The Geek's Reading List For The Week Ending July 3
By Brian Piccioni
1) Cancer reproducibility effort faces backlash
Strange things have happened to science over the past few decades. “Publish or perish” has resulted in a massive increase in peer reviewed studies, many of which have been shown to be deeply flawed or even fraudulent, often many years after publication. Journals regularly publish papers with important things (like the data and/or methods) retained as proprietary, or only available by permission. It is very difficult to have negative results published, as a consequence, little effort goes into actually checking whether previously published studies were reproducible. Over the long term, of course, reality always wins. The problem is that other scientists often base their work and analysis on unsubstantiated and in many cases non-repeatable work. Given the funding applied to cancer research, and the stakes involved, verifying whether “important findings” are actually true should be a priority. Sadly, as this article shows, “leaders” in the field explicitly do not want their research results questioned. That is a deeply perverse interpretation of the scientific method.
“Either way, the project seems a waste of time, Young says. “I am a huge fan of reproducibility. But this mechanism is not the way to test it.” That is a typical reaction from investigators whose work is being scrutinized by the cancer reproducibility project, an ambitious, open-science effort to test whether key findings in Science, Nature, Cell, and other top journals can be reproduced by independent labs. Almost every scientist targeted by the project who spoke with Science agrees that studies in cancer biology, as in many other fields, too often turn out to be irreproducible, for reasons such as problematic reagents and the fickleness of biological systems. But few feel comfortable with this particular effort, which plans to announce its findings in coming months. Their reactions range from annoyance to anxiety to outrage. “It's an admirable, ambitious effort. I like the concept,” says cancer geneticist Todd Golub of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, who has a paper on the group's list. But he is “concerned about a single group using scientists without deep expertise to reproduce decades of complicated, nuanced experiments.””
2) Tech giant plans for robots, defends labor record
Foxconn has been discussing increasing automation for some time now. Of course, a significant amount of electronic assembly is currently automated: it would be almost impossible to hand assemble a smartphone circuit board without advanced robotics systems. Replacing people with capital has been a trend since the industrial revolution and it isn't going to change any time soon. Of course, some of this might be bluster in order to keep workers in line.
“Chairman Terry Gou said Foxconn Technology Group will be able to replace 30% of its workers on the production lines with robots in five years' time. Gou said he wants to cut the number of staff in the repetitive, monotonous work of putting together mobile gadgets including Apple's iPhones, and he plans to shift that 30% of workers to sales and software design positions. "I am not replacing jobs with robots," Gou said during the annual shareholders meeting on June 25. "I am having workers do work that require thinking." Gou's statement came as the tech giant has been developing robotics technology for automated production, an area the executive has identified to be the company's core businesses in the future.”
3) Robot brickie: Perth engineer invents world’s first robotic bricklayer
A robotic bricklaying machine has long been a dream for me. Bricklaying requires a lot of skill, the work proceeds quite slowly, and it is very easy to screw up. This machine appears to place structural bricks of the type common in house construction outside of North America, and that is probably a simpler task albeit one which is still rather labour intensive. Unfortunately, like many things called inventions nowadays, it is unclear whether the machine actually works. I have not been able to find a video of it in operation, just this animation https://youtu.be/Rebqcsb61gY.
““We’re at a technological nexus where a few different technologies have got to the level where it’s now possible to do it, and that’s what we’ve done.” “Hadrian” the robot — named after the famous Roman defensive wall of antiquity — will be commercialised first in WA, then nationally and then globally. Laying 1000 bricks per hour, it can work day and night, with the potential to erect 150 homes a year. It works by creating a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) laying program of a house or structure, then calculates the location of every brick and creates a program that is used to cut and lay the bricks in sequence from a single, fixed location. A 28m articulated telescopic boom goes to work and mortar or adhesive is delivered under pressure to the robotic laying head and applied to the brick which is then laid in the correct sequence as per the program. The robot de-hacks, measures, scans for quality and cuts to length the bricks and routs for electrical and other services.”
4) Detectives investigating drone crash at Pride parade
I remain pretty skeptical about the widespread use of drones for things like parcel delivery, however there are clearly valid uses for the things. This incident was due to a drone operated by an amateur but that is not the point: getting struck in the head can kill or seriously injure somebody, and flying machines are going to occasionally drop from the sky. You can imagine the damage if the drone had been large enough to carry cargo, and was carrying cargo when it fell.
“A 25-year-old woman was knocked unconscious Sunday after she was struck by a small drone aircraft while attending the Pride parade in downtown Seattle. The woman was in the crowd at the parade near 4th Avenue and Madison when the 18″-by-18″ drone reportedly crashed into a building and fell into the crowd, striking the woman in the head. The woman’s boyfriend caught her as she fell to the ground. An off-duty firefighter helped treat the woman and called for police. At the scene, one the victim’s friends handed over the damaged drone—which retails for about $1200 and weighs about 2 pounds—and provided photographs of a man, who may have been piloting the aircraft.”
5) Maine crews use drone to rescue 2 boys from raging river
This is an example of a legitimate application of a drone, and this one was the personal property of one of the rescuers. Lifeguards are testing drones to deliver life jackets to swimmers in distress (http://www.roboticstrends.com/article/drone_vs_lifeguard_race_who_will_save_swimmer_faster) and the systems are being used to survey disaster areas. The difference between these and frivolous applications like delivering parcels or taking pictures at a parade is that there is a clear risk-reward benefit and the people using the machines know what they are doing. It is hard to imagine that an autonomous delivery drone would be able to avoid putting people at risk unless it is delivering to an empty lot.
“Officials in Maine have used a drone to deliver a lifejacket to a boy stranded on a rock in the middle of a raging river. Two boys needed rescuing Tuesday afternoon after their tube overturned in the Little Androscoggin River. Only one was wearing a lifejacket. Auburn Fire Chief Frank Roma told CBS affiliate WGME that before attempting a rescue, crews wanted to get a lifejacket to the boy without one. Roma said they used a drone to get a line to the boys so they could pull the lifejacket to them. "We wanted to make sure we got a life jacket on that second child so that if they did fall in the water we could catch them downstream," Roma told WGME.”
6) California Adds Income-Based Caps for Clean Vehicle Rebates on EVs and Plug-In Hybrids
As we have noted in the past, EV subsidies provide minimal bang for the buck environmentally and there is considerable evidence the system is gamed. California is a peculiar place where environmental policies appear based on “truthiness” rather than sound science, so I doubt much will change. The implementation of an income based cap on a small portion of EV subsidies may be indicative of a trend, but it is doubtful this move alone would impact the industry. After all, the average income of a Tesla owner is just under $300K (http://insideevs.com/strategic-vision-says-testosterone-is-what-sells-the-tesla-model-s-to-wealthy-americans/) so a minor reduction in subsidy would not impact a purchase decision. Of course, if the use of taxpayer money to pay for rich peoples' cars to no significant environmental benefit becomes a political issue, that could be the end of the industry.
“The second change is the complete elimination of the incentive for those with incomes over $250,000 for EVs and PHEVs. If you think high-income earners weren't applying for incentives, stats compiled by the Center for Sustainable Energy say otherwise. Survey data from the second quarter of 2015 indicates over 26% of recipients had an income over $200,000. That's nearly equal to the 27% of those earning less than $99,000. Interestingly, nearly three quarters of rebates so far this year went to those with incomes over $99,000.”
7) Heads-up displays in cars can hinder driver safety
There was a fair bit of excitement over Google Glass a couple years ago. I remain unconvinced that people can handle a constant stream of visual information as our brains did not evolve within the context of multiple concurrent activities. Even our eyes have acute vision in a very narrow field of view. Fighter pilots seem to manage, so perhaps a properly designed display can be managed, given enough training. Although I have never been in a car with a Heads-up Display (HUD) I would have figured the ability to keep your eyes on the road would be a major advantage. Apparently not.
“Heads-up displays (HUDs) in cars were once a rare thing. More and more, new cars now come with HUDs as standard, and you can even buy aftermarket HUDs. HUDs project useful information like the car's current speed and navigation directions into the driver's field of view, saving them from having to look down at an instrument panel or display, the idea being to reduce distractions and keep a driver's eyes on the road. But a study from the University of Toronto led by Ian Spence suggests that HUDs might actually have the opposite effect and can even be a threat to safety. According to the study, published last month in PLoS ONE, the question of how our brains deal with dividing our visual attention between spatially commingled information isn't currently well understood. Rather, most studies have looked at how divided attention works when performing a single task that requires us to get visual information from two distinct spatial locations (i.e., looking down at an infotainment display and then at the road). The researchers wanted to get a better idea of how commingled division of visual attention works in practice, using a simulation of an augmented reality HUD to do so.”
8) Not interested! Jaguar Land Rover will never make a self-driving car
I have to admit it is hard to imagine there will be much of a market for driverless Ferraris or Lamborghinis, but I don't place Jaguars or Land Rovers in the same category. According to earlier articles, including at least one still on their website, (http://www.jaguarlandrover.com/gl/en/innovation/news/2014/04/16/jlr_auto_research_tech_160414/) the company has been working on a host of self-driving features and their cars. Land Rovers in particular seem loaded with systems designed to decouple the skill of driver when off road though it is hard to imagine the Land Rovers I have seen ever driving the places I regularly take my pickup truck, which has no such systems. Regardless, in the future some degree of autonomous system, such as auto-braking, is bound to be a required safety feature.
“Google self-driving cars are already on the streets of Mountain View, California as part of tests to understand how the tech works in midst of manual vehicles. Nissan and Renault said they plan to introduce vehicles that can navigate without driver intervention in nearly all situations. Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen etc all have their own take on automated driving. So we can safely say almost all the big names in the automotive industry are all for it except Jaguar Land Rover. The British automaker has vowed that it will never build a driverless car because the company doesn't consider its customers cargoes.”
9) Why semi-autonomous vehicles are still relevant
This is pretty much an advertisement for ZF TRW's current control systems but it does make a couple of good points. Semi-autonomous vehicles don't require anywhere near the amount of electronics and software as fully autonomous vehicles and yet they can accomplish much of the same objective. By decoupling the system at low speeds, as cruise controls do, you remove many of the most difficult tasks which need to be mastered for full autonomy. I figure these sorts of vehicles will serve as a stepping stone to full AVs. Don't bother with the video: it is just the guy narrating the article with a couple of pictures thrown in for good measure.
“In an age of Google self-driving cars, what’s the big the deal about semi-autonomous driving? Well, the ZF TRW system uses sensor and actuator technology already present in millions of cars on the road today – costing a fraction of the price of fully automated systems. ACC systems are currently used with radar and laser measurement systems and the self-park feature currently offered in popular models uses steering actuators as an offshoot of electric power-steering technology. The 25mph minimum speed limit requires drivers to take over the wheel completely at city intersections and with point-to-point navigation – two of the most difficult technical problems faced by today’s automated driving systems. The minimum speed limit also means drivers still need to get out of driveways, navigate through neighbourhoods and move on to secondary roads or freeways themselves. However, as the driver has minimal input into the vehicle’s movements for much of the ride, it will be easier to become distracted when the car is ready to relinquish control.”
10) Tesla to open seven new service centers in Japan by end of 2015
Another example of “Muskematics”. Akhita Japan gets about 3 kWh/day of sunshine on average (see http://pveducation.org/pvcdrom/properties-of-sunlight/average-solar-radiation#). At about 15% efficiency (which is high), and 2 axis tracking, they would need about 142 square meters of solar cells per charge (assuming they charge an 80 kWh battery at 20% remaining). My local filling station fills about 20 cars per hour (I live in the country) all day. Let's say Tesla is only a bit successful and they do 20 per day. That's just under 3,000 square meters of real estate, 60% of a football field, which I assume is very cheap in Japan.
“Musk also said that Tesla, which began selling the Model S electric car in Japan last year, will build more “supercharger” stations across the country. The company currently has six charging stations: three in Tokyo and one each in Yokohama, Osaka and Kobe. Musk emphasized that the charging stations will operate independently of Japan’s electric grid, which has seen prices rise as nuclear power plants in the country remain offline following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. “Our proposal is to use solar panels to power charging stations, and then there’s no impact on the grid,” the CEO said. “That way, the cost of electricity is much less and the electricity is coming from pure sunlight, which is therefore very clean.””
11) Google's new project is so insanely advanced it will blow you away
Ignore the clickbait title: it seems everybody wants to be the next Business Insider. This article, and the interesting video, are about Google's Project Soli, which uses an ultra low power, short range, radar system as a user interface. By using radar they capture 3D information associated with your movements, which you have to admit is pretty amazing. Despite the video, it is not clear how useful such a thing is – like voice recognition, misinterpretation can render a user interface impractical. Nevertheless, the fact a radar system can be put in such a small volume is pretty remarkable.
“If Google has its way, our future will be nothing less than a sci-fi movie. After creeping us out with a robotic cheetah and the Google ‘Glass’, Google is all set to bring forth something really amazing. Google’s Project Soli has invented a new interaction sensor using radar technology that can capture motions of your fingers at up to 10,000 frames per second. And that is something that has never ever been done before. Simply put, this technology is so bafflingly accurate that you could operate any device (fitted with this) without having to even touch it.”
12) One of the most important tools in science now fits inside your phone
Here is another example of interesting design, however, it is not clear to me how useful the device will be. For the record, I doubt self-diagnosing skin cancer will be a killer app.
“By using tiny amounts of strange, light-sensitive inks, Bao and his colleague Moungi Bawendi—a chemist at MIT—have designed a working spectrometer that's small enough to fit on your smartphone. Because of the tool's simple design and its need for only an incredibly small amount of the inks, Bao says, his spectrometer only requires a few dollars worth of materials to make. They report the research today in the journal Nature.”
13) 'Cloud tax' upsets Chicago tech community: 'Life just got 9 percent harder'
The headlines around this brilliant stroke focus on its impact on consumers by taxing Netflix and other streaming services, but lawyers have determined that it actually includes all kinds of cloud based services, including SaaS (software as a service). Many business applications have moved to SaaS so this would increase costs of Chicagoan businesses and create an accounting nightmare for service providers. Since it is doubtful cloud service providers would implement the necessary accounting changes to serve such a small market, and since, in many cases, they have no idea where a customer is located, it is hard to believe this will produce much in the way of income for the city. It is bound to cause tech companies to reconsider locating there, however.
“Chicago’s new 9 percent tax on streaming and cloud services appears to have the local technology community agitated and, more than anything, confused. Reports on Wednesday of the “cloud tax” took many Chicagoans by surprise, leaving providers and consumers of streaming and cloud services scrambling to understand the implications. Technology companies, among the heaviest users of cloud services, are likely to be taxed for the services they use as well as those they provide. The cloud tax extends ordinances governing two types of taxes — the city amusement tax and the city personal property lease transaction tax. The taxes cover many products streamed to businesses and residents. They also cover use of various online databases that could especially affect businesses.”
14) BBC to lay off 1,000 people as Britons cut the cord and TV licences decline
Cord cutting generally refers to disconnecting from cable or satellite services, which is clearly not the case here. What seems to be going on is that people are simply not buying TVs, choosing to stream content to various forms of computers instead. This is part of a global trend, in particular among the youth, and it will result in significant challenges for traditional broadcast business models down the road. This need not continue to be a problem for the BBC. Provided they have political support, they'll just ask for a tax to be placed on broadband services to make up the gap.
“The British Broadcasting Corporation will cut more than 1,000 jobs to cover a 150-million-pound ($294 million Cdn) gap in licence fee income next financial year as millions of viewers turn off their televisions and watch programmes on tablets and mobile phones. … The BBC's Head of News, James Harding, last month predicted that by 2025, most people in the United Kingdom would probably get their television programmes over the Internet. "The Internet has ripped a hole in the business model of many great news organisations," said Harding.Just 69 per cent of viewing by British adults is now through live TV and among 16- to 24-year-olds only 50 per cent of viewing was done through live TV, the country's telecoms regulator said.”
15) Apple’s Beats 1 launch adds momentum to radio’s big digital shift
I guess something hasn't been invented until Apple copies it, but the article does raise number of good points. As I predicted long ago (1997) the Internet jeopardizes traditional broadcast models (see article 14). Interest in broadcast radio among the youth (a core demographic for advertisers) is on a long slide to oblivion, and in many markets the response has been to lower quality even further. It is worth noting that people still listen to AM radio, or so I am told, so it will take a very long time before FM dies completely. It will happen, however.
“Radio was the original social network. It was the first format that allowed people in different areas to listen to music at the same time, in real time, and react. Driving this were DJs — men and women who obsessively sought out new music and new artists so they could deliver new music experiences. And consumers loved it. They were a part of something bigger than just themselves, and it gave birth to the modern day music business. But the costs of operating a radio network — based on either traditional FM stations or satellites — are very high. The consolidation that ended the era of local radio led to mega-corporate airwaves that controlled what music you could hear as a few companies came in and bought up almost every station in the country. That’s how we got to the cluster model operated today. With this, radio programming shifted from tastemaker DJs to radio consultants and MBAs driven by ratings and revenues.”
16) What's blocking the $11 trillion Internet Of Things opportunity?
Despite the hype, the article covers a number of important issues associated with slowing the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Open standards are extremely important, as without them the technology will never take off. Of course, companies are promoting their own standards because control of standards leads to the development of tremendous wealth in the tech industry. Another factor not addressed in the article is the fact most IoT systems use a cloud based infrastructure which ceases to function once the IoT vendor bankrupts or loses interest in the product. This may not be an important consideration today, but it will be after enough consumers and businesses are left with mission critical non-functioning IoT gadgets. Don't believe the hype - $4-$11 trillion is likely overstated by a factor of 1,000.
“The Internet of Things (IoT) is a goldmine waiting to happen, says a new report from management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.. However, according to its findings, we may be waiting a long time. The tech industry seems to have reached full lather over this trend, with companies big and small rushing in to connect all manner of gadgets, home appliances, even cars and other technologies, to the each other and the Internet. The reason is obvious: McKinsey points to $4 trillion to $11 trillion of positive economic impact each year by 2025. But its report also highlights roadblocks that stubbornly refuse to go away. Increasingly, the world is going to need to turn to open source to get the standards "unstuck."”
17) New device provides secure and anonymous wi-fi with an incredible 2.5-mile range
This article shows the power of the maker movement. You might recall some time ago the FBI arrested the operator of the Silk Road (illegal) drug market by tracking him down in a library and grabbing his computer before he could disable it. This open source device will allow miscreants to be physically distant from their Internet connection, making such an arrest very difficult. Of course, nobody has a lot of sympathy for drug dealers, but the same technology could be used by people organizing against a repressive regime.
“While a range of technologies (such as ToR) can provide some level of anonymity, a fundamental flaw still exists: a direct relationship between IP address and physical location. If your true IP is ever uncovered, it’s game over – a significant threat when your adversary owns the infrastructure. To resolve this issue, I present ProxyHam, a hardware device which utilizes both WiFi and the 900Mhz band to act as a hardware proxy, routing local traffic through a far-off wireless network – and significantly increasing the difficulty in identifying the true source of the traffic. In addition to a demonstration of the device itself, full hardware schematics and code will be made freely available.”
18) SpaceX rocket failure threatens support for commercial spaceflight
The spectacular failure of the SpaceX rocket last week was fascinating, not so much because of the explosion, which was very impressive, but the need many commentators had to explain it away – after all Elon Musk is the greatest human who ever lived (I have actually seen him compared to Einstein), so you have to cut the guy some slack. The same websites which reacted gleefully at the destruction of a Russian spacecraft were sombre and cautious with respect to the loss of the SpaceX one. This article looks at the bigger picture, namely the loss of three ISS supply ships in relatively short order. At this time it appears the launch of a Russian spacecraft today went off without a hitch, so at least the astronauts won't have to abandon the space station.
“The accident also casts a shadow on NASA’s plans to use commercial spacecraft to carry astronauts to the space station starting in 2017, to avoid continuing to rely on Russia. The same Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule that failed over the weekend are the basis of the vehicle that SpaceX plans to use to fulfill its $2.6-billion contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Space industry veteran Boeing has a separate $4.2-billion deal to transport astronauts, but despite its history, the company had been seen as lagging behind front-runner SpaceX in the Commercial Crew race. “Now the bloom goes a little bit off the SpaceX rose,” Handberg says.”
19) Airplane coatings help recoup fuel efficiency lost to bug splatter
A while back I read something about super hydrophobic coatings being applied to aircraft as a permanent solution to icing. Rather than waiting while your aircraft is hosed down with antifreeze, a coating would prevent any ice from forming (http://www.theengineer.co.uk/channels/design-engineering/news/hydrophobic-coating-prevents-the-build-up-of-ice-on-aircraft/1014681.article). I don't know what happened to that, but scientists have moved on to another problem: bug guts. Its hard to believe bug guts have a 5% impact on fuel economy, but, hey, who is going to argue with somebody who studies bug guts at NASA? I figure they should team up with these guys http://scitechdaily.com/liquiglide-nonstick-coating-coming-to-consumer-goods/ so the bug guts will slide right off.
“NASA scientists are now developing coatings that help aircraft shed or repel bug guts during flight. After screening nearly 200 different coating formulations, the NASA researchers recently flight-tested a handful of promising candidates on a Boeing ecoDemonstrator 757 aircraft in Shreveport, La. The team explored different combinations of polymer chemistry and surface structure and reports that it has created a coating that could reduce the amount of insect insides stuck to the wings by up to 40%. With further optimization, such coatings could allow planes to use 5% less fuel, Siochi says. Although that may not sound like much, it adds up. “That could be millions of dollars in fuel savings,” Siochi explains. The bump in fuel efficiency would also curb the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by planes, she says.”
20) Google apologizes for photo app's racist blunder
A few weeks ago my son sent me a link to a Google Photo classification which had classified our cats as dogs. I did not immediately conclude the app was racist (speciesist?), even though Google EXPLICITLY declares itself a dog company (https://investor.google.com/corporate/code-of-conduct.html#toc-dogs) and tries to exclude cats from its offices. No – saner minds prevailed and I realized the algorithm needed some work. Indeed, if Google Photo had correctly classified Donald Trump as orangutan (http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-MQ8nghUozSo/URalE5FTnkI/AAAAAAAAT80/9VHZVZQBZmg/s1600/trum-orangutan.png) nobody would have said a word. It's not racist: it's just software.
“Its product automatically tags uploaded pictures using its own artificial intelligence software. The error was brought to its attention by a New York-based software developer who was one of the people pictured in the photos involved. Google was later criticized on social media because of the label's racist connotations. "This is 100% not OK," acknowledged Google executive Yonatan Zunger after being contacted by Jacky Alcine via Twitter. "[It was] high on my list of bugs you 'never' want to see happen." Mr Zunger said Google had already taken steps to avoid others experiencing a similar mistake.”
Brian Piccioni designed early generation PCs, mobile and cellphones and a number of embedded systems still in use. He has been ranked #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating. He started The Geek’s Reading List about ten years ago, providing comment — provocative, new and counter-consensus — on articles he finds interesting. (All back issues can be found by clicking here.) It was not intended to be taken as investment advice, nor should it be read that way today. You can email Brian [at] thegeeksreadinglist.com with any articles you think should be included, or to get into any of the topics in more depth.
Honest Abe and Old Duff: the historic link
It’s very much déjà vu in Waspington, this fuss over expenses in Ottawa. Almost two centuries back the much admired and quoted Horace Greeley (“Go west young man…” and all that), a journalist in whose footsteps Mike Duffy would surely twist an ankle, instigated a study of travelling expenses in the American Congress. Greeley was a congressman himself for a few months in 1848, appointed to fill a vacant seat. His principal legislative initiative was to expose and try to stop the padding of expense allowances by legislators travelling between the capital and their electoral districts. Many, if not all members of Congress detoured on the way home after a session to sites of interest, such as Niagara Falls, with their loved ones, or meandered along a circuitous route with stops at various locations where party events were organized. One congressman’s journey home that year included his Zachary Taylor-for-president speaking tour. Greeley’s research showed that the legislator’s travels home had deviated by more than 800 miles from the “actual number of miles by postal route,” between the capital and his riding, resulting in a payment from treasury $676.80 higher than it should have been. This may seem trivial but since the congressman’s salary was only $1,500 at the time, it was in fact a welcome 45% boost (for a Canadian senator today, with a base salary of $138,700, it would mean $62,581.44). He was a commanding orator and spoke often in the House, where one of his colleagues was heard to whisper when next he rose to deliver a speech, “I hope he won’t charge mileage on his travels while delivering it.” The House never took action on Greeley’s resolution, aimed as it was at many of its members, and in fact some members moved to expel him from Congress, so angry were they at the threatening prospect of expense controls. That didn’t happen. Nor did anything happen until much later to the congressman who ran up such a shocking bill while on a speaking tour for Taylor. This was Abraham Lincoln, member of the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of Illinois, 1847-1849, the only term of office Honest Abe ever enjoyed until he was elected President in 1860.
Rennie and the rest
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Apr. 02, 2012.)
It was the passing three years ago (March 12, 2012) of Rennie Whitehead (pictured below with wife Nesta and PM "Mike" Pearson) that provided a moment most apt to recognize the immense contributions of the British to Canadian science and technology.
Rennie was 94 when he died. For generations of British scientists and engineers coming from Britain through the post world war decades he was the dean, an unofficial title he inherited when W.B. Lewis died in 1987. Rennie always deferred to the brilliant W.B., who had worked with Ernest Rutherford, became head of Atomic Energy of Canada research and was known as the “father of the CANDU” reactor. These two were perhaps the biggest names in tech to set sail for the land of the maple since John By of the Royal Engineers came to cut the canal and set Ottawa en route for Silicon Valley North. But they were far from alone.
Peter Hackett brought a Ph.D. from the University of Southampton to the National Research Council, became VP there and later founding CEO at the National Institute for Nanotechnology. He remembers evaluation forms for applicants at NRC that “had a line for postgraduate degree with three boxes to check: Oxford, Cambridge and Other.” The story has been often enough told of the comings of Michael Cowpland and Terry Matthews to Microsystems International, which failed, and their subsequent successes with Mitel, Corel and Newbridge. They were not the only ones. Don Smith ran a later version of Mitel. Bob Harland and Dick Foss co-founded Mosaid. Peter Leach became CEO of CITO (Communications and Information Technologies Ontario).
Rennie Whitehead stood out, though, in the sheer diversity of his impacts. One of the pioneers of radar pre-WWII, he came to be associate professor of physics at McGill, despite a warning that he was emigrating to an “ill-developed country where scientific research is in its infancy.” He would later allow that “there was some truth” in these remarks, but promptly set out to give them the lie.
He led design and installation of the Mid-Canada Line of radar defence. It was Cold War time after all, an era of missiles and defence systems, requiring leading edge electronics skill. Joining RCA Victor Canada as head of R&D, he hired research physicists by the bunch, possibly for the first time in Canadian industry (Northern Electric Research Lab was established in 1957, but Bell-Northern Research wasn’t underway until 1971). RCA Canada would get a good slice of work on the ISIS and Alouette satellite programs. By 1960 RCA labs in Montreal had more Ph.D. physicists on staff than any other company in Canada and was winning research contracts here, in the U.S. and further afield.
Then Ottawa called and Rennie became principal science advisor to two prime ministers (Pearson, Trudeau), wrote terms of reference for the newborn Science Council of Canada, which was unfortunately, misguidedly canned by another PM (Mulroney) and sat for the country on the most prestigious international science councils. He left to finish his career as a consultant after responsibility for advising government on science policy was moved from the Privy Council Office to a newly minted but powerless ministry of state in the mid-1970s.
If you’re not old enough to remember Rennie in his prime, perhaps you’ll recall Arthur Carty. He was also science advisor to a couple of prime ministers (Martin, Harper), appointed in 2004, the first since Rennie. And he came to much the same end in 2008, ushered out of PCO to marginalization in a department. He now heads the Institute for Quantum Computing, one of Mike Lazaridis’ philanthropies, at the University of Waterloo. He too is a Brit.
No will, no way
By James G. Hynes
Canada is still saying no to a project our history suggests we should be eagerly embracing. For more than five years (since January 2010), governments in Ottawa, Toronto and Quebec City have been sitting on a report that updates previous studies of proposed high-speed rail (HSR) lines from Quebec City to Windsor.
Having commissioned the report a couple of years previously at a media conference where they expressed bubbling enthusiasm for the HSR concept, why are these governments so unenthusiastic about it? They’ve paid $3 million to the independent EcoTrain consortium to tell them something they already knew, but now they don’t want to hear it.
The cheery outlook changed over the time it took to get the report, during which all three governments proceeded to run up huge deficits stimulating a flagging economy, while also discovering new liabilities, like massively leaky water mains and crumbling bridges. So now they don’t want to be told that an HSR line from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto would be profitable at a cost of $9.1 billion for 200-kilometre-per-hour trains, or $11 billion for the real thing, 300-k.p.h. all-electric trains. Stretching the lines east to Quebec City and west as far as Windsor wouldn’t pay for itself, but still might be worth it due to non-financial benefits, such as reduced air pollution and highway congestion, and greater all-weather safety.
So what’s not to like about this? Well, in a booming economy with government balance sheets in a healthy condition, it looks like a no-brainer. Assuming a public-private joint venture, as has been done with many HSR projects elsewhere, the project looks like a horse many a savvy politician might ride to electoral victory. But oops, now the cupboards are getting bare, and there are all sorts of newly hungry mouths to feed. What previously might have been easily done will now take something that has become exceedingly rare in this country: the vision and daring that once built the CPR.
Former Bombardier CEO Laurent Beaudoin, certainly a knowledgeable observer of this scene, put it succinctly. “To do that kind of project,” he said, “you need political will.” That’s what it took to push Canadian rails across this continent, creating what would otherwise be an impossible country. That gargantuan achievement put us in the forefront of railway technology, and made possible the economic ties that still bind us today. Now a Canadian company is still in the forefront, but Bombardier is building its trains everywhere but here.
Faced with this situation, what would John A. Macdonald have done? I think his response might have been different from former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s when he was asked about the HSR report. He said he thought it was time to “pause and reflect on the merits” of such a project. Fortunately for all of us today, John A. wasn’t much good at pausing and reflecting. He was too busy getting things done, come hell or high water. Click here to read more of Jim Hynes on the compelling case for Canadian high speed rail.
Screwball letters 5
Jim Hynes, left, and Tony Patterson, right, met more than half a century ago in the halls of Jesuit-run Loyola College in Montreal, now enclosed within Concordia University. They have been debating ever since.
Twists & turns in climate quandary
always lead back to pricing carbon
Tony to Jim
I don’t suppose you’ve wanted to dampen this season of cheer by reading my review of Tom Rand’s book, Waking the Frog. After reading Rand, I picked up Naomi Klein’s book on the subject. Hers is more a condemnation of the winner-takes-all economy, a lemon she’s been squeezing for some time. But the two together are totally persuasive: increasing climate disruption is inevitable and the future of the planet looks grim to more than nine out of ten climatologists, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (one of the less frightening statements from IPCC’s 2014 report: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence).”) and more and more of the thoughtful population, admittedly a tiny cohort. Only the pollyanish politicians refuse to get it.
Canada is not too small a player to have measurable impact on the outcome. Just leaving the tarsands where they lie would provide considerable relief. Is it too much to hope that Canada, with all its resources — natural, financial and human — could actually show the way, take a lead, light a candle? Ah well, mine to dream, my kids and grandkids to do, if they please and hope to survive.
Jim to Tony
I've now read your review, which I'm happy to say leaves me feeling I don't need to read the book. Ditto Klein's similar effort. Of course these bright people are right about the problem, but a bit fuzzy about the solution. It's easy to say we should stop burning fossil fuels, but it's also virtually impossible to actually do that. What both authors fail to do is separate the burning of fossil fuels per se from the dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. Assuming one leads inevitably to the other is the equivalent of assuming flush toilets must inevitably lead to open sewers fouling the streets. These authors are urging us to just stop flushing, rather than building sewage systems to handle the effluent. Thermal power plants don't have to pollute the air; they do this because they aren't obliged to clean up their own waste. Industries that used to massively pollute water this way are now obliged to control and treat their effluents, and some air polluters must now control toxic emissions, but not CO2. The solution isn't to leave the tar sands in the ground; the solution is not to leave the CO2 waste they produce in the atmosphere. There's at least one natural gas-fired power plant in Saskatchewan right now that captures and sequesters its CO2 output, and a carbon tax in B.C. is driving emitters there to look at all sorts of emission-control technologies. A national carbon tax is what we need, but we won't get one unless and until the U.S. gets one too.
Personally, I think the ultimate solution to this problem lies in a breakthrough in battery technology. Our inability to efficiently store electricity severely limits the utility of solar and wind generation systems today, because their output is so variable. A battery breakthrough would allow all their output to be ultimately used, and would also make electric vehicles much more competitive than they are now. If I were the emperor of Canada, as I should be, we would have a national carbon tax with or without the U.S., and all the money raised would go to intensive research into CO2 sequestration and new battery technologies. Meanwhile, my hopes rest on the possibility that our children and grandchildren may not be a stupid as we are right now.
Tony to Jim
Most of what I’ve read gives much room to tech advancement but it takes unbridled optimism to believe that tech will outpace heat. There’s movement on the tech front, to be sure, though I’ve been reading and writing about the battery solution for more than 20 years (is it possible that Ballard still operates, still raises money?). It’s on the political and public discussion/persuasion front that we make no progress and in fact fall way, way back of where we should be. Kyoto was a dreadful failure all around and Kyoto is us. The possibility, no longer I think remote, is that our children and grandchildren, smart as they might be, will find themselves fighting alligators while trying to clear swamps in the middle of Vancouver. Their resources will be spent for survival not for the better way forward.
Jim to Tony
I think it's now a virtual certainty that sea levels are going to gradually rise by at least a few metres over the next century or so, even if we stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Enough change has already occurred (shrinking polar sea ice cover, retreating glaciers) to make that inevitable. Worst case scenarios call for a rise of 10 metres. Clearly, this will require some major adaptations, such as the abandonment of all or large parts of many coastal cities. However, I don't see why those adaptations can't or won't happen. Today's humanity and our immediate hominid precursors adapted to an enormous variety of habitats over a range of a few million years, including episodes of both more and less heat than we have now. Of course, large numbers of people won't manage to adapt effectively, which will lead to a smaller global population. This may be a bad thing if you think having more people is automatically better than having fewer, but it would unquestionably be good for the planet as a whole, and all the other life forms on it. So yes, it will be a shame when Venice and New Orleans are gone, and the Tower of London has to visited in a boat, but life will go on. The climate on this planet has never been a fixed thing, and human interference has only recently become a factor. Much bigger changes have been caused in the past by things like asteroid strikes, chains of volcanic eruptions and massive earthquakes. Who can say whether something like that won't happen over the next century? A colossal eruption of the huge magma chamber under Yellowstone Park would darken the skies over the whole globe for years, providing a cooling effect that would more than offset CO2-caused warming. Of course, this would also lead to a global famine of epic proportions, but that would be just a side effect. The big beneficiaries would be the polar bears, who would get their 10 months of sea ice back. I think you should steer your great-grandchildren into hydraulic engineering. There's going to be a huge demand for such things as a giant seawall around Manhattan Island and a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Tony to Jim
It may be, now that man (if I may use that word to mean both solitudes of the species, though man himself has been mostly responsible) has devised such ready means and excuses to self-destruct, that ways must be found to determine and implement transnational strategies to better serve the real interests of people. Climate disruption is tangible. It is visible and understood everywhere. It transcends language and borders and idiotologies. It sweeps the Fox-CNN-CBC panorama and all media elsewise from blog to twitter to NYT. It’s an opportunity not to be missed to take an evolutionary step ahead toward post-national planetarianism.
Jim to Tony
Self-destruction? I don't think that's within human capabilities on a planetary scale. Even a global nuclear war wouldn't do it; there are too many people in too many places where extreme measures would enable some to survive. And climate change certain won't do it; it happens too gradually to overwhelm all efforts to adapt. Big coastal cities will simply be rebuilt on higher ground step by step, and new arable lands will emerge in the north to replace those lost to desertification in the south. If the survival of humanity was really at stake (as it would be, for instance, if we were about to be struck by a thousand-mile-wide asteroid), maybe we would "take an evolutionary step" and implement some "transnational strategies." But there are no historical precedents for such a thing, and an awful lot of evidence suggests that humanity isn't capable of such a consensus. Climate change will have very uneven effects around the world, including beneficial ones in some places. The Yukon might replace California as the agricultural heartland of North America, with Siberia playing a similar role in Asia. Massive migration into these regions would lead to conflict, not agreement, about who does what to whom (as Lenin put it). Global warming isn't going to make everything worse; it's going to make everything different. Many things will get worse (droughts, heat waves, species extinctions, extreme weather events), but other things will get better. The map of habitable and arable regions will change, but there will still be plenty of places where humanity will survive and thrive. The ongoing process of change is much more likely to lead to global conflicts than it is to global consensus. After all, we find plenty of things to fight about even when nothing else is changing. I'm afraid "post-national planetarianism" belongs right up there with transubstantiation and the principal of the doubly-fucked.
Tony to Jim
Still, putting a price on carbon and ratcheting it up to keep hurting is the right thing to do, is it not?
Jim to Tony
Yes, it is. It's the right approach because it doesn't tell you to stop burning fossil fuels, it just discourages dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. You can reduce emissions in any number of ways (improve operating efficiency, switch from coal to natural gas, capture and sequester emissions, convert to hydro, solar, or wind generation, etc.), and the tax revenues can be used to fund more research or subsidize more conversions. There are millions more cars on the road now than there were 20 years ago, but the entire fleet is burning less gasoline overall than it did back then. The black clouds of smog that used to hover over Los Angeles and Mexico City have dissipated, along with London's coal-fired fogs. Electricity consumption per capita has been trending downwards for decades, thanks to much more efficient lights and appliances. Improving the ways we use energy is just as important as improving the ways we generate it. Ontario's energy use efficiency has improved so much lately, we're not building two new nuclear reactors the wizards at OPG in the 90s insisted we would need by now. There are positive things happening amidst the gloom and doom, and these trends are accelerating. If we used to be running headlong towards the edge of a cliff, we're now merely jogging towards it, and soon we'll be down to a walk. And I still look to a battery breakthrough to really turn things around---but forget about Ballard. They've come close, but no cigar. The hot area now is the thermoelectric and thermogalvanic effects created by temperature differences, transferring heat into electricity. Until recently, this only worked efficiently with temperature differences as great as 500 C, but a process has now been discovered that works at temperatures 10 times lower, opening the possibility of converting huge amounts of what is now low-grade waste heat (which is created in virtually every industrial process) into electric power. Instead of having to spin a generator, your car could keep its battery charged with the waste heat from its own exhaust. The global warming problem illustrates humanity's capacity for collective stupidity, but technical advances illustrate an opposite capacity for individual ingenuity and creativity. I look to the latter to eventually offset the former. With apologies to Abe Lincoln, all people are stupid some of the time, and some people are stupid all of the time, but all people are not stupid all of the time. That's what will either prevent us from going over the cliff, or allow the best of us us to carry on after we do.
Tony to Jim
Agreed. In the meantime we must set a price on CO2 that will push emissions way back.
The following links will take you to Screwball Letters or Screwball Letters 2 or Screwball Letters 3 or Screwball Letters 4.
Golden or beneath contempt: our choice
By Tony Patterson
We are living the golden age. This is it. There has never been a better time to be alive, certainly in Canada. The bad news is it won’t be getting better. Ours will be remembered in a thousand years as the age that squandered the future. In our golden age we spent it all for ourselves and left garbage for our great-grandchildren. Unless . . .
I give you Tom Rand who has written a book called Waking the Frog. He says something you might not be aware of. There is a solution to the climate disruption problem. Climate disruption is caused by too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat from the sun much like glass in a greenhouse. Too much heat does a lot of rough stuff, from melting the polar ice caps, which causes oceans to rise and seaside cities to drown, to parching the lands where food is grown. The carbon comes from digging out and then burning up too much coal and oil. Climate disruption is what is squandering the planet’s future. The solution is simple and well understood: put a price on carbon so that people will churn less of it. The problem is how to manage the consequences.
Just to start with, the proven reserves of the energy giants “are already four times more than we can safely burn.” This is inventory on corporate balance sheets meant to be sold. How can that be stopped? Big problem and lots of big oil companies to keep hands off their carbon.
Another big problem: what can we turn to that keeps the lights on and the engines turning without releasing carbon dioxide? Neatly, Rand suggests how the two problems might provide cross-solutions. Global energy companies can put their engineering talent to work on what Rand calls an “energy moon shot,” much more ambitious in scope than President Kennedy’s original commitment to put a man on the moon. It would be a “publicly directed mission” to turn the finance, engineering and industrial strengths of the market economy by giant leaps, not incremental changes, toward a low-carbon energy future, nothing less than what has been called the fourth industrial revolution.
Mainstream economic analysis based largely, Rand asserts, on oversimplified climate data, coalesces around the proposition that carbon levels should be reduced but that a modest effort is all that’s required to bring atmospheric carbon levels to “between 700 and 800 parts per million (ppm) by the end of the twenty-first century.”
Flawed economic analysis to be sure but it’s the consensus and it’s what politicians are hearing from their expert economic advisers. The problem is they might persuade us all that their predicted outcome is good enough, thereby appealing irresistibly to our natural instinct to do nothing until crisis strikes, perhaps devastatingly, as in Katrina, Sandy or Japan’s tsunami. What if their comforting numbers disguise a nasty result? What if they’re right indeed but the outcome is dismal nevertheless.
This is more likely than not, according to Rand, because “no one with any serious knowledge of climate science thinks 800 ppm is a place modern civilization can go.” This may be the place for me to mention that Rand, while he isn’t a climate scientist, is very well versed in the fast developing world of clean technologies as an entrepreneur. He’s also academically irreproachable with a degree in engineering from Waterloo, two masters degrees and a doctorate in philosophy from LSE, the U of T and the University of London,. He’s a bright guy. He’s making an intelligent argument that inspires action. It’s leavened with irony and wit — Waking the Frog is eerily apt — and jabs at the preposterously overpraised. It’s an argument from a clear-eyed look at facts and a common sense approach to instituting change. It’s a mighty challenge. But he shows that indeed there are what the book’s subtitle promises: solutions for our climate change paralysis. And, most effectively, he explains why it must be done.
“A rise in global average temperatures associated with 800 ppm of atmospheric carbon,” he writes, “brings systemic risks throughout our food supply with massive increased risks of droughts, severe weather, and flooding in coastal areas. By the end of the century, those risks are off the charts! Resource scarcity eads to wars over food and water. Our ever-aging infrastructure will be at risk of being consistently overwhelmed by storms, water and fire — and all the attendant physical and financial misery. Ocean levels will eventually rise not by meters but by a hundred meters (328 feet) or more because the ice caps will completely melt over time. That kind of a carbon level is . . . the end of comfortable life as most of us know it now!”
If 800 ppm represents survival in a blistering, bleak and barren world, where are we now? Well we’re struggling to hang on to a target of 450 ppm. “To have a snowball’s chance of limiting carbon to 450 ppm,” writes Rand, “we have to leave between two-thirds and four-fifths of all proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.” To have any chance of doing this we must have alternatives for at least some of the displaced carbon. Rand suggests everything from breeder reactors to geothermal systems to commercial building retrofits. As a pilot project in the latter category he presents a hotel he developed in downtown Toronto that reduced its energy use seventy five percent by leveraging five percent of the building’s capital cost to instal geothermal and solar heating and super-efficient LED lighting that “can light-up the entire building like a Christmas tree — inside and out — for less energy than a four-slice toaster uses.”
Why put a price on it? Nothing in the global market is more certain than demand reducing as costs increase. If the goal is to reduce the use of carbon, charge more for its use. “There’s no more powerful tool in our policy options,” Rand argues. “Pricing carbon is fair, justified, effective, efficient and politically neutral.” Nobody gets a fee ride.
Rand allows that any of the solutions he presents can be debated in good faith but one thing we must agree on is the urgent need to act.
“Humankind has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years. From Rome and the birth of Christ through to our wonderfully complex global economy, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Art, literature, science, culture, and our civic structures, all are results of our long journey to the present. Who knows what further adventures might await? We’ll only have the chance to find out if we manage to squeak through the climate crisis and stop our mad gallop toward the climate cliff.”
The frog is us. The planet, our pool, is rapidly warming. If we don’t jump soon, very soon, it will start to boil. Wake up before we feel much more heat is Rand’s cry from the soul. Wake up, I echo, or be beneath contempt forever in the memory of generations to come.
Waking the Frog: Solutions for Our Climate Change Paralysis, by Tom Rand. ECW Press. 209 pages. $29.95
PSF energizes activists for new beginning
By Tony Patterson
The Peoples Social Forum that camped on the uOttawa campus and spread throughout the city last summer (Aug. 21-24, 2014) generated much ado about almost anything you can think of in opposition to Stephen Harper and other powers that be, tar sands, the establishment, pipelines, the government, the one percent (the Family Compact in days of old). None of these evildoers were present in person, but they were represented by an extensive security force. One march I witnessed:
“What do we want?” “Justice.”
“When do we want it?” “Now.”
Who we want justice for wasn’t audible but could have been all the oppressed and downtrodden. This march was preceded by two senior officers on foot and accompanied by almost as many others as marchers. I exaggerate. There were actually more marchers than cops, maybe twice as many. But the police were armed, which more than evened the odds. Seven were on bicycles, four on motorcycles, a half-dozen on foot and several in vehicles of various descriptions, including the latest model of what was known back in the day as the ‘paddywagon’ for its common use carting drunk and obstreperous Irishmen off to the cells. They were ready for anything but nothing was happening. The marchers were as peaceful as Sri Chinmoy acolytes.
What I gather is that there are three shared points of view among the many, many, many interest groups here, of all colours, faiths and persuasions. Everyone despises the Prime Minister. That’s number one. I saw no I Hate Harper buttons but I heard a lot of that kind of talk. Almost everyone is anti-capitalist. And almost every group wants money.
These are just overall impressions from snatches overheard. There are variations, of course, and many subtexts. The largest audience was for the radical economist Naomi Klein, who was careful to cap her recitation of all of capitalism’s sins of omission and commission with the caution that resistance has to be accompanied by feasible alternatives.
One session I got to featured a ramble into indigenous prehistory and a catalogue of the injustices done to First Nations by renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, who is front and centre for a proposed Indigenous International Peace Centre located on islands of historic importance in the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau. It’s a project a long time in gestation, decades actually, but taking on a new urgency with the recently announced proposals for commercial development of the site. This one will cost many millions. You can see pictures on Mr. Cardinal’s website.
The surprise in another session I attended was how few there were who showed an interest. The topic was legalizing cannabis. The presenter was Craig Jones, who has given much of his career to assisting the oppressed and disadvantaged in Canada (he was exec director of John Howard Society until 2010), who told it like it is. In short, cannabis prohibition does more harm than the substance itself. Interest, shall we say, was muted. There weren’t more than ten people in the room and at least one of them was from out of town looking for a pot connection. Could have been a narc. I’ll bet there was more than one in the crowd.
The pervasive sentiment through the four days: everything is moving in the wrong direction. Conservatives at home are increasing oppression and denying all evidence of environmental holocaust. Abroad, the planet struggles to breathe as rampaging extractive industries feed insatiable demand by western industry and Asian populations.
What’s a poor boy or girl to do?
One thing to do is come out to mega-gatherings like Peoples Social Forum in order to make connections to move the agenda forward, whether the cause is to free Ottawa from the curse of fluoridation, to overthrow the Indian Act or to bring back Karl Marx. It’s not simply the culmination of two years of unrelenting effort by hundreds of volunteers. It’s a new beginning. True believers meet up. Activists are energized. As Greg Macdougall writes in the pre-assembly publication, the main function of the gathering “is to facilitate further collective collaboration and action.”
Arms and the man and flowers in the rain
By Tony Patterson
I was out walking the canal on the first day of the tulip festival. It was the start of a rainy spell, the air damp chilled. I was all alone out there of a Saturday. The tourists had opted for room service and snuggling up. The flowers were just starting to open and would be in full blossom in a week.
In the late days of the festival they were wilted but still a kaleidoscope of colour though wet and cool continued in the weeks after my walk. The Bollywood film program would be cancelled “due to inclement weather” on India Day. But it’s not foul weather that tolls the last gasps of this traditional celebration of spring and welcome for the summer oncoming. Public indifference will kill it. The city doesn’t care. NCC gives the festival no financial support. Saved from bankruptcy five years ago, the festival has responded by dropping $2 million since.
I passed the polished stone tribute to Doug Fullerton and thought of Ottawa’s other weather-plagued festival. It was Doug who invented the Rideau Canal Skateway, the longest skating rink in the world, which led to Winterlude, which led to god only knows how much wealth for Ottawa merchants. Not only that. Fullerton, an affable economist who had put the Canada Council on a sound financial footing as its investment guru before being handed responsibility for the NCC, understood the importance of people and spaces in urban planning. He conceived and had built, I quote from his stone near Patterson Creek, "the network of recreational pathways that weave their way through the National Capital Region, uniquely linking waterways, green spaces and the urban core." Hard to believe he only held the job for four years, 1969-73.
Then I thought of David Luxton, who rescued the tulip festival when it was about to go under a few years back and has been its moral centre as well as its chief idea guy ever since.
Not that he’s around a lot. The last time I had seen him was over a year before. As we were chatting, he excused himself while he took a few brief calls. He spoke in English, French, German and Arabic. He was spending much of his time in Afghanistan and other exotic places. He often moved, he mentioned, in a convoy of armored vehicles. He’s not an arms dealer. More an anti-arms dealer. It just happened that when the weapon of choice for terrorists became the improvised explosive device (IED), David Luxton had the antidote — electronic gear that jams cellphone-triggered improvised bombs. Not a hundred percent effective, of course. This is war after all and a hundred and fifty five Canadians have died, almost two out of three of them as the result of IED explosions. But there could be hundreds more casualties, and thousands more in other armies now engaged, without the kind of protection David’s company provides.
There’s enough deep geothermal to power all of Canada. So why can’t we try just a bit?
Posted by Tyler Hamilton
How much power generation in Canada comes from geothermal energy? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
How much of Canada could be powered by geothermal power? All of it. Many times over.
There is, of course, a catch or two. Cost is one. Location is another, because not all the best sites are near population centres. Still, as two studies from Canada’s top geothermal researchers show, there’s a heck of a lot of geothermal resource to work with if we tried. And as I point out in my Clean Break column , geothermal could be just as significant a contributor to Canada’s power needs in 20 years or 30 years as hydroelectric power is today. Again, that’s if we tried.
Stephen Grasby, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, and co-author Jacek Majorowicz, an Alberta-based geothermal consultant, have come out with two studies looking at enhanced geothermal system (EGS) potential in Canada. One study will appear online this month in the Journal of Geophysics and Engineering (I was expecting it out by now). It looks at the overall potential of EGS in Canada. Another just published study, this one in the journal Natural Resources Research, looks specifically at high-potential regions where EGS development would offer the biggest bang for the buck. “Results show areas with significant EGS potential in northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and southern Northwest Territories related to high heat flow and thermal blanketing of thick sedimentary cover,” they wrote. “Estimated installation costs in 2008 dollars are under $2 million per megawatt.”
That’s about $6 billion for 3,000 megawatts — more than competitive with nuclear, not just with respect to capital costs, but also operational and maintenance costs. Also, none of the high costs associated with storing spent fuel indefinitely or with decommissioning old plants. This figure, of course, is for developing the most promising EGS projects. Cost will rise depending on location, rock conditions, availability of an outside water source, and depth of required drilling. Still, the studies make clear the opportunities are immense. The Geophysics and Engineering study, for example, said projects could be developed right across the country, including parts of Ontario, if you drill deep enough. Over time, as drilling costs fall and expertise of EGS climbs, this could happen one day.
“At 10 kilometres we can expect EGS temperatures in the 150 to 200 degrees C range across most of Canada, except some areas of the Canadian shield,” wrote Grasby and Majorowicz. “Given the widespread distribution of geothermal energy, and the high energy content, the potential geothermal resource in Canada is significant,” they concluded.
Sure, there’s risk to heading in this direction, just as there was risk of investing in the early days of the oil sands or nuclear industry. I would argue there’s much more risk drilling for oil offshore in the deepest ocean waters. For example, an accident could happen and you could end up with the equivalent of an oil volcano erupting kilometres below the surface. (Okay, now I’m being facetious).
The fact remains: geothermal power is baseload, it’s clean, it’s plentiful, and it can be done using proven drilling and rock fracturing techniques in Alberta’s oil patch. The Canadian Geothermal Association is targeting development of 5,000 megawatts of geothermal power by 2015 using conventional techniques. Imagine, if we started doing that development now in parallel with EGS research and development, what we could accomplish by 2030? It could be possible to wean Alberta entirely off coal, for one, and it would put us in a good position as we move to electrify the transportation sector.
These two Canadian studies come three years after the release of a groundbreaking U.S. study led by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their research suggested EGS in the United States could realistically supply about 100,000 megawatts of power generation capacity by 2050, assuming the proper policies and R&D investments were committed. The MIT study didn’t cover Canada, but several experts who participated in that study said their conclusions could also apply to the Great White North. Still, it’s nice to have our own data — and this is exactly what Grasby and Majorowicz have given us.
Canada, clearly, needs a national geothermal development strategy — and it needs one now.
Time to beat the drum.
Have you ever wondered
By Tony Patterson
Who makes the decisions behind the big salaries? The July-August 2013 edition of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business tells the tale in its analysis of the Top 1000 corporations in Canada. The Royal Bank led the list, as it usually does, with its profit of $7.4 billion. Does CEO Gord Nixon consult only himself while collecting $14 million for steering RBC? No way. It’s a Board decision. Directors decide.
Way down at the bottom of the ROB list is gas-producer Encana Corp. of Calgary, No. 1000 with a loss of nearly $3 billion. (ROB ranks the Top 1000 companies in Canada by profitability but just over half of the thousand — 544 to be precise — show any profit at all. The rest are all losers for 2012.) Encana’s CEO last year, Randy Eresman, was paid only $7 million. As ROB meanly calculates, Mr. Nixon’s bank made $542 of profit for every loonie he was paid. Mr. Eresman was paid more than $2,500 for every million dollars down the toilet at Encana. According to a calculation by Corporate Knights magazine, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Eresman were each paid 92 times the average salary in their respective companies, an intriguing coincidence.
Who decides this kind of compensation practice, and why? There’s no denying that, like the Big Mac, it’s an importation from the U.S. of A. Mr. Nixon explains it this way in an interview with Grant Robertson of ROB. “. . . most of my top executives have been offered very big positions in the United States and elsewhere. It is a global market, a competitive market . . .”
Research for the New York Times (June 29), found that for the “top 200 chief executives at public companies with at least $1 billion in revenue . . . the median 2012 pay package came in at $15.1 million — a leap of 16 percent from 2011.” Of course even the most ambitious and self-confident Canadian business executive might feel it a long stretch to become CEO of a multi-billion dollar American enterprise. That’s OK because it’s not necessary to reach the very top in order to become very wealthy. As the NYT points out, “Because the data shows only chief executives’ pay, it does not reveal how good it still is to be a prince . . . compensation of the No. 2 executives at some of these companies would have vaulted them to the top ranks on the C.E.O. roster.”
