The Geek's Reading List for the week ending Feb. 27
By Brian Piccioni
This was a slow week for tech news – Probably the most significant development was the decision by the US FCC to regulate Internet services in a limited sense as a utility and to enforce net neutrality. Ultimately this is a political decision which will pit the well monied carriers and large Internet companies (some of whom gain if there is no net neutrality) against lowly consumers and businesses
1) FCC votes for net neutrality, a ban on paid fast lanes, and Title II
This was, no doubt, the big tech story of the week. Certain countries, notably the US and Canada do not regulate Internet services. In a competitive market this might no be necessary, however, in North America, as in most places, there is no competition. As a consequence, carriers use their monopoly/duopoly position to maximize returns, which means higher costs and lower service. It is not coincidence that Internet service providers in Canada and the US are unusually profitable despite offering substandard service along with high prices relative to areas where regulation is in effect. A loss of Net Neutrality further restricts competition by establishing barriers against competition for Internet services since new entrants would lack the funds to pay off the carriers to carry their offering. I believe Internet services should be fully regulated as a utility such as electricity is. Unfortunately, this is not done yet: no doubt well funded lobbyists will make a sincere effort to reverse the move.
“The Federal Communications Commission today voted to enforce net neutrality rules that prevent Internet providers—including cellular carriers—from blocking or throttling traffic or giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment. The most controversial part of the FCC's decision reclassifies fixed and mobile broadband as a telecommunications service, with providers to be regulated as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. This decision brings Internet service under the same type of regulatory regime faced by wireline telephone service and mobile voice, though the FCC is forbearing from stricter utility-style rules that it could also apply under Title II.”
2) Android Captures Tiny 11% Share of Global Smartphone Profit in Q4 2014
The way to make money in technology is to establish a closed, proprietary, standard. This explains the success of Apple, Microsoft, and Intel. It is not surprising that Apple earns most of the money from the smartphone market as they are the only company with significant market share to have established such a position. It is worthwhile noting that Apple's position was gained when it was perceived as a technological leader, rather than the follower it currently is. Consumers will eventually get wise to the situation and prices (and thereby profits) will plunge. Needless to say, none of this will motivate vendors to move to Firefox, Microsoft, or some other OS vendor because those will neither be profitable nor have measurable market share.
“Global smartphone operating profit grew 31 percent annually from US$16.2 billion in Q4 2013 to US$21.2 billion in Q4 2014. Android hardware vendors combined took a record-low 11 percent global smartphone profit share, down from 29 percent one year ago. In contrast, Apple iOS captured a record-high 89 percent profit share, up from 71 percent in Q4 2013. Apple iOS continues to tighten its grip on the smartphone industry. Apple’s strategy of premium products and lean logistics is proving hugely profitable. Android’s weak profitability for its hardware partners will worry Google. If major smartphone manufacturers, like Samsung or Huawei, cannot make decent profits from the Android ecosystem, they may be tempted in the future to look at alternative platforms such as Microsoft, Tizen or Firefox.”
3) Kill the Wireless Contract! Buy Your Own Phone
I admit to being perplexed that so many consumers preferred to remain indentured to a mobile carrier rather than buying an unlocked phone. Most carriers will offer a discount if you “bring your own device” and you end up with significant bargaining power once you have the option of switching carriers at any time. Do not, however, pay the full shot for a phone from carrier: in Canada, for example, Rogers was charging 20% more for a “locked” Nexus 5 than what you would pay for an unlocked version directly from Google.
“I am an idiot. I signed a two-year contract to get my iPhone 6. Without much thought, I did what most Americans do every two years: I agreed to be locked in by a multibillion-dollar wireless company. With pricey contracts and confusing add-ons, they make it incredibly hard to leave, let alone take our phones with us. I deserve to walk around with “Property of Verizon” stamped on my forehead. We sign on the dotted line because we presume it will save us money on that new shiny phone and our monthly service. But here’s the thing they don’t want us to know: Neither is necessarily true anymore.”
4) Rogues Falsely Claim Copyright on YouTube Videos to Hijack Ad Dollars
Can there be no more vile crime than asserting copyright over another person's cat video? Well, not so much crime because it is not clear they are doing anything illegal. After all, Google has no interest as to whether you or the Russian mob owns your cat video, so long as the advertising dollars keep spending. They set up an automated process for “take down” notices which essentially transfer the burden off proof to the original owner rather than the guy making the allegation. Nevertheless, this may be civil fraud and not criminal. I am surprised there hasn't been a class action suit on the matter.
“Cat videos are all the rage on YouTube, so much so that a Russian company hijacked a recent cute clip of a feline named “Pepper” in order to steal the ad revenue. Kidnapping YouTube videos, which anecdotal evidence suggests has happened thousands of times, is as easy as it gets. A Russian company called Netcom Partners and others are taking advantage of YouTube’s copyright-control filters, known as Content ID. It’s not clear how much money the scammers are stealing from YouTube videomakers. But if you judge by the volume of complaints about the hijacking on Google’s forums, it’s likely Netcom and others are doing pretty well making money for nothing.”
5) Strong legislation that will weaken the ability of the trolls to shake down innovators is likely to pass Congress, but more should be done
One man's patent troll is another man's inventor. Oddly enough, in media coverage titanic corporations such as Apple (which is notorious for appropriating technology) is characterized as a victim of trolls when sued and a victim when shamelessly using patented, albeit banal, technology to limit competition. Nevertheless, most tech company managers would tell you that being shaken down by a patent troll for a few tens, or hundreds, of thousands dollars, is normal course of business nowadays so it is a problem, unless you happen to be a lawyer. Calling for the abolition of patents is absurd: the root problem is the decision to allow patents on things like software, as well as poor quality patents in general.
“There's finally light at the end of the dark, troll-invested tunnel, and it isn't an oncoming train. Congress is likely to pass a bill that will take money out of the pockets of innovation-sucking patent trolls (aka "nonpracticing entities") despite opposition from lawyers, the pharmaceutical industry, and a few tech companies that hold large numbers of patents.The Innovation Act isn't an ideal fix for the program patent system. "It's largely a measure to reform patent litigation, but it doesn't do enough to improve the quality of patents," says Daniel Nazer, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which would prefer to see software patents abolished. But provisions in the proposed law, like one that will make trolls pay legal costs if their claims are rejected, will remove a good deal of the risk that smaller companies face when they decide to resist a spurious lawsuit.”
6) After iPad initiative failure, school supe says LA can’t buy computers for all
You might recall my incredulity when this program was announced a while back. On its face, it was a dumb idea: give students expensive, fragile, first generation computing devices when you could have given them much more computing power at less than one third the cost in a cheap laptop. Not that a laptop would have been a good idea because those would have been damaged or destroyed in short order as well. Besides which, even if the program had been run at a fraction of the cost, the educational benefits would have been questionable. Something tells me a forensic audit of all concerned might be in order.
“Speaking to a group of reporters on Friday, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) superintendent Ramon C. Cortines said that the city can't afford to buy a computer for every student. The statement comes after intense controversy over a $1.3 billion initiative launched by Cortines' predecessor, former superintendent John Deasy, in which every student was supposed to be given an iPad loaded with content from educational publisher Pearson.”
7) A New Physics Theory of Life
Its not really a theory as much as an hypothesis, and it is not necessarily the case that life in this context would be “life as we know it” as Dr. McCoy (Star Trek) might describe it. For example, the complexity of a system is bound to be related to the resources and environment of that system. It is hard to believe shining a light on sand is going to result in a long term transformation to a plant. No doubt abiogenesis obeys the laws of physics but proving it is an inherent outcome of very laws is another matter, even if the math works.
“From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.”
8) Why SSDs are obsolete
We have noted in the past that mass storage, notably Hard and Solid State Disk Drives (HDD and SSD) are deliciously primitive in the way they are used in modern computers. In summary, your modern solid state drive. They have an architectural and software legacy dating back over 30 years. This is particularly ludicrous because an SSD tries very hard to pretend it is a HDD at the cost of performance. All this is due to the nature of the operating systems, in particular Windows but including Apple and Linux. The time has come to rethink the OS's relationship to mass storage and, perhaps, make HDDs pretend they are SSDs instead.
“SSDs were built because there are billions of SATA and SAS disk ports available. Filling some of those ports with SSDs promised to be quite profitable - a promise fulfilled in the last 5 years. But now that non-volatile memory technology - flash today, plus RRAM tomorrow - has been widely accepted, it is time to build systems that use flash directly instead of through our antique storage stacks. The various efforts to decrease latency - SATA 3, NVMe, and others - still add layers of software between our applications and our data, creating complexity and wasting CPU cycles. A recent PhD thesis got me to thinking about this.”
9) The China Smartphone Market Picks Up Slightly in 2014Q4, IDC Reports
We continue to believe smartphone pricing is under pressure, a situation which will significantly impact high end vendors such as Apple. Concurrently, growth in the developing world will be mitigated by the emergence of low end Chinese vendors as well as the spreading presence of Xiaomi, a company which has managed to establish itself through adept marketing. Apple investors may wish to hedge their downside risk.
“Xiaomi's focus on selling low-cost phones with decent specifications, as well as the hype that it created through its flash sales, helped it to obtain the top position in both 2014Q4 and 2014. Apple had a jump to the second position in 2014Q4 as its iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models were only launched in China in the last quarter of the year. Huawei was ranked third in terms of smartphone shipments as it had a wide range of models in the low-end and mid-range segment that did well in 2014Q4. Lenovo finished off as the fourth in 2014Q4 with its strong focus on
10) Augmented and Virtual Reality Devices to Explode from 3 Million Units in 2015 to 55 Million in 2020
I repeat my usual caveats regarding the value of industry research, in particular with respect to forecasts. Nevertheless, it seems credible to me that Head Mounted Displays, which can provide an immersive experience are cheap enough to make that they will become popular among gamers. Unfortunately, as per 3D movies, the experience is not a visually comfortable one, and this may limit game play. After all, two displays in front of your face is not reality and even though it can look pretty good for a while the human brain is not used to this sort of visual experience.
“The augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) markets are seeing much action, from new devices and new content, to existing content adapting to make use of the new medium. Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) will be the prevailing form-factor for both AR and VR devices, but AR will see varied form-factors as the technology progresses into more applications. “Among the three categories of devices defined by ABI Research—standalone, mobile-reliant, and tethered—mobile-reliant devices like the Samsung Gear VR will see the most success early, while tethered devices like the Oculus Rift and standalone devices like those manufactured by ODG for industrial applications will need more time to mature before establishing a large user base,” comments Eric Abbruzzese, Research Analyst. Virtual reality will be most popular in the gaming market, because of the high level of immersion possible in VR, as well as the high demand for interactive experiences. Augmented reality will be most successful in the enterprise market, for applications in logistics, engineering, and automotive. Applications such as education, travel, and design are served well by both AR and VR, and success depends more on specific needs than general application.”
11) China removes top U.S. tech firms from government purchasing list
The Snowden/NSA revelations simply confirmed what could be extrapolated from the US Patriot Act, namely that large tech firms were vigorously colluding with intelligence agencies. Of course, the cat is out of the bag, and people are actually looking for evidence of such programs – and finding the. Meanwhile the large tech firms have gone past damage control mode to active theater to make it look like they actually care about privacy. This should work for friendly governments, consumers and businesses, however, unfriendly governments are, logically, looking for alternatives. This is bound to result in lesser growth than would otherwise have been the case and lead to strengthened competitors.
“China has dropped several top U.S. technology companies, including Cisco and Apple, from a list of brands that are approved for state purchases, amid a widening rift with the United States about cyberspace. The move, reported by the Reuters news agency Thursday, comes in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about a massive U.S. cyber-espionage program code-named PRISM. It also comes as China is energetically bolstering what it calls its “cyber-sovereignty.””
12) Keeping Atherosclerosis In-Check with Novel Targeted Inflammation-Resolving Nanomedicines
Despite the dreadful reference to drones (they are not drones and have nothing to do with drones) this is an intriguing development. Most drugs circulate freely meaning diseased tissue only receives gets a dose by coincidence while healthy tissue is exposed to all the risks and side effects which come from any drug. If a delivery system such as this can specifically target diseased tissues, the dose delivered to the target area can be higher while avoiding exposure to healthy tissue. Most likely, this approach can be extended to other drugs such as chemotherapy.
“In mouse models with advanced atherosclerosis, researchers administered nanomedicines and relevant controls. Following five weeks of treatment with the nanomedicines, damage to the arteries was significantly repaired and plaque was stabilized. Specifically, researchers observed a reduction of reactive oxygen species; increase in collagen, which strengthens the fibrous cap; and reduction of the plaque necrotic core, and these changes were not observed in comparison with the free peptide or empty nanoparticles.”
13) US regulators try to tame 'wild west' of DNA testing
This is probably a good thing for the industry as it will limit the number of charlatans. DNA testing is a powerful, albeit imperfect, tool, however, it the results are probabilistic, not deterministic, which confounds interpretation. It is remarkable the FDA is interested in taking action on this science based service while homeopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, vitamin supplements, and other fraudulent practices are more or less unfettered.
“So far, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved genetic tests only for specific conditions. This includes the approval on 19 February of a test developed by 23andMe of Mountain View, California, to determine whether people carry a gene variant that could lead to their offspring developing Bloom syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by small stature and multiple health problems. With the massive number of genome-based diagnostics that are possible, the agency cannot practically continue with the painstaking approach it has taken in approving these tests. So on 20 February, the FDA is running a workshop at which scientists, doctors and regulators will discuss a strategy put forward by the agency in December that aims to allow the technology to flourish but clamp down on a 'wild west' atmosphere in which some companies are making unproven claims about how well the tests can predict health patterns.”
14) Men have hands amputated and replaced with bionic ones
This is an interesting approach for those who have lost the use of a limb but still have it: train a bionic replacement then have the useless appendage amputated. Of course, this would only work for certain types of injuries but it is impressive. Needless to say there is the risk a mechanism for repairing nerve damage might be developed which would call into question the decision to amputate. For those who refuse to install Flash, here is a link to an HTML 5 version of the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgu6ajeiwnk.
“The procedure, dubbed "bionic reconstruction", was carried out by Oskar Aszmann at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria. The men had all suffered accidents which damaged the brachial plexus – the bundle of nerve fibres that runs from the spine to the hand. Despite attempted repairs to those nerves, the arm and hand remained paralysed. "But still there are some nerve fibres present," 0says Aszmann. "The injury is so massive that there are only a few. This is just not enough to make the hand alive. They will never drive a hand, but they might drive a prosthetic hand."”
15) New research signals big future for quantum radar
As with anything else concerning quantum physics I only have a vague understanding of what they are talking about here. It seems they are using quantum entanglement to derive an optical signal from a microwave scan, which could lead to a completely non-invasive imagining system. In other words MRI without the enormously powerful (and expensive) magnets and there respective complications or, alternatively, CA scans without the ionizing radiation. Before dismissing this as science fiction, recall that MRI is itself a quantum imaging technique.
“A prototype quantum radar that has the potential to detect objects which are invisible to conventional systems has been developed by an international research team led by a quantum information scientist at the University of York. The new breed of radar is a hybrid system that uses quantum correlation between microwave and optical beams to detect objects of low reflectivity such as cancer cells or aircraft with a stealth capability. Because the quantum radar operates at much lower energies than conventional systems, it has the long-term potential for a range of applications in biomedicine including non-invasive NMR scans.”
16) Cable Channels Speed Up TV Shows To Cram In More Ads
I rarely watch anything that I do not record first so I rarely see advertizing. Nevertheless, you can typically notice the amount of advertizing on some channels is much greater than others because of number of times you hit the 'skip forward' button. There is nothing particularly novel about editing out content and adding commercials but this approach can be fully automated, meaning it will probably become more common. Ultimately this will lead to more 'cable cutting', however, in the interim it will make quarterly results look a bit better.
“Anyone who’s watched a syndicated TV show on basic cable is already familiar with some methods of trimming the fat off of shows — shorter opening credits, sped-up closing credits that may overlap on-screen ads or the next show — but what you may not have noticed is that some cable networks are actually speeding up shows and movies to squeeze in more commercials. This is according to the Wall Street Journal, which reports that TBS and others are using compression technology to play content back at a slightly faster clip in order to get a few more seconds of air time for ads.”
17) Talking drone offers aviation safety boost
I have never used a voice recognition system I didn't want to smash so I can imaging the frustration this would cause air traffic controllers. Regardless, voice is a rather inefficient means to communicate, even if it is what humans are good at. If drones become more common, an automated or at least digitally controlled system is what would be required. Alternatively, banning drones from commercial airspace is a safer option.
“In a world first, RMIT University researchers have developed a talking drone that can converse with air traffic controllers just like a normal pilot. The development is a critical step towards the full integration of unmanned aircraft systems – or drones – into civil airspace. The project, part of a larger research initiative that aims to address safety and efficiency issues related to drones and air traffic management, is the result of a partnership between RMIT, Thales Australia and the company's Centre for Advanced Studies in Air Traffic Management (CASIA), and UFA Inc. View and embed a video of the system in action: bit.ly/talkingdrone.”
18) Ad Company Reportedly Utilizing Drones Across SFV As Part Of Experiment
Drones are in the news a lot lately. If you think about it, this approach is not really any different than using a drone to violate privacy by taking pictures or having Google photograph your neighborhood. Most people do not appreciate being spied upon, especially if they do not realize that they are being spied upon. I am frankly surprised nobody offers a surface to air anti-drone missile yet. After all, drones are pretty fragile and it wouldn't take much to bring them down (a net, for instance) and a guidance system could probably be made for a couple dollars.
“An advertising company has been utilizing drones experimentally to monitor cellular and Wi-Fi signals across the San Fernando Valley, according to a new report. As CBS2’s Erica Nochlin reports, the small drones are apparently buzzing around the Valley and have reportedly been monitoring signals all month long to pinpoint the location of mobile devices and their owners, according to VentureBeat. “The idea that there are drones flying around, that’s kinda terrifying,” said one resident in reacting to this report. “Invasion. Invasion of privacy.” According to Nochlin, AdNear is the marketing company that’s responsible and says it’s only an experiment for now, but one day those drones could be used to send out location-based ads faster.”
19) The best—and worst—places to drive your electric car
The excitement over Electric Vehicles (EVs) is an intriguing phenomenon as most consumers have direct experience with the limitations of batteries: they have short lives, are expensive, and do not perform well at extreme temperatures. All this is true, regardless of the misrepresentations of company executives and their marketing shills. It is, after all, a matter of chemistry. Batteries do not function well when cold and they die an early death when hot. As is generally the case, people will figure this out, eventually. Just don't be the guy who spends his own money to learn. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
“In terms of driving range, electric cars in California and the Deep South travel the farthest, as the balmy temperatures yield the best energy efficiency and therefore longer trips before they must be plugged in again. (That’s a lucky break for Golden Staters, who also purchase the most green vehicles in the nation.) Vehicles in cold places, in contrast, have less battery capacity and thus shorter range. The average range of a Nissan Leaf on the coldest day drops from 112 km in San Francisco to less than 72 km in Minneapolis, according to the study, published online this month in Environmental Science & Technology.”
20) Toyota unveils hydrogen-powered electric car Toyota Mirai that charges in just 180 seconds
Needless to say, you fuel Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) you don't charge them. The massive subsidies which have propelled demand for Electric Vehicles (EVs) have provided an opportunity for FCVs, which at least do not have the battery problems of EVs. The Achilles Heal of FCVs is hydrogen, which is inherently expensive to make and transport. For example, a tube-truck (a mid-sized tractor trailor) carries enough hydrogen for about 25 'fill-ups' and the gas is very expensive to make on site. Nonetheless, you feed the ducks while the ducks are quacking and if governments are willing to give away money so people can pretend they are driving a Zero Emission Vehicle, so be it. The good news is EVs could become viable if and when battery technology advances while the bad news is, hydrogen isn't going to get any easier to make or transport.
“Toyota Mirai which can travel for about 300 miles is cinched to be the first ever mass-market car that uses electrical energy extracted from compressed hydrogen. This would imply that it will exhaust fume that is actually water vapor. With the help of the hydrogen fuel cells technology, the sleek car need not long hours of charging, as it can be charged in about 180 seconds (3 minutes). The founder of Tesla Motors and the one who opened up the floodgate for electric-cars, Elon Musk, had just hurled brickbats on Toyota Mirai. Musk commented that hydrogen is not a very reliable source of energy for cars and even called the hydrogen fuel cells “extremely silly.” He said that hydrogen is too hard to store, generate and transform into fuel and this technology turn away the attention from better sources of clean energy.”
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.
Screwball letters 5
Jim Hynes, left, and Tony Patterson, right, met more than half a century ago in the halls of Jesuit-run Loyola College in Montreal, now enclosed within Concordia University. They have been debating ever since.
Twists & turns in climate quandary
always lead back to pricing carbon
Tony to Jim
I don’t suppose you’ve wanted to dampen this season of cheer by reading my review of Tom Rand’s book, Waking the Frog. After reading Rand, I picked up Naomi Klein’s book on the subject. Hers is more a condemnation of the winner-takes-all economy, a lemon she’s been squeezing for some time. But the two together are totally persuasive: increasing climate disruption is inevitable and the future of the planet looks grim to more than nine out of ten climatologists, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (one of the less frightening statements from IPCC’s 2014 report: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence).”) and more and more of the thoughtful population, admittedly a tiny cohort. Only the pollyanish politicians refuse to get it.
Canada is not too small a player to have measurable impact on the outcome. Just leaving the tarsands where they lie would provide considerable relief. Is it too much to hope that Canada, with all its resources — natural, financial and human — could actually show the way, take a lead, light a candle? Ah well, mine to dream, my kids and grandkids to do, if they please and hope to survive.
Jim to Tony
I've now read your review, which I'm happy to say leaves me feeling I don't need to read the book. Ditto Klein's similar effort. Of course these bright people are right about the problem, but a bit fuzzy about the solution. It's easy to say we should stop burning fossil fuels, but it's also virtually impossible to actually do that. What both authors fail to do is separate the burning of fossil fuels per se from the dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. Assuming one leads inevitably to the other is the equivalent of assuming flush toilets must inevitably lead to open sewers fouling the streets. These authors are urging us to just stop flushing, rather than building sewage systems to handle the effluent. Thermal power plants don't have to pollute the air; they do this because they aren't obliged to clean up their own waste. Industries that used to massively pollute water this way are now obliged to control and treat their effluents, and some air polluters must now control toxic emissions, but not CO2. The solution isn't to leave the tar sands in the ground; the solution is not to leave the CO2 waste they produce in the atmosphere. There's at least one natural gas-fired power plant in Saskatchewan right now that captures and sequesters its CO2 output, and a carbon tax in B.C. is driving emitters there to look at all sorts of emission-control technologies. A national carbon tax is what we need, but we won't get one unless and until the U.S. gets one too.
Personally, I think the ultimate solution to this problem lies in a breakthrough in battery technology. Our inability to efficiently store electricity severely limits the utility of solar and wind generation systems today, because their output is so variable. A battery breakthrough would allow all their output to be ultimately used, and would also make electric vehicles much more competitive than they are now. If I were the emperor of Canada, as I should be, we would have a national carbon tax with or without the U.S., and all the money raised would go to intensive research into CO2 sequestration and new battery technologies. Meanwhile, my hopes rest on the possibility that our children and grandchildren may not be a stupid as we are right now.
Tony to Jim
Most of what I’ve read gives much room to tech advancement but it takes unbridled optimism to believe that tech will outpace heat. There’s movement on the tech front, to be sure, though I’ve been reading and writing about the battery solution for more than 20 years (is it possible that Ballard still operates, still raises money?). It’s on the political and public discussion/persuasion front that we make no progress and in fact fall way, way back of where we should be. Kyoto was a dreadful failure all around and Kyoto is us. The possibility, no longer I think remote, is that our children and grandchildren, smart as they might be, will find themselves fighting alligators while trying to clear swamps in the middle of Vancouver. Their resources will be spent for survival not for the better way forward.
Jim to Tony
I think it's now a virtual certainty that sea levels are going to gradually rise by at least a few metres over the next century or so, even if we stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Enough change has already occurred (shrinking polar sea ice cover, retreating glaciers) to make that inevitable. Worst case scenarios call for a rise of 10 metres. Clearly, this will require some major adaptations, such as the abandonment of all or large parts of many coastal cities. However, I don't see why those adaptations can't or won't happen. Today's humanity and our immediate hominid precursors adapted to an enormous variety of habitats over a range of a few million years, including episodes of both more and less heat than we have now. Of course, large numbers of people won't manage to adapt effectively, which will lead to a smaller global population. This may be a bad thing if you think having more people is automatically better than having fewer, but it would unquestionably be good for the planet as a whole, and all the other life forms on it. So yes, it will be a shame when Venice and New Orleans are gone, and the Tower of London has to visited in a boat, but life will go on. The climate on this planet has never been a fixed thing, and human interference has only recently become a factor. Much bigger changes have been caused in the past by things like asteroid strikes, chains of volcanic eruptions and massive earthquakes. Who can say whether something like that won't happen over the next century? A colossal eruption of the huge magma chamber under Yellowstone Park would darken the skies over the whole globe for years, providing a cooling effect that would more than offset CO2-caused warming. Of course, this would also lead to a global famine of epic proportions, but that would be just a side effect. The big beneficiaries would be the polar bears, who would get their 10 months of sea ice back. I think you should steer your great-grandchildren into hydraulic engineering. There's going to be a huge demand for such things as a giant seawall around Manhattan Island and a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Tony to Jim
It may be, now that man (if I may use that word to mean both solitudes of the species, though man himself has been mostly responsible) has devised such ready means and excuses to self-destruct, that ways must be found to determine and implement transnational strategies to better serve the real interests of people. Climate disruption is tangible. It is visible and understood everywhere. It transcends language and borders and idiotologies. It sweeps the Fox-CNN-CBC panorama and all media elsewise from blog to twitter to NYT. It’s an opportunity not to be missed to take an evolutionary step ahead toward post-national planetarianism.
Jim to Tony
Self-destruction? I don't think that's within human capabilities on a planetary scale. Even a global nuclear war wouldn't do it; there are too many people in too many places where extreme measures would enable some to survive. And climate change certain won't do it; it happens too gradually to overwhelm all efforts to adapt. Big coastal cities will simply be rebuilt on higher ground step by step, and new arable lands will emerge in the north to replace those lost to desertification in the south. If the survival of humanity was really at stake (as it would be, for instance, if we were about to be struck by a thousand-mile-wide asteroid), maybe we would "take an evolutionary step" and implement some "transnational strategies." But there are no historical precedents for such a thing, and an awful lot of evidence suggests that humanity isn't capable of such a consensus. Climate change will have very uneven effects around the world, including beneficial ones in some places. The Yukon might replace California as the agricultural heartland of North America, with Siberia playing a similar role in Asia. Massive migration into these regions would lead to conflict, not agreement, about who does what to whom (as Lenin put it). Global warming isn't going to make everything worse; it's going to make everything different. Many things will get worse (droughts, heat waves, species extinctions, extreme weather events), but other things will get better. The map of habitable and arable regions will change, but there will still be plenty of places where humanity will survive and thrive. The ongoing process of change is much more likely to lead to global conflicts than it is to global consensus. After all, we find plenty of things to fight about even when nothing else is changing. I'm afraid "post-national planetarianism" belongs right up there with transubstantiation and the principal of the doubly-fucked.
Tony to Jim
Still, putting a price on carbon and ratcheting it up to keep hurting is the right thing to do, is it not?
Jim to Tony
Yes, it is. It's the right approach because it doesn't tell you to stop burning fossil fuels, it just discourages dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. You can reduce emissions in any number of ways (improve operating efficiency, switch from coal to natural gas, capture and sequester emissions, convert to hydro, solar, or wind generation, etc.), and the tax revenues can be used to fund more research or subsidize more conversions. There are millions more cars on the road now than there were 20 years ago, but the entire fleet is burning less gasoline overall than it did back then. The black clouds of smog that used to hover over Los Angeles and Mexico City have dissipated, along with London's coal-fired fogs. Electricity consumption per capita has been trending downwards for decades, thanks to much more efficient lights and appliances. Improving the ways we use energy is just as important as improving the ways we generate it. Ontario's energy use efficiency has improved so much lately, we're not building two new nuclear reactors the wizards at OPG in the 90s insisted we would need by now. There are positive things happening amidst the gloom and doom, and these trends are accelerating. If we used to be running headlong towards the edge of a cliff, we're now merely jogging towards it, and soon we'll be down to a walk. And I still look to a battery breakthrough to really turn things around---but forget about Ballard. They've come close, but no cigar. The hot area now is the thermoelectric and thermogalvanic effects created by temperature differences, transferring heat into electricity. Until recently, this only worked efficiently with temperature differences as great as 500 C, but a process has now been discovered that works at temperatures 10 times lower, opening the possibility of converting huge amounts of what is now low-grade waste heat (which is created in virtually every industrial process) into electric power. Instead of having to spin a generator, your car could keep its battery charged with the waste heat from its own exhaust. The global warming problem illustrates humanity's capacity for collective stupidity, but technical advances illustrate an opposite capacity for individual ingenuity and creativity. I look to the latter to eventually offset the former. With apologies to Abe Lincoln, all people are stupid some of the time, and some people are stupid all of the time, but all people are not stupid all of the time. That's what will either prevent us from going over the cliff, or allow the best of us us to carry on after we do.
Tony to Jim
Agreed. In the meantime we must set a price on CO2 that will push emissions way back.
The following links will take you to Screwball Letters or Screwball Letters 2 or Screwball Letters 3 or Screwball Letters 4.
Golden or beneath contempt: our choice
By Tony Patterson
We are living the golden age. This is it. There has never been a better time to be alive, certainly in Canada. The bad news is it won’t be getting better. Ours will be remembered in a thousand years as the age that squandered the future. In our golden age we spent it all for ourselves and left garbage for our great-grandchildren. Unless . . .
I give you Tom Rand who has written a book called Waking the Frog. He says something you might not be aware of. There is a solution to the climate disruption problem. Climate disruption is caused by too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat from the sun much like glass in a greenhouse. Too much heat does a lot of rough stuff, from melting the polar ice caps, which causes oceans to rise and seaside cities to drown, to parching the lands where food is grown. The carbon comes from digging out and then burning up too much coal and oil. Climate disruption is what is squandering the planet’s future. The solution is simple and well understood: put a price on carbon so that people will churn less of it. The problem is how to manage the consequences.
Just to start with, the proven reserves of the energy giants “are already four times more than we can safely burn.” This is inventory on corporate balance sheets meant to be sold. How can that be stopped? Big problem and lots of big oil companies to keep hands off their carbon.
Another big problem: what can we turn to that keeps the lights on and the engines turning without releasing carbon dioxide? Neatly, Rand suggests how the two problems might provide cross-solutions. Global energy companies can put their engineering talent to work on what Rand calls an “energy moon shot,” much more ambitious in scope than President Kennedy’s original commitment to put a man on the moon. It would be a “publicly directed mission” to turn the finance, engineering and industrial strengths of the market economy by giant leaps, not incremental changes, toward a low-carbon energy future, nothing less than what has been called the fourth industrial revolution.
Mainstream economic analysis based largely, Rand asserts, on oversimplified climate data, coalesces around the proposition that carbon levels should be reduced but that a modest effort is all that’s required to bring atmospheric carbon levels to “between 700 and 800 parts per million (ppm) by the end of the twenty-first century.”
Flawed economic analysis to be sure but it’s the consensus and it’s what politicians are hearing from their expert economic advisers. The problem is they might persuade us all that their predicted outcome is good enough, thereby appealing irresistibly to our natural instinct to do nothing until crisis strikes, perhaps devastatingly, as in Katrina, Sandy or Japan’s tsunami. What if their comforting numbers disguise a nasty result? What if they’re right indeed but the outcome is dismal nevertheless.
This is more likely than not, according to Rand, because “no one with any serious knowledge of climate science thinks 800 ppm is a place modern civilization can go.” This may be the place for me to mention that Rand, while he isn’t a climate scientist, is very well versed in the fast developing world of clean technologies as an entrepreneur. He’s also academically irreproachable with a degree in engineering from Waterloo, two masters degrees and a doctorate in philosophy from LSE, the U of T and the University of London,. He’s a bright guy. He’s making an intelligent argument that inspires action. It’s leavened with irony and wit — Waking the Frog is eerily apt — and jabs at the preposterously overpraised. It’s an argument from a clear-eyed look at facts and a common sense approach to instituting change. It’s a mighty challenge. But he shows that indeed there are what the book’s subtitle promises: solutions for our climate change paralysis. And, most effectively, he explains why it must be done.
“A rise in global average temperatures associated with 800 ppm of atmospheric carbon,” he writes, “brings systemic risks throughout our food supply with massive increased risks of droughts, severe weather, and flooding in coastal areas. By the end of the century, those risks are off the charts! Resource scarcity eads to wars over food and water. Our ever-aging infrastructure will be at risk of being consistently overwhelmed by storms, water and fire — and all the attendant physical and financial misery. Ocean levels will eventually rise not by meters but by a hundred meters (328 feet) or more because the ice caps will completely melt over time. That kind of a carbon level is . . . the end of comfortable life as most of us know it now!”
If 800 ppm represents survival in a blistering, bleak and barren world, where are we now? Well we’re struggling to hang on to a target of 450 ppm. “To have a snowball’s chance of limiting carbon to 450 ppm,” writes Rand, “we have to leave between two-thirds and four-fifths of all proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.” To have any chance of doing this we must have alternatives for at least some of the displaced carbon. Rand suggests everything from breeder reactors to geothermal systems to commercial building retrofits. As a pilot project in the latter category he presents a hotel he developed in downtown Toronto that reduced its energy use seventy five percent by leveraging five percent of the building’s capital cost to instal geothermal and solar heating and super-efficient LED lighting that “can light-up the entire building like a Christmas tree — inside and out — for less energy than a four-slice toaster uses.”
Why put a price on it? Nothing in the global market is more certain than demand reducing as costs increase. If the goal is to reduce the use of carbon, charge more for its use. “There’s no more powerful tool in our policy options,” Rand argues. “Pricing carbon is fair, justified, effective, efficient and politically neutral.” Nobody gets a fee ride.
Rand allows that any of the solutions he presents can be debated in good faith but one thing we must agree on is the urgent need to act.
“Humankind has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years. From Rome and the birth of Christ through to our wonderfully complex global economy, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Art, literature, science, culture, and our civic structures, all are results of our long journey to the present. Who knows what further adventures might await? We’ll only have the chance to find out if we manage to squeak through the climate crisis and stop our mad gallop toward the climate cliff.”
The frog is us. The planet, our pool, is rapidly warming. If we don’t jump soon, very soon, it will start to boil. Wake up before we feel much more heat is Rand’s cry from the soul. Wake up, I echo, or be beneath contempt forever in the memory of generations to come.
Waking the Frog: Solutions for Our Climate Change Paralysis, by Tom Rand. ECW Press. 209 pages. $29.95
PSF energizes activists for new beginning
By Tony Patterson
The Peoples Social Forum that camped on the uOttawa campus and spread throughout the city last week (Aug. 21-24, 2014) generated much ado about almost anything you can think of in opposition to Stephen Harper and other powers that be, tar sands, the establishment, pipelines, the government, the one percent (the Family Compact in days of old). None of these evildoers were present in person, but they were represented by an extensive security force. One march I witnessed:
“What do we want?” “Justice.”
“When do we want it?” “Now.”
Who we want justice for wasn’t audible but could have been all the oppressed and downtrodden. This march was preceded by two senior officers on foot and accompanied by almost as many others as marchers. I exaggerate. There were actually more marchers than cops, maybe twice as many. But the police were armed, which more than evened the odds. Seven were on bicycles, four on motorcycles, a half-dozen on foot and several in vehicles of various descriptions, including the latest model of what was known back in the day as the ‘paddywagon’ for its common use carting drunk and obstreperous Irishmen off to the cells. They were ready for anything but nothing was happening. The marchers were as peaceful as Sri Chinmoy acolytes.
