Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ominous threat: cyber-tuber attacks

I was minding my own and humanity's business on the Internet when I checked my Gmail and found the most horrifying thing.

"Sensational sweet potatoes," said the email.

        Why did I click on its contents? I probably shouldn't have. The fact is that my gamble was made in the purest pursuit of journalistic truth.

The e-missive shared recipes for sweet potato pie, sweet potato fries, "baked sweet potato fritters with yogurt dipping sauce," "sweet potato parsnip and celery root mash."

As gag is my reflex, I swear I am not making these things up.

A few days later I was socializing with my kind on Facebook — that's what people do on Facebook — when one of those kinds sent me a video describing the difference between the yam and the sweet potato. (Key: A yam's skin is purple and hairy. A sweet potato's skin has no hair. It is like George Foreman's forehead.)

Did I ask for this graphic and troubling video? No.

I know all I need to know about these two dreaded angiosperms. I've known all too well since the first — and last — time I tasted sweet potato. It was some 50 years ago. It's as if it was yesterday.

I have embargoed sweet potatoes from my alimentary canal ever since. However, it seems that I cannot blockade them from my laptop.

Before the Internet, I was safe. I once had a newsroom office mate place something labeled "pumpkin pie" in my office mail box. I saw through the ruse. It was a sweet potato pie. Shortly thereafter, the police department bomb squad detonated it in a field.

I have written columns about sweet potatoes ever since I began opining for a newspaper in Texas. That's 30-plus years. In Texas, for ill-defined reasons, the orange tuber is particularly popular. Every Thanksgiving since then I have waged a lonely and gallant information campaign about one of the holiday's traditional accoutrements.

My slogan: "Sweet potatoes. You can't eat even one."

I know this is true. My tongue tells me so.

Before I came to Texas, I wrote columns for a small newspaper in Colorado. In Colorado I didn't perceive sweet potatoes to be a serious threat to mankind. I wrote, instead, about the threat posed by zucchinis. Everyone in Colorado seems to be able to grow zucchinis, and everyone seems to think they are edible. They are not.

Rest assured, I reaped the whirlwind for my conscientious anti-zucchini activism. It seemed that every time I went to someone's house my host had some dish which concealed chopped or grated zucchini. Zucchini is easy to disguise.

Not so with sweet potatoes. No one is going to sneak grated sweet potato into my casserole. No one is going to be fooling me with "pumpkin bread" that actually contains you-know-what.

Unfortunately, though my state of vigilance is high, my laptop remains ever-vulnerable.

In the 21st century, some of our greatest minds have devoted themselves to protecting this nation from cyber attack. This is one crucial function of the Department of Homeland Security. I expect to be protected.

So, senators, members of Congress, I beseech you on this national day of prayer and feasting to protect the homeland from cyber-tuber attacks. Receiving virtual sweet potato on a screen is only slightly less horrifying than a steaming red mass of the real thing.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Monday, November 23, 2015

Behold the energy that made America

"I should have learned sushi."

So says James in a rare moment of retrospection. Most days he has no time for that. He is all forward motion.

His goal is to be an architect. Now he's working in food service and mastering English.

A sushi chef makes more than what James does at the moment. He kicks himself for not learning it while working in a California restaurant in his few first months in California. "Cowleefonia" is his linguistic attempt to master everything about us, to be one of us.

To James, every syllable counts.

His real name is Trisnawan. Born in Indonesia, like many immigrants, he chose a name here that wouldn't cause Americans to entangle themselves on their own tongues.

Hannan, meanwhile, is quiet and determined – quietly determined. She is in this country because the civil war in Yemen made her home unsafe, rocked and wrecked by a bomb out on the street.

She can't believe her good fortune that her family was granted refugee status. She looks at others fleeing her homeland, and those fleeing Syria, and shudders.

A Muslim, she is alarmed to see American politicians making a person like her Public Enemy No. 1.

Sonia and Nancy are Mexican immigrants. Catalina is from the former Soviet republic of Moldova. Amanda's Chinese birth name you couldn't pronounce, but her smile and her effervescence you'd appreciate anywhere.

These faces I address every day in classes I teach. They're all upwardly bound. Their enthusiasm and fortitude are palpable. They are "America" in the definitional sense.

These are the people who made this nation what it is. These are our forefathers and foremothers. The fact that they are in their teens and 20s and arrived at airports with luggage on rollers makes them no different from those who arrived by freighter with their belongings in burlap.

