Political Poisonings — Russia’s Cup Of Tea

Think politics is vicious here in the U.S. with scathing denunciations and name-calling by both sides? Americans have absolutely nothing on the Russians. If the allegations are true, a prominent and vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin was poisoned last week to shut him up for good. Pour yourself a spot of tea, get comfy, and read on about the claimed poisoning from a cup of tea. 

The poisoning victim was 44 year old Alexei Navalny, considered the unofficial leader of Russian opposition to Putin. Back in 2012, the Wall Street Journal described Navalny as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most.”  He attempted to run against the sitting Russian president in the 2018 presidential campaign, but he was barred from doing so. The activist has publicly characterized Putin’s administration as being full of “crooks and thieves,” and his Foundation For Fighting Corruption has successfully exposed corruption among elite government officials. In July Navalny led protests against proposed constitutional amendments allowing Putin to remain in power until 2036. Bottom line? Navalny will never be Putin’s BFF. 

So if Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years, why would he just now be the target of an assassination? The short answer is that he has ticked off yet another powerful leader, Putin’s buddy, Alexander Lukashenko, the current (but perhaps not for long) president of Belarus. Lukashenko has been called “the last dictator in Europe.” And, as well as being an unpopular dictator, he’s not PC. He’s retorted that it’s “better to be a dictator than gay.”

In the days leading up to his poisoning, Navalny published videos on YouTube supporting Belarusian protests against Lukashenko. So he posted on social media. Big deal. Well, yes, it was a big deal. Navalny is quite popular; he has 4 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and 2.2 million followers on Twitter. That’s a lot of people to  hear him talk badly about two powerful and ruthless men. With both Putin and Lukashenko ticked off at him, is anyone shocked that something awful befell Navalny? Not me!

Now that we know Navalny had a target on his back and why, let’s find out what happened to him. Last Thursday Navalny was on a business trip to Siberia where he was meeting with activists ahead of upcoming local elections. Siberia? Can anything good happen in Siberia? All I know about that area is that it can get extremely cold there. But frigid weather had nothing to do with what befell Navalny. He boarded a plane in Tomsk headed home on a four hour flight to Moscow. Cue ominous music. Let’s just say Navalny didn’t make it to his destination.

After takeoff, the Russian activist began feeling sick. He broke out in a sweat and headed for an airplane bathroom where he collapsed. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing in another Siberian city, Omsk. Yes, Omsk–as in Tomsk minus the “T.” Cell phone video posted on the Internet shows emergency personnel striding down the aisle of the plane back to the restroom while a man can be heard screaming in agony. (Go on. Check out the video. You know you want to!) 

Navalny was removed from the plane and taken to the hospital. Doctors state he would have died if an emergency landing had not been made. Although Navalny is alive, he is on a respirator and in a coma. His wife, Yulia, was initially denied access to see him because she didn’t have a marriage certificate on her person to prove her spouse status. (Like you’d rush to Siberia to see to a man in dire straits who wasn’t your spouse?) 

Being a healthy individual, this sudden medical emergency gave rise to claims Navalny had been poisoned. Specifically, it was believed that poison had been placed in a cup of tea Navaly drank at an airport cafe’ prior to boarding his flight, the only thing he had consumed all morning. But to exactly no one’s surprise, the Siberian doctors reported finding no poison in the activists’ system, just alcohol and caffeine. That finding was suspicious to Navalny’s family who pointed out that he was a teetotaller. Accordingly, they sought to have him transferred to Germany for treatment.

A tense 12 hour standoff ensued when doctors refused to let Navalny be transferred abroad because they said he was too unstable to travel. Opposition figures claimed the doctors were under government pressure to cover up evidence of the attack by delaying his transfer until the poison in his system was no traceable. Navalny’s wife petitioned Putin directly to allow her husband’s transfer to Germany. Under pressure from European leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, Russia ultimately agreed to the transfer.

A medical evacuation plane transported Navalny to Berlin on Saturday where he was admitted to Charite’ Hospital. Again, to no one’s surprise, German doctors found indications of a substance used in pesticides and Soviet-era nerve agents in his system. What to do when a government critic has the nerve to oppose Putin, his government, and his dictator/buddy? Why make sure he unknowingly ingests a nerve agent, of course!

A pattern exists of Putin’s opponents dying under suspicious circumstances. Poisoning is his M.O., a familiar tool he uses against his opposition. According to Thomas Pickering, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, if a poisoning occurs, folks will believe it goes back to Putin. Multiple cases have occurred over the years of prominent Putin opponents being victims of poisonings or suspected poisonings at the hands of Russian agents. In fact, this is the second attempted poisoning of Navalny; a previous attempt occurred a year ago when he was at a detention center, his activism leading to his being in and out of jail.

