The Geek's Reading List for the week ending Mar. 27, 2015
By Brian Piccioni
1) Intel: PC sales weak as many businesses stick with Windows XP
I predicted the end of PC sales growth about 8 years ago so stories of a week market are not exactly new. Except for gamers, for most people in most applications PCs are now replaced when they break, not because they lack the power to keep up with the demands of software. A similar argument can be made for operating systems, in particular Windows XP: for most people in most circumstances, it is more than up to their job. Of course, the major weakness in Windows XP is security, especially since Microsoft essentially announces security flaws to the world and doesn't fix them for XP. Mind you, security is not a passive thing and company policies and practices can have an impact. It can be a lot cheaper than regularly replacing your machines and/or getting into a subscription agreement with Microsoft.
“Perhaps the most interesting detail that emerged from Intel's lackluster first quarter financial results the other day had nothing to do with mobile, the company's white whale. Instead, it concerned something so old that it almost seems laughable in the same week that the very 21st-century Apple Watch dominated headlines. Per ZDNet's own Larry Dignan: “In a statement, Intel said it cut its first quarter outlook because of "weaker than expected demand for business desktop PCs and lower than expected inventory levels across the PC supply chain.” One reason the chip giant cited for that weaker demand: a slowdown in companies upgrading from Windows XP systems. What's particularly interesting about this is that the move away from the ancient OS helped drive some of Intel's better results in 2014.”
2) One reason to love Chromebooks even if you don’t want one
This is somewhat of a reprise of the Netbook period when PC vendors launched very low cost laptops in an effort to invigorate interest in PCs, though, at that time there was not much of a competitive alternative. Chromebooks, which are meant to be used mostly online are quite cheap and reasonably capable for basic applications. Given a choice I would go for a Windows machine at the same price because I liven in Canada where Internet access is slow, expensive, and unreliable. Of course, a lot depends on how competitive these new machines are, at least from a feature perspective.
“Apparently, Microsoft is keeping a close eye on these cheap Chrome OS computers, and wants to put up a fight with affordable Windows machines of its own. Digitimes has learned from sources familiar with the matter that Microsoft plans to release cheaper laptops to compete against affordable Chromebooks this year. The company is working on at least two distinct clamshell notebook models, the publication says, both featuring 11.6-inch displays. The devices should start selling at some point in mid-2015, with prices ranging from $149 to $179. The new affordable Windows devices will pack Intel’s Bay Trail-T CR processor, with one model geared towards education, which also happens to be a target for Google’s Chromebooks. Interestingly, the consumer model will cost $149, while the education version will be priced higher, at $179.”
3) Moore’s Curse
I'm glad somebody wrote this article and a link to it should be placed next to every article about self driving cars, solar power, and electric vehicles. Moore's Law applies to transistors and transistors alone because they get better AND cheaper as they get smaller and the technology to make them smaller has followed a predictable path for about 50 years. In contrast, for example, bolts do not get better as they get smaller. Most other things get slightly better and slightly cheaper over time but the rate of change is limited by other factors. A battery is limited by chemistry and size: unless you make big changes to the chemistry (and chemistry progresses slowly) a battery is not going to improve that much that quickly. The same goes for solar cells and windmills. Physics rules.
“As components have gotten smaller, denser, faster, and cheaper, they have increased the power and cut the costs of many products and services, notably computers and digital cameras but also light-emitting diodes and photovoltaic cells. The result has been a revolution in electronics, lighting, and photovoltaics. But the revolution has been both a blessing and a curse, for it has had the unintended effect of raising expectations for technical progress. We are assured that rapid progress will soon bring self-driving electric cars, hypersonic airplanes, individually tailored cancer cures, and instant three-dimensional printing of hearts and kidneys. We are even told it will pave the world’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.”
4) Micron and Intel Unveil New 3D NAND Flash Memory
A number of companies announced 3D NAND Flash memory recently. This allows multiple layers of storage on the same die, significantly reducing cost and packaging size. As the press release and video suggest, this approach is particularly suited to Solid State Drive (SSD) applications. As I predicted a few years ago, the era of the Hard Disk Drive (HDD) is drawing to a close and I recommend upgrading any laptop with an SSD if it doesn't already have one. Ultimately, the HDD industry will more or less disappear and all of the value of that industry will be transferred to the Flash memory manufacturers.
“The new 3D NAND technology stacks flash cells vertically in 32 layers to achieve 256Gb multilevel cell (MLC) and 384Gb triple-level cell (TLC) die that fit within a standard package. These capacities can enable gum stick-sized SSDs with more than 3.5TB of storage and standard 2.5-inch SSDs with greater than 10TB. Because capacity is achieved by stacking cells vertically, the individual cell dimensions can be considerably larger. This is expected to increase both performance and endurance and make even the TLC designs well-suited for data center storage.”
5) The Critical Smartphone Issue That Manufacturers Ignore
This is not a very well written piece but it makes a good point: as manufacturers pursue style over substance battery life cannot keep up with demands. Of course, one could offer replaceable batteries, but that is an expensive option. Alternatively, just add a millimeter or two to the thickness of the case: my Nexus 5 has a 2300 mAhr battery and the battery is 6mm thick out of a total thickness of 9mm for the whole phone. Increasing the phone's thickness by 3mm would add more than 50% to the battery capacity. Since I, like many other users, have a rubberized protector on the phone to protect the screen from cracking, a factory rubberized, slightly thicker, Nexus 5 would have 50% more battery and actually be thinner and lighter than what I carry around today.
“I’ve spent the last ten days in Austin attending the various strands of SXSW. I’ve been doing so for the last eleven years, and one thing that has become clear over the last few years, and acutely aware of this year, is just how ill-served consumers are over a critical part of smartphone design. Modern batteries are too small.”
6) Apple files patent for a SUPER camera: System uses mirrors and multiple sensors to make photos brighter and clearer
This technological breakthrough was covered with the usual fawning praise for anything Apple does or is rumored to be considering doing. The funny thing is, there is nothing novel about 3 CCD cameras – I've actually owned a couple of them. How it is possible to patent something which has been in mainstream consumer products for the past 15 years or so is a complete mystery.
“Apple's latest marketing campaign has been designed to showcase just how good the cameras are on its iPhone 6 range. But if a patent awarded earlier this month is anything to go by, the camera on the iPhone 7 could take even better photos. The papers, originally filed in 2011, detail a three-sensor camera that splits light to boost the number of pixels it can manage.”
7) Apple Pay Adoption: Improving, But Still A Long Way To Go
This story was reported a number of different ways, depending on the biases of the source. Long story short, Apple Pay is only available on iPhone 6s and only a small fraction of those appear to to have any interest. There might be many reasons for this, including a limited number of stores supporting the system although why any store would support a proprietary pay system only useable by a small subset of a minority of mobile users is another matter. Apple is an effective marketer, so you should not count them out on Apple Pay. Nevertheless, I suspect any such payment system will have to be adopted across Android and iPhone to be successful, or, at least the respective readers at the stores should be able to handle either system equally well.
“A little under four months ago, the payments ecosystem got something of a surprise when a first round of Apple Pay adoption numbers was released by InfoScout in collaboration with PYMNTS.com. A survey of about 400 possible Apple Pay users on Black Friday revealed that 95 percent of iPhone 6 and 6+ users who could have paid with Apple Pay on Black Friday didn’t. Perhaps more surprising, five weeks after launch, more than 90 percent of those who could have used Apple Pay hadn’t given it a try. Four-and-a-half months have passed however. That has given Apple the chance to build, enhance and expand its payments ecosystem — signing on new banks, and forging merchant partnerships in its quest to broaden its appeal. Consumers have been inundated with Apple Pay promotions from their banks, and media coverage has been intense.”
8) A review of Android for Work: Dual-persona support comes to Android
I used to work for a bank which had very strict rules regarding what you could use your device for and it was understood the compliance department tracked all your emails, etc.. Of course, the IT department seemed to be about 5 years behind the times and as responsive as slugs when things went wrong so most of us carried two devices. I am pretty sure (but could never prove) the more “entrepreneurial” employees conducted “special” business on their personal devices, many of which were actually paid for by the bank. The mobile industry is catching up and beginning to offer “dual personality” devices which allow for concurrent operation as business and personal phones. This might also help with billing. Of course, as an early generation product, the article notes set up is bizarrely complicated, however, that will no doubt change.
“If you work in an office environment, you probably know a few people—maybe a lot of people—with two smartphones. One is a personal phone full of pictures of the family, games, social networking, and sports stuff, and the other is a company-issued smartphone full of e-mail, appointments, contacts, and documents. With two phones, your IT department has full control over your work data and can remotely wipe it, and they never get to see your personal pictures or other information. It's a workable setup, but the downside is all the duplication—you have two phones, two chargers, and almost no free pocket space. The other alternative is BYOD—Bring Your Own Device—in which the IT department takes over and installs a bunch of company software to your personal phone. There is a better way, though, and it's called a "dual-persona smartphone"—a way to have separate work and personal data on a single device. Blackberry was the first to have it baked into the OS in BB10, but in terms of OSes that users actually want to use, it's been left up to often-clunky third-party solutions.”
9) Twitter cuts off Meerkat, won't let it import who you follow on Twitter
Ah, the perils of developing an application on another company's infrastructure: they can either buy you or buy your competitor and shut you down. Since there are very low barriers to copying a popular application, there tends to be multiple competitors which emerge for any popular new application which arises. This means the infrastructure owner (Twitter in this case) can hold a reverse auction to determine who it will buy for the lowest cost before shutting down all the others. Not a compelling investment environment if you ask me.
“Meerkat, the new livestream sharing app, has taken the tech world by storm. It’s easy to see why, too, seeing how the app lets you easily share your live video streams with your Twitter followers. It could even import the accounts you follow on Twitter, as well as those who follow you: That way, you’ll be able to see what your Twitter friends are doing on Meerkat, all without having to find them and add them manually. But according to Mat Honan at BuzzFeed, Twitter unceremoniously blocked Meerkat’s access to its “social graph,” thereby rendering Meerkat’s contact import feature inoperable.”
10) Battle for African Internet users stirs freedom fears
I have covered the positive impact mobile communications has had in the developing world in the past by offering banking to people who never had it before, as well as price discovery, etc., for farmers and small business owners. The logical next step is a roll out of some measure of Internet service, which requires some degree of infrastructure and an appropriate regulatory environment. Large, US Internet companies like Facebook and Google are experimenting with various methods of delivery and this is not without controversy. My suspicion is that there activities are only a first step: once market interest has been demonstrated, local entrepreneur will step in.
“Critics, however, say big service providers and Internet companies are luring African users into using their services, giving them opportunities for greater advertising revenue. "It's like a drug pusher giving you a small amount and saying: 'If you want more, you have to come and buy it'," Africa Internet access specialist Mike Jensen said. Giving Africans free access to some Internet sites may also stunt innovation and limit the opportunities for African entrepreneurs, making online technology another industry on the continent dominated by big foreign companies.”
11) Wi-Fi Is About To Undergo a Huge Change
Home Wi-Fi is pretty impressive: I can set up a 600 mbps connection off a cheap router using 802.11AC. The problem is that there is limited capacity for high speed connections in a public place and more and more public places are offering some degree of free Wi-Fi. These technologies are astoundingly mathematically complex so it is truly amazing it can be crammed into a laptop for little extra cost or even sold as a USB “dongle” for $25.
“Get ready for superior Wi-Fi. At an event in San Francisco, component-maker, Qualcomm, demonstrated its contribution to this new technology, MU-MIMO. MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) is a new technology that will be in many new routers, smartphones, laptops and other Wi-Fi devices. MU-MIMO is engineered to handle many wireless devices connecting to a wireless network at the same time. In fact, as more devices connect to a MU-MIMO-enabled Wi-Fi router or access point; the better network performance becomes.”
