The Geek's Reading List for the week ending April 24, 2015
By Brian Piccioni
1) Electric vehicles lose buzz
The hype and hysteria surrounding the likes of Tesla would have you believe vehicles with “alternative drive trains” are flying off the lots, however, they have dropped from 3.7% to 2.7% of sales in the past year and only about 45% of EV of hybrid buyers buy another. Edmunds links the decline to lower gas prices (http://www.edmunds.com/about/press/hybrid-and-electric-vehicles-struggle-to-maintain-owner-loyalty-reports-edmundscom.html), however, there may be other reasons (reliability and resale value among the most significant). I believe the market would quickly evaporate if politicians were to decide that it would be better to spend taxpayers' money on, say education, than subsidies for hybrids and EVs, but that is crazy talk. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for bringing this story to my attention.
“It's a buyer's market for drivers interested in new or used electrics and hybrids. Sales of new electric cars and hybrids, according to automotive research and shopping site Edmunds.com, are at their lowest level since 2011 — the first full year of sales for the groundbreaking Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan's all-electric Leaf. So car makers are paring prices in an effort to get them moving. Furthermore, motorists who leased those first-generation cars, and have decided not to buy them, are turning them in. They're on dealer lots with still relatively low mileage, and at prices considerably cheaper than the new ones.”
2) We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership
In the olden days when cars were controlled by mechanical systems there was no real issue of “hacking” their performance. Nobody asserted, for example, that the lobe design of a camshaft was somehow protected under copyright law and therefore nobody could install a different one, thus altering engine performance. Now that an increasing portion of functions are done through software that is exactly what manufacturers are asserting: any modification to “their” vehicle won't just void your warranty, it is flat out illegal. This allows them to restrict who can diagnose or fix a machine, what repairs can be done, etc.. Unfortunately, this is probably a correct assessment under US law. It would be a pity if the rest of the world would adopt such anti-competitive policies.
“It’s official: John Deere and General Motors want to eviscerate the notion of ownership. Sure, we pay for their vehicles. But we don’t own them. Not according to their corporate lawyers, anyway. In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker —told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it.”
3) Machine Dreams … Hewlett-Packard is making a long-shot bid to change the fundamentals of how computers work.
This is an update on HP's Machine, a radical computer design which exploits the particular characteristics of memristors. To review, memristors are a recently discovered circuit element with exciting possibilities, including the potential to deliver cost effective, extremely high density non-volatile memory as fast as DRAM. Such a memory device would have a major impact on computing architecture and performance, hence the development of The Machine. The article does note that creating high density memories out of memristors is a work in process and there is uncertainty that it can be done. Nevertheless, I am quite hopeful it will be. Note that, while The Machine is essentially a supercomputer, there is nothing about memristors which would keep them out of PCs or smartphones.
“And yet, in the midst of this potentially existential crisis, HP Enterprise is working on a risky research project in hopes of driving a remarkable comeback. Nearly three-quarters of the people in HP’s research division are now dedicated to a single project: a powerful new kind of computer known as “the Machine.” It would fundamentally redesign the way computers function, making them simpler and more powerful. If it works, the project could dramatically upgrade everything from servers to smartphones—and save HP itself.”
4) Making software to block annoying ads is legal, German court rules
Good news: blocking ads other people run on your computer using your Internet is not illegal. Who would have guessed? Actually this ruling probably isn't that significant since AdBlock like function is available as Free Open Source Software so there is nothing they could have done to prevent it from use. I have moved away from AdBlock to uBlock which seems to work as well but use less computer resources. AdBlock went corporate a while back and defaults to “allow certain ads”, which is easy enough to change but uBlock pretty much blocks everything. I feel no more guilt over blocking ads than I do skipping commercials on my PVR or throwing out most of the newspaper when I get it.
“AdBlock Plus users in Germany can breathe easily: A court there has ruled that the browser extension for filtering annoying ads is legal to make and distribute. German newspapers Zeit Online and Handelsblatt asked the Hamburg Regional Court to ban German company Eyeo from selling its AdBlock Plus software, arguing that it illegally interfered with their ad-based online business models. The Hamburg court dismissed the complaint on Tuesday, although as is usual for German courts it will be another couple of weeks before publication of the written verdict containing the reasoning behind the ruling.”