European officials have called for a full Russian investigation of Navalny’s sudden illness. Russia has, of course, denied any involvement in the poisoning. Americans may be appalled, but the event is an internal Russian matter as it took place on Russian soil. Would Americans want the Russians telling our country how to handle a controversial police shooting? No, that’s an internal matter. Russians won’t take kindly to the U.S. telling it how to handle the Navalny situation either.

Regardless of how the politics plays out between the world powers or what investigators do or don’t find should an investigation go forward, Navalny is in a precarious state. He remains comatose with the extent of a possible recovery unknown. He may possibly suffer long-term nerve damage. There’s no free speech in Russia, and he’s paying for his comments opposing the powers that be with his health if not his life. And, for us Americans, the 2020 presidential election certainly cannot be as nasty as Russian politics. Russians kill with poison while Americans merely fling poisonous words.

Just WONDER-ing:

Does the Navalny poisoning sound like the plot out of spy movie to you? Do you think Putin is behind the poisoning? Should the U.S. get involved if the matter is an internal Russian one? 

U.S. Mail Delivery: Neither Snow Nor Rain — Just Money And Politics

Who would have thought that the speed of U.S. mail delivery would be a hot political topic? Well, it is 2020, so anything is possible. Cue the current uproar about the timeliness of delivery of vote by mail ballots for the upcoming presidential election. It’s not snow or rain that would be keeping the USPS from its appointed rounds. No, sir. Blame money and politics for the mail mess.

Why are mail in ballots in the spotlight? It’s a numbers game. The sheer volume of ballots expected to be cast in this manner for the upcoming presidential election is significant. Back in 2016, 1 in 4 ballots cast were submitted by mail; but a surge in mail in ballots is expected for the 2020 presidential election. In fact, a record number of ballots is likely to be sent by mail this fall.

Some states have already seen a demand for mail voting increase five times or more during the primaries. At this rate, it is possible that half or more of voters will cast ballots by mail for the November 3rd election. Using this method, they’ll figuratively be putting the stamp of approval on the candidate of their choice and a literal stamp on the envelope to mail in their ballot.

Mail in ballots are a popular choice due to the coronavirus crisis. Voters are wary of being exposed to the virus at the polls, and CDC has recommended mail ballots as a way to avoid the risk of exposure. Accordingly, an estimated 80 million ballots could be cast by mail in the rapidly approaching election. That’s a mass of mail!

Unfortunately, USPS is delivering some bad news as well as the regular mail. It’s warning states it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November 3rd election will arrive in time to be counted even if they are mailed by the required deadline. Some folks are thus sounding the alarm that voters whose ballots are not timely received will effectively be disenfranchised. “Disenfranchised” is a fancy-schmancy word meaning deprived of their right to vote.

So that we’re in good form for the upcoming election, let’s take a quick vote. Raise your hand if you have ever thought USPS delivered mail in a speedy or even timely fashion. (NOTE: My hand is NOT raised.) Although I couldn’t see your hands if they were raised, I’m betting there were none to see anyway. Hey, there’s a reason that traditional mail is called snail mail. Sure, it is way slower than e-mail is, but traditional mail was never fast to begin with. Ridiculously slow times for mail to be delivered have been occurring for some time. Of course, now that it is election time, slow mail delivery must be a political plot, right?

So the theory goes, the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy,  a major Trump supporter, is deliberately making changes to the USPS’s operations to benefit the president. DeJoy, a 63 year old former supply chain CEO, took the reins of the USPS in June. His assigned mission from the Commander-in-Chief? Make the USPS more profitable. This task is a daunting one given that the post office has lost money for years. In 2016, the postal service recorded its fifth straight annual operating loss–a whopping  $5.6 billion (that’s billion with a “B”) loss. USPS is in such dire financial straits that it is hoping to receive $10 billion from Congress  simply to remain in operation.

What has DeJoy done since taking over? He has reduced overtime (which increases payroll costs), restricted extra mail transportation trips (which result in more employee time and additional cost for operating postal vehicles), and cut other agency expenses. These measures, to no one’s surprise, has resulted in slower (and it was slow to begin with!) delivery times. AHA! A political plot for sure!

DeJoy is the first postmaster general in almost 20 years who is not a career postal employee. From the current fiscal state of the USPS, it doesn’t seem that a career postal employee makes a good top dog. DeJoy is a successful CEO with a proven business track record. Isn’t that who one would want to shake up an operation which is drowning in red ink? But no! Certainly DeJoy was only chosen because he was (GASP!) a Republican and a Trump supporter. The political plot thickens!

