Category: politics

Robot Vacuum for President 2020

This short story is inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis and current events. And, a certain robotic vacuum.

Dogged. Determined. Relentless. These are the attributes that Ivan appreciated and extolled about his robot vacuum. As the COVID-19 days and months wore on, Ivan toiled in his home office as RoVa roamed his house, taking care of its domestic business.

This was bliss. Ivan need not worry about dog hair and dust bunnies as he kept banging away on his keyboard, alone in his office oasis, untouched and unencumbered by social interactions he had found tedious. Now, there was no one to question or correct him. But something changed. He grew irritated by RoVa’s mistakes. He began to critique RoVa’s work, pointing out mud clumps from dog paws that somehow escaped RoVa’s notice. How could RoVa miss something so obvious?

“RoVa, you had one job!,” Ivan complained, futilely nudging the disc to move it in the direction of the offending dried mud. RoVA went about its business, seemingly waving off Ivan. RoVa continued, however, to pick up a shocking amount of dirt and detritus, so Ivan relented with the criticism. After all, RoVa was mostly doing what it claimed it would do: clean up! Hadn’t that been RoVa’s advertising tagline?

RoVa’s behavior became increasingly erratic and sometimes it appeared irritated. Ivan heard RoVa groaning and went to the kitchen to check on it. The machine was stuck under the lip of the kitchen island and emitted a chirpy signal. The chime kind of sounded like: “the virus will disappear.” Ivan reached with his foot to dislodge RoVa and it whirled away in a straight line for the dining room. Ivan figured he must have misheard the error message and returned to his desk.

Scrolling through Twitter, Ivan was stunned to see a massive explosion captured on video in Beirut. Beyond tweets, he began scouring news sites for information on the possible cause. RoVa whizzed down the hallway behind him and seemed to chirp about a “bomb.” Ivan thought he was hearing things. RoVa mindlessly banged into the laundry room door and seemed to say, “attack.” Ivan again thought, for sure, he was hearing things. He had not been feeling well and even wondered if the occasional ache or pain or headache was the harbinger of a full-on COVID infection. Everyone was feeling worse for the wear lately, right?

Ivan washed down a couple of Advil with iced green tea and laid down. A torrent of nightmares washed over him. Events, real and imagined, swirled together in his fevered dreams: a hurricane flood, an argument with his mother, an explosion, his teeth falling out, running late to the airport for an international flight, being at a party unable to remember people’s names. A montage of scary images, abject pain and gripping fear overwhelmed him. He awoke to see tile. Very dirty tiles. Suddenly, he propelled forward and had the sensation he was swallowing crumbs, dirt, dog hair and lint.

To his horror, Ivan realized he had metamorphized into RoVa. Surely, this was just another nightmare, right? He was overcome by a power, like an electric current, running through him, pushing him to keep going, compelled to mow down the dirt and, oddly, repeat incorrect information. Ivan could hear himself – that is RoVA itself – thinking and saying things that made no sense. “Mexico will pay for the Wall,” RoVA bellowed. Ivan could feel gears moving as if he was saying these words, but he didn’t believe the message. And, he recognized that RoVA was becoming more bellicose sounding. Menacing even. “They’re sending rapists.” The machine slammed into the back door and spun around, hitting with such intensity that a burst of dirt fell out of it. “Go back to where you came from!,” RoVa demanded. Ivan felt helpless, trapped inside the vacuum. He tried coughing to remove the dirt from his throat because he wanted to counter RoVa. A small twig dislodged and Ivan managed to whisper in anguish, “you’re wrong.” RoVa rolled under a bureau and deeply sucked in a clump of fur, leaving Ivan feeling choked.

“I wish her well,” RoVa said in a snarky tone. Ivan couldn’t believe it. He was trapped. How could he fix this? Could he reprogram RoVa from inside or would he need to escape the machine and then repair it? “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” RoVa squealed as it entered the master bathroom. The machine came upon a bathmat and got caught up. “You can’t do that!,” RoVa sneered, as mud and fur spewed out from the vacuum’s undercarriage as RoVa tried fighting with the unmoved bathmat.

