The Geek's Reading List For The Week Ending July 31
By Brian Piccioni
1) This new 3D XPoint memory could last forever
This may be the most significant technology announcement of the past few years, however, the public information on the technology is a masterpiece of saying nothing (Intel press release: http://newsroom.intel.com/community/intel_newsroom/blog/2015/07/28/intel-and-micron-produce-breakthrough-memory-technology presentation video https://youtu.be/VsioS35D-HY). The figures provided are typically prefaced with “up to”, rending the information meaningless as in “my net worth is up to $100 billion”. Even the questions asked during the presentation where banal, suggesting the questioners were planted or too ignorant of memory technology to ask meaningful questions. Most of the write ups I've seen appear to be based on speculation, including some which actually contradicted the information provided. It appears the cost (somewhere between DRAM and FLASH - at least a 20:1 range) means that over the near term this device will only be useable in exotic equipment or that a modified PC architecture and OS will be required to exploit it. The good news is, the product is expected to be on the market in 2016, by which time, no doubt, actual useful information will be available. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for bringing this story to my attention.
“Intel and Micron this week unveiled a new type of memory they plan to mass produce that is purportedly 1,000 times faster than NAND flash and has 1,000 times the endurance. One thousand times the endurance would be about one million erase-write cycles, meaning the new memory would last pretty much forever. By comparison, today's NAND flash lasts for between 3,000 and 10,000 erase-write cycles. With wear-leveling and error correction software, those cycles can be improved upon, but still don't get anywhere near 100,000 cycles. The new product, 3D XPoint, is essentially a mass storage-class memory that, while slower, is still cheaper to produce than DRAM and vastly faster than NAND. Most importantly, it's non-volatile. So when the power goes off, the data remains intact -- just as it does with NAND flash.”
2) Review: Windows 10 is the best version yet—once the bugs get fixed
The launch of Windows 10 is another big story for the week. As scheduled the company rolled out free upgrades starting a couple days ago (I was amused to see Staples was charging $25 for the upgrade, presumably for clicking the install icon). The OS seems fast and stable and is a marked improvement over the abomination of Windows 8 and even the somewhat fixed Windows 8.1. The upgrade is not without its issues: my HP notebook will no longer awake from sleep mode, a problem which I expect will be corrected in due course. In addition, there are serious privacy concerns (see item 3) which can be mitigated by not using a Microsoft account and adjusting a profligacy of software settings in your favor.
“I'm more conflicted about Windows 10 than I have been about any previous version of Windows. In some ways, the operating system is extremely ambitious; in others, it represents a great loss of ambition. The new release tries to walk an unsteady path between being Microsoft's most progressive, forward-looking release and simultaneously appealing to Windows' most conservative users. And it mostly succeeds, making this the best version of Windows yet—once everything's working. In its current form, the operating system doesn't feel quite finished, and I'd wait a few weeks before making the leap.”
3) Windows 10 Is Spying On You: Here’s How To Stop It
As we noted in item 2, one major criticism of Windows 10 is that it spies on you and, presumably, Microsoft sells your information to whoever wants it. You can reduce this spying through not using a Microsoft account, not using their cloud services, and adjusting security setting accordingly. I would suggest avoiding the new Microsoft browser which does not appear to support adblockers or tracker blockers yet.
“Importantly, you can opt out of what seems to be all this stuff (time will tell) either during installation or afterwards, though Microsoft swaddle it in a combination of dissembling “hey, this stuff’ll really help you get the information you want’ fluff and 45 pages of service agreement documents. I’ll refer you here and here for a detailed breakdown of the really worrying stuff, but the long and short of it is the operating system assigns you a unique advertising ID, which is is tied to the email address you’ve associated with Windows and fed data from a great many facets of your computer usage. Including the contents of messages and calendars, apps and networks, some purchases and whatever you upload to Microsoft’s unreliable OneDrive cloud storage. Using the Cortana search assistant makes the harvest even more aggressive, and of course the OS claims it’s all in the name of a better, more accurate online experience for you.”
4) The New Moto X And Moto G Are Incredibly Cheap Yet Powerful Phones
I continue to believe smartphone pricing is under pressure, a trend which will have profound ramifications for the likes of Apple. Eventually it will be hard to convince people to part with $700 when more advanced features can be found in a phone at half the price. Motorola (now Lenovo) appears to be establishing itself as a cost effective alternative. It is interesting to note they will be making the Nexus 6 (i.e. the next Google phone) which allows speculation that will be attractively priced.
“Motorola has just unveiled its new lineup of smartphones, the Moto G, Moto X Style and Moto X Play. While these phones are mostly updated versions of their previous iterations, Motorola is sticking with its key advantages — price, customization and less bloatware. The Moto G is a 5-inch Android phone that costs $180 without any carrier subsidy. The Moto X Style is an updated Nexus 6-style phablet as Motorola is the maker behind the Nexus 6. And the Moto X Play is a cheaper version of the Moto X Style that you won’t find in the U.S.”
5) Amazon Wants Dedicated Airspace for Delivery Drones
There was a fair bit of news in the drone front this week. Amazon seems to be pushing ahead with its daft idea to offer drone delivery services. One can hope that regulators see the hazard of allowing swarms of flying machines overhead, given the serious hazards associated with the failure of drones. Given that the energy from a falling object is associated with altitude, I'd prefer the things not be allowed over 10 feet off the ground wherever there might be people below.
“Amazon proposes (PDF) that airspace from 200-400 feet off the ground be exclusively reserved for delivery drones. The next 100 feet above that would be a no-fly zone, acting as a buffer between the drones and commercial aircraft. Amazon also says the drones allowed to fly in the 200-400 foot airspace need to be equipped with the following capabilities: Advanced GPS system to pinpoint their location in real-time along with any nearby drones; A reliable Internet connection to maintain communications with that real-time GPS data; Online flight planning to predict and communicate their flight path; The ability to collaborate with other drones to avoid collisions; Sensors to avoid other obstacles such as birds, buildings and cables.”
6) Drones and driverless tractors – is this the future of farming?
Of course, not all drone applications are idiotic and frivolous. This article is more about some of the advanced technologies being used in farming than drones, but drones can be useful for farming as well as other valid industrial applications. Needless to say, agricultural equipment is already extremely dangerous and farms are notable for low population density so my concerns about delivery drones do not apply.
“The N Sensor gives an example of the kind of precision technology available to farmers today. It consists of a cab-mounted tool – imagine a surfboard bolted onto the roof of a tractor – that is equipped with sensors at either end. The sensors gaze outwards, analysing the colour of a growing crop. From this data the N Sensor determines its chlorophyll content and, by an extension of logic, the crop’s nitrogen requirement. The N Sensor then relays the data to a spreader, which, in turn, applies the required dose of fertiliser to a specific part of the field. “People would be surprised at how much of this is going on,” Blacker says. A Defra report from 2012 found that 22% of farmers have GPS steering systems, 20% do soil mapping, 16% variable rate application (using technology like the N Sensor) and 11% yield mapping. Although these numbers might seem low, precision techniques are mostly used by farmers with large acreages who have greater resources to invest in the technology and make it cost effective.”
7) Ky. man arrested after shooting down $1,800 drone hovering over sunbathing daughter
One of the numerous potential misuses of drones is violation of privacy. When this story originally surfaced it was about some dumb redneck who shot down a drone. Turns out the drone may have been spying on the guy's daughter. What is interesting is that there is a good chance that if the drone operator had been on his property and guy had shot him he probably would not have been charged. Heck, I'd probably shoot down a drone over my property just on principle. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for bringing this story to my attention.
“A Kentucky man shot down an $1,800 drone hovering over his sunbathing daughter and was then arrested and charged with first degree criminal mischief and first-degree wanton endangerment. “My daughter comes in and says, ‘Dad, there’s a drone out here flying,’ ” William H. Merideth, 47, told a local Fox News affiliate reported Tuesday. The Bullitt County father shot at the drone, which crashed in a field near his yard Sunday night. The owner of the drone claims he was only trying to take pictures of a friend’s house, the station reported.”
8) The battery revolution that will let us all be power brokers
This is the second Tesla reference I've seen which seems to be dialing back expectations of “miraculous battery breakthroughs”. When Tesla announced “Ludicrous Mode” (http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/three-dog-day), Musk stated “On average, we expect to increase pack capacity by roughly 5% per year” and now this fawning and highly speculative article cites a 30% reduction in production cost (5.4% CAGR) over 5 years. Of course, that is production cost, which is a small component of the cost of a full up battery pack so there is little reason to suspect any revolution is afoot.
“Tesla has no plans to stop there. Lithium-ion batteries are so important to the company that it has taken manufacturing into its own hands, building a “Gigafactory” just outside Reno, Nevada. By 2020, the company plans to produce as many lithium-ion batteries annually as the entire world produced in 2013 – enough for a fleet of 500,000 electric cars – and with a 30 per cent reduction in production cost per battery.”
9) London’s new hybrid Routemaster buses have major battery issues
As I have repeatedly commented, lithium ion batteries (actually all rechargeable batteries) get used up with every charge and we can expect the proud owners of Teslas will follow the angry owners of Nissan Leafs in due course. A battery electric bus sounds like a grand idea, provided you forget everything you know about batteries. Unless EVs occasionally driven by the wealthy for a couple hours a day, electric buses are expected to be on the road for a shift. This means the batteries are actually used and, as a consequence of the inherent weakness of current rechargeable battery technology, get used up real quick. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.
“London's new Routemaster bus has major battery issues. The bus, thanks to its "green" diesel-electric hybrid powertrain, is meant to be "the most environmentally friendly bus of its type"—according to Transport for London, anyway. Out of the 500 new Routemasters currently on the roads, however, 80 of them are running in diesel-only mode because of failed batteries, pumping out lots of pollution. TfL admitted to the BBC that, in total, 200 of the buses will soon have their batteries replaced. The new Routemaster, which pays homage to the iconic double-decker Routemaster that operated in London from the '50s all the way through to 2005, was meant to be the next big thing for London's public transport network. The bus, which is colloquially known as a Borisbus or Borismaster, was introduced because of a campaign pledge during Boris Johnson's campaign to become Mayor of London. In practice, however, since they were first introduced in 2012, the new bus has been plagued with issues.”
10) GitHub Raises $250M Series B Round To Take Risks
I have two articles showing how absolutely loopy startup valuations have become. For those who are not aware, GitHub is a repository for open source projects. This allows open source developers to provide a consistent download environment as well as whatever other community related functions they might have. GitHub has increased in profile since the debacle of SourceForge, which used to do the same thing until it started becoming a hotbed for malware distribution. The concept itself is not a novel one, nor is the implementation particularly complex. There are no barriers to entry: once GitHub's corporate overlords decide to monetize their efforts with the same sort of things which doom all similar projects, people will just move on. Of course, the financial backers could care less whether GitHub is viable: the hope is that the IPO gravy train stay around long enough to dump it on an unsuspecting public.
“GitHub, the software development collaboration and version control service based on the popular open source Git tool, today announced that it has raised a $250 million funding round led by Sequoia Capital. Andreessen Horowitz, Thrive Capital and Institutional Venture Partners also participated in this round. The company, which was founded back in 2008, has now taken a total of $350 million in outside funding. While the company isn’t talking about its valuation, the WSJ reports that it’s currently hovering around $2 billion. GitHub’s 2012 Series A round was led by Andreessen Horowitz. At the time, the company’s valuation was said to be around $750 million. As GitHub CEO and co-founder Chris Wanstrath told me shortly after the new round was announced, the company plans to use this new round to accelerate growth and expand its sales and engineering team (as most companies do when they raise). He also stressed, though, that the round isn’t just meant for that. “The round is not just to accelerate, but also to allow us to think bigger and take larger risks,” Wanstrath said.”
11) Caller ID App Truecaller Is Raising $100M At A $1B Valuation
This is the second article showing idiotic valuations startups are attracting. Aps, by their nature are not complex things, and there is little in Truecaller's operation which seems even remotely challenging to replicate. I know my phone shows me who is calling, and though I get the occasional call from auto-dialers counter measures are fairly simple (ignore any calls with blocked ID, block such numbers if they call more than once). So, long story short, there is minimal value add to this application, no real barriers to entry, and – as we have come to expect – to evident sustainable business model (except, of course, the ubiquitous advertising). The funds and bankers know all that and don't care: provided the IPO pipeline remains full, they'll cash out and let pension plans takes the hit. Failing that, Facebook, Google, or some other large company will buy them out – after all, better to give your shareholder's money to the shareholders of a startup than to them as a dividend. Party like its 1999!
“Communications apps that strike a chord with users across different markets are hot property these days, and it looks like another one of them may soon enter the so-called unicorn club. TechCrunch has learned that Truecaller — a caller ID app that now has 150 million users — is looking to raise around $100 million at a $1 billion valuation. We’re hearing that Truecaller has hired Morgan Stanley to lead the process, and there are term sheets out. The round is likely to have previous and new investors. To date, True Software, maker of Truecaller, has raised around $80 million. Previous investors include Atomico, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sequoia Capital, Access Partners and Open Ocean.”
12) Chinese researchers make breakthrough in SLA 3D printing, soon be able to 3D print porcelain teeth in minutes
If you have ever had a cap placed on a tooth you know it can entail multiple visits to the dentist. Besides the mechanical work, the dentist has to send out to have the actual cap made, meaning you walk around with a temporary one for a couple weeks. If this machine can be commercialized, the dentist would take an impression (probably a 3D scan) of your existing tooth, prep you, either take an impression or 3D scan of the “stump”, print out the replacement tooth, and install it in a single visit.
“Yesterday, scientists from the Guangzhou Nansha Additive Manufacturing Technology Research Institute have unveiled a new SLA 3D printing technique that can be used to create detailed porcelain (and other ceramic) objects quickly. The research team over at the Nansha Additive Manufacturing Technology Research Institute in Guangzhou spent over a year developing this new 3D printer, and is currently in the debugging stage. While the unveiling is expected to take place in the very near future, it has already been leaked to reporters that the 3D printing speed is several times faster than comparable machines, while this 3D printer is also capable of working with a very large variety of materials, including ceramics, metal filler materials and more. Among its possible applications is a the fantastic medical solution of 3D printed porcelain teeth.”
13) Stop paying for e-books (and start stealing them)
This might be controversial, but I am sympathetic to the message. E-books are significantly cheaper to produce (after all there is no physical book) include severe restrictions on use compared to paper books, and yet prices remain high, sometimes costing more than the paper version of the book. This article focuses on DRM, which is responsible for the restrictions, but the pricing issue alone is reason to pirate. I've always thought it was a pity there was no “mea culpa” clearing house where e-book pirates could pay the authors to assuage their conscience. In most cases the pirate is OK with the creator getting paid.
“Walk into almost anybody’s house in America, and you will find a library. Whether it’s an Ikea bookshelf containing textbooks and a few second-hand novels or an entire room of floor-to-ceiling shelves, the presence of books in our homes has come to be a cornerstone of our democracy. Individually, our books record our own personal intellectual heritages and offer a means to share them with each other, as well as to pass them down to future generations. Collectively, our books are a bulwark of a free society. But this bulwark is rapidly being destroyed by digital rights management (DRM) software. It’s clear that the physical book is on its way out, to be replaced by e-books. While some will bemoan the gradual demise of the physical bookself, a far more troubling implication of this transition is that because of DRM we will lose control of and access to our books, individually and collectively. Currently, the vast majority of books available for purchase on the three major e-book stores (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) are encumbered with DRM encryption.”
14) Sri Lanka Becomes First Country to Get Universal Internet With Project Google Loon
This item got considerable attention, with all examples I found having a similarly misleading title. Presumably, having the headline match the contents doesn't garner as much attention. In fact, Sri Lanka is not the first country to get “Universal Internet”, they are the first country to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Google to allow Google to deploy it scheme to deliver broadband. Whether such a scheme will, in fact, work, remains to be seen. If, as, and when, the system is deployed and happens to work for more than a few days straight, then we'll see what happens.
“Telecom companies across the world are trying to bridge the Internet gap among the people of all the countries. We recently saw how Google Inc along with ISPs, such as Cox and Century Link, partnered with the White House to provide minimal cost internet service to more than 275,000 low-income households of the United States of America. In the latest development, Google and The Government of Sri Lanka had signed a MoU to launch the PoGoogle Loon project in the island nation to provide high-speed Internet to its citizens throughout the country. With this project, Sri Lanka will become world’s first country to have Internet access across the entire nation with the government support. It seems Sri Lanka is heeding to the advice of US President Mr. Barack Obama who just recently said the Internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”
15) Report: Spain’s Google Tax A Disaster For Newspapers, Internet Innovation
The best laid plans of mice, men, and newspapers are oft' torn asunder. It seemed like a great idea: make companies pay for the privilege of directing traffic to your website. After all, it beats the heck out out of paying companies to direct people to your website, which is, more or less the intent of Internet advertising. And what better way to do that than to pass a law demanding compensation for this affront? Who knew that, rather than paying to refer traffic to Spanish newspapers, search engine companies were simply going to delete them from their search results?
“Call it one of the most egregious examples of unintended consequences. The effort of the Spanish newspaper association and Spanish government to get Google to subsidize Spanish news publishers with a mandatory link tax (under the guise of copyright fees) is a massive disaster — for publishers, for the Spanish internet and for innovation in the country. Here’s the history: the Spanish Newspaper Publishers Association successfully convinced Spanish lawmakers in late 2014 to pass a strict “anti-piracy” law, which mandated compensation for the appearance of newspaper publishers’ content on news aggregation sites as of January 1, 2015. It was effectively directed at Google but applied broadly to all news/content aggregators. In response, Google shuttered Google News in Spain, though it has continued to present Spanish news sites on its main search engine results page (SERP) and in other ways. The Spanish publishers then tried unsuccessfully to get the government to force Google to keep Google News alive in Spain (to collect the tax).”
16) Qualcomm, NCTA continue to battle over FCC regulation of LTE-U, LAA
I recently had discussions with a local wireless Internet operator who was deploying LTE based services in my area. While we tend to associate LTE (4G Wireless) with licensed mobile operators, the spread spectrum technology can be used on any appropriate RF band. LTE radios are produced in vast numbers for the smartphone market so this is a boon to purveyors of rural broadband since all the gear is much cheaper than it otherwise would be. I was not aware there is a move to put LTE into the unlicensed bands currently used by WiFi and other technologies such as wireless phones and baby monitors. Whenever a new use for an unlicensed band arises, conflicts inevitably emerge. While the article addressed the concerned with use of unlicenses spectrum for LTE, it is not clear why unlicensed LTE would be used rather than WiFi, since the throughput of WiFi is already pretty high, and power limits associated with unlicensed spectrum would limit coverage.
“Representatives from Qualcomm and T-Mobile US argued this week that the FCC should not step in to regulate LTE Unlicensed (LTE-U) and related technologies. At a CTIA-organized briefing for reports on Monday, Qualcomm and T-Mobile officials argued that LTE-U can coexist happily with Wi-Fi and that opponents of the technology had not marshalled sound technical reasons for opposing it. Meanwhile, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, speaking for many cable companies that have their own Wi-Fi networks, hit back hard against Qualcomm. In an FCC filing made public on Wednesday, NCTA said that Qualcomm has not engaged in meaningful collaboration with the unlicensed community, and that its proposals thus far on LTE-U/Wi-Fi coexistence are not fair or equitable.”
17) Despite recent claims, the EmDrive remains long on speculation, short on proof
There was a lot of press coverage of the “EmDrive” over the past week. Mainstream media even referred to it as similar to Star Trek's impulse drive (which it is not: impulse drive is fusion powered ion drive and nothing like this). Long story short, a number of researchers claim they have replicated results of a gizmo which purportedly produces thrust without throwing anything in the opposite direction. According to the basic rules of physics, this is impossible. Of course, physics is occasionally shown wrong, but not usually at a fundamental level. The challenge at this juncture is that the thrust associated with the EmDrive is typically on the order of the measurement error of the apparatus doing the test, the observed effect is most likely an unexpected – but explainable through traditional physics – artifact of the measurement protocol.
“A new report from German researchers has made waves by claiming to validate the performance of the controversial EmDrive, but many articles on the topic have vastly oversold the results. Let’s see if we can find some clarity here. To begin with, the EmDrive is what’s known as a resonant cavity thruster. It relies on a magnetron to produce microwaves and is designed to produce thrust towards the narrow end of the cavity. The problem with the EmDrive (and with all reactionless drives) is that they seem to violate the law of conservation of momentum. That law says that the total linear momentum of a closed system remains constant, regardless of other changes within the system. This is the origin of the phrase “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When you take the “reaction” out of one end of the system, it’s difficult to explain how an “opposite” reaction actually gets started.”
18) Google Sees Long, Expensive Road Ahead For Quantum Computing
This article looks at some of the issues associated with quantum computing. Strangely, it seems bullish on the D-Wave system but very little information is provided as to why that should be the case. Indeed, as with the Em-Drive (Item 17), one rarely gets breakthroughs when one cannot, in fact, explain why the breakthrough occurred. Furthermore, extrapolations based upon an uncertain model of operation are probably unreliable. All in, the article suggests that even if quantum computing meets its promise the challenge will be in developing classical computers powerful enough to digest the results.
“The joke going around ISC 2015 was that no one really understands what quantum computing is and isn’t, and it was so refreshing to see that in the very first slide of the first presentation, Yoshi Yamamoto, a professor at Stanford University and a fellow at NTT in Japan, showed even he was unsure of the nature of the quantum effects used to do calculations in the D-Wave machine employed by Google in its research in conjunction with NASA Ames.”
19) Brain-controlled prosthesis nearly as good as one-finger typing
This is a bit of an update on direct brain control. Apparently the technology has advanced to the point where speed and precision are sufficient to almost match “single finger typing” as the title suggests. While this, in itself, is quite an accomplishment, one can imagine than within a few years it will exceed two finger typing, and within a decade exceed touch typing. Although I doubt we'll be replacing our keyboards with brain interfaces in 2025, the technology could provide a substantial improvement to the quality of life of severely disabled people.
“Brain-controlled prostheses currently work with access to a sample of only a few hundred neurons, but need to estimate motor commands that involve millions of neurons. So tiny errors in the sample - neurons that fire too fast or too slow - reduce the precision and speed of thought-controlled keypads. Now an interdisciplinary team led by Stanford electrical engineer Krishna Shenoy has developed a technique to make brain-controlled prostheses more precise. In essence the prostheses analyze the neuron sample and make dozens of corrective adjustments to the estimate of the brain's electrical pattern - all in the blink of an eye. Shenoy's team tested a brain-controlled cursor meant to operate a virtual keyboard. The system is intended for people with paralysis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS degrades one's ability to move. The thought-controlled keypad would allow a person with paralysis or ALS to run an electronic wheelchair and use a computer or tablet. "Brain-controlled prostheses will lead to a substantial improvement in quality of life," Shenoy said. "The speed and accuracy demonstrated in this prosthesis results from years of basic neuroscience research and from combining these scientific discoveries with the principled design of mathematical control algorithms."”
20) Pair of Bugs Open Honeywell Home Controllers Up to Easy Hacks
This is a minor example of some of the issues associated with Internet of Things (IoT). Security is hard enough that companies like Google and Microsoft have problems with it so you can't expect a consumer products company, no matter how well intentioned, to do any better. Not only that, but many such products are, in fact, developed by consultants and ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers). It might be a minor point that somebody can fiddle with your thermostat, but I would hazard a similar situation exists with IoT locks and control systems. So, before you rush out and buy a fancy gizmo you can control over an app, always remember it was probably made by somebody who had no interest in, let alone knowledge of, security.
“What this means is that when the system asks a user for a username and password, she can simply ignore the request and access the restricted resources. Rupp, a German researcher who has disclosed vulnerabilities in other devices recently, including wind turbines, said via email that exploiting the vulnerability is exceedingly simple. “It is really [easy] (in my opinion), the attacker with a low skill would be able to exploit this vulnerability remotely,” Rupp said. He added that a quick search of Shodan revealed a few hundred vulnerable Tuxedo Touch devices, but he estimates there are probably many more. “Shodan detects about 500 devices, of which about 450 are located in America. I think it is possible to detect about 1000 devices with a more thorough search,” he said.”
Brian Piccioni designed early generation PCs, mobile and cellphones and a number of embedded systems still in use. He has been ranked #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating. He started The Geek’s Reading List about ten years ago, providing comment — provocative, new and counter-consensus — on articles he finds interesting. (All back issues can be found by clicking here.) It was not intended to be taken as investment advice, nor should it be read that way today. You can email Brian [at] thegeeksreadinglist.com with any articles you think should be included, or to get into any of the topics in more depth.
Honest Abe and Old Duff: the historic link
It’s very much déjà vu in Waspington, this fuss over expenses in Ottawa. Almost two centuries back the much admired and quoted Horace Greeley (“Go west young man…” and all that), a journalist in whose footsteps Mike Duffy would surely twist an ankle, instigated a study of travelling expenses in the American Congress. Greeley was a congressman himself for a few months in 1848, appointed to fill a vacant seat. His principal legislative initiative was to expose and try to stop the padding of expense allowances by legislators travelling between the capital and their electoral districts. Many, if not all members of Congress detoured on the way home after a session to sites of interest, such as Niagara Falls, with their loved ones, or meandered along a circuitous route with stops at various locations where party events were organized. One congressman’s journey home that year included his Zachary Taylor-for-president speaking tour. Greeley’s research showed that the legislator’s travels home had deviated by more than 800 miles from the “actual number of miles by postal route,” between the capital and his riding, resulting in a payment from treasury $676.80 higher than it should have been. This may seem trivial but since the congressman’s salary was only $1,500 at the time, it was in fact a welcome 45% boost (for a Canadian senator today, with a base salary of $138,700, it would mean $62,581.44). He was a commanding orator and spoke often in the House, where one of his colleagues was heard to whisper when next he rose to deliver a speech, “I hope he won’t charge mileage on his travels while delivering it.” The House never took action on Greeley’s resolution, aimed as it was at many of its members, and in fact some members moved to expel him from Congress, so angry were they at the threatening prospect of expense controls. That didn’t happen. Nor did anything happen until much later to the congressman who ran up such a shocking bill while on a speaking tour for Taylor. This was Abraham Lincoln, member of the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of Illinois, 1847-1849, the only term of office Honest Abe ever enjoyed until he was elected President in 1860.
Rennie and the rest
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Apr. 02, 2012.)
It was the passing three years ago (March 12, 2012) of Rennie Whitehead (pictured below with wife Nesta and PM "Mike" Pearson) that provided a moment most apt to recognize the immense contributions of the British to Canadian science and technology.
Rennie was 94 when he died. For generations of British scientists and engineers coming from Britain through the post world war decades he was the dean, an unofficial title he inherited when W.B. Lewis died in 1987. Rennie always deferred to the brilliant W.B., who had worked with Ernest Rutherford, became head of Atomic Energy of Canada research and was known as the “father of the CANDU” reactor. These two were perhaps the biggest names in tech to set sail for the land of the maple since John By of the Royal Engineers came to cut the canal and set Ottawa en route for Silicon Valley North. But they were far from alone.
Peter Hackett brought a Ph.D. from the University of Southampton to the National Research Council, became VP there and later founding CEO at the National Institute for Nanotechnology. He remembers evaluation forms for applicants at NRC that “had a line for postgraduate degree with three boxes to check: Oxford, Cambridge and Other.” The story has been often enough told of the comings of Michael Cowpland and Terry Matthews to Microsystems International, which failed, and their subsequent successes with Mitel, Corel and Newbridge. They were not the only ones. Don Smith ran a later version of Mitel. Bob Harland and Dick Foss co-founded Mosaid. Peter Leach became CEO of CITO (Communications and Information Technologies Ontario).
Rennie Whitehead stood out, though, in the sheer diversity of his impacts. One of the pioneers of radar pre-WWII, he came to be associate professor of physics at McGill, despite a warning that he was emigrating to an “ill-developed country where scientific research is in its infancy.” He would later allow that “there was some truth” in these remarks, but promptly set out to give them the lie.
He led design and installation of the Mid-Canada Line of radar defence. It was Cold War time after all, an era of missiles and defence systems, requiring leading edge electronics skill. Joining RCA Victor Canada as head of R&D, he hired research physicists by the bunch, possibly for the first time in Canadian industry (Northern Electric Research Lab was established in 1957, but Bell-Northern Research wasn’t underway until 1971). RCA Canada would get a good slice of work on the ISIS and Alouette satellite programs. By 1960 RCA labs in Montreal had more Ph.D. physicists on staff than any other company in Canada and was winning research contracts here, in the U.S. and further afield.
Then Ottawa called and Rennie became principal science advisor to two prime ministers (Pearson, Trudeau), wrote terms of reference for the newborn Science Council of Canada, which was unfortunately, misguidedly canned by another PM (Mulroney) and sat for the country on the most prestigious international science councils. He left to finish his career as a consultant after responsibility for advising government on science policy was moved from the Privy Council Office to a newly minted but powerless ministry of state in the mid-1970s.
If you’re not old enough to remember Rennie in his prime, perhaps you’ll recall Arthur Carty. He was also science advisor to a couple of prime ministers (Martin, Harper), appointed in 2004, the first since Rennie. And he came to much the same end in 2008, ushered out of PCO to marginalization in a department. He now heads the Institute for Quantum Computing, one of Mike Lazaridis’ philanthropies, at the University of Waterloo. He too is a Brit.
No will, no way
By James G. Hynes
Canada is still saying no to a project our history suggests we should be eagerly embracing. For more than five years (since January 2010), governments in Ottawa, Toronto and Quebec City have been sitting on a report that updates previous studies of proposed high-speed rail (HSR) lines from Quebec City to Windsor.
Having commissioned the report a couple of years previously at a media conference where they expressed bubbling enthusiasm for the HSR concept, why are these governments so unenthusiastic about it? They’ve paid $3 million to the independent EcoTrain consortium to tell them something they already knew, but now they don’t want to hear it.
The cheery outlook changed over the time it took to get the report, during which all three governments proceeded to run up huge deficits stimulating a flagging economy, while also discovering new liabilities, like massively leaky water mains and crumbling bridges. So now they don’t want to be told that an HSR line from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto would be profitable at a cost of $9.1 billion for 200-kilometre-per-hour trains, or $11 billion for the real thing, 300-k.p.h. all-electric trains. Stretching the lines east to Quebec City and west as far as Windsor wouldn’t pay for itself, but still might be worth it due to non-financial benefits, such as reduced air pollution and highway congestion, and greater all-weather safety.
So what’s not to like about this? Well, in a booming economy with government balance sheets in a healthy condition, it looks like a no-brainer. Assuming a public-private joint venture, as has been done with many HSR projects elsewhere, the project looks like a horse many a savvy politician might ride to electoral victory. But oops, now the cupboards are getting bare, and there are all sorts of newly hungry mouths to feed. What previously might have been easily done will now take something that has become exceedingly rare in this country: the vision and daring that once built the CPR.
Former Bombardier CEO Laurent Beaudoin, certainly a knowledgeable observer of this scene, put it succinctly. “To do that kind of project,” he said, “you need political will.” That’s what it took to push Canadian rails across this continent, creating what would otherwise be an impossible country. That gargantuan achievement put us in the forefront of railway technology, and made possible the economic ties that still bind us today. Now a Canadian company is still in the forefront, but Bombardier is building its trains everywhere but here.
Faced with this situation, what would John A. Macdonald have done? I think his response might have been different from former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s when he was asked about the HSR report. He said he thought it was time to “pause and reflect on the merits” of such a project. Fortunately for all of us today, John A. wasn’t much good at pausing and reflecting. He was too busy getting things done, come hell or high water. Click here to read more of Jim Hynes on the compelling case for Canadian high speed rail.
Screwball letters 5
Jim Hynes, left, and Tony Patterson, right, met more than half a century ago in the halls of Jesuit-run Loyola College in Montreal, now enclosed within Concordia University. They have been debating ever since.
Twists & turns in climate quandary
always lead back to pricing carbon
Tony to Jim
I don’t suppose you’ve wanted to dampen this season of cheer by reading my review of Tom Rand’s book, Waking the Frog. After reading Rand, I picked up Naomi Klein’s book on the subject. Hers is more a condemnation of the winner-takes-all economy, a lemon she’s been squeezing for some time. But the two together are totally persuasive: increasing climate disruption is inevitable and the future of the planet looks grim to more than nine out of ten climatologists, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (one of the less frightening statements from IPCC’s 2014 report: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence).”) and more and more of the thoughtful population, admittedly a tiny cohort. Only the pollyanish politicians refuse to get it.
Canada is not too small a player to have measurable impact on the outcome. Just leaving the tarsands where they lie would provide considerable relief. Is it too much to hope that Canada, with all its resources — natural, financial and human — could actually show the way, take a lead, light a candle? Ah well, mine to dream, my kids and grandkids to do, if they please and hope to survive.
Jim to Tony
I've now read your review, which I'm happy to say leaves me feeling I don't need to read the book. Ditto Klein's similar effort. Of course these bright people are right about the problem, but a bit fuzzy about the solution. It's easy to say we should stop burning fossil fuels, but it's also virtually impossible to actually do that. What both authors fail to do is separate the burning of fossil fuels per se from the dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. Assuming one leads inevitably to the other is the equivalent of assuming flush toilets must inevitably lead to open sewers fouling the streets. These authors are urging us to just stop flushing, rather than building sewage systems to handle the effluent. Thermal power plants don't have to pollute the air; they do this because they aren't obliged to clean up their own waste. Industries that used to massively pollute water this way are now obliged to control and treat their effluents, and some air polluters must now control toxic emissions, but not CO2. The solution isn't to leave the tar sands in the ground; the solution is not to leave the CO2 waste they produce in the atmosphere. There's at least one natural gas-fired power plant in Saskatchewan right now that captures and sequesters its CO2 output, and a carbon tax in B.C. is driving emitters there to look at all sorts of emission-control technologies. A national carbon tax is what we need, but we won't get one unless and until the U.S. gets one too.
Personally, I think the ultimate solution to this problem lies in a breakthrough in battery technology. Our inability to efficiently store electricity severely limits the utility of solar and wind generation systems today, because their output is so variable. A battery breakthrough would allow all their output to be ultimately used, and would also make electric vehicles much more competitive than they are now. If I were the emperor of Canada, as I should be, we would have a national carbon tax with or without the U.S., and all the money raised would go to intensive research into CO2 sequestration and new battery technologies. Meanwhile, my hopes rest on the possibility that our children and grandchildren may not be a stupid as we are right now.
Tony to Jim
Most of what I’ve read gives much room to tech advancement but it takes unbridled optimism to believe that tech will outpace heat. There’s movement on the tech front, to be sure, though I’ve been reading and writing about the battery solution for more than 20 years (is it possible that Ballard still operates, still raises money?). It’s on the political and public discussion/persuasion front that we make no progress and in fact fall way, way back of where we should be. Kyoto was a dreadful failure all around and Kyoto is us. The possibility, no longer I think remote, is that our children and grandchildren, smart as they might be, will find themselves fighting alligators while trying to clear swamps in the middle of Vancouver. Their resources will be spent for survival not for the better way forward.
Jim to Tony
I think it's now a virtual certainty that sea levels are going to gradually rise by at least a few metres over the next century or so, even if we stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Enough change has already occurred (shrinking polar sea ice cover, retreating glaciers) to make that inevitable. Worst case scenarios call for a rise of 10 metres. Clearly, this will require some major adaptations, such as the abandonment of all or large parts of many coastal cities. However, I don't see why those adaptations can't or won't happen. Today's humanity and our immediate hominid precursors adapted to an enormous variety of habitats over a range of a few million years, including episodes of both more and less heat than we have now. Of course, large numbers of people won't manage to adapt effectively, which will lead to a smaller global population. This may be a bad thing if you think having more people is automatically better than having fewer, but it would unquestionably be good for the planet as a whole, and all the other life forms on it. So yes, it will be a shame when Venice and New Orleans are gone, and the Tower of London has to visited in a boat, but life will go on. The climate on this planet has never been a fixed thing, and human interference has only recently become a factor. Much bigger changes have been caused in the past by things like asteroid strikes, chains of volcanic eruptions and massive earthquakes. Who can say whether something like that won't happen over the next century? A colossal eruption of the huge magma chamber under Yellowstone Park would darken the skies over the whole globe for years, providing a cooling effect that would more than offset CO2-caused warming. Of course, this would also lead to a global famine of epic proportions, but that would be just a side effect. The big beneficiaries would be the polar bears, who would get their 10 months of sea ice back. I think you should steer your great-grandchildren into hydraulic engineering. There's going to be a huge demand for such things as a giant seawall around Manhattan Island and a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Tony to Jim
It may be, now that man (if I may use that word to mean both solitudes of the species, though man himself has been mostly responsible) has devised such ready means and excuses to self-destruct, that ways must be found to determine and implement transnational strategies to better serve the real interests of people. Climate disruption is tangible. It is visible and understood everywhere. It transcends language and borders and idiotologies. It sweeps the Fox-CNN-CBC panorama and all media elsewise from blog to twitter to NYT. It’s an opportunity not to be missed to take an evolutionary step ahead toward post-national planetarianism.
Jim to Tony
Self-destruction? I don't think that's within human capabilities on a planetary scale. Even a global nuclear war wouldn't do it; there are too many people in too many places where extreme measures would enable some to survive. And climate change certain won't do it; it happens too gradually to overwhelm all efforts to adapt. Big coastal cities will simply be rebuilt on higher ground step by step, and new arable lands will emerge in the north to replace those lost to desertification in the south. If the survival of humanity was really at stake (as it would be, for instance, if we were about to be struck by a thousand-mile-wide asteroid), maybe we would "take an evolutionary step" and implement some "transnational strategies." But there are no historical precedents for such a thing, and an awful lot of evidence suggests that humanity isn't capable of such a consensus. Climate change will have very uneven effects around the world, including beneficial ones in some places. The Yukon might replace California as the agricultural heartland of North America, with Siberia playing a similar role in Asia. Massive migration into these regions would lead to conflict, not agreement, about who does what to whom (as Lenin put it). Global warming isn't going to make everything worse; it's going to make everything different. Many things will get worse (droughts, heat waves, species extinctions, extreme weather events), but other things will get better. The map of habitable and arable regions will change, but there will still be plenty of places where humanity will survive and thrive. The ongoing process of change is much more likely to lead to global conflicts than it is to global consensus. After all, we find plenty of things to fight about even when nothing else is changing. I'm afraid "post-national planetarianism" belongs right up there with transubstantiation and the principal of the doubly-fucked.
Tony to Jim
Still, putting a price on carbon and ratcheting it up to keep hurting is the right thing to do, is it not?
Jim to Tony
Yes, it is. It's the right approach because it doesn't tell you to stop burning fossil fuels, it just discourages dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. You can reduce emissions in any number of ways (improve operating efficiency, switch from coal to natural gas, capture and sequester emissions, convert to hydro, solar, or wind generation, etc.), and the tax revenues can be used to fund more research or subsidize more conversions. There are millions more cars on the road now than there were 20 years ago, but the entire fleet is burning less gasoline overall than it did back then. The black clouds of smog that used to hover over Los Angeles and Mexico City have dissipated, along with London's coal-fired fogs. Electricity consumption per capita has been trending downwards for decades, thanks to much more efficient lights and appliances. Improving the ways we use energy is just as important as improving the ways we generate it. Ontario's energy use efficiency has improved so much lately, we're not building two new nuclear reactors the wizards at OPG in the 90s insisted we would need by now. There are positive things happening amidst the gloom and doom, and these trends are accelerating. If we used to be running headlong towards the edge of a cliff, we're now merely jogging towards it, and soon we'll be down to a walk. And I still look to a battery breakthrough to really turn things around---but forget about Ballard. They've come close, but no cigar. The hot area now is the thermoelectric and thermogalvanic effects created by temperature differences, transferring heat into electricity. Until recently, this only worked efficiently with temperature differences as great as 500 C, but a process has now been discovered that works at temperatures 10 times lower, opening the possibility of converting huge amounts of what is now low-grade waste heat (which is created in virtually every industrial process) into electric power. Instead of having to spin a generator, your car could keep its battery charged with the waste heat from its own exhaust. The global warming problem illustrates humanity's capacity for collective stupidity, but technical advances illustrate an opposite capacity for individual ingenuity and creativity. I look to the latter to eventually offset the former. With apologies to Abe Lincoln, all people are stupid some of the time, and some people are stupid all of the time, but all people are not stupid all of the time. That's what will either prevent us from going over the cliff, or allow the best of us us to carry on after we do.
Tony to Jim
Agreed. In the meantime we must set a price on CO2 that will push emissions way back.
The following links will take you to Screwball Letters or Screwball Letters 2 or Screwball Letters 3 or Screwball Letters 4.
Golden or beneath contempt: our choice
By Tony Patterson
We are living the golden age. This is it. There has never been a better time to be alive, certainly in Canada. The bad news is it won’t be getting better. Ours will be remembered in a thousand years as the age that squandered the future. In our golden age we spent it all for ourselves and left garbage for our great-grandchildren. Unless . . .
I give you Tom Rand who has written a book called Waking the Frog. He says something you might not be aware of. There is a solution to the climate disruption problem. Climate disruption is caused by too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat from the sun much like glass in a greenhouse. Too much heat does a lot of rough stuff, from melting the polar ice caps, which causes oceans to rise and seaside cities to drown, to parching the lands where food is grown. The carbon comes from digging out and then burning up too much coal and oil. Climate disruption is what is squandering the planet’s future. The solution is simple and well understood: put a price on carbon so that people will churn less of it. The problem is how to manage the consequences.
Just to start with, the proven reserves of the energy giants “are already four times more than we can safely burn.” This is inventory on corporate balance sheets meant to be sold. How can that be stopped? It has enormous economic consequences. There are big oil companies willing to fight to keep hands off their hydrocarbon deposits. They won't even give up the very dirtiest of them, such as the Alberta tar sands. Athabaska tar is Alberta's asbestos, a lethal product that never should be pried from the ground.
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 leads to wars over food and water. Our ever-aging infrastructure will be at risk of being consistently overwhelmed by storms, water and fire — and all the attendant physical and financial misery. Ocean levels will eventually rise not by meters but by a hundred meters (328 feet) or more because the ice caps will completely melt over time. That kind of a carbon level is . . . the end of comfortable life as most of us know it now!”
If 800 ppm represents survival in a blistering, bleak and barren world, where are we now? Well we’re struggling to hang on to a target of 450 ppm. “To have a snowball’s chance of limiting carbon to 450 ppm,” writes Rand, “we have to leave between two-thirds and four-fifths of all proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.” To have any chance of doing this we must have alternatives for at least some of the displaced carbon. Rand suggests everything from breeder reactors to geothermal systems to commercial building retrofits. As a pilot project in the latter category he presents a hotel he developed in downtown Toronto that reduced its energy use seventy five percent by leveraging five percent of the building’s capital cost to instal geothermal and solar heating and super-efficient LED lighting that “can light-up the entire building like a Christmas tree — inside and out — for less energy than a four-slice toaster uses.”
Why put a price on it? Nothing in the global market is more certain than demand reducing as costs increase. If the goal is to reduce the use of carbon, charge more for its use. “There’s no more powerful tool in our policy options,” Rand argues. “Pricing carbon is fair, justified, effective, efficient and politically neutral.” Nobody gets a fee ride.
Rand allows that any of the solutions he presents can be debated in good faith but one thing we must agree on is the urgent need to act.
“Humankind has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years. From Rome and the birth of Christ through to our wonderfully complex global economy, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Art, literature, science, culture, and our civic structures, all are results of our long journey to the present. Who knows what further adventures might await? We’ll only have the chance to find out if we manage to squeak through the climate crisis and stop our mad gallop toward the climate cliff.”
The frog is us. The planet, our pool, is rapidly warming. If we don’t jump soon, very soon, it will start to boil. Wake up before we feel much more heat is Rand’s cry from the soul. Wake up, I echo, or be beneath contempt forever in the memory of generations to come.
Waking the Frog: Solutions for Our Climate Change Paralysis, by Tom Rand. ECW Press. 209 pages. $29.95
PSF energizes activists for new beginning
By Tony Patterson
The Peoples Social Forum that camped on the uOttawa campus and spread throughout the city last summer (Aug. 21-24, 2014) generated much ado about almost anything you can think of in opposition to Stephen Harper and other powers that be, tar sands, the establishment, pipelines, the government, the one percent (the Family Compact in days of old). None of these evildoers were present in person, but they were represented by an extensive security force. One march I witnessed:
“What do we want?” “Justice.”
“When do we want it?” “Now.”
Who we want justice for wasn’t audible but could have been all the oppressed and downtrodden. This march was preceded by two senior officers on foot and accompanied by almost as many others as marchers. I exaggerate. There were actually more marchers than cops, maybe twice as many. But the police were armed, which more than evened the odds. Seven were on bicycles, four on motorcycles, a half-dozen on foot and several in vehicles of various descriptions, including the latest model of what was known back in the day as the ‘paddywagon’ for its common use carting drunk and obstreperous Irishmen off to the cells. They were ready for anything but nothing was happening. The marchers were as peaceful as Sri Chinmoy acolytes.
What I gather is that there are three shared points of view among the many, many, many interest groups here, of all colours, faiths and persuasions. Everyone despises the Prime Minister. That’s number one. I saw no I Hate Harper buttons but I heard a lot of that kind of talk. Almost everyone is anti-capitalist. And almost every group wants money.
These are just overall impressions from snatches overheard. There are variations, of course, and many subtexts. The largest audience was for the radical economist Naomi Klein, who was careful to cap her recitation of all of capitalism’s sins of omission and commission with the caution that resistance has to be accompanied by feasible alternatives.
One session I got to featured a ramble into indigenous prehistory and a catalogue of the injustices done to First Nations by renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, who is front and centre for a proposed Indigenous International Peace Centre located on islands of historic importance in the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau. It’s a project a long time in gestation, decades actually, but taking on a new urgency with the recently announced proposals for commercial development of the site. This one will cost many millions. You can see pictures on Mr. Cardinal’s website.
The surprise in another session I attended was how few there were who showed an interest. The topic was legalizing cannabis. The presenter was Craig Jones, who has given much of his career to assisting the oppressed and disadvantaged in Canada (he was exec director of John Howard Society until 2010), who told it like it is. In short, cannabis prohibition does more harm than the substance itself. Interest, shall we say, was muted. There weren’t more than ten people in the room and at least one of them was from out of town looking for a pot connection. Could have been a narc. I’ll bet there was more than one in the crowd.
The pervasive sentiment through the four days: everything is moving in the wrong direction. Conservatives at home are increasing oppression and denying all evidence of environmental holocaust. Abroad, the planet struggles to breathe as rampaging extractive industries feed insatiable demand by western industry and Asian populations.
What’s a poor boy or girl to do?
One thing to do is come out to mega-gatherings like Peoples Social Forum in order to make connections to move the agenda forward, whether the cause is to free Ottawa from the curse of fluoridation, to overthrow the Indian Act or to bring back Karl Marx. It’s not simply the culmination of two years of unrelenting effort by hundreds of volunteers. It’s a new beginning. True believers meet up. Activists are energized. As Greg Macdougall writes in the pre-assembly publication, the main function of the gathering “is to facilitate further collective collaboration and action.”
Arms and the man and flowers in the rain
By Tony Patterson
I was out walking the canal on the first day of the tulip festival. It was the start of a rainy spell, the air damp chilled. I was all alone out there of a Saturday. The tourists had opted for room service and snuggling up. The flowers were just starting to open and would be in full blossom in a week.
In the late days of the festival they were wilted but still a kaleidoscope of colour though wet and cool continued in the weeks after my walk. The Bollywood film program would be cancelled “due to inclement weather” on India Day. But it’s not foul weather that tolls the last gasps of this traditional celebration of spring and welcome for the summer oncoming. Public indifference will kill it. The city doesn’t care. NCC gives the festival no financial support. Saved from bankruptcy five years ago, the festival has responded by dropping $2 million since.
I passed the polished stone tribute to Doug Fullerton and thought of Ottawa’s other weather-plagued festival. It was Doug who invented the Rideau Canal Skateway, the longest skating rink in the world, which led to Winterlude, which led to god only knows how much wealth for Ottawa merchants. Not only that. Fullerton, an affable economist who had put the Canada Council on a sound financial footing as its investment guru before being handed responsibility for the NCC, understood the importance of people and spaces in urban planning. He conceived and had built, I quote from his stone near Patterson Creek, "the network of recreational pathways that weave their way through the National Capital Region, uniquely linking waterways, green spaces and the urban core." Hard to believe he only held the job for four years, 1969-73.
Then I thought of David Luxton, who rescued the tulip festival when it was about to go under a few years back and has been its moral centre as well as its chief idea guy ever since.
Not that he’s around a lot. The last time I had seen him was over a year before. As we were chatting, he excused himself while he took a few brief calls. He spoke in English, French, German and Arabic. He was spending much of his time in Afghanistan and other exotic places. He often moved, he mentioned, in a convoy of armored vehicles. He’s not an arms dealer. More an anti-arms dealer. It just happened that when the weapon of choice for terrorists became the improvised explosive device (IED), David Luxton had the antidote — electronic gear that jams cellphone-triggered improvised bombs. Not a hundred percent effective, of course. This is war after all and a hundred and fifty five Canadians have died, almost two out of three of them as the result of IED explosions. But there could be hundreds more casualties, and thousands more in other armies now engaged, without the kind of protection David’s company provides.
There’s enough deep geothermal to power all of Canada. So why can’t we try just a bit?
Posted by Tyler Hamilton
How much power generation in Canada comes from geothermal energy? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
How much of Canada could be powered by geothermal power? All of it. Many times over.
There is, of course, a catch or two. Cost is one. Location is another, because not all the best sites are near population centres. Still, as two studies from Canada’s top geothermal researchers show, there’s a heck of a lot of geothermal resource to work with if we tried. And as I point out in my Clean Break column , geothermal could be just as significant a contributor to Canada’s power needs in 20 years or 30 years as hydroelectric power is today. Again, that’s if we tried.
Stephen Grasby, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, and co-author Jacek Majorowicz, an Alberta-based geothermal consultant, have come out with two studies looking at enhanced geothermal system (EGS) potential in Canada. One study will appear online this month in the Journal of Geophysics and Engineering (I was expecting it out by now). It looks at the overall potential of EGS in Canada. Another just published study, this one in the journal Natural Resources Research, looks specifically at high-potential regions where EGS development would offer the biggest bang for the buck. “Results show areas with significant EGS potential in northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and southern Northwest Territories related to high heat flow and thermal blanketing of thick sedimentary cover,” they wrote. “Estimated installation costs in 2008 dollars are under $2 million per megawatt.”
That’s about $6 billion for 3,000 megawatts — more than competitive with nuclear, not just with respect to capital costs, but also operational and maintenance costs. Also, none of the high costs associated with storing spent fuel indefinitely or with decommissioning old plants. This figure, of course, is for developing the most promising EGS projects. Cost will rise depending on location, rock conditions, availability of an outside water source, and depth of required drilling. Still, the studies make clear the opportunities are immense. The Geophysics and Engineering study, for example, said projects could be developed right across the country, including parts of Ontario, if you drill deep enough. Over time, as drilling costs fall and expertise of EGS climbs, this could happen one day.
“At 10 kilometres we can expect EGS temperatures in the 150 to 200 degrees C range across most of Canada, except some areas of the Canadian shield,” wrote Grasby and Majorowicz. “Given the widespread distribution of geothermal energy, and the high energy content, the potential geothermal resource in Canada is significant,” they concluded.
Sure, there’s risk to heading in this direction, just as there was risk of investing in the early days of the oil sands or nuclear industry. I would argue there’s much more risk drilling for oil offshore in the deepest ocean waters. For example, an accident could happen and you could end up with the equivalent of an oil volcano erupting kilometres below the surface. (Okay, now I’m being facetious).
The fact remains: geothermal power is baseload, it’s clean, it’s plentiful, and it can be done using proven drilling and rock fracturing techniques in Alberta’s oil patch. The Canadian Geothermal Association is targeting development of 5,000 megawatts of geothermal power by 2015 using conventional techniques. Imagine, if we started doing that development now in parallel with EGS research and development, what we could accomplish by 2030? It could be possible to wean Alberta entirely off coal, for one, and it would put us in a good position as we move to electrify the transportation sector.
These two Canadian studies come three years after the release of a groundbreaking U.S. study led by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their research suggested EGS in the United States could realistically supply about 100,000 megawatts of power generation capacity by 2050, assuming the proper policies and R&D investments were committed. The MIT study didn’t cover Canada, but several experts who participated in that study said their conclusions could also apply to the Great White North. Still, it’s nice to have our own data — and this is exactly what Grasby and Majorowicz have given us.
Canada, clearly, needs a national geothermal development strategy — and it needs one now.
Time to beat the drum.
Have you ever wondered
By Tony Patterson
Who makes the decisions behind the big salaries? The July-August 2013 edition of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business tells the tale in its analysis of the Top 1000 corporations in Canada. The Royal Bank led the list, as it usually does, with its profit of $7.4 billion. Does CEO Gord Nixon consult only himself while collecting $14 million for steering RBC? No way. It’s a Board decision. Directors decide.
Way down at the bottom of the ROB list is gas-producer Encana Corp. of Calgary, No. 1000 with a loss of nearly $3 billion. (ROB ranks the Top 1000 companies in Canada by profitability but just over half of the thousand — 544 to be precise — show any profit at all. The rest are all losers for 2012.) Encana’s CEO last year, Randy Eresman, was paid only $7 million. As ROB meanly calculates, Mr. Nixon’s bank made $542 of profit for every loonie he was paid. Mr. Eresman was paid more than $2,500 for every million dollars down the toilet at Encana. According to a calculation by Corporate Knights magazine, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Eresman were each paid 92 times the average salary in their respective companies, an intriguing coincidence.
Who decides this kind of compensation practice, and why? There’s no denying that, like the Big Mac, it’s an importation from the U.S. of A. Mr. Nixon explains it this way in an interview with Grant Robertson of ROB. “. . . most of my top executives have been offered very big positions in the United States and elsewhere. It is a global market, a competitive market . . .”
Research for the New York Times (June 29), found that for the “top 200 chief executives at public companies with at least $1 billion in revenue . . . the median 2012 pay package came in at $15.1 million — a leap of 16 percent from 2011.” Of course even the most ambitious and self-confident Canadian business executive might feel it a long stretch to become CEO of a multi-billion dollar American enterprise. That’s OK because it’s not necessary to reach the very top in order to become very wealthy. As the NYT points out, “Because the data shows only chief executives’ pay, it does not reveal how good it still is to be a prince . . . compensation of the No. 2 executives at some of these companies would have vaulted them to the top ranks on the C.E.O. roster.”
At least noone in Canada tried to push Larry Ellison last year. The larger-than-life CEO of Oracle took $84.5 million from the company to fund his expensive and enduring pursuit of yachting’s America’s Cup. Peter Munk’s gold-plated lures for directors at Barrick, Frank Stronach’s platinum-lined parachute from Magna, don’t compare. Not since 2001 have we seen anything like it, when Canadian Pacific was split into five independent and self-sustaining companies after a century at the core of Canadian business and regional development. The CEO who made that break-up call received compensation, according to all reports, somewhere above $83 million. This was Canadian money, of course, not American like Mr. Ellison’s. Then again, it was a dozen years ago.
Who makes these decisions? Directors do and primus inter pares of directors is the Chair. The Chair usually gives a lead and the Board decides. In some cases the Chair and the CEO are one and the same. This was the case at Canadian Pacific in 2001, when the Chair and CEO was David O’Brien (pictured). The titles used to be joined at the Royal as well, but they’ve been split for some time now. Mr. Nixon is CEO. The Chair is David O’Brien. Similarly at Encana. Mr. Eresman was succeeded early this year as CEO by Clayton Woitas. But the Chair remains the same as before. That’s David O’Brien.
[Disclosure: Tony Patterson is David O'Brien's cousin.]
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, September 3, 2012.)
Despite the prejudices of outsiders against government and bureaucracy, Ottawa has been the best place in Canada to incubate big ideas and visionaries during my lifetime and even before.
The town was started by the greatest engineering project of the age before railways, the building of the everlasting Rideau Canal. That was before my lifetime, of course, but I feel a certain connection. One of my ancestors was a sapper who came with Lt. Colonel By to help blast, cut, dig and construct that magnificent waterway.
My lifetime was getting underway around the time of WWII when Ottawa was the nerve centre of the greatest growth explosion the country has ever seen. There was an engineer in charge, the controversial “minister of everything,” C. D. Howe. Most particularly Ottawa was where the technology to run the engines of war was conceived. The National Research Council emerged from the shadows under a brilliant scientist-soldier, General Andrew McNaughton, inventor of an artillery targeting device that was a forerunner of radar. From the NRC since have emerged hundreds of devices, systems, ideas and even seeds that have contributed to the betterment of humankind everywhere. Canola (a name made up of Canada and oil) is worth $2 billion a year to Prairie farmers, second only to wheat as an agricultural export. The motorized wheelchair. The first cardiac pacemaker. The crash position indicator, which guides rescue workers directly to isolated airplane crash sites before survivors perish of injuries or starvation. These are Ottawa inventions. The vaccine against infant meningitis. The first electronic music synthesizer. The best way to do computer animation of film. All got started here, at the NRC.
Of course there were some escapees of the ambitiously independent from NRC and its offshoots, even though they were often depending on government contracts to get their fledglings off the ground. Joe Norton founded Computing Devices. His son Mark is still actively supporting various high tech enterprises about town. Denny Doyle threw down his labcoat to establish Digital Equipment Corporation in Canada. It would vie with Nortel as the backbone of the tech-centric west end from Nepean through Kanata.
Nortel arrived as Bell-Northern Research in the early 1960s, attracted by NRC and its offshoot the Communications Research Centre at Shirley’s Bay. CRC would be the heart of Canada’s space adventures, starting with the Alouette program in the early 1960s. Alouette 1 made Canada the third nation to have a satellite circling. BNR became the single most important influence in moving the world’s telecom from analog to digital. This key innovation allowed Mike Cowpland and Terry Matthews to produce the fabulously successful PBX machines at Mitel. Then there was a quarter century run-up to Silicon Valley North, an intoxicating, almost giddy era. The likes of Systemhouse, Fulcrum, Jetform, Mosaid, JDS and Cognos were blooming.
Mitel does different things today, but in the meantime Matthews started Newbridge, now part of Alcatel, and Cowpland founded Corel. Nortel (which assumed BNR in 1996) is gone, the victim of awful business decisions. But the $5 billion patent portfolio it revealed in its death throes was dramatic evidence of the quality of thinking that went on there. There, of course, was here. Ottawa.
Where are the dreamers, the visionaries of yesteryear? As a matter of fact, a lot of them are still around, still dreaming dreams, still trying to make them real. Rod Bryden at Plasco. Terry Matthews at the re-acquired Mitel and a score of startups, Michael Cowpland at Zim, Adam Chowaniec, the Foody family, David Luxton. Denny Doyle still consults with the community out of Doyletech. And the young turks: Alfred Jay at Ramius, Tobias Lütke at Shopify, Paul Vallée and Andrew Waitman at Pythian. Space only prevents a much longer list.
It’s been my pleasure to write about these people through the years. Now I take leave, supremely confident that the end is not here, not even near. There will be a new resurgence of the technology gene. It may even have begun without our noticing. I can’t say precisely what it will bring but whatever it is will rise from a foundation of two solid centuries of technological achievement. Right here in government city.
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, July 9, 2012.)
Pay attention Ottawa. On the bank of the Ottawa River three hundred acres of your choicest land are about to be in play.
As choice as LeBreton Flats, Rockcliffe is many times the size of that historic neighbourhood, which was devastated by fire in 1900 and is still struggling to revive despite its recent acquisition of the swooping architectural masterpiece that encloses the Canadian War Museum. Essentially undeveloped land running in a huge rectangle bordered by St. Laurent Boulevard on the west, the NRC campus at Blair Road on the east, Montreal Road to the south and the Ottawa River, Rockcliffe is the site of a former RCAF airbase.
DND declared the property surplus in 1984, though there were military families still living there a quarter century later. Rockcliffe has been a question all that time. There were problems with property transfers and a land claim by an Algonquin first nation that apparently has been settled with a payment of $10 million. Algonquins may still be involved since they retain a right of first refusal on parcels to be sold from Rockcliffe. But it’s yet to be seen how willing they are to trade cash-in-hand for ancestral land.
The owner-of-record today is the Canada Lands Company. CLC’s mandate is to develop or dispose of properties the government owns but doesn’t use. It’s a player in major cities, such as Montreal (Old Port area and the Benny Farm residential district) and Toronto (Downsview Park, also a disused airfield). At Rockcliffe, a lead manager is to be named this month who will assemble a team of professionals to envision how this extraordinary landscape will be reshaped. Their starting mission is “to develop an exemplary diverse contemporary neighbourhood offering a choice in housing, employment, commercial, institutional and leisure activities which will be defined by the site’s unique setting, along with a commitment to environmental sustainability and long term economic viability.”
Now this will make a fine extension for Rockcliffe Park, one of the wealthiest enclaves in Canada, which the airfield was carved from nearly a century ago. After all, there are only two thousand people living there now. The airfield would essentially double the area of this ex-village where average salaries are twice what other Ottawa residents get paid. It’s a beautiful site. Should go to the most beautiful people. No?
That’s almost certainly what’s going to happen on the present path to decision. If there are other ideas out there, now’s the time to bring them forward. Two that I’ve heard deserve at least to be exposed:
The main campus of NRC, Canada’s primary research agency, abuts Rockcliffe. How about a technology park to bring commercial and entrepreneurial talent close to scientific teams that have global reputations and have won awards from the Nobel to Killam to Oscar?
The University of Ottawa is constrained for space. Located in the heart of the city, it has no way to grow physically to accommodate more students. Also it occupies properties that the federal government could use as it grows to manage the nation that, last I heard, was heading for a population of a hundred million this century.
A previous uO president talked of establishing a satellite campus at Rockcliffe for science faculties. The notion was dismissed by CLC, which didn’t have control then but knew it would some day. The current uO prez has reportedly canvassed profs at the university and found no support for the idea. But it’s not altogether crazed. Université Laval moved from its three century old campus in downtown Quebec City to Sainte-Foy in the 1950s. The Université de Montréal is relocating science faculties to the old train yards in Outremont.
The clock is running on Rockcliffe. Municipal approvals will take two or three years at least. Public consultations are to start this fall, presenting what CLC calls “a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to discuss and address issues of urban reintegration, quality of life and factors important in designing the place where you live, work, learn and play.”
That’s once in our lifetime, Ottawa. Prête attention
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