But wait. Is Trump improperly monkeying around with a government operation? Let’s consider what the USPS really is. The postal service, which is explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution (in Art. I, Section 8, clause 7 for you fellow political science majors), is an independent government agency of the EXECUTIVE branch. For you non-political science majors, the executive branch is the President. So President Trump is taking steps to shake up an agency in his branch of the government to make it more fiscally sound. How horrible!!!

The USPS is big business, but it is a business that’s in big trouble. How big a business it is? The postal service employs over half a million people and is the third largest civilian employer in the country after the federal government and Walmart. This big business’ big trouble is plummeting use and soaring losses.

With the increasing use of e-mail, the volume of first class mail has significantly declined. In addition to e-mail use, USPS is having to compete against private package delivery services such as Amazon, Federal Express, and UPS. Back in 2009, a proposal was made, but not implemented, to eliminate Saturday mail delivery as a cost-cutting measure.Plans were even  floated to close a number of smaller post offices to stem the flow of red ink from USPS. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t recall a hue and cry that these were political moves.

President Trump’s political opponents are currently railing against the cost-cutting measures implemented by USPS. They believe some voters will not have their votes counted if these measures take effect. To head off such a result, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling the House back from recess for an in person (not via mail) vote possibly on Saturday. Specifically, legislators will be considering proposed legislation, “Delivering For America,” that would prohibit any changes in mail delivery service prior to the November election. Hmm. That sounds like a political move.

I personally am not in the least bit concerned that my vote won’t get counted. That’s because I’m not going to rely on USPS to timely get a mail ballot in for me. I’m going to go vote in person wearing a mask, socially distancing, and utilizing hand sanitizer after handling the ballot. I’ll put the marked ballot into the machine for tallying, so I have only myself to blame if the delivery is slow.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you plan to vote in the presidential election? If so, will you be voting in person or via mail? Have you ever voted by mail in the past? Did you have any concerns about doing so? If you were the Postmaster General, what steps would you take to get the USPS back in the black? It is unreasonable to expect an agency to operate in the black?






Are You As Cognitively Sharp As A Presidential Candidate?

It’s less than 90 days before the 2020 presidential election, and voters have lots of information-gathering to do in order to make an informed choice. It’s not only must the candidates’ positions on key issues which has to be ascertained, but the status of their cognitive abilities as well. With both Joe Biden and Donald Trump in their 70’s, so a decline in cognitive abilities is a real possibility, a huge concern where an individual is becoming president of the United States.

The issue of the state in which the candidates’ heads are came to a head recently when President Trump challenged his political opponent, Joe Biden, to take a cognitive assessment test. Is this a crazy notion? Considering that Biden is 77 and would be the oldest person to become president if sworn in on Inauguration Day, the concern seems reasonable. But Donald Trump, the current president, is no spring chicken himself. At 74, he currently holds the record for the oldest individual to assume the presidency. Let’s hear it for gray power!

At least for the Republican candidate, loss of basic cognitive abilities has not (yet) occurred. How do we know this? Because the Donald aced a cognitive assessment test achieving a perfect score. In 2018 this test was administered to him at Walter Reed Military Medical Center. And he hasn’t forgotten that he passed this with flying colors, confirming his memory is intact.

Just how is a decline in someone’s cognitive abilities detected? You can give them a MoCA. No, that’s not a coffee, it’s a paper and pencil test which is used to detect a decline in mental capabilities. President Trump was the first president to take the Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test for Dementia, commonly known as MoCA. Abnormal cognitive function can be determined by this relatively simple and brief test. MoCA, used in more than 200 countries worldwide, is the most sensitive test available for detecting Alzeheimer’s.

Given the presence of the word “Montreal,” in the test’s name, it should come as no surprise that the test was developed at a public research university in Montreal, Canada. The purpose of the test is to detect cognitive impairment. According to the assessment’s creator, neurologist Zrad Nasreddine, MoCA was not meant to measure IQ or intellectual skill. 

Dementia is more prevalent with age. Thus, Nasreddine himself agrees that the status of a candidate’s cognitive abilities is a “pertinent question” when that candidate is over age 70. Joe Biden, however, bristled at the suggestion he take an assessment test. His test-y response was, “Why the hell would I take a test?” Um, perhaps because voters want to know if you are losing it before they cast a vote for you to become the leader of the free world? Backing up Biden was DNC Chairman Tom Perez who characterized a reporter’s asking Biden if he’d take an assessment test as “a stupid question.” Sorry, sir, but my momma told me that there was no such thing as a stupid question. And, if I may be so bold, isn’t it more stupid NOT to want to know if a candidate’s cognitive abilities are declining?

Assuming a candidate’s cognitive abilities need to be assessed, how does MoCA work? Well, it doesn’t take much time. MoCA consists of 30 questions which take about 10-12 minutes to complete. Thirty is the highest score which can be obtained. President Trump achieved a perfect score of thirty out of thirty. A score of 26 or up is considered normal. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)  is denoted by a score between 18-25 and can help predict dementia. Do we really want someone running our country who is “impaired” and possibly on the road to being demented?

The MoCA test questions relate to different parts of the brain and assess different cognitive domains. One such domain is orientation. An individual must be able to state the date (month, year, day), place, and city. With people stuck at home due to COVID-19, it’s not necessarily a sign of cognitive decline not to know what day it is. Don’t the days all just blend together when quarantined or working remotely?

Language abilities are another domain which is assessed. A couple of sentences must be repeated correctly and a list of all the words beginning with the letter “F” that can be recalled have to be listed. Hmm. This question might make the presidential debates more fun. Who can repeat a tongue twister twice without making a mistake? And what “F” words  can the debaters identify related to government or American history? Let’s see–Founding Fathers, Franklin, Filibuster, Felix Frankfurter, Freedom, etc.

MoCA tests abstract reasoning because that function is often impaired in dementia. Thus, a test taker must explain how two things are alike. A tough question might involve how Republicans and Democrats are alike.

A fun challenge in MoCA is to identify three animals which are pictured. If the test is to be given to presidential candidates, donkeys and elephants should surely be included. Inability to recognize the animal symbolizing one’s political party is definitely cause for concern about cognitive abilities.

MoCA may, however, need to be updated to be in synch with current practices. Test takers have to draw a clock face showing a specified time. Today, digital is in. No one may really know what time it is if we go back to looking at a a clock face.

As tests go, MoCA seems rather harmless in that it is short and fairly straightforward. While no one wants to take a test, taking it anyway has certain benefits. The stakes are high when it comes to running our country. Does it really hurt to take 30 minutes of time to assure not only the voters but yourself to rule out that declining cognitive abilities won’t impede your ability to carry out presidential duties?

Why not have both candidates take MoCA prior to the election? President Trump hasn’t taken the test since 2018. Things may have changed between then and now; the rest of the world sure has. Joe Biden is approaching 80. If he makes it to the White House, he’ll have his plate full of things to deal with. Let’s make sure in advance that declining cognitive abilities of the Commander in Chief isn’t one of them.

Sure we want to have someone who is cognitively sharp running our country. But don’t we want those electing them to also be with it?  And by with it, I don’t mean simply oriented as to date, place, and time; I mean voters should be informed on what the issues are and what the candidates’ stances on those issues are. MoCA tests ability, but voting should utilize knowledge. Let the candidates take MoCA while voters drink a mocha and get informed on the candidates and issues.

Just WONDER-ing:

When voting, do you ever consider the candidate’s mental health? Does it concern you that both presidential candidates are in their 70’s? If you were running for a political office, would you be willing to take MoCA and have the results released publicly? How much health information about a candidate is the voting public entitled to have? How informed are you on current issues and the candidates’ position on them?












America’s Most Wanted — A Murder Hornet

In 2020, there are some things we don’t want to catch, COVID-19 for example. Authorities, though, really want to catch a murder hornet right now. Personally, I don’t want to catch either, but the government’s  desperately seeking a live version of the giant pest. Why is the murder hornet #1 on their wanted list? Let’s check out the buzz on this intriguing story.

A murder hornet is the world’s largest species of hornet. Typically it is about 2 inches in length. If you have difficulty envisioning this size insect, just look at your thumb. Murder hornets are the size of an average thumb. YIKES!

Baseball and apple pie may be American, but murder hornets are not. If you hadn’t heard of them until this year, there’s a good reason; these pests aren’t native to the U.S. Also known as the Asian Giant Hornet, this bug is originally from an area stretching from northern India to East Asia. So what are murder hornets doing here in the U.S.A.? Apparently they are adventuresome things and decided to catch a ride on some cargo, likely agricultural, bound for overseas. 

Americans on the West Coast need to be warned that the murder hornets (and not the British) are coming. The hornets  invaded Washington State in December 2019 after first being spotted in Canada in August. Government authorities are hot on the bugs’ trail and, after a mere seven months, were final able to capture one on July 14th in Whatcom County, Washington. (In all honesty, I’d never heard of Whatcom County OR murder hornets until just recently.) The massive hornet’s capture was aided by the fact the bug was dead, so he had little chance of escaping. 