12) Cutting the TV cord? Call the anti-cable guy
The CBC has been running the odd story about cable cutting lately. It makes sense they would do so, since, unlike Bell, Rogers, and Telus, they have no reason to manipulate news coverage for to suit their corporate interests (http://business.financialpost.com/2015/03/25/crtc-chairman-says-report-bce-inc-manipulated-news-coverage-disturbing/) even if that might be illegal. Long story short, most Canadians have access to Over The Air HD content they might miss as they move to streaming services. There are people who show you how to do it. Besides an antenna you might want an OTA PVR such as this: http://nuvyyo.com/. It may sound expensive, but compared to ballooning cable TV rates, the payback is pretty short.
“The cable guy has a new competitor: the anti-cable guy. He helps you cut the cord on traditional television services and hooks you up with alternatives. Most Canadians still watch cable or satellite TV. However, cord-cutting is catching on as more people seek potentially cheaper and more versatile viewing options. But not everyone has the technical chops to break with tradition. So enter the cord-cutting consultant, a hired hand who does the job for you. It’s a small but growing business model fueled by expanding viewing options in the digital age.”
13) Manipulating Wikipedia to Promote a Bogus Business School
There are legions of paid agents out there manipulating various social media for financial, philosophical, and political reasons. It is remarkable, for example, how the same (false) talking points arise when criticizing, for example, telecommunications policies in North America. It was easy to see this when you were consuming corporate media, but it may not be apparent when looking are crowd sourced information such as Wikipedia. Setting aside the question of who in their right mind would rely on an online resource to chose their business school, the effectiveness of this campaign is remarkable as is the time it took for action to be taken.
“In February, “ArbCom” voted to expel “Wifione” from Wikipedia. No idea what “ArbCom” is? You're not the only one. It's the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee, the highest court in Wikipedia land. And Wifione was a Wikipedia “administrator” account, run by persons unknown, that was accused of manipulating the Wikipedia site of an unaccredited business school in India by deleting links to numerous media reports alleging it scammed students into paying hefty sums for worthless degrees. For four years, that Wikipedia page was a primary marketing tool of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), which at one time boasted a network of 18 branches and tens of thousands of students. It lured students with the promise of an MBA and partnerships with international universities in the United States and Europe.”
14) Ford cars slow when they see speed-limit signs
This is another example of the rapid advance of high technological safety systems for automobiles: the car keeps track of speed limits and (optionally for now) obeys them. There are obvious potential problems with this type of approach as visibility can sometimes be an issue and there are many places where the default speed limit is not posted. Eventually, of course, Vehicle to Infrastructure wireless systems (see item 15, below) will accomplish the same thing in a more robust fashion and probably automatically issue a citation when you speed.
“Ford is to sell a car that can read road signs and adjust its speed accordingly to ensure the vehicle is not driving too fast. The speed-limiting tech can be activated via the steering wheel and briefly overridden by pressing firmly on the accelerator. The car company suggests the facility will help drivers avoid fines and could reduce the number of accidents. However, one expert said the innovation might only serve as a "stopgap". "There's a plan for speed restrictions to be beamed to your car's computer systems and controlled from there, rather than requiring street sign visual recognition systems," said Paul Newton, an automotive industry analyst at the IHS consultancy.”
15) Car-to-Car Communication: A simple wireless technology promises to make driving much safer.
This article touches on Car to Car (or Vehicle to Vehicle V2V) communications systems, yet another high tech safety system. The thing with V2V is that is probably has limited effect when penetration is low and probably encourages unsafe behavior to boot. For example, if I have V2V and most cars have V2V I might not look as I leave an intersection and end up getting broadsided by Brian's old pickup truck. There might be room for some form of mandated transition where all cars are required to have, for example, a transponder on board in order to be licensed. Similarly, there might be a requirement for such a system to alert drivers via a Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) system about speeding, slippery roads, and so on.
“I was in the passenger seat as Krishnan wheeled around a corner and hit the gas. A moment later a light flashed on the dashboard, there was a beeping sound, and our seats started buzzing furiously. Krishnan slammed on the brakes, and we lurched to a stop just as another car whizzed past from the left, its approach having been obscured by a large hedge. “You can see I was completely blinded,” he said calmly. The technology that warned of the impending collision will start appearing in cars in just a couple of years. Called car-to-car or vehicle-to-vehicle communication, it lets cars broadcast their position, speed, steering-wheel position, brake status, and other data to other vehicles within a few hundred meters. The other cars can use such information to build a detailed picture of what’s unfolding around them, revealing trouble that even the most careful and alert driver, or the best sensor system, would miss or fail to anticipate.”
16) No, Tesla Is Not Releasing a 'Self-Driving' Car This Summer
You might recall that, bundled in the hype and hysteria associated with Tesla improving their fuel gauge was the somewhat lesser hype and hysteria about the company releasing self-driving cars this summer. Not surprisingly, when you say “auto-steering capability being added on in the summer will make it possible to drive a Tesla "from San Francisco to Seattle ... parking lot to parking lot," without any human driver input at all” people are gonna think, well, aren't their contiguous parking lots through out the US? Settling aside liability issues, Tesla is, at best, playing catch up with the rest of the auto industry in the most important technological shift it has experienced in the past 100 years. Whether a tiny company with limited resources can, in fact, deliver any degree of autonomous driving (unlike that shown by real car companies) remains to be seen.
“Elon Musk this week offered a peek at some new driver-assist capabilities Tesla will be adding to its vehicles this summer, prompting a bit of a rush in the media to declare that Silicon Valley's favorite auto maker is about to launch a "self-driving" car. Well, no, it's not. And the funny thing is, the miscommunication about what Tesla is actually doing with its upcoming software upgrade for Model S and Model X electric vehicles (EVs) can't be blamed on Musk—who can certainly be overly effusive when talking about his cars and rockets and hyperloops, but was actually pretty circumspect during Thursday's conversation with press and analysts.”
17) Automakers race to double the driving range of affordable electric cars
They can race all they want, but physics gets in the way: either you increase battery capacity or you increase “fuel” economy or a bit of both. Battery price/performance has been improving at a glacial pace and there is no reason to believe that will change any time soon. Moving to lightweight materials can help, but batteries are quite heavy. I figure the EV market is a race between making them good enough and cheap enough fast enough, which is hard to do because of physics, or consumers realizing that any EV has zero value after 5 to 8 years because the battery pack, which represents much of the cost of the car, has to be replaced.
“Global automakers are readying a new generation of mass-market electric cars with more than double the driving range of today’s Nissan Leaf, betting that technical breakthroughs by big battery suppliers such as LG Chem Ltd will jump-start demand and pull them abreast of Tesla Motors Inc. At least four major automakers — General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co, Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) — plan to race Tesla to be first to field affordable electric vehicles that will travel up to 200 miles (322 km) between charges. That is more than twice as far as current lower-priced models such as the Nissan Leaf, which starts at $29,010. The new generation of electric cars is expected to be on the market within two to three years.”
18) Biodegradable 3D Printed Artificial Bone that Adapts to the Human Body
A misleading headline and a very short article thin on details. The tests involve rabbits, not people, though there is obviously potential application to people. The idea is to build a sort of biodegradable scaffold which is replaced by real bone over time. This could provide an alternative to the use of cadaver material, especially when the particulars of the injury call for a custom made solution. It ight make sense, for example, to replace a shattered bone with a custom made scaffold rather than trying to reassemble it with plates and screws as is done currently.
“Animal studies and trials are some of the few requirements in the pharmaceutical and surgical industries that need to be provided if a new drug or a medical technology is to be introduced to the public. This week, scientists at Xi’an Particle Cloud Advanced Materials Technology Co., Ltd. have successfully carried out a round of animal testing on their medical procedure that allows the fabrication of completely biodegradable intricate artificial bone structures. The trials conducted by the team of scientists at the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Xijin Hospital in Xi’an, China focused to ensure the safety of inserting a 3d printed body part inside a human body.”
19) Scientists have figured out how to inject human eyes with night vision
This isn't an injection, it is eye drops, and the effect appears to be relatively short lived. Apparently, these guys have tested a way to boost the light sensitivity of the human eye, which is pretty impressive. The problem I would see with this “boost” effect is that those who are treated with the solution might be extremely light sensitive until the effect wears off, although, as the article hints, sunglasses could take care of that. Besides helping with night blindness, one could imagine this approach could be used to treat soldiers, pilots, or SWAT teams prior to a night operation in order to avoid the limitations of night vision goggles.
“A team of biochemical researchers in the US has figured out how to give a human volunteer night vision, allowing him to see across a distance of over 50 metres in total darkness for several hours. The key is a natural, light-sensitive substance called Chlorin e6 (Ce6), which is derived from sea creatures and has been used for many years in cancer treatment research. It’s also been shown to be effective in the treatment of night blindness and improving dim light vision in people with eye disorders, so an independent team of self-described 'bio-hackers' in California called Science for the Masses decided to see how else it could be used to improve vision.”
20) Amazon Goes After Dropbox, Google, Microsoft With Unlimited Cloud Drive Storage
In general, cloud services are a race to the bottom: every new server is cheaper than the one it replaces, or the one which was installed a month ago. This sets up a curious dynamic where an actual, non-manipulated positive ROI is hard to realize: the new entrant always has a cost advantage over the established players. Some businesses have conjured up schemes where hapless consumers are unknowingly paying the electricity bills for other people's cloud services by they will eventually catch on. I recommend against using any cloud service for storage unless you can afford to lose the data. Cloud storage companies are notorious for shutting down or modifying their services and, if you have much data stored the time and cost to move it somewhere is prohibitive. This especially holds true for businesses. Either buy your own NAS, share some with friends, or get cheap external backup drives.
“Last year, Amazon gave a boost to its Prime members when it launched a free, unlimited photo storage for them on Cloud Drive. Today, the company is expanding that service as a paid offering to cover other kinds of content, and to users outside of its loyalty program. Unlimited Cloud Storage will let users get either unlimited photo storage or “unlimited everything” — covering all kinds of media from videos and music through to PDF documents — respectively for $11.99 or $59.99 per year. And those who want to test drive it can do so for free for three months.”
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.
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
NRC president sends corrections, explanations
1 May 2012
Mr. Tony Patterson
4-108 Queen Elizabeth Driveway
Ottawa, ON K2P 1E5
Dear Mr. Patterson:
As you are aware, in the summer of 2011, I refused your request for interview. At the time, we were doing very few as I was very pre-occupied with internal matters. You subsequently published a blog painting me in a very poor light. I am more than willing to accept fair and even unfair criticism. However, erroneous and blatantly misleading commentary falls into a different category. Your blog contained errors of fact, some of which we discussed yesterday, and many other statements that were directly or indirectly very misleading.
Yesterday when I pointed those things out, you said you thought "the article would have elucidated an immediate response from me". I told you the tone of your article actually said much more about you than it did about me, so I didn't feel that it was worth my time to respond.
In spite of those issues, when you called again a few days ago for an interview, I agreed to speak with you. When we connected, I immediately expressed my concerns about your prior blog and asked for an apology before proceeding further. You refused. Even so I agreed to provide clarifications regarding some of the errors and misleading statements in your blog. I also told you your subsequent response and actions would form the basis for determining whether there was any point in future discussions.
As committed, a few specific issues related to your July 2011 blog are addressed below by providing your words in italics followed by my clarifications:
1. "It's an image he pushed toward conclusion on his home turf, until he pushed too hard and got himself turfed out." "When four provincial R&D initiatives were merged into one under the name Alberta Innovates in January 2010, he was invited out."
I advised the ARC Board in the fall of 2007 to start looking for a successor. Not long thereafter, Alberta began to redesign its innovation system. The ARC Board and I both agreed to stay on at the request of the Province to provide continuity and input while Alberta completed their design and completed the legal transitions of the system. That ultimately occurred January 1, 2010 at which time I and the Board both departed.
for a complete listing of The Commons Archives.