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:


Monday, November 9, 2015

No more questions for the GOP field

"Welcome to absolutely the very last Republican presidential debate. We promise. I'm your moderator, Elizabeth Hasselbeck.

"Because the candidates have complained about their treatment by the media, each questioner on our panel has been selected by an individual candidate based on mutual affection and nothing more.

"Though we are here at Fox News headquarters, pursuant to agreed-upon rules, Megyn Kelley is nowhere in the building. So let's begin.

"Our first question-answer team is -- Ben Carson and Glenn Beck!"

Beck: "Dr. Carson, you are a truth-teller, man of great faith, a man of great intellect. When you say that a 10 percent to 15 percent flat tax would not explode the federal deficit as the Tax Foundation asserts, but that instead it will dynamically, indeed, miraculously, generate enough revenue to wipe out the deficit, I believe you. I really, really believe you."

Carson:  "Thank you, Glenn."

Hasselbeck: "Our next question-answer team: Sean Hannity and Jeb Bush!"

Hannity: "Gov. Bush, do you recall when Vice President Cheney convinced many Americans that Saddam Hussein was tied to the 9/11 attacks?"

Bush: "Yes, I do."

Hannity: "Do you remember when your brother convinced Congress that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons?"

Bush: "Yes, I do, Sean."

Hannity: "And you remember when your brother got that congressional resolution and we rolled tanks and bombed Baghdad?"

Bush: "Yes I do, Sean."

Hannity: "That was awesome."

Hasselbeck: "And now, the duo of Bill O'Reilly and Donald Trump."

O'Reilly: "Donald, no mushball questions from me. You know how I work. No spin here.

"So, as I understand it, Donald, you've been accused of being racist in your highly reasonable claims about Mexico importing rapists and murderers into our country, and Mexicans preying on our people and gobbling up welfare benefits.

"The truth is -- and you can verify this for me, Donald, because you know yourself best -- but the truth is you are indeed a true friend to law-abiding brown-skinned people who stay where they belong. Isn't that the truth?"

Trump: "Si. Es verdad."

Hasselbeck: "For our next question-answer team, we have Marco Rubio and "Fox and Friends" morning host Steve Doocy."

Doocy: "Marco – can I call you that? Thanks for being my question-and-answer friend. And as your friend, let me ask you: Your opponents point to a beyond-dismal, almost invisible attendance record in the Senate. You have pointed out, rightly, that you can serve your country better by traveling the country on the Koch brothers' dime.

"After all, Marco, nothing can get done in the Senate with the specter of a filibuster by the Harry Reid chorus. And of course you have the dictator Obama waiting to veto anything great you might do, with his czars and executive orders. You tell me, Marco: What the heck is a senator to do?"

Rubio: "Run for president."

Hasselbeck: "Our next candidate is Ted Cruz. For his questioner he has chosen Ted Cruz."

Cruz: "Thanks, Elizabeth. Now, Sen. Cruz, please tell us a few things about yourself."

         Cruz: "Born in America to a steelworker and a candy-striper. Despite my humble origins, I was anointed by God to serve in the Senate and ultimately the presidency."

          Cruz: "That is an inspiring narrative. Tell us about your success in government."

Cruz: "My foremost achievement was to shut down the government for 16 days in 2013. If elected president, I promise to do the same for at least four years. I ask for your vote."

Cruz: "You have my vote."

  Hasselbeck: "Thank you, candidates and panelists. We apologize to candidates Fiorina, Paul, Christie and the rest for running out of time. We also have a report that Megyn Kelley has penetrated the security cordon and is in makeup. The candidates are being taken to a secure location."

  Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Remarkable turn for Incarceration Nation

        It's not true that nothing gets done in Congress.

You can't have a resolution designating "National Day of the American Cowboy" and a designation of "Hockey is for Everyone Month" without bipartisan cooperation. Give our most embarrassing public institution some credit.

Sure, generally what emanates from those corridors has all the functionality of a wad of gum under a bar stool. It's not even good for display purposes. And yet, I can report that something miraculous – more miraculously, something bipartisan – is happening right now.

Without any true mandate from well-fed and oblivious constituents, players from both sides of the aisle are addressing one of America's most serious injustices.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted by a lopsided bipartisan margin – 15-5 – to reverse a tragically oppressive, generation-long build-up of our prison population.

The move to reform sentencing guidelines may be the biggest story that nobody in America is talking about, except for those senators pushing the initiative, and to his immense and lasting credit, President Obama.

Obama has used the bully pulpit of the presidency to bring attention to the insanity of mandatory minimum sentences and the warehousing of nonviolent criminals.

Recently he became the first American president to visit a federal prison. Along with principled stances on immigration, gay rights and climate change, he is showing the fortitude some of his progressive allies accused him of lacking.

With the remarkable convergence of liberals and conservatives in Congress regarding sentencing reform, encouraged by principled judges and states that have liberalized drug laws, we are seeing the beginning of a much-needed rollback of the hysteria-driven Reagan-era War on Drugs.

The good news is that the population in state and federal prisons has been dropping, from a high point in 2010 of 1.6 million – the population of Idaho – to somewhere around the population of Maine, 1.4 million. That's progress.

Don't fool yourself about who's behind bars. In the federal system, more than half – 51 percent – are there on drug convictions.

            Sentencing took off like a wildfire in the '80s when lawmakers were convinced that crack (rhymes with "black") was a scourge meriting law enforcement zeal that took on the moral equivalency of war. This was facilitated under Reagan with obscene amounts of federal dollars pumped into local agencies under the scandalously named Byrne Justice Assistance Grants. Justice. Yeah.

The Byrne program also incentivized drug busts because law agencies could confiscate assets of offenders. Big money. Big money.

            Added fruit of Reagan's quill was the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, the kind of militarization of police that begat overreaches and unbearable tension in so many American cities.

          The result of all of this was a massive build-up of our prison population based on drug raps, truly a phenomenon that future Americans will view with a shake of the head, particularly when decriminalization of marijuana becomes commonplace. And, yes, that will happen.

          Well, something is happening to reverse this, and Americans need to encourage it.

          Why would a conservative support sentencing reform? For one – cost. For another – families. Yes, anyone who worries about the state of the American family need look no further than all the children left fatherless or motherless by merciless sentencing laws. What a way to raise children – not.

          Obama also is right to urge that we rethink how we treat convicts who have served their time. The notion of rehabilitation is null and void when re-entry into society means little to no chance of meaningful employment. Obama has ordered federal contractors to no longer automatically reject job applicants based on criminal records.

          Sentencing reform couldn't be more important. The wages of Incarceration Nation couldn't be more damaging. Congress can change this. Yes, it can.

          Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado.