted by ISIL to spread fear of refugees.

The bigger fear is that somewhere among the more than three million people currently crowding refugee camps in Syria, Turkey and Jordan are people trained by ISIS to penetrate the western world and carry out more atrocities.  This despite the fact that our screening process for refugees is thorough and exhaustive, taking a minimum of 18 months.

But I don't want to dismiss these concerns out of hand. ISIL is proving to be a lot more savvy with the ways of the world than Al Qaeda ever was. That is probably generational to an extent but it also reflects the influence of ISIL members who were raised in the West. They know how to produce slick videos and how to use social media in ways that earlier incantations of Jihadism never would have thought of. So maybe they can infiltrate the refugee camps. And maybe some of the people displaced by the war are sympathetic to ISIL because they think the real cause of their trouble is President Asaad or the Iraqi government or the American decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

We have been accepting refugees from war torn countries for a very long time. One of our greatest shames, after slavery, was the decision to not allow more Jewish refugees in from Nazi Germany. And the refugees we have accepted in recent years have committed virtually zero acts of terror here. The only recorded instances of people being granted asylum here and then committing wars are two Iraqis who tried to buy arms to send back to Iraq and the Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombing.  The Iraqis are in prison for their crime. One Tsarnaev is dead, and his brother is on death row.

The mature thing to say now is that the risk is minimal and we can accept it because the alternative is much worse. ISIL hates these refugees because they consider them traitors for having fled their territory for life elsewhere. Even more importantly, ISIL needs as many people as it can keep under its thumb. It needs soldiers, and workers and most of all, tax payers. ISIL would love for the people of Syria and Iraq to believe there is no hope in fleeing. They want those people to accept life in their caliphate and have made it a state goal to destroy the "grey zone" where Muslims can mix with and live among people of other faiths. We live in that grey zone and we should be very proud of that.  ISIL will use any reticence by Western governments to accept Arab refugees as a propaganda talking point. And they hope that attacks like the one in Paris will make Westerners less likely to accept and live among Muslims. Our fear makes us look weak to ISIL and cruel to the people they terrorize.

If we are better than that, we will accept all the refugees we have pledge to, and tens of thousands more. Bu the politics of that is going to be sticky.  More on that later.

III. A Word About Empathy

One of the most common topics of discussion on social media this week was the disparity in interest between this attack and an earlier attack by ISIL in Beirut, Lebanon.  The Beirut attacks killed 43 people and although the media did cover these stories, the public reaction was much more muted. The common explanation was that this was rooted in racism. But that's a bit simplistic, considering that ISIL recently bombed a Russian airliner, killing more than 200 mostly European people.

The real issues is empathy. Every Westerner has either been to Paris, planned to go to Paris eventually or dreamed about it as some vague future goal.  It is one of the great cities of Earth and it has been romanticized in more movies and books than just about any other. When Americans hear about a rock concert in Paris being shot to hell on a Friday night, we all think, "That could have been me, if I had saved a little more money for that vacation I've been meaning to take."

For as long as I have been aware of the larger world, Beirut has been synonymous with war and deprivation. Of course there are Americans who have been there, or who have family there, but for the rest of us, Beirut is not a place we dream to see one day. When a hotel blows up there, we rest easy because we know we would not have been there at any time and we're virtually certain that no one we know was there either. The same goes for a flight from Egypt to Moscow.  I have been to Egypt and I am something of a Russophile. But the odds of my being on that flight are practically zero. The very human instinct of empathy just does not kick into gear the same way when we know that we and our loved ones were never at risk of being hurt.

On the Friday after the Paris attacks another Islamist group took 270 hostages at a hotel in Mali, eventually killing 27 of them. The press covered it.  And two days later no one in the West is talking about it. I guess they didn't grow up dreaming of Honeymooning in Bamako.