RoVa tried again to climb over the bathmat, but was flummoxed. It tried with all its might to keep rolling, but the fabric grabbed at its brush rollers and held it down. RoVa couldn’t budge. The vacuum clicked off and emitted a plaintive error message. “Error 45, please reboot RoVa!” The machine sat dormant in front of the mirrored sliding doors to the closet and Ivan didn’t like what he saw in the reflection. RoVa was angry, mean, incompetent and ultimately useless. It even seemed dangerous. But could it be reprogrammed to function evenly-handedly, thoughtfully and productively? Ivan began to pray. At least, RoVa finally stopped talking. There was that relief.

Minutes ticked by. Through the opaque lid of the vacuum disk, Ivan could almost make out the hands on the wall clock. He knew his girlfriend would be home to make dinner. Perhaps she could save the day. Ivan sat in RoVa’s dirt and took stock of what he had become. Surely, there was a way to clean up without making more messes. To be continued?


A Way with Words, and Some Words That Should Go Away

A wise editor once told me that each word has a job to do, so it is important to select the right word for the job. Some words and phrases can compel and persuade, while other words can repel and anger your audience. Lately, I cannot help but notice the same phrases being deployed again and again in political arguments, often by people on different sides of an issue.

These are the phrases I would like to see retired:

  • performance art
  • tone policing
  • cancel culture

Each of these phrases is used to shut down a point of view and/or its counterpoint without having to be bothered without actually debating anything in a substantive manner. Each says, in effect, you’re not allowed to say that, have an opinion, or be heard. Each of these asserts that it’s my way or the highway, including cancel culture.

Cancel culture

If you don’t like that a thorough examination of history or institutional racism is being undertaken that could lead to a change, such as the Washington Redskins dropping its offensive epithetic name, you cry out “cancel culture!” If you don’t like that someone has criticized your point of view, again, you whine, “cancel culture!,” without considering where the underlying criticism is coming from and, gasp, the possibility it may have some validity you are unaware of or have not considered, for whatever reason.

Performance art

I was accused of this recently after staking out the position that my alma mater, Washington and Lee, change its name. (See prior blog post, “Why My Alma Mater’s Brand, Washington and Lee is Becoming Untenable”). On Facebook, I was tagged teamed by a pair that insisted I could not possibly be serious while advocating that the school cannot improve its diversity and inclusion with a name that appears to venerate a Confederate general. Why could I not be serious? Apparently because I am white and the school is predominately white. Ergo, I was accused of being disingenuous. I am still scratching my head that my earnest and deliberative position was maligned as “performance art.” I also could not figure out if the tag team (also white) thinks the school should retain the name or drop it. The first time I heard the term “performance art” in a political context was when an attorney for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones contended his client doesn’t believe the outrageous things he says; instead, the lawyer offered, Mr. Jones is providing performance art. I am still scratching my head over that. Call me old school, but when I think of performance art, I think of actual performance art, such as the work of Laurie Anderson. [For example, she has a work called “Language is a Virus (From Outer Space)”] Performance art is distinct from non-artists expressing an opinion in a blog or social media comments, so please stop using this term to pooh-pooh any opinion that raises your hackles.

Tone policing

This one pops up when someone has the nerve to suggest that an argument being delivered in an abrasive, aggressive, or militant manner might be ineffective. Someone sympathetic with the speaker’s underlying concerns might provide feedback to the effect of, hey, I hear you, but you might turn off other people from listening to you. No, no, no – if you give such feedback, be prepared to be accused of tone policing. To flip this around, was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tone policing when she rightly called out a male colleague for misogynistic verbal abuse? Imagine if the guy tried to politely debate her on the underlying policy issue instead of calling her a [f*%#@! b*&%!]. Yikes, dude, you definitely needed some tone policing.

Here’s another peeve, which I readily admit is tone policing:

List of Demands

My apologies in advance to anyone who thinks petitioning with a list of demands is effective. The term puts the recipient into a defensive posture, in which they are less likely to respond to your stated concerns. The phrase “list of demands” really sounds like what kidnappers say when listing what they want in ransom money or response. I hear “list of demands” and envision a hapless victim holding up a newspaper in a proof of life photo. When calling for societal changes to be reflected in institutions, this is not an opening to a robust, productive dialogue. (Perhaps you’ve caught on that I do not embrace the “burn-it-all-down” approach.) In the alternative, might I suggest “shared objectives” or something similar in lieu of “list of demands.”

