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.


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.

The mysterious Beothuk of Newfoundland

Recent DNA tests have only deepened the mystery the Beothuk people of Newfoundland.

   Beothuk. Image from Mysteries of Canada

The Beothuk were reclusive compared to other Indigenous Newfoundland people like the Mi’kmaq. Their solitary nature may have contributed to their extinction.

Like all Indigenous people, the Beothuk had good reasons to avoid the settlers. The last Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died on June 6, 1829. Shanawdithit’s aunt died in captivity nine years earlier. Her aunt was captured by settlers in a raid on a Beothuk camp in which the aunt’s husband and infant child were killed.

The Beothuk thrived on marine mammals and other coastal resources but they were driven inland when the coast was occupied by Europeans. One thing that the DNA record reveals is the relatively poor land-based diet that resulted compared to the nutritional coastal marine food.

I first wrote of the Beothuk in 2014. After I wrote my column, I received an email from a man I’ll call George. He had lived in Newfoundland and thought that I might be interested in some things he had learned while living there. I was. We exchanged a number of emails and we had lengthy phone conversations.

George moved to Fogo Island years ago -it’s a small island off the coast of Newfoundland.  He got to talking with the great grandson of John Soper Holmes, a settler on Fogo Island at the time of the Beothuk. The great grandson told George that Holmes had killed and buried twelve Indians. As the story went, the Beothuk had stolen gear from his ocean-side camp. Holmes buried behind Indians behind his house. The mayor of Fogo told George that, as a child, he was told not to play up in the hills behind Homes house because Indians were buried there. George thought that these allegations should be investigated, and if true would contribute to the account of the Beothuk.

I thought so, too. I wrote up the story and sent it to George to look over before it was published. To my dismay, he recanted the story completely and I never published it. I suspect that George feared retributions from the close-knit Fogo community. I’m revealing details of the story for the first time but changed his name.

DNA analysis of the three distinct Indigenous groups of Newfoundland people deepens the mystery. Here’s what we know so far:

The last common ancestor of the three groups lived 10,000 years ago. The first group, the Maritime Archaic people, moved into Labrador and Newfoundland about 8,000 years ago and lived there until 3,200 years ago. Researchers speculate that a cooling climate made Newfoundland less hospitable to the Maritime Archaic people who were living off marine resources.

For the next 2,000 years, Paleo-Eskimo groups moved southward from the Arctic. They may have been the “skraelings” described by Norse explorers who tried to settle on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland around 1,000 A.D.

Then came the Beothuk. But from where they came is not clear. They are not related to any of the others. “I didn’t expect that,” said Vaughan Grimes, an archaeologist at Memorial University and a team member on the study. “I thought there would be more biological relationship between the groups (Globe and Mail, October 12, 2017)”

I have a feeling that there are many more stories of the Beothuk to be told. Maybe Beothuk are not extinct but survive in the lineages of Newfoundland people walking around today? Stay tuned.

Populism has lost its meaning

Use of the word populism has become more popular says Sylvia Stead, public editor of the Globe and Mail:

      Rodrigo Duterte. Image: Youtube

“There has certainly been a surge in references to ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ in The Globe. Ten years ago, each word had 317 mentions in the paper. Then there was a surge around Toronto mayor Rob Ford. In the past 12 months, the combined number of mentions rose to 1,310. And clearly the increase over the past year reflects a growth in both true populism and the appearance of populism.”

However, its meaning has become less clear. Public historian David Finch says: “the definition of populism is at odds with the racist, narrow minded, reactionary point of view of the minority now claiming to represent the majority.”

It used to mean something, such as grass-roots democracy or working class activism. Those movements are fundamental, not of the left or the right. The Reform Party was a grass-roots movement that was swallowed by the Conservative Party. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation had agrarian roots before it evolved into the New Democratic Party.

So-called populist leaders have little in common except for raw ambition,.

There are the populist wannabes like Conservative leader hopeful Kellie Leitch.  She tried to exploit the fear of immigrants in her pitch for Canadian Values. Some Canadians feared that immigrants would take their jobs, or end up being terrorists who would kill them in the streets. Instead of addressing those concerns by pointing out that immigrants actually create jobs and that most home-grown terrorists aren’t immigrants, she reinforced those fears. It was a thinly disguised attempt to emulate the power-grab in the U.S.

