Look to the sea for the internet, not the clouds

Our connection to the internet seems so ethereal –it’s as though data materializes out of thin air. This illusion is a result of the final hop of our connection to the internet.

image: palam.ca

I find the illusion compelling, especially when it comes to travel outside of Canada. Before the internet was readily available, I would travel with a short wave radio and string up an antenna to get news over the airwaves from home.

Now my computer substitutes for my short wave radio and the internet substitutes for the airwaves. I listen to thousands of radio stations around the world on my computer with no fading in and out. It’s easy to think of the internet as a medium of the air.

The notion of our data being in the “cloud” furthers that illusion. But, in fact, the cloud couldn’t be more grounded. The servers that provide data storage exist in concrete bunkers around the world. One of them is on Bunker Road in Kamloops. It’s owned by Q9, a Canadian company running data centres across the country.

“There is no cloud,” says Nicole Starosielski, author of The Undersea Network and adds:

“The cloud is in the ocean. It’s on the bottom of the sea floor. It goes through deep sea trenches. It goes through reefs amongst fish. It’s subject to undersea landslides. That’s where the internet is,” she told CBC Radio’s Spark. “The only time that the internet really is in the air is in that last hop when it goes from your router to your computer or from a cell tower to your phone.”

A casual looks a globe affirms that notion: seventy per cent is covered by water. Even then, considering the expense of laying cables, I would have thought that satellites carry most data. It turns out that satellites carry only a small fraction of what undersea cables do.

The fibre-optic cables that carry data though the deepest ocean trenches are fragile: only the size of a garden hose. There are about 300 cable systems that make up the backbone of the internet. And because they go from one country to another though international waters, they’re difficult to protect. If a fishing ship drops anchor on a cable, they wouldn’t even know the havoc they wreak.

The U.S. is protected by redundancy but smaller countries, especially island nations like Tahiti, are connected by just a single cable. So, if it is damaged, the internet for the whole country goes down. Despite the growing importance of the internet, the internet is surprisingly delicate.

However, it’s not fragile for wealthy countries that have multiple undersea connections. Wealth plays into the location of the cables. Cables are laid in places that are economically preferable or where they’ve been laid before.

Politics also plays a role. When Google planned to lay a cable directly between the U.S. and Hong Kong, the U.S. Justice Department vetoed it because of the dispute with China and Huawei.

Our concept of the internet matters. When you consider that the world’s servers emit as much CO2 as the airline industry, it brings the internet down to earth –and to the oceans.

 

The whistleblower who got it wrong

Alana James was convinced that she found serious wrongdoings. James, a relatively new B.C. health-ministry employee in 2012, was sure that contract researchers hired by the ministry had broken the law and misused confidential medical information for personal gain.

former auditor general John Doyle. image: Vancouver Sun

James had been hired to draft and review information-sharing agreements between the ministry and the researchers. But everywhere she looked she found misconduct.

For decades, BC’s health ministry had enjoyed a collaborative relationship with academic researchers on drug safety. For example, one of these researchers Roderick MacIsaac, a PhD student at the University of Victoria, had been reviewing the effectiveness of British Columbia’s new smoking-cessation program. James was convinced that he and others had misused anonymous health records in his research.

Anonymous records such as those found in PharmaNet, stripped of personal details such as names and addresses, had been regularly shared with researchers to evaluate government programs. Investigative reporter Kerry Gold says:

“A record of every prescription dispensed or purchased in the province, PharmaNet is a researcher’s gold mine (Walrus magazine, September, 2019).”

Alana James was so convinced of wrongdoings that she told her boss, Robert Hart. Hart considered James’ allegations misguided. It was his opinion that she didn’t fully understand the complex relationships of those she was accusing, much less the nature of their work. Crucially, she had no evidence of wrongdoing.

James felt dismissed by her boss; she was told “to shut up and go away” in her words. So went over the head her boss to then auditor general John Doyle.

