The Geek’s Reading List for the week ending Aug. 28
By Brian Piccioni
1) The Flash Storage Revolution Is Here
A 16TB mass storage device is likely to come with an astronomical price tag and a modest market. Nevertheless, there may be significant interest in the enterprise market where electricity costs and square footage are significant drivers of cost of ownership. I believe Samsung is mostly making a point: SSDs are much faster, much more energy efficient, and offer greater storage density than Hard Disk Drives. Flash technology is undergoing a revolution as the technology shifts to 3D die, and I predict the end of the consumer HDD market in 1 to 2 years.
“You’ve likely heard about Samsung’s 16TB hard drive, by far the world’s largest. That is an eye-popping number, a large enough leap forward that it’s difficult to fully process. And the most exciting thing about that 16TB hard drive? It’s just a hint of what’s coming next. The pace of flash storage development has been slow and steady for decades. Finally, though, we’re starting to see breakthroughs of the last few years result in actual products, starting with one mammoth SSD.”
2) Malware menaces poison ads as Google, Yahoo! look away
The online ad industry is being set up for a major disruption which could significantly impact their margins. Internet ads are essentially unvetted, which is why you see so many fraudulent ones. Since vetting costs money, everything is pretty much caveat emptor, which also explains disruptive and distracting ads. Malware developers have taken this a step further, applying the targeting provided by the search engine providers to target their malware to specific classes of victims. Disruptive and malware advertising provides a strong basis for ad-blocking, which is a rising threat to the like of Google and Yahoo. The only effective counter measure will be for them to actually vet their customers and, as I said, that is going to cost money.
“That ad contains some malcode that redirects visitors who receive it to a malicious landing page that executes various exploits tailored to the user's system. It establishes a beachhead through which payloads like bank trojans, bots, and ransomware are pushed. The ad machine also offers easy access for criminals, who, thanks to the fast-moving nature of the advertising machine, appear indistinguishable from legitimate customers. In this marketplace, attackers reside in the lawless bottom tier where traffic, or inventory, is sold and re-sold off to buyers wanting to post their ads. Moreover, the malvertising can be targeted to specific victims using the same features that legitimate advertisers use to hit users interested in the kinds of products they sell. This means criminals can target government IT shops looking for extended Windows support, or defence contractors seeking state tenders.”
3) Estimate: Human Brain 30 Times Faster than Best Supercomputers
This rather silly report caused pandemonium among the disciples of Ray Kurzweil, the current guru of “transhumanism” or the merger of human and machine, in particular at the brain level. Unfortunately, the metric employed has no particular relevance to the question of intelligence and it is a bit like saying my cat has 30 times as many blue as a chicken. Unless and until the function of the brain is understood, and we are very far away from that, comparing “computing performance” of the brain with any machine is an utterly meaningless exercise.
“The AI Impacts project is the brainchild of two PhD students from the University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University. They have developed a preliminary methodology for comparing supercomputers to brains: traversed edges per second (TEPS), which measures how quickly a computer can move information around within its own system. A typical TEPS benchmark requires computers to simulate a graph and search through it. That’s not possible with the brain, so instead, the researchers compared the computer’s performance to a rough estimate of how frequently the brain’s neurons fire off electrical signals.”
4) Built-in Connectivity among Least Used Technologies, Creating Lost Value
This is, in some ways, reassuring. I believe that the important technologies associated with a car should essentially be invisible to the driver, rather than a distraction. So, auto-braking should work when it has to and keep out of the way otherwise. The strange thing is, many of these unused options are actually quite expensive, meaning people decided to spend money for something they don't use. That is not a situation which is likely to persist. One issue of note would be car buyers should be aware of is that it is not unusual for electronics manufacturers to discontinue support for their gadgets within a few years of release. This means software updates stop and the utility of the device degrades accordingly.
“Automakers are investing billions of dollars to put technologies in their cars and light trucks that are not being used by many of the owners of those vehicles, according to the J.D. Power 2015 Driver Interactive Vehicle Experience (DrIVE) Report.SM The 2015 DrIVE Report measures driver experiences with in-vehicle technology features during the first 90 days of ownership. The report finds that at least 20 percent of new-vehicle owners have never used 16 of the 33 technology features measured. The five features owners most commonly report that they “never use” are in-vehicle concierge (43%); mobile routers (38%); automatic parking systems (35%); head-up display (33%); and built-in apps (32%). There are 14 technology features that 20 percent or more of owners do not want in their next vehicle, including Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto, in-vehicle concierge services and in-vehicle voice texting. Among Gen Y, the number of features unwanted by at least 20 percent of owners increases to 23, specifically technologies related to entertainment and connectivity systems.”
5) Why the U.S. Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability
This article outlines the root causes of the abysmal state of broadband infrastructure in the US. As with the Canadian situation, it exemplifies incompetent policy decisions (doubtless underpinned by lobbying and corruption). Despite the clear importance of telecommunications to a competitive economy, politicians appear utterly oblivious to the situation. This is not entirely surprising: given they know which side of the bread the butter is on, and lack measurable understanding of technology, it is a bit like asking a short order cook to opine on the activities at CERN. It will probably take another 20 years of lost ground until the Internet generation begin running for office before things start to turn the corner.
“Downloading a high-definition movie takes about seven seconds in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, and people pay as little as $30 a month for that connection. In Los Angeles, New York and Washington, downloading the same movie takes 1.4 minutes for people with the fastest Internet available, and they pay $300 a month for the privilege, according to The Cost of Connectivity, a report published Thursday by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. The report compares Internet access in big American cities with access in Europe and Asia. Some surprising smaller American cities — Chattanooga, Tenn.; Kansas City (in both Kansas and Missouri); Lafayette, La.; and Bristol, Va. — tied for speed with the biggest cities abroad. In each, the high-speed Internet provider is not one of the big cable or phone companies that provide Internet to most of the United States, but a city-run network or start-up service.”
6) Netflix Is Dumping Anti-Virus, Presages Death Of An Industry
It is hard to make the case that somehow Netflix is a trendsetters in the broader tech industry. The same information leads to the same conclusions in many companies at more or less the same time and decisions can be made on the basis of things like budget cycles and expiring licenses rather than the fact another company added or dropped a software package. Regardless, the data are quite interesting: anti-virus catches some malware, it doesn't catch much, so why bother?
“Because Netflix, a well-known innovator in the tech sphere, is the first major web firm to openly dump its anti-virus, FORBES has learned. And where Netflix goes, others often follow; just look at the massive uptick of public cloud usage in recent years, following the company’s major investment in Amazon Web Services. Let’s take a second to look at the decline of the anti-virus industry. Anti-virus has been the first line of defence for many firms over the last quarter of a century. Generally speaking, AV relies on malware signatures and behavioural analysis to uncover threats to people’s PCs and smartphones. But in the last 10 years, research has indicated AV is rarely successful in detecting smart malware. In 2014, Lastline Labs discovered only 51 per cent of AV scanners were able to detect new malware samples.”
7) With Great IoT Comes Great Insecurity
The Internet of Things has had a remarkably long hype cycle. Hype to the contrary, I don't see Nest thermostats flying off the shelves. Nevertheless, I do expect a high degree of penetration of IoT though that will only happen once a number of key problems are sorted out. One major problem with IoT is security: the problem is not that somebody will mess with your fridge but that somebody will use that weaknesses to gain access to everything on your network. Security is hard and most IoT companies are not in the business of Internet security, meaning this is exactly the sort of thing they can save money on.
“Chris Roberts and the team at One World Labs were able to use a stove running Android to gain access to a user's entire home (Nest, Garage door, NAS, etc.). From there they were able to take control of his car, his laptop, and finally the computers running the major system at his work --which happened to be a power station. The lab team of four or five people in under a couple of months was able to physically and logically own this one guy and the company he worked for. Imagine what can be done when someone writes a self-replicating worm for IoTs. Something that comes in through email or on a laptop and replicates throughout the house and then waits for guests to come over and replicates to their devices. Cars that belong to friends, family, or even service agents (gas, cable, plumbers etc.) as they pull up to the house, the wearables they have while they’re in your house, and your neighbors who are within range."
8) Almost None of the Women in the Ashley Madison Database Ever Used the Site
One company which apparently decided that security was not the business they are in is Ashley Madison, whose adultery website was hacked, exposing the names, email addresses, etc., of their clientele. This journalist deserves kudos for doing an analysis of that data dump and discovering that, at least from the available information, very few of the purported women on the site were actual users rather than fake profiles or bots.
“What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots. Those millions of Ashley Madison men were paying to hook up with women who appeared to have created profiles and then simply disappeared. Were they cobbled together by bots and bored admins, or just user debris? Whatever the answer, the more I examined those 5.5 million female profiles, the more obvious it became that none of them had ever talked to men on the site, or even used the site at all after creating a profile. Actually, scratch that. As I’ll explain below, there’s a good chance that about 12,000 of the profiles out of millions belonged to actual, real women who were active users of Ashley Madison.”
9) You can roll up this screen like a yoga mat
The fact a screen is flexible offers the prospect of mass production in the same way printers print newspaper, which mean they could be manufactured extremely cheaply. Unfortunately, as is typical with most tech reporting, cost is not mentioned. E-Ink displays have significant limitations: they have a slow response time meaning you can't show video, and they are monochrome so no colour. Flexible E-Ink displays have been demonstrated in the past but never came to market. This product seems cool. It is a pity they are going after the likely doomed wearables market.
(warning: auto play video, though the video is worth watching)
10) Virgin Galactic boldly goes into small satellites, telling future astronauts 'you have to wait'
I did not see the point of the original Virgin Galactic business plan: why risk pilots' lives so you could give rich celebrities a brief joy ride so they could pretend they are astronauts? (I have little concern for the safety of the celebrities themselves). After the recent disaster, appetite among the rich and clueless has diminished somewhat, necessitating a strategic pivot. It is interesting to note there is a handful of companies, including SpaceX who hope to greatly reduce the cost of launch services. It is not clear to me that demand will be elastic and that the demand for such launch services will increase enough to offset the lower price of launch. In other words, cheap launch services may end up being as profitable as expensive launch services but off a much lower revenue base.
“This programme is called LauncherOne, a two-stage rocket that is fired at an altitude of 50,000 feet from White Knight Two – the same cargo plane that will be used to shuttle space tourists into near-space. For less than $10m, you can launch a single satellite or combination of satellites with varying payloads into orbit. This service compares to Pegasus, Virgin Galactic’s rival in the satellite launch market. “Nasa is the only real customer for Pegasus,” claims Whitesides. “It typically buys a Pegasus once every two years at a price of around $50m for a payload in the order of magnitude of 250kg. We offer the same payload at a fifth of the cost.” Other start-ups entering the industry make similar claims. New Zealand-based Rocket Lab’s flagship engine, Electron, is designed to send payloads of 100kg into space for just $4.9m, while Texan outfit Firefly Space Systems claims that it will offer “the lowest launch cost in its class”.”
11) Quantum computer firm D-Wave claims massive performance boost
Quantum computing has some potential for certain applications, few of which are likely to be mainstream. Biomedical applications (notably protein folding) has some significant potential, however, the market for such machines is likely to be more in line with that for supercomputers, which isn't very much. While university researchers toil away in relative obscurity, D-Wave makes a lot of noise and has actually sold a few systems. There is good reason to be sceptical as to the utility of their machines, however. I'll become a believer when a single problem is solved using any quantum computer in a manner dramatically better than an off the shelf high performance traditional machine.
“An important wrinkle is that finding the absolute best solution is much more difficult than finding a pretty good one, so D-Wave gave its machine 20 microseconds calculation time before reading out the answer. The regular computers then had to find a solution of equivalent quality, however long that took. This makes it less of a fair fight, says Matthias Troyer of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, who has worked on software designed to enable regular computers to compete with D-Wave. A true comparison should measure the time taken to reach the best answer, he argues. “My initial impression is that they looked to design a benchmark on which their machine has the best chance of succeeding,” he says. It’s a bit like a race between a marathon runner and a sprinter, in which the sprinter goes first and sets the end point when she gets tired. The marathon runner will struggle to replicate her short-range performance, but would win overall if the race were longer. “Whether the race they set up is useful for anything is not clear,” says Troyer.”
12) Windows 10 is now installed on 75 million PCs after just four weeks
My experience with Windows 10 has been positive and even my lingering “notebook won't go to sleep” problem has been fixed by rolling back a driver and disabling updates. On the other hand, some users, including a good friend of mine, are reporting the upgrade itself was a disaster, leading to lost data and incompatible applications. The conclusion is that it is a damned fine operating system if the upgrade works, but a huge problem when it doesn't. From a business perspective, I figure Windows 10 will drive an uptick in new PC sales since the problems associated with the OS do not generally affect new machines.
“Microsoft released Windows 10 four weeks ago today, and now the company is providing a fresh update on its upgrade figures. 14 million machines had been upgraded to Windows 10 within 24 hours of the operating system release last month, and that figure has now risen to more than 75 million in just four weeks. Microsoft has been rolling out Windows 10 in waves, as a free upgrade for Windows 8 and Windows 7 users. While it's difficult to compare exact figures between Windows 10 and Windows 8, Microsoft "sold" 40 million licenses of Windows 8 a month after its debut. It took Microsoft six months to get to 100 million licenses of Windows 8, and it's clear the free aspect of Windows 10 is obviously driving higher adoption rates.”
13) Scientists develop mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that uses LEDs to help paraplegics walk
Brain computer interfaces are advancing steadily, and these have many important potential applications, in particular in the medical field controlling artificial limbs. I am not entirely sure what this done, but the impression I have is that the flashing of the LEDs provides a sort of timing signal which allows the interface to separate out the brain signal from the electrical noise generated by the motors and actuators in the exoskeleton. This should allow for much quicker training, and probably finer control.
“In June 2014, Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old paraplegic man, became the first person ever to use a mind-controlled exoskeleton to kick off the World Cup. It took only a second to kick the football on the pitch in Brazil, watched by millions around the world, but the process to enable the teenager to control the exoskeleton suit required seven months of intensive training in front of a computer, as well as 12 years of research from Dr Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and Dr Gordon Cheng of TU Munich before that. But now researchers from Korea and Germany have found a different way to achieve the same result. Their exoskeleton suit system requires the user to wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap and then stare at a device facing them that has five LED lights embedded into it.”
14) “MultiFab” 3-D prints a record 10 materials at once, no assembly required
Multi-material 3D printing probably much more useful, if for no other reason than the machine can produce different types of objects rather than limiting production to the material a particular machine was designed around. I think it is premature to claim “no assembly required” since bonding strength and so on are bound to be issues. The use of machine vision for is interesting, however, comparing this prototype to a full up industrial machine is probably unfair, especially since the MIT system is reportedly glacially slow.
“3-D printing is great, assuming you're printing one material for one purpose, and that you’re fine with a few do-overs. But the technology is still far behind in reliably producing a variety of useful objects, with no assembly required, at a moderate cost. In recent years, companies have been working to tackle some of these challenges with “multi-material” 3-D printers that can fabricate many different functional items. Such printers, however, have traditionally been limited to three materials at a time, can cost as much as $250,000 each, and still require a fair amount of human intervention. But this week, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) say that they’ve found a way to make a better, cheaper, more user-friendly printer. In a paper accepted at the SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference, a CSAIL team presented a 3-D printer that can print an unprecedented 10 different materials at once by using 3-D-scanning techniques that save time, energy, and money.”
15) End of the solar panel boom as subsidies slashed: Ministers announce surprise move to reduce government spending on panels by 90 per cent
Time was governments designed energy policy on the basis of its benefit to the country rather than because it sounded like a good idea. Massive subsidies to solar and win have been a boon for the large corporations which sell the gear but otherwise disastrous. Setting aside the cost, I'd like to see a bottom up analysis of the relative environmental benefits of, say, spending the money insulating homes or paying people to switch from oil to natural gas compared to the purported benefit of solar. It is a matter of time before voters in every country begin to wonder whether the money is well spent. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.
“Ministers moved to slash massive subsidies for solar panels yesterday, amid signs the Government’s enthusiasm for green energy is waning. In a surprise move, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced a consultation aimed at cutting the subsidies by almost 90 per cent. If implemented, such a step would remove virtually all incentive for home owners to install the panels and could mean the end of Britain’s solar power boom. In recent weeks, ministers have tightened planning restrictions and reduced subsidies for wind farms. They also closed the £540million Green Deal, which gave out loans for domestic energy efficiency improvements.”
16) Want To Make a Diamond in Just 10 Weeks? Use a Microwave
We covered the emerging technology of gem quality artificial diamonds a number of years ago. I figure the whole diamond market is a scam: the stones are not scarce and young couples would do better spending the money on appliances than an engagement ring. Nevertheless, it appears you can now produce a sizable gem quality rock and sell it for half the price of a natural one. Since the only inputs to the process are capital, electricity, and carbon, pricing will only head down.
“The companies that dominate the market for natural gems, including Russia’s Alrosa and De Beers, a unit of London-based Anglo American, don’t see the upstarts as much of a threat, because “it’s such a small fraction” of the market, says Neil Koppel, the CEO of Renaissance Diamonds. His company, in Boca Raton, Fla., is supplying Helzberg stores in 10 U.S. cities. Last year only about 360,000 carats of man-made diamonds were produced, compared with 146 million carats of natural gems mined in 2013, estimates researcher Frost & Sullivan. The supply of lab-grown stones will probably jump to 2 million carats in 2018 and 20 million by 2026. ... The manufactured variety accounts for about 5 percent of stones sold at the Gem Lab, a Rochester, New York jewelry store. A 1-carat synthetic diamond fetches about $6,000 there, compared with $10,000 for a similarly sized natural stone, according to Vice President Paul Cassarino. Singapore’s IIA Technologies, the biggest producer of lab-grown diamonds, is asking $23,000 for a 3.04-carat diamond it synthesized; a mined gem of similar size and quality would cost about $40,000.”
17) Could Alien Life Spread 'Like a Virus' to the Stars?
This article is a worthwhile read, even though most of it is speculation. Panspermia might be a process by which life spread throughout the cosmos but it doesn't say how life originally started. Besides, life emerged on Earth not long after the planet cooled enough to sustain it, so it may be the sort of thing which just happens, given the right conditions. This doesn't mean panspermia is an incorrect theory: when we discover life on Mars, Europa, or wherever, if it is biochemically similar to that on Earth the theory would definitely gain traction.
“As astronomical techniques become more advanced, a team of astrophysicists think they will be able to not only detect the signatures of alien life in exoplanetary atmospheres, but also track its relentless spread throughout the galaxy. The research, headed by Henry Lin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), assumes that this feat may be possible in a generation or so and that the hypothesis of panspermia may act as the delivery system for alien biology to hop from one star system to another. Panspermia is a process where life is somehow transplanted from planet to planet. This may happen should a planet, rich with life, be hit by a massive asteroid impact; pieces of that planet’s crust will be propelled into space and any life contained within those samples may be transplanted to another world. If these hardy lifeforms make the trip, then perhaps they can gain a foothold and seed life in this new environment.”
18) Mexico hands out free TVs to the poor in massive giveaway
This seems like an odd approach to the shift to digital TV but, setting aside the obvious potential underlying motivation was corruption, free TVs could stimulate consumer demand and has other benefits. The shift to digital typically drives a capital spending boom by broadcasters as they upgrade their studios, however, that is not always the case since you can simply take existing low quality content and broadcast it in the digital format.
“Cradling a flat-screen television set in her arms, Tomasa López beamed at her good fortune: She’d just taken part in the world’s biggest distribution of free digital televisions. López, a domestic servant, was among thousands of people who’ve thronged a cavernous tent in the populous working-class Iztapalapa district, one of hundreds of venues across Mexico where the poor are receiving some of the 10 million digital television sets the government is giving away at no charge. It’s a program costing the Mexican treasury $1.6 billion in a push to convert the nation from analog television signals to a digital format. The United States made the switch in 2009. “I am happy,” López said. “We’ve always wanted a digital television. We’ll see more channels. The kids will see cartoons.””
19) Why You Probably Don't Care About a Fuel Cell iPhone That Can Run for a Week
We read about fuel cell chargers ever now and then, and this provides somewhat of a reality check. The major problem is one of cost (they tend to be expensive) and the use of a proprietary fuel cartridge. Vendors love the idea because they get an annuity from use, however, that also means the unit is only useable where the cartridges are available and few vendors will stock cartridges for a system nobody owns. Its a classic chick and egg problem, complicated by both chicken and egg being made of gold. Regardless, I think a liquid fuel would be a better solution, especially if you don't need special cartridges.
“A smartphone powered by a fuel cell that can run for an entire week without recharging sounds absolutely amazing. The Telegraph is reporting that a British fuel cell company called Intelligent Energy has managed to stuff a fuel cell inside of an iPhone 6, allowing the phone to run for an entire week on a single charge. Sort of. As with anything that sounds absolutely amazing, it's not that simple, and the truth is likely not something that's worth getting excited about at all.”
20) Scientists replicated 100 recent psychology experiments. More than half of them failed.
The scales are beginning to fall from the eyes of scientists as they realize the overwhelming majority of published research in not reproducible. There are plenty of excuses for this this but it is more likely a direct consequence of the “publish or perish” dictum, which stresses quantity over quality. Unfortunately, this means most peer-reviewed research is essentially noise which actually confounds scientific progress. Of course this is particularly the case in psych research, which is known for its subjective interpretation of results, poor experimental design, and small sample size. (The worst I've ever seen is education research). Perhaps the time has come to flag research as “speculative” until it has been properly replicated. Thanks to my son Alfred for this item.
“"The results are more or less consistent with what we've seen in other fields," said Ivan Oransky, one of the founders of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific retractions. Still, he applauded the effort: "Because the authors worked with the original researchers and repeated the experiments, the paper is an example of the gold standard of replication." But Stanford's John Ioannidis, who famously penned a paper arguing that most published research findings are wrong, explained that exactly because it's the gold standard, the results might be a little too generous; in reality, the replication failure rate might be even higher. "I say this because the 100 assessed studies were all published in the best journals, so one would expect the quality of the research and the false rates to be higher if studies from all journals were assessed," 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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