What I gather is that there are three shared points of view among the many, many, many interest groups here, of all colours, faiths and persuasions. Everyone despises the Prime Minister. That’s number one. I saw no I Hate Harper buttons but I heard a lot of that kind of talk. Almost everyone is anti-capitalist. And almost every group wants money.
These are just overall impressions from snatches overheard. There are variations, of course, and many subtexts. The largest audience was for the radical economist Naomi Klein, who was careful to cap her recitation of all of capitalism’s sins of omission and commission with the caution that resistance has to be accompanied by feasible alternatives.
One session I got to featured a ramble into indigenous prehistory and a catalogue of the injustices done to First Nations by renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, who is front and centre for a proposed Indigenous International Peace Centre located on islands of historic importance in the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau. It’s a project a long time in gestation, decades actually, but taking on a new urgency with the recently announced proposals for commercial development of the site. This one will cost many millions. You can see pictures on Mr. Cardinal’s website.
The surprise in another session I attended was how few there were who showed an interest. The topic was legalizing cannabis. The presenter was Craig Jones, who has given much of his career to assisting the oppressed and disadvantaged in Canada (he was exec director of John Howard Society until 2010), who told it like it is. In short, cannabis prohibition does more harm than the substance itself. Interest, shall we say, was muted. There weren’t more than ten people in the room and at least one of them was from out of town looking for a pot connection. Could have been a narc. I’ll bet there was more than one in the crowd.
The pervasive sentiment through the four days: everything is moving in the wrong direction. Conservatives at home are increasing oppression and denying all evidence of environmental holocaust. Abroad, the planet struggles to breathe as rampaging extractive industries feed insatiable demand by western industry and Asian populations.
What’s a poor boy or girl to do?
One thing to do is come out to mega-gatherings like Peoples Social Forum in order to make connections to move the agenda forward, whether the cause is to free Ottawa from the curse of fluoridation, to overthrow the Indian Act or to bring back Karl Marx. It’s not simply the culmination of two years of unrelenting effort by hundreds of volunteers. It’s a new beginning. True believers meet up. Activists are energized. As Greg Macdougall writes in the pre-assembly publication, the main function of the gathering “is to facilitate further collective collaboration and action.”
One reader at a time, starting with the GG
By Tony Patterson
At Rideau Hall for the Killam Symposium on Monday the GG was working the crowd with his usual charm and courtesy. I didn't expect him to turn to me, whom he doesn't know, but he did and as we chatted I mentioned I had been drawn to the wall behind him where his predecessors are listed. He asked why. "De Courcelle had the job in 1665," I said. His Excellency seemed aware of that. His look was partly quizzical and partly "please don't start a centuries-long story because there are another two hundred people in the room I have to get to."
I said, "My first European ancestor arrived in Quebec on the Saint-Sebastien in September 1665, the same boat that brought Governor de Courcelle. It's a pleasure now to meet his successor."
That was serendipity enough for me. The name on the wall, the man himself with his aides, the thin thread of connection through nearly 350 years. But the GG had another thought. "Are you going to write family history," asked Mr. Johnston? Gotta love the man. That's what I do here: Rideau Canal And All That.
"Funny you should ask. Would you like to read some of it?"
"Sure," said the GG, "send it along."
Have you ever wondered
By Tony Patterson
Who makes the decisions behind the big salaries? The July-August 2013 edition of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business tells the tale in its analysis of the Top 1000 corporations in Canada. The Royal Bank led the list, as it usually does, with its profit of $7.4 billion. Does CEO Gord Nixon consult only himself while collecting $14 million for steering RBC? No way. It’s a Board decision. Directors decide.
Way down at the bottom of the ROB list is gas-producer Encana Corp. of Calgary, No. 1000 with a loss of nearly $3 billion. (ROB ranks the Top 1000 companies in Canada by profitability but just over half of the thousand — 544 to be precise — show any profit at all. The rest are all losers for 2012.) Encana’s CEO last year, Randy Eresman, was paid only $7 million. As ROB meanly calculates, Mr. Nixon’s bank made $542 of profit for every loonie he was paid. Mr. Eresman was paid more than $2,500 for every million dollars down the toilet at Encana. According to a calculation by Corporate Knights magazine, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Eresman were each paid 92 times the average salary in their respective companies, an intriguing coincidence.
Who decides this kind of compensation practice, and why? There’s no denying that, like the Big Mac, it’s an importation from the U.S. of A. Mr. Nixon explains it this way in an interview with Grant Robertson of ROB. “. . . most of my top executives have been offered very big positions in the United States and elsewhere. It is a global market, a competitive market . . .”
Research for the New York Times (June 29), found that for the “top 200 chief executives at public companies with at least $1 billion in revenue . . . the median 2012 pay package came in at $15.1 million — a leap of 16 percent from 2011.” Of course even the most ambitious and self-confident Canadian business executive might feel it a long stretch to become CEO of a multi-billion dollar American enterprise. That’s OK because it’s not necessary to reach the very top in order to become very wealthy. As the NYT points out, “Because the data shows only chief executives’ pay, it does not reveal how good it still is to be a prince . . . compensation of the No. 2 executives at some of these companies would have vaulted them to the top ranks on the C.E.O. roster.”
At least noone in Canada tried to push Larry Ellison last year. The larger-than-life CEO of Oracle took $84.5 million from the company to fund his expensive and enduring pursuit of yachting’s America’s Cup. Peter Munk’s gold-plated lures for directors at Barrick, Frank Stronach’s platinum-lined parachute from Magna, don’t compare. Not since 2001 have we seen anything like it, when Canadian Pacific was split into five independent and self-sustaining companies after a century at the core of Canadian business and regional development. The CEO who made that break-up call received compensation, according to all reports, somewhere above $83 million. This was Canadian money, of course, not American like Mr. Ellison’s. Then again, it was a dozen years ago.
Who makes these decisions? Directors do and primus inter pares of directors is the Chair. The Chair usually gives a lead and the Board decides. In some cases the Chair and the CEO are one and the same. This was the case at Canadian Pacific in 2001, when the Chair and CEO was David O’Brien (pictured). The titles used to be joined at the Royal as well, but they’ve been split for some time now. Mr. Nixon is CEO. The Chair is David O’Brien. Similarly at Encana. Mr. Eresman was succeeded early this year as CEO by Clayton Woitas. But the Chair remains the same as before. That’s David O’Brien.
[Disclosure: Tony Patterson is David O'Brien's cousin.]
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, September 3, 2012.)
Despite the prejudices of outsiders against government and bureaucracy, Ottawa has been the best place in Canada to incubate big ideas and visionaries during my lifetime and even before.
The town was started by the greatest engineering project of the age before railways, the building of the everlasting Rideau Canal. That was before my lifetime, of course, but I feel a certain connection. One of my ancestors was a sapper who came with Lt. Colonel By to help blast, cut, dig and construct that magnificent waterway.
My lifetime was getting underway around the time of WWII when Ottawa was the nerve centre of the greatest growth explosion the country has ever seen. There was an engineer in charge, the controversial “minister of everything,” C. D. Howe. Most particularly Ottawa was where the technology to run the engines of war was conceived. The National Research Council emerged from the shadows under a brilliant scientist-soldier, General Andrew McNaughton, inventor of an artillery targeting device that was a forerunner of radar. From the NRC since have emerged hundreds of devices, systems, ideas and even seeds that have contributed to the betterment of humankind everywhere. Canola (a name made up of Canada and oil) is worth $2 billion a year to Prairie farmers, second only to wheat as an agricultural export. The motorized wheelchair. The first cardiac pacemaker. The crash position indicator, which guides rescue workers directly to isolated airplane crash sites before survivors perish of injuries or starvation. These are Ottawa inventions. The vaccine against infant meningitis. The first electronic music synthesizer. The best way to do computer animation of film. All got started here, at the NRC.