There are self-aggrandizing fools. There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s supporters represent working-class discontent. These formerly middle-class industrial workers have seen their incomes slip into the rank of the working poor. They awoke from their slumber to find that, while globalism has brought them cheap goods, it has sent their jobs elsewhere. Trump’s vitriol against Mexico and Canada resonates with them. Trump has no appreciation of the working class. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has clawed his way to fortune by climbing over the backs of his constituents. Calling Trump a populist leader is an insult to the genuine concerns of his base.

There are regressive, reactionary leaders like Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines. Duterte has exploited the concerns of ordinary people over deadly drugs. Duterte encourages vigilante squads to kill drug dealers. Those squads end up killing the very people who worry about drug abuse -innocent Filipinos accused, found guilty, and executed on the spot.

If not populists, what are we to call these autocratic leaders? We can certainly call them xenophobes. The vote on Brexit and the second-place showing of Marine Le Pen in France demonstrates that. Perhaps no one word will do. Instead we will have to use full sentences, even paragraphs to say what we mean.

While the meaning of populism is less clear, the fundamental concerns of the poor and working class are not. Canadians yearn for leaders who are pure of heart, not opportunists who use them as stepping stones to promote their warped ambitions.

The future of smart radios

I imagine that the future of radio will combine traditional fm with the technology of smart phones.

I’m not talking about the distant future: the fm broadcast protocols already exist and most cell phones already have an fm radio chip, although you’d never know it. Chris Burns wonders why. In his article for and he explains how you can find out if your phone has the chip:

“A whole bunch of smartphones out on the market today have FM radio capabilities – but their owners don’t know it. There’s no real good reason for this lack of knowledge save the lack of advertising on the part of phone makers. . . Today we’re listing the whole lot of phone devices that can run FM Radio right out the box.”

I first heard about the fm chip in cell phones last year on CBC Radio’s Spark. Barry Rooke explained how useful they could be. They could be used where no cell service exists and in an emergency when cell towers are down as in the wildfires of Fort McMurray in 2015.

Rooke is the executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association and he’s formed a consortium of broadcasters, including CBC, and radio listeners who would like to see the FM radio chip activated.

It doesn’t even have to be a smartphone to receive fm. A friend bought a simple cell phone in Mexico with the fm chip activated for $22 dollars, and that included free calls for eight days -no contract (it galls me how much more Canadians pay for cell phones, but that’s another column). You can hardly buy an fm radio alone for that amount.

The innovation that I imagine would be the use of graphics in smartphones. Some of the fm audio spectrum would be partitioned off for text and lo-res graphics. The text could include lyrics of the song being played and a picture of the artist, news, weather, sports, traffic, stock reports. In poor countries where the phone is more common than radios, it could include voting information, crop and commodity reports. Text and graphics could be saved for future reference.

The graphics would be stacked on the original signal with a subcarrier much in the way that left and right channels are now carried on regular fm as described in Wikipedia. The protocol already exists for car radios and would need to be adjusted for smartphones.

The best system would be a digital overhaul of the fm modulation signal. But that won’t happen because radio stations must be received by regular receivers as well as the new smart radios.

Broadcasters would never transmit a signal that can only be received by relatively few. That’s what happened when stereo radio was introduced. The new stereo signal had to be received by old mono radios as well as the new until the new technology was adopted.

The push for smart radios won’t come from cell phone service providers –they would prefer that you pay for data. It must come from broadcasters and listeners.

Bad law stifles freedom of the press

They should have called it the Suppression of Freedom of the Press Act. Instead, the Harper Government called it the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act. It was supposed to prevent cyberbullying.

It was used to spy on reporter Patrick Lagacé and find out who his sources were. The only way that whistleblowers are going to reveal corruption is if they remain anonymous. Once whistleblowers know that their identity can be revealed, they are less likely to talk to reporters.

The silence of whistleblowers is just one way of keeping the public in the dark. Former Prime Minister Harper simply refused to talk to the press. President-elect Trump has notched up his attack on the press by inciting hatred of reporters among his supporters.