 IV. Allow Me to Upset Everyone.

Two broad camps have emerged with very different opinions of the role of Islam in all of this. The left-wing group claims that this has "nothing to do with Islam" so often that the phrase has become a sardonic hashtag for new Atheists and other critics of Islamism.  On the right, Islam itself is presumed to be inherently violent. Every single Republican candidate for president has said he or she would refuse to accept any Muslim refugees from Iraq and Syria. Donald Trump has expressed support for monitoring mosques and for requiring Muslims to register as such with the government.

Neither of these opinions are serious. The former is at least well-intended, but that's not a good enough reason to justify it's naivete. For simplicity's sake, I will discuss these two camps as Reactionary and Apologist.

The Reactionary view of Islam is extremely harmful to our national security. Donald Trump's polling numbers have improved since the attacks in Paris, because a lot of people are afraid of similar attacks happening here and he has been most willing to say outrageous things that give the fleeting feeling of comfort. Jeb Bush seemed to toy with the idea of being a grown-up on this situation by half-heartedly denouncing some of the more outrageous statements of the Xenophobes. And then he backtracked to clarify that we should only accept Christian refugees.  This made me think of those idiotic Facebook Memes of George W. Bush asking "Miss Me Yet?"  As president? Of course not. But as the figure head of one of our political parties? We apparently could do a lot worse. And we are.

Even Marco Rubio, the great establishment hope, has said some truly stupid things this week, desperately flailing to look "tough" on this issue, without giving a moment's thought to how his comments will be received in Muslim-majority nations. He has proven himself to be every bit as much of a demagogue as Ted Cruzy.  I will remind everyone of that next summer when the media tries to tell us that Rubio is the serious choice for conservatives.  There is no serious choice for Republicans in 2016.  The base is over run with the phobias that Fox News has been slinging for the past seven years. They are stuck with 14 childish options.  And that is a shame.

But the Apologists are not helping either. Lots of liberals rushed this week to say that ISIL does not "represent" Islam. Indeed they are not representative of mainstream Islam. They are a fringe movement, and a good analogy can be made to the standing of the KKK in Christianity 75 years ago. But here's the thing about a fringe: it is part of the rug.

In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris a lot of Apologists spread a modernized translation of a verse of the Koran translated as: “Whoever kills an innocent life, it is as if he has killed all of humanity. And whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved all of humanity” –Quran 5:32

 A noble sentiment. But the Apologist crowd ignores the very next verse:

Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment, -Quran 5:33.

The Reactionaries seem to delight in the brutality of that second verse. But since most of the Reactionaries identify as Jewish or Christian, they would do well to read the Old Testament passages on stoning rape victims (Deutoronomy 22:28-29) or mandating the death penalty for people who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14).  My point is not that the Quran is especially violent. It is a product of its time, and taken literally, it can have very bad consequences.  And Islam's biggest problem is that too many Muslims are fundamentalists.

It's become a canard of the right that moderate Muslims do not denounce terrorism. In fact, they do. By wide margins, and loudly. What they do not do, is state publicly that the Quran is imperfect or subject to liberal interpretations.  Opinion polling on these issues is inherently suspect because a lot of people probably answer affirmatively to questions such as "Do you agree with the punishments for adultery as prescribed in the Quran or the Haddiths" because they either don't know what that punishment is or because they feel obligated to answer that way, but would never actually support those punishments being carried out in reality. (For the record the Quran calls for lashing in the case of extra-marital sex. Several Haddiths, statements of the Prophet Mohammed, call for Stoning. See 

Other statistics are more troubling. Substantial minorities believe that Honor Killings, the killing of women by male relatives when she is found to have dishonored her family are permissible, at least under some circumstances. This is true even in moderate, democratic countries like Turkey (32%) and Indonesia (18%).  (Source: Pew Survey)

This is relevant because ISIL bases its governance on a literal reading of the Quran. Countless scholars have shredded their views on this point, but the fact remains that Theology is never a settled science. And ISIL is pretty meticulous in justifying its policies by pointing to specific passages of the Quran or to specific Haddiths. There are Jews who believe that the Old Testament should be taken literally. But they are few in number. Fundamentalist Christians believe silly things like that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that Evolution by Natural Selection is a myth inspired by Satan. Happily, the Enlightenment tamed the worst of these movements by making, for example, the burning of people for owning a Bible written in English a capital offense.  (But let's remember that Sir Thomas Moore did just that when he was the attorney general of England less than 500 years ago. And Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of Politicians less than 20 years ago.)

I've never heard anyone claim that the KKK represents mainstream Christianity. I've also never heard anyone seriously deny that it was a Christian movement. Islam is not uniquely violent. But it is uniquely fertile ground for violence justified by fundamentalism.  That is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. And while we must be careful not to demonize the 23% of the Earth that practices that religion, we also should not ignore this very real problem. Pretending that ISIL does not justify its violence by pointing to sacred Islamic texts is a delusion. And we have to face this problem with the full force of our reason.

V. What Is to be Done?

Now the hard part. Every single candidate for President has said that we need to step our efforts against ISIL. When pressed for specifics they usually say this means more airstrikes, especially against ISIL's de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. France reacted to the attacks by dropping 20 bombs on Raqqa and some thought this was a sign of things to come. But not much has happened in the week since, which makes those missions look like they were mostly done for show. Only a few candidates have called for large numbers of American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.  And for good reason.

If we send in thousands of American troops, we could route the military forces of ISIL. Most of their soldiers will probably blend back into civil society. And we would suffer some heavy casualties and spend a lot of money. And the biggest question is, what will replace ISIL. Russia and Iran pushing to ensure that President Asaad be allowed to remain in power after all. That seems tempting but is probably a bad idea considering that this conflict arose as a reaction to his barbarity, including the use of chemical weapons. He is not an acceptable player on the world stage. The normally staid Economist suggested this week that the West increase its military strikes and even called for an army of Turkish, Saudi and Gulf Arab soldiers to govern what's left of Syria.

I'm not sure that this would be much of an improvement over ISIL. Saudia Arabia recently sentence a poet to be crucified for having renounced Islam. Last year they beheaded a man for the crime of sorcery. So how a Saudi-led military coalition would be an improvement over the present bunch of fanatics is very much in dispute.

We all know this conflict is not worth World War Three but some politicians are willing to call for actions that would lead to just that. Hillary Clinton and some of the Republicans have called for a no-fly zone to prevent Asaad from terrorizing his people. But no one has yet pressed them on whether this would include a commitment to shoot down Russian fighter jets.  Marco Rubio wrote an even more reckless Op-ed which basically calls for a repeat of the mistakes we made in Iraq. That's incredibly foolish but seems predicated on a common, very false presumption that there exists some force in the region which will take power and rule peaceably if only we rallied to its side. That force does not exist and any politician that bases its policies on that fairy tale is being dishonest.

ISIL has styled itself as a Caliphate, which is a necessary component of the Quanic End Times. Al Qaeda did not got so far as declaring that status for themselves. They lacked the geographic region or blood ties to the Prophet Mohammed to make such a claim plausible. ISIL feels otherwise. The most hopeful sign is that ISIL has not expanded it territorial control in many months, and has recently lost some land, including the city of Sinjar, Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the leader of ISIL, the proclaimed successor to Mohammed. Killing him will be a big blow to their claims of Quranic legitimacy, so a targeted strike that takes him out may do some good. But realistically, ISIL will not fold just because their leader dies. They may point to the Quran as their inspiration now, but they've had enough earthly success to just fold up after a setback like that.

And if they do fold, if their members do slip back into civilian life, the issue will not go away. If we procure peace in this region, it will be tenuous at best. The scare of the civil war and the effects of the drought will not go away no matter what military and political solution the world comes up with. An all out effort will cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.  Nine months later we'll begin reading about some new shitty acronym and the pundits will rush to declare them worse than, or nothing compared to ISIL. This cycle is reality for the present and the names are more likely to change than the underlying facts.