Of course there were some escapees of the ambitiously independent from NRC and its offshoots, even though they were often depending on government contracts to get their fledglings off the ground. Joe Norton founded Computing Devices. His son Mark is still actively supporting various high tech enterprises about town. Denny Doyle threw down his labcoat to establish Digital Equipment Corporation in Canada. It would vie with Nortel as the backbone of the tech-centric west end from Nepean through Kanata.
Nortel arrived as Bell-Northern Research in the early 1960s, attracted by NRC and its offshoot the Communications Research Centre at Shirley’s Bay. CRC would be the heart of Canada’s space adventures, starting with the Alouette program in the early 1960s. Alouette 1 made Canada the third nation to have a satellite circling. BNR became the single most important influence in moving the world’s telecom from analog to digital. This key innovation allowed Mike Cowpland and Terry Matthews to produce the fabulously successful PBX machines at Mitel. Then there was a quarter century run-up to Silicon Valley North, an intoxicating, almost giddy era. The likes of Systemhouse, Fulcrum, Jetform, Mosaid, JDS and Cognos were blooming.
Mitel does different things today, but in the meantime Matthews started Newbridge, now part of Alcatel, and Cowpland founded Corel. Nortel (which assumed BNR in 1996) is gone, the victim of awful business decisions. But the $5 billion patent portfolio it revealed in its death throes was dramatic evidence of the quality of thinking that went on there. There, of course, was here. Ottawa.
Where are the dreamers, the visionaries of yesteryear? As a matter of fact, a lot of them are still around, still dreaming dreams, still trying to make them real. Rod Bryden at Plasco. Terry Matthews at the re-acquired Mitel and a score of startups, Michael Cowpland at Zim, Adam Chowaniec, the Foody family, David Luxton. Denny Doyle still consults with the community out of Doyletech. And the young turks: Alfred Jay at Ramius, Tobias Lütke at Shopify, Paul Vallée and Andrew Waitman at Pythian. Space only prevents a much longer list.
It’s been my pleasure to write about these people through the years. Now I take leave, supremely confident that the end is not here, not even near. There will be a new resurgence of the technology gene. It may even have begun without our noticing. I can’t say precisely what it will bring but whatever it is will rise from a foundation of two solid centuries of technological achievement. Right here in government city.
Summer of coooperatives
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, August 6, 2012.)
May was memorable for Mauril Bélanger, the honourable member forever from the Liberal pocket borough of Ottawa-Vanier. It is eight elections and counting for Mauril from the riding next to Parliament Hill that has never elected anyone but a Liberal.
He had a really bad day mid-month when he took on the case of the vanishing Confederation Park subway station. Big mistake. His intrusion into the affairs of another level of government was brutally slapped down by Mayor Jim in a rare public chastisement. Wounded, the MP quietly backed off.
But by end-May Mauril was a star among his parliamentary peers. Appointed May 6 by interim party leader Bob Rae as “advocate” for the co-operative sector in Canada, within days he had conceived a daring – some would say impossible – strategy and got it approved in the Liberal caucus. May 30 was an “opposition day” in the House of Commons. The newly minted co-op advocate would use the time to speak positively about the sector, point out that 2012 is the UN’s International Year of Co-operatives and issue a call to action.
The specific action he proposed was something of a Hail Mary pass, not to say a non-starter. He called for creation of a committee that would sit through the summer to study the status of co-ops in Canada.
But he and other opposition Members in the House of whatever party were gobsmacked when the Harperites caught the pass and said, in effect, “Let’s get to it.” Turns out Conservatives know there are co-ops in every riding, not least in the west, where co-ops have a dominant position in the economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The committee was named. An agenda was set July 10 and witnesses scheduled. Hearings ran through the last week of July. A report is to be ready for the House when it returns from recess in September.
There are a surprisingly large number of players in the co-op sector. Not to mention big bucks. Co-operatives including credit unions control assets of more than $250 billion and employ 150,000 people. More than 18 million Canadians are members of about 9,000 co-operatives, including 2,200 housing co-ops, which are home to more than 250,000 people (full disclosure: I’m one of them). There are more than 1,300 agricultural co-ops, 650 retail co-operatives, 900 credit unions and caisses populaires, about 450 co-ops offering childcare or early childhood education, more than 600 worker co-ops — owned by the employees — with a total membership of over 13,000, and more than 100 healthcare co-operatives.
There are many rural and northern communities where the co-op is the only game in town, for child care, health, supplies, financial services. More than 1,100 communities rely on a local co-operative credit union as their only financial institution. But co-op signs are also large and many in major cities across Canada. Here in Ottawa as throughout Quebec, Caisse Desjardins takes a back seat to none in financial matters. A huge co-op more than a century old, it ranks just behind the big five chartered banks.
While it’s useless to predict the outcome of the current parliamentary initiative, you have to respect whatever will bring MPs to meet in Ottawa in July. Mauril, whose riding runs right up beside Parliament Hill and has never elected anyone unLiberal, asked for the co-op portfolio, which hadn’t existed in any party before. He also had himself named “advocate” rather than “critic”, a crucial and original distinction. No dummy he. In an age of questionable economic models, some of which have tipped the world toward financial panic and gridlock, there is something stable, solid and community-supportive in co-operatives. Their value may be about to be rediscovered. If so, a whack of credit will have to go to the Member for Canada’s most predictable constituency.
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, July 9, 2012.)
Pay attention Ottawa. On the bank of the Ottawa River three hundred acres of your choicest land are about to be in play.
As choice as LeBreton Flats, Rockcliffe is many times the size of that historic neighbourhood, which was devastated by fire in 1900 and is still struggling to revive despite its recent acquisition of the swooping architectural masterpiece that encloses the Canadian War Museum. Essentially undeveloped land running in a huge rectangle bordered by St. Laurent Boulevard on the west, the NRC campus at Blair Road on the east, Montreal Road to the south and the Ottawa River, Rockcliffe is the site of a former RCAF airbase.
DND declared the property surplus in 1984, though there were military families still living there a quarter century later. Rockcliffe has been a question all that time. There were problems with property transfers and a land claim by an Algonquin first nation that apparently has been settled with a payment of $10 million. Algonquins may still be involved since they retain a right of first refusal on parcels to be sold from Rockcliffe. But it’s yet to be seen how willing they are to trade cash-in-hand for ancestral land.
The owner-of-record today is the Canada Lands Company. CLC’s mandate is to develop or dispose of properties the government owns but doesn’t use. It’s a player in major cities, such as Montreal (Old Port area and the Benny Farm residential district) and Toronto (Downsview Park, also a disused airfield). At Rockcliffe, a lead manager is to be named this month who will assemble a team of professionals to envision how this extraordinary landscape will be reshaped. Their starting mission is “to develop an exemplary diverse contemporary neighbourhood offering a choice in housing, employment, commercial, institutional and leisure activities which will be defined by the site’s unique setting, along with a commitment to environmental sustainability and long term economic viability.”
Now this will make a fine extension for Rockcliffe Park, one of the wealthiest enclaves in Canada, which the airfield was carved from nearly a century ago. After all, there are only two thousand people living there now. The airfield would essentially double the area of this ex-village where average salaries are twice what other Ottawa residents get paid. It’s a beautiful site. Should go to the most beautiful people. No?