I saw Sen. Ted Cruz say a few things the other day that I hope Hannan never sees. Cruz said it was "nothing more than lunacy" to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country, as President Obama has ordered, just as other western nations are doing.

Asked how these refugees would be different from his own father, who came to America fleeing Castro's Cuba, Cruz did one more exceptional impersonation of his doppelganger, Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He used the most heinous generalizations possible.

It's one thing to allow in refugees, Cruz said; it's another to allow in members of a "theocratic and political movement" -- he described that as radical Islam -- "that promotes murdering anyone who doesn't share your faith."

Well, sure, Senator, none of us want that kind of person. But the screening process for refugees post-9/11 is, let's say,1,000 percent more rigorous than that used to admit your father. 

So, that process in place, Americans should say: Let them in. They're our kind of people.

Writing about Europe's refugee crisis, Time magazine assistant managing editor Rana Foroohar interviewed Oxford University's Ian Goldin, co-author of "Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future." Goldin calls migrants "a disproportionately dynamic labor force" in the world.

Goldin adds, writes Foroohar, that "the bravery of immigrants has its own sort of economic value."

This is not an insight that this nation, a nation of transplants, should ever need to learn or relearn. It is no historian's footnote. It is the whole story.

I have yet to ask James what his religion is, but taking a cue from Cruz, I will inquire about it should he get that sushi job, or should he come to me down the road with all the credentials he needs to design a dream home for me.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Monday, November 16, 2015

Race to be right's anti-intellectual champion

Sure, it seems like the race for the GOP 2016 presidential nomination has been going on since lily pads were green. However, let's acknowledge that it was just June 16 when the starter's gun fired.

Or, when Donald Trump first shot off his mouth.

Trump registered in decibels and kinship with xenophobes the moment he accused Mexico of shipping rapists and murderers our way.

For a fifth of Republicans polled, he had them at "hello," and they haven't budged.

Seeing which way the derby flags were flying, the field began to bunch almost immediately at the wind of his tail in a quest to be the contender who most deftly defied logic.

Well, it's neck-and-neck now, with Trump astride Sea Bigot while Ben Carson applies the whip to a steed named Mythmaker.

It doesn't matter to about a fifth of Republicans that the "bio" part of Carson's biography is flickering up there with the Marfa Lights. The man's an "X Files" episode that TV found too bizarre to air.

It doesn't matter that he's explained away basic history (Egypt's Pyramids were constructed by Joseph to store grain) and basic science (The Big Bang is a "fairy tale," and evolution theory is promoted by the devil).

No, these things aren't campaign problems for Carson at this point. They're precisely why for about a fifth of Republicans polled, he had them at "hello."

On the right – where else would he be? Ted Cruz, well, let's see: He made a point to be at a particularly significant event the other day, a homophobe conference in Des Moines, hosted by a particularly odious preacher named Kevin Swanson.

Swanson has made a name for himself with anti-gay remarks that make the beyond-venomous Westboro Baptist Church seem – what? -- Christlike?

Swanson has said that people should attend gay weddings and hold up signs saying the happy couple should be put to death.

Cruz was in the audience in Des Moines and took the microphone to mighty applause at a conference at which Swanson said parents should drown their children rather than let them read Harry Potter.

Yes, it's one thing to appeal to conservative Christians, Sen. Cruz. It's another to sing "Kumbaya" with one who supports, as Swanson does, legislation in Uganda to make homosexuality a criminal offense.

But let's understand that this race is all about appealing to the hardest of the hard right, the encrusted core of a political party that once could be described as pragmatic and centrist at its center.

People like Dwight Eisenhower and Everett Dirksen, and later people like Bob Dole and Alan Simpson, once were nominate-able in their party. No way today, Dole will be the first to tell you.

For generations, the GOP was smart enough, by and large, to nominate people who would appeal to the political center. That's called political survival. What to call it now? It's a plunge into the tar pit.

Carson is a particularly curious case: a man of letters, and presumably of science as a surgeon — yet his proclamations are those of a traveling medicine show.

Homosexuality? He asserts it to be choice, because — look at what happens to people behind bars. That's some scientific study, Doctor.

Lack of governing experience? Carson has a lyrical way to dismiss people who know what they are doing. "The Ark was built by amateurs," he told a Colorado audience. "The Titanic was built by professionals."

Yes, he got an "amen" to that. That's called giving the people – at least one fifth of those who call themselves Republicans — what they want.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: