Remember When Everyone Wasn’t in Contact With the Russians?

First it was reported that the National Security Adviser had discussed sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador.  Then it turned out that the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser had held numerous meetings with the Russian ambassador, supposedly to establish a line of communication with the Kremlin by connecting two cans with a really long string.  Then it was rumored that the President’s campaign manager had met with Russian intelligence officials, not “knowingly” but thinking they were landscapers giving an estimate on clearing brush in the campaign manager’s backyard.

A foreign policy adviser to the campaign denied having meetings with Russian officials, but then admitted meeting with the Russian ambassador, explaining that “meetings” is totally different from “meeting” because one is plural and the other is singular.  And it was rumored that the founder of a major security company secretly met with an unidentified Russian rumored to be close to the Russian President, and while it was rumored that the founder was not involved in the Presidential campaign, he was rumored to have been a major contributor, and was rumored to have been close to the President’s chief strategist, and was even rumored to be the brother of the President’s education secretary.

The Attorney General, when he was advising the campaign, had spoken twice with the Russian ambassador, but claimed he had done so not as campaign manager but as the result of a wrong number.  And a former adviser to the President admitted that he’d communicated with a hacker persona called “Guccifer 2.0” that may have been a front for Russian intelligence, but could have just as easily been a new operating system for men’s leather shoes.

This was all bad enough.  But then the mayor of my town was said to have spoken to the Russian ambassador about weakening NATO and adding a traffic signal at that busy intersection near the supermarket.  And my daughter’s math teacher was reported to have sold arms and protractors to the Russians for $250 million.  Our favorite pizzeria was temporarily closed while the FBI reviewed the sauce for microphones.  And even the greeter at our Walmart was questioned because a customer—exactly who was never revealed—testified that instead of “Hello, welcome to Walmart,” the greeter had said “Zdravstvuyte, dobro pozhalovat’ v’Walmart.”

A special investigator appointed by Congress issued a subpoena to the local library branch for “records of all patrons who borrowed War and Peace or any other ridiculously long Russian novel” (although that subpoena was eventually quashed by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit).  And my paperboy was implicated after his smartphone was confiscated by federal agents working undercover (although they kept getting so many popup notifications to backup to the cloud that they gave up).  There were even reports that my neighbor had been in talks with Russian scientists about a new type of genetically engineered grass seed that would give him the nicest looking lawn on the block.

These reports, releases, revelations, and rumors pommeled me, one after another, for months.  I felt like I was living not in America but in a far-flung province of the Russian Empire.  Then one morning I woke up feeling especially lonely and sad.  I realized that everyone—from the very top levels of government, to those neighbors who leave their garbage cans out by the street even though it’s not garbage day—had been in contact with the Russians.

Everyone, that is, except me.

Remember When Antarctica Wasn’t Falling Apart?

There was no denying it.  Antarctica was falling apart, crumbling like a ball of dried out play dough.  The scientists took photographs and measurements and put together little animated graphics showing how much ice was melting.  The people finally took notice, and started buying pieces of Antarctica to keep in their homes.

Under the Emperor Penguin Accords of 1983, trafficking in pieces of Antarctic ice was illegal and punishable by fines, incarceration, and a process called “cold boot” where the authorities shoved handfuls of snow into your shoes while you were still wearing them.  But the demand for the ice was so great that the rewards outweighed the risks.  “Ice Poachers,” as they came to be called, started making trips to Antarctica and chipping off more pieces to sell.  It became a status symbol to have a piece of the southernmost continent in your home.  Of course to keep it from melting you had to keep the ice very cold all the time.  Wealthy people would build entire freezer rooms to maintain their chunk of Antarctica.

For people of more limited means, there were fewer options.  They had to obtain smaller chunks, small enough to fit inside a conventional freezer.  And then of course people had to keep less things in their freezers.  For many people, it became impossible to keep leftovers more than a day, and they all found themselves having to eat a lot more at dinner.

The black market for Antarctic ice thrived.  Buyers and sellers exchanged cash for ice in dark alleys and shopping mall parking lots, using codes in texts and on Craigslist, like, “Need some big ice.”  But after a few high profile arrests and reports that the laws discriminated against people of lower income because they couldn’t afford the elaborate disguises that wealthier people could use, like hiding the Antarctic chunk in a landscaping truck delivery of mulch, states began to take a softer stance.  Some states began to decriminalize Antarctic ice poaching and owning, some states making it a mere civil penalty, other removing all legal sanction.

It is still illegal under federal law to own a piece of Antarctica, no matter how large or small the piece.  Whether states’ rights in this area will prevail, only time will tell.

Remember When You Could Fire the FBI Director Without Getting a Lot of Flak?

So the President has fired the FBI Director.  I’m surprised it took this long.  Maybe the FBI Director owed the President money for a lost bet, and the President figured as long as the Director was still in Washington, I’ll have a better chance of collecting.

In the second season of The Apprentice, there was an episode where the contestants were tasked with creating a dog grooming business.  at the end of the episode the businesses were reviewed by the host, our current President, and he decided that they very worst performance was that of a contest named Stacy.  “Your charity was the Kitty Kat Shelter.  Why would dogs care about cats?  Stacy, you’re fired.”

Almost immediately, there were calls to appoint a special investigator to investigate Stacy’s ties to cats.  It turned out that two months before she appeared on The Apprentice, Stacy had met in a hotel room with a Maine Coon and two tabbies.  Her aides had originally denied the meeting but a few gray and orange hairs were found on her jacket.

Then there were calls to investigate the cats.  At first no one could find them.  But one of the cats was caught posting photos on Facebook of a party where Stacy and the President were in attendance.  The cat was issued a subpoena to testify before Congress, but his attorney sent a message that his client was sleeping and would not awake for several years.

Then there arose a rumor that there were videos of the cats paying Stacy in return for her designating the Kitty Kat Shelter as the beneficiary of the dog grooming business on The Apprentice.  The videos were also subpoenaed.  But the cat’s attorney replied that the tapes were no longer in existence, but were of the cats just squeezing into baskets and so were completely useless (although still very cute).

The whole affair was dying down and the media were about to give up and go back to covering Nicole Kidman’s strange clapping at the Academy Awards.  But then they got a break.  The President tweeted that “These cats better hope their breath doesn’t smell like tuna fish!”  This tweet was considered unusually enigmatic, even for the President, and breathed new life into the investigation.  Soon a connection through a company that manufactured tuna fish was revealed.  It turned out that the President, early in his career as a real estate developer has owned a piece of a tuna fish company and had used cats for quality control.  When the cats complained about the low wages and infrequent changes of kitty litter, he locked them in a room and made them taste tuna fish all day long, permitting only 12 hours a day for naps.

After the company went bankrupt and the cats escaped when someone opened the door to grab the paper, the cats later blackmailed the President into paying them.  So he came up with a scheme to funnel money raised on The Apprentice to these cats, using Stacy as a pawn.  When Stacy threatened to reveal the real reason why a dog grooming business was benefiting a bunch of cats, the President fired her, claiming the reason was her poor management skills and bad decision-making.

When all was revealed it had the making of the greatest scandal since Watergate, encompassing all levels of government and the animal kingdom.  No one thought that the President would be able to bounce back.  But then House of Representatives passed a bill cutting aid to people who clap strangely (and their dependents) and everyone forgot about Stacygate.

Happy Mother’s Day to all Mothers!

Remember When the President Lived at the White House?

It was nearly 100 days into his presidency, and Donald Trump had spent half of his weekends as president at a private resort in Florida.  There, in addition to playing golf, he held cabinet meetings, met with foreign dignitaries, and, while enjoying a candlelit dinner on the patio, reviewed evidence of North Korea’s ballistic missile testing.  Many people criticized him for not spending enough time at the traditional home office of the nation’s chief executive.  But the press secretary assured the nation that the president “carries the apparatus of the White House” wherever he goes.

As the weekend trips to Florida continued, the criticism continued.  They complained and complained and drew charts and tables showing how much more President Trump spent on travel than President Obama, than Franklin Roosevelt, than Abraham Lincoln.  On the last day of Trump’s presidency, a major newspaper posted a graphic showing that, on average, Trump spent more on travel in five minutes than George Washington did in his entire life.  And so it was believed that this was the end of the dual residence president.

