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.