Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: COVID-19 Escape Movie, Texas Emergency and Hope

Updated March 20 from original March 19 publication to footnote Sen. Burr’s curious stock sales and clarify Trump comments on drug treatments.

When we emerge from COVID-19, a filmmaking survivor is going to have to make a horror movie about spring breakers trying to return home after their binge to find that the cities are closed to them and they have to fend for themselves on the highways. C’mon people, when the president of the United States says we need to limit interactions to groups less than 10, please listen.

Also, this is not an old people’s disease. The latest data shows that adults across the spectrum of age groups are getting the infection. See this Washington Post story, “Younger adults are large percentage of coronavirus hospitalizations in United States, according to new CDC data.”

Count your blessings. This is weird and scary, and we don’t know how all of this will shake out, but be grateful. If you are reading this, that means you have access to the internet and power. That’s a lot to be thankful for. After all, with hurricanes we lose power. Being able to wash your hands with warm water during a global pandemic is a luxury. Enjoy it. Pray for others, in the United States and elsewhere, who may not be so lucky.

Me after buying some essential supplies during a quick outing to Kroger and Walgreens.

If idle hands do the work of the devil and you’re sheltering at home feeling shell-shocked, now is the time to get to all those house projects you have put off forever. Also, deep cleaning kills two birds with one stone: it might get your mind off the pandemic (sorta) and kills germs. It might give you some sense of control, even if fleeting. If you really need to tune out the news for a bit for some self care, try Pinterest. You can just look at things that make you happy. My Pinterest boards are full of pretty gardens, beautiful home décor, cute dogs, cool Jeeps, crafting, recipes and other nesting ideas. I plan to look at it tonight with a glass of wine.

Venison meatballs I made with meat from the bucks we harvested in Laredo in January. Hunting is harvesting food from nature’s pantry.

Back to reality, though, and the state of Texas has declared a state of public health emergency. During a live broadcast, Governor Abbott said that state and local officials have been in preparation discussions about COVID-19 since January. That’s comforting, except why didn’t he or other Republicans pipe up when Trump was still calling this a hoax in late February. Before you get defensive and annoyed with the politicization of a pandemic, consider that the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in February – the same day as the “hoax” comment – was warning business leaders from his home state that this could be akin to the 1918 flu pandemic and that schools would close, travel would be limited and the military would be called on to help.

I think it’s great Senator Richard Burr, R-N.C., was warning people at that time.* I only wish all Republican officials had done so on a bipartisan basis with the Democratic colleagues. The only reason I can think of goes to a failure of leadership at the very top. And the top should take responsibility. He just might be doing so now. I am opened minded. But considering he’s still griping about how the media doesn’t write nice things about him, I’m not hopeful he’s change into a statesman. In the meantime, I am somewhat hopeful that any measures he has taken to facilitate “compassionate use” (experimental) treatment might work**. Again, any effectiveness would be a total unknown. Still, a few months ago we didn’t know we’d be in this situation and I am a big believer in human ingenuity and the cooperative spirit.

Stay home, stay healthy, stay sane and stay hopeful.

* Well, now it has been reported the senator was selling stocks, the implication being he knew the pandemic would worsen and hit financial markets.

**Well, the FDA felt compelled to clarify something he said about a malaria drug being approved (it wasn’t) for COVID-19. To clarify, that is being studied.

Home of the Free and Contradictory: Another Day in Denial Land

Venturing out of the house today, I found that despite the president of the United States saying yesterday we should not be around more than 10 people at a time, nothing appears to have changed with the onset of the COVID-10 pandemic… at least in our corner of northwest Harris County, Texas.

We have a stockpile of rice, beans, venison, broth, frozen veggies, pasta, etc. (OK, and TP), so I don’t need anything. I just wanted milk, vitamins, produce, dog bones and a few other things. Well, forget those things!

A drove through the packed parking lots at Kroger and H-E-B in our neighborhood and there was no social distancing or metering of people going into the stores. When the doors opened, I could see checkouts full of people and staff close by packing bags. Hell no!