The government’s goal is to catch a live murder hornet. Isn’t a dead hornet as good (or perhaps better) than a live one? Nope. The plan is to catch live hornets, tag them (with presumably a bug-sized tag), and track them back to their colony. Once the colony is located, it can be eradicated. And time is running out for this eradication. It is less than two months before murder hornet mating season begins; in mid-September queens will mate with male hornets to produce little Asian Giant Hornets. Destroying nests is the only way to prevent the spread of the invasive pest. 

Is this destruction really necessary? I mean how bad can a 2 inch bug be? The answer? MURDEROUS. In Japan, Asian Giant Hornets kill up to fifty people per year. Typical beekeeping clothing is not sufficient to protect individuals from their stings; the hornets’ stingers can also pierce denim jeans. On the bright side, murder hornets don’t generally attack people or pets; however, if they feel threatened, they may go into attack mode. Their potent venom can be toxic if multiple stings are inflicted. Oh, death, where is thy sting? For murder hornets, it’s in their 1/4″ stinger.

The name “murder hornets” comes from the insects’ barbaric behavior towards other insects. These beastly hornets go through a “slaughter phase” from late summer to early fall when they attack beehives. Adult honeybees are decapitated while larvae and pupae are eaten. A hive may be totally destroyed by such an attack in a matter of a few hours. 

OK, that’s not very nice to treat the honeybees so savagely, but why should we humans be up in arms about it and seek to do in the murder hornets? The loss of honeybees will negatively affect humans as a good percentage of our food supply depends on insect pollination; bees do a majority of that work. In fact, in Washington State, one-third of the food supply depends on such pollination. So if you wondered what a bee is so busy doing, now you know. They are pollinating plants so our food will grow.

Now that we understand why murder hornets are really bad guys (er, bugs) and should be on the most wanted list, we need to know what to be on the lookout for. As yet, no murder hornet wanted posters have been displayed in U.S. postal facilities. Thus, a mug shot (bug shot?) of the winged wanted one is provided as a public service at the top of this post.

If you don’t expect to come face to face with a murder hornet, a physical description of one is good to have. In addition to being about 2″ long, these pests have large yellow and orange heads with prominent eyes (all the better to see their victims with presumably), and sharp serrated jaws. Adults sport a “wasp waist” between their thorax and fashionably striped abdomen. .

Helpful as knowing the description of American’s most wanted hornet may be, I don’t intend to get close enough to a hornet, murder or otherwise, to see if its abdomen is striped. But if an alert citizen does spot a murder hornet, that sighting should be reported. Who ya gonna call? Not ghost busters or even hornet busters. You don’t even really call anyone. If you live in Washington State, simply go online to the Washington State Department of Agriculture website to complete a Hornet Watch Report Form  You can advise you spied with your little eye a murder hornet flying by.

Government authorities are working diligently to capture a live murder hornet. How do you trap a murder hornet? So far, the tactic has been to set bottle traps out to attract them. Mice like cheese (hence you put cheese in a mouse trap), but the murder hornet’s have taken a shine to a mixed drink composed of OJ and rice cooking wine. This delicious drink (to hornets) is placed in the bottle to lure them in. Over 40 such bottle traps have been set in the immediate area where the (dead) murder hornet was captured back on July 14th; over 1,000 traps in total are currently in the field.

What happens if a live murder hornet is trapped? I’m no scientist, but I’m guessing the bug will be mad as a hornet. No worries because scientists plan to help the captive chillax in a cooler full of ice until the hornet is immobile. At that point a small tracking tag will be glued to the hornet. Not sure if gorilla glue can be used or if pest paste must be obtained for this job. After the tracking tag is secured, the hornet can be revived and released. Scientists will monitor his movements as relayed by the tiny tracking tag. When the pest makes it home to his colony, a raid will be conducted to raze the hornet’s home and wipe out the hornets. 

While I am not fond of insects in general and stinging ones in particular, it does seem sad that murder is the solution to the problem. We have to murder the murder hornets before they murder the helpful honeybees and jeopardize our food supply. Perhaps a better title for this blog post would have been “Murder, She Wrote.”

Just WONDER-ing:

If you spied a hornet, would you stop and take the time to assess its length before moving away from it? Is the murder hornet’s “slaughter phase” when it savagely kills honeybees just a part of the circle of life? Were you aware that we have the technology in place to track insects?