The Geek's Reading List for the week ending May 15, 2015
By Brian Piccioni
1) Revolution in the Driver’s Seat: The Road to Autonomous Vehicles
This week saw a slew of articles concerning autonomous vehicles (AVs) and robots. Since AVs include robotic systems these are closely related subjects. I happen to believe robotics and in particular AVs will be profoundly important over the next 5 to 20 years, so I pay close attention to the space. This is a Boston Consulting Group study on the subject of AVs. It is pretty long but pretty good and I recommend that anybody who is interested in the technology read the article.
“It is no longer a question of if but when autonomous vehicles (AVs) will hit the road. In the auto industry’s most significant inflection in 100 years, vehicles with varying levels of self-driving capability—ranging from single-lane highway driving to autonomous valet parking to traffic jam autopilot—will start to become available to consumers as soon as mid-2015 or early 2016. Development of autonomous-driving technology is gaining momentum across a broad front that encompasses OEMs, suppliers, technology providers, academic institutions, municipal governments, and regulatory bodies.”
2) Google acknowledges 11 accidents with its self-driving cars
One of the stories which got a huge amount of coverage this past week was the fact that Google's AVs had been involved in 11 accidents. Since all accidents involving AVs have to be reported while many non-AV accidents are not reported it is not clear if 11 is a high number or a low number. Apparently, all were minor and none were the fault of the AV systems. If this is a high rate, one might blame at fault drivers for being distracted by the obviously novel vehicles. If this is a low rate, one might ascribe it to the fact the AVs are not driven around except under perfect conditions during which you would expect a lower accident rate.
“The company released the number after The Associated Press reported that Google had notified California of three collisions involving its self-driving cars since September, when reporting all accidents became a legal requirement as part of the permits for the tests on public roads. The leader of Google's self-driving car project wrote in a web post all the accidents have been minor — “light damage, no injuries” —and happened over 1.7 million miles in which either the car or a person required to be behind the wheel was driving.”
3) Why You Shouldn't Worry About Self-Driving Car Accidents
This article looks into the Google AV accident statistics a little more closely. IEEE is obviously very pro-technology, however their comments are probably valid. The real issue will arise when an AV hits a person (it's bound to happen) whether or not the AV itself was at fault. Autonomous or not, the world is an unpredictable place and accidents are bound to happen. Of course, one thing about an AV collision is that, like vehicles with automated braking (see item 4), collisions are like to take place at lower speeds since the vehicles do not speed and are more likely to apply the brakes early due to superior “reflexes”.
“The Associated Press is reporting on the number of accidents that autonomous cars have been in since September, when California officially issued permits for companies to test autonomous cars on public roads. At first glance, the accident rate is alarmingly high: four cars have been in accidents out of the 50 that Google (and other companies) currently have on the road, resulting in an accident rate significantly higher than is typical for a vehicle driven by a human. This sounds bad, but if you look at what actually happened, it’s nothing to worry about at all.”
4) Meta analysis finds self-braking cars reduce collisions by 38 percent
As expected, cars which hit the brakes faster than you can hit fewer things and hit them at a lower speed. Unfortunately, that also means they tend to get rear ended more frequently since most drivers follow too closely - on Ontario highways any more than a car length at 120 km/hr is a luxury. Most likely, the greater the number of self braking cars, or those with adaptive cruise control, the lower the number of rear endings and the figures will go up even further. Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication (see item 5) would improve things somewhat and at a lower cost: if your car knew one of the cars in front of it hit the brakes, it could alert you or even begin to apply the brakes itself.
“In non-AEB cars, the split between striking and being struck was close to 50/50, improving significantly for cars with AEB. However, despite the apparent success of the study, the researchers noted that in order to get the best results out of the technology, widespread adoption was required; slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident requires following traffic to be alert enough to react to the situation and not cause a cascade. They also noted that AEB cars might be more likely to be struck from behind, as an unintended consequence of AEB’s better reaction time, compared to a human driver.”
5) Driverless cars are coming sooner than you think
There are many challenges associated with V2V communications including standards and the familiar “spectrum shortage”. Both would benefit from government policies designed to encourage the adoption of such technologies. Frankly I am beginning to get a little skeptical regarding the subject of spectrum shortages: spread spectrum technologies allow for spectrum reuse, and, in the specific case of cars the ranges need not be that great (more or less on the order of the braking distance of the vehicle). This should be an easily solvable problem.
“Cars that talk to one another and drive themselves may arrive on U.S. highways sooner than you think as the Obama administration launches an effort to expedite their progress. “We don’t want to be part of the problem of integrating this technology into the marketplace,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday. “We want to be part of the solution.” Foxx plans to reveal the administration’s strategy Wednesday during a speech in Silicon Valley. Though the three initiatives he’s taking sound modest, they may be far-reaching in influence when it comes to putting computer-connected autonomous vehicles on the road. Foxx plans to speed up the normally ponderous federal rulemaking process, move more quickly to resolve a simmering fight over who gets to use critical bandwidth and remove the array of federal obstacles traditionally faced by innovative technology.”
6) The job-killing-robot myth
On to robotics, or, at least, non AV robots. I don't understand why people look upon a robot as any different from a “jobs” perspective compared to any other automated system. Not long ago people harvested grains by hand, not that work is done orders of magnitude faster with an enormous combine. As a result, agriculture not longer employs the majority of workers and food prices have plummeted. It is a pity when somebody loses their job as a result of automation, just as it is a pity when somebody loses a job as a result of stupid strategic decisions made by management. The difference is that automation leads to greater productivity overall and the employer becomes more competitive (or, more likely, remains as competitive since the competitors typically buy the same machines). Automation, whether through combines, pick and place machines, or robot janitors (see item 7) are simply a continuation of the industrial revolution.
“Are robots displacing millions of workers? Many people seem to think so. Recently, for instance, the New York Times ran an op-ed claiming that “the machines are getting smarter, and they're coming for more and more jobs.” On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm that “robots are taking over corporate finance departments.” The story goes that we can look forward to an ever greater problem of unemployment as technological advancement allows machines to replace a growing percentage of the workforce.”