If you want to see what "victory" looks like in this war, consider these photos taken after the Western Powers and Kurds "liberated" Sinjar, Iraq from ISIL:

It just may be time for us to admit that we have to live with this situation for now. The Kurds have performed admirably and they deserve our support. But we have to remember that their demand will be recognition of a Kurdish state when this war is over. They will probably deserve that but the consequences for Turkey, Iran and what ever is left of Syria and Iraq will be enormous. The West is in no position to make that promise now.

We lose about 30,000 Americans every year to gun violence. A majority of that is lost to suicides. But about 12,000 are murders and a substantial number are accidental deaths. We have made the collective decision to live with those numbers because the alternative, surrendering the right to bear arms is too great. In the more than 14 years since the 9/11 attacks, only 71 Americans have died in domestic terror attacks. But we seem willing to spend any price to combat this threat, including more than 5,000 members of the armed forces, well over a trillion dollars in military expenditures and significant curtailment of our civil liberties.

Barack Obama has made this observation many times, usually in the context of calling for more gun control laws. Maybe the first grown-up to make it in the context of calling for a deescalation of the War on Terror should be the next President of the United States.  More likely we will be choosing between two watered down versions of more of the same.

VI. Politics.

It may seem in poor taste to discuss that subject in the aftermath of a large slaughter of civilians, but for the past year this blog has focused mostly on the 2016 Presidential election and I want to indulge in some speculation about what this means for the candidate.

The short-term reaction has been very clear. Donald Trump jumped up in the polls, mostly at the expense of Ben Carson. Ted Cruz has also seen a bump, defying the expectation that Marco Rubio was about to begin consolidating the establishment vote. The base seems to think that Cruz is built for this fight a little better than Rubio.  The Democrats continue to coalesce around Hillary Clinton. Bernie might win New Hampshire but he has not built a serious national operation and O'Malley remains stuck in very distant third place.

Trump continues to double-down on nativism and fears of terrorism. Today he claimed to have watched "thousands" of Arabs in Jersey City celebrate the 9/11 attacks. No evidence of these celebrations exist, but he says he saw it "with his own two eyes", albeit on television. Carson has also been a profile in cowardice, comparing refugees to rabid dogs. John Kasich, another semi-serious candidate has stooped to calling for the creation of a department of the federal government to promote "Judeo-Christian values". Even Rand Paul has said some stupid things about the need for more military action. Apparently he realized that  Paris obviated his flirtations with defense sanity.

This is ugly. And the first caucus is only ten weeks away. If Carson's support continues to slip, Iowa is anyone's game. But Cruz might be best positioned to win there. Trump seems destined to win New Hampshire now and Rubio will need a win in SC or NV to stay relevant. By March 1st, this will probably be a three way race, and I can see any of the three winning.

As for the general election, the Democrats have to be worried. Another major attack, even in Europe, will hurt their credibility, fairly or not.  Next fall Hillary will need to distinguish herself from President Obama and she might be tempted to run to the right. But that's not a great way to beat any of the likely Republican nominees, any of whom will be willing to say things far crazier than what she might say.  She admirably resisted the temptation to say "radical Islam" during the recent Democratic debate.  I hope she keeps her senses about her, because as bad as the politics of trying to out crazy the Republicans on this issue are, it's an even worse method for governing.  And the world of 2017 can not afford a President Trump, a President Cruz or a President Rubio. That much is clear.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Symmetrical Warfare: The GOP Race Enters Phase Two

The most substantive part of the debate.

Last night the GOP held its fourth debate of the 2016 cycle. Only eight candidates made the main stage, while four were relegated to the kiddie table and three candidates failed to qualify for either event. The pared down cast improved the show by allowing the plausible candidates to have more time.  Almost immediately I notice that the most sense was coming from the far ends of the stage, from the two candidates clinging for dear life to their right to be on that stage at all. So for this review of the state of the GOP race, I will evaluate the candidates by how they were paired up on stage.