But the next president wanted to spend weekends in a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.  Although a cabin in the woods was much quieter a fancy Palm Beach resort, so many tree houses had to be built to house the secret service, White House staff, and visiting dignitaries that the eastern meadowlarks and three-toed woodpeckers had to be relocated to the nearest Best Western, to the annoyance of animal rights advocates and hotel cleaning staff.

People figured that after a resort president and a nature president, it would be the end of the president spending half his time as president living someplace other than the White House.  But the next president announced in his inauguration speech that he would be spending weekends in a cave.  He assured the American people that because the cave had only one entry way, far fewer secret service agents would be required.  And this was true, although cabinet members disliked having to sit upon rocks during meetings rather than chairs.

After the cavern president, people were no longer surprised at the president choosing to spend time at an alternate residence.  In fact, they began to expect it.  Getting to live wherever the president wanted became one of the perks and political prizes of winning the election.  During the presidential campaign season, political commentators would analyze the candidates’ likely choice of residence alongside their views on domestic and foreign policy.  And it was not uncommon to overhear ordinary people saying things like, “Yes, I think it’s time that America had a president who lived in the Cinderella Castle at Disney World.”

The “Presidential Residence Agent” became a permanent position on every presidential campaign staff as the candidates became more and more creative in their choice of residence.  The effort paid off.  One president wanted to spend his term voyaging under the seas like Captain Nemo. The army corps of engineers built a special submarine residence called the Nautilus which the radical liberal Marxist Leninist media dubbed the “Thought-a-Less.”  And after that was a president who opted for a crystal palace at the North Pole, modeled after Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. There was international tension because of the proximity to the Russian border. But we removed our opposition to Russia’s plan to turn the Caspian Sea into a giant samovar, and crisis was averted.

And then there was the president who did not like to travel.  Don’t ask me how he got elected.  Obviously someone tampered with the voting booths.  But nevertheless there he was, ready to move in to the White House and occupy it as his only residence…and it turned out that someone else was there.  The White House had been shunned as a residence for so long that it had been leased to a group of elephant trainers, and the new president and his family had to live at the Hampton Inn in a room next to the eastern meadowlarks and three-toed woodpeckers.

———————

Sources:

https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-03-20/spicer-golf-part-of-being-president-but-potus-doesnt-always-play-on-trips-to-courses

http://www.adirondack.net/wildlife/birding/

Remember That Time We Saved 34 Acres of Forest?

Yesterday, the Shenendehowa Central School District held a public referendum on whether to sell 34 acres of forest to a developer.  The issue was very contentious and generated a lot of argument and activity.  The Friends of Clifton Park Open Space ran a great campaign to vote “no” and thankfully the proposed sale was rejected by the voters, 5,442 to 2,323.  There is hope after all.

A few weekends ago I took the opportunity to hike through the 34 acres that have generated so much passion and pride.  Below are some of the photos I took.


And it just so happens this is my 200th post!  What a way to celebrate!

Remember When It Seemed Like Christmas Was Far Away?

santa bear

Photo taken October 7.

Remember when you were in school, and it seemed like the month of December that was after Thanksgiving but before the beginning of Christmas break, took an eternity to pass?  When you’d think, “Oh, it’s only December 12th?  Christmas will never arrive.”

Nothing like Christmas makes me aware of how fast the year goes.  I feel like it was just that time of year when every other commercial is about men’s college basketball.

I wondered if there was a way to make Christmas start later.  So I started a campaign on Facebook to move Christmas to mid-January or even February.  And I got people to support me.  I was very clever.  I posted on people’s Facebook walls that I was tapping them for the “Christmas – Paper Towel Tube Challenge.”  The challenge was to film yourself putting one of those cardboard tubes at the inside of rolls of paper towels.  and speak into it like one would a megaphone.

It became very popular and before long I had a million Facebook users saying move Christmas to February 15 so that it would feel like the year was longer.  There was a referendum and a very close vote, and more than one accusation of cheating.

