Stained Glass Gazette 09/26/18: Places That Exist

Most weeks, the news goes like this: Trump did a thing, Trump didn’t do a thing, and these people reacted in this way to the things Trump did or didn’t do. Trump’s power is that the people who hate him care about him even more than the people who love him. This week puts that in stark relief.

Everyone I know is talking about one thing: the UN reacted in this way to the thing Trump did or didn’t do. The people who hate him are especially interested in this, and are doing exactly what Trump wants: forgetting the rest of the world exists and focusing exclusively on U.S. issues during what should be the one time when everyone realizes that things actually do happen in other places, too.

Let’s talk about some of those places.

Blockchain Supply Chains

This might be the most important story I’ve seen come out of the UN meeting, but it probably won’t be talked about too much. Like with most technological advances throughout history, people don’t understand blockchain very well and so they either fear or mock it. I admit I don’t know the details of how it works too well myself, but I don’t know how the computer I’m typing on right now works, either. Chances are you’re not scared of computers, and you won’t be scared of blockchain in ten to twenty years, either.

As with computers, I think it’s more practical to understand what blockchain does than how it does. It’s most famous for its use in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but it’s basically a decentralized and self-encrypting code. It creates itself using math, adding blocks to the ones already there. Anytime you use the blockchain, such as when you use Bitcoin, you store a copy of the entire blockchain code since the beginning. If you have a bitcoin wallet, you also have a record of every single transaction that’s ever been made using bitcoin. You could try to commit fraud with bitcoin by editing your record, but the code can check itself against the millions of other records and see that yours is wrong. Since everyone owns a full blockchain, nobody owns the blockchain itself, not even the people who created it.

To sum up, blockchain is a code that nobody owns and nobody can control or regulate. It’s theoretically impossible to hack it, decrypt it, or erase it. A government can make it illegal for their citizens to use cryptocurrencies, but it would be extraordinarily difficult to enforce the ban unless they totally banned the internet in their country as well–and even then people would probably find a way. In other words, a dictator could prohibit trade completely with another country, but would find it very difficult to stop the people from still trading with that country if they were making transactions using blockchain technology.

That was a lot of explaining. The key point is, the UN World Food Programme is experimenting with ways of using blockchain technology to provide humanitarian aid, and that’s exciting. Most recently, they’ve started using blockchain technology for supply chain management in Africa. Remember how I said it’s practically impossible to hack or erase the blockchain? This means every time supplies are sent out, everyone will have equal access to the record of what is supposed to be where and when. If someone tries to fudge the numbers, everyone will know about it. The refugees, the aid workers, and the authorities in charge will all have equal power to keep each other honest.

It may not be the most glamorous use for a groundbreaking technology, but this is barely scratching the surface of what blockchain is capable of. And if a few more supply shipments get through to the people who need them, I’m sure that will make all the difference in the world to the people on the ground.

This program builds off of an earlier initiative, which has been successfully teaching Syrian refugee women in Jordan to manage and control their personal data on a blockchain system.

Russian Altruism

Speaking of Syria, it looks like Russia is making moves to lock down its interests in the country. Russia wants a foothold in the Middle East, and has issued warnings to Western powers about meddling in its plans. The West obviously isn’t thrilled about it, but the reporting on the ground suggests that Syrians have been far happier with Russian intervention than anything Western powers have been able to achieve. France has also expressed support for a peace accord between Russia and Turkey to create a demilitarized buffer zone.

Beyond military intervention, Russia has been establishing deep trade roots with partners in Syria. They’re also helping rebuild infrastructure like roads and pipes that were destroyed by war in the country. While Russians are willing to do the work, they are asking the UN to help foot the bill.

This is a complicated and ongoing situation with many moving parts involved. My goal, as always, is to try and see through both sides. If you live in the West, like me, you’ll probably hear a lot about how all of this is part of a sinister Russian project to take advantage of Syria and increase their power on the world stage. I totally agree that the move is probably less purely altruistic than Russia would claim. On the other hand, Russia has done a lot more actual good in the region than any Western power would be willing to admit. Regardless of which country you live in, don’t forget that every leader is using rhetoric to get something they want.

