Government as theatre

The Trump administration doesn’t make sense as government. He has no coherent foreign or domestic policies. He fires trusted advisors regularly. White House staff wake up each morning and check their Twitter feeds to find out what bizarre direction the country is now going in.

    image: NPR

However, the Trump administration does make sense as theatre. Not exactly Shakespeare, although there may be comic elements. More like professional wrestling says Naomi Klein:

“It’s hard to overstate Trump’s fascination with wrestling (Harper’s magazine, Sept., 2017).”

He has performed at least eight times in World Wrestling Entertainment, enough to earn a place in the W.W.E. Hall of Fame. In the “Battle of the Billionaires,” he pretended to beat wrestling champ Vince McMahon and shaved McMahon’s head in front of the cheering throng.

Trump honed his infotainment skills in front of live audiences. As president, whenever he wants a feel-good moment he assembles crowds of supporters and whips up the crowd with the standard rhetoric of wrestling.

His campaign followed the and true wrestling script: invent heroes and villains. Mock the villains with insulting nicknames like “Little Marco”, “Lyin’ Ted.” Stir up the crowd with over-the-top insults and chants like “Killary,” and “Lock her up.” Direct the crowd’s rage at the designated villains: journalists and demonstrators.

“Outsiders would emerge from these events shaken, not sure what had just happened,” says Klein, “What had happened was a cross between a pro-wrestling match and a white-supremacist rally.”

President Trump’s plans to meet with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, if it ever happens, will have the circus-like feel of a wrestling match. Each leaders boasts of having a bigger rocket than the other. They trade insults, Trump calling Jong-un a “little rocket man.” Jong-un calling Trump a “Mentally deranged dotard (senile old man).”

Trump will promote the match as having high stakes. If Trump wins –and in wrestling, the hero always wins- Kim will have to eat humble pie. Trump will symbolically shave Kim Jong-un’s head.

That’s how Trump will spin the meeting. The reality is a bit different. Trump is not bargaining from a position of strength. While he does have the potential to bomb North Korea out of existence, that would also destroy much of South Korea. Kim Jong-un’s stature is elevated to that of a world leader as a result of the proposed meeting with Trump.

Trump is not bothered at all about the political reality, his concern is ratings. Klein explains:

“So Trump sees himself less as a president than as the executive producer of his country, with an eye always on the ratings. Responding to the suggestion that he fire his press secretary, he reportedly said, ‘I’m not firing Sean Spicer. That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.’”

It’s a mistake to think of Trump as a politician. He ran for office as reality show host and won because he isn’t a politician. He is skilled at attracting attention to himself with crude, audacious, contradictory, untrue and insulting remarks.

It works. In a world that’s increasingly narcissistic, Trump is skilled at drawing attention to himself with his clever wrestling shtick.


Blockchain could revolutionize global banking

The era of globalization is drawing to a close. Evidence of that has been made clear by President Trump’s withdrawal from global affairs, his attempt to build an economic and physical wall around the United States. It’s a clumsy attempt to express the genuine concerns of Americans who have been left out of the prosperity reaped by a few.

     image: Urban Forex

Two billion people around the world have no access banking. They are unable to make loans to start small businesses; they have no credit, and no means of sending or receiving money.

And the rest of us have is rigged banking system. We are nickeled and dimed in every banking transaction and pay exorbitant interest rates on credit cards.

We are told that a healthy banking system is fundamental to a healthy economy. Yeah, right. Banking funnels money into the pockets of the rich who have so much that it just lays around in piles, uninvested, while worthwhile social programs and enterprises go threadbare.

When U.S. banks failed during the Great Recession of 2008 -because of bad business practices- they were bailed out with taxpayer’s dollars. They were rewarded for bad investments while homeowners who couldn’t pay bank-approved mortgages were thrown out on the street.

Not only is there an asymmetrical relationship between banks and clients in terms of wealth distribution, there is also an imbalance of transparency. While banks know exquisite details about us, we know practically nothing about them. Social scientist Shoshana Zuboff calls this one-sided, extractive interaction “surveillance capitalism.”

The technology of blockchain holds promise to restore balance and eliminate excessive fees through use of a universal digital currency, or cryptocurrency.

The first digital currency, Bitcoin, leaves people wondering. It has a reputation of being highly speculative.  But there are many versions of cryptocurrencies that would work and many possible versions of blockchains –the digital ledger which records transactions.

The advantages of cryptocurrencies over banking are that your money is held in a digital wallet and easily accessed; credit card payments are quicker and less expensive; you remain relatively anonymous (pseudonymous) with minimal information shared; you are the master of your money, there are no banks or boundaries to the flow of money.

If it all seems to be too good to be true, there are hurdles. One is just who controls access to your digital money. If banks control applications that access cryptocurrency wallets, we can expect business as usual. Cultural anthropologist Natalie Smolenski explains:

“This is the crux of blockchain’s catch-22: the public won’t use blockchains without user-friendly applications. But user-friendly applications often achieve that ease through centralization, which replicates the conditions of control that blockchains sought to circumvent (Scientific American, January, 2018)”

A new era would bring public control of cryptocurrencies. As Bitcoins have demonstrated, we already have a blockchain that is open-source and maintained by a global network of volunteer core developers. We have a network of individually-owned computers that process the indelible transactions –a process called “bitcoin mining.”

“Creating digital identities whose existence is independent from governments and corporations is the next grand challenge that blockchains both pose and could help solve,” says Smolenski.

With the dawn of the era of a “Universal New Deal,” cryptocurrencies could redistribute wealth and put money in the hands of those who will spend it.

The titans of technology have feet of clay

Technology seems unstoppable. The accumulated wealth of the Big Five: Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, have a combined value of $4 trillion. That’s more than twice Canada’s annual GDP.

     image: Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal

Wall Street also looked unstoppable before the crash of 2008. Cryptic investments made amazing returns but finance wizardry also has feet of clay. Conor Sen, business columnist for Bloomberg Views, summarizes that vulnerability:

“Markets became irrational about how profitable the financial sector could become relative to the underlying economy, and in response to these market pressures, finance came up with increasingly elaborate schemes to make money that weren’t sustainable (Globe and Mail).”

Facebook and Google have the advertising world wrapped up. The clever duo don’t have to hire reporters to dig up news because users generate their own content.  Facebook and Google and benefit in three ways: by encouraging users to generate content, collecting detailed profiles of users, and then selling advertisements to those very users. Users happily post pictures of adorable kittens, videos, inflammatory and sometimes interesting comments (but not much actual news).

While Facebook and Google couldn’t care less about the loss of newspapers and other news sources, they should be worried about the financial health of their advertisers. Companies can afford to advertise only because they are viable. Amazon is profitable because third-party vendors choose to sell on Amazon.

“In other words,” says Sen, “for the most part, the big five tech companies exist at their current size and scale only because they serve a larger underlying economy of profitable companies.”

Tech giants exist in an economic ecosystem. There has to be a balance between the top predators and the health of the ecosystem which they feed. There’s going to be trouble for the big fish once the little fish stop feeding them.

Tech giants don’t just suck only advertising revenue from traditional sources. They also provide services that didn’t exist when newspapers ruled; like the cloud computing services provided by Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Cloud computing also depends on a viable economy.

The titans of technology could harm the very businesses they depend on. For example, Blue Apron, a meal-delivery company, has been a prolific online advertiser. What if Amazon were to establish a company and put Blue Apron out of business? It’s not inconceivable. Last year, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $17 billion and even the world’s biggest retailer Walmart took notice. Target is cutting advertising to stay in the game.

Fossil Group has been struggling lately. Sales of their watch have been dropping, perhaps because of the popularity of Apple Watch. If Fossil Group starts to cut back on advertising, Facebook and Google would lose ad revenue. Amazon would lose sales of the Fossil watch as well.

Owning a newspaper used to be a licence to print money. The marriage of news and advertising seemed solid. Now readers get “news” from the internet. Selling advertising on a medium where the content is generated by the target audience seems like a sure thing.