That’s almost certainly what’s going to happen on the present path to decision. If there are other ideas out there, now’s the time to bring them forward. Two that I’ve heard deserve at least to be exposed:
The main campus of NRC, Canada’s primary research agency, abuts Rockcliffe. How about a technology park to bring commercial and entrepreneurial talent close to scientific teams that have global reputations and have won awards from the Nobel to Killam to Oscar?
The University of Ottawa is constrained for space. Located in the heart of the city, it has no way to grow physically to accommodate more students. Also it occupies properties that the federal government could use as it grows to manage the nation that, last I heard, was heading for a population of a hundred million this century.
A previous uO president talked of establishing a satellite campus at Rockcliffe for science faculties. The notion was dismissed by CLC, which didn’t have control then but knew it would some day. The current uO prez has reportedly canvassed profs at the university and found no support for the idea. But it’s not altogether crazed. Université Laval moved from its three century old campus in downtown Quebec City to Sainte-Foy in the 1950s. The Université de Montréal is relocating science faculties to the old train yards in Outremont.
The clock is running on Rockcliffe. Municipal approvals will take two or three years at least. Public consultations are to start this fall, presenting what CLC calls “a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to discuss and address issues of urban reintegration, quality of life and factors important in designing the place where you live, work, learn and play.”
That’s once in our lifetime, Ottawa. Prête attention
No, no I/O
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, June 4, 2012.)
I don’t know who the directors of the recently inaugurated Invest Ottawa (I/O, formerly OCRI) will be. I’ve asked a couple of times. Most recently (May 26) I had this response via email, “Directors being selected soon — watch for ads in local papers.”
Nor do I know how they’re being chosen or by whom. I’ve asked a couple of times. The question has been ignored.
But I think I can assume the I/O directors aren’t on board yet, so to speak. Which means that the troika pulling Ottawa’s new economic development engine — the Mayor, the Chair and the CEO — have free rein. Or to put it another way, there’s no-one else to blame.
Blame? For what?
Well they’ve moved to a building where there’s no parking. I can’t begin to describe the inconvenience this causes all kinds of people and is certain to cause many more every day I/O is open for business. It was a stupid place to put any office that expects significant traffic and if I/O doesn’t expect traffic I don’t know what business it’s in.
But hey, the CEO hadn’t even been appointed when the lease was signed. He has to live with it but it’s not his fault. The City picked the building. Perhaps the Mayor will accept blame for parking.
And while personnel change is to be expected, it’s somewhat jarring when the three most senior executives are summarily displaced. It’s tempting to point to the long association of these three in particular with OCRI’s techno-centric orientation and connect their departure with the relative diminution of tech within the I/O culture a-borning.
But hey, it’s a new CEO’s prerogative to re-assess and re-align the team he’s been hired to lead. Let’s watch who he recruits and how they perform. Time will tell.
Then I received notice of the first ever (first I’d heard of anyway) “Invest Ottawa Partnered Event”. It took place last Thursday at I/O’s parking-challenged office on Aberdeen Street. The “event” at a cost of $199+HST (deep discounted to $59+HST for the now disbanded OCRI membership) was about selling out. To quote the promo from I/O, “2012 will be a banner year for M&A in software, IT and related technology companies, due to a perfect storm of favorable (sic) conditions, in particular the large amount of cash held abroad by major US strategic buyers. It’s the perfect time to sell, but are you ready?”
I don’t object to any entrepreneur selling what she has built at any stage in the process to anybody in the world who wants to buy. A loonie in hand is worth a toonie in future. But is it the job of the local economic development agency to encourage her to do so? I don’t think so. Somebody needs to be blamed for this I/O-partnered event. Not fired. Not disgraced. Just told not to do it again. Because “selling out” is the wrong message for I/O to be delivering. At a time when more and more industry leaders are decrying the “hollowing out” of Canada’s undervalued and vulnerable tech sector, the I/O message should be, “Don’t go, Julie, don’t go. If you need help to stay, we can help.”
I asked I/O about it in an email: “This event is about helping companies sell themselves advantageously, often to buyers in other places. Yet I/O’s business is to help these same companies grow and develop to maturity right here with local ownership if possible. Is there not a shade of counterproductivity in this?”
The question was ignored.
Let’s fill RIM’s app gap!
By Tony Patterson
(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Apr. 30, 2012.)
I don’t know how to resuscitate RIM. Maybe you don’t either. We have to place our bets on the devils we know about: founding genius Mike Lazaridis, new CEO Thorsten Heins and the Ottawa connection.
Ottawa connection? For those who have been out of touch for the duration, the Ottawa connection comprises QNX, Alec Saunders (pictured right on stage at a European developers conference) and shades of Prem Watsa. You know the first two. QNX has built the new operating system, known as BlackBerry 10. But it’s not yet in the phones. They’re pushing for the fall. Alec Saunders is a Waterloo-cum-Microsoft grad who has been Ottawa-bled in a decade-long struggle to get voicetech startup Calliflower off the ground. Now VP of developer relations at QNX/RIM, his goal is to enlist 50,000 app developers this year to . . . . . . develop apps for RIM.
And how about Prem Watsa, 61, CEO of Fairfax Financial. Reserved but revered for his canny and fantastically successful investment record, he’s walking the talk, for sure, becoming a RIM director, laying his money down. That’s good for RIM and by extension good for Canada’s tech sector. Whatever is good for RIM is good for Canada’s tech sector. The worst thing conceivable these days is that RIM should follow Nortel into the crater. God forbid. Prem’s doing his part. When Lazaridis flamboyantly announced he’ll invest another $50 million in RIM, Prem allowed as how he might follow suit. (If either actually did it that day, he’d have lost $8 million in the past month.)
Fairfax is already the fourth largest investor in the company. And it’s here that the Ottawa connection resides. No. 2 and “lead director” at Fairfax is Anthony F. Griffiths. Through the early nineties Tony Griffiths was chair and CEO at Mitel and mentor of the CEO-in-waiting, Kirk Mandy. Griffiths went home to help Watsa become Canada’s Warren Buffet. (As a matter of interest and disclosure, Griffiths was a modest investor in a publication I founded, Silicon Valley NORTH, in the mid-nineties.)
QNX is doing its part. Watsa is doing his. So is Alec Saunders, which brings me back to apps. Alec might not put it this way but he could use some help. Not only is he playing catch up with Apple and Android, he doesn’t yet have in hand the product that developers are supposed to develop apps for. What he has is 95% there and what he needs now is the trust of the community. Developers have to believe that BlackBerry is coming back and that it’s worth diverting some effort from making iPhone apps, or Google apps or now Microsoft apps. BlackBerry created mobile and it’s still early days for mobile. BlackBerry’s still a good bet. BlackBerry’s coming back big time.
RIM is important to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. We let Nortel slide with scarcely a sigh. It should never happen again and if we have anything to do about it, it never will. In this case there is something we can do. We can contribute enthusiastically to RIM’s app store. We can build the apps. RIM is us. Let’s get to it.
And here’s something to do right now. Tomorrow, May 1, RIM’s BlackBerry Jam 10 conference for app developers gets underway in Orlando, Florida. If you’re not going yourself, take a minute to let Alec know that we’re here for him and RIM. It’ll be good to share news down south that the home team is putting in extra effort. His eddress is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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