Especially yours.

Whiter than White

I’ve never been to Sweden, but the less rational part of my brain totally buys into the fallacy that my Swedish ancestry gives me some kind of connection to the place. I like a lot of things about Swedish culture, but do sometimes wish I weren’t descended from literally the whitest people on the planet, especially when the other side of my family is German. Talk about white guilt.

You’d think that Swedish racists would feel pretty comfortable with their situation. There’s a non-zero chance that you could live your whole life there and never meet a person who isn’t paler than fresh-fallen snow. Not that I really want to put myself in the head space of a white supremacist, but the best I can figure is that they’re fired up by how close they are to what they want. An American Nazi knows in his heart that it would be impossible to make their country purely white. A Swedish Nazi, knowing they’re almost there already, might be inspired to continue the crusade or whatever.

Anyway, this is more of an abstract thought than something that’s actually happening. I’ve been seeing on the news that there’s no government in Sweden and a Nazi coalition is surging up to fill the vacuum of power. On the other hand, I’ve heard from people who live in Sweden that U.S. news outlets are radically exaggerating what’s going on there and there’s not really any crisis.

Even when you try to figure out what’s going on in the rest of the world, the United States does it’s best to thwart you.

Stained Glass Gazette 09/12/18: Student Mercenaries and Starbucks Frapuccinos in Mexico City

Today’s stories hit close to home for me. They all surround an ongoing conflict at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM, Mexico’s largest university. The UNAM campus, CU, is located a few colonias to the south of where I live, a short bus ride away. I’ve been to the campus, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to admire it’s museums, gardens, and towering library adorned with famous Orozco murals. I know people who study here.

First, I’ll explain what’s going on for anyone who hasn’t heard about. The story is all over the news here, of course, and is even reaching U.S. and Canadian outlets. Then I’ll approach it from two other angles I have not seen covered on the news, which came to me from those with firsthand experience.

Porros and Protests

On August 27, a small group of UNAM students gathered to protest the kidnapping and murder of a female student, and moreover, the reluctance of university staff and city officials to do anything about this and similar incidents. Violence is not unheard of on campus, and drug trafficking is rampant. One source tells me you can find pretty much any drug you want in CU, and you don’t have to be especially street smart to do it. It’s an open secret that the dealers have hung out in the same locations for decades.

While the protest was getting under way, a number of buses, travelling from the bordering State of Mexico, rolled up to the area and large groups of fellow students emerged. These students were not here to join the protest. In fact, they fell upon their peers with sticks, stones, knives, explosives, and Molotov cocktails. Fourteen protesters were injured and two were seriously injured to the point of needing emergency surgical attention.

The premeditated and highly organized attack was carried out by a student group at UNAM. Referred to as Porros, the nature of this group is tricky to pin down. They’ve been around since the 30s, and are sanctioned by the university despite a long history of violence and criminal activity. Porros were even involved in the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre, when the government gunned down student protesters who were making Mexico look bad during the Olympics.

The official purpose of the porros is to show university spirit at football matches. They were formed when existing groups–university gangs, the authoritarian government, and devious elements within the UNAM faculty and football teams–found their interests had aligned. Porros are firmly entrenched on campus, and act on behalf of politicians or institutions who pay them to suppress political dissent.

Imagine porros as an extreme version of a frat. Before anyone gets offended, I know there are many innocuous and law-abiding frats. I also know for a fact there are frats who act to cover up sexual assaults committed by their members, commit rampant acts of vandalism, and get involved in serious crimes like theft and trafficking. In some cases, university faculty are aware of foul play but will sweep it under the rug to protect the system unless and until the heat gets out of control.

UNAM reacted by expelling 18 of the alleged attackers. Sadly, this is an improvement over how such an incident would have been handled in the past, but was not nearly enough for this generation of students. A week after the event, another protest met at CU, and this time attendants numbered in the thousands.

Sor Juana’s Support

The massive movement organized by UNAM students sparked solidarity all over Mexico City, and students from a number of universities have staged their own protests. Even the faculty of 41 other institutes got involved–in exactly the wrong way.

My girlfriend, Venezia, attends El Claustro de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a relatively small yet prestigious university known for its programs in the fields of literature, science, and culinary studies. The student body is composed of what people would more-or-less-affectionately call chairos. The U.S. equivalent would be someone from Portland sporting a fedora and neck beard, sipping a vegan soy latte and getting stoned out of his mind while explaining how communism is a totally valid system, it just hasn’t been done the right way yet.

Basically, radially liberal, suspicious of authority, and not shy about speaking their mind (often through avant garde mediums such as street art or interpretive dance).

In response to the attacks, Sor Juana was among the schools issuing statements of support for UNAM and its students. The statement, written by faculty, was addressed from faculty and students, igniting fury in the student body. Classmates and friends of my girlfriend are now furiously organizing a march protesting their own school, and the movement has met with overwhelming support from fellow students.

The students of Sor Juana have no problem condemning the violence, of course. In fact, porros are exclusively male and, while they commit violence against everyone, more of it happens to women. Sor Juana is a sanctum for feminists in a city that isn’t always kind to them, so the attack struck a chord.

The issue is that the statement expressed support for the faculty of UNAM, who theoretically stand against this kind of violence. Despite the expulsion of a handful of porros–many of whom are registered with the university in name only and do not attend classes, making expulsion a meaningless punishment–the university has taken no steps to remove porros from campus. Porros are an institutional problem and they depend on UNAM for support. To many students, statements that express solidarity with the institution of UNAM are in fact expressing solidarity with the porros themselves.

To recap the story so far, we have students protesting institutional violence on campus, who are being lumped together and supported with the very people they are protesting in statements made by other universities, which are now being protested by those universities’ other student bodies.

You might want to read that over a few times to make sure you’ve got it. The next wrinkle takes this story to the realm of the surreal.

The Starbucks Angle

While all this is going on, another university, Tecnológico de Monterrey, is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Tec is the Mexican equivalent of an exclusive Ivy League school. In fact, our current-but-not-for-much-longer president graduated from one of its campuses. People feel about Tec students about how you’d expect. Chances are, none of them have specifically done any wrong to you, and many of them are even really smart and probably worked really hard to get in. Despite your best efforts, you still can’t help but vaguely resent them for the fact that they come from rich families and their lives are constantly being made easier by the fact their parents know the right people.

To celebrate their anniversary, the university partnered with Starbucks to launch a brand new beverage in their honor: the sugary blue Starbucks Frapuccino Tec.

UNAM students took note and began lambasting the university and its students on social media, for taking part in such a petty celebration of capitalism and privilege while much more important issues are going on.

I admit it seems like poor timing, although nobody planned for their anniversary to fall on such an unfortunate date. And no, there isn’t more to this story: the UNAM protests and the Tec celebration are in no way connected, and never would have been if a few enterprising students hadn’t decided to stir up controversy.

It is a perfect storm for generating controversy. The Tec celebration isn’t hurting anyone and has nothing to do with what’s going on at UNAM. Still, Starbucks being Starbucks, and Tec being Tec, the whole thing just feels like a case of capitalism and privilege run amok, even if no one can articulate why.

While the initial attacks were unprovoked, some members of the Tec student body were all too happy to clap back, playing right into the worst stereotypes by making fun of UNAM students for their lower class status. The common refrain has been that UNAM students are all too happy to use protests as an excuse to get out of classes and work. They aren’t politically motivated, they’re lazy.

That’s frankly awful, but certain UNAM students are doing their best to one-up their rival rival students in sheer cruelty. Almost exactly one year ago, Mexico City was rocked by a devastating earthquake, and the Tec campus was hit especially hard. Now some UNAM students are making the deaths of fellow students and the destruction of their campus into a joke at Tec’s expense.

The crime that started all this was horrible, and I’m glad people tried to take action. Now, as always seems to happen, we’ve reached the point where things have spiraled out of control. Battle lines are being drawn over petty and unrelated issues. This is no time for nuance, you’re either With Us or Against Us. It’s about proving you belong to a tribe and virtue signalling rather than making a difference.

How did we get to this point and what should we do about it? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Not only do I lack answers, this story lacks an ending. These events are ongoing, and I don’t know what happens next. No one does.

Stained Glass Gazette 29/08/18: We’re All Elon Now

As much as I like the whole “stained glass” metaphor for my approach to events, I wonder if I messed up by not calling this column “Desdenews”.

Anyway, I’m trying a new format: one U.S. story, one Mexico story, and one story from outside North America.

Elon Musk and the Celebritization of Literally Everything

Yesterday I came across a heated debate in my twitter feed. Did Musk cry? If so, does this make him anti-women? Does the fact that he denies crying make him anti-men?

As of this writing, I still have no idea what he was or was not crying about. That might sound like shoddy journalism, but it’s actually my point. I’m currently uninformed about the news of the day because I’m unclear about the extent of emotion one businessman may or may not have expressed.

Today, I searched his name and was immediately presented with these three headlines from the same website (Forbes):

  • Stop Worrying About Elon Musk
  • Don’t Bet Against Elon Musk
  • The Scrutiny of Elon Musk

I’ve noticed over the past year or so that, at least within my echo chamber, it’s gone from being cool to love Musk to being cool to hate him. I’m not entirely clear on why, though I think it has something to do with capitalism and Musk acting cocky on social media.

The first article I referenced generally praises Musk while simultaneously urging him to step back from his companies and delegate more to his staff. The second refers to Aristotle to explain that Musk is a genius and all geniuses are insane, and also Musk should stop using twitter. The last argues that Musk should actually double down on his current path because it’s worked so far.

Everyone has an opinion. Elon Musk is definitely an interesting guy, and I can’t fault people for wanting to talk about him, but I feel this should be a separate conversation from the one about actual business matters at SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. As far as I can tell, however, they are inextricably linked. Opinions about Musk’s morality and sanity aren’t idle cocktail chatter about the human condition, but a defining conversation about business.

I noticed something similar with the last U.S. election. When Trump was elected, everybody was talking about how everything had changed forever, either for the best or for the worst. To me, the revolutionary element has nothing to do with Trump himself but the fact that people care about him. Sure, people have cared about presidents before, but not like this. At least not in my lifetime.

The president is a celebrity. Musk and other CEOs are becoming celebrities. Conversations about legislation and industry are focusing more and more on the personalities, quirks, and likability of individuals.

That certainly makes these conversations more fun, but I’m not sure it’s a good thing. People are irrational about other people. That’s by design. We don’t have a logical process for selecting friends or who to fall in love with. The fact that human relationships transcend logic is what makes them special. The question is whether we want business and government to transcend logic, too.

Trouble in Guerrero

I’ve always known parts of Mexico were faced with serious crime problems. Until today, I didn’t realize how much time I’d spent in those parts.

My girlfriend’s mother comes from Taxco, a beautiful town in the southwestern state of Guerrero. Much of her extended family still lives there, and I always look forward to our visits. Surrounded by rolling hills and vibrant forest, Taxco is made up of pretty old houses and has a serene, almost sleepy atmosphere. The food is wonderful, the people are friendly, and the street markets–which have been held in the same forums since the Aztecs–are home to all sorts of wonders.

Today I came across headlines about the “brutal” state of Guerrero, and learned that the U.S. government classifies it as a “do not travel”, the same classification as Libya and Yemen. Aid workers consider the state a war zone.

While the articles were very sensationalist in the way they were written, I did some research and they seem to check out. The situation is very bad, and my experience is not meant to deny the trouble. I’m just trying to reconcile my experience with what I now know is going on there.

Part of it is that the crime seems to be centered in a few key settlements, and Taxco is not one of them. Just as people generalize all of Mexico as being like the highest crime states, it makes sense that people would assume all of Guerrero is the same as its highest crime towns.

Still, I’m struck by the contrast. I can’t deny that the area, statistically speaking, is dangerous, but it doesn’t fit my mental image of a “dangerous area”. I imagine a generally hostile or uneasy populace, with danger lurking just beneath the surface wherever you go. The reality is an area filled with cheerful, friendly people living normal lives, interrupted by incidents of appalling violence carried out by highly organized criminal syndicates.

These organizations crop up in areas of extreme poverty that have a strong economic connection to the states. All of Mexico suffers from economic dependence on its northern neighbor. In some places, entire states are built around catering to gringos to bring it tourist money. Guerrero used to be such a place, when the beach city of Acapulco was popular among U.S. celebrities. Lately, it has gone the way of border states like Sonora and Chihuahua. These states cater to U.S. demand, and the U.S. has an overwhelming demand for drugs.

Though our president elect promises to solve drug violence (he has yet to explain how), I think it will take one of two things to assuage this crisis: either the States needs to stop importing and using so many drugs, which I don’t see happening, or Mexico needs to disentangle its economy from the States altogether.

Ironically, the Trump presidency might be a blessing in this regard.

War Games

I’m out of time for the third story I was going to talk about, which is unfortunate because it seemed interesting. The gist is that China and Russia are doing huge military exercises, a sign of their shared interests against Western powers, but they still show no signs of trusting each other whatsoever.

Stained Glass Gazette 22/08/18: What a Lovely Day

What a day to bring back my news column!

I planned to do an introductory post about how I’ll be covering news rather than talking about any stories today. Then yesterday happened. This will still be mostly an introduction, but I’ll sneak in some coverage at the end.

The Stained Glass Perspective

Before this column, I had the Desdenada Gazette. It’s basically the same thing, but as the name indicates, I’ll be steering into the “stained glass” element.

All sources of news are biased, so you have to consume news from all sources equally to avoid getting trapped in an echo chamber. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of news coverage is stupid and, worse, poorly written. You can’t spend all your time reading all the sensationalist clickbait you come across just to insure you’re getting a balanced perspective.

My personal solution was to create a “stained glass window” by cultivating a collection of people from all sides whose opinions I trust and admire. I’ll never get a perfect, objective stream of truth, but if I’m thinking and talking about the same issues that the people I want to emulate are thinking and talking about I’m at least getting closer to the kind of person I want to be.

Stained glass doesn’t let in all light. In fact, it creates a beautiful effect because it blocks out certain bands of light and lets in a select few. You can enjoy the effect while remaining conscious of what light you are blocking out.

I’m not going to bring you a fair, objective look at current events. I’m going to bring you my heavily biased takes, while doing my best to be up front and open about what my particular biases are.

True Colors

Without further ado, here are my biases and stances on all the hashtag-important issues (although my opinions do tend to change fairly quickly).

Politics. I think it’s most accurate to say I’m a Libertarian. That’s not to say I agree with any given Libertarian party or candidate in any given country, but my views are generally socially liberal, economically conservative. Pro-choice, for gay marriage, down with legalizing all the drugs. For free market capitalism, against raising the minimum wage or establishing a universal basic income. Heavily conflicted about gun control. For radically open immigration.

My most controversial political opinions, though, are about how much politics actually matter. I’m passionate about certain issues, but tend to see elections and legislation as barometers of cultural forces rather than causes of them. Fair warning: you’re less likely to be offended by my opinion on a given issue and more likely to be offended by my flippant attitude about the whole affair.

Religion. I was raised atheist, and that’s probably still the label that fits me best. I’m not anti-theist, but I am generally skeptical of anything I don’t have enough proof for. My approach, in my opinion, is fair: I don’t reject any religious ideas outright, but I don’t automatically accept them, either. I dabble in a variety of religions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism, and Satanism, but wouldn’t label myself as any of them. I also read the Christian Bible and the Quran, mostly for academic reasons. Though I’m skeptical of the mythology, I do appreciate many of the ideas and teachings.

Science and Technology. I’m pro-innovation, possibly to a fault. I tend to count any discovery, advancement, or upgrade as a win, even when they could lead to negative things down the road. Maybe I’ll learn my lesson when the robots rise up and turn us all into fertilizer, but history shows that innovation tends to lead to more good than bad. Many of you are probably nodding along, thinking we’re on the same page. Allow me to burst your bubble.

I’m pro-GMO. The positive consequences outweigh the bad. In fact, let’s take it a step further. I’m for gene editing in general. Will a few nut jobs try to use it for implicitly racist eugenics programs? Sure. We’ll deal with them once we’re finished eradicating inheritable medical conditions like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. I believe in global warming, but do not believe it’s going to kill us all, because innovation will outpace it.

Entertainment. I’m completely out of touch with celebrity culture, fashion, award shows, and sports that aren’t the World Cup. Hell, I often don’t even realize my favorite TV shows are back until halfway through the season. I’m not against entertainment news and will cover it if something catches my interest, but keep your expectations low when it comes to covering who is super good at Fortnite or has beef with Taylor Swift.

That about covers it. If you’re still with me after realizing the average of 3.74 important issues we disagree on, let’s dive into the drama going down up north*.

*For new readers, I live in Mexico. I’m referring to the United States in a clever way because just saying “the United States” is boring. Okay, let’s move on.

For Real This Time

It’s an exciting day.

Let me be clear. This isn’t coming from any political sentiment. Like I said above, I don’t think the possibility of an impeachment or indictment has anything to do with issues that mater, regardless of what side you’re on.

I’m excited because, in a climate where every single story is the biggest thing that ever happened, something big actually did happen this time.

You should be excited, too, regardless of which side you’re on, even if you take politics super duper seriously. If you want Trump to be indicted for something, we’re closer to that happening than ever before. If you want the investigation to finally wrap up and exonerate Trump, we’re closer to that than ever, too.

We’ve entered the endgame. People are flipping, courts are arriving at verdicts. It’s time for both sides to play whatever they have in their hands. Regardless of which outcome you want, you’ll at least know soon if you won or lost.

If, like me, you’re mostly just here for the show, then as Hugh Jackman once said: ladies and gents this is the moment you’ve waited for.

In case you’ve been living under a rock: Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, is cooperating with Mueller and admitting to committing crimes with the president. Trump’s former campaign manager, Manafort, was found guilty on eight different charges. Given his advanced age and the nature of his crimes, he’s going to die in prison if he can’t get some help. That means if he knows anything, he’ll probably flip too.

All this brings up questions about whether the president will be indicted or impeached or what have you. That’s an interesting question, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Midterms are on the way, and everything that happened yesterday will be huge in shaping what happens in November. Ironically, this could be a godsend for Republican candidates. Sure, the possibility of impeaching Trump could get Democrats out to vote, but the Republicans controlling the government means Dems were already fired up about going out to vote. Possibly even peak fired up. Meanwhile, the possibility of a Democrat government impeaching Trump could get the Republican base fired up, evening the playing field.

You’re probably already fired up for one side or the other, but if you can take a step back and look at the whole situation objectively, I think this is a good thing for both sides. These races are going to be intense, ruthless, and bloody, and everyone will be forced to bring their A-game. Thanksgiving is going to get heated this year, but hopefully, when the dust settles and the slaughter is over, we’ll all have learned something about our own team and our opponents.

I’ll see you on the killing fields.