Wednesday, May 30, 2007


From today's Globe & Mail:

"The World Health Organization estimates a third of the world's population is infected with TB."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bring 'em Home, Jimbo!

Waterloo's resident billionaire Jim Balsillie has purchased an NHL team - the unfortunately named Predators - from Nashville. It is all we were hoping for and more - not some venerable old team like the Penguins, but an upstart outfit from a town that couldn't care less about hockey.

We have done absolutely none of the heavy lifting, but we're rooting for having our team moved back to Waterloo where it belongs... pronto. We even have some names in mind - howsabout "The Grand"? "The Loons"? "The Great Blue"? The enigmatic "Bento Box"? Or what about "The Diaspora" (check out the Predator roster; over half the team's Canadian).

In a great stroke of luck, it even looks like the Predator team colors are gold and black... just like, Eureka!, the University of Waterloo. (Our motto: "They say "why?" We say "whatever".)

Note: My previous plan to build the stadium on the site of a ski resort or the current Waterloo dump has turned out to be unfeasible. Ideas, anyone?


Monday, May 21, 2007

Academic Journals Do Not Understand the Concept of Free Information

Recently I've been doing some research on passenger pigeons. My ancestors lived in northern Mississippi, one of the places where passenger pigeons were so populace until the 1880s that the sky would be dark for two days during their migration and tree branches would snap under their weight when they roosted. The ancestral "Big House", as we call it, was on Pigeon Roost Road.

Most people and organizations seem to get the spirit of the web - that information should be universally and freely available. The Mormons supply a treasure trove of genealogical information free on their web site. A variety of sites have made millions of out-of-copyright books available. Most newspaper material is freely available. Even magazines that have subscriptions often post articles after a couple of months have gone by. Individuals devote great amounts of time and effort updating free resources such as wikipedia. We freely offer up information in our web sites, blogs, comments, and reviews.

The sad realization whenever I research the web is that a major category that should be free isn't: academic articles.

Academic journals are not only frequently not free - they're beyond the price that most individuals would pay. They frequently charge $20 or $30 to read a single article, or hundreds of dollars a year to subscribe.

Think about it a minute. The academics who wrote the articles were not paid. Other academics donated time to peer review the article. In most cases the editor of the journal is an unpaid position. And that's not even considering the government grants these journals get. So how do they get off charging so much and effectively prohibiting access to all but a few?

No doubt they have their reasons - the cost of the print edition, for example. (I honestly can't think of another one.) They have all sorts of options beyond prohibitive per-article fees. They could host ads. They could charge for extra features like an index or newer articles. They could make articles free after a year.

The real problem is that they just don't get it - ideas and information should be freely available to everyone. It's not just an ideology; it's an ideology backed up by a business model. They lose on all fronts.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

102 Official Languages?

According to CBC Radio's The House this week, the Canadian Senate is looking into providing translation services for their speeches. The translators will cover a number of aboriginal languages so that aboriginal senators can speak in their native tongue in the senate.

The House interviewed a Liberal Senator from New Brunswick who is pushing the idea. When The House asked about the high cost of such a service, the senator said that these are living languages that we should preserve, and compared to the cost of digging up dinosaurs and building museums, this will not cost much.

That, of course, begs the question of how speaking in the senate will help preserve a language.

More importantly, it shows remarkable short-sightedness. We have two official languages, French and English. Will we now add a hundred-odd aboriginal languages to our list of official languages? When asked whether this will set a precedent that the House of Commons will also have to meet, the senator said, "Of course. It will be difficult for anyone to back away from that practice once it is accepted."


Monday, May 14, 2007

The Fluid Supply of Labor

A year or so ago people were saying that off-shoring had peaked. The argument was that companies were starting to realize that North Americans did a better job. Or that all the best Asian professionals were already hired and so wages were rising there. Or that companies couldn't cope with the problems of time difference and the need to travel half way around the world on a regular basis.

But the decline in hiring off-shore didn't happen. And now even if it did
it wouldn't matter much because Asian countries are developing their own indigenous companies in a broad range of sectors. If North American companies didn't hire Asians, then Asian companies would just under-sell them. The only way to stop the internationalization of labor would be to go back to high tariffs. That's not a winning proposition in any event, but it is unfeasible in the current situation because China, Japan and Korea own so much US debt.

The internationalization of the labor market has happened and it's here to stay. I once thought my job (software technical writer) was immune because the software market is still mostly English and hey - English is my native tongue - but in my company a large part of the writing team is in Singapore. I heard on As It Happens tonight that even journalism jobs are being out-sourced to Asia, and that Reuters has had over a hundred business reporters in Singapore for years - writing about North American business.

All that brings me to the purchase of Chrysler by Cerberus. Some people are arguing that Cerberus is a strip-and-flip specialist, but there's more to it than that. The private equity company makes its money by buying a company that is nearly insolvent, restructuring and making large cuts to the company, and eventually selling it for a profit. Cerberus is dead serious about restructuring companies and it has a lot of management expertise.

Cerberus is not a new investor in Detroit, probably because the US car industry is, in general, completely in the crapper. The Detroit Free Press writes, "In southeast Michigan, Cerberus already has purchased a controlling interest in General Motors Corp.'s finance arm, GMAC, as well as Michigan auto suppliers CTA Acoustics in Madison Heights and GDX Automotive in Farmington Hills. It has offered to invest $3.4 billion in parts giant Delphi Corp., which is in bankruptcy. And earlier this month, a judge gave auto supplier Tower Automotive, also in bankruptcy, preliminary permission to sell nearly all of its assets to Cerberus for $1 billion."

It's like this: The unions and the government have been holding their finger in the US car manufacturing dyke for years, keeping change at bay, maintaining not just high salaries and benefits for workers but also lousy workmanship, lousy design, and second-rate management. Not to mention a steadily eroding workforce as the companies crumbled. The resistance to change also extended to not reforming health care in the US, taking out some of the many profit-takers who contribute to the crippling health costs of unionized companies.

And that's all over now. Cerberus is a private company that doesn't have to disclose its doings to the SEC and doesn't have to answer to shareholders. It isn't going to follow the old car manufacturing paradigms. The future for Chrysler is far different than if Frank Stronach had been successful in his bid.

Change is coming. Not just to US car manufacturers, but to all of us who earn a salary in a rich western country. And isn't that what we always said we wanted? - Better education in developing countries. Equalization of pay scales around the world. An end to the western countries hogging all the world's wealth?


Bunnies Made of Cheese

Now this is blogging...

Uncertain Principles

Thursday, May 10, 2007

(Rant) - We're All Gonna Die

If the world's environmental scientists are correct that the world faces disaster if we don't avert global warming, then we're all going to die.

We are doing nothing. Less than nothing - we're dicking around with irrelevant policies, having arguments, getting into partisan bickering matches - while greenhouse gas emissions continue to go up, up, up.

We pat ourselves on the back for having hybrid car technology while the average fuel efficiency of new cars purchased in North America continues to fall. That's right: year on year, average mileage continues to get worse.

New housing is built with insufficient eaves or attic venting so that air conditioning is required. The widespread use of home air conditioning in Canada is crazy, and yet it grows.

Subdivisions proliferate that make efficient public transit impossible. Zoning allows store placement to require long car trips.

We blame China for pollution, even though Chinese pollution is only high in absolute terms, not per capita terms, and much of the pollution is generated from manufacturing - China is producing all the cheap disposable consumer crap that we cycle through our lives at increasing speed. It is North American consumers who are responsible for pollution caused by Chinese manufacturing.

The only way we're going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is by raising fuel prices. But there is absolutely no public support for raising fuel prices. Just the opposite - citizens all over North America are hopping mad about "sky-high gas prices" and demanding government action to reduce them.

Everyone's blaming Jean Chretien for not doing more to meet our Kyoto targets, but he governed at a time when voters didn't want environmental action. Now voters are starting to panic and they want something to be done, but they still have their eye on that shiny new SUV and they still want to commute 100 kilometers a day.

Europe has done its part and led the way. It is North America that seems hell-bent on destroying the world.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Big Mess is Brewing

China and the US have entered an unholy alliance: China finances the US war in Iraq and in compensation the US keeps its markets open to Chinese consumer goods. Marcello De Cecco, an expert in the international monetary system, calls this Bretton Woods Two. Another way of describing it is that the US is forcing foreign central banks to finance the US trade deficit in order to keep their exchange rates from appreciating and their export-based economies from collapsing.

De Cecco, who is a professor at the University of Pisa, advisor to the Italian government, newspaper columnist and author of Money and Empire, gave a lecture this week at Waterloo's Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

De Cecco argues that the current situation has some parallels to the years leading up to the First World War. Then, the pound sterling was the international currency, backed by gold, but the UK was in decline. The two emerging superpowers were the US and Germany, neither of which had ambitions to replace the pound with their own currency. It was France who challenged the pound as world monetary standard, and France that also threw instability into the system, sometimes deliberately (in 1907-14 there were several episodes where France removed money from German markets for political reasons, forcing Germany to hoard gold). The dollar became the world currency after WWII.

Now, it is the US that seems to be in decline. China is the emerging superpower, but again it is not interested in replacing the dollar as the world currency. In fact, China is behaving very responsibly, doing its best to keep the current system working. The euro is the challenger to the dollar. Half of all world assets are held in private hands in Europe, and European investors may dump the dollar if the dollar starts to decline - as may Americans and everyone else, including even China. Of the many sources of instability in the current system (not the least being the behavior of the US government), Russia, a country that is on the decline and bitter about it, may prove to be a problem.

Professor De Cecco called his talk "From the Dollar Standard to a Multiple Currency Standard: Current Developments in the Light of Pre-1914 Experience" and summarized it as: "The world in which we live today is in many ways similar to, and in other ways different from, the one which existed in the two decades before 1914. New world powers are in the making now, as they were then. Power politics seems to have superseded the politics of alliances based on ethics and values. Is the multiple currency world towards which we seem to be going bound to prove as dynamically disastrous as the one which came to an end in 1914?"

De Cecco ended his talk with the ominous statement, "A big mess is brewing."

Related post:
The Unsustainable World Economy

Update: Gwynne Dyer


Saturday, May 05, 2007

2,4-D Redux

As we head into summer a number of Waterloo Region residents are up in arms about new by-laws that restrict the use of chemicals on lawns. How times have changed. Parents battled for decades to stop the government from spraying 2,4-D on schoolyards. Here's an article I wrote about the issue nearly 30 years ago, detailing what I saw to be a concerted effort by government to dismiss citizens' concerns.

Spraying with 2,4-D
The Sun tries to get to the bottom of the 2,4-D weed spray controversy and finds only one thing for certain: The Ministry of the Environment hasn't been much help.
by Ruth Haworth, Kawartha Sun, July 3, 1979

School is over, and the controversy raging over 2,4-D spraying in local schoolyards will probably fade into memory as another lost cause.

Parents in the Northumberland-Newcastle School District battled all spring with the Board of Education and Ontario Ministry of the Environment, trying to protect their children from the shortrun effects (nausea, fever, pain) and longrun effects (cancer, birth defects) that are the suspected results of 2,4-D herbicide poisoning. The Ministry repeatedly claimed that there is no evidence that 2,4-D is harmful, and so refused to take action.

The Ministry's attitude shocked and puzzled many concerned parents. Environment Minister Harry Parrott not only refused to take action - he refused to take seriously reports of the harmful effects of the schoolyard spraying. The Warkworth-based group PASS (Parents Against Senseless Spraying) compiled and publicized a list of students who became ill after spraying took place, and documented an instance of spray blowing off the school property and on to nearby gardens. They informed Parrott of their findings, but the Ministry has still not investigated.

The battle reached provincial proportion when NDP leader Mike Cassidy argued in the Ontario Legislature this spring that 2,4-D spraying was an unnecessary hazard to children and urged Dr Parrott to restrict its use in schoolyards. Dr Parrott retaliated by accusing Cassidy of arguing without evidence. So PASS sent a questionnaire out to parents in the Warkworth area and received 20 reports of children who became ill after spraying - with symptoms of headaches, fevers, swollen eyes, nausea and sore throats. Mr. Cassidy presented the list to Dr Parrott in the Legislature and asked for an investigation.

Dr Mikel, Health Officer for the Haliburtion-Kawartha-Pine Ridge district, was supposed to undertake the investigation, but he needed the list of names. He said he expected Nick Whitehead, the leader of PASS, to send him the list. Dr Mikel said he waited and waited, but now it's too late to check the children because their symptoms will have disappeared. He still doesn't know who they are.

The Sun asked Dr Mikel why he didn't obtain the list from Dr Parrott. His reply: Dr Parrott told him that the list he had been given was completely illegible - not a single name could be understood. But when the Sun phoned Mike Cassidy's office, we were told that the list Cassidy gave Dr Parrot was fully legible - "and in any event, if they were really serious they could have got the names from us - we have them."

So the Ministry, who has throughout the debate been arguing that 2,4-D spraying should continue because there is no evidence that it is harmful, did not follow up on concrete reports of children suffering from herbicide poisoning.

Dr Mikel argues that the issue really wasn't very serious, anyway. He said that children probably only had the flu, since herbicide poisoning doesn't usually entail fever (which seven of the twenty children had); that the progress of technological society necessitates some risks ("If we worried about the risk of rooves falling on our heads, we'd still be in mud huts," he said); that parents complain about weeds that children are allergic to, and then about the means of killing the weeds ("We can't win"); and that the parents are just troublemakers ("If they were really concerned about hazards to their children... they'd be campaigning against drunk drivers and that sort of thing").

Dr Parrott at one point argued that the children probably only had the flu, and on another occasion accused parents of deliberately subjecting their children to 2,4-D spray so they would develop symptoms.

Dr D.N. Huntley is the chairman of the Ministry of the Environment's Pesticides Advisory Committee. Dr Huntley told the Sun that he had concluded that 2,4-D was safe. He emphasized that the herbicide was legal, had been widely used for 30 years, and that none of the dozens of studies concluding that 2,4-D can lead to cancer or genetic defects are conclusive.

The other investigation urged by PASS concerned the spraying of 2,4-D in high winds. Whitehead has alleged that "the whole town stank after one spraying." One of the Ministry guidelines on the use of herbicides is that spraying be done in winds no higher than seven miles per hour to prevent the drifting of the chemical on to other property. But the Ministry's Pesticide Division Supervisor, Doug Wilson, told reporters that if a licensed applicator does the spraying, "then we can't stop it. He's doing nothing illegal."

PASS continues to fight 2,4-D spraying because it believes that there is evidence that it is harmful.

David Carlisle, a scientist with the federal ministry Environment Canada, has conducted tests in the Warkworth region and concluded that children who played on the grass within 48 hours of of spraying were exposed to 1,000 times the acceptable limit. Warkworth area doctor George Astaphan has commented that doctors would not suspect children they examined to be suffering from herbicide poisoning unless they knew of exposure because the symptoms are not unlike dermatological rashes and the flu - spraying has never been publicized before, so related illnesses likely went unnoticed.

2,4-D is primarily used in agriculture, and particularly in grain production. Saskatchewan's Minister of Agriculture, Edgar Kaeding, has announced that because of the herbicide's suspected hazards he will act to ban 2,4-D when a substitute is available.

The irony of the situation is that only one of the Northumberland-Newcastle District's 55 schools is sprayed for a serious weed - and that is poison ivy. In the other 54 playgrounds, 2,4-D is used to kill dandelions. PASS and the NDP have emphasized that they are not trying to get 2,4-D banned: they simply want to restrict its use on playgrounds. Whitehead has argued that, after accidents, the number one killer of children is cancer, and numerous studies indicate that 2,4-D causes cancer.

The Warkworth Journal recently wrote, "We feel quite strongly that if there is any doubt, or any possibility of harm... then the spraying should be halted." Linda Bird, the Warkworth mother of one of the sick children, has commented, "I don't see why they don't just mow the lawn. There would be no danger in that."

PASS has not given up. on July 11 the group will meet with Mike Cassidy at NDP candidate Hugh Jenney's Warkworth home and discuss their plans. As Mr. Whitehead says, "There's always next year."


The EVC is Dead (Long Live the EVC)

Over the last year I have been trying to negotiate with my company to start an Employee Volunteer Committee. This week I finally threw in the towel. Perhaps someone else out there may have better luck implementing the idea.

What I wanted to do was start a committee that organized volunteer activities - say one a month for an afternoon. Employees would volunteer on company time (so the company is really volunteering the time). There are three goals: (1) Help out in the community; (2) Improve camaraderie among employees; (3) Provide good public relations for the company in our community. Some months the events could be held on a weekend, but the basic idea is that it's on company time. In return the EVC will try to think of events that provide good publicity for the company.

The EVC should be fairly large and all members should contribute to events so that the volunteer choices reflect the interests of the employee body. Examples might be: packing food a the local food bank; cleaning up a park in the spring and fall; running a children's craft tent at a summer festival; helping an environmental group to clean up a river; judging at a school science fair; and so on.

When I made the proposal to my company I thought they would want to scale back the idea, and I was prepared to do that (having, say, one event a quarter, or having only half the events be on company time). I was quite suprised that HR took a different stance: they wanted to greatly expand the idea and offload some of their work onto the committee. They wanted the EVC to be responsible for vetting all requests for funding that came into the company (not to make the final decision, but to make recommendations) and they wanted to start a program where every employee got time off to volunteer with the EVC finding volunteer opportunities for everyone and running the whole program.

We went around and around on the same points for months and finally this week I said I was out. Luckily the process was congenial so who knows, something might still come of the idea somewhere in the future.

Or somewhere else?


The Bad Guys Always Win

It was with a deep pang of bitterness that I read that Thomson Newspapers is bidding to take over Reuters plc. I have worked for both companies. In the 1980s I worked for a Toronto company called IP Sharp Associates. Reuters purchased IPSA and I continued to be a Reuters employee until I was laid off in the early 90s. Later on in my career I had a contract as a business analyst in the IT department of Thomson's head office, then in Toronto. I left for a job opportunity in Africa, but my boss at Thomson nearly wooed me to stay as a permanent employee. Luckily I didn't, as Thomson moved its headquarters to the US a few months later and laid off most of the Toronto staff.

Both Reuters and Thomson are layoff-happy organizations. Layoffs are seemingly part of regular annual plans. They don't just get rid of deadwood. In fact, at least at Reuters my impression was that internal politics were so ferocious that layoffs had little to do with merit.

When Reuters took over IPSA they sent over an HR manager from their UK headquarters who was obviously chosen for her vicious ruthlessness. Layoffs began with tearful employees being escorted from the building by two big beefy security guards. We all knew that layoffs were coming when we saw those guys enter the lobby. By the time I got the axe, a year or more into the purge, the system was a little more humane, but still pretty brutal.

At the time I was laid off I was in a management team of more than half a dozen extremely bright, extremely dedicated people. Most of our careers never recovered. Some went into sales, some took jobs with much lower responsibility. Only a couple eventually worked their way back up to lesser management positions.

If Thomson is successful in taking over Reuters, life does not look good for employees at either company. Lives will be uprooted, people will be traumatized... all for what? Layoffs are inefficient, a quick jolt to the balance sheet with heavy long-term costs. It's bad business and it's a completely unacceptable way to treat a workforce that has given a company loyalty and dedication.

It's insane that as voters we don't demand that there be regulations protecting employees from layoffs, along with regulations curtailing the outrageous compensation of senior managers. France has such rules and still manages to maintain a vibrant capitalist system.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

State of Denial (Review)

Bob Woodward's third book about the Bush presidency, State of Denial, is well written, factual, unbelievably thorough, and a great record of events around the waging of the Iraq war. He had unprecedented access to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and a zillion other major players in the White House and military. As one reviewer said, this a book that historians will use as a major resource in 100 years.

And yet, and yet. This book is a dense pile of facts without premise or conclusion. But a book like this must have premises and conclusions. At a minimum, they permeate the questions he asked and how he reported the responses. Either Woodward is hiding his conclusions, or he is confused himself.

The closest he gets to a conclusion is on page 490 (the second last page of the book), when he lists some of the questions he asked. "Didn't anyone at the White House notice that the actions being implemented on the ground in the months after the invasion were almost diametrically opposed to the plan that had been briefed to Bush?" And so on. But most of the questions are not just too obvious, but also dependent on other assumptions. The question "When did they realize that there would likely never be weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq?" implies that they truly believed at some point that there were WMD in Iraq - a premise that defies credulity once you read other sources.

At other points, Woodward is so deep in the projected world view of the Bushies that he loses sight of how the world works. He seems flabbergasted that in his interviews, Bush and Rumsfeld refuse to admit how dire the situation is in Iraq. But why would they? It's not shocking that the President and Defence Secretary put a brave face on a war during the war. It doesn't mean that they're in a state of denial. Does Woodward really think that he has such stature that nobody would prevaricate when he interviews them? Seemingly so.

Woodward's lack of credulity (or unrealistic belief in his own abilities) means that the book presents (in part) a picture of Bush & co. that is exactly what they wanted him to see. The impression that Woodward gives is that all the three-word slogans used during the war were completely heartfelt. These are a bunch of good guys doing what they think is best. The only reason they invaded is to protect the world from attack by Saddam Hussein. True, Rumsfeld comes in for some heavy drubbing, but I got the impression that Rumsfeld's biggest crime is that the war went badly.

In terms of revelations in the book, the thing that really blew me away is how much of the problem was basic mismanagement. Again and again there were multiple bosses and no clear chain of command. On several occasions in the book Bush gave direct orders that were ignored (it seems that his subordinates have very little respect for him). Bremer acted as if he reported directly to Bush, but Bush said he reported to Rumsfeld. At one time Rumsfeld declares that Bremer reports to him and at another time Rumsfeld says that Bremer reports to Rice. Some of this stuff is just big government bureaucracy, but there are giant gaffes like having a theater of war that had two supreme commanders. Even Condoleeza Rice calls the government "dysfunctional".

Don't get me wrong. I learned a lot from the book and I enjoyed reading it. But when I was finished I had to give my head a shake to correct some misimpressions of Bush and his White House. That's not the way it should work.