Re-humanizing work

Machines do many things better than humans –except at being human.

image: This Caring Home

Advances in technology have always generated anxiety. Workers during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century thought they would go “the way of the horse.” Steam-powered tractors had replaced horses and they feared, with spinning frames and power looms, that they were next.

The fear of job-loss due to automation is unavoidable. However, humans are better at “empathy jobs” and that’s where the future of work is heading.

A recent report from Canada’s Brookfield Institute studied Canada’s labour market and found that 42 per cent of Canadian occupations are at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years (Working Without a Net: Rethinking Canada’s Social Policy in the New Age of Work from the Mowat Centre.)

The jobs most at risk are in the trades, transportation, equipment operation, natural resources, agriculture, sales and service, manufacturing, utilities, administration, and office support.

Some of these jobs in the trades, often done by men, are mind-numbing and dangerous –in locations isolated from families that lead to alcoholism, self-medication of drugs, and death from drug overdoses (the trades are over-represented in  fentanyl deaths in B.C.). Other than good wages, these are jobs that won’t be missed.

Jobs at the least risk are in arts, culture, recreation, sports, management; professional positions in law, education, health and nursing. We won’t see robots playing hockey or robot actors on the stage any time soon. Humans are still the best at jobs where the human touch is necessary like health care, child care, and care for the growing number of seniors.

However, not all empathy jobs pay equally. While some jobs are well-paid because they are unionized -such as teachers and health care workers- others like private child-care facilities are not. Some work, usually done by women, such as a daughter caring for her aging parents or a grandmother caring for grandchildren, is not paid at all.

Another source of job-growth is the hybridization of machines and humans. In the gig economy of piecemeal work, technology directs workers. Some workers like these hybrid jobs because they offer flexibility. Employers like them because workers are “contractors” not employees. As such, companies don’t have to pay benefits.

Britain is making changes to the working conditions of workers in the gig economy by ensuring that “vulnerable workers,” as defined by low wages, have access to basic holiday and sick pay.

Workers in low-paid empathy jobs and workers in the gig economy are in the same predicament –low wages with few benefits. That’s where the Canadian government could help with programs like employment insurance, sick leave and universal Pharmacare.

Investments in childcare and home care for seniors would not only employ more empathy workers but improve the conditions of all low-wage workers including those in the gig economy.

Governments stepped in during the Industrial Revolution to implement labour laws. Governments must step in now to strengthen programs to ease the transition into the digital economy.

Surely the things we value, like human interaction, can pay as well dangerous works like resource extraction. Surely workers the gig economy can have both flexibility and security.

 

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We’ve evolved to move

Herman Pontzer’s discovery defied common sense. He found that exercise doesn’t result in weight loss.

image: Best Health Magazine Canada

Defying logic, upsetting the plans of many to lose weight through exercise, and threatening exercise industries -there is no connection between exercise and calories burned.

Pontzer, an anthropologist at Duke University, lived with the Hadza people of northern Tanzania. He wanted to find out how many calories these hunter-gathers burned. It’s a grueling, energy-intensive lifestyle. He compared the calories burned by the Hadza with those burned by average adults in the US and Europe. They were the same. Even comparing average and sedentary adults of the Western world, they were the same. Pontzer was astonished:

“When the analyses came back from Baylor [university], the Hadza looked the same everyone else. Hadza men ate and burned about 2,600 calories. Hadza women about 1,900 calories as day -the same as adults in the US or Europe, We looked at the data every way imaginable, accounting for effects of body size, fat percentage, age, and sex. No difference. How was it possible? What were we missing (Scientific American, February, 2017)?”

I was astonished, too, when I read the article two years ago. Isn’t the obesity epidemic caused by lack of exercise? Can’t I eat that piece of cake and work it off in the gym? If exercise doesn’t reduce weight, why bother exercising?

I’m no anthropologist but both the fuel and the exhaust of our bodies are basic -oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. If we can measure CO2 output, that’s a measure of calories burned. A clunky way of measuring CO2 would be to have subjects wear a mask that collected CO2 while they exercised or sat around: not very practical.

Pontzer used a simple but elegant method employing “doubly labelled water.” This otherwise ordinary water has two tags, one isotope of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Subjects simply drink the special water and pee in a cup later. They are not confined in any way; they go about their daily business. Their urine now contains both isotopes in different amounts. The number of hydrogen isotopes is used as a reference. The number of oxygen isotopes indicates the amount of CO2. Subtract the two numbers and you have calories burned. The results were confirmed later using a device similar to a Fitbit.

Two years later, Pontzer wrote another article with some answers. (Scientific American, January, 2019).

This time he wondered how our close relatives, the apes, can live a sedentary lifestyle and not suffer from the the diseases we get from lounging around all day. In the wild and in zoos, apes sit around most of the day but don’t get carido-vascular and metabolic diseases. Humans who lounge around as much as apes suffer from type 2 diabetes, heart and brain disease.

Using doubly labelled water on apes (they are surprisingly cooperative in the collection of urine), he found that apes had evolved so that their calorie consumption matched their activity. They had evolved to lounge around.

Long ago when we were hunter-gatherers, our calorie consumption matched our daily activity. Now we don’t have to exercise and so we don’t. The problem is that calories not burned in exercise gum up the works. When we don’t exercise, calories are burned anyway. In a way not understood, calories not burned in exercise lead to an unhealthy outcome: carido-vascular disease and poor brain health.

Pontzer’s message is clear: “Exercise is not optional; it is essential.”

Wilson-Raybould: a uniquely Canadian scandal

A scandal in Britain brought down the Conservative government in 1963 when it was revealed that model and nightclub dancer Christine Keeler had slept with British and Russian officials. Revelations of the previously well-hidden world of sex- and alcohol-fuelled orgies among Britain’s political elite rocked the establishment.

The walking, breathing, American scandal involves President Donald Trump groping women, mocking disabled people and provoking attacks on blacks. His former lawyer Michael Cohen says: “He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.” Cohen testified that Trump wanted him to pay off adult-film actress Stormy Daniels who says Trump had an affair with her.

image: The Independent

Canada’s scandal is not like that.

Prime Minister Trudeau is accused of trying to influence Jody Wilson-Raybould to settle a case out of court in order to save thousands jobs. The former attorney-general and minister of justice objected to the pressure, especially when she had already decided to proceed with the court case.

After she was shuffled out of the position, Gerald Butts, Justin Trudeau‘s former principle secretary, said it had nothing to do with the disagreement between Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau.

It doesn’t look that way. It looks like Trudeau didn’t like the fact that Wilson-Raybould was not complying with his wishes so he re moved her.

Post #MeToo, Canadian scandals look different.

What’s changed are the expectations of women entering politics says columnist Elizabeth Renzetti:

”. . .there is enough research out there to suggest that women in office do not believe in politics as usual. And once more women are brought into office, politics will have to change. We are seeing the consequences of that right now. (Globe and Mail, March 6, 2019).”

In addition to the mismatched expectations of new women in an old system, there is an inherent conflict in the office duties that Wilson-Raybould held. She alluded to them in her testimony:

 “The two hats that the minister of justice and the attorney-general wears here in our country are completely different,” she said, “and I think there would be merit to talking about having those as two separate individuals.”

As minister of justice, she was expected to be a team member of Trudeau’s cabinet. As attorney-general, she was the government’s lawyer. Politics and justice seldom mix.

 Former minister of justice and attorney-general in the Paul Martin government, Irwin Cotler, reflected on the internal conflict of minister of justice and attorney-general:

“There were times when I would oppose a decision of cabinet in confidence and then be obliged to show support for the decision outside of cabinet, out of cabinet solidarity − and because of solicitor-client privilege, I could not even say that I had opposed it. It created awkward situations.”

Mr. Cotler recommended splitting the office but that idea gained little traction.

It’s hard to imagine this kind of scandal in former Prime Minister Harper’s government because there was no misunderstanding who was in charge. Non-compliant ministers would have been bullied into compliance or fired.

This distinctly Canadian scandal doesn’t centre on the dalliances of politicians but on Trudeau setting up expectations on which he couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver.

Threat from Huawei gear is overblown

All nations spy on each other and they don’t need Huawei equipment to do so.

image; Medium.com

The U.S. has targeted the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei for potential spy software installed on their equipment called “backdoors.”

This strikes some experts as highly unlikely:

“But security experts say the U.S. government is likely exaggerating that threat. Not only is the U.S. case short on specifics, they say, it glosses over the fact that the Chinese don’t need secret access to Huawei routers to infiltrate global networks that already have notoriously poor security (Globe and Mail, February 28, 2019).”

China doesn’t need Huawei’s gear to spy. Last October the state-owned telecommunications company China Telecom systematically diverted internet traffic in Canada and the United States by shunting it through its own network. The internet access points had been legally set up by China Telecom, ostensibly to improve service for its customers. Not only were the access points legal but so was the diversion of internet traffic: signed accords with the U.S. didn’t prohibit it.

China doesn’t even need the internet. Chinese scientists associated with the military have been collaborating with Canadian universities on projects that could have military applications including: drone aerodynamics at the University of British Columbia, mobile sensing and computer vision at the University of Waterloo, and satellite navigation at the University of Calgary.

Universities don’t see anything wrong with the collaborations which, after all, benefit science. Universities say it is the responsibility of the federal government to decide which foreign researchers can enter the country, not them.

The U.S. government doesn’t need Huawei’s gear to spy. Through the Patriot Act, the government has rights to access information in the cloud: data stored on U.S. servers such as Gmail, Dropbox, Google drive, iCloud drive, OneDrive, -just to name some on my computer. The Patriot Act ostensibly targets terrorist groups but could target anyone, including Canadians who use the cloud. And U.S. cloud providers are prevented from telling you if your data is being accessed. An estimated 90 per cent of Canadian internet traffic is routed via the US.

Canada has responded with privacy laws. British Columbia’s Personal Information Protection Act prevents public bodies from storing data on servers outside of Canada. That includes email servers at Canadian universities. The only email I have that is not through U.S. servers is my Thompson Rivers University account.

Canada doesn’t need doesn’t need Huawei’s gear to spy. University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist revealed that in 2011 that nine of Canada’s major telecom providers and social media sites received 1.2 million data requests from government agencies. The companies complied in 784,756 of those cases. The total number is likely higher.

Even without the Patriot Act in Canada, the Canadian government has very similar powers to those of the U.S. government. The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) cooperates closely with its counterparts in other countries and operates with very little government oversight.

The real source of the U.S. government’s attempt to ban Huawei is not security, it’s financial and political. Huawei is successfully crowding U.S. manufacturers out of global markets and the U.S. will play the scare card if it thinks it will win.

Mexico could ease Canada’s cannabis problem

The plan to drive illegal cannabis growers out of business is going slowly.

The problem is supplying enough legal cannabis to lower retail prices. Eventually illegal sellers will be a quaint memory, something like the bootleggers of alcohol of the past. For that to happen, a plentiful supply of cannabis has to be available and it’s going to take years for that to happen with Canadian growers only.

image: Greenhouse Canada

The cost of legal cannabis remains nearly 50 per cent higher than potleggers according to crowd-sourced data obtained by Statistics Canada. The cannabis store Kamloops seems to fairly well-stocked but in some parts of Canada like Quebec, stores have had to close on some days of the week due to lack of supply.

One way to lower retail prices immediately is to reduce taxes; a solution favoured by the cannabis industry. In addition to provincial sales taxes, the federal government charges one dollar per gram excise tax and an annual cultivation fee of 2.3 per cent of revenue.

Some jurisdictions in the U.S. with legal cannabis markets, such as California, are considering such temporary tax reductions to lure customers away from the illegal market after disappointing early sales.

I don’t think lower taxes are the solution. The whole idea of legalization of cannabis is generate revenue so that other taxes could be reduced. Like other “sin taxes” on recreational drugs such as tobacco and booze, taxes on cannabis provide revenue on a product not currently taxed.

Regardless, Canada has no intention of following the U.S. lead. A Canadian Finance Department spokesperson said: “There are no planned changes to the existing duties at this time (Globe and Mail, February 4, 2018).”

Another way to reduce legal cannabis prices is to increase supply.

Mexico plans to legalize cannabis. The new interior minister of the Obrador government has introduced draft legislation to regulate cannabis. Mexico has been studying Canada’s model of issuing licences for the cultivation, processing, packaging, sale and possession of cannabis.

Mexico has something going for it that Canada doesn’t -climate.  Cannabis doesn’t need to be grown in greenhouses there. The president of Mexico’s National Association of Cannabis Industries says:

“We’re going to be able to create a new industry based on new regulations, to produce cannabis for the rest of the world – our geographic situation and our labour [pool] gives us a major advantage (Globe and Mail, November 8, 2019)”

Enthusiasm is mutual on this side of the border. Canada’s Canopy Growth Corp. is looking at investing in Mexico. Their co-CEO said:

“We think [Mexico] is a real opportunity. When you’re on both sides of America with really well-positioned products, this could be a very good platform to reflect both sides of the border with the U.S. and enter an economy that is substantial.”

However, Mexico faces hurdles. Much of Mexico is controlled by drug cartels who oversee the growth of illegal marijuana. Seizing control of agricultural land will be a challenge. Also, Columbia is also poised to compete in the legal cannabis market and have a workforce experienced in its growth.

Of course, Canada’s fledgling cannabis industry needs to be protected but controlled importation could help our supply problem.

Can blockchain save Robin Hood?

The Robin Hood Co-op was started by a group of artists at the University of Aalto outside Helsinki in Finland. It’s a hedge fund like no other, formed as a piece of “economic performance art.”

image: Information Age

Problems started when the artists began to raise money and invest in the stock market. The university administration took issue with the concept and forced the co-op to shut down.

Instead of shutting down, the artists left the university to venture out on their own.

Since then they focused on building a global network of countercultural investors from Helsinki to California.

The Robin Hood Co-op doesn’t exactly steal from the rich to give to the poor. The goal is to distribute profits to worthwhile causes globally. “Part of the profit generated by the fund is invested into projects building the commons,” according to their website.

They have no regular offices and meet in different places, often abandoned buildings, to hold workshops in conjunction with a local host group.