Why are so many of us in a rush to shut down a viewpoint we find objectionable? Well, there are a lot of objectionable viewpoints out there. Say you encounter an adamant anti-vaxxer or an acquaintance who says something that sounds like a racist dog whistle. You could ignore them. You could shut them down. You could inquire, why would you say that? You could simply state, I disagree. You could even elaborate on why you disagree. To do so effectively, keep a calm, firm tone. Use logic. Cite facts. See if they can extend what they believe to be their logic. Turn it around on them with an extension of their logic that is unappealing. Hold up a mirror by saying, when you say X, I hear [something illogical, undeniably wrong]. Offer alternatives, such as, if you want people to understand and recognize Civil War history, would it be better for the statues to be moved from public squares to museums? Another example would be asking when someone says “defund the police” what they actually mean by that specifically. Are they suggesting that, for examples, some funding be reallocated to mental health services, better training for police, accountability for bad policing? Try to engage in a discussion that could potentially arrive at agreed upon solutions.

If someone accuses you of cancel culture, you could note that you are seeking to bring a reality into starker relief for all the truth to be widely seen. Too often, American culture wars come down to all or nothing debates rather than constructive conversations on how we all define ourselves and could agree on what are our shared values. We do not have to agree on every single issue, but we must agree to be tolerant and accepting, including being open to accepting change.

Why We Must Be Optimistic in a Pandemic

I’m trying really hard to force myself to be optimistic. Why? Because it’s the only viable option.

As I type, a train of dump trucks is relentlessly moving dirt excavated from the neighboring bayou to a staging ground across the road as part of flood control project stemming from the disastrous overflows from a federal reservoir in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. This multi-million project was overdue before the 2017 hurricane, which inundated much of southeast Texas, including our neighborhood.

The year before, we had the notorious Tax Day Flood, which came during a heavy spring rain. The Addicks Reservoir at that time held in flood waters for two months. With Harvey, the decision was made to release flood waters to prevent the dam from breaching. Sitting upstream with water up to our home’s weep holes, we watched the temporary lake around us subside as areas downstream became awash with outflows from the dam. We only spent about nine days cooped up in the house with that event. Now, we can drive out and about, but have mostly stayed home for the past two months for fear of catching covid-19. Fear, yes, I said it. It’s a scary gamble. While many more apparently have survived, about 90,000 Americans have succumbed to the ravages of the new virus.

My congressman, Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, offered a risk/reward analysis of sorts in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which he notes not everyone has the luxury of staying at home to work. In his piece, “Why Does Reopening Polarize Us?”, Rep. Crenshaw suggests that conservatives are more apt to take risks compared to liberals.

Risk management is well known to capitalists on Wall Street, home of the people who create capital markets, invent financial instruments and manage investments. I grew up in that part of the world and can’t help but notice that a lot of Wall Street types are not politically typecast. Some are liberals and some are conservatives. No single ideology or worldview dominates the world of high finance. To borrow the old adage, this is why horse races exist. People bet on risks.

For example, the Harris County Flood Control District won approval of Harris County voters for $2.5 billion in bonds over 10-15 years to pay for flood control projects, including the one to clear debris out of the adjoining bayou. Where is the risk? The risk takers are the investors in the bonds, who are betting the county entity will be able to service the debt, i.e., pay them back.

By the way, the particular flood mitigation project with all the trucks is a joint project with the county and the federal reservoir manager, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; some of the project entails clearing up part of the federal reservoir. Rep. Crenshaw (see above) supported the project and came out to a shovel-turning event on the bayou here last May. I got to thank him in person. I do not agree with every opinion he expresses. I agree with many, but dispense with others. And, that is OK. It’s impossible to be completely aligned on every issue and frankly, we should not be in the free marketplace of ideas.

Dan Crenshaw and other officials at flood control project event
May 31, 2019 shovel-turning event to kick off a joint flood control project on a bayou adjoining Addicks Reservoir, Harris County, Texas.

The flood control bond issue is a great illustration of risk taking in a capitalistic democracy. Voters approved the bond program and investors bought in. Not everyone in the country is required to partake. Self-selecting market participants bought into the risk.

This is not a partisan undertaking. We do, however, have a partisan problem in this country. Even if a cure for covid-19 took hold today, we have a lot of work to do to better understand each other and work better together.

It would be one thing is people calling for a reopening of the economy agreed that masks might play a crucial role in curtailing the spread. Or, if they acknowledged that not every space, including offices, should be at 100% capacity. This might be bad news for commercial real estate investors, but not every company is going to require all the office space they traditionally have used. Not yet. Not soon. Certainly not immediately. So, some leases might not be renewed as they were.

It would also be helpful if the stay-home only advocates would not mock everyone who is trying to support local businesses. I haven’t ventured to a salon, but I gather from news images that barbers, hair stylists and manicurists are limiting how many people come in and they’re wearing masks. Some restaurants here in Houston have patios and are spreading out their customers. I am not going to the gym anytime soon, but I haven’t cancelled my membership. Still, we are a long way from normal business models and profit margins. My point is do not castigate people for trying to keep their businesses afloat.

Spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook, and you’ll see that vitriol is alive and well. The tone is set at the top and it would be ideal if we had a courageous, convivial, avuncular type of guy serving as president to set an example and provide unifying leadership. We don’t.

So what are the rest of us left to do, aside from arguing with each other? What if we tried to find answers together? There is an idea that we become what we pray. It’s going to take a lot of mind-bending and open-mindedness. It’s going to take middle ground. It’s going to take compromise. It’s going to require problem-solving and cooperation.

It’s hard to be optimistic that change of such magnitude from our current political discourse is possible. But it’s a matter of survival. United we stand used to mean something and I remain optimistic, that despite the anger and noise, we can get it together soon. We must.

Please, put down the keyboard swords and pick up a shovel to work together.

The Sage Leopard,

At a Distance: The World is Still Social

Human beings are social creatures, so by our very nature it’s hard to stay apart. Apparently, we cannot even go enjoy nature without getting in each other’s space.

Thanks to COVID-19 freeing up time for a lot of workers, people are now cramming into some parks and getting a little too close. Over the weekend, Shenandoah National Park cautioned that some areas were getting to crowded and that county officials were closing off roads to some trailheads. Acadia National Park also cautioned that CDC social distancing guidelines should be adhered to. Blue Ridge Parkway is limiting backcountry camping to small groups.

Texas State Parks are open, but please don’t bring cash. They want you to order permits online instead. Visitor centers and park offices are closed. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department motto is “Life’s Better Outdoors,” and well that remains true, people still need to keep their distance. Similarly, the City of Mont Belvieu, Texas, welcomes residents to enjoy the parks with precautions. It posted a flyer to its Facebook page with health guidance. “Do not use parks or trails if you are exhibiting symptoms.” The flyer also cautions that bathrooms will not be available and suggests alerting others to your oncoming presence, e.g., the use of bicycle bells. The flyer urges maintaining the CDC-recommended distance of 6’. In our subdivision, I’ve noticed neighbors remaining socially distant on walks.

The question is how long can we stay separate? A certain politician who need not be named suggested in a tweet he would prefer economic activity to pick up in favor of social distancing. I don’t see this as a trade. Economic activity is slow or halted now no matter what. As more cases spread and more hospitalizations occur, people will likely be scared to congregate.

But for the moment, they are flocking to city parks. Just stay spread out! The other day I was walking my dog and some neighbors wanted to avoid me. Now that we know this virus hangs in the air, I can’t say I blame them!

If you have the luxury of a backyard, use it. If you go to a park, steer clear of others.

By all accounts, we’re in for a long haul of social distancing. We are going to rely on the internet for virtual socializing, such as hangouts, and find more ways to reconnect with ourselves. Read a book. Mediate. Try yoga. Bake. Cook. Walk. Jog. Snuggle. Daydream. Learn a language. Start a journal or keep a calendar with all your new, socially distant activities. We can do this.

It reminds me of the song, “From a Distance,” except we’re now, “At a Distance.” Stay that way, people!

Free to a Good Home: When Bad Ideas Run Amok in the Free Marketplace

As a fresh-faced kid in journalism school, I readily embraced the idea of the free marketplace of ideas, where theoretically the best ideas would prevail. Freedom of speech would ensure that all those great ideas could be easily disseminated.

Uh huh. Perhaps too easily, given we now have an angry digital mob overrunning the free marketplace of ideas, turning over the tables of purveyors of legit information and screaming fire in the theatres. You see this from everything from the 2016 and on political disinformation campaigns to the coronavirus cures for sale online.