1. The Outliers (Kasich and Paul).  Here is a sentence I never expected to write: I thought Rand Paul was the best candidate in that debate.  He obviously has decided that his only hope for relevance is to reignite some love for his watered down Libertarianism by shitting on the ridiculous neconservative fantasies that pass for policies among the serious candidate.  He also corrected Trump on a very stupid factual mistake related to free trade.

From the other end of the stage, John Kasich came thundering to the defense of reason and in opposition to the truly insane, unsustainable tax policies of his competitors. He was impolite and sensible, so not surprisingly he was booed by the crowd and roundly panned by the right wing media figures today.  At one time I thought Kasich might become the establishment candidate that the base could put up with if they became convinced that he was their best shot at carrying Ohio and taking the White House. That seems very unlikely now.

Neither Kasich nor Paul will be the Republican nominee next year. Paul has apparently decided to speak up for his ideological preferences and Kasich for pragmatism.  Paul will probably benefit from this choice and get a modest bump.  But Kasich is officially doomed.  If he keeps u this rationale nonsense he just might play his way out of what should be a very strong chance at becoming the Vice-Presidential nominee.

2. The Lamestream (Jeb! and Fiorina).
Sixty days ago I'm sure that both Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina believed they were likely to become the nominee and probably thought they would more likely than not become the 45th President of the United States. It is quite obvious that this will not happen. Jeb is a terrible candidate who managed to finish dead last in microphone time for yet another debate.  When he did speak he was boring and way off-message.  He doubled-down on the invasion of Iraq for the 947th time and that did him no favors.

Someday Carly Fiorina will be an amusing piece of presidential campaign trivia. She vaulter herself from the kiddie table to the primetime debate with a well-rehearsed shtick as the anti-Hillary.  The base took a good look at her in this fall but she did not complete the sale.  She is playing out the string.

In some alternate reality, these candidates are not stuck in the 5th and 6th spot. But I don't see either of them moving up, barring a profound implosion by a couple of the heavyweights.

3.  The Finalists  (Rubio and Cruz).

Rubio and Cruz have run the most intelligent campaigns in this cycle.  They still have not come close to closing the polling gap with the nominal front-runners, but they have built steadily and they have not alienated anyone.  The establishment and the donor class are ready and even eager to support Rubio.  Cruz does very well among evangelicals and working class Trump voters. He is well positioned to take the votes from Cruz and or Trump should they fall from grace.

Six months from now, this race will probably be whittled down to these two men. Both are intelligent, ambitious and willing to fight. One of them is a sociopath.  But my money is on the other guy, even if he sometimes uses the wrong credit card in Las Vegas.

4.  The Cincinnati Bengals (Trump and Carson).

The weirdest part of the geometry in Milwaukee was that the center-most podiums felt the least relevant to the process.  Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump dominate the national and state-level polling.  They typically combine for a bare majority of the responses while every other candidate in the field is delighted to be at or near 10 percent. But nearly everyone expects an implosion for them once real voting happens.

Dr. Carson did not even try to look prepared. Most of his answers were the rambling word salads of a very bright man talking about a subject he knows nothing about.  Imagine a Supreme Court justice holding forth on quantum physics. It almost sounds serious, but when you parse it out, there's just nothing there.

Trump was his usual self but that really is beginning to wear a little bit thin.  Which does not mean he will slide in the polls.  A certain kind of voter just loves his shtick. But part of his appeal is the arrogant confidence that will be destroyed by coming in third in Iowa or New Hampshire.  If he has a setback like that, he'll probably leave the field with a lot of huffing and puffing about how great he did very early next year.

The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the better teams in the AFC over the past half-decade.  Since Marvin Lewis became their head coach they have won 55% o their games and made the playoffs six times. But they lost their first playoff game all six times.  This year they are undefeated at 8-0 but no one can quite take them seriously given their track record  And that's how you have to feel about the candidacy of Trump and Carson.  They are crushing the competition but it's hard to shake the doubts that they will fold when the campaign begins in earnest.

The Updated Forecast

There is not a lot of movement in this one.  Rubio inches up slightly and Cruz improves his odds form 8 to 1 to about 6 to 1. Carson, Trump and Bush slip slightly and I've officially given up on Fiorina's chances. If she was going to win the nomination she would have built on the momentum she had coming out of the first debate. She has not. 

 There are 4 candidates who will have the option of going beyond the early states.  But I think Trump and or Carson may tire of this game by then. I am hoping we get a middle stage of the primaries with Rubio and Cruz having to deal with Trump on a stage that only has three podiums.  But eventually this will come down to a fight between the establishment choice of Rubio against the Tea Party's favorite Cruz. That will be tough emotional waters for me because I loathe Ted Cruz.  But I fear Marco Rubio. 

Candidate Pre 1st debate Post 1st Debate Pre 2nd Debate Pre 3rd Debate Post 3rd Debate Post 4th Debate Change
Rubio 23 28 26 46 53 54 1
Trump 2 1 8 12 18 17 -1
Cruz 1 1 2 10 12 17 5
Carson 0 0 3 5 7 6 -1
Bush  34 31 24 17 3 2 -1
Huckabee 3 3 1 1 1 1 0
Santorum 1 1 1 1 1 1 0
Kasich 1 2 6 3 2 1 -1
The Field 1 1 3 3 2 1 -1
Paul 2 1 1 0 0 0 0
Christie 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jindal 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Fiorina 0 2 3 2 1 0 -1
Graham 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Pataki 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Gilmore 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Walker 32 29 22 -- -- -- --
Perry 0 0 -- -- -- --

Sunday, November 8, 2015

All Tactics, No Strategy (The Walking Dead Season Six, so far)

This post refers to events that transpire through the first five episodes of season six. If you don't want those episodes to be spoiled, stop reading.

I have written pretty long preview posts before each half-season of the previous two seasons. This year I didn't think there was enough to talk about so I skipped it.  Six seasons in, I still find myself looking forward to and enjoying every episode. But the show remains very frustrating because of its predictability and refusal to focus on the big picture of this new world the show has created for us.  The characters seems to be doomed to an endless cycle of moving form one false oasis to the next for the foreseeable future.   Five episodes in the ratings have slipped for the first time in the show's history but they remain sky high for the world of basic cable. And there is no reason to think that AMC will not continue to milk this Golden Goose for as long as its audience are big enough to justify the special effects budget.

This season is about part for the course.  Each episode is entertaining and suspenseful in the moment, and frustrating and stupid upon further reflection.  Here are my thoughts on each episode in the season so far:

1. First Time Again.  The season premiere was entertaining and I liked the way they told a bifurcated story that covered a lot of exposition without sacrificing much action. But it was also disappointing when you step back and think about how stupid Rick's plan was.  The Walkers were trapped in a quarry.  The thing to do was seal off the gap between the two 18 wheelers and then light all the Walkers on fire.  There are a variety of ways to do that, but enough flame tipped arrows from Darryl would have eventually done the trick.  Instead they decided to march 30,000 zombies down the road for a day's shamble and hope for the best.  Dumb, dumb, dumb. Grade: B+

2. JSS.  Easily the best episode so far.  They had just lulled me into thinking this was going to be a filler episode about the women folk of Alexandria when the Wolves attacked.  The action was great and the combat was very suspensefull.  I also liked the Enid story line.  Her back story was written sparsely, which is something the show should do more often. And her interactions with Carl felt genuine. My theory on her is that she has some kind of affiliation with a group outside the walls but I do not think it is the Wolves.  She doesn't have a W carved on her forehead for one thing and I think we've learned that the Wolves are some kind of whacky death cult.  Enid is not that.  But she apparently started to tell Carl some kind of secret about how "we" got to Alexandria during the Wolf attack.  I think she will turn out to be a good guy and her return will probably be dramatic and heroic. I sure hope Carl gets to kiss her this season.  Grade: A.

3. Thank You.  A fun episode to watch but frustrating in respect because I'm pretty sure they are going to come up with some kind of cop out reason that Glenn survived that impossible situation in the dumpster.  It's one thing to make the audience learn they should not jump to conclusions and another thing to just cheat.  I suspect a really big cheat is coming and nothing in the following episode dissuades me from that opinion.  I'm writing this while watching the Talking Dead after episode 5 and the actress who plays Jess is desperately trying to convince us that Glenn is dead. And I think we all know that means he is alive.  Grade: A-,

4.  Here's Not Here.  I have to acknowledge that this is the kind of episode that I have been wanting since the end of season three.  But the timing seemed gimmicky, as if they were just trying to drag out the "Is Glenn story line for an extra week. And the execution was uneven.  The acting by Morgan and Eastman were first rate.  I expect one or both of them to receive the first Emmy nomination(s) in this history of this show. (Eastman will be eligible in the guest star category.)  But the plot was very predictable.  We know from the moment we meet him that Eastman is going to be Morgan's Yoda and we know that he is doomed to die before the episode is over.  Eastman's backstory was about as cliche as television gets in this golden age.  But the performances redeem the episode.  I just hope that Morgan survives beyond this season. It seems like either he will have to give up his Akido philosophy or pay the price for it.  I'm hope he kills that last Wolf before the Wolf kills him, but I doubt they writer kept him alive unless he is going to do damage to someone in our group.  Maybe he will kill Gabriel or Abraham.  Someone important.  Grade: B+.

5.  Now.   This story was a shambling mess of plot holes. Rick shouts that everyone should keep noise to a minimum.  Later on he teaches Jesse's kid how to shoot by firing his revolver into the herd.  In between there is no attempt to kill any of the Walkers who are threatening Alexandria. I know there are a lot of them, but the armory appears to be well stocked, so why not put Rosita in the lookout tower with a rifle and a silencer, to take down as many as she can? For the love of God, THIN THE HERD!  (A few ideas for that: big knifes mounted on a long piece of pipe, throwing rocks, sling shots, etc.  There are a lot of options.)  Grade: C.

But that is just a small demonstration of my biggest frustration with the show. It's all tactics, never strategy.  I just want someone on this show to do some math and teach the others that the only way to get civilization back is to kill all of the approximately one billion Walkers that are shambling around the Americas. Every Walker put down is a step towards that goal. It's daunting, but you have to assume others are out and about doing their share of the work as well.  Kill your quota every day and eventually the world will be tamed. Then you can get to work on figuring out how to cure the survivors or at least come up with a protocol for preventing the dead from doing any damage after they pass.

But this is not the show for that.  Maybe Fear the Walking Dead will become that, but it doesn't seem likely.

Stray Observations and Predictions:

-  Milking the Glenn story line is a cheap trick.  Next week seems to focus on Darryl, Sasha and Abraham so we might go three straight weeks without learning what happened to Glenn.  I'm beginning to suspect we won't find out his fate until episode 7 or even the midseason finale. But I'm more convinced than ever that he is alive and he will be reunited with his pregnant wife.

- They seem to be saving on actor's salaries by holding key characters out of some episodes. Where was Carol tonight? Where was Eugene?

-  There should have been some mention of Morgan's Wolf prisoner.  Even if he was committed to not killing him, I can't believe that he would not let Rick or Deanna that there was a Wolf left.  Maybe he wouldn't have wanted to put the Wolf's life in danger, but she certainly knows that his prisoner intends to kill the others.  Keeping him out of sight seems to be part of a strategy of making his return more dramatic.

-   Remember when Darryl was on this show? It's a good thing that next week's episode apparently focuses on him.  The dip in the ratings is not just because the narrative is trapped in a cycle of going from one false oasis to another. It's because Darryl isn't getting enough screen time.

-  We are overdue for a familiar death and I think we'll get one next week. Abraham seems like a good candidate.