Reporter Brett Scott went to one of these places in a graffiti-strewn former slaughterhouse in Milan occupied by a radical arts group called Macao. He writes:

“In the hall is a naked woman painted blue, wearing a gas mask, dancing to the sonic violence of industrial deathmetal music. Next door is a punk street-theatre collective manufacturing artificial vomit in buckets to throw at a protest (CCPA Monitor, Nov/Dec, 2018).” Among the assembled were hackers, coders, designers and artists. The meeting had the feeling of the blend of an intellectual salon, a hackathon and a political campaign meeting.

Not your average corporate boardroom.

Portuguese artist Ana Fradique, who co-manages the fund, describes Robin Hood as “artivism”—a mix of arts and activism.

Robin Hood has its critics like Serbian activist Branko Popovic. “I understand you’re trying to be like a vampire on the market,” he says, “but why be a vampire on vampires? They have nothing to give us.”

That’s an ongoing tension amongst activists: do you work within the system to build a more equitable world or tear down the system and rebuild it from scratch?

I many respects, Robin Hood Co-op is conventional. They invest in the Wall Street stock exchange using an algorithm they invented called “The Parasite.” Assets in the co-op are called Robyns. In the first year of investment, they made double-digit returns.

Some of its first distributions went to the autonomous arts space Casa Nuvem in Rio de Janeiro (€5,000) and the activist broadcaster Radio Schizoanalytique in Greece (€6,000).

However, Robin Hood Co-op members are impatient to grow. They plan to expand the model beyond the Parasite algorithm to implementing blockchain. “Robin Hood 2.0.” will be “even more monstrous” than the first incarnation said one of the co-founders.

Rather than being based in Finland, they wants to transform Robin Hood into a decentralized global cryptofund using blockchain -the underlying technology of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.

While Bitcoins are turning out to be a bit of a dud, the technology of blockchain is promising. It’s an indelible ledger in which anything can be permanently recorded, including shares in an activist hedge fund. The advantage of blockchain is that it’s decentralized and global.

It’s a big leap. Implementation of blockchain will require a change in the culture of the co-op and paid staff.

Time will tell whether this chimera of art and capitalism will prosper.

 

BC Liberals suppressed Hydro rate hikes

For decades, B.C. governments have hidden the true cost of Hydro rates -especially the BC Liberals.

image: Common Ground

Under the direction of the BC Liberals, the Crown utility used “inappropriate” accounting to pile $5.5-billion in what are known as deferral accounts says B.C.’s auditor-general.

“That debt amounts to $1,300 for every residential customer, more than $10,000 for each commercial and light industrial ratepayer, and almost $5-million for each large industrial consumer,” according to the Globe and Mail, February 7, 2019.

Deferral accounts are not improper when correctly accounted for. They can be used as a temporary measure to avoid the shock of sudden rate hikes. After rates are gradually increased, the deferral account can be paid off.

But that’s not what happened. To keep voters happy and to make governments popular, BC Hydro rates were kept artificially low leaving future governments to deal with the problem of billions hidden in deferral accounts.

“BC Hydro was not allowed to charge its customers enough to cover its operating costs each year,” Auditor-General Carol Bellringer wrote.

The current minister responsible for BC Hydro, Bruce Ralston, said his government is committed to fixing the problem but it will take time given the size of the debt. “We are going to keep rates affordable. No one’s rates are going up by $1,300 in a year.” His government has already reduced the deferral accounts by $950-million by bringing that debt onto government books.

The NDP government also intends to prevent misuse of deferral accounts by future governments by restoring the role of the independent regulator, the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) and ensuring that BC Hydro adopts ordinary accounting practices.

Industries who are used to cheap hydro are not happy with the prospect of paying the real cost of producing electricity. Industry representative Richard Stout says industrial customers shouldn’t absorb the shock of getting Hydro back on sound financial footing. Since the government is responsible for the mess, they should pay:

“I think most would agree the appropriate source of paying down the debt should be from government, rather than the ratepayer.”

Huh? He wants taxpayers (the government) to pay for the meddling of former governments rather than ratepayers? Last time I looked Hydro users and taxpayers were one and the same.

Critics of BC Hydro will point to the debt incurred in building the massive hydro dam at Site C as an additional source of the problem. The project was started by the BC Liberals and given green light by the NDP who said the project had gone too far to abandon.

The government is faced with a hard choice, says Bellringer: “You can either have a rate increase or you can end up with a deficit that ends up getting covered by the government at some point.”

Hiding Hydro debt, which in reality is our debt, is not an option.

Transferring BC Hydro’s debt to the government’s books is the right thing to do but government debt is not popular with voters because it’s visible. Turning control of BC Hydro over to an independent regulator is the right thing do but hydro rates will go up.

We’ll see if doing the right thing pays off for the NDP in the next election.