Trump told supporters that journalists are “the lowest form of humanity” and that they are “disgusting and corrupt.” At rallies, crowds turned on the press shouting “CNN sucks!” and worse. Some Trump supporters have taken to shouting “luegenpresse (“lying press”),” the German slur that Nazis levelled against journalists, writes reporter Elizabeth Renzetti (Globe and Mail, November 4, 2016).

We don’t have to look far to see where this is going. After a failed coup in Turkey, President Erdogan declared a state of emergency in which he has locked up journalists and others. Journalists worry. “Turkey’s current state of emergency is being abused to indiscriminately target any and all who criticize the government.”

The silence of politicians; bad laws that deter whistleblowers; the vilification, threat of libel and imprisonment of reporters, –all threaten the flow information vital to a democracy. And there is the unwarranted intrusion through technology.

Cell phones contain a GPS chip that can be activated remotely by the service provider. A Telus Corp. spokeswoman explained that “we will provide real-time GPS locations … when ordered to by a court, in which case we are required by law to comply.” The chip serves a useful purpose when trying to locate a caller who has placed a 911 call but it’s a corruption of the technology when used to track reporters. The problem of technology goes beyond the GPS chip.

There are Stingray machines which mimic cell phone towers. When calls are made, a connection is made to the fake tower which police monitor. Triangulation is another way of locating a cell phone and there is Google Latitude. Once two cell phone users are located close together, it can be assumed that they met.

Technology is just a tool. It’s up to lawmakers to enact legislation that ensures that laws target the intended purpose. An act that was intended to target cyberbullying but suppresses freedom of the press was poorly written. Regardless, the police will use exploit poorly written laws as they see fit. RCMP Commissioner Paulson is candid:

“When you make applications to courts to seek those authorities, as long as everything is disclosed and the limits of your proposed investigative strategy are disclosed and it is understood as being linked to the evidence you are seeking, I don’t know what else the police could be asked to do.”

The trouble with coding in schools

B.C. Premier Clark’s plan to introduce computer coding in schools is full of difficulties.

Coding is now mandatory in English schools

Coding is now mandatory in English schools

Teachers aren’t trained in coding. Even if teachers were taught the basics of coding, it’s not enough says Sheena Vaidyanathan. Before she was a high school teacher in computing, she was a software engineer in Silicon Valley.

“There’s a big difference between learning the basics of coding and knowing it well enough to do it professionally,” she told Scientific American (August, 2016) “Learning coding is like learning a foreign language.” “We wouldn’t expect students to be fluent in French or Spanish because they took a couple of semesters of instruction in high school.”

Then there is the difference between being able to code and understanding the principles on which computers operate. Like math, coding is simply the expression of something more abstract. Writing computer code involves the ability to take larger problems and break them down into component parts. This requires conceptual thinking and analysis.

Computational thinking is interdisciplinary. Another experienced school teacher, Eli Sheldon, says: “I work with teachers to incorporate computational thinking into the subjects they teach, whether it’s English, or math, or biology.” “Because students are encountering the same mental tools across many different courses, they come to see how universally applicable they are, even outside of school.”

Canada’s economic disparity presents another problem. Students from affluent families will have access to computers and digital devices at home that poorer students don’t. And even those who have smart phones have a false sense of how computers work. Parents marvel at how “computer literate” their children are when the real marvel is the user interface developed by skilled developers who understand human behaviour as well as programming.

There are questions about the political and commercial motives behind the push to bring coding in schools.

Premier Clark is no fan of public schools. As Education Minister in 2002, Clark introduced Bills 27 & 28 forcing teachers back to work and banning collective bargaining. Her instance on closing schools is becoming an election issue. Underfunding and closing public schools, while expecting teachers to do more is a sure way to guarantee failure and a reason to promote private schools.

And while students should be taught the skills involved in problem solving and analytical thinking, why should schools be preparing them for specific skills that industry should provide?

What will coding replace? Curriculums are already full. It would be a big mistake to replace arts with industry-driven curricula. The tech hero, Steve Jobs, was neither a coder or hardware engineer. His skill was his artistic sensibilities that forced the redesign of clunky mobile phones and computers. It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said, “that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Coding will require a massive undertaking by training teachers, revamping courses, integrating computer science into other academic subjects and changing graduation requirements.

It’s fine to announce grand plans with a election just months away, but unless Premier Clark comes up with a plan to implement those plans, it’s mere rhetoric.