Amazon, Google and Facebook have a parasitic relationship to the economy. Other than advertising and marketing the products of others, their contribution to the economy is minimal.

The beaver is Canadian

The beaver exemplifies what it means to be Canadian. Rachel Poliquin puts it this way:

“Humpbacked and portly, with an earnest and honest charm, beavers epitomize the Canadian spirit of unpretentiousness, integrity, and industriousness (Canada’s History magazine, Aug/Sept, 2017).”


The beaver has not always been regarded as exceptionally hard-working. Canada’s indigenous people viewed them as skilled builders, healers, and earth-makers but not any more hard-working than coyotes or porcupines.

Eurasian beavers were hunted to near extinction. Ancient physicians regarded the beaver’s smelly sent organs as a potent medicine. Beavers would give off the smell to repel attackers, a bit like a skunk. Mistaking the castor sacs that held the scent for testicles, early Europeans thought the beavers bit off their testicles and shed their fur to escape capture. The Greek fabulist Aesop had this to say:

“If only people would take the same approach and agree to be deprived of their possessions in order to live lives free of danger; no one, after all, would set a trap for one already stripped to the skin.”

Eurasian beavers were seen by Christian moralists as models of chastity, austerity, and prudence.

Beavers were so rare in Europe, that by the time that Europeans arrived in North America, they saw them for the first time. They were so impressed by the rodent’s architectural abilities that they imagined a beaver society that could achieve such wonders.

The seventeenth-century French aristocrat, Niclolas Deny, outlined what he saw as a beaver society in which specific tasks were assigned such as cutting down trees, making stakes, with the oldest carrying dirt with their tails. The construction of beaver mansions was overseen by foremen. Beaver carpenters, ditch diggers, log carriers, ensured a high standard of construction. If any workers were neglectful, the foreman “chastises them, beats them, throws himself on them, and bites them to keep them at their duties,” wrote Denys.

Denys’ views mirrored the society in which he grew up. Great public works could only be achieved by keeping the grunt labourers in line. Whipping them into submission was an accepted means of accomplishing a greater good.

Europeans wondered what kind of political structure the beavers preferred. Of course, since only rich aristocrats could afford to explore, beavers must have preferred aristocratic overseers.

Aristocratic beaver society served as a model for settler society. Lazy beaver workers would have the fur stripped from their backs, it was imagined, and banished from beaver society to live their lives, exiled, in holes.

This was a convenient tale to tell independence-minded settlers, many who were escaping social upheaval in Europe. It was to keep settlers under the thumb of aristocrats. Poliquin explains:

“Outcast beavers also offered a moral lesson for habitants who were tempted to go primitive and become coureurs de bois. Venturing into the wilderness to seek their fortune in furs, coureurs de bois were naturally vilified by the ruling classes and bourgeois fur merchants. Living like vagabond beavers, they refused the duties of societies and acquired a taste for wandering and its associated vices. Repent now, the fable almost warns, lest you end up in a dark and dirty hole with no coat on your back.”

Modern Canadian beavers have escaped the tyranny of aristocracy and live in well-insulated homes. They come out of their dens to vote every four years. Unpretentious, yet a bit smug, they imagine their society to be better than others such as the one to the south.

The rise and fall of globalization

As the sun sets on globalization, what will a new day bring? The new era will face challenges of rampant parochialism, environmental destruction, inequality and greed.


The dawn of globalization was unremarkable. Yanis Varoufakis, professor economics and former finance minister of Greece gives the date:

“On Aug. 15, 1971, then-president Richard Nixon announced the ejection of Europe and Japan from the dollar zone. Unnoticed by almost everyone, globalization was born on that summer day (Globe and Mail).”

Before Globalization, it was the dawning of a New Deal (1944). A clever plan, it gave America’s former enemies the resources to rebuild through arrangements such as the Marshall Plan. As an industrial power, the U.S. had shiny new things to sell; now Germany and Japan had money to buy them.