See also: when did death threats become so fashionable? Why are so many people inclined to spew bad ideas across the digital realm? Back in the old days, not that long ago, the preponderance of information was disseminated by newspapers and TV news and was filtered. That is to say that there were gatekeepers. I am arguing that was a good thing because it limited exposure of the general public to snake-oil salesman and foreign state-sponsored propaganda. Sure, bad and malicious information was out there, but it was at what used to be called the fringes.

There no longer is any fringe. Heck, I logged onto NextDoor to read about a lost dog and a bunch of people were sharing false info on coronavirus. They were downplaying the risks, of course. Considering I am on a drug that can render patients more susceptible to infections (this disclaimer will sound familiar if you have watched TV in recent decades), I am not taking medical advice from the people of NextDoor or Doctor Google.

For quick reference on COVID-19, I like to check this CDC page and this World Health Organization page. I signed up for text alerts from my county government and I follow legit news outlets (see Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, our local Fox News affiliate, etc.). I do not care what random Uncle Crazy on NextDoor says. Except I do, in that the easy flow of bad information is so damaging to our society and democracy. As an aside, please don’t inject silver to attempt to cure COVID-19, which is one of the modern day snake oils being cracked down on by the FTC and FDA, according to the Washington Post. Do not make fun of the pandemic on the floor of the House of Representatives, only to find yourself exposed at a political function and under self-quarantine.

Amazing that this tweet has not been retracted.

Do not claim it’s no big deal and not as bad as the flu when we have not seen the extent of it (ahem, you know who). Do not assert this is overblown by the American liberal media when foreign governments are imposing travel restrictions – Italy just locked down all travel there and school is closed until April 3 – and responding appropriately to a new virus that has killed many at an alarming rate. Should we all panic? No. Should we all be concerned and careful? Yes. Absolutely. Here’s today’s tally from WHO: global cases, 109,578 confirmed, including 3,994 new in the last 24 hours, and 3,809 deaths, 225 new in the last 24 hours.

Meanwhile, a crowd on NextDoor is actively arguing for and against caring. Those pitching the bad ideas say you could also die from a snakebite (see snake oil sales), the flu, from a vaccine, or from being aborted. Or, they are contending for most people, it’s a mild reaction. As for the latter notion, that is something close to something that even CDC says, but for many people, it’s dangerous.

Now, there is another dynamic at play with the peddlers of bad ideas. They fancy themselves contrarians who know better than conventional wisdom. They want to tear down the institutions that promote subject-matter experts because the falsity peddlers would never qualify as real experts. For that, they would need to be smart and educated. Instead, they find some quack with inflated credentials and cite them as an expert. This puffery could extend to themselves.

The question now before us is whether people will return to embrace truth from experts and cast aside the falsity peddlers. How much truth can be ignored when people around the world are sick from a novel virus, markets negatively respond to supply chain disruptions and lowered demand for some key products and the flow of business slows? This outbreak might give many of us the chance to break out and away from bad information.

The Sage Leopard,

Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: Coronavirus, Corona Beer and the Taliban

Blaming the messenger. Ever notice the media takes a drubbing whenever there is bad news? The media is not responsible for markets reacting to the coronavirus. As a former financial news writer, I can attest that it is very rare for a news story itself to move a market. The markets are reacting to reality, in this case, a scary virus that is moving across the globe. Take a brief look at Twitter and you’ll see a silly sentiment that the media in the U.S. is ginning up a pandemic scare to hurt President Trump’s reelection chances by tanking the stock market. No, that’s not the real scenario. People are not cancelling events, closing schools and shuttering entire cities in foreign countries because the media is reporting on COVID-19. The virus is a real problem, period, full stop. If people slow down their movements and trade slows down as well, then guess what? Demand for everything slows and then, prices for certain commodities drop and revenues for services and products drop. So, guess what? Stock markets around the world are reacting to that – the value of many companies is dimmed because it is anticipated they will lose money when consumers stop putting money into the economy. Add to that, trading programs that automatically sell off such sentiments, which can accelerate a downspin. Those trading programs push lower and that can inspire other investors to sell, spawning a vicious cycle. None of that has anything to with anyone disliking Trump politically. Nothing. This is how markets work and play out. To be fair, the media tends to focus on a story and won’t talk about much else for days or weeks at a time. And, they should pay attention. The key is how people react to the news, not the news itself. Remember, it’s not what’s happening to you, but how you react to it.

