The Geek's Reading List for the Week Ending June 24, 2016
By Brian Piccioni
SolarCity stock soars 15% on $2.8 billion Tesla bid; TSLA plunges
This made my week: setting aside the fact it demonstrates a complete lack of anything resembling corporate governance at Tesla (being as Musk is a major shareholder of both companies and relatives also have major holdings of Solar City) not even the most powerful hallucinogen could suggest the two companies – both are prodigious destroyers of capital – have anything in common besides increasingly imaginative “non-GAAP” financial presentation and a firm attachment to the taxpayer’s teat. There is no significant intellectual property or barriers to entry to either business and no reasonable prospects they will survive once investors stop giving them money to burn. Perhaps the view is that somehow investment banks, recognizing that a combined company will require even larger and more frequent injections of capital will offer a volume discount for share issues.
“Tesla Motors said on Tuesday it would bid $2.8 billion to buy SolarCity, sending the solar energy company's shares soaring. SolarCity shares popped more than 15 percent after-hours on the offer of $26.50 per share to $28.50 per share, while Tesla shares dropped as much as 10 percent, trading below $200 per share for the first time since March. SolarCity's controlling shareholder, Elon Musk, is also the CEO of electric car company Tesla. The two sets of shareholders will vote on the merger independent of Musk after a due diligence process, the Tesla CEO said.”
Microsoft Corporation Offers 'Refresh Windows 10 Tool' To Remove Bloatware
If you want to buy a Windows based laptop a direct purchase from Microsoft has been a pretty good choice: the prices are competitive and the systems have much less bloatware, unlike if you buy a Pc near anywhere else. There are third party bloatware removers and you can do a clean reinstall of Windows 10, but this tool would be a welcome solution for everybody but the bloatware vendors and the PC vendors they pay to install their garbage.
“Microsoft Corporation has been developing and testing a new tool to effectively allow users to remove all unnecessary software and bloatware on a system with a touch of a button. It is known as the Refresh Windows 10 Tool, also known as Start Fresh, and is expected to make its way to the next build of Windows 10. It is currently already available to users using preview builds as part of Microsoft’s Windows 10 Insider Program. The tool, however, is essentially a one-stop shop that offers the option to users to keep key files and personal data on the computer when it is being scrubbed clean, much like an actual installation of Windows would in prior versions. The tool is not only expected to help in the case of malware infecting a system, but is also going to be a key aspect of users getting the “Vanilla” Windows 10 experience.”
FCC lays out its big 5G push
Note that this story is not so much about 5G wireless as it is about opening up new spectrum in the near millimeter to millimeter bands (18GHz and up). That is useful for 5G but 5G can work in lower bands as well. The thing with new spectrum is that there is a lot of it and new techniques such as MIMO and beamforming help get around a lot of the challenges of going to higher carrier frequencies. Regardless, there is no scarcity of spectrum, except as manufactured by governments and the companies they license to.
“The FCC plans to use 200 MHz-wide chunks of high-band spectrum because, unlike lower frequencies, it can offer the gigabit per second throughput and sub-millisecond latency that 5G applications demand. 5G will usher in an Internet of Everything, Wheeler told the Press Club. "If something can be connected, it will be connected in a 5G world." Wheeler cited various remote operation scenarios, such as surgeons using VR to operate on patients hundreds of miles away, to illustrate the need for ultrafast wireless connectivity. He expects the commission's research to be completed and the proposal ready for a vote by July 14th. Should it be adopted, America would become the first nation on Earth to actively reserve frequency for 5G development.”
Google Fiber is buying high-speed internet provider Webpass to expand its reach in cities
This seems significant but it is hard to say. Webpass seems to be a tiny play and it isn’t exactly clear they have any proprietary expertise (pretty much anybody can buy the same equipment from the same suppliers). So it could just being a cash rich company helping out a friend (it happens) or a sign that Google is stepping up its game as an ISP. One thing of note is that the North American wired Internet business is largely absent meaningful competition so there is lots of potential money to be made if you offer an alternative. Unfortunately, corrupt regulators have erected legal barriers to protect incumbents so success is not assured.
“To take on the big internet service providers, Google Fiber is scooping up a small one. On Wednesday, Google Fiber announced plans to acquire Webpass, a high-speed, fiber internet provider serving five cities. The deal, should regulators approve it, would be the first acquisition for the broadband unit under Alphabet and another signal of its ambition to become a competitive national player in the industry. Google Fiber also made the deal to boost its efforts to deliver broadband internet wirelessly, an experimental tech it hopes will expand coverage at cheaper costs. Financial terms were not disclosed. Webpass, a San Francisco-based company founded in 2003, is privately held. It only shares that it has customers in the “tens of thousands.””
Self-driving cars to disrupt auto insurance industry
Yes, there will be some level of disruption but the transition to self-driving cars will only start in 15 to 20 years so there is no need to panic. Meanwhile advanced safety systems such as auto-brake should lead to a significant reduction in the frequency and severity of accidents. Even so, the reduction will be relative to the proportion of the fleet thus equipped and it will take about a decade before the effects become that material.
"It's sort of an incremental development on the road to where cars can actually drive themselves," said Robert Passmore, assistant vice-president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. That means insurance issues may initially grow more complex -- but possibly much simpler later on, when human-caused accidents mostly disappear. "This changes the basic assumptions under which insurance is written," said Edward Cohen, vice-president of government and industry relations at Honda, which tests driverless cars at the Concord Naval Weapons Station site. "If you're in a crashless world, or if the number of crashes is severely reduced through the use of technology ... that model would need to be re-evaluated."”
Toyota to build artificial intelligence-based driving systems in five years
AI sounds sort of scary but pretty much AI is how any advanced safety system is likely to work. What is interesting is that Toyota seems to have joined the pack of companies working toward autonomous vehicle development even though they recognize that much of the payoff will come as safety systems continue to improve, with full autonomy about 20 years off.
“Toyota Motor Corp is targeting developing in the next five years driver assistance systems that integrate artificial intelligence (AI) to improve vehicle safety, the head of its advanced research division said. Gill Pratt, CEO of recently set up Toyota Research Institute (TRI), the Japanese automaker's research and development company that focuses on AI, said it aims to improve car safety by enabling vehicles to anticipate and avoid potential accident situations. Toyota has said the institute will spend $1 billion over the next five years, as competition to develop self-driving cars intensifies.”
Self-driving tractors and data science: we visit a modern farm
Off-road autonomous vehicles in applications such as mining and farming are likely to become mainstream long before highway use as the payback is immediate. This article is more about GPS guidance and data accumulation than about “self-driving” tractors. It can be hard to exactly line up implements because they are so big so there is, by necessity, a lot of overlap when plowing, seeding, etc.. Simple GPS solutions can have a big impact on productivity and save fuel.
"The combine has load sensors in it that sense the volume of crop coming in, recording that as you go across the field," Rose said. That tells him how many bushels per acre each field is producing, data that gets fed into multi-year maps of each field that are color-coded to indicate different yields. "We take several years of data and make composite maps of a given field, then divide it into zones. You can manage those zones individually—taking soil samples to measure nutrient levels, and from there you know how much nutrients you need to apply in different areas," he told Ars. The next big thing after yield monitors was AutoTrac, which companies like John Deere have had in the market for quite a bit longer than the semi-autonomous cars starting to drive our roads. "We were solving a different problem than the autonomous car problem," explained Lane Arthur, Director of Information Solutions at John Deere. "Cars have to do with staying on the road and the right distance from other cars. In the John Deere world we focused on autonomous machines that are driving in a field. So the field has a boundary around it, and what path will it take in that field. We use GPS signals to drive the vehicle; the customer sets an A-B line which determines the path the vehicle takes."
Why Uber Keeps Raising Billions
This article reads like it was written by their investment bankers but I think we can cut to the chase: Uber raises money because it is in an inherently unprofitable business with zero likelihood of providing a return on investment, let alone a return of investment. At the same time, the investors hope enough lipstick can be slathered over the pig to make it to an IPO where they can unload their shares to unsuspecting rubes. But the bankers wouldn’t put that in an article.
“If you add up all the money Uber has raised since it started in 2009 — the idea was born when its founders became annoyed that they could not get a cab in Paris — the ride-hailing app company is on its way to amassing a colossal $15 billion. That’s real cash, not some funny-money, paper-based valuation. (That figure is $68 billion.) It has done all this while still managing to remain a private company, and its chief executive, Travis Kalanick, has insisted that a public offering is not coming soon. “I’m going to make sure it happens as late as possible,” he has repeatedly said.”
World’s Fastest Supercomputer Now Has Chinese Chip Technology
It seems quite clear that the Chinese government is keen on going upmarket in technology, much as the Japanese did in the 1970s and the Koreans in the 1980s. Their efforts to buy semiconductor companies has mostly been frustrated by US national security concerns but that should not be a major problem for them as they can build the industry up over a decade regardless. Since their near term objective is probably not profitability this could put pressure on pricing across the industry.
“In a threat to U.S. technology dominance, the world’s fastest supercomputer is powered by Chinese-designed semiconductors for the first time. It’s a breakthrough for China’s attempts to reduce dependence on imported technology. The Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer, located at the state-funded Chinese Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, is more than twice as powerful as the previous winner, according to TOP500, a research organization that compiles the rankings twice a year. The machine is powered by a SW26010 processor designed by Shanghai High Performance IC Design Center, TOP500 said Monday.”
Siemens says it can power unlimited-range electric trucks using a 150-year-old technology
Diesel engines are pretty efficient but they don’t do well in stop/start type traffic. That’s why it would make much better environmental sense to reserve HEV lanes for diesel trucks rather than cars with 2 or more people in them, but that would also be political suicide. In any event, unlike battery powered EVs this would probably make a lot of environmental sense and have a decent payback on the investment. Streetcars stop when they lose contact with the grid but these trucks would have relatively small batteries and could keep going until another connection could be established.
“The world’s cargo fleet is moving from fossil fuels to electrons. But powering them won’t be simple. With today’s technology, driving a semi-truck 500 miles (804 kilometers) would require a 23-ton lithium-ion battery, half the weight of the truck itself. Fuel cells would need a massive, $2 million hydrogen fuel tank to go the distance. Embedding wireless charging coils in roadbed would be expensive and inefficient. But an invention first deployed in 1870 to power trains and streetcars might be the perfect fit: catenary, overhead electrical wires commonly found around the world. The German engineering company Siemens, presenting at an electric vehicle conference in Montreal this month, argues it can power unlimited-distance electric trucks with intermittent overhead wires that provide enough energy for fast-moving, long-haul highway journeys.”
Creepy? Facebook now tracking you in stores
It’s only a matter of time before Facebook users are required to submit DNA samples and have a tracker implanted in their heads. I’ve never been a member and was only on LinkedIn long enough to figure out how to close my account, but I don’t see the attraction of the service, so that must make me biased. As for anonymity, well, good luck with that: assuming Facebook follows its usual pattern that will be removed and disabling it will be of such complexity nobody will be able to do it without a precise step by step guide.
“"Hello, welcome back to The Gap! How did those assorted tank tops work out for you?," an animated hologram shouts to Cruise's character as he enters. It sounded far-fetched ... until now. Ad exec Lauren Doyle, of Cincinnati's Wordsworth Communications, says Facebook's new tracking feature called "Local Awareness" is not sitting well with some people, especially older people. "For some generations, that's really uncomfortable," she said. Using your phone's location services, it targets users near a store, then tracks to see if you visit that business.”
Ad Blocking to Grow 34% This Year to Nearly 70 Million U.S. Web Users
You can’t do much to protect yourself from Facebook if you are a member but you can do something about the distraction, fraud, and malware associated with most online advertising as more and more people are figuring out. The root of this problem is not ad blocking but the fact the online advertising industry is the “Wild West”. Eventually they’ll figure out that they have to have some standards or people will simply block ads. Some web sites have responded by blocking access to ad block users but that is not much of a burden since even most media is derivative and somebody out there has the exact same content without an ad blocker.
“Publishers would love internet users to decide that, actually, they don't need to install an ad-blocker on their browser of choice. But a new report from research firm eMarketer suggested on Tuesday that there's no such hope on the horizon. U.S. internet users running ad blockers will grow this year to 69.8 million, or 26.3% of web users in the U.S., from 51.9 million, or 20%, last year, eMarketer said. In 2017, ad-blocking web surfers in the U.S. will total 86.6 million, or 32%.”
Computer science grads are playing it safe instead of trying to help build the next big thing
There is absolutely no reason why computer science graduates should be concerned about anything else but their own income. Building “the next big thing” is mostly an illusion entrepreneurs dangle in front of young developers to get them to work harder for less money. Less than 10% of startups survive for more than a few years and a tiny fraction of employees of those which do survive end up rich. The little money that ends up in the pockets of hardworking employees at successful startups is there only because the investors couldn’t contrive a scheme to keep that money for themselves.
“Harj Taggar, CEO of tech recruiting startup Triplebyte, says that taking risks is the only way for aspiring programmers to make it big. He asks all graduates one question: Do you want a 90% chance of earning $1.1 million at big tech firms or a 10% chance of earning $10 million at a smaller startup? “As a software engineer, you’ll always have the opportunity to make $1.1 million because there’ll always be a big company willing to hire you and pay a big salary,” Taggar told Quartz. “What you might not always have is the 10% opportunity, because it becomes harder to join an early stage startup—now we’re talking more like 1999 Google—as you become older.” Some to-be mammoths on Taggar’s list are Airbnb, Dropbox, Uber, and Stripe.”
Cryptocurrency raider takes $60 million in digital cash
What a shock! A new cryptocurrency, a new “theft”, except it isn’t really theft because there is no legal basis to prove ownership of cryptocurrency, let alone a legal basis to charge anybody. The idea that the currency will be modified so the “thief” won’t be able to use his ill-gotten gains is a sign of how arbitrary the whole this is to begin with.
“The kicker? People were convinced that the bug posed no risk to DAO funds just a few days prior. Clearly, that wasn't true. While the invader didn't get away scot-free, the breach has caused a lot of chaos. And while one person's claims that they legitimately took the funds is sketchy, Bloomberg notes that the code defining the smart contracts may have explicitly allowed this attack even if that's not what the DAO wanted. This may not be so much a hack as exploitation of poorly-defined terms, and there may not be a legal recourse. In short: basing an investment framework around code instead of human-made contracts may have been too optimistic.”
Taking the headphone jack off phones is user-hostile and stupid
Hey, if you want to pay 2 to 3x the going rate for a smart phone you aren’t going to get my sympathy when Apple decides you need an expensive adapter or expensive headphones to use it. Apple is in the business of fleecing its customers for whatever it can and a proprietary headphone is pretty much what you would expect. Whether or not it is good for the customers is the least of Apple’s concerns.
“Look, I know you’re going to tell me that the traditional TRS headphone jack is a billion years old and prone to failure and that life is about progress and whatever else you need to repeat deliriously into your bed of old HTC extUSB dongles and insane magnetic Palm adapters to sleep at night. But just face facts: ditching the headphone jack on phones makes them worse, in extremely obvious ways. Let’s count them!”
WSJ: iPhone 7 w/ similar design and removed headphone jack this fall, major changes next year
The first story I saw about this claimed Apple is going to a 3 year major product release cycle and I though “wow – so their phones will now be 2 – 3 years out of date rather than 1-2 years out of date”. This move is a good money saver for Apple as it means a lower R&D budget and it can continue selling out of date hardware for longer so its margins will stay high. The wild card will be customer loyalty: while there are true believers who won’t buy anything else, a lot of consumers are going to find it hard to justify paying a premium for an obsolete product. Time will tell whether loyalty wins out over rational economic behavior.
“iPhone 7 rumors have been notably tame this year, and that’s because the next-generation iPhone is widely expected to be a further revision to the iPhone 6 series and not a radically different design. The Wall Street Journal is the latest to report on Apple’s expected plans for the iPhone 7, describing a situation where the iPhone 7 closely resembles the iPhone 6s minus the headphone jack. WSJ reports that this will result in a thinner design that’s more water-resistant than current models.”
Supreme Court sends off patent troll that challenged review rules with an 8-0 slapdown
The case is pretty esoteric but the observation that patent trolls set bad precedent for patent licensing companies when they get to the Supreme Court is an important one. First, it shows that the pendulum has been swinging away from patent licensing companies and towards their targets (not all patent licensing companies are bad, and many targets are IP thieves). Second it is a signal to lower courts what will likely happen if a case gets to the Supreme Court. Most likely you’ll see fewer lower courts cases in favor of IP licensors and fewer appeals by licensors.
“Patent trolls don't fare well at the Supreme Court. When they show up, their cases tend to result in decisions that are ruinous for the profit margins of their industry. Two prominent examples: the 2006 eBay v. MercExchange case effectively ended trolls' abilities to get injunctions, and the 2014 Alice Corp. case made it far easier for patent defendants to invalidate abstract software patents. And yet, the cases keep coming. The most recent example is Cuozzo Speed Technologies LLC v. Lee, a case that was resolved earlier this week with an 8-0 opinion dismantling arguments presented by Cuozzo, a patent-holding entity controlled by two New York patent lawyers, Daniel Mitry and Timothy Salmon. The two attorneys own dozens of other patent shell companies through their consultancy, Empire IP.”
FAA Announces Commercial Drone Rules
These seem like pretty reasonable rules especially since a 55 pound drone falling from any height will kill or seriously injure somebody. Unless the FAA comes out with a special rule which allows delivery drones to kill people it should be clear that these rules make drone delivery service almost impossible since each drone would have to remain in sight of an operator.
“This week, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced new safety regulations for unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) that are conducting non-hobbyist operations. In other words, the pilots and drones shooting your wedding video, trailing a snowboarder to catch the best trick as seen from above, or taking aerial footage of the horse ranch for sale in the next county now have dictates to follow. … The FAA promised that sometime in the spring of this year, they’d announce a streamlined registration process for commercial sUAS. Technically, they missed spring by a couple days, but the new commercial drone rules are finally here. In short, if you’re making money with your drone—by taking pictures or videos with it or whatever—and it weighs less than 25 kg but more than 0.25 kg, these are the rules that with apply to you. They’re slightly different from the rules for recreational hobby drones, so it’s worth browsing what’s new …”
Gartner: Cloud will be the “default option” for software deployment by 2020
I find Gartner’s forecasts to be pretty useless but they are probably directionally correct on this one even if the time horizon is a bit optimistic. Many software vendors are going to “Software as a Service” which pretty much locks customers in to a perpetual license and that generally works off cloud based hardware. It also means things stop working once you lose Internet access. Similarly a lot of IT departments are going to be downsized as all their servers, etc., are pushed into the cloud. I don’t think it’s a good thing but it is the way things are headed.
“Researchers at Gartner are out this week with new predictions on what the infrastructure computing market will look like in the coming years. And they’re very bullish on the cloud. The combination of end users gaining comfort with using cloud services combined with vendors shifting to primarily offering software from the cloud means that cloud will be the dominate software deployment model within three and a half years. "Cloud will increasingly be the default option for software deployment,” says Jeffrey Mann, research vice president at Gartner, who adds that even custom-designed software that once used to be housed primarily on customers’ premises is moving to the cloud.”
Jake Dyson invents light bulb that lasts 37 years
I associate the brand name Dyson with expensive, unreliable, and overhyped garbage. That is not being fair to the son, I admit, however what we have here is a slightly improved heatsink where a cheaper solution would simply be to replace the LED every 10 to 20 years. After all an LED lamp is likely to go out of style long before the LED stops working.
“Well, it takes just one engineer to change a light bulb. Jake Dyson is on a mission to revolutionise the lighting industry in the way his father, James Dyson, turned the vacuum cleaner sector on his head. The apple did not fall far from the tree, and Jake Dyson too is putting innovation and superior engineering at the heart of his new lighting product line. LEDs are theoretically built to deliver impressive life spans but in typical lighting fixtures, inadequate cooling takes the junction temperature to 130 degC. This damages the phosphorous coating thus delivering progressively poorer light over time - and the hotter they run, the faster they die. To solve this problem, Dyson looked beyond heatsinks and traditional cooling systems and at the way heatpipes are used to cool microprocessors and components in satellites.”
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.
Bring back OCRI
By Tony Patterson
If you’re not a part of Ottawa’s technology community you probably haven’t noticed that Ottawa doesn’t have a technology community any more. It used to have one called Silicon Valley North.
It’s a bit odd because companies founded on technology create more jobs in Ottawa than anything except the federal government, just like when there was a Silicon Valley North back at the end of last century. There are lots of leaders in Ottawa leading tech companies. They just don’t make up a community any longer. The one they used to have, stirred by a dynamo called OCRI, was dismembered five years ago.
That’s when the city created Invest Ottawa (I/O).They don’t talk technology so much at I/O. It’s “knowledge-based business” they’re concerned with, which when you get down to it is just about any business. As I/O’s first chief famously said, "If you get off the bus in Ottawa and say, ‘I want to start a barbershop,' we'll help you out." The city would fund I/O at $3.6 million annually. Tech of course would be included in its mandate but there would no longer be members. Networking events were sharply curtailed.
Born in the 1980s, supported by tech company members, OCRI was the heart of a tech community that grew to be known around the world as Silicon Valley North. For decades it was the builder of networks, applauding success, featuring leaders, encouraging mentors, facilitating partnerships and doing a wide range of things to bring people together and encourage cooperation and interchange. Monthly breakfast meetings for hundreds were held at the Corel Centre. Educational and networking events from Kanata to downtown were common. There was even a time when pre-competitive, commercial, joint research projects were managed (OCRI was originally the Ottawa Carleton Research Institute, later the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation).
OCRI inspired and was model for a number of tech sector growth engines, not least Communitech in Waterloo, which today is the strongest backstop that city has to counteract the implosion of Blackberry, which has cascaded during the past five years from 20,000 employees and $20 billion in sales to 6,000 employees and just over $3 billion in sales.
Blackberry’s collapse has been a catastrophe for Waterloo (pop.<100,000), a crippling blow to its economic mainstay. That’s the reality. But the perception is quite different. Serious champions from government and industry loudly proclaim Waterloo’s praises. Constant communiqués from Communitech accentuate the positive. One of the country’s most powerful communications and government relations firms has been brought on board. As Jeffrey Dale wrote in an article in OBJ (April 25, 2016), “Communitech and its supporters have a clear plan to develop the Toronto-Waterloo corridor and are executing it brilliantly.”
The campaign to create/brand a Toronto-Waterloo tech corridor is increasingly finding its way into media references. Some headlines:
How to make the Toronto-Waterloo corridor into a world-leading innovation centre, by Kevin Lynch (former Clerk of the Privy Council) and Iain Klugman (CEO of Communitech), Globe and Mail
Toronto-Waterloo Corridor the Star as California VCs get Taste of TIFF, TechVibes
Toronto-Waterloo corridor poised to become Canada's 'innovation super ecosystem', Report on Ontario Investment (Government publication)
Toronto-Waterloo corridor could be Canada’s own Silicon Valley, Iain Klugman and Kevin Lynch, G&M
If this becomes the common perception, it must have negative impact eventually on support for tech development, skills education, job creation and venture capital placement elsewhere, not least in Ottawa.
“Waterloo companies know the plan, they know the numbers, they know their priorities and they can speak knowledgeably about them to anyone who asks,” says Dale. He knows whereof he speaks. He was a long serving executive director of OCRI. There are close to 70,000 technology workers in Ottawa, 1,700 tech companies and leading-edge capabilities in aerospace and defence, telecommunications, clean tech, photonics, ecommerce and life sciences. But Ottawa’s tech leaders are not primed the way they once were to talk the talk.
It’s a bloody shame. Not only that, it’s economic suicide. Far and away the most support for technology in Canada, as in the United States and every other industrialized country, comes from government. Government puts its resources where it believes it will get the most bang for its bucks. If government comes to believe, as the prime minister of Canada and premier of Ontario have recently indicated they do, that the hot spot for Ontario tech is Waterloo, then that’s where bureaucrats will be looking first to dispense grants, loans and subsidies of all colours.
Or as Jeff Dale writes, “Ottawa had better get its act together soon or any new federal funding for technology clusters in Ontario will be going to Toronto and Waterloo, with the full support of Queen’s Park.”
The city of Ottawa’s lack of leadership and support for tech, lack of political leadership, lack of support by the responsible authority, has left a sector in disarray at precisely the moment when the cup of technology, largely drained by the Harper government, is ready for a top up. But the way the table is being set, Ottawa will get a sip only after Waterloo drinks its fill.
Tony Patterson was publisher of Silicon Valley North from 1995-2000 and has been connected with Ottawa’s tech sector one way and another since the 1970s.
Strongest bank in the west isn't a bank. It's a co-op.
UPDATE Nov. 13, 2015: To no-one's surprise, Monique Leroux was elected today as president of the International Co-operative Alliance at its global conference in Antalya, Turkey, the first Canadian and second woman to hold the post.
There are three things maybe you don’t know about the strongest bank in the west. It’s Canadian. Its CEO is a woman. And it’s not a bank.
It’s not so surprising that it’s Canadian. As Bloomberg notes, Canada “dominated the 2012 ranking . . . and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce is the only North American bank to appear in the ranking” for five years running. But CIBC is ranked only 18th this year (based on 2014 results). Desjardins Group is 5th, stronger than all others in North America and Europe, outranked only by four banks in money pits Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Saud Arabia.
Nor is it so unusual for there to be a boss lady. The very strongest bank in the world, according to Bloomberg, is Hong Kong’s Hang Sheng Bank, which is run by 62-year-old Rose Lee. Rose is just a year older than Desjardins Group’s Monique Leroux.
But Desjardins Group is unique among the world’s strongest banks in that it isn’t a bank at all. It is a caisse populaire, comme on dit au Québec, which is the same thing as a credit union anywhere else. Quite distinct from commercial banks, credit unions are part of the co-operative sector of the economy. And therein hangs a tale that, if the stars are properly aligned, is about to carry Ms. Leroux to the apex of co-operatives as president of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA).
Monique Leroux would be rara avis in any culture. Fluently bilingual, awesomely intelligent, beautifully chic, she has played Desjardins to center stage of the co-operative world with the fierce determination of a born competitor and the grace and skill of the concert pianist she trained to be, before opting for accounting as a profession. Since she took over in 2008, Desjardins Group's annual income has grown from $8 billion to more than $15 billion and assets from $150 billion to $230 billion. Prior to joining Desjardins, she had been a senior vice-president at the Royal Bank of Canada and before that managing partner at Ernst & Young, in charge of corporate and large business sectors.
Ms. Leroux (left in photo) is the only woman among four candidates for the top job at ICA, succeeding Dame Pauline Green (right) of the U.K., who is the first woman ever to head the 130-year old organization. Dame Green’s main claim to fame was the International Year of Cooperatives proclaimed by the United Nations in 2012. ICY gave the co-operative sector, which is enormous and pervasive but feels greatly underappreciated, an unprecedented boost in global self-esteem.
It was ICY also that brought Ms. Leroux to international prominence. She created the International Summit of Cooperatives in October 2012 in Quebec City. The meeting would show the world that co-operatives can work for both people and profit. It wasn’t going to be just another conference, she vowed, “It has to be not just good, but emotionally positive – there has to be a taste to come back.” In the event it drew more than 3,000 participants to an extravaganza of Hilton light and sound in the ambiance of old Quebec that cost an estimated $10 million and was universally judged a spectacular success. Ms. Leroux and Dame Green made a joint presentation of a statement from the Quebec Summit to the U.N. at a ceremony in New York to conclude ICY. Costs were recovered to some extent from sponsorships and participation fees but a substantial deficit was covered by Desjardins.
In the Canadian context, this was a massive commitment. To put $10 million in perspective, Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC), the apex of Canada’s co-op sector, and its predecessor the Canadian Co-operative Association, operated on the same $2 million annual budget for a decade.
It was evident that the Quebec Summit had a ring to it and could grow to mean something significant within the global cooperative movement. A successful second Summit had potential to develop into a Davos-like forum for co-ops in Quebec City, the historic birthplace of Canada and across the St. Lawrence from Lévis, where the credit union movement had its start in North America at the home of Alphonse Desjardins, co-founder with his wife, Dorimène Roy Desjardins, of the company that bears their name.
The Davos allusion was advanced by Ms. Leroux herself who hasn’t forgotten where she comes from. Apart from numerous other public and co-op tasks, she sits on a council of the World Economic Forum (Davos by its official name), is a member of the Trilateral Commission and is one of just two co-op CEOs on the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
Though it might be characterized as a blowout for the co-operative elite who can afford the $1,700 entrance ticket, let alone travel and hotel costs, the second Quebec Summit in October 2014 once again attracted over 3,000 participants from more than 90 countries. A Quebec Summit Declaration signed by Ms. Leroux and Dame Green (ICA is nominally a co-sponsor) was presented to the G20 Leaders' Summit in November 2014. Close observers estimate the overall cost of this edition at $13 million. The extent of the shortfall is unknown outside Desjardins.
Naturally the municipality, which is also the provincial capital, has an interest in the event. Most of those millions are spent in Quebec City, plus hundreds of thousands more by 3,000 visiting shoppers. The province stepped up with $1 million to defray costs for the first Summit. The extent of its contribution to the second is not known.
ICA is an important co-sponsor for the Quebec Summit. It bestows credibility and access, reaching into every corner of the world to potential paying guests at the Summit. But ICA hasn’t any money of its own. In fact the post that Ms. Leroux is reaching for, “historically has been self-funded and the ICA president was required to attract independent or host country funding for travel, any support staff, and any honorariums.” Based in Geneva, custodian of the seven principles of co-operation, the office employs less monetary clout than moral suasion. But it is solidly grounded in the real world of economics and politics. ICA’s president speaks for enterprises worldwide that employ 250 million people. The 300 largest co-ops alone generate US$2.2 trillion in revenue annually.
(A request to CMC, official Canadian member of ICA and ostensibly the nominator of Ms. Leroux, for information about how these expenses are to be covered if she is successful, had not been answered by post time.)
The third edition of the Quebec Summit, now described in the literature as a “bi-annual event and a central organizing force in the international co-operative movement” will be held October 11-13, 2016. Desjardins and ICA have jointly announced this. But by then Dame Pauline Green will be retired from the field. And Monique Leroux? One thing only is known for certain. She won’t be running Desjardins in 2016. The company’s bylaws don’t allow for more than two terms and her second is up.
In its unwavering and substantial support for the Quebec Summit, Desjardins has been doing a community service by promoting the business opportunities of co-ops. It also gains momentum as a mover and shaker in the world of co-ops. It’s a great combination. And for now, guided by the sure-handed Ms. Leroux, it’s a sound business decision to backstop the Summit. That may not be the case forever; who knows what might happen if both prime movers were to leave the scene simultaneously?
If she doesn’t take over ICA, Ms. Leroux could go anywhere, she’s that rare and valuable. She could even be, God forbid, lost to co-ops. So it’s nothing less than providential that Dame Green decided to resign, even though her mandate had another two years to run, just as Ms. Leroux had to move along. The election will take place at the ICA AGM in Turkey on Friday the thirteenth of November 2015.
Quebec City holds its breath.
It can be so again
By Tony Patterson
UPDATE Oct. 1: Shopify announces it will open a development centre in Waterloo, hiring 300 to start.
Ottawa was the tech capital of Canada in the last quarter of the 20th century and it can be so again.
Ottawa was a world capital for telecom in the last quarter of the 20th century, and it can be so again.
We did it once. We know how. We can do it again. The talent pool is deep. Most of the pillars are still firmly in place. The government is here, the biggest spender on science and tech in Canada by country miles (not unlike the U.S.). Two universities are still churning out engineers. The most sophisticated (by which I mean expensive) equipment is housed here. There are more than fifteen hundred technology firms here, about the same number there were in the halcyon days.
But where are the cheerleaders for technology among our here-and-now political and business leaders? We used to be proud to call ourselves Silicon Valley North. It isn’t appropriate any more and in fact was always a narrow label for a community that includes biotech, life sciences and medical devices, clean tech, aerospace, defence and security, as well as digital media, software and chip-based telecom products. But we wore it proudly for a time and we were recognized around the globe. Jim Balsillie said that “Ottawa was the worst hit city in the world” by the tech bubble collapse at the turn of the millennium. But our hurt was proportional to our achievement. Some of the most advanced work of the era was done here and companies that could bestride international markets were built here. They didn’t last and that story has yet to be told nor blame allocated because quite clearly, at least in the case of Nortel, the cruel ending was thoroughly preventable.
John Diefenbaker said upon one of the defeats that are the common lot of politicians (he was quoting a Scottish privateer), “I am wounded but I am not slain; I’ll lay me down and rest a while and then I’ll rise to fight again.” It’s a quote that fits Ottawa as well. We took a hard body blow. We’ve rested fifteen years. It’s time to start fighting again. How about a three part strategy.
The first thing to do is to rally the troops. The Mayor, the Ministers, the Councillors and the Grandees at the Chamber and I/O might resurrect their enthusiasm for a sector that still employs more of us than anyone else but government and start to speak of the glorious then, dynamic now and brilliant to-come of Ottawa tech.
Second, pay attention to the competition. Watch out for the poaching of strays. Have you noticed that Ottawa’s current, some say only, tech star is taking his show to Waterloo? Here’s how Communitech describes the coup, “Shopify founder Tobias Lütke makes his first visit to our hometown in a public appearance more uncommon than ice cubes on a hot skillet. (We’re not kidding.)” And they aren’t kidding. How often is publicity-shy Tobi (downright below) seen in public in Ottawa? When Shopify is featured locally, the oleaginous Harley Finkelstein is generally delegated. Communitech was designed in acknowledged admiration of OCRI, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation of fond memory, sadly deceased. Communitech carries the spear for technology in Waterloo that has been blunted here by Invest Ottawa (I/O) trying to be all things to all businesses.
Third, let’s share the enthusiasm of a revival. Ottawa isn’t a tech solitude. We’re a link along a corridor of technology.
Way back when, all the talk along the length of the Ontario Technology Corridor was of JDSUniphase and Nortel, both ablaze in Ottawa. Then came RIM and OpenText, both in Waterloo. Now Shopify brings some luminescence back to the capital. For half a century, Ottawa’s National Research Council, with a Nobel and other international prizewinners on staff and more prizes than their cases can display, including an Academy Award, carried the flag for Canada’s science and tech smarts. Today it’s Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute that captures global imagination as a new knowledge heavyweight that can attract Stephen Hawking, the best known physicist since Einstein, as visiting scholar.
When the lights dim at one end of the corridor, they brighten at another.
And the GTA keeps pumping at the heart of a mega-region that boasts more than 250,000 tech workers, 6,000 tech companies and 30 colleges and universities brimming with tech talent for today and tomorrow. Toronto is where insulin was first imagined and made, where the electron microscope was developed, where there is the largest medical and biotech cluster of any metropolitan area in North America and the third largest concentration of private ICT companies after San Francisco and New York.
No place along the Ontario Technology Corridor is distant from any other. All are connected not only by the ubiquitous electronic highway but also by a physical network of trains, planes and autoroutes. Engineers, geeks and academics in one locality know their counterparts along the corridor. Companies of size often have operations in two or more campuses along the corridor. With homes in both Waterloo and Ottawa, RIM is also in Mississauga and OpenText in Richmond Hill and Kingston.
But here’s the rub. The elite of Waterloo, currently in a dominant position, see the corridor not nearly as extensive. It stretches, they will say, from where they are to Toronto. The Toronto-Waterloo Corridor is much talked about, or the Waterloo-Toronto Corridor.
Mark Barrenechea writes in the Globe and Mail (May 16, 2014), “California’s Highway 101 stretches 95 kilometres between San Francisco and San Jose, connecting small and large technology companies, students, innovators and venture capitalists. Nestled around Highway 101 is the largest innovation corridor in the world – Silicon Valley.
“Similarly, Ontario’s tree-lined Highway 401 stretches 115 kilometres between Toronto and Waterloo, also connecting small and large technology companies, students, innovators and venture capitalists. Last year, this Ontario corridor surpassed all other cities and regions and became the world’s second largest innovation corridor. It is the Silicon Valley of the North.
“In my 25 years in technology, I have traveled both valleys end-to-end and the similarities between the two corridors are more striking than their differences.”
Mark is the CEO of OpenText. There’s no doubt that he reflects the views of other senior tech executives in Waterloo. Their corridor extends no further than Toronto. This is an idea we have to cut short. There is a government-sponsored Ontario Technology Corridor but it doesn’t have anything to do with collaboration or entrepreneurship. It’s set up to attract foreign enterprise to the province, a noble pursuit but not at the core of innovation.
An inclusive Ontario tech corridor embraces all, is non-threatening to any and, with its stretch and size and strength, is inherently more stable and has great potential as a tool for branding, international marketing and improving connection and collaboration among all the tech clusters from Ottawa (even Cornwall) to London (even Windsor).
Ontario must celebrate its technology corridor, which is a reality even if few people know it. Ottawa must celebrate its tech sector, which is still here and once again on the cusp of greatness. And the Ontario tech corridor must be stretched full length, not stunted at Toronto-Waterloo.
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.
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