7) Robot cleaner can empty bins and sweep floors
This is what most people think of when they think of a robot. As the video shows, the machine seems to do what it is supposed to do, however, in my opinion it does it in an odd way. You should not need to recognize a wastebasket since these should be RFID tagged. Similarly, a purpose built carpet sweeping attachment would probably work better and quicker. One issue which might be a problem is how many offices the machine would need before requiring a charge or battery swap (see item 8). The video on Youtube for those who have sworn off Adobe Flash https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=norgQlR3Nno.
“ROOMBAS were just the start. An office cleaning robot is being put through its paces by Dussmann, one of Germany's largest cleaning companies, at its Berlin HQ. The goal is getting it to work alongside human cleaners in large offices, emptying bins and vacuuming floors. The robot was developed by roboticist Richard Borman and colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart. It is designed to do two tasks – clean the floors and empty wastepaper baskets – with complete autonomy. It can recognise dirt on the floor and identify wastepaper baskets before its robotic arm grabs and then empties each bin.”
8) Robots, Hungry for Power, Are Too Weak to Take Over the World
I saw the latest Avengers movie last week (spoiler alert: the good guys win and there is dubious physics involved in the scheme to destroy the world). The fictional character Iron Man, who has evidently changed allegiance from Tesla to Audi, and his minions, have access to nearly unlimited power thanks to an entirely fictitious power source. Real killer robots, whether good guys or bad guys, lack such a power a source. This means that a rampaging Terminator or Robocop would not get very far before needing a lengthy charge. In general, killing machines are not that frightening if you can simply unplug their extension cords.
“Even cutting-edge robots are notoriously bad at assessing their surroundings, but running out of breath as their batteries expire is just as big a challenge, according to the organizer of the contest on June 5-6 in Pomona, Calif. “Even the best ones are roughly 10 times less energy dense than the sugar and fat [humans eat],” Gill Pratt, Darpa’s program director for the robotics contest said on a media call. Worse, the robots ungainly movements consume a lot of energy. “Robots are also much less efficient than animals,” said Dr. Pratt, using as much as 100 times more energy to complete the same task. “You should expect to see a lot of robots fall down,” he added.”
9) Why the Chinese military is frightened of the Apple Watch
It didn't occur to me previously, but does it make sense for soldiers to carry around any non-military electronics? I can understand the Chinese army not wanting the GPS coordinates of soldiers relayed to Washington in real time, but most gadgets give off radio waves which can be detected at quite a distance with the right type of equipment. This makes smart phones, etc., pretty much targeting beacons for a modestly technologically advanced enemy. Whether that gadget is made by Apple or anybody else is besides the point.
“The Apple Watch is expected to do big things in China — with even the high-end Apple Watch Edition selling out within its first hour of preorders in the country — but one place the company’s debut wearable device won’t take off is the Chinese army. That’s according to a recently released memo in which Chinese military leaders argue that wearable devices such as smartwatches and fitness trackers are sure to compromise soldiers’ security. “The moment a soldier puts on a device that can record high-definition audio and video, take photos, and process and transmit data, it’s very possible for him or her to be tracked or to reveal military secrets,” reads the message, which was published in China’s military mouthpiece The People’s Liberation Army Daily.””
10) I regret buying an Apple Watch (and I knew I would)
I have seen quite a few of these articles over the past couple weeks. It is not clear to me whether they represent the typical experience of Apple Watch early adopters of whether the authors are simply trying a novel angle to draw in clicks. Of course, the experience of many smart watch buyers is of disappointment and there really isn't that much difference between the Apple Watch and similar products which have been on the market for some time, except marketing and price. Unfortunately, Apple has been known to black ball its critics from access to new products so criticizing them can be a dangerous path to tread.
“I bought an Apple Watch. I didn't preorder it, because at first I didn't even want one. I warned people who asked me about the company's first wearable: These things (Apple things) always get much better on the second attempt. Apple's product history, perhaps even more so than other tech companies, is peppered with examples: the substantially thinner second iPad, the next iPhone that had 3G data, the MacBook Air sequel that had decent battery life and a slimmer design. Despite knowing that, something changed for me. I became an early adopter. Our Editor-in-Chief Michael Gorman has already tested the Apple Watch. Thanks to a handful of early positive-but-with-caveat reviews and even more previews in the run-up to launch, I knew what it could do. Still, I felt like there must be a way that the watch would effortlessly dovetail into my life, reducing the need to constantly paw my phone and further lowering the barrier between myself and technology.”
11) The Golden Age Of Quantum Computing Is Upon Us (Once We Solve These Tiny Problems)
To be honest I understood very little of the article or the video, however, I can accept the likelihood a functional quantum computer will have a disruptive effect on certain fields of study, not the least of which being quantum computing. There are certain computationally difficult problems which should be a piece of cake once these systems are developed. Unfortunately, it is hard to be confident that the problems cited will be solved any time soon.
“Quantum computing is not easy. But researchers at IBM recently announced that they had taken a step toward solving one of its biggest challenges: developing a better way to detect and correct annoying errors. In a blog post, Mark Ritter, who oversees scientists and engineers at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Laboratory, wrote: "I believe we’re entering what will come to be seen as the golden age of quantum computing research." His team, he said, is "on the forefront of efforts to create the first true quantum computer." First, what that would mean: A quantum computer harnesses the science of the very small—the strange behavior of subatomic particles—to solve problems that are computationally infeasible for a classical computer or simply take too long. How molecules interact at the quantum level, for example, is difficult to study in a laboratory and impossible to simulate on a classical computer but could be simulated on a quantum computer.”
12) Is D-Wave a Quantum Computer?
A few weeks ago I mentioned D-Wave in a negative light and received an angry email, as well as a rare “unsubscribe”, from an investor in the company who claimed the device was “… benchmarking tens of thousands of times faster than traditional processors ...”. At the time I was referring to the article in Science entitled “Quantum or not, controversial computer yields no speedup” (www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6190/1330.full) so I was a bit surprised at the reaction. I would further note that a 10,000x improvement is something you notice: the Trinity Atomic test yielded an improvement of 10,000x over a chemical bomb of the same size and they did not exactly need tape measures and slide rules to determine whether it was an improvement.
“Recently I had to explain to a reader why critics say that D-Wave's so-called quantum computer was not a "real" quantum computer, the answer for which he accepted on my authority. However, the question kept nagging me in the back on my mind "why" D-Wave markets what it calls a quantum computer if it is not for real. To get to the bottom of it, I asked Jeremy Hilton, vice president of processor development of D-Wave Systems, Inc. (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada) about why critics keep saying its quantum computer is not for real. He also revealed details about D-Wave's next generation quantum computer. "The Holy Grail of quantum computing to build a 'universal' quantum computer—one that can solve any computational problem—but at a vastly higher speed that today's computers," Hilton told EE Times. "That's the reason some people say we don't have a 'real' quantum computer—because D-Wave's is not a 'universal' computer."”
13) New Memristors Could Usher in Bionic Brains
Neural networks are another type of computer with significant potential, however, the number of potential applications for neural networks is probably greater, and the nature of those applications are probably more familiar to people. After all, neural networks hope to replicate the function of a brain, and, in particular, the ability to deal with uncertain circumstances. Consider that the tiny neural network of a mosquito can fly, walk around, find food (i.e. you), avoid getting squashed or eaten, reproduce, and so on. That little brain is not a computer running a program but a neural network effecting behavior: mosquitoes can deal with all kinds of uncertainty in their environment and still survive. Despite my interest in neural nets, what really interests me in this article is the novel memristor fabrication techniques: near term, these things have the potential to revolutionize traditional computing as well.
“Last month we saw researchers in the US push the envelope of non-volatile memory devices based on resistance switching to the point where they are now capable of mimicking the neurons in the human brain. Now researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia have built on their previous work developing ultra-fast nano-scale memories. They used a functional oxide ultra-thin film to create one of the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cells. The researchers claim that the memristive devices they have developed mimic the brain’s ability to simultaneously process and store multiple strands of information. The research, which was published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, involved chemically manipulating amorphous strontium titanate memristors by adding faults to the material that both tuned and improved their switching characteristics.”
14) GE 3D prints a working RC jet engine
A few months ago we carried an item about a company which had produced non-working models of a jet engine through 3D printing. GE seems to have done one step better by producing a working model, albeit a small one. Not surprisingly since 3D printers cannot produce polished parts such as bearings or mating surfaces, the parts have to be hand finished, but it is still quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, GE does not report on how well the unit worked or what its durability would be. I suspect the answers would be “not well” and “good enough for a short video”. Even so, this is quite an accomplishment.
“General Electric this week revealed that it has completed a multi-year project to print a working jet engine. The engine, small enough to fit in a backpack, was built by a team of technicians, machinists and engineers at GE Aviation's Additive Development Center outside Cincinnati. The lab is working with additive manufacturing as a way to produce next-generation jet parts using a technique known as (DMLM). The engine also required some post-printing machining and polishing of parts. The research team then rigged up a data acquisition system to measure exhaust temperature, speed and thrust. The engine, which consisted of more than a dozen parts, was printed on an M270 industrial 3D printer from EOS. The machine can melt a variety of alloys, including cobalt chrome, nickel alloy, titanium and stainless steel.”
15) Auto industry first to get wireless charging open standard
This is the best charging solution I have seen despite a misleading headline (it is wire-free, not wireless). The “zero risk of cancer claimed” is utter nonsense since no charging system can cause cancer, unless there are carcinogenic chemicals in the device and you eat it. Essentially what JVIS has done is think “out of the box” and use basic and very cheap components to take the place of a USB connector for charging. The only drawback I can see to this approach is that there would need to be some raised conductive bumps on one surface of the device. Nevertheless, it should charge much faster than real “wireless” chargers and make it easy to produce a waterproof device. Since many phones are kept in bumper cases to save the displays, phones could be retrofitted with the charge function incorporated into a case or even sticky label on the back of the phone.
“JVIS notes that wire-free charging is gaining greater acceptance among automotive manufacturers because vehicle owners want a hassle-free “drop and charge” means to charge phones while they drive. However, the Open Dots platform expands this ecosystem to include, tablets, laptop computers, power tools and other commonly used electronic devices as well. “The standard employs a conductive technology that is fundamentally different than other technologies based on induction,” explains Mitch Randall, a director of Open Dots Alliance. “Consequently, the technology offers benefits that are not achievable by other standards.””
16) Starbucks still grappling with fraud in online accounts, gift cards
I confess that I have to restrain myself whenever I am in line at a Starbucks and see somebody pulling out a smartphone to pay for their order. I swear, it takes more time than if they paid with loose pennies. What's the point, anyway? Rather than transferring money to an app and using the app to transfer to Starbucks, why not just skip a step and pay Starbucks? Not surprisingly, crooks have figured out how to exploit this and doubtless any other “pay with an app” type situation. The interesting thing about this sort of exploit is that, if the crook kept the amount small, people would probably never notice the money was missing.
“Starbucks is still grappling with fraud involving its customers’ online accounts and gift cards, with some victims seeing hundreds of dollars stolen. Gift-card related fraud with Starbucks cards is not new, but recent victims were highlighted earlier this week in an article by journalist and author Bob Sullivan. Starbucks officials could not be immediately reached for comment, although Sullivan wrote the company told him that customers would not be liable for charges and transfers they didn’t make.”
17) Hydrogels boost ability of stem cells to restore eyesight and heal brains
This work looks very promising, though early. Apparently, a lot of stem cells die after implantation and this technique improves the survival and implantation rates. Of course, the more stem cells to repair the damage the greater the likelihood of a therapeutic benefit. Unfortunately, I don't know the significance of the results: how does a 15% pupil response in a blind mouse compares to one which has only had stem cell treatment?
“Toronto scientists and engineers have made a breakthrough in cell transplantation using a gel-like biomaterial that keeps cells alive and helps them integrate better into tissue. In two early lab trials, this has already shown to partially reverse blindness and help the brain recover from stroke. Led by University of Toronto professors Molly Shoichet (ChemE, IBBME) and Derek van der Kooy, together with Professor Cindi Morshead, the team encased stem cells in a hydrogel that boosted their healing abilities when transplanted into both the eye and the brain. These findings are part of an ongoing effort to develop new therapies to repair nerve damage caused by a disease or injury. Conducted through the U of T’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, their research was published in today’s issue of Stem Cell Reports, the official scientific journal of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.”
18) Walmart’s Answer to Amazon Prime Is Here. And It’s Way Cheaper.
Recently, Walmart has installed “Grab&Go lockers” in many of their stores which allows people to buy stuff online and simply pick it up from the locker. The idea is a good one and, in my opinion, does away with the need for delivery since Walmart stores are pretty much everywhere. Frankly, I'd prefer to pick up an order at my convenience than worry when UPS will come by or whether my dog will bite the FedEx guy again. Since I live in the country (and my dogs have a taste for delivery men) many of my orders have to be picked up anyways. Rather than focusing on delivery, Walmart should consider acting as a fulfillment center for third parties with online stores or charging online vendors for shipment to their lockers.
“A decade after Amazon launched Prime, its signature membership and free shipping program, Walmart has a rebuttal ready: unlimited shipping for half the price. Walmart said Wednesday that it will begin limited tests of a subscription shipping program for online shoppers. Those who sign up for the $50 annual service will get unlimited free three-day shipping on more than 1 million of Walmart’s top-selling items, with no minimum purchase required. Walmart says it will start testing the service on an invite-only basis in a limited number of markets later this summer. Ravi Jariwala, a company spokesman, declined to provide details on which markets in particular, or exactly how many. Walmart is also not sharing details on how it plans to fill the online orders or who will deliver them, but Jariwala added that Walmart works with “a number of different carriers.””
19) BitTorrent brings its Bleep secure messaging app out of alpha mode
Bit Torrents are often associated with piracy, so the technology has a bad rep. In reality it is a powerful way to move data around the Internet and is an integral part of some operating systems, including, so the rumor goes, Window 10. Torrent technology is open, however, BitTorrent the company has a number of differentiated proprietary offerings such as Sync, which I believe is a superior alternative to the like of DropBox. As the article suggests, a torrent based messaging system should be more secure than a server based one since there is no single point of failure such as server, to hack. In other words, your messages or my messages might be compromised, but not all my company's messages.
““Bleep’s logo represents a folded note – a message passed directly, hand-to-hand. In our implementation, we keep messages and the encryption keys for images stored on your local device, not the cloud,” explained BitTorrent in its latest blog post. “For messages and metadata, there is no server for hackers to target and because you hold the keys, images can’t be leaked to haunt you later. We’ve solved serverless peer-to-peer messaging, including the ability to get offline friends your messages when they come back online.” Bleep certainly isn’t alone in its ambitions to make messaging more secure. Startups including Wickr, Telegram, Zendo, CryptoCat, Surespot and Open Whisper Systems (with TextSecure) are all active in this space.”
20) Philips And The Future Of LED Lighting
LED lighting has certainly hit the mainstream as prices continue to decline. This article looks at the future of lighting but I would treat it with a grain of salt. There might be some merit to controlling the color of your house lights and/or doing so through an app but any sort of communications system can lead to all kinds of technical issues, etc.. This might not be a problem for those with access to expertise but the modest benefit is likely to be numerically overwhelmed by angry consumers who can't get the system to work reliably. Indeed that is likely a major issue with many Internet of Things applications, as is the vulnerability to having the (likely cloud based) control system going offline. Imagine how happy you'd be if your lights were “stuck on violet” for a few days.
“Manegold observes that he sees the LED industry continuing to make progress, and that there are two trends we will see: First, we will see LED bulbs get even more cost effective, and within 5 years we may see price parity with compact fluorescents. The bulbs themselves will also continue to get more efficient, but there is a natural limit: “You won’t see bulbs go from 10 watts to one watt.” Perhaps more interestingly, the market is focused on making things connected. An under-appreciated aspect of LEDs is that they are solid state (chip driven), so they can ‘talk’ to one another and to broader networks. Philips has recently spent a good deal of effort in this arena with its networked lighting product called Hue.”
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.
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? Big problem and lots of big oil companies to keep hands off their carbon.
Another big problem: what can we turn to that keeps the lights on and the engines turning without releasing carbon dioxide? Neatly, Rand suggests how the two problems might provide cross-solutions. Global energy companies can put their engineering talent to work on what Rand calls an “energy moon shot,” much more ambitious in scope than President Kennedy’s original commitment to put a man on the moon. It would be a “publicly directed mission” to turn the finance, engineering and industrial strengths of the market economy by giant leaps, not incremental changes, toward a low-carbon energy future, nothing less than what has been called the fourth industrial revolution.
Mainstream economic analysis based largely, Rand asserts, on oversimplified climate data, coalesces around the proposition that carbon levels should be reduced but that a modest effort is all that’s required to bring atmospheric carbon levels to “between 700 and 800 parts per million (ppm) by the end of the twenty-first century.”
Flawed economic analysis to be sure but it’s the consensus and it’s what politicians are hearing from their expert economic advisers. The problem is they might persuade us all that their predicted outcome is good enough, thereby appealing irresistibly to our natural instinct to do nothing until crisis strikes, perhaps devastatingly, as in Katrina, Sandy or Japan’s tsunami. What if their comforting numbers disguise a nasty result? What if they’re right indeed but the outcome is dismal nevertheless.
This is more likely than not, according to Rand, because “no one with any serious knowledge of climate science thinks 800 ppm is a place modern civilization can go.” This may be the place for me to mention that Rand, while he isn’t a climate scientist, is very well versed in the fast developing world of clean technologies as an entrepreneur. He’s also academically irreproachable with a degree in engineering from Waterloo, two masters degrees and a doctorate in philosophy from LSE, the U of T and the University of London,. He’s a bright guy. He’s making an intelligent argument that inspires action. It’s leavened with irony and wit — Waking the Frog is eerily apt — and jabs at the preposterously overpraised. It’s an argument from a clear-eyed look at facts and a common sense approach to instituting change. It’s a mighty challenge. But he shows that indeed there are what the book’s subtitle promises: solutions for our climate change paralysis. And, most effectively, he explains why it must be done.
“A rise in global average temperatures associated with 800 ppm of atmospheric carbon,” he writes, “brings systemic risks throughout our food supply with massive increased risks of droughts, severe weather, and flooding in coastal areas. By the end of the century, those risks are off the charts! Resource scarcity eads to wars over food and water. Our ever-aging infrastructure will be at risk of being consistently overwhelmed by storms, water and fire — and all the attendant physical and financial misery. Ocean levels will eventually rise not by meters but by a hundred meters (328 feet) or more because the ice caps will completely melt over time. That kind of a carbon level is . . . the end of comfortable life as most of us know it now!”
If 800 ppm represents survival in a blistering, bleak and barren world, where are we now? Well we’re struggling to hang on to a target of 450 ppm. “To have a snowball’s chance of limiting carbon to 450 ppm,” writes Rand, “we have to leave between two-thirds and four-fifths of all proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.” To have any chance of doing this we must have alternatives for at least some of the displaced carbon. Rand suggests everything from breeder reactors to geothermal systems to commercial building retrofits. As a pilot project in the latter category he presents a hotel he developed in downtown Toronto that reduced its energy use seventy five percent by leveraging five percent of the building’s capital cost to instal geothermal and solar heating and super-efficient LED lighting that “can light-up the entire building like a Christmas tree — inside and out — for less energy than a four-slice toaster uses.”
Why put a price on it? Nothing in the global market is more certain than demand reducing as costs increase. If the goal is to reduce the use of carbon, charge more for its use. “There’s no more powerful tool in our policy options,” Rand argues. “Pricing carbon is fair, justified, effective, efficient and politically neutral.” Nobody gets a fee ride.
Rand allows that any of the solutions he presents can be debated in good faith but one thing we must agree on is the urgent need to act.
“Humankind has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years. From Rome and the birth of Christ through to our wonderfully complex global economy, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Art, literature, science, culture, and our civic structures, all are results of our long journey to the present. Who knows what further adventures might await? We’ll only have the chance to find out if we manage to squeak through the climate crisis and stop our mad gallop toward the climate cliff.”
The frog is us. The planet, our pool, is rapidly warming. If we don’t jump soon, very soon, it will start to boil. Wake up before we feel much more heat is Rand’s cry from the soul. Wake up, I echo, or be beneath contempt forever in the memory of generations to come.
Waking the Frog: Solutions for Our Climate Change Paralysis, by Tom Rand. ECW Press. 209 pages. $29.95
PSF energizes activists for new beginning
By Tony Patterson
The Peoples Social Forum that camped on the uOttawa campus and spread throughout the city last summer (Aug. 21-24, 2014) generated much ado about almost anything you can think of in opposition to Stephen Harper and other powers that be, tar sands, the establishment, pipelines, the government, the one percent (the Family Compact in days of old). None of these evildoers were present in person, but they were represented by an extensive security force. One march I witnessed:
“What do we want?” “Justice.”
“When do we want it?” “Now.”
Who we want justice for wasn’t audible but could have been all the oppressed and downtrodden. This march was preceded by two senior officers on foot and accompanied by almost as many others as marchers. I exaggerate. There were actually more marchers than cops, maybe twice as many. But the police were armed, which more than evened the odds. Seven were on bicycles, four on motorcycles, a half-dozen on foot and several in vehicles of various descriptions, including the latest model of what was known back in the day as the ‘paddywagon’ for its common use carting drunk and obstreperous Irishmen off to the cells. They were ready for anything but nothing was happening. The marchers were as peaceful as Sri Chinmoy acolytes.
What I gather is that there are three shared points of view among the many, many, many interest groups here, of all colours, faiths and persuasions. Everyone despises the Prime Minister. That’s number one. I saw no I Hate Harper buttons but I heard a lot of that kind of talk. Almost everyone is anti-capitalist. And almost every group wants money.
These are just overall impressions from snatches overheard. There are variations, of course, and many subtexts. The largest audience was for the radical economist Naomi Klein, who was careful to cap her recitation of all of capitalism’s sins of omission and commission with the caution that resistance has to be accompanied by feasible alternatives.
One session I got to featured a ramble into indigenous prehistory and a catalogue of the injustices done to First Nations by renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, who is front and centre for a proposed Indigenous International Peace Centre located on islands of historic importance in the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau. It’s a project a long time in gestation, decades actually, but taking on a new urgency with the recently announced proposals for commercial development of the site. This one will cost many millions. You can see pictures on Mr. Cardinal’s website.
The surprise in another session I attended was how few there were who showed an interest. The topic was legalizing cannabis. The presenter was Craig Jones, who has given much of his career to assisting the oppressed and disadvantaged in Canada (he was exec director of John Howard Society until 2010), who told it like it is. In short, cannabis prohibition does more harm than the substance itself. Interest, shall we say, was muted. There weren’t more than ten people in the room and at least one of them was from out of town looking for a pot connection. Could have been a narc. I’ll bet there was more than one in the crowd.
The pervasive sentiment through the four days: everything is moving in the wrong direction. Conservatives at home are increasing oppression and denying all evidence of environmental holocaust. Abroad, the planet struggles to breathe as rampaging extractive industries feed insatiable demand by western industry and Asian populations.
What’s a poor boy or girl to do?
One thing to do is come out to mega-gatherings like Peoples Social Forum in order to make connections to move the agenda forward, whether the cause is to free Ottawa from the curse of fluoridation, to overthrow the Indian Act or to bring back Karl Marx. It’s not simply the culmination of two years of unrelenting effort by hundreds of volunteers. It’s a new beginning. True believers meet up. Activists are energized. As Greg Macdougall writes in the pre-assembly publication, the main function of the gathering “is to facilitate further collective collaboration and action.”
Arms and the man and flowers in the rain
By Tony Patterson
I was out walking the canal on the first day of the tulip festival. It was the start of a rainy spell, the air damp chilled. I was all alone out there of a Saturday. The tourists had opted for room service and snuggling up. The flowers were just starting to open and would be in full blossom in a week.
In the late days of the festival they were wilted but still a kaleidoscope of colour though wet and cool continued in the weeks after my walk. The Bollywood film program would be cancelled “due to inclement weather” on India Day. But it’s not foul weather that tolls the last gasps of this traditional celebration of spring and welcome for the summer oncoming. Public indifference will kill it. The city doesn’t care. NCC gives the festival no financial support. Saved from bankruptcy five years ago, the festival has responded by dropping $2 million since.
I passed the polished stone tribute to Doug Fullerton and thought of Ottawa’s other weather-plagued festival. It was Doug who invented the Rideau Canal Skateway, the longest skating rink in the world, which led to Winterlude, which led to god only knows how much wealth for Ottawa merchants. Not only that. Fullerton, an affable economist who had put the Canada Council on a sound financial footing as its investment guru before being handed responsibility for the NCC, understood the importance of people and spaces in urban planning. He conceived and had built, I quote from his stone near Patterson Creek, "the network of recreational pathways that weave their way through the National Capital Region, uniquely linking waterways, green spaces and the urban core." Hard to believe he only held the job for four years, 1969-73.
Then I thought of David Luxton, who rescued the tulip festival when it was about to go under a few years back and has been its moral centre as well as its chief idea guy ever since.
Not that he’s around a lot. The last time I had seen him was over a year before. As we were chatting, he excused himself while he took a few brief calls. He spoke in English, French, German and Arabic. He was spending much of his time in Afghanistan and other exotic places. He often moved, he mentioned, in a convoy of armored vehicles. He’s not an arms dealer. More an anti-arms dealer. It just happened that when the weapon of choice for terrorists became the improvised explosive device (IED), David Luxton had the antidote — electronic gear that jams cellphone-triggered improvised bombs. Not a hundred percent effective, of course. This is war after all and a hundred and fifty five Canadians have died, almost two out of three of them as the result of IED explosions. But there could be hundreds more casualties, and thousands more in other armies now engaged, without the kind of protection David’s company provides.
There’s enough deep geothermal to power all of Canada. So why can’t we try just a bit?
Posted by Tyler Hamilton
How much power generation in Canada comes from geothermal energy? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
How much of Canada could be powered by geothermal power? All of it. Many times over.
There is, of course, a catch or two. Cost is one. Location is another, because not all the best sites are near population centres. Still, as two studies from Canada’s top geothermal researchers show, there’s a heck of a lot of geothermal resource to work with if we tried. And as I point out in my Clean Break column , geothermal could be just as significant a contributor to Canada’s power needs in 20 years or 30 years as hydroelectric power is today. Again, that’s if we tried.
Stephen Grasby, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, and co-author Jacek Majorowicz, an Alberta-based geothermal consultant, have come out with two studies looking at enhanced geothermal system (EGS) potential in Canada. One study will appear online this month in the Journal of Geophysics and Engineering (I was expecting it out by now). It looks at the overall potential of EGS in Canada. Another just published study, this one in the journal Natural Resources Research, looks specifically at high-potential regions where EGS development would offer the biggest bang for the buck. “Results show areas with significant EGS potential in northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and southern Northwest Territories related to high heat flow and thermal blanketing of thick sedimentary cover,” they wrote. “Estimated installation costs in 2008 dollars are under $2 million per megawatt.”
That’s about $6 billion for 3,000 megawatts — more than competitive with nuclear, not just with respect to capital costs, but also operational and maintenance costs. Also, none of the high costs associated with storing spent fuel indefinitely or with decommissioning old plants. This figure, of course, is for developing the most promising EGS projects. Cost will rise depending on location, rock conditions, availability of an outside water source, and depth of required drilling. Still, the studies make clear the opportunities are immense. The Geophysics and Engineering study, for example, said projects could be developed right across the country, including parts of Ontario, if you drill deep enough. Over time, as drilling costs fall and expertise of EGS climbs, this could happen one day.
“At 10 kilometres we can expect EGS temperatures in the 150 to 200 degrees C range across most of Canada, except some areas of the Canadian shield,” wrote Grasby and Majorowicz. “Given the widespread distribution of geothermal energy, and the high energy content, the potential geothermal resource in Canada is significant,” they concluded.
Sure, there’s risk to heading in this direction, just as there was risk of investing in the early days of the oil sands or nuclear industry. I would argue there’s much more risk drilling for oil offshore in the deepest ocean waters. For example, an accident could happen and you could end up with the equivalent of an oil volcano erupting kilometres below the surface. (Okay, now I’m being facetious).
The fact remains: geothermal power is baseload, it’s clean, it’s plentiful, and it can be done using proven drilling and rock fracturing techniques in Alberta’s oil patch. The Canadian Geothermal Association is targeting development of 5,000 megawatts of geothermal power by 2015 using conventional techniques. Imagine, if we started doing that development now in parallel with EGS research and development, what we could accomplish by 2030? It could be possible to wean Alberta entirely off coal, for one, and it would put us in a good position as we move to electrify the transportation sector.
These two Canadian studies come three years after the release of a groundbreaking U.S. study led by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their research suggested EGS in the United States could realistically supply about 100,000 megawatts of power generation capacity by 2050, assuming the proper policies and R&D investments were committed. The MIT study didn’t cover Canada, but several experts who participated in that study said their conclusions could also apply to the Great White North. Still, it’s nice to have our own data — and this is exactly what Grasby and Majorowicz have given us.
Canada, clearly, needs a national geothermal development strategy — and it needs one now.
Time to beat the drum.
Have you ever wondered
By Tony Patterson
Who makes the decisions behind the big salaries? The July-August 2013 edition of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business tells the tale in its analysis of the Top 1000 corporations in Canada. The Royal Bank led the list, as it usually does, with its profit of $7.4 billion. Does CEO Gord Nixon consult only himself while collecting $14 million for steering RBC? No way. It’s a Board decision. Directors decide.
Way down at the bottom of the ROB list is gas-producer Encana Corp. of Calgary, No. 1000 with a loss of nearly $3 billion. (ROB ranks the Top 1000 companies in Canada by profitability but just over half of the thousand — 544 to be precise — show any profit at all. The rest are all losers for 2012.) Encana’s CEO last year, Randy Eresman, was paid only $7 million. As ROB meanly calculates, Mr. Nixon’s bank made $542 of profit for every loonie he was paid. Mr. Eresman was paid more than $2,500 for every million dollars down the toilet at Encana. According to a calculation by Corporate Knights magazine, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Eresman were each paid 92 times the average salary in their respective companies, an intriguing coincidence.
Who decides this kind of compensation practice, and why? There’s no denying that, like the Big Mac, it’s an importation from the U.S. of A. Mr. Nixon explains it this way in an interview with Grant Robertson of ROB. “. . . most of my top executives have been offered very big positions in the United States and elsewhere. It is a global market, a competitive market . . .”
Research for the New York Times (June 29), found that for the “top 200 chief executives at public companies with at least $1 billion in revenue . . . the median 2012 pay package came in at $15.1 million — a leap of 16 percent from 2011.” Of course even the most ambitious and self-confident Canadian business executive might feel it a long stretch to become CEO of a multi-billion dollar American enterprise. That’s OK because it’s not necessary to reach the very top in order to become very wealthy. As the NYT points out, “Because the data shows only chief executives’ pay, it does not reveal how good it still is to be a prince . . . compensation of the No. 2 executives at some of these companies would have vaulted them to the top ranks on the C.E.O. roster.”
At least noone in Canada tried to push Larry Ellison last year. The larger-than-life CEO of Oracle took $84.5 million from the company to fund his expensive and enduring pursuit of yachting’s America’s Cup. Peter Munk’s gold-plated lures for directors at Barrick, Frank Stronach’s platinum-lined parachute from Magna, don’t compare. Not since 2001 have we seen anything like it, when Canadian Pacific was split into five independent and self-sustaining companies after a century at the core of Canadian business and regional development. The CEO who made that break-up call received compensation, according to all reports, somewhere above $83 million. This was Canadian money, of course, not American like Mr. Ellison’s. Then again, it was a dozen years ago.
Who makes these decisions? Directors do and primus inter pares of directors is the Chair. The Chair usually gives a lead and the Board decides. In some cases the Chair and the CEO are one and the same. This was the case at Canadian Pacific in 2001, when the Chair and CEO was David O’Brien (pictured). The titles used to be joined at the Royal as well, but they’ve been split for some time now. Mr. Nixon is CEO. The Chair is David O’Brien. Similarly at Encana. Mr. Eresman was succeeded early this year as CEO by Clayton Woitas. But the Chair remains the same as before. That’s David O’Brien.
[Disclosure: Tony Patterson is David O'Brien's cousin.]
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, September 3, 2012.)
Despite the prejudices of outsiders against government and bureaucracy, Ottawa has been the best place in Canada to incubate big ideas and visionaries during my lifetime and even before.
The town was started by the greatest engineering project of the age before railways, the building of the everlasting Rideau Canal. That was before my lifetime, of course, but I feel a certain connection. One of my ancestors was a sapper who came with Lt. Colonel By to help blast, cut, dig and construct that magnificent waterway.
My lifetime was getting underway around the time of WWII when Ottawa was the nerve centre of the greatest growth explosion the country has ever seen. There was an engineer in charge, the controversial “minister of everything,” C. D. Howe. Most particularly Ottawa was where the technology to run the engines of war was conceived. The National Research Council emerged from the shadows under a brilliant scientist-soldier, General Andrew McNaughton, inventor of an artillery targeting device that was a forerunner of radar. From the NRC since have emerged hundreds of devices, systems, ideas and even seeds that have contributed to the betterment of humankind everywhere. Canola (a name made up of Canada and oil) is worth $2 billion a year to Prairie farmers, second only to wheat as an agricultural export. The motorized wheelchair. The first cardiac pacemaker. The crash position indicator, which guides rescue workers directly to isolated airplane crash sites before survivors perish of injuries or starvation. These are Ottawa inventions. The vaccine against infant meningitis. The first electronic music synthesizer. The best way to do computer animation of film. All got started here, at the NRC.
Of course there were some escapees of the ambitiously independent from NRC and its offshoots, even though they were often depending on government contracts to get their fledglings off the ground. Joe Norton founded Computing Devices. His son Mark is still actively supporting various high tech enterprises about town. Denny Doyle threw down his labcoat to establish Digital Equipment Corporation in Canada. It would vie with Nortel as the backbone of the tech-centric west end from Nepean through Kanata.
Nortel arrived as Bell-Northern Research in the early 1960s, attracted by NRC and its offshoot the Communications Research Centre at Shirley’s Bay. CRC would be the heart of Canada’s space adventures, starting with the Alouette program in the early 1960s. Alouette 1 made Canada the third nation to have a satellite circling. BNR became the single most important influence in moving the world’s telecom from analog to digital. This key innovation allowed Mike Cowpland and Terry Matthews to produce the fabulously successful PBX machines at Mitel. Then there was a quarter century run-up to Silicon Valley North, an intoxicating, almost giddy era. The likes of Systemhouse, Fulcrum, Jetform, Mosaid, JDS and Cognos were blooming.
Mitel does different things today, but in the meantime Matthews started Newbridge, now part of Alcatel, and Cowpland founded Corel. Nortel (which assumed BNR in 1996) is gone, the victim of awful business decisions. But the $5 billion patent portfolio it revealed in its death throes was dramatic evidence of the quality of thinking that went on there. There, of course, was here. Ottawa.
Where are the dreamers, the visionaries of yesteryear? As a matter of fact, a lot of them are still around, still dreaming dreams, still trying to make them real. Rod Bryden at Plasco. Terry Matthews at the re-acquired Mitel and a score of startups, Michael Cowpland at Zim, Adam Chowaniec, the Foody family, David Luxton. Denny Doyle still consults with the community out of Doyletech. And the young turks: Alfred Jay at Ramius, Tobias Lütke at Shopify, Paul Vallée and Andrew Waitman at Pythian. Space only prevents a much longer list.
It’s been my pleasure to write about these people through the years. Now I take leave, supremely confident that the end is not here, not even near. There will be a new resurgence of the technology gene. It may even have begun without our noticing. I can’t say precisely what it will bring but whatever it is will rise from a foundation of two solid centuries of technological achievement. Right here in government city.
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, July 9, 2012.)
Pay attention Ottawa. On the bank of the Ottawa River three hundred acres of your choicest land are about to be in play.
As choice as LeBreton Flats, Rockcliffe is many times the size of that historic neighbourhood, which was devastated by fire in 1900 and is still struggling to revive despite its recent acquisition of the swooping architectural masterpiece that encloses the Canadian War Museum. Essentially undeveloped land running in a huge rectangle bordered by St. Laurent Boulevard on the west, the NRC campus at Blair Road on the east, Montreal Road to the south and the Ottawa River, Rockcliffe is the site of a former RCAF airbase.
DND declared the property surplus in 1984, though there were military families still living there a quarter century later. Rockcliffe has been a question all that time. There were problems with property transfers and a land claim by an Algonquin first nation that apparently has been settled with a payment of $10 million. Algonquins may still be involved since they retain a right of first refusal on parcels to be sold from Rockcliffe. But it’s yet to be seen how willing they are to trade cash-in-hand for ancestral land.
The owner-of-record today is the Canada Lands Company. CLC’s mandate is to develop or dispose of properties the government owns but doesn’t use. It’s a player in major cities, such as Montreal (Old Port area and the Benny Farm residential district) and Toronto (Downsview Park, also a disused airfield). At Rockcliffe, a lead manager is to be named this month who will assemble a team of professionals to envision how this extraordinary landscape will be reshaped. Their starting mission is “to develop an exemplary diverse contemporary neighbourhood offering a choice in housing, employment, commercial, institutional and leisure activities which will be defined by the site’s unique setting, along with a commitment to environmental sustainability and long term economic viability.”
Now this will make a fine extension for Rockcliffe Park, one of the wealthiest enclaves in Canada, which the airfield was carved from nearly a century ago. After all, there are only two thousand people living there now. The airfield would essentially double the area of this ex-village where average salaries are twice what other Ottawa residents get paid. It’s a beautiful site. Should go to the most beautiful people. No?
That’s almost certainly what’s going to happen on the present path to decision. If there are other ideas out there, now’s the time to bring them forward. Two that I’ve heard deserve at least to be exposed:
The main campus of NRC, Canada’s primary research agency, abuts Rockcliffe. How about a technology park to bring commercial and entrepreneurial talent close to scientific teams that have global reputations and have won awards from the Nobel to Killam to Oscar?
The University of Ottawa is constrained for space. Located in the heart of the city, it has no way to grow physically to accommodate more students. Also it occupies properties that the federal government could use as it grows to manage the nation that, last I heard, was heading for a population of a hundred million this century.
A previous uO president talked of establishing a satellite campus at Rockcliffe for science faculties. The notion was dismissed by CLC, which didn’t have control then but knew it would some day. The current uO prez has reportedly canvassed profs at the university and found no support for the idea. But it’s not altogether crazed. Université Laval moved from its three century old campus in downtown Quebec City to Sainte-Foy in the 1950s. The Université de Montréal is relocating science faculties to the old train yards in Outremont.
The clock is running on Rockcliffe. Municipal approvals will take two or three years at least. Public consultations are to start this fall, presenting what CLC calls “a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to discuss and address issues of urban reintegration, quality of life and factors important in designing the place where you live, work, learn and play.”
That’s once in our lifetime, Ottawa. Prête attention
NRC president sends corrections, explanations
1 May 2012
Mr. Tony Patterson
4-108 Queen Elizabeth Driveway
Ottawa, ON K2P 1E5
Dear Mr. Patterson:
As you are aware, in the summer of 2011, I refused your request for interview. At the time, we were doing very few as I was very pre-occupied with internal matters. You subsequently published a blog painting me in a very poor light. I am more than willing to accept fair and even unfair criticism. However, erroneous and blatantly misleading commentary falls into a different category. Your blog contained errors of fact, some of which we discussed yesterday, and many other statements that were directly or indirectly very misleading.
Yesterday when I pointed those things out, you said you thought "the article would have elucidated an immediate response from me". I told you the tone of your article actually said much more about you than it did about me, so I didn't feel that it was worth my time to respond.
In spite of those issues, when you called again a few days ago for an interview, I agreed to speak with you. When we connected, I immediately expressed my concerns about your prior blog and asked for an apology before proceeding further. You refused. Even so I agreed to provide clarifications regarding some of the errors and misleading statements in your blog. I also told you your subsequent response and actions would form the basis for determining whether there was any point in future discussions.
As committed, a few specific issues related to your July 2011 blog are addressed below by providing your words in italics followed by my clarifications:
1. "It's an image he pushed toward conclusion on his home turf, until he pushed too hard and got himself turfed out." "When four provincial R&D initiatives were merged into one under the name Alberta Innovates in January 2010, he was invited out."
I advised the ARC Board in the fall of 2007 to start looking for a successor. Not long thereafter, Alberta began to redesign its innovation system. The ARC Board and I both agreed to stay on at the request of the Province to provide continuity and input while Alberta completed their design and completed the legal transitions of the system. That ultimately occurred January 1, 2010 at which time I and the Board both departed.
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