Why are we being told retailers have it together and are changing their logistics to limit how many shoppers they field at a time and to accommodate curbside pickup? Or, rather, why have they not done this across the board. My Kroger offers curbside pickup four days out, but there are no available time slots. How many time slots are there? Who knows. Also, some basic stuff isn’t on the online items search, such as all-purpose cleaner.

Can we review that President Trump actually said we should not be in gatherings of more than 10 people? Today, he said people should stay home and “enjoy your living room.” Apparently, a lot of people are not listening to this man. Maybe they are heeding his comments from late February when he said this novel coronavirus was a “new hoax” perpetrated by Democrats. Of course, today he said, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Perhaps this kind of contradictory messaging is leaving people to believe whatever they want to believe.

Here in Harris County, officials have ordered bars and restaurants closed to the public (you can get takeout) and urged the public to report violators. We’re being told that these extraordinary measures are being taken to flatten the curve of the spread of COVID-19. Maybe we need these local officials to order supermarkets to set up curbside pickup and limit entry to small numbers of customers at a time.

Meanwhile, spring breakers are still partying, like these people down at the beach in Port Aransas, Texas. People, c’mon. Maybe hanging out with under 10 people for spring break sounds lame, but hey, why not when there’s a pandemic. The problem seems to be that many people who carry the virus are asymptomatic. And, it takes awhile for the effected to become sick. It’s a waiting game at the moment to see how bad this could get.

But it should give you pause that today Trump was talking about mobile hospital setups, right? And, yesterday he was urging states to order extra ventilators, right? I am not blaming Trump. On the contrary, I am blaming people who refuse to listen to him now for not listening.

This virus has been in the news for several weeks. Sadly, it make take seeing local hospitals becoming overwhelmed before Doubting Thomases realize this is no hoax. This is not a drill. It’s time for universal social distancing.

And can I please get some curbside pick-up? I have an autoimmune disorder, for which I take a specialized medication. My doctor said I should stay on the medication because it “does not specifically or significantly compromise viral immunity,” according to her office, but I should take my vitamins and yes, stay away from crowds. Lordie, you should see the crowds at the supermarket. Again, we have plenty of food at home so I am good.

This comes down to human nature. We are social creatures and we don’t make significant changes unless we see other people doing something. We all saw there was a rush on toilet paper, so people ran out and bought toilet paper. Now, unless supermarkets all adopt metering and social distancing, people are going to go shopping normally. To be fair, the main supermarkets here are hiring and I suppose that is because they need to change their logistics to move to drive-up service. They need to institute that as soon as possible. I’ll wait!

Taking a Moment, Even a Long Moment, Might Be In Order These Days

As a child of the ‘70s, I enjoyed wild freedoms, including roaming around by myself at a very young age. I would load my red Radio Flyer wagon with stuffed animals, books, a tea set and blankie to head down to the mossy banks of a brook behind our neighbor’s back garden. No one could find me tucked away in my hidden oasis, but I could hear my mother calling me when the time came to go home.

And now, we all need respite from COVID-19. If we avoid it, perhaps we can mitigate the spread. For example, right now, instead of going to the Houston Rodeo tonight, I am looking forward to curling up with a book. Is that bad for the economy if we all curtail outings? Sure, but the alternative of an overloaded healthcare system and widespread illness is something we want to avoid or alleviate.

The current warning from VP Pence, as I type, is that the threat to the “average American” is low while the elderly are the most vulnerable. Well, a lot of us have immune systems that are somehow compromised. Ever hear those TV ads that say “such-and-such can inhibit your ability to fight infections”? Yep, that’s me. I had two sinus infections the past few months and I do not want to risk getting this novel coronavirus. (Good for the surgeon general for including immunocompromised people in his list of people at risk.)

So, Mr. B. and I loaded up on pantry supplies last weekend. Plus, we have a freezer full of venison, thanks to our successful deer hunt in January in Laredo. Now, I plan to make veggie stews with beans and frozen vegetables and then add ground venison as we go. I also have lots of pastas and rice to combine with the venison. Would I rather go out to dinner? Sure! But, maybe hunkering down for a while will be a good thing.

Maybe I will set a goal of reading two books per week. Maybe I will create a whole bunch of new venison recipes!

Seriously, we need to try to get in front of this disease outbreak. At this writing, Italy has shut down everything. It’s a smaller county and the spread there happened quickly. It seems as if there could be more coordination and maybe more conservative measures taken here. For the moment, local governments, universities and private companies are deciding what do to for their citizens, communities and employees on a voluntary basis. I am not advocating for the imposition of martial law, but there could be a happy medium between that and gently suggesting local governments do what they think they need to do. Even proponents of smaller government recognize the benefit of a some basic federal government functions, such as national security and say, coordinating the management of a pandemic.

The time for soft-pedaling is long past. The problem is inevitable. It’s already here. What leaders can do is mitigate and educate. (For perspective, a microbiologist in this blog contrasts COVID-19 with far worse diseases we’ve contended with, historically.)

A leader should be forthright and manage people’s expectations. Shoot, a really good politician would figure out a way to come off like a hero in a crisis by really doing good work. There is an old adage about there are some people who merely aspire to be versus people who aspire to do. Which style do you prefer?

For a leader, the question is what are you going to do about it? The answer should not be easy in the face of a challenge. The mayor of Austin explained to Texas Monthly his tough call about cancelling the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival, which is usually a huge economic driver. And, while the illness is likely coming anyway to Austin, there may have been a temptation to carry on as business as usual. But, this local leader realized the objective is to manage, not worsen, a public health crisis. It’s always about managing problems not exacerbating them. If we collectively make the right calls and cooperate, we can ideally minimize the effects.

For me, tonight, that means curling up in my favorite chair with a good book and a glass of wine as the grown-up version of hanging out on the banks of the brook with my red wagon supplies.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com

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, thesageleopard@gmail.com

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, thesageleopard@gmail.com

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, thesageleopard@gmail.com

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, thesageleopard@gmail.com

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, thesageleopard@gmail.com

Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: Remote Work, China, Venezuela and Quarantine

Do you work remotely? Some days, it’s just better to be off the roads, such as today outside Houston, where a major highway is closed in one direction because of a hazmat spill of… wait for it… pig parts. Mmm, did you have bacon at breakfast today? On a larger scale, the coronavirus has curtailed business trips and other travel. This would be an instance where access to the internet can save the day.

Speaking of China, kudos to the Houston Chronicle for launching a series examining the economic model of the Communist state. The series, dubbed Rising Star, opens with “For Texas, promise and pitfalls in China.” A good read on a crucially important question: just how much will China’s economy continue to grow and at what pace?

Speaking of business trips, would you believe the Citgo 6 are back in prison in Venezuela? These oil execs were called from Houston to a meeting in Caracas in 2017 and are still captive (Citgo is part of the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, but control of the company is tied up in disputes with creditors and the question of who will control the government itself). The Citgo 6 have been accused of corruption by the Maduro administration and had been under house arrest. Meanwhile, the opposition leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaido, just met with President Trump.

Ah, Trump. Do you know anyone who was surprised by his comments at the National Prayer Breakfast or at the White House yesterday when he lit into his political enemies and celebrated his acquittal from his impeachment? Apparently, some people are still waiting for him to become magnanimous and what used to be called presidential. Frankly, I was surprised he didn’t deploy t-shirt cannons at the White House reception where he thanked Republican leaders of Congress, his legal defense team and supporters. News flash: Trump’s personality is not going to change. He is a brash fighter. As he said it himself of House Democrats and apparently others: But I’ve beaten them all my life, and I’ll beat them again if I have to.” In his comments from the White House yesterday, he went through the Ukraine call, raised the question of Hunter Biden’s foreign work, praised his backers, lambasted Democratic policies and called the impeachment unfair. He used the word unfair or unfairly 10 times, according to the White House transcript. Whether you love or loathe the man, you must know, his persona is not going anywhere.

Finally, I’ve been wondering how life is treating the American coronavirus evacuees upon their return home, where they are currently under quarantine on military bases. They are making the best of it and are grateful, according to this Washington Post article.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com