5) Amazon Web Services is a $5 billion business
Apparently Amazon delivered better than expected Q1/15 financial results and it's stock went up. Yawn. Most of the media coverage focused on one segment, Amazon Web Services (AWS), which contributed less than 7% of revenues but 37.5% of Segment Operating Income. Pretty heady stuff, however, it is worth noting from Amazon's Q1/2015 income statement that, while AWS revenue grew about 50%, segment operating income grew a paltry 8%. I looked for, but did not see, what capital investment Amazon had made in order to report that income, but I'm guessing it wasn't trivial. Furthermore, there can be nothing proprietary or “sticky” about renting computing power: this is not the 1960s – anybody can buy computers and put them on the Internet. Not only that but since price/performance improves over time, the most recent entrant has the cost advantage, at least until the next guy gets into the business. Of course, if you happen to run massive data centers anyway you can sell your excess capacity with some cost advantage at least until you have to expand the data center. Cloud computing services is a race to the bottom, not an investment thesis.
“Even though Amazon Web Services has taken off in recent years to become the cloud computing solution of choice for businesses, not much was known about how much money it was bringing in. Now, however, we do. In its first quarterly earnings report today, Amazon has reported the financials for its AWS division for the first time, stating that it is a "$5 billion business and growing fast." In Q1 alone, AWS brought in $1.57 billion in revenue, which is up from $1.1 billion this time last year (in previous Amazon reports, this info was simply filed under a mysterious "Other" column). On the whole, AWS seems to be one of a few operations within Amazon that is profitable, with about $265 million in profits in Q1.”
6) Philips unveils a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb for $4.97
We predicted LED lighting would become commonplace a few years ago and it is pretty much evident this is the case given pricing trends and the quality of the light. Unlike CFL bulbs which are fragile and often slow to come to full brightness, LED bulbs are nearly unbreakable, produce excellent light, and are instant on. Furthermore, while I have replaced many “long life” CFLs after a short time, I have not yet had cause to replace a single LED bulb I have ever installed. The one disadvantage of these bulbs I see is that they are not dimmable, but that should not disqualify them for most applications. Pro-tip: replace your garage “trouble light” with an LED and you'll never have to replace it due to breakage.
“Philips just lowered the bar for adopting LED bulbs throughout your home with the company’s cheapest ever 60-watt equivalent LED bulb. It costs just $4.97. If that wasn’t cheap enough, when the bulb launches in May you’ll be able to pick up a two-for-one pack from The Home Depot. But you’ll have to be quick as the pack will only be offered for the first 90 days on sale. I suspect there will be stock shortages soon after launch.”
7) BlackBerry Snaps Up WatchDox For Content Security
I believe there is not greater joy for a tech CEO than to give his shareholders' money to the shareholders of other companies through dumb acquisitions. I know little about WatchDox, other than the fact there are a huge number of companies and open source projects in the same space, and that the batting average for tech company acquisitions is very, very low. Not zero, but close. Above all, tech companies do not typically buy themselves out of crisis. I did enjoy the comment “BlackBerry has over $3 billion in cash and isn’t afraid to use it. It’s good to see the company is being aggressive and it’s essential for the company’s survival.” I assume the journalist was not being sarcastic as I would have been if I had said that. The company is burning cash like there is no tomorrow (and there may not be) and they have $1.7B in debt, meaning they actually have closer to $1B in cash. Perhaps they might consider using that money to, I dunno, develop their own unique products. Just saying.
“BlackBerry Limited announced a definitive agreement to acquire WatchDox Ltd., enhancing its mobile security offerings. The companies didn’t disclose the terms of the sale. WatchDox is a player in the crowded enterprise file-sync-and-share (EFSS) market. The company is headquartered in Palo Alto, California, with research and development facilities in Petah Tikva, Israel.”
8) Security companies peddling snake oil
It hasn't happened in a couple months, but every now and then some looming “security threat” ranging from the end of Windows XP support to the latest computer virus hits the news. Of course, malware is a serious concern, as is hacking (especially for corporations), however I've often wondered if these media feeding frenzies were more about marketing than security. After all, stoking the fears of consumers and companies is good for business if you happen to have a potential solution. I did find the comment “it usually takes around 200 days to discover an espionage intrusion” to be interesting.
“The CEO of a security company has accused his fellow competitors of peddling snake oil to clients and lifted the lid on how they are doing it. Paul Vixie, CEO, Farsight Security said that as security breaches increasingly make headlines, thousands of Internet security companies are chasing tens of billions of dollars in potential revenue and are doing by telling porkies to clients. “We are alarmed at the kind of subversive untruths that vendor “spin doctors” are using to draw well-intentioned customers to their doors. Constructive criticism is sometimes necessarily harsh, and some might find the following just that, harsh. But we think it’s important that organizations take a “buyers beware” approach to securing their business,” Vixie said.”
9) Apple now rejecting apps with Pebble Smartwatch support
Ah, the joys of a walled garden or the hazards of supporting a proprietary platform. Pebble can still distribute the software (for now) it just can't tell anybody what it is for. It appears that enforcement of this policy only started once Apple launched its own smartwatch. What a coincidence! Imagine if during its heyday Microsoft had blocked installation of Office competitors.
“We have just had the latest version of our SeaNav US iOS app rejected by Apple because we support the Pebble Smartwatch and say so in the app description and meta-data (we also state in the review notes that "This application was approved for use with the Pebble MFI Accessory in the Product Plan xxxxxx-yyyy (Pebble Smartwatch)". See copy of rejection reason below. SeaNav US has previously been approved by Apple with no problem, we have had Pebble support in SeaNav for nearly 2 years and there are no changes to our support for the Pebble in this version. What are Apple doing? Have they gone Apple Watch crazy? What can we do?”
10) Xiaomi’s $205 Mi 4i mirrors the iPhone 5C design, claims 1.5-day battery
A lot is made about about how Xiaomi 'copies' Apple's products, but they just kind of look similar: all the innards and software are completely different. The company does not appear to be targeting North America or Europe, probably because of the potential for IP litigation from both Apple and Microsoft. Not that I believe any such litigation would have merit, but that's how those companies roll. From what I have read, unlike most Android vendors, Xiaomi has competent marketing and in its target markets enjoys the sort of cult following Apple has elsewhere. If the company's growth continues, it would significantly blunt demand for Apple and other high end phones in these markets.
“Last night, Xiaomi announced it's tackling the low-end phone market in India with a new product called the Mi 4i. It looks just a little like a certain Apple product, but the specs and pricing are what make this interesting. $205 (Rs.12,999) gets you a 5-inch 1080p LCD, an eight core, 64-bit Snapdragon 615, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, a 13MP rear camera, 5MP front camera, dual SIM support, and—perhaps the most eye-popping stat—a 3,120mAh battery. Most companies only seem concerned with packing as big of a spec sheet into a phone as possible. The battery is often an afterthought (the Galaxy S6 has a 1440p screen and a 2550 mAh battery, while the Galaxy S5 had a bigger 2800mAh battery). The Mi 4i spec sheet strikes a balance we would like to see manufacturers hit more often—Xiaomi claims the device will last a day and a half. There's no telling how true that is until (unless?) we get our hands on one, which will be difficult since the device is only for sale in India.”
11) Bypassing OS X Security Tools is Trivial, Researcher Says
Apple products are known for their relative immunity to malware, though that might partly be due to them having a modest market share relative to PCs. Kaspersky is a pretty reliable company when it comes to such things so if you are concerned – or complacent – about security you should have a look at this article. One thing is for certain is that the black hats pay attention to these presentations as well.
“Gatekeeper is one of the key technologies that Apple uses to prevent malware from running on OS X machines. It gives users the ability to restrict which applications can run on their machines by choosing to only allow apps from the Mac App Store. With that setting in play, only signed, legitimate apps should be able to run on the machine. But Patrick Wardle, director of research at Synack, said that getting around that restriction is trivial. “Gatekeeper doesn’t verify an extra content in the apps. So if I can find an Apple-approved app and get it to load external content, when the user runs it, it will bypass Gatekeeper,” Wardle said in a talk at the RSA Conference here Thursday. “It only verifies the app bundle.””
12) United Launch Alliance believes it can save from 50% to 90% of the cost on any part it can 3D print
Aerospace in general is a low volume production environment and that is even more the case when talking about spacecraft. The volumes are typically far too low to justify molds so subtractive manufacturing or even craft methods are often employed, resulting in extremely expensive parts costs. When I saw this article, I immediately thought the parts were engine related since you can do things with 3D printing of metal parts that you simply cannot do with traditional methods. It turns out that most will actually be plastic, something 3D printing is very good at. One interesting detail which had not occurred to me is that part of the motivation of moving to 3D printing was that the company was not always a priority for its suppliers, so by bringing production in house it has greater control over when things get done.
“United Launch Alliance (ULA), the company that makes rockets for NASA and the U.S. Air Force, plans to 3D print more than 100 flight-ready components for its next-gen model of rocket. That rocket, the Vulcan, was announced just last week and will combine the best attributes of the company's current Atlas- and Delta-model rockets. The Vulcan also offers a unique opportunity to infuse 3D printing of parts from the very beginning of the design concept, according to Greg Arend, program manager for additive manufacturing at ULA.”
13) An Algorithm Set Revolutionizes 3-D Protein Structure Discovery
The function of a protein is governed by its structure and its structure is determined by its amino acid sequence and the environment in which it exists. While modern techniques can cost effectively figure out the amino acid sequence of a protein, figuring out the structure from that information is extremely hard – in fact it is one of the classically difficult problems in computation. And yet, you need to know the structure before you can design a drug which interacts with a particular protein. One of the great potential applications for quantum computing, once they get it to work, is “protein folding” or figuring out protein structure. I don't fully understand this approach or the limits thereof but it appears these researchers have developed a computational approach which improves the speed of the solution by several orders of magnitude. Assuming it has broad application, this could be revolutionary.
“The standard approach to solving this problem is little more than guesswork. Dream up a potential 3-D structure for the molecule and then rotate it to see if it can generate all of the shadowgrams in the dataset. If not, change the structure, test it, and so on. Obviously, this is a time-consuming process. The current state-of-the-art algorithm running on 300 cores takes two weeks to find the 3-D structure of a single molecule from a dataset of 200,000 images. Brubaker and co have developed a much faster method that can do the same job in only 24 hours working on a single workstation.”
14) Dark Matter May Feel a “Dark Force” That the Rest of the Universe Does Not
No – this has nothing to do with the Star Wars reboot. I think. Last summer I went to a planetarium with my family where they played a recorded presentation by Neil deGrasse Tyson on the evolution of the universe. This field is changing so fast they had to stop it the recording near the end to provide a live update and correction regarding dark matter and dark energy. I have no idea if this finding is likely to be correct or not, but with 95% of the universe being made up of dark energy and dark matter, one cannot help but believe that once they figure out what these are it'll be mind blowing.
“After decades of studying dark matter scientists have repeatedly found evidence of what it cannot be but very few signs of what it is. That might have just changed. A study of four colliding galaxies for the first time suggests that the dark matter in them may be interacting with itself through some unknown force other than gravity that has no effect on ordinary matter. The finding could be a significant clue as to what comprises the invisible stuff that is thought to contribute 24 percent of the universe.”
15) Justice Dept., FBI to review use of forensic evidence in thousands of cases
The FBI – and doubtless many other police organizations – have a fondness for pseudoscience. Methods ranging from fingerprint “matching” to hair analysis to polygraph have questionable scientific foundation. Polygraphy, or “lie detection,” has been thoroughly debunked and I was going to carry a blog entry of a debunker in this GRL but that blog (www.AntiPolygraph.org) mysteriously disappeared from the Internet. People have actually been criminally charged for showing people how easy it is to spoof a polygraph. The interesting, and chilling, thing about this most recent scandal is that many of the (likely) wrongly convicted have already been executed. Water under the bridge, I suppose.
“The undertaking is the largest post-conviction review ever done by the FBI. It will include cases conducted by all FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since at least 1985 and may reach earlier if records are available, people familiar with the process said. Such FBI examinations have taken place in federal and local cases across the country, often in violent crimes, such as rape, murder and robbery. The review comes after The Washington Post reported in April that Justice Department officials had known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people but had not performed a thorough review of the cases. In addition, prosecutors did not notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.”
16) Google Wants To Speed Up The Web With Its QUIC Protocol
I had not heard of QUIC before. If I understand correctly Internet protocols assume the possibility of frequent packet loss and that brings a lot of baggage along with it. UDP is a protocol built for speed so it has less overhead and QUIC builds on that. Error handling might have been a big deal in the early years of the Internet, especially given its heritage as a military communications system, however, errors are not as much of a problem today. For example, my crappy (but very expensive) Canadian wireless/satellite Internet service can go for days and gigabytes of data without recording a single error. More common wired systems would be even more resilient. So it makes sense to update certain protocols to take into account a relatively error free environment, especially if this can improve speed and latency.
“Google says that it has seen about a three percent improvement in mean page load times with QUIC on Google Search. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you have to remember that Google Search is already about as optimized as possible. Other sites — and especially latency-heavy web apps — will likely see better improvements. Users who connect to YouTube over QUIC report about 30 percent fewer rebuffers when watching videos and because of QUIC’s improved congestion control and loss recover over UDP, users on some of the slowest connection also see improved page load times with QUIC. Google says it plans to propose HTTP2-over-QUIC to the IETF as a new Internet standard in the future.”
17) Cablevision Debuts “Cord Cutter” Packages Combining Broadband, Free Antennas, And Optional HBO NOW
If you can't beat them, join them, I guess. In the US, unlike Canada, people have a right to install TV antennas, even in highrises. Furthermore, US broadcasters tend to transmit high power signals compared to Canadian broadcasters, providing better coverage. In many ways, cord cutting is easier in the US than in Canada (the fact Canadian broadcasters and cable/satellite companies are owned by the same corporations might have something to do with this). Nevertheless, it is remarkable to see that at least one cable/broadband provider has decided to offer a package which actually facilitates that change. This is probably being done to encourage consumers to stick with them after dropping cable rather than moving to an alternative Internet provider, assuming one exists. These sorts of packages could put pressure on content providers to moderate their pricing.
“Cablevision made headlines as the first pay-TV provider to offer HBO’s new standalone service HBO NOW to its broadband customers, and today the cable company is again targeting cord cutters with new packages combining internet, a free digital antenna, and the option to bundle in HBO NOW if they choose. The “cord cutter package” as one bundle is officially called, is one of two new offerings the company announced today – the other combining a slower internet option, the antenna and a Wi-Fi voice service. Explains Kristin Dolan, Cablevision CEO, in a statement announcing the new bundles, “as a connectivity company, Cablevision is reimagining its relationship with its customers.” Dolan adds that the packages are meant to provide “real alternatives that fit new consumer lifestyles.””
18) Facebook DOES collect the text you decided against posting
I have nothing to do with Facebook so I admit I don't see the appeal of turning all my personal information over to them. Even less so given their enthusiastic collusion with security services - didn't anybody actually read Orwell's 1984? Plus they appear to be less than truthful, at least with respect to the modicum of privacy they have not yet violated. The sad thing is all that Facebook has to do now is modify its terms of service to include its rights to capture, sell, trade, and share (with the police) whatever comments you might draft.
“Facebook collects all content that is typed into its website, even if it is not posted, a tech consultant has discovered. In December 2013, it was reported that Facebook plants code in browsers that returns metadata every time somebody types out a status update or comment but deletes it before posting. At the time, Facebook maintained that it only received information indicating whether somebody had deleted an update or comment before posting it, and not exactly what the text said. However, Príomh Ó hÚigínn, a tech consultant based in Ireland, has claimed this is not the case after inspecting Facebook's network traffic through a developer tool and screencasting software.”
19) Shyp, an On-Demand Mailing Service, Raises $50 Million
I should do a weekly feature on the dumbest Doc Com 2.0 of the week. In most cases its not so much the business but the fact they get funded at absurd valuations. Honestly, does “we help you pack up and ship your stuff” get any more compelling when there is an app involved? What is the sustainable competitive advantage? Where are the barriers to entry? Is there a reasonable expectation of a return on invested capital? I know we aren't near the top of the market because IPOs aren't coming out at dopey valuations. Oh, wait – Etsy, Twitter, … never mind.
“From private rides to hamburgers to marijuana, there is perhaps no better time in history to get anything delivered with little more than a tap of a smartphone button. Add shipping packages to that list. Shyp, a company that lets customers summon workers to quickly pick up, pack and ship parcels, said on Tuesday that it has raised $50 million in venture capital, the largest funding round in the start-up’s history. The new round values Shyp at just above $250 million, according to two people with knowledge of the financial terms, who requested anonymity because the deal talks were private.”
20) Korean Shipbuilder Uses "Iron Man" Exosuit to Help Build World's Largest Freighter
I don't know much about the Korean sense of humor so I'm not sure if this is serious. You only get to the “RoboShipbuilder” in section III of the item, so you can skip the filler about the shipbuilding business. Assuming the story is not a joke, the gizmo lets a worker lift 30 kilograms, which suggests workers are not that strong to begin with, however they do target 100 kilograms, which is pretty heavy. The device is more like a brace than a robot and there doesn't seem to be any robotic function at all. Tethering a squishy human to a heavy load is the sort of thing which tends to end badly for the worker. It is much better to have the human safely ensconced in a forklift with a roll cage, or to have the load suspended from a small crane, much as has been done for decades.
“That's where the Daewoo S&M Eng. is having the RoboShipbuilder step in. Currently the exosuit is being used by employees and can lift up to 30 kg (66.1 lb.). That's enough to lift a variety of smaller steel components, and precisely position them for the most difficult welding tasks. The suit uses a mixture of hydraulics and electric servomotors to carry the load. Workers start by standing on footpads and then strap the exoskeleton legs frame to their legs, followed by a backpack-like section and arm frame. The exoskeleton accommodates workers of heights between 1.6 and 1.85 meters (5'3" to 6'1").”
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.
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