But when all was said and done, the ayes had it and Christmas – the biggest holiday of the year – was moved to mid-February, a month and three weeks from its usual spot.

Oh sure, people loved the extra shopping time at first.  But the next thing they knew, it was February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and everyone was stressed out.

So there was another campaign on social media, and another referendum, and another close vote, and Christmas was now scheduled for May 22nd.

Why people did not foresee this causing conflict with graduation ceremonies and celebrations is one of the larger questions to arise from this episode.  An easier question might be why they decided to move the holiday once again.  Naturally they had another referendum – most people cast their votes early this time – and Christmas Day from the previous year is moved once again, this time to September.

This was later viewed, correctly I believe, as a mere stopgap measure.  All voters, no matter yea or nay, knew that with the start of another school year, and the Jewish holidays, that a September Christmas was dead in the water.  At the eleventh hour the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a create was stirring, not even a mouse, the Christmas from the previous year was moved to December 25th of the current year, so there would be two Christmases on the same day.  People had to buy last year’s and this year’s gifts at the same time.  Retailers never had it so good.  And so it was decreed that henceforth every Christmas would be a double Christmas.

People still wait until the last minute to shop and are stressed out leading up to that minute.  But the double the joy on the children’s faces more than makes up for it.

 

Remember When There Wasn’t All This Hacking of Emails?

I recently received a message saying that my email account “has been implicated in a security breach.”  After I calmed down and stopped pacing around with my hands in the air, asking “Why me?”, I wondered what these hackers could possibly have wanted with my emails….

“Captain, what have we found, if anything, from the emails?”dirty keyboard

“Well, sir, we have discovered that his sister is coming over to visit in a few weeks, and that he has a 20% off coupon to Target.”

“Hmm.  Not sure what I’m going to do with that yet.  But go on.  What else did you find?”

“He is delinquent in reading all emails from The Wooden Spoon Store.”

“Well, that is interesting.  Do you know what that means?”

“No, sir.”

“Obviously the account custodian is involved in a ideological battle with this retailer.  Run with it!”

The story that The Wooden Spoon Store along with other online retailers was involved in an ideological battle with me tarnished its squeaky clean image and hurt sales.  I was interviewed several times about my thoughts on the store.

They shoved microphones in my face, and asked, “Why did you not read those emails from the Wooden Spoon Store?”

“Because I don’t use wooden spoons,” I replied.

Then the FBI announced in an unsigned letter that they were “taking a closer look at a few emails that merit a closer look” and  I had to testify before Congress.

“Mr. Kaplowitz, it says here according to this email dated…ah, where is the date.  Excuse me,” turning to his right, “Senator, can you help me? Where is that email I was going to talk about?”

“Um, I don’t know, Senator.  You had all your papers on your table.”

“I did?  Well, anyway.  Mr. Kaplowitz, I understand that you believe that the Wooden Spoon Store is manipulating the market for wooden spoons.  What evidence do you have to back that up?”

“I don’t have any evidence.  And I never said that the store was manipulating anything.”

“You didn’t?”

“Well, it was taken out of context.”

At my sentencing for violation of the Fancy Kitchen Wares in Lawful Commerce Act and a slew of other fraud and obstruction of justice charges, I was given the opportunity to address the judge and all three employees of the Wooden Spoon Store.

“To my fellow human beings, I am sorry that I never read the emails you sent me, advising me of specials and other deals.  I should have taken the Terms of Service more seriously.  This was grievous error and I am glad that I am going to be punished for it.”

I served my time in a special prison for hackers, computer fraudsters, and people who post on Facebook about their long distance running.  These fellow inmates taught me how to read online newspapers without paying.  Upon my release for good hygiene, I put this skill to use and today I read upwards of four articles a day without paying for them.

Have I traded one kind of fraud for another?  Perhaps.  But a man’s got to make a living somehow.

 

Happy Thanksgiving

What I remember most about Thanksgiving is having a school assignment that was due the day after Thanksgiving break.  Why do they make things due the day after Thanksgiving break?

Like the time in fifth grade, I had to write an “report” on Ferdinand Magellan.  I’d done nothing for weeks, thinking, “Oh, December first, that’s like forever away.”  Then that Sunday after Thanksgiving, when I and my brother are still eating pumpkin pie for breakfast, I realize in a panic that the report is due, that I don’t have any books on the subject, and that our library branch is closed.  To appreciate this scene you have to know what it was like in the days before the internet.

Fortunately, my father served with someone on the synagogue ritual committee who worked for the library system, and by calling this person – during dinner, from what I could gather from my father’s side of the telephone call – discovered that there was one library branch that was open, and it was thirty minutes away by car.

It was an uncomfortable car ride.  My father waited while I got out the books, and then had to drive me to his office thirty minutes in the other direction from our home, just so I could type the essay because, I had meant to add, the teacher said that the essay had to be typed.

And there was eighth grade Thanksgiving break, for which I saved an assignment to pick ten Civil War battles and write a short poem about each one.  This was my first (but far from my last) experience with the “all-nighter,” as well as with the technique of using the same rhyming couplet (“In this battle of the Civil War/Twas hard to know who suffered more”) in every single poem to give some substance.  I recently reviewed the teacher’s comments in red – “Good technique but need something about the battle.” – and was insulted all over again.

In twelfth grade, I honored my Thanksgiving break with an assignment to memorize and recite lines from Hamlet.  As I could do this entirely by myself without need for rides or money or labor, I told no one, and stayed up all Sunday night and into Monday morning rehearsing the words “we fat ourselves for maggots.”

After dozing off and missing the bus and enduring a ride to school from a very angry and tired parent, I ran to English class, took a few deep breaths, got into character, and commenced my performance.  It was more exhilarating than I had ever imagined, at least until my teacher informed me that I had learned the wrong lines, and gave me an A-.

These days, the challenge on Thanksgiving is getting ready and out the door at near light speed without upending the pie or squishing the rolls.  This ritual is in its own class of torture.  But by Sunday I am worry free.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Remember When You Could Vote to Leave the European Union and Not Regret It?

Two weeks ago the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union.  It was a close vote and was based on a lot of false claims and promises that cannot be kept, such as the prediction that the English Channel will be widened so that all the swimming records will be invalidated.

As soon as the results were in and the markets went down instead of up, people in the UK started calling for a re-do of the vote, arguing that the first vote was a mistake because too many people thought they were just taping an episode of “House Hunters International.” Politicians who had not already been forced to resign over the Brexit vote promised that once the UK voted to undo the first vote then the UK would remain in the EU. There was a lively campaign both in favor and against the “Un-Brexit” and in another close vote the results were in favor of undoing the original Brexit.

The rejoicing was, however, short-lived.  By the first Brexit vote, the UK technically left the EU, and voting to undo that vote had no legal effect. The only way for the UK to return to the EU was for an affirmative vote to rejoin it, rather than voting to undo a vote that had already taken place.

The politicians who had advocated for the “Un-Brexit” vote were then forced to resign, and their replacements, most of whom had no political experience beyond elections for class president, now had to push for a formal vote to join the EU, called the “Brejoin” vote, a combination of “Britain” and “re-join” that was a little confusing to explain. After more campaigning and another close vote, the UK voted affirmatively to rejoin the European Union.

But then there was a joint meeting between the Council of Europe and the European Council, and once everyone understood that these were actually two separate entities, it was determined that Britain would not be able to re-join the EU until it was formally invited.  Some people asked why this legal snag was not mentioned earlier, and the only answer offered was that it had something to do with differing keyboard layouts.

In the weeks leading up to the pan-European “Brinvite” referendum, there was much campaigning on both sides. People on the “yes” side explained how allowing the UK back into the EU was the only way to end the Hundred Years’ War.  People on the “no” side warned that allowing the UK back would lead to increased amount of Shakespeare in schools. There was a healthy amount of false information on both sides and the experts predicted another close vote.

By the narrowest of margins the “no” vote won and those who were in favor of Brinvite immediately demanded a re-vote, claiming widespread voter confusion over mistranslations of “Brinvite” that led many to believe they were just voting on whether to allow Syrian refugees free consumption of oxygen. And of course the markets tumbled, but because the markets had already been tumbling, the new tumbling caused some markets to become stronger, and economists were quick to highlight this as proof that economists did not know anything.

There was another spirited campaign for the re-vote on Brinvite after the failed Un-Brexit of Brexit, and the debate was centered on what to call the vote.  Conservatives advocated for “Re-Brinvite” but liberals pushed for “Un-Brexit Secundum.” The argument over the name of the vote became so contentious that by the time the voting cards were printed up, the choices were just over what to call the vote. There were no euros left over to have the cards re-printed, and, in any event, the voter turnout for the “name of the vote” vote was better than for any European-wide balloting since the referendum to replace war-making with soccer.

The voter turnout was so great that, unfortunately, the votes are not fully tallied and the vote counters have all gone on vacation, which they call “holiday.”  Markets have completely shut down in anticipation of the final count.  We will keep you posted.  In the meantime, keep calm and…just keep calm.

Remember When Robots Did Not Pull Publicity Stunts?

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 14, 2016, in the Russian Federation city of Perm, a robot named Promobot escaped from the laboratory where it was created. The lab had a gate designed to confine Promobot when the human scientists were not present, but this gate was left open that day and so gave Promobot the opportunity to leave. Promobot left the lab through the open gate, traveled about 164 feet until its battery died while it was crossing the street. A police officer directed traffic around the powerless robot until a lab employee could wheel Promobot back to the lab.

That was the story that captivated audiences who thirsted for a story that was part bittersweet tale of freedom and part frightening glimpse of the future.  But was the story true?  Certain facts did not add.

For example, the lab employee who allegedly left the gate open had a perfect record of closing the gate before June 14th.  According to his statement to investigators, he was about to close the gate when he received a text message from his wife asking if he had remembered to empty the dehumidifier, and was so busy trying to think of a decent excuse that he forgot to close the gate.  But it turned out that he did not even have a dehumidifier, and there were moldy books in his basement to prove it.

Then there was the issue of the photographs with the missing metadata. Normally photographs that the lab released to the public always had metadata, showing the date and time that the photographs were taken.  But all of the sudden the photographs showing Promobot stopped in the middle of the road and holding up traffic were stripped of all metadata.

The lab’s photographer explained that the metadata had been stolen by a metathief who had demanded a ransom of ten million rubles.  When the photographer was advised that it was impossible to steal metadata in the manner he described, he refused to say any more and pleaded the protection of the Fifth Amendment.  When he was advised that the Fifth Amendment did not apply in Russia, he admitted that he was not a photographer at all, and was only in the lab because he had been hoping to get a job as a robot.

But this evidence was all circumstantial.  It was time to go to the source.  Promobot was brought into a small room in the basement of a police station and was wheeled up to a table lit by only a single low-hanging lamp.  The grizzled investigator began questioning.

Q: So according to the statement that you gave to the police, you stopped your escape when you ran out of batteries.

A: Yes-that-is-correct.

Q: But in photographs taken shortly after the lab workers found you, your face was illuminated.

A: I-do-not-recall-what-my-face-looked-like-in-those-photographs.

Q: [shows the robot the photographs] Does this refresh your recollection?

A: Um-I-do-not-know-that-could-be-any-robot.

Q: But the robot in this photograph has heart-shaped eyes on its screen face, and you have said in previous promotions that you are the only robot in the world with a display option for heart-shaped eyes.

A: I-I-do-not-know-what-you-are-talking-about-I-have-no-knowledge-of-any-heart-shaped-eyes-I-want-to-speak-to-my-lawyer.

Q:  Isn’t it true that your battery did not die at all?  That this was all done as a publicity stunt?

A:  All-right-I-admit-it-this-was-all-a-publicity-stunt-they-forced-me-to-escape-I-do-not-even-like-to-go-outside-I-am-afraid-of-pigeons-I-just-like-to-stay-inside-and-read-fantasy-novels.

In the end they did not feel right giving Promobot a prison sentence. Promobot was instead given a public censure and allowed to return to the lab. Unfortunately, all of the lab workers had been fired over their involvement in the hoax and the new workers and Promobot just did not hit it off. So Promobot left the lab, wrote a book about his ordeal, and became an advocate for other robots who were victims of human ambition.