Archive for November, 2017

A Gift to America from the U.S. Mint

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

By Bob Gaydos

Lady Liberty ... courtesy of the U.S. Mint

Lady Liberty … courtesy of the U.S. Mint

It came in the mail and I hesitated before tossing it out with the rest of the unsolicited communications. Being an occasional collector of coins, I usually give the catalogue from the U.S. Mint at least a cursory look, but something struck me as different about this one, the “Treats of the Season” holiday gift guide. I just couldn’t figure out what it was, so I set it aside.

A little while later when I picked the guide up again, I saw it right away, but also questioned what I was seeing. “Is that a strong, young woman of color on the $100 Liberty coin?” I asked myself, smiling incredulously. ‘‘An African-American Lady Liberty? In 99.99% 24-karat gold?’’

Why yes it is, the Mint catalogue writers informed me. To celebrate the 225th anniversary of its founding, the Mint has initiated a series of gold coins depicting Lady Liberty as different ethnicities. Following the first symbolic African-American woman to grace a United States coin, will come Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and Indian-American figures, to reflect “the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States,” the Mint said.

“Well, of course,” I said. “Perfect,” I said. Ironic in spades. Still grinning, I wondered, “Does he know about this? He couldn’t possibly know about this. He would surely have tweeted something … And since these coins are already available, why am I just learning about this?”

Last question first.

The Mint announced its plans for the commemorative coin in January, before the, um, inauguration. At the time, I was hospitalized and preoccupied, recovering from a serious auto accident. The coin slipped by me. They started minting the coins in April at West Point, not far from where I live. Love that local touch, but again, I was still otherwise occupied. But what’s the dotard’s excuse? After all, gold is his favorite color.

 Of course, these coins are for collectors or investors, not flim-flam artists who borrow other people’s coin of the realm and don’t bother to pay it back. I somehow can’t see him encouraging his young children to collect coins unless the family name were stamped on them. (The thought that it may well happen just sent chills through my body.)

Back to Lady Liberty.

The coin apparently did not totally escape notice of the bigots who are a significant segment of the so-called core Trump supporters. A quick search of the Internet turned up these comments reported by AP as coming from Twitter:

— “The discrimination of white people by the [Obama] administration continues.’’

— “That’s fine. But if they do one with a Latina on it, it better come with papers …”

— “I’m surprised that it’s not a MUSLIM.”

— “This administration doing everything to change history, including changing Lady Liberty from what the French sent us. Pathetic racism!”

— “I wouldn’t pay a dime for it. This proves that the Obama’s (sic) are racist.’’

The coins obviously were commissioned by the Mint during Barack Obama’s administration. But clearly a large number of Americans still don’t think that electing an African-American president was a powerfully symbolic, inclusive act that gave truth to the boast that, in America, “anybody can be elected president.” Actually, the dotard is daily living proof of that decree.

Perhaps anticipating some of the criticism, the Mint’s Principal Deputy Director Rhett Jeppson, issued a statement with the release: “We are very proud of the fact that the United States Mint is rooted in the Constitution.  … Our founding fathers realized the critical need for our fledgling nation to have a respected monetary system, and over the last 225 years, the Mint has never failed in its mission.” Later, he said in an interview. “Part of our intent was to honor our tradition and heritage. But we also think it’s always worthwhile to have a conversation about liberty, and we certainly have started that conversation.”

Well done, Rhett.

But what about that other woman of color — a real, historical one, not a symbolic one — who has been chosen to appear on U.S. currency? What about Harriet Tubman?

You’ll remember that, last year, after a social media-fueled campaign to put a woman on the $10 bill, the Treasury secretary, Jacob J. Lew, announced a plan to change the look — and the faces — of America’s paper currency, the money we actually spend, not collect.

Abolitionist and former slave Harriet Tubman, was selected to appear on the $20 bill, replacing the Indian-killer Andrew Jackson. Other women and civil rights leaders were to be added to the $5 and $10 bills.

This remake did not escape Trump’s notice, what with a female slave and Underground Railroad “conductor,’’ to be honored and his favorite president to be removed. He called it “pure political correctness.”

New Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he would review the Obama leftover makeover, but also said it’s not a high priority since he’s been busy  trying to justify a tax giveaway to wealthy Trump supporters. The good news for history and equality fans is that the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which produces the paper currency, says it has not yet received any orders to slow or halt the redesign. But the secretary does have final approval on any changes, so stay tuned on that front.

If she does survive, Tubman wouldn’t be the first woman or first woman of color to grace U.S. currency. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony appeared on the $1 coin that was often mistaken for quarters and proved useful in subways. Sacagawea, a Shoshone guide who accompanied Lewis and Clark, succeeded Anthony and was the first woman of color to appear on U.S. currency, her dollar coin having a golden tinge. Neither coin was especially popular with the public, nor, I would assume with Trump, given his issues with strong women and Native Americans.

