The Geek’s Reading List for the week ending November 27, 2015
By Brian Piccioni
1) Moore’s law and the productivity paradox
The productivity paradox is observation that investment in computer technology leads to lower productivity. On the face of it I don’t see the problem: quality of life is the best it has ever been and virtually every part of a modern economy exploits computing technology. This may simply be correlation, but it is almost certainly causation. Perhaps economists are measuring the wrong things, or maybe the fact that technology is almost by definition deflationary is somehow an import aspect of the purported paradox.
“It’s a fascinating topic that happens to animate a significant portion of my new paper on the 50th anniversary of Moore’s law, which surveys the past and prospects of exponential computer trends. While I don’t address the macroeconomic factors or implications, I do look at the mismeasurement question, pointing toward Steve Oliner’s good work on microprocessor prices as a prime example of what is likely a much more pervasive and multifaceted measurement challenge. It turns out, for example, that the price of computer power, as measured by the producer price index, might be overstated by a factor of 27.”
2) Apple Will Switch To OLED For iPhone Displays: Report
This rumor sort of shows what Apple has become: if true, the iPhone 8 may have the same display technology companies like Samsung and LG (as well as numerous other firms) have today. The real implications are even more disturbing: if true, in 2018 we’ll see all kinds of ads and articles (which are mostly ads) trumpeting how Apple is the first to bring OLED to market, and how Apple’s new display is the best display anybody has ever seen. Perhaps by then the rest of the market will be on to quantum dot displays …
“Apple will adopt organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays on iPhones starting in 2018, according to a Japan-based report. Apple will make the switch from liquid crystal display (LCD) technology, currently used on iPhones, to OLED, leaning on manufacturers such as LG Display, according to a report from Nikkei. (Nikkei Asian Review report here.) If accurate, Apple would be following companies like Samsung and LG that already use OLED widely on their phones as well as other products.”
3) Li-Fi has just been tested in the real world, and it's 100 times faster than Wi-Fi
This is obviously a line of sight technology and smartphones in particular tend to not be held in plain sight all the time so you would lose your mail, etc., when your phone was in your pocket. Also, wiring isn’t going to be inexpensive: each LiFi node will require a broadband link + power. Unlike WiFi, which goes through walls, you’ll need a lot of LiFi access points. Cat-6 wiring isn’t cheap even when your home has been set up for it as mine has, and retrofitting ceiling connections can be very challenging, even in offices with suspended ceilings.
“Expect to hear a whole lot more about Li-Fi - a wireless technology that transmits high-speed data using visible light communication (VLC) - in the coming months. With scientists achieving speeds of 224 gigabits per second in the lab using Li-Fi earlier this year, the potential for this technology to change everything about the way we use the Internet is huge. And now, scientists have taken Li-Fi out of the lab for the first time, trialling it in offices and industrial environments in Tallinn, Estonia, reporting that they can achieve data transmission at 1 GB per second - that's 100 times faster than current average Wi-Fi speeds.”
4) University of Glasgow researchers make graphene production breakthrough
As near as I can tell what these researchers have done is move graphene production from copper plates to copper foil, and since copper foil has a fraction of the thickness of plates, it costs a lot less. The article does not explain why the cost of the copper is so important since this would be capital cost, not production cost unless the copper is somehow used up. Perhaps a “web” based production scheme like they use to make paper is the next big leap.
“Researchers at the University of Glasgow have now found a way to produce large sheets of graphene using the same cheap type of copper used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries found in many household devices. In a new paper published today (Wednesday 18 November) in the journal Scientific Reports, a team led by Dr Ravinder Dahiya explain how they have been able to produce large-area graphene around 100 times cheaper than ever before. Graphene is often produced by a process known as chemical vapour deposition, or CVD, which turns gaseous reactants into a film of graphene on a special surface known as a substrate.”
5) India's poverty rate falls to 12.4%, electricity plays big role
This is an interesting overview of the effect of technology on standards of living. Of course, those of us in the developed world don’t consider electricity to be technology but it was when our grandparents first had access to it. As this study suggests, even limited access to electricity even part of the day has a measurable impact on the lives of the poor. Even if a particular family lacks direct access to electricity local vendors can offer charging stations for portable gadgets such as mobile phones and availability of electricity makes the deployment of mobile services much more cost effective.
“The World Bank said improved infrastructure, specifically rural electrification, has had far-ranging effects, changed earnings, consumption and even encouraged schooling for girls. “Rural electrification in India has caused changes in consumption and earnings, with increases in the labour supply of both men and women, and promoted girls’ schooling by reallocating their time to tasks more conducive to school attendance,” said the Bank. “Investment in integration and connectedness through railroads in India helped reduce the exposure of agricultural prices and real income to rainfall shocks, and helped diminish the famine and mortality risks associated with recurrent weather shocks.””
6) Don't forget plankton in climate change models, says study
I chuckled when I read this article and I can almost see the authors being shunned at drink ups. The conclusion is pretty much what you would expect: life is resilient and plants and critters which have been around for hundreds of millions of years are not likely to be prone to extinction due to shifts in their environment. In this particular case, they adapted to a rise in temperature within 45 days, or less than the lifespan of most of the animals which eat them. The thing to remember with phytoplankton is that many of them sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die, removing carbon from the environment for thousands or millions of years. It is basically a carbon sequestration scheme on a massive scale, but, unlike most industrial efforts, it actually works.
“A new study from the University of Exeter, published in the journal Ecology Letters, found that phytoplankton - microscopic water-borne plants - can rapidly evolve tolerance to elevated water temperatures. Globally, phytoplankton absorb as much carbon dioxide as tropical rainforests and so understanding the way they respond to a warming climate is crucial. Phytoplankton subjected to warmed water initially failed to thrive but it took only 45 days, or 100 generations, for them to evolve tolerance to temperatures expected by the end of the century. With their newfound tolerance came an increase in the efficiency in which they were able to convert carbon dioxide into new biomass.”
7) Tesla accused of trying to circumvent Danish tax
I came across this item while reading an article on Der Spiegel about how Kia was gaming German environmental laws with EVs sales (no – I don’t read German I used Google translate). This is not at all surprising as EV sales exist because of politically motivated subsidies, tax credits, etc., and not because they are particularly good for the environment, especially when put into context with alternative uses of tax money. As we reported earlier, the Danish government has rethought its position on the matter and decided subsidizing EVs for rich people might not be the best use of taxpayer money. Predictably, Tesla appears to have decided to game the situation and registered a number of vehicles prior to the tax change. This, of course, raises the question of how this “sale” is treated – since Tesla claims not to have inventory the cars cannot exist, and yet, if they are registered will those fictitious sales make it into their quarterly results?
“The registration of 2,500 luxury electric cars over the past few weeks has led Tax Minister Karsten Lauritzen to suspect extensive tax fraud by electric car manufacturer Tesla. Speaking to DR, the minister said that "2,500 electric cars, most likely Teslas, have been registered, and it seems that it is a circumvention of the tax exemption on electric cars". Lauritzen announced last month that Denmark will be phasing out its tax credit on electric cars, which exempts the environmentally-friendly vehicles from the nation's 180 percent car registration levy. As a result, the costs of some popular electric models will skyrocket. The hardest hit will be the luxury model Tesla S P85D, which will more than double in price from 875,000 kroner today to 1,807,100 kroner in 2020.”
8) Self-Driving Cars: A Coming Congestion Disaster?
Leave it to the environmental movement to find a negative in every technological advance. The theory here is that people who own self-driving cars will be complete idiots so imagine the problems that will cause! Forget about the lives save from few collisions or the greater quality of life for the aged and infirm, somebody might have his car orbit his location because it can’t find parking!
“A suburban father rides his driverless car to work, maybe dropping his daughter off at school. But rather than park the car downtown, he simply tells it to drive back home to his house in the suburbs. During the day, it runs some other errands for his family. At 3 pm, it goes to the school to bring his daughter home or chauffeur her to after-school activities. Then it's time for it to drive back into the city to pick up Dad from work. But then, on a lark, Dad decides to go shopping at a downtown department store after work, so he tells his car to just circle the block for an hour while he shops, before finally hailing it to go home.”
9) Are mini-nuclear reactors the answer to the climate change crisis?
The answer is “nuclear power, in general is an ideal source of clean power and it is a pity people’s fears of the technology are based on experiences associated with antique first generation power plants.” Unfortunately, radical pseudo-environmentalism has opposed nuclear power at every opportunity and have exploited those few failures to terrify people. Current reactor designs are to Chernobyl and Fukushima as modern airliners are to pre-WWII aircraft and it is anti-nuclear propaganda which keeps extending the lives of old generation reactors and restricting adoption of new, safe designs. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.
“Small modular reactors (SMRs) aim to capture the advantages of nuclear power – always-on, low-carbon energy – while avoiding the problems, principally the vast cost and time taken to build huge plants. Current plants, such as the planned French-Chinese Hinkley Point project in Somerset, have to be built on-site, a task likened to “building a cathedral within a cathedral”. Instead, SMRs, would be turned out by the dozen in a factory, then transported to sites and plugged in, making them – in theory – cheaper. Companies around the world, including in Russia, South Korea and Argentina, are now trying to turn that theory into practice and many are looking at the nuclear-friendly UK as the place to make it happen.”
10) Uber-pressed London black cabs will finally accept cards, from late next year
I don’t consider Uber to be a technology company however I am an avid user of their service especially in cities where cabs are scarce and unreliable. Given the preparation London cabbies require to pass “the knowledge” I can see why they consider competition from some guy with a GPS unfair. Either way, it seems pretty silly that it took the rise of Uber to change this basic feature of the black cab service. As you might expect, it won’t happen soon and customers will be required to pay for it through increased fares. It sort of shows you how out of touch and uncompetitive the cab industry is in London.
“It has taken the massive pressure of Uber’s popularity in the capital to bring about a fundamental change in London’s black cabs that most of us believed should have taken place sometime in the 1990s, at latest – but in any case, from next year, increasingly cashless Londoners will finally be able to pay black cab taxi fares by credit or debit cards, including contactless payment and the possibility of paying for journeys via PayPal. However Transport for London’s announcement also reveals that the expense of bringing London’s fleet of 21,000 licensed Hackney carriages all the way up to the 20th century will put 20p on the minimum fare chargeable, which will rise from its current £2.40 to £2.60. Notwithstanding this buffer to black cab income, TFL has succeeded in negotiating a reduction in credit card transaction fees for this scheme, to three per cent or less, rather than a ceiling of ten per cent.”
11) ‘Outsiders’ Crack 50-Year-Old Math Problem
Maths has become incredibly esoteric, as most mathematicians will admit. This particular problem appears to have significant real world applications and yet has defied solution until now. It is remarkable that an outsider was able to solve the problem, but that might reflect one of problems in math itself: as the field gets more and more advanced, the experts become more and more specialized and therefore their approach problems is constrained whereas an outsider can approach the question from an entirely different perspective and make progress. Of course, this is a rare outcome.
“In 2008, Daniel Spielman told his Yale University colleague Gil Kalai about a computer science problem he was working on, concerning how to “sparsify” a network so that it has fewer connections between nodes but still preserves the essential features of the original network. Network sparsification has applications in data compression and efficient computation, but Spielman’s particular problem suggested something different to Kalai. It seemed connected to the famous Kadison-Singer problem, a question about the foundations of quantum physics that had remained unsolved for almost 50 years. Over the decades, the Kadison-Singer problem had wormed its way into a dozen distant areas of mathematics and engineering, but no one seemed to be able to crack it. The question “defied the best efforts of some of the most talented mathematicians of the last 50 years,” wrote Peter Casazza and Janet Tremain of the University of Missouri in Columbia, in a 2014 survey article.”
12) Axel Springer Goes After iOS 9 Ad Blockers In New Legal Battle
Talk about tilting and windmills. Besides embarrassing themselves, it is hard to imagine they can convince anybody, let alone a judge, that they have a working legal theory for their position. To begin with, ads are almost always inserted by third parties (i.e. Google) without any input from the publication so it is hard to believe the publication can claim some sort of freedom of expression – in other words, can you argue freedom of expression by proxy? Similarly, there has been no mechanism found to force people to look at ads in print: I typically discard all advertising inserts, plus advertorial content (sports, travel, home) sections of a newspaper before I even look at the first page. Should I be fined?
“German media giant Axel Springer, which operates top European newspapers like Bild and Die Welt, and who recently bought a controlling stake in Business Insider for $343 million, has a history of fighting back against ad-blocking software that threatens its publications’ business models. Now, it’s taking that fight to mobile ad blockers, too. According to the makers of the iOS content blocker dubbed “Blockr,” which is one of several new iOS 9 applications that allow users to block ads and other content that slows down web browsing, Axel Springer’s WELTN24 subsidiary took them to court in an attempt to stop the development and distribution of the Blockr software. Specifically, explains the law firm representing Blockr, Axel Springer wanted to prohibit Blockr’s developers from being able to “offer, advertise, maintain and distribute the service” which can be used today to block ads on http://www.welt.de, including the website’s mobile version.”
13) Yahoo Mail Tried to Block Ad Blockers, And it Might Have Backfired
I was shocked to find out that people still use Yahoo for things and doubly shocked to discover people still use webmail. After all, almost any mail client will allow you to access webmail without using the web interface. In any event, this was supposed to have been an experiment, but it probably became an experiment when people pushed back against the effort. It sort of shows how out of touch Yahoo is: anybody using an adblocker is almost certainly sophisticated enough to use a different mail provider. Regardless, you don’t make money by showing ads on your mail web page: you make money by reading people’s emails and pushing ads at them (they aren’t spam, really) through their mail client.
“Some people who logged into their Yahoo Mail accounts last week were greeted with an ultimatum: “Please disable Ad Blocker to continue using Yahoo Mail.” These users were unable to access their email accounts until they turned off their ad blockers or found a workaround for the problem. The message is not a new policy, but was part of a trial, a Yahoo spokesman told Engadget over the weekend. A “small number” of Yahoo Mail users were prevented from accessing their email accounts because Yahoo detected they had an ad blocker installed on their computer. The message was most likely a result from an A/B test, a technique in which technology companies push changes to a small number of people to gauge user reaction before deploying them widely.”
14) Raspberry Pi Zero $5 computer unveiled
This may be a bit too much “inside baseball” for some readers but it shows the price of things. Hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t ask me about the “huge” opportunity in Internet of Things (IoT). Well, in theory, there are lots of things it would be nice to connect to the Internet if it weren’t for the massive security risk (see item 15) and set up challenges however the dollars aren’t going to be there. This is a full up IoT style computer, on a PCB, for $5 – except for the fact it lacks an actual direct connection to the Internet. My point is simply that while the potential unit sales of IoT devices is high, the actual dollar contribution is going to be quite modest.
“Buying the cheapest computer in the world is now cheaper than buying your lunch. The Raspberry Pi Zero is on sale for $5 US ($6.65 Cdn) from the U.K.-based Raspberry Pi Foundation. The educational charity's goal is to get children more interested in programming by giving them a cheap, simple computer so they can experiment.”
15) More than 900 embedded devices share hard-coded certs, SSH host keys
One of the major challenges of Internet of Things (IoT) will surely be security. As this article suggests, embedded device manufacturers appear to be lax with respect to their use of SSH host keys which makes their respective devices highly vulnerable to hacking. The list includes the names of numerous well known tech companies so you can just imagine what assort of security a thermostat company is going to use. The risk is not that some hacker in Poland changes your thermostat setting it is that he/she downloads malware which sits inside your network and monitors traffic for banking information, passwords, etc.
“Embedded devices of some 50 manufacturers has been found sharing the same hard-coded X.509 certificates (for HTTPS) and SSH host keys, a fact that can be exploited by a remote, unauthenticated attacker to carry out impersonation, man-in-the-middle, or passive decryption attacks, Carnegie Mellon University's CERT/CC warns. Stefan Viehböck, Senior Security Consultant at SEC Consult, has analyzed firmware images of more than 4000 embedded devices of over 70 vendors - firmware of routers, IP cameras, VoIP phones, modems, etc. - and found that, in some cases, there are nearly half a million devices on the web using the same certificate.”
16) New study spills doubt on some fingerprick blood tests
You might recall Theranos, a company which claims to be able to do a suite of blood tests from a single drop of blood. The company’s claims had been widely questioned in academic circles but it still managed to raise a pile of money from venture capitalists. This article looks at the challenge associated with using a small volume of capillary blood for certain tests. It sort of makes sense that there would be variability: even on a statistical level a larger volume is bound to be more representative than a smaller amount and the tiny cross section of capillaries is probably going to result in some other distortions. One other issue would be contamination: a small amount of debris on the skin is going to be much more significant in a drop of blood than in a millilitre.
“Swings were the problem in the study led by Richards-Kortum. She and her colleague Meaghan Bond drew blood from 11 healthy donors and used successive finger droplets for a handful of tests, including ones that measured hemoglobin and white blood cells. At first, the researchers thought maybe their equipment was off. But after testing the samples further, diluting them into larger volumes of liquid and comparing results with venous samples as controls, the researchers found that the droplets themselves varied. The results are not shocking, Clarke said. The study only looked at relatively big, cell-based blood components, he noted, which may drain out differently depending on blood flow. And, he noted, some other tests using blood drops, such as glucose, have been worked out and are accurate. But, he added, the study offers a good reminder that diagnostic developers need to be careful.”
17) Ransomware on Your TV, Get Ready, It's Coming
This article outlines a potential threat which has not been seen in the wild but you can be sure it is coming down the pipe. The idea is that you download an app onto your smart TV and the TV is shut down until you pay “ransom”. A similar type of malware has been seen in PCs and smartphones so it is certainly not beyond the realm of reason hackers will move onto other platforms. The real problem with malware on TVs is that it is very hard to remove – after all these things have the user interface of a TV, not a smartphone.
“Many cyber-security vendors view ransomware as 2016's biggest threat, and to help drive this point home, a Symantec security researcher demonstrated how easy it can be to infect smart TVs and how hard it can be to clean the infection afterwards. The researcher did not reveal the TV's make and model but said it was running a modified version of Google's Android operating system, which many brands also use for their smart TV products. To infect his TV, Symantec's Candid Wueest used a common ransomware family that targets Android devices. This ransomware shows an annoying ransom note every few seconds, overlaying the message on top of the screen, making the device inoperable.”
18) 3D printing can recreate your vascular system for pre-op practice
This is another very cool medical application of 3D printing, or dangerous weaknesses in blood vessel walls. Where possible, surgeons try to use a catheter to place a medical device to reinforce the vessel so it doesn’t burst. The challenge is that surgeons have to navigate a complex 3 dimensional maze to find the right spot for the reinforcing device and you can’t exactly do “trial and error” to get the thing in place. This approach allows the surgeons to practice and even determine if this is the correct approach. I can’t help but wonder if eventually they’ll steer the catheter based on the 3D model and a robot will replicate the movements in the patient.
“Aneurysms, which are tiny blood-filled bulges in the wall of a blood vessel, are responsible for nearly 500,000 deaths a year worldwide when they burst before being treated. Part of the problem in treating them, particularly brain aneurysms, is that they're located among a complex maze of vessels that can be difficult to navigate even with the most modern technology. With that in mind, physicians and researchers in Buffalo have worked with 3D printer maker Stratasys to develop a method of printing out a patient's complete vascular system in just 24 hours in order to practice navigating it prior to actual surgery.”
19) A Shocking Way to Fix the Brain
Even the recent history of medicine is full of treatments which sounded very promising but which turned out to be less effective and more dangerous than initially though. This is especially the case when looking at treatments for psychological and neurological conditions. Of course the same could have been said about cancer treatment a couple decades ago. The challenge is that the brain is very complex and many conditions are probably unique to the particular patient even if they manifest similar to other patients. The good news is that tools to figure out what exactly is wrong and devices to stimulate the brain are improving, so there is room for optimism.
“In an initial surgery, Eskandar drills two dime-size holes in the top of the patient’s skull and sinks 42-centimeter-long electrodes about seven centimeters deep into the gray matter of the brain. In a second surgery, usually a couple of days later, he creates a pocket under the skin in the chest or abdomen, implants a device incorporating a battery and pulse generator into this newly created space, and runs a wire up to the skull, connecting it with the electrodes. When turned on, the device emits an electrical current that stimulates the neural fibers carrying information from primitive brain areas associated with motivation to the frontal lobe. In 50 percent of Eskandar’s cases, a miracle follows: the obsessions and compulsions fade and then disappear.”
20) Peering Back into the Cosmos
This is an update on the James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled for launch in late 2018. It is a highly advanced replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope which led to numerous scientific discoveries. It is much more sensitive due to a 25 square meter main mirror, a huge sun shield, and more advanced sensors. The mirror is an amazing engineering accomplishment because at launch it is folded like origami in order to fit into the launch vehicle. Really cool stuff.
“As our sense-extending technologies continually project the far elusive reaches of the universe into the confines of our cognition, we find ourselves constantly defining the word observable. NASA’s long-awaited Hubble successor, the James Webb Telescope, is finally taking shape as it promises to give us an unprecedented glimpse into the history of our early universe. Just today at the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, the James Webb Telescope got the first of its 18 hexagonal flight mirrors installed. Set to launch in 2018 and to orbit at 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth, it will peer back in space and time to give us a look into the young exploding stars that ignited in the early universe. The magnificent instrument will also look for planet-forming disks of dust in our galaxy and search for potential life abodes beyond the solar system. As it revolutionizes our understanding of the universe, this next generation observatory will certainly become the next giant leap in observational astronomy!”
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.
Strongest bank in the west isn't a bank. It's a co-op.
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.
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.
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