Buy Corona. Beer that is. A public relations firm survey found that 38% of people canvassed wouldn’t buy Corona beer due to the coronavirus spreading. In other news, not all people are very bright. This might inspire me to go to a local Mexican bar for Friday night happy hour and get a michelada with Corona beer. My point is participate in the economy as you normally would. Give pause when prudent. For instance, I might hold off on booking flights for a bit and see how things are going. Who knows? I might get a great deal on cheap tickets. On the other hand, if COVID-19 becomes a major threat in the U.S., I could wait on flying. Or, I can drive somewhere. Bottom line: this is not going to turn out like The Walking Dead.

What else is going on this weekend? Well, the United States might enter a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, over the objections of a set of House Republicans led by Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. The VP when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. That is to say when the Taliban was harboring the mastermind of 9/11, Osama bin Laden. The 22 lawmakers are not convinced we’re reached any real realm of peacemaking with the Taliban. “Our withdrawal would then allow terrorist groups in Afghanistan to grow stronger and establish safe havens from which to plot attacks against us. Any promises the Taliban may have made to the U.S. related to counterterrorism cannot be trusted, not least because the group is a long-time ally of al-Qaeda.” My question is how come there are only 22 Republicans signing this letter to the Trump administration?

What fun is starting this weekend? The Houston Rodeo! Today is Go Texan Day too, which means if you’re in downtown Houston, you’re likely to see office workers in Western wear. Today’s Houston Chronicle includes a piece on how the rodeo embodies Houston’s friendliness and inclusion. Howdy!

The Sage Leopard,

Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: Miami Spy, Assange and Coronavirus

Eye-popping. That’s how I describe this vague story about a Mexican man admitting to stalking the vehicle of a U.S. government “source” in Miami to obtain a photo of its license plate. He was caught because the security at a residential complex called authorities to report the suspicious activity. I have so many questions. Is the “source” a public official or a spy? Why did the Russians dispatch a Mexican who lives in Singapore for an assignment in Miami. Will we ever hear about this case again or will it drift into oblivion? Is this a big deal? The Washington Post story has what little details are public.

Eye-popping with One Raised Eyebrow. I’m a little skeptical, but curious about the story that Trump, allegedly, via a proxy offered a pardon in advance to Julian Assange if he were to deny that Russia had anything to do with getting hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee over to Assange’s Wikileaks. Assange is still wanted in the United States for espionage and hacking. First thing’s first: the White House categorically denies this allegation as absurd. Supposedly, Assange received this offer via a congressman that Trump’s spokeswoman says he did not know. You might Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was a Republican from California who was the subject of an eyebrow-raising observation in 2016 by another California Republican, Kevin McCarthy, now the House Minority Leader. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy said, according to a recording obtained by news organizations. That was then. Today, McCarthy tweeted a picture of himself on Air Force One. Look closely for Trump in the reflection. That was then. This is now.

Eye-Popping with Fingers Crossed. The University of Texas at Austin and the National Institutes of Health may have made a breakthrough on the coronavirus. They have mapped out the virus on an atomic level, which is a key step for developing a vaccine. It would be great to get this epidemic under control.

Eye Roll. Bernie Sanders’s press secretary said Mike Bloomberg has had heart attacks, then walked it back to say he had a stent procedure. She also tried to compare people asking for Bernie’s medical records to the smear of Birtherism. Asking for a presidential candidate to make health disclosures is not the same as suggesting America’s first black president was not really born in America. Sorry. That is not even a stretch of any imagination. It’s not a comparison. It’s just bad spin.

The Sage Leopard,

Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: Mock Convention & C’mons!