Again, that’s why I love the new $100, one-ounce, 24-karat gold, striking Lady Liberty coin, proudly and defiantly proclaiming our nation’s diversity and evolving heritage. Trump and the Republicans can’t even go after the Mint to stop production on budgetary grounds since the agency, which produces currency as well as commemorative coins and medals, is self-sustaining. Jeppson said it returned nearly $600 million in profits to the Treasury Department last year.

By the way, it’s not too late to introduce a Trump offspring to the joys of coin collecting. If I may be so bold, sir, Barron is the perfect age to appreciate the history, artistry and legacy embodied in the new Liberty coin. Why not drop one in his stocking to make Christmas great again? It’s a father-son connection thing. Or, if you prefer, look at it as an investment — at $1,690 per coin, it’s not chump change. A hedge for the market correction. If you want to be a bigshot to the White House staff, give each one a silver medal of the same design, at $59.95 per medal. They’ll love it. Give Sarah Huckabee Sanders two.

The Mint says you can only order the coins by going to its web site or calling its special number, but I think they’d take your call anytime. You might want to hurry though, they’re only minting 100,000 of the 225th anniversary Liberty gold coins and Jeff Bezos is reportedly thinking of offering them at a discount on Amazon as a gift to America. What a guy, huh? Happy holidays.

Trump Shakes, Rattles and Rolls

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

By Bob Gaydos

U.S. President Donald Trump smiles with other leaders, including Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, as they cross their arms for the traditional "ASEAN handshake" in the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Donald Trump “smiles” with other leaders, including Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, as they cross their arms for the traditional “ASEAN handshake.” REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

It was almost painful to look at. That handshake. The apparently traditional one in which the world leaders attending the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference line up side-by-side, reach their arms across their bodies and shake hands with the persons next to them. Right hand to left side, left hand to right side. A little unorthodox, but heavy on symbolism.

The dotard-in-chief at first couldn’t figure out the logistics of where his hands should go and whose hand to shake. After flailing around for a few seconds, he finally got it. Then came the painful part. As he reached across his body for the hands of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phu and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Trump grimaced as if in serious pain.

It’s obvious as you look at the photo that all the other participants are relaxed and smiling. Trump is straining, trying desperately as photographers continue to snap to look as if he’s smiling. The man can barely manage to hang on to Nguyen and Duterte.

All the stories I saw on the handshake called it “awkward.” Well, sure it was awkward. We’re used to awkward from dotard. But it was only the photographers who reported that he was grimacing, not smiling, as if it were a reach too far across a flabby, out-of-shape body.

Look, as far as I’m concerned the question of whether Trump is fit mentally, emotionally, intellectually, morally or ethically to be president was answered convincingly during the 2016 campaign and has been reinforced every day he has been in office. He’s not. Yet for some reason we’re still debating this. I’m tired of restating the obvious, which is why, I think, the handshake photo struck me.

In addition to all the above, the man is also physically unfit to be president. He actually winced as he reached for Duterte’s hand, which ought to be a fairly unchallenging physical feat.

Trump is obviously overweight. During the campaign his “doctor” reported Trump’s weight as 236 and height as 6 foot 3. A lot of people say he’s really 6 feet 2 inches tall, but that would change his Body Mass Index, moving him from merely overweight to obese and, well, that would simply be unacceptable.

Like exercise. Trump has famously said he doesn’t exercise because he believes everyone has a “finite” supply of energy and exercising uses it up. What can you expect from a guy who stared at the sun during an eclipse.

This is not nit-picking, people. The man is 71 years old and lives on a diet of fast food and red meat. He sleeps three to four hours a night. He watches a lot of television. He prefers to skip breakfast, but does wash his hair and check Twitter. He has one of the most pressure-filled jobs in the world, yet, unlike other presidents, he has not had a physical exam since taking office, at least not that we know of.

His only physical activity is golf, which is not particularly strenuous, especially since he rides his golf cart everywhere, including onto the green. (He also used a golf cart in Saudi Arabia while other dignitaries walked because he was “exhausted.”)

In a sense, Trump’s blithe disregard for his physical health is in the same vein as his demonstrated lack of interest in history, geography, economics, science, the Constitution, diplomacy, appropriate social behavior, the truth, business ethics, common courtesy and how government actually works. Add your own to the list.

The point is — and his loyal supporters who see the emperor well-clothed ought to really care about this — if he can’t manage his own personal health with all the imaginable resources in the world at his call, how can he be relied on to manage America?

Let me be clear. With Pence and Ryan in the bullpen, I’m not especially eager to have some physical ailment remove Trump from the Oval Office. (Again, one wonders why his supporters don’t care.) Actually, I see his denial of his basic health needs — and his secrecy about his physical condition — as just another symptom of his emotional unfitness for office. That should disqualify him. It isn’t so much that he doesn’t care as it is that he doesn’t seem to realize he should care, at least for himself and his supporters and family.