The New Deal ushered in a Golden Age of prosperity. Well-paying jobs, unionization, opportunity grew.  The middle class expanded and inequality shrank.

As a baby boomer, I remember that era. After I graduated from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Electronics, I had a choice of well-paying secure, jobs. After I quit one job and traveled around the world, I easily found another.

The era of globalization in the 1970s promised to reduce global poverty. Before it began to rot at its core, it blushed with ambition.

“Mr. Nixon’s decision was founded on the refreshing lack of deficit phobia particular to American decision-makers,” says Varoufakis. “Unwilling to rein in deficits by imposing austerity . . . Washington stepped on the gas to boost them.”

World-wide prosperity also produced global industrialization. Americans went into debt to buy exports from Germany, Japan and later, China. The American administration didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t care, that cheap global labour was at the heart of industrial decay at home. Why should they care when money was pouring into the U.S. as well as cheap goods?

The flow of global money into the U.S. seems counterintuitive. If Americans were buying global goods, it would seem that the money should be flowing the other way. The magic of Wall Street made it happen.

The deregulation of banks was a catalyst for the financial wizardry of Wall Street. Global investors were attracted by higher interest rates generated by mystical, incomprehensible, investment devices such as derivatives. A lot of the investments went into loans to home-owners who had no way of repaying them.

Then, in 2008, the rabbit no longer emerged from the magician’s hat and the whole financial edifice fell apart.

All that remains of the sad tatters of globalization is massive inequality and loss of jobs in the Western world. Most money sits idle in the hands of the rich while the poor struggle without. Varoufakis characterizes it:

“Its crisis is due to too much money in the wrong hands. Humanity’s accumulated savings per capita are at the highest level in history.”

As globalization sinks below the horizon, two options emerge. One is the walled-state proposed by President Trump and the Brexiters in the U.K. The other is a Universal New Deal that redistributes global wealth, creates new jobs, and lifts the burden of consumer debt.

If such a new deal seems unlikely, it’s worth remembering that the first New Deal and globalization were as well. And if we need an issue to rally around and mobilize action, as World War II once was, we need look no further than the biggest threat to humanity: climate change.

Self-administered death made easier

A new drug in Canada will make medically-assisted death easier. It can’t come soon enough.

image: Bayshore Healthcare

If I had a terminal illness that made my life a living hell, I would want medical assistance in dying (MAID). Since it has been legal in Canada since 2016, it should be easy. All I have to do is find a doctor who is willing to administer the drugs. And then make sure I’m living in the right place -that’s where things get tricky, as Horst Saffarek found out.

Horst Saffarek lived in a Catholic residential care facility in Comox, B.C. When his lungs began to fail, he wanted help in dying. The publicly-funded Catholic institution wouldn’t allow MAID at their facility, citing moral principles.

Horst was becoming frailer each day and breathing became difficult. His daughter, Lisa Saffarek, told CBC’s The Current:

“It’s scary, you know, especially when you can’t breathe, every moment is scary.”

Horst was faced with the choice of essentially suffocating to death or he could be transferred to a facility that allowed MAID. He was transferred to Nanaimo where he would have to wait ten days as required by law.

I can only imagine the terror that he was going through: struggling with every agonizing breath and seeing relief being delayed.

“Dad was obviously very frail,” said Lisa Saffarek, “We did need to transfer him. He was ended up, you know, his oxygen levels were falling, and we wanted to try and meet his wishes.”

The transfer from Comox to Nanaimo, an hour and a half ride by ambulance, was gruelling. Horst Saffarek died the day after the transfer without the comfort of MAID.

Not only was Horst Saffarek’s suffering needlessly prolonged, but his family felt anguish as well. Lisa and her sisters had planned to spend the last moments of their father together but they were robbed of that:

“But it just – it took away from us being able to celebrate dad and just to enjoy our last moments with him.”

The law protects doctors by allowing them to opt out of MAID. Institutions have no such legal option. Religious healthcare facilities receive public funding same way that others do. If a procedure is legal, and public funds are involved, how can an institution prohibit it?