Mock Convention, 1992, Washington and Lee
The floor of the 1992 Mock Convention at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia

Happy Mock Con! What is Mock Con, you ask? No, it’s not “mock conservative,” as a friend incorrectly guessed. It’s Mock Convention, a tradition stemming back to 1908, where Washington and Lee University students host a presidential year nominating convention to mimic, in advance, what the party out of power will do. Because Mock Con’s projection usually gets it right, the event – being held as I type this weekend – is often covered by the national political press. You can learn about the event and its history here. As a W&L student, I participated in the 1992 Mock Con. At the time, George H.W. Bush was president and we had to pick who the Democratic Party would end up selecting and we got it right: Bill Clinton, who was then the governor of Arkansas. There was a tradition within the tradition of the real candidate calling into the Mock Convention floor to say thank you and we were so pumped when the phone line was connected to the P.A. system. Much to our chagrin, it was the voice of Jim Carville, representing the Clinton campaign, who greeted and thanked us. I think. I’m not positive because there might have been some bourbon flowing that weekend. At our 30-year class reunion, an alumnae brought a commemorative bottle of Jim Beam with the ’92 Mock Con label and shared it at dinner. What a blast from the past! Well, the alumni association shared pictures from the Mock Convention parade this morning and that spurred me to scan and post my pictures from our parade lo those many years ago. I was in the New Jersey delegation and in lieu of a little float, we rented an 18-wheeler flatbed and built a mockup of the Garden State Parkway. Our delegation chair dressed up as Bon Jovi. Many of us were dressed up as Dance Party USA partiers. There was a lot of big hair. (If you are from New Jersey, like me, you can make fun of New Jersey. If you are not from New Jersey, fuhgettaboutit.) My favorite picture from that day was of a student from the Illinois delegation. Enjoy. The rest of the pictures are visible on The Sage Leopard’s Instagram and Facebook accounts.

Viewers along the parade route
Et tu, Abe Lincoln?

Oh, c’mon! That was my reaction to reading that the Defense Secretary is pulling the budget out from under Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the armed services. Sure, the president calls the press “the enemy of the people,” but that now extends to the paper put out by members of the military for the military? Don’t believe it? You can read all about it in a Stars and Stripes article. Next, Mom and apple pie face budget cuts in FY-2021.

Oh, c’mon, part deux. A group of lawyers is contending that travel restrictions by countries meant to curtail the spread of coronavirus are violating international law and norms. Because nothing says free trade like the unfettered spread of a deadly disease. The lawyers, according to a Washington Post story, argue that bans on Chinese travel would, among other things, limit the flow of aid. That seems more hypothetical than real, especially as aid and technical assistance have been offered to China by other countries, including the United States.

Oh, c’mon again. When I first read yesterday that Attorney General William Barr said that Trump’s tweets on DOJ cases made it “impossible” for him to do his job, I mistakeningly thought he was resigning. Nope. Just grousing. I guess I could hold my breath waiting to see if he would resign. Meanwhile, now people are speculating he said to put on appearances that he is independent-minded in making legal decisions and not swayed by politics. This has become a parlor game, as you can see in the New York Times opinion piece.

Happy Valentines Day to my boyfriend, Mr. B. We met almost 11 years ago and very much enjoy our time together. Valentines is not the easiest of holidays, whether you are in a relationship or not. Remember, the first person to love is yourself. Then you can truly love others and be loved. And, generally speaking, if there’s a rotten tomato, well, you may have to toss it.

Katharine Fraser and Byron Black
Me and Mr. B.

The Sage Leopard,

Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: Voting, Cheating and the Virus

There’s a lotta hand-wringing going on with Democrats and opinion writers who are covering the 2020 campaign for the party out of power over Bernie, who emerged triumphant out of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, but who is polarizing within the left. You can read that everywhere. But, scant attention is being paid to the GOP primaries. What Republican primaries?, you might ask. Well, Trump is not the only Republican on the ballot in some places, including New Hampshire, which also primaried for the GOP last night. Former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who you might remember ran for VP last time as a libertarian, got 9.1% of the vote. This showing was characterized as “surprisingly well” by The Week. The Washington Post reported the count from 91.6% of the precincts as 124,394 for Trump and 13,207 for Weld. Even Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who has bemoaned Trump’s personality and called his supporters cultish, came in with 898 votes. Two other candidates I never heard of had similar showings. On the whole, New Hampshire, while early in voting is too small to be too much of a harbinger. Are you voting in a Super Tuesday state? Texas’s Democratic and Republican primaries are March 3 and early voting is February 18-28. Remember, there are candidate for positions other than president who are in primaries for both parties, such as congressional districts. One district in the Houston area has several Republicans vying to be the party’s nominee after the incumbent announced retirement. Whatever your political leanings, you should research your ballot ahead of time and check out the candidates and issues – state, local and federal. This is true for primary and general elections. For fellow Texans, I recommend you check out this voting guide from the Texas Tribune.

There’s a lot of concern about the breakdown of trust in American institutions, ranging from our government to the media. It’s therefore a bummer that this concern extends to baseball. The cheating scandal over our hometown team, the Houston Astros, definitely deflates fans and enthusiasm. The Washington Post now reports that its hometown team, the Washington Nationals, knew what the Astros were doing with sign stealing and were able to overcome it to win their own World Series championship. Sadly, the Post reports, the cheating by the Astros was widely known inside baseball. Kudos to the Post for revealing a remarkable story of how the Nationals gathered what they needed to know about the Astros’ scheme. For locals, it’s sad because winning the World Series in 2017 was the emotional uplift this whole region needed after the deluge of Hurricane Harvey. If you missed it, The Sage Leopard chronicled the craziness of living in isolation within the Addicks Reservoir pool for several days during and after the storm. You can read about that here.

There’s a lotta reasons I haven’t gone on a cruise (although I have not ruled it out), including getting sick and/or stuck at sea. Another cruise ship in Asia is seeing that reality play out due to understandable concerns about the spread of coronavirus. Holland America’s Westerdam was denied entry to four countries (Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand) and the U.S. territory of Guam. The cruise line now hopes to drop off passengers in Cambodia and fly them home from there. Meanwhile, the outlook for the virus remains unknown, according to the World Health Organization, CNBC reports. The virus’s disease now has a name for classification purposes: COVID-19. The virus is named SARS-CoV-2. How much do you want to bet we all just keep calling the epidemic “coronavirus”?

Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: Facial Recognition, Spies and Hair

Is the privacy cat out of the bag? A software developer previously known for an app that lets users don an image of Donald Trump’s hair over their faces is now widely known for touting a facial recognition software platform that has scraped 3 billion faces from social media. Clearview AI says it sells its program to law enforcement in various countries. The developer, who is supposedly an Aussie of Vietnamese decent (do we really know?) is reported to be partnered with a former aide to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. You cannot make this stuff up. Hoan Ton-That was interviewed by a New York Times reporter, Kashmir Hill, who provided a detailed and spooky account for its podcast, The Daily. It’s worth a listen. She relates how law enforcement officers she asked to look for herself in the Clearview AI database would go silent and how one told her that he was told not to discuss the results with her. In the interview, the founder says there was a glitch and shows her all the pictures. What was the point of pretending the software doesn’t do what it is designed to do? Just out of curiosity about the uniqueness of this facial recognition design, I took my Facebook profile picture and reverse image searched it on Google and came up with nothing except visually similar (also black & white) headshots of other people. But this software, as the NYT reporter noted, could possibly be used by a stranger passing you on the street, snapping a picture and then finding out, say, where you live, etc.

Speaking of spying, what if a company that sold encryption technology to governments for decades was actually the CIA using the equipment to gather sensitive information? Guess what? It happened, according to a special report by the Washington Post and a German publication, ZDF. The Swiss company, named Crypto AG, started during WWII and wound down in 2018 and its assets sold off. It was a joint venture with the German spy agency BND, which got out in the 1990s, according to the Post story. You may ask, whoa, is this story blowing a huge cover? Not really, because the company’s technology – which started with hand-cranked devices – became obsolete with the emergence of the type of encryption now ubiquitous in apps. My favorite part of this story is that the spy agencies brought in revenues selling rigged spy equipment to other governments to spy on them. That’s really quite impressive. Even one buyer of the assets expressed surprise and dismay. It’s a fascinating read with a glimpse into espionage history.

Well, that’s all hair raising. What’s that you say about hair? Yet another independent school district in Texas is coming under scrutiny for dress codes that require boys to keep their hair short. Surely, you know about the boy from Mont Belvieu who declined to cut his dreadlocks (he wasn’t the only at that high school told to comply with the dress code limit) and ended up on Ellen and at the Oscars celebrating the wonderful film Hair Love. Now, there is news about a boy in Poth, Texas, who was growing out his hair for Locks of Love after his sister became ill. Rather than cut his hair, he withdrew to be home schooled. While the call for someone to cut their dreadlocks certainly seems racist, these dress codes might just be equal opportunity boneheadedness (the family in Poth is white). It feels like something from the 1970s or part of the movie Footloose. Let your freak flag fly, people.

The Sage Leopard,