The Geek's Reading List for the week ending Jan. 30
By Brian Piccioni
This has been a very slow week for tech news as much of it was dominated by caompanies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon reporting financial results. There were a number of interesting articles about self driving cars and some interesting scientific developments, but no really exciting (or amusing) stories.
1) Germany Set to Open Up Autobahn to Self-Driving Vehicles
While Google has gotten a lot of press for its efforts developing self driving cars, such a thing must, first and foremost, be a car, and cars are not as easy to make as some would have you believe. I have complete confidence it is easier to add technology to a car than it is to make a car around technology, therefore the market will be led by automobile manufacturers and not tech companies. The Germans take their auto industry very seriously, which is a good thing to know if you have ever driven on the autobahn. Opening up a stretch of that roadway for real world testing is an important signal as to how important the industry takes the project. Note that both the road and the vehicle will be in communication, which is probably how things will go eventually.
“Prototypes of driverless cars are set to get the go-ahead on a stretch of Germany's busy A9 autobahn. For years, the country's car makers have been developing models with "autonomous driving" technology —passenger vehicles and trucks that can self-drive in cities and on highways without human interference. According to an internal memo, Germany's traffic ministry hopes to create a network in which traffic jams and pollution can be reduced, while road safety will be increased. "We will start with a digitization of the test section," a spokesman for the ministry told NBC News. "The goal is to introduce measuring points with which we will allow vehicle to vehicle and road to vehicle communication."”
2) If a Car Is Going to Self-Drive, It Might as Well Self-Park, Too
From what I have observed, the act of parking appears to be the greatest challenge faced by most drivers. It seems difficult to actually manage to position your vehicle between the lines, rather than diagonally, and, more or less centered without blocking other people's doors. And don't get me started about parallel parking. This solution seems a bit contrived (after all, having a map of the parking lot and all) and I rather doubt a Dick Tracy style watch to chat with your vehicle is likely to catch on. Of course, these numerous deficiencies and limitations will eventually be worked out.
“TECHNOLOGY may soon render another skill superfluous: parking a car. Sensors and software promise to free owners from parking angst, turning vehicles into robotic chauffeurs, dropping off drivers and then parking themselves, no human intervention required. BMW demonstrated such technical prowess this month with a specially equipped BMW i3 at the International CES event. At a multilevel garage of the SLS Las Vegas hotel, a BMW engineer spoke into a Samsung Gear S smartwatch.”
3) Net neutrality: CRTC bans Bell from subsidizing data usage for mobile TV app
This was such a blatant example of anticompetitive business practices I was shocked to see it continue as long as it did. Well, not so much shocked because Canadian regulators have the get up and go of a sloth with the collective competence to boot. Note how, rather than fining the companies (or, at a minimum, demanding they disgorge their ill gotten games) and demanding they immediately stop the service they regulator very kindly offered them to continue until the end of April 2015. Welcome to the Broadband Backwater of Canada.
“Canada’s telecom regulator has ruled against a billing practice by cellphone providers that exempts certain television content streamed on wireless devices from customers’ monthly data caps. The decision, which applies specifically to mobile television applications offered by Bell Mobility Inc. and Videotron Ltd., sets a new limit on how companies that own both media and communications businesses can use television and sports content to bolster their wireless or Internet divisions.”
4) James Webb Space Telescope Deployment In Detail
The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to Hubble. It has a much larger mirror, meaning it can gather much more light and have much higher resolution than Hubble. This is a comparison of the mirrors of Hubble and JWST http://i.imgur.com/MluczLu.jpg. I was very curious as to how they managed to fit such a large mirror array on a spacecraft and found this fascinating video.
“This video shows in-depth what will happen when James Webb Space Telescope deploys after launch. For more information, see this description on our website: http://jwst.nasa.gov/faq.html#howdeploy”
5) The language of T lymphocytes deciphered, the 'Rosetta Stone' of the immune system
An understanding of the “language” of a major part of the immune system is key to understanding immune responses as well as, potentially, developing treatments which direct the immune system in specific ways to attack disease or even limit inflammation response. In other words, this has the potential to be an important bit of research.
“The study describes a new approach that allows deciphering the language of T lymphocytes, which are cells of the immune system that protect us from pathogens and tumours. Combining methods of Next Generation Sequencing with in vitro stimulation and analysis of specific T cells, the researchers were able for the first time to establish a complete catalogue of the immune response to pathogens and vaccines. In particular, they have catalogued all the clones that respond to a particular microorganism, determining their specificity and their functional properties, for example their ability to produce inflammatory mediators (cytokines) or to migrate to different tissues.”
6) College Claims Copyright On 16th Century Michelangelo Sculpture, Blocks 3D Printing Files
I thought this story was representative of the lunacy which intellectual property law has become (I could just have easily gone with Taylor Swift's - who is, apparently, a pop star - lawyers from trademarking English words and phrases (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/taylor-swift-trademarks-this-sick-beat-and-other-1989-phrases-20150128). Of course, all it takes is a lawyer and a defendant without the financial resources to fend off litigation. Why the bright sparks at Augustana College thought this would be a good idea is beyond me, but they must have asked a lawyer's opinion and lawyers often give stupid advice.
“Jerry Fisher, a photographer in Sioux Falls South Dakota, was interested in 3D printing and 3D image capture. So he went and photographed two local bronze casts of Michelangelo statues, one of Moses which is on display at Augustana College and is co-owned by Augustana and the City of Sioux Falls, and another of David, which is in a local city park. He documented his efforts to take the photos and turn them into 3D printer plans. However, the folks at Augustana College demanded that he stop, arguing a bizarre mix of copyright and... "we don't like this." Fisher asked the city of Sioux Falls for its opinion and got back a ridiculous response ...”
7) Smart Neural Stimulators Listen to the Body
This article looks at how the technology behind implanted neural stimulators is progressing, and how these devices are being used to treat a number of serious conditions. One drawback with this sort of approach is that it involves surgery, meaning only serious problems which can't be treated by other means are likely to be treated with these systems.
“It’s an electrifying time to be in neuroscience. Using implanted devices that send pulses of electricity through the nervous system, physicians are learning how to influence the neural systems that control people’s bodies and minds. These devices give neurologists new ways to treat patients with a wide range of disorders, including epilepsy, chronic pain, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.”
8) Prosecutors Trace $13.4M in Bitcoins From the Silk Road to Ulbricht’s Laptop
I continue to look upon Bitcoin with some amusement though it doesn't generate quite as many funny stories as it used to. In case you don't recall Mr. Ulbricht is alleged to have run the Silk Web website which purportedly allowed drug dealers and other criminals to ply their trade using modern technology. He is also has alleged to have ordered the contract killing of at least one person, using Bitcoin no less. Funny story: it turns out that some master criminals are a little better at covering tracks than others, and his laptop apparently provided more or less a general ledger of his transactions. I am sure his criminal customer base is even more delighted than his defense team.
“If anyone still believes that bitcoin is magically anonymous internet money, the US government just offered what may be the clearest demonstration yet that it’s not. A former federal agent has shown in a courtroom that he traced hundreds of thousands of bitcoins from the Silk Road anonymous marketplace for drugs directly to the personal computer of Ross Ulbricht, the 30-year-old accused of running that contraband bazaar. In Ulbricht’s trial Thursday, former FBI special agent Ilhwan Yum described how he traced 3,760 bitcoin transactions over 12 months ending in late August 2013 from servers seized in the Silk Road investigation to Ross Ulbricht’s Samsung 700z laptop, which the FBI seized at the time of his arrest in October of that year. In all, he followed more than 700,000 bitcoins along the public ledger of bitcoin transactions, known as the blockchain, from the marketplace to what seemed to be Ulbricht’s personal wallets. Based on exchange rates at the time of each transaction, Yum calculated that the transferred coins were worth a total of $13.4 million.”
9) Stick-On Tattoo Measures Blood Sugar Without Needles
This looks like another potentially promising medical development: setting aside the discomfort associated with blood sugar measurement, this sensor could also ensure continuous (vs. discrete) monitoring, which is almost certainly better from a medical perspective. Furthermore, the system would work for people, such as children, who are unable to do their own measurements. No doubt considerable testing will be required before this thing can hit the market: after all, the consequences of a failed or inaccurate sensor could be severe.
“Diabetics often prick their fingers up to eight times a day to check their blood sugar. Researchers have long looked for a solution that provides constant monitoring without being so invasive, and researchers at the University of California San Diego have come up with a new needle-free design that could turn out to be less painful, yet just as effective, as the finger-prick method. The UCSD team printed electrodes onto standard temporary tattoo paper and paired it with a sensor. After each meal, the electrodes generate a current for about 10 minutes. The current draws the glucose—a type of sugar that diabetics have trouble breaking down—up near the skin's surface, allowing the device to read the glucose levels. The glucose is carried by sodium ions, which have a positive charge. By measuring how strong the charge is just under the skin, the sensor estimates how much glucose is in the bloodstream.”
10% of Android devices are dual-SIM, but not everywhere
It may be hard for a North American to grasp, but there are many places in the world where mobile services are a competitive market. For example, a consumer might have the choice of a dozen or so providers, some of whom specialize in certain areas (data vs. long distance for example). In some places, only one carrier operates while a completely different single carrier runs the system a few miles away. Multi-SIM (usually dual-SIM) phones offer the consumer the ability to easily switch providers by simply deciding which SIM to use to connect to the network. These are still pretty rare in North America, where unlocked phones are only now becoming more common, but we are starting to see some units in shops.
“Staying connected is a challenge, which is why our mission is to help people find the best network so that they can optimise the time they spend with a mobile signal. Many differing solutions have been suggested for improving mobile network coverage, with a recent idea in the UK being to force networks to share infrastructure in order to reduce ‘partial notspots’ (areas where there is coverage from at least one operator but not all). But what if you didn’t have to choose one network? What if you could choose two, or even more? This is one of the ideas behind multi-SIM devices (usually dual) – which allow one device to access different mobile networks by using multiple sim cards within the device. The technology to do this exists, but we had always regarded these phones as a bit exotic and therefore not a workable mass solution. In the UK and US dual SIM devices are uncommon, used by under 5% of the population and so we presumed it was about the same everywhere. We were wrong.”
11) UCI, fellow chemists find a way to unboil eggs
That's nothing: what the world needs is a way to unscramble eggs. Actually the researchers appear to have devised a technique which cost effectively misfolded proteins and allows them to fold properly. They provide an example of cancer antibodies which are produced in hamster ovary cells in order than they are properly folded. Production with yeast or bacteria would be much cheaper, however, many of the proteins would then be incorrectly folded, making them useless. In principal, this technique would allow the volume production of proteins is cheap bio reactors, with a rapid and cost effective post production step to correctly fold them.
“Like many researchers, he has struggled to efficiently produce or recycle valuable molecular proteins that have a wide range of applications but which frequently “misfold” into structurally incorrect shapes when they are formed, rendering them useless. “It’s not so much that we’re interested in processing the eggs; that’s just demonstrating how powerful this process is,” Weiss said. “The real problem is there are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes, and you want some means of recovering that material.””
12) Credit card study blows holes in anonymity
This is an example of the use of big data, and the value of metadata to everybody from marketers to spies. This is not exactly news, except, perhaps, to consumers and governments who seem to take the issue of privacy less seriously by the day. Since it seems unlikely to me that the necessary regulatory changes will emerge, more likely than not our children can look forward to being endlessly hounded by marketers armed with their personal data.
“De Montjoye's team analyzed 3 months of credit card transactions, chronicling the spending of 1.1 million people in 10,000 shops in a single country. (The team is tightlipped about the data's source—a “major bank,” de Montjoye says—and it has not disclosed which country.) The bank stripped away names, credit card numbers, shop addresses, and even the exact times of the transactions. All that remained were the metadata: amounts spent, shop type—restaurant, gym, or grocery store, for example—and a code representing each person. But because each individual's spending pattern is unique, the data have a very high “unicity.” That makes them ripe for what de Montjoye calls a “correlation attack.” To reveal a person's identity, you just need to correlate the metadata with information about the person from an outside source.”
13) Gartner Says By 2020, a Quarter Billion Connected Vehicles Will Enable New In-Vehicle Services and Automated Driving Capabilities
As usual I caution readers to take whatever Gartner or any other industry research group has to say with a cowlick of salt – their predictions are inevitably bullish and almost always wrong. Nevertheless, the Internet of Things (IoT) is real, however, I believe it to be over hyped. For the most part, IoT devices will be as cheap and as exciting as light switches (in fact one IoT application). Application of IoT and wireless technologies to automobiles makes perfect sense and Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) has tremendous potential. Of course, V2V will only have measurable benefit with a significant portion of the fleet is thus equipped, which will take at least a decade or two.
““The connected car is already a reality, and in-vehicle wireless connectivity is rapidly expanding from luxury models and premium brands, to high-volume midmarket models,” said James F. Hines, research director at Gartner. “The increased consumption and creation of digital content within the vehicle will drive the need for more sophisticated infotainment systems, creating opportunities for application processors, graphics accelerators, displays and human-machine interface technologies,” said Mr. Hines. “At the same time, new concepts of mobility and vehicle usage will lead to new business models and expansion of alternatives to car ownership, especially in urban environments.” Gartner forecasts that about one in five vehicles on the road worldwide will have some form of wireless network connection by 2020, amounting to more than 250 million connected vehicles. The proliferation of vehicle connectivity will have implications across the major functional areas of telematics, automated driving, infotainment and mobility services.”
14) COB LED market to grow from $1.5bn in 2014 to $4.4bn in 2020, driven by directional and high-lumen applications
I have to do a bit of translation here: Chip On Board (COB) LEDs are pretty much LEDs – in this case white high power LEDs – which are installed with a minimal package. Since packaging costs are significant these are cheaper, however the approach requires the designer to deal with power dissipation which is a significant factor in LED liamp design. Long story short, the reason I included the article is to show growth in demand for LEDs for general lighting, a trend we forecast many years ago. One thing to remember is that LEDs last a very long time and in the no so distant future the market will saturate and demand will go negative.
“The market for chip-on-board (COB) LEDs and multi-chip array COBs will grow significantly from $1.5bn in 2014 to $4.4bn in 2020, including 40% growth from 2014 to 2015, according to the report 'The World Market for COB LEDs in General Lighting' from market research firm Strategies Unlimited. Long-term growth is due mainly to the increased penetration of COBs into directional and high-lumen applications. "COBs have a better light distribution and design flexibility than other package types, which makes them more adapted to applications where you need to direct light, need a large quantity of usable lumens, or both," comments research analyst Martin Shih.”
15) Scientists use 20 billion fps camera to film a laser in flight
This article has another very cool video, this time showing a very short pulse of light bouncing off mirrors in ultra super duper slow motion. It is pretty much what you would expect to see, but it is nontheless, cool to actually see it.
“We’ve all been spoiled by the flashy lasers in science fiction to the point that the real thing can seem a little mundane. A laser, by definition, is tightly focused and all but invisible to the human eye. However, a team of physicists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK have managed to film a laser bouncing off mirrors with a new type of high-speed camera. It looks like something out of Star Wars, but it actually happened in real life.”
16) FCC Warns Businesses WiFi Blocking is Illegal
Well surprise, surprise, surprise: interfering with radios is illegal! Actually this has been illegal for decades and you might have thought the hotel in question and whoever sold them the equipment would have known as much. Nevertheless it is always nice to see that sometimes regulators can come up with the right answer.
“Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal. Wi-Fi blocking violates Section 333 of the Communications Act, as amended.1 The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference,” the Federal Communications Commission said in a statement issued this week.”
17) Unilever Leverages 3D Printing Injection Molds, Slashing Lead Times for Prototype Parts by 40%
Most of what we read about 3D printing revolves around the production of small volume parts or those which simply cannot be made any other way. This press release covers an angle I had not seen before, namely the production of molds using 3D printing. Molds are typically made of steel using Electric Discharge Machining (EDM) which takes a fair bit of time. Depending on the steel, the resultant mold can produce tens of thousands of parts, however, it would be nice ot know if the mold itself could be improved. This quick turnaround 3D printed mold process results in molds which probably have very short production lives, but the process can prove the design of the mold. Since metal 3D printing has been possible for some time, it is not hard to imagine that 3D printing will displace EDM just as EDM displaced traditional mold making techniques.
“Stratasys 3D printing technology, we can design and print a variety of injection molds for different parts that can undergo functional and consumer testing, all on the same day," explains Stefano Cademartiri, R&D, CAD and Prototyping Specialist at Unilever. "Before, we would have to wait several weeks to receive prototype parts using our traditional tooling process; not only would this lengthen lead times, it would also increase costs if iterations were required. With 3D printing we're now able to apply design iterations to the mold within a matter of hours, enabling us to produce prototype parts in final materials such as polypropylene, 40% faster than before.”
18) Exclusive: WinSun China builds world's first 3D printed villa and tallest 3D printed apartment building
This is another 3D printing story, but a very different one. I suspect 3D printing will become a big part of the home building business, however, it is not clear that this building was, in fact, 3D printed in the time they suggested. Based on the photographs, it appears they (possibly) 3D printed sections and those prefabricated sections were assembled on site. Many industrial buildings are actually made in a similar fashion using precast concrete sections, so the only advantage here might be in design flexibility. I believe on site in situ printing of structures, in particular foundations, is likely how things will go.
“On March 29, 2014, ten 3D printed houses, each measuring 200 square meters, appeared in Shanghai, China. The buildings were created entirely out of concrete using a gigantic 3D printer, and each costs only 30,000 RMB ($4,800). Today, just ten months after the initial project, the company behind these 3D printed buildings, Shanghai WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co, made a new announcement that will take 3D printed buildings to a whole new level: they have built the highest 3D printed building, a 5-storey residential house and the world's first 3D printed villa. The villa measures 1,100 square meters and even comes complete with internal and external decorations.”
19) What will Your House Look like in 10 Years?
It is hard to tell whether this article is serious or not: after all there is a lot of interest in futurology, which is, more or less, writing or talking about the future without having a firm grasp on the present. One might argue that the dream world/nightmare portrayed in the article is possible today, provided the consumer has the money. More realistically, such a future would imply several things, none of which are on the horizon. For example, open standards would be needed to create such an environment unless all the bits and pieces happened to come from a single vendor. Anybody who has ever tried to get a Samsung TV to talk to a Sony Blu-ray player using all the advanced features would know what the odds of that are. Another thing would be some sort of “permanent cloud” whereby all the various gizmos would continue to work even after the respective vendors have gone bankrupt or lost interest in the service. Since I can't get software updates for an Audivox Bluetooth car radio a couple years after launch you can imagine what I figure the chance of that is.
“From the moment you wake up in the morning, the house reacts to your needs. The automated lights turn on slowly to wake you up at a scheduled time. From the comfort of your bed, you switch on your coffee machine so your morning cup is fresh and hot by the time you arrive downstairs for breakfast. You enter the bathroom and stand in front of your intelligent mirror. The mirror’s reflective surface springs to life with all the information you need to kick-start your day, including the weather and the morning’s top news. The device also plays your favorite music so you are always guaranteed to start the day in a good mood.”
20) FTC Warns of the Huge Security Risks in the Internet of Things
Setting aside the issues of open standards and cloud services (see item 19) one other challenge for IoT devices will always be security. Not so much that I am concerned a thermostat might be hacked but, as IoT applications expand, the odds of them being, in aggregate, secure seem pretty remote. Gadgets do not usually sell on the basis of how secure they are, and once they are off the shelf security rarely interests vendors. So you can look forward to a future in which you toaster can be hacked by the kid down the street, just for giggles.
“There’s danger lurking in the Internet of Things. At least, that’s the word from the Federal Trade Commission. On Tuesday, the government watchdog released a detailed report urging businesses to take some concrete steps in protecting the privacy and security of American consumers. According to the FTC, 25 billion objects are already online worldwide, gathering information using sensors and communicating with each other over the internet, and this number is growing, with consumer goods companies, auto manufacturers, healthcare providers, and so many other businesses investing in the new breed of connected devices.”
Brian Piccioni has been part of the technology industry for a third of a century. He 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.
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 week (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.”
One reader at a time, starting with the GG
By Tony Patterson
At Rideau Hall for the Killam Symposium on Monday the GG was working the crowd with his usual charm and courtesy. I didn't expect him to turn to me, whom he doesn't know, but he did and as we chatted I mentioned I had been drawn to the wall behind him where his predecessors are listed. He asked why. "De Courcelle had the job in 1665," I said. His Excellency seemed aware of that. His look was partly quizzical and partly "please don't start a centuries-long story because there are another two hundred people in the room I have to get to."
I said, "My first European ancestor arrived in Quebec on the Saint-Sebastien in September 1665, the same boat that brought Governor de Courcelle. It's a pleasure now to meet his successor."
That was serendipity enough for me. The name on the wall, the man himself with his aides, the thin thread of connection through nearly 350 years. But the GG had another thought. "Are you going to write family history," asked Mr. Johnston? Gotta love the man. That's what I do here: Rideau Canal And All That.
"Funny you should ask. Would you like to read some of it?"
"Sure," said the GG, "send it along."
Always on my mind Nov. 22
By Tony Patterson
I had just finished lunch at Mother Martin's and was heading to the studio when Pol, the manager, caught up to me at the door. "President Kennedy has been shot," he said. I went into the bar. The TV set was on. The afternoon was a blur but I knew I'd still have to get to the television studio. We were going live at five with the inaugural edition of a new public affairs show called Projection. I was the researcher, writer, interviewer and host for the program. This was fifty years ago, remember. Of course there would be no Projection that night. CBC-Montreal, the whole network and every other network in North America were tuned to only one cataclysmic event. But we had the studio booked and in the show must go on tradition we did our half hour to tape, which rolled the following week. It was my first appearance in a series that would change my family's life in significant ways. I remember the day very well. But I have no memory at all of what that first show was about.
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.
Summer of coooperatives
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, August 6, 2012.)
May was memorable for Mauril Bélanger, the honourable member forever from the Liberal pocket borough of Ottawa-Vanier. It is eight elections and counting for Mauril from the riding next to Parliament Hill that has never elected anyone but a Liberal.
He had a really bad day mid-month when he took on the case of the vanishing Confederation Park subway station. Big mistake. His intrusion into the affairs of another level of government was brutally slapped down by Mayor Jim in a rare public chastisement. Wounded, the MP quietly backed off.
But by end-May Mauril was a star among his parliamentary peers. Appointed May 6 by interim party leader Bob Rae as “advocate” for the co-operative sector in Canada, within days he had conceived a daring – some would say impossible – strategy and got it approved in the Liberal caucus. May 30 was an “opposition day” in the House of Commons. The newly minted co-op advocate would use the time to speak positively about the sector, point out that 2012 is the UN’s International Year of Co-operatives and issue a call to action.
The specific action he proposed was something of a Hail Mary pass, not to say a non-starter. He called for creation of a committee that would sit through the summer to study the status of co-ops in Canada.
But he and other opposition Members in the House of whatever party were gobsmacked when the Harperites caught the pass and said, in effect, “Let’s get to it.” Turns out Conservatives know there are co-ops in every riding, not least in the west, where co-ops have a dominant position in the economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The committee was named. An agenda was set July 10 and witnesses scheduled. Hearings ran through the last week of July. A report is to be ready for the House when it returns from recess in September.
There are a surprisingly large number of players in the co-op sector. Not to mention big bucks. Co-operatives including credit unions control assets of more than $250 billion and employ 150,000 people. More than 18 million Canadians are members of about 9,000 co-operatives, including 2,200 housing co-ops, which are home to more than 250,000 people (full disclosure: I’m one of them). There are more than 1,300 agricultural co-ops, 650 retail co-operatives, 900 credit unions and caisses populaires, about 450 co-ops offering childcare or early childhood education, more than 600 worker co-ops — owned by the employees — with a total membership of over 13,000, and more than 100 healthcare co-operatives.
There are many rural and northern communities where the co-op is the only game in town, for child care, health, supplies, financial services. More than 1,100 communities rely on a local co-operative credit union as their only financial institution. But co-op signs are also large and many in major cities across Canada. Here in Ottawa as throughout Quebec, Caisse Desjardins takes a back seat to none in financial matters. A huge co-op more than a century old, it ranks just behind the big five chartered banks.
While it’s useless to predict the outcome of the current parliamentary initiative, you have to respect whatever will bring MPs to meet in Ottawa in July. Mauril, whose riding runs right up beside Parliament Hill and has never elected anyone unLiberal, asked for the co-op portfolio, which hadn’t existed in any party before. He also had himself named “advocate” rather than “critic”, a crucial and original distinction. No dummy he. In an age of questionable economic models, some of which have tipped the world toward financial panic and gridlock, there is something stable, solid and community-supportive in co-operatives. Their value may be about to be rediscovered. If so, a whack of credit will have to go to the Member for Canada’s most predictable constituency.
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
No, no I/O
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, June 4, 2012.)
I don’t know who the directors of the recently inaugurated Invest Ottawa (I/O, formerly OCRI) will be. I’ve asked a couple of times. Most recently (May 26) I had this response via email, “Directors being selected soon — watch for ads in local papers.”
Nor do I know how they’re being chosen or by whom. I’ve asked a couple of times. The question has been ignored.
But I think I can assume the I/O directors aren’t on board yet, so to speak. Which means that the troika pulling Ottawa’s new economic development engine — the Mayor, the Chair and the CEO — have free rein. Or to put it another way, there’s no-one else to blame.
Blame? For what?
Well they’ve moved to a building where there’s no parking. I can’t begin to describe the inconvenience this causes all kinds of people and is certain to cause many more every day I/O is open for business. It was a stupid place to put any office that expects significant traffic and if I/O doesn’t expect traffic I don’t know what business it’s in.
But hey, the CEO hadn’t even been appointed when the lease was signed. He has to live with it but it’s not his fault. The City picked the building. Perhaps the Mayor will accept blame for parking.
And while personnel change is to be expected, it’s somewhat jarring when the three most senior executives are summarily displaced. It’s tempting to point to the long association of these three in particular with OCRI’s techno-centric orientation and connect their departure with the relative diminution of tech within the I/O culture a-borning.
But hey, it’s a new CEO’s prerogative to re-assess and re-align the team he’s been hired to lead. Let’s watch who he recruits and how they perform. Time will tell.
Then I received notice of the first ever (first I’d heard of anyway) “Invest Ottawa Partnered Event”. It took place last Thursday at I/O’s parking-challenged office on Aberdeen Street. The “event” at a cost of $199+HST (deep discounted to $59+HST for the now disbanded OCRI membership) was about selling out. To quote the promo from I/O, “2012 will be a banner year for M&A in software, IT and related technology companies, due to a perfect storm of favorable (sic) conditions, in particular the large amount of cash held abroad by major US strategic buyers. It’s the perfect time to sell, but are you ready?”