In small centres like Comox, religious healthcare facilities are the only ones in town. Because they employees are not necessarily religious, and neither are the patients, the title “religious facility” loses meaning. In reality, they are public facilities with an historic religious origin.

The solution is to take matters into one’s hands. A new drug has been made available to make that happen. Secobarbital, the most common drug used in many countries, is now available in Canada. Unlike existing drugs that can take a long time, Secobarbital is fast-acting, doses are a relatively small in volume, and self-administration is easy.

Existing drugs can take hours, even days, to work. They taste bad. They don’t work if they cause nausea and vomiting, or when the patient falls asleep before consuming the large volume required.

For those who suffer from an agonizing terminal illness but live in remote or small communities where there is only one doctor who doesn’t provide MAID, or they live in a care home that decides to flout the law, Secobarbital could provide relief.

Horst Saffarek’s experience leaves me wondering why I should suffer the vagaries of the anachronistic legacy of institutions, and other’s moral values, that impose themselves on my life and death. Whose life is it, anyway?



The future of blockchain mining in B.C.

Blockchain mines look nothing like copper mines. They are banks of computer that toil away at solving complex calculations. Blockchain is the digital ledger used by many cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Because the computers generate heat, they could be used to warm the greenhouses to grow the tonnes of marijuana needed for Canada’s budding legal market.


Blockchain is a revolutionary way of tracking secure, indelible transactions of any sort not just cryptocurrencies. Experts say it will revolutionize businesses in every field. Manav Gupta, chief technology officer of IBM Cloud Canada, is enthusiastic:

“We view blockchain as having the potential to change all of technological interactions the same way that the internet changed communication in the nineties (Walrus magazine, Jan/Feb, 2018).”

Where the value of Bitcoins is highly speculative, the value of blockchain is solid. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop blockchain from being caught up in a goldrush mentality. Irrational investors are madly rushing into some dodgy speculations. Convinced that anything with “blockchain” in the title is “the next big thing,” investors threw $2 billion into blockchain startups worldwide. One company saw shares rise 394 per cent by just adding “blockchain” to its name.

Blockchain can be used to secure any vital records such as medical files, business deals, legal agreements, tracing shipping containers, farm-to-market food security; even professional and academic records which are now open to fraud. Walmart and Nestle have already invested in blockchain.

Bitcoin miners loan their computers to solve the complex blockchain calculations required for each transaction. Miners are paid in Bitcoins in return. Drew Taylor has a Bitcoin mining operation in his Montreal house. He earns about $3,000 a month and pays additional costs of $200 for electricity. The computers generate a lot of heat. “But essentially it is free heat for at least one room,” he told CBC Radio’s The Current.

The amount of power used for each Bitcoin transaction is shocking high. Alex de Vries monitors the power used in Bitcoin mining. Just one transaction uses as much energy as the average B.C. household uses in 13 days. That’s 300 kilowatt-hours for each transaction. Researchers are looking for ways to reduce the power consumption.

The best place to locate Bitcoin mines is in places where the electricity is cheap. Montreal has relatively cheap hydroelectricity. Iceland has a large mine because the majority of their energy comes from geothermal and steam. Unfortunately, not all cheap energy is as green. China and India do most of the mining where the electricity is cheap but produced by burning dirty coal.

Once B.C.’s Site C dam is completed we will have lots of cheap, surplus electricity that could be put to use in blockchain mining.

Blockchain mining is comparable to copper mining because both use a lot of electricity. Highland Valley mine near Kamloops uses as much electricity as 60,000 homes, about twice what Kamloops uses.

An advantage of blockchain mining is that a secondary industry could use the waste heat. Marijuana greenhouses could use the computers as heaters so that not one kilowatt hour would be wasted. In addition, blockchain mines could be located near the dam to avoid the cost of transmitting electricity.

The digital mine would employ workers close to home in small towns in B.C. Instead of using our dam power to run LNG compressors, we could put people to work mining digital dollars and growing marijuana for Canadian’s burgeoning market.