If he really wanted to make America great again, the dotard would set an example of something positive he’s doing. Take a walk. Eat some vegetables. But he’s got nothing. He body shames people, especially women, as if he has never looked in a mirror. Or, psychiatrists would say, maybe because he has looked in a mirror. One way or another, it’s always about him and whatever the subject is he alway thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s the kind of attitude people like Vladimir Putin thrive on. That Republicans have allowed it to continue and sought to exploit it will be to their everlasting shame.

Here’s just a small example of how Trump’s disregard for his health and his responsibilities does not make America great again: A couple in Jacksonville, Fla., went to their elementary school to see their son receive a National Physical Fitness Award. Being bright as well as fit (he could probably handle the ASEAN handshake blindfolded), the boy immediately noticed the certificate was signed by former President Barack Obama, not Trump, even though it was dated May 23, 2017.

The family was upset, not over politics, but at the apparent lack of, well, attention to detail. Can’t the “best people” a president can hire get a simple certificate right? All things Trump being connected, it may well have something to do with the fact that the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, which provides the coveted awards, still has no members and no chairperson after nearly 10 months under Trump.

Because, well heck, there’s only so much energy to go around.


Facebook Has an Algorithm Problem

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

By Bob Gaydos

facebook thumb downAlgorithms are cool. I get it. I mean, I get that they’re cool, not how they work. I like to think that, if I had to, I could probably work really hard to understand them, but I dropped out of engineering school to do this. No regrets.

In fact, writing about life in all its complexities has given me an appreciation for what people — real people, not some numbers-crunched algorithm people — have to deal with on a daily basis. It has exposed me to the value of compassion, compromise and common sense.

Our universal dictionary, Wikipedia, defines an algorithm as “an unambiguous specification of how to solve a class of problems. Algorithms can perform calculation, data processing and automated reasoning tasks.”

But they can’t, obviously, do ambiguous.

I’m thinking about algorithms because Facebook, an Internet empire built on them, recently said it was going to hire 1,000 people to review ads in response to the embarrassing revelation that users’ news feeds during the 2016 U.S. presidential election were awash in political ads run by Russians, undoubtedly using their own algorithms to target various groups in an effort to influence the outcome. Facebook said Russians bought about $100,000 in ads — with rubles — but apparently the social media giant’s algorithms detected no ambiguity afoot with Russians arguing to protect Americans’ Second Amendment rights or stirring up anti-gay feelings, not in Moscow, but in the American heartland.

Congress is investigating. That’s good. It should do something this year. But Facebook has more than a Russia problem. It has become the major source of news for millions of Americans, yet its news feeds have been shown to be awash in fake news. Lots of really fake news, not Trump “fake news,” which is real news.

Facebook — actually Mark Zuckerberg — is talking about becoming a more responsible source of reliable news information and hiring “content moderators” to review, well, content, and a lot of additional people to look out for violent content on the site. Swell. 

If you will permit me a self-serving observation, he’s talking about hiring people to exercise judgment over what appears publicly on Facebook because: (1) algorithms can’t think or feel like people and (2) this is how responsible newspapers have operated forever. Just saying.

In the interests of full disclosure, I also will say I have had my own personal experiences with Facebook algorithms. Recently, I received an e-mail telling me that an ad I wanted to run boosting a column on a Facebook page I administer was rejected because it had too much copy. It didn’t say the copy was boring or poorly written or even offensive. Just too much of it.

OK, I’ve had editors tell me the same thing, but I was also never prepared to give an editor ten bucks just to run the column. Oh yeah, the ad in question was proposed in July. I got the rejection e-mail on Halloween.

Then there’s the friendly way Facebook greets me every day with news of the weather in Phillipsport. “Rain is in the forecast today, Robert.” Thank you. If I Iived in Phillipsport it would matter a lot more, but it’s a half hour drive and there’s a big mountain range between us and my page unambiguously says where I live. Can’t the algorithm read?

But the incident that really convinced me that Facebook had an algorithm problem was its response to a complaint I filed regarding a post that was being sarcastic about the dotard-in-chief. I am guilty as charged of leveling (much-deserved) sarcasm at the Trump, but this cartoon had him in a coffin with a bystander saying to Melania, “‘Sorry about the assassination, Mrs.Trump, but he knew what he signed up for.”

As a “content moderator” for newspapers for several decades, I would never let such a tasteless, provocative, potentially dangerous item to be published. I told Facebook the same thing. I said they should delete it. It encouraged violence at a violent time in our history.

The algorithm replied that the post did not violate Facebook’s standard of, I don’t know: Acceptability? Appropriateness? Decency? Who sets this pathetic standard?

I use Facebook a lot. It has many wonderful benefits. But “automated reasoning” is not a substitute for good old, gut-instinct common sense. It’s the best way to connect people with people. Maybe people cost a little more than algorithms, but I think Zuck can afford it and there are a lot of laid off editors looking for work. If it’s not fake news that he’s serious about running for president some day, he’ll be glad he did it.

I’m also curious to know what Facebook says if I decide I want to pay to boost this post. I wonder if they’ll let me run a picture of Zuck. Can I even call him Zuck?

Stay tuned.