I don’t object to any entrepreneur selling what she has built at any stage in the process to anybody in the world who wants to buy. A loonie in hand is worth a toonie in future. But is it the job of the local economic development agency to encourage her to do so? I don’t think so. Somebody needs to be blamed for this I/O-partnered event. Not fired. Not disgraced. Just told not to do it again. Because “selling out” is the wrong message for I/O to be delivering. At a time when more and more industry leaders are decrying the “hollowing out” of Canada’s undervalued and vulnerable tech sector, the I/O message should be, “Don’t go, Julie, don’t go. If you need help to stay, we can help.”
I asked I/O about it in an email: “This event is about helping companies sell themselves advantageously, often to buyers in other places. Yet I/O’s business is to help these same companies grow and develop to maturity right here with local ownership if possible. Is there not a shade of counterproductivity in this?”
The question was ignored.
Let’s fill RIM’s app gap!
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Apr. 30, 2012.)
I don’t know how to resuscitate RIM. Maybe you don’t either. We have to place our bets on the devils we know about: founding genius Mike Lazaridis, new CEO Thorsten Heins and the Ottawa connection.
Ottawa connection? For those who have been out of touch for the duration, the Ottawa connection comprises QNX, Alec Saunders (pictured right on stage at a European developers conference) and shades of Prem Watsa. You know the first two. QNX has built the new operating system, known as BlackBerry 10. But it’s not yet in the phones. They’re pushing for the fall. Alec Saunders is a Waterloo-cum-Microsoft grad who has been Ottawa-bled in a decade-long struggle to get voicetech startup Calliflower off the ground. Now VP of developer relations at QNX/RIM, his goal is to enlist 50,000 app developers this year to . . . . . . develop apps for RIM.
And how about Prem Watsa, 61, CEO of Fairfax Financial. Reserved but revered for his canny and fantastically successful investment record, he’s walking the talk, for sure, becoming a RIM director, laying his money down. That’s good for RIM and by extension good for Canada’s tech sector. Whatever is good for RIM is good for Canada’s tech sector. The worst thing conceivable these days is that RIM should follow Nortel into the crater. God forbid. Prem’s doing his part. When Lazaridis flamboyantly announced he’ll invest another $50 million in RIM, Prem allowed as how he might follow suit. (If either actually did it that day, he’d have lost $8 million in the past month.)
Fairfax is already the fourth largest investor in the company. And it’s here that the Ottawa connection resides. No. 2 and “lead director” at Fairfax is Anthony F. Griffiths. Through the early nineties Tony Griffiths was chair and CEO at Mitel and mentor of the CEO-in-waiting, Kirk Mandy. Griffiths went home to help Watsa become Canada’s Warren Buffet. (As a matter of interest and disclosure, Griffiths was a modest investor in a publication I founded, Silicon Valley NORTH, in the mid-nineties.)
QNX is doing its part. Watsa is doing his. So is Alec Saunders, which brings me back to apps. Alec might not put it this way but he could use some help. Not only is he playing catch up with Apple and Android, he doesn’t yet have in hand the product that developers are supposed to develop apps for. What he has is 95% there and what he needs now is the trust of the community. Developers have to believe that BlackBerry is coming back and that it’s worth diverting some effort from making iPhone apps, or Google apps or now Microsoft apps. BlackBerry created mobile and it’s still early days for mobile. BlackBerry’s still a good bet. BlackBerry’s coming back big time.
RIM is important to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. We let Nortel slide with scarcely a sigh. It should never happen again and if we have anything to do about it, it never will. In this case there is something we can do. We can contribute enthusiastically to RIM’s app store. We can build the apps. RIM is us. Let’s get to it.
And here’s something to do right now. Tomorrow, May 1, RIM’s BlackBerry Jam 10 conference for app developers gets underway in Orlando, Florida. If you’re not going yourself, take a minute to let Alec know that we’re here for him and RIM. It’ll be good to share news down south that the home team is putting in extra effort. His eddress is email@example.com.
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