At least noone in Canada tried to push Larry Ellison last year. The larger-than-life CEO of Oracle took $84.5 million from the company to fund his expensive and enduring pursuit of yachting’s America’s Cup. Peter Munk’s gold-plated lures for directors at Barrick, Frank Stronach’s platinum-lined parachute from Magna, don’t compare. Not since 2001 have we seen anything like it, when Canadian Pacific was split into five independent and self-sustaining companies after a century at the core of Canadian business and regional development. The CEO who made that break-up call received compensation, according to all reports, somewhere above $83 million. This was Canadian money, of course, not American like Mr. Ellison’s. Then again, it was a dozen years ago.
Who makes these decisions? Directors do and primus inter pares of directors is the Chair. The Chair usually gives a lead and the Board decides. In some cases the Chair and the CEO are one and the same. This was the case at Canadian Pacific in 2001, when the Chair and CEO was David O’Brien (pictured). The titles used to be joined at the Royal as well, but they’ve been split for some time now. Mr. Nixon is CEO. The Chair is David O’Brien. Similarly at Encana. Mr. Eresman was succeeded early this year as CEO by Clayton Woitas. But the Chair remains the same as before. That’s David O’Brien.
[Disclosure: Tony Patterson is David O'Brien's cousin.]
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, September 3, 2012.)
Despite the prejudices of outsiders against government and bureaucracy, Ottawa has been the best place in Canada to incubate big ideas and visionaries during my lifetime and even before.
The town was started by the greatest engineering project of the age before railways, the building of the everlasting Rideau Canal. That was before my lifetime, of course, but I feel a certain connection. One of my ancestors was a sapper who came with Lt. Colonel By to help blast, cut, dig and construct that magnificent waterway.
My lifetime was getting underway around the time of WWII when Ottawa was the nerve centre of the greatest growth explosion the country has ever seen. There was an engineer in charge, the controversial “minister of everything,” C. D. Howe. Most particularly Ottawa was where the technology to run the engines of war was conceived. The National Research Council emerged from the shadows under a brilliant scientist-soldier, General Andrew McNaughton, inventor of an artillery targeting device that was a forerunner of radar. From the NRC since have emerged hundreds of devices, systems, ideas and even seeds that have contributed to the betterment of humankind everywhere. Canola (a name made up of Canada and oil) is worth $2 billion a year to Prairie farmers, second only to wheat as an agricultural export. The motorized wheelchair. The first cardiac pacemaker. The crash position indicator, which guides rescue workers directly to isolated airplane crash sites before survivors perish of injuries or starvation. These are Ottawa inventions. The vaccine against infant meningitis. The first electronic music synthesizer. The best way to do computer animation of film. All got started here, at the NRC.
Of course there were some escapees of the ambitiously independent from NRC and its offshoots, even though they were often depending on government contracts to get their fledglings off the ground. Joe Norton founded Computing Devices. His son Mark is still actively supporting various high tech enterprises about town. Denny Doyle threw down his labcoat to establish Digital Equipment Corporation in Canada. It would vie with Nortel as the backbone of the tech-centric west end from Nepean through Kanata.
Nortel arrived as Bell-Northern Research in the early 1960s, attracted by NRC and its offshoot the Communications Research Centre at Shirley’s Bay. CRC would be the heart of Canada’s space adventures, starting with the Alouette program in the early 1960s. Alouette 1 made Canada the third nation to have a satellite circling. BNR became the single most important influence in moving the world’s telecom from analog to digital. This key innovation allowed Mike Cowpland and Terry Matthews to produce the fabulously successful PBX machines at Mitel. Then there was a quarter century run-up to Silicon Valley North, an intoxicating, almost giddy era. The likes of Systemhouse, Fulcrum, Jetform, Mosaid, JDS and Cognos were blooming.
Mitel does different things today, but in the meantime Matthews started Newbridge, now part of Alcatel, and Cowpland founded Corel. Nortel (which assumed BNR in 1996) is gone, the victim of awful business decisions. But the $5 billion patent portfolio it revealed in its death throes was dramatic evidence of the quality of thinking that went on there. There, of course, was here. Ottawa.
Where are the dreamers, the visionaries of yesteryear? As a matter of fact, a lot of them are still around, still dreaming dreams, still trying to make them real. Rod Bryden at Plasco. Terry Matthews at the re-acquired Mitel and a score of startups, Michael Cowpland at Zim, Adam Chowaniec, the Foody family, David Luxton. Denny Doyle still consults with the community out of Doyletech. And the young turks: Alfred Jay at Ramius, Tobias Lütke at Shopify, Paul Vallée and Andrew Waitman at Pythian. Space only prevents a much longer list.
It’s been my pleasure to write about these people through the years. Now I take leave, supremely confident that the end is not here, not even near. There will be a new resurgence of the technology gene. It may even have begun without our noticing. I can’t say precisely what it will bring but whatever it is will rise from a foundation of two solid centuries of technological achievement. Right here in government city.
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, July 9, 2012.)
Pay attention Ottawa. On the bank of the Ottawa River three hundred acres of your choicest land are about to be in play.
As choice as LeBreton Flats, Rockcliffe is many times the size of that historic neighbourhood, which was devastated by fire in 1900 and is still struggling to revive despite its recent acquisition of the swooping architectural masterpiece that encloses the Canadian War Museum. Essentially undeveloped land running in a huge rectangle bordered by St. Laurent Boulevard on the west, the NRC campus at Blair Road on the east, Montreal Road to the south and the Ottawa River, Rockcliffe is the site of a former RCAF airbase.
DND declared the property surplus in 1984, though there were military families still living there a quarter century later. Rockcliffe has been a question all that time. There were problems with property transfers and a land claim by an Algonquin first nation that apparently has been settled with a payment of $10 million. Algonquins may still be involved since they retain a right of first refusal on parcels to be sold from Rockcliffe. But it’s yet to be seen how willing they are to trade cash-in-hand for ancestral land.
The owner-of-record today is the Canada Lands Company. CLC’s mandate is to develop or dispose of properties the government owns but doesn’t use. It’s a player in major cities, such as Montreal (Old Port area and the Benny Farm residential district) and Toronto (Downsview Park, also a disused airfield). At Rockcliffe, a lead manager is to be named this month who will assemble a team of professionals to envision how this extraordinary landscape will be reshaped. Their starting mission is “to develop an exemplary diverse contemporary neighbourhood offering a choice in housing, employment, commercial, institutional and leisure activities which will be defined by the site’s unique setting, along with a commitment to environmental sustainability and long term economic viability.”
Now this will make a fine extension for Rockcliffe Park, one of the wealthiest enclaves in Canada, which the airfield was carved from nearly a century ago. After all, there are only two thousand people living there now. The airfield would essentially double the area of this ex-village where average salaries are twice what other Ottawa residents get paid. It’s a beautiful site. Should go to the most beautiful people. No?
That’s almost certainly what’s going to happen on the present path to decision. If there are other ideas out there, now’s the time to bring them forward. Two that I’ve heard deserve at least to be exposed:
The main campus of NRC, Canada’s primary research agency, abuts Rockcliffe. How about a technology park to bring commercial and entrepreneurial talent close to scientific teams that have global reputations and have won awards from the Nobel to Killam to Oscar?
The University of Ottawa is constrained for space. Located in the heart of the city, it has no way to grow physically to accommodate more students. Also it occupies properties that the federal government could use as it grows to manage the nation that, last I heard, was heading for a population of a hundred million this century.
A previous uO president talked of establishing a satellite campus at Rockcliffe for science faculties. The notion was dismissed by CLC, which didn’t have control then but knew it would some day. The current uO prez has reportedly canvassed profs at the university and found no support for the idea. But it’s not altogether crazed. Université Laval moved from its three century old campus in downtown Quebec City to Sainte-Foy in the 1950s. The Université de Montréal is relocating science faculties to the old train yards in Outremont.
The clock is running on Rockcliffe. Municipal approvals will take two or three years at least. Public consultations are to start this fall, presenting what CLC calls “a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to discuss and address issues of urban reintegration, quality of life and factors important in designing the place where you live, work, learn and play.”
That’s once in our lifetime, Ottawa. Prête attention
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