Doyle took James seriously -not because there was any evidence of wrongdoing but because in the previous year a high-ranking health official had pleaded guilty to charges of receiving personal benefits related to a health-records contract he’d awarded to a doctor. The ministry was still smarting from the scandal.

Sensing the possibility of more misconduct, Doyle’s office asked the ministry of health to look into James’s claims. Suspicions from the auditor general gave credibility to James allegations.

Margaret MacDiarmid, the new minister of health, only a day into her job, held a press conference on September 6, 2012, and said that RCMP investigation was underway. This was a big surprise to the RCMP because there was no investigation underway. However, MacDiarmid’s announcement added more weight to James’ claims.

Caught up in the zealous fervour that gripped government, investigators accused Robert Hart, Alana James’ boss, of wrongfully receiving money. Hart didn’t know what they were talking about but he was suspended immediately and escorted from the building. Eventually, he and six others were fired including the student Roderick MacIsaac.

Humiliated, MacIsaac withdrew from his PhD program at University of Victoria. In January, 2013, the introverted forty-six-year-old who had put off his studies to take care of his aging mother through her final stages of terminal cancer took his life.

To get to the bottom of the matter, the government commissioned a investigation by the ombudsperson. The report, called Misfire, began in 2015, took nineteen months to complete and cost $2.41 million. It found no wrongdoing by anyone but by this time lives and reputations had been ruined in the wake of James’ wild claims.

“The episode remains one of the most sensational cases of wrongful dismissal in Canadian history, and it was driven by a set of assumptions that were unfounded and at no point tested—until it was too late,” says Gold.

Footnote: John Doyle completed his term as auditor general in 2013 and went back home to Australia. He hired Alana James, a trained nurse, to care for his chronically ill wife. After the death of his wife, Doyle and James married in Australia where she began graduate work and research at the University of Melbourne.

Albertans to receive the highest carbon gift

The carbon gift is not a lump of coal. Albertans will receive the highest carbon tax rebate of any of the four provinces who have opted out of the federal plan. A family of four will receive an average tax credit of $888, compared to families in the other holdout provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan who can claim a credit of $448, $486 and $809, respectively.

imge: Pinterest

Let’s call it a gift, not a rebate because most Albertans will receive more back than they pay in the so-called carbon tax. According to calculations by economists Jennifer Winter and Trevor Tombe at the University of Calgary, 80 per cent of Alberta households will get more back from the credit than they will pay in increased costs (Globe and Mail, Dec. 19, 2019).

And can we really call it a carbon tax when it isn’t really isn’t? Taxes are collected by governments to pay for health care, roads, education and so on. The goal of the carbon transfer is to reduce fossil fuel consumption, not to collect taxes. Let’s call it a carbon transfer. Money is just collected and redistributed.

The names given to the carbon transfer and carbon gift are politically motivated.  Conservatives prefer to call it a tax because it suits their political agenda of characterizing the fed’s actions to reduce fossil fuel consumption as a tax grab. The feds like calling the carbon gift “climate action incentive payments” because they like to pretend that we will meet carbon reduction targets.

And the federal Liberals are not rewarding Albertans for shutting them out of the province in the last election. The carbon gift is higher there because it covers a longer period of time than the other provinces and because Albertans spend more on fossil fuels.

You might wonder who’s paying for the carbon gift if it’s revenue neutral. Who is paying more than they receive?  It turns out that businesses are.

For struggling businesses, the carbon transfer seems unfair. But the holdout provinces are responsible for that: if they had devised their own carbon transfer system, the one proposed by the feds wouldn’t be in place. All provinces are free to create their own systems. Presumably, they could devise a system where taxpayers end up giving a carbon gift to small businesses. By refusing to create their own plan, they are accepting the fed’s by default.

B.C.’s carbon transfer is a model for the rest of Canada to follow. Businesses are not hurt –in fact they receive a reduction in taxes, as do personal taxpayers. Introduced in 2008, it has reduced per-capita emissions by 12 per cent and contrary to what conservatives claim, it hasn’t hurt the economy.

B.C.’ carbon transfer is also a model for conservatives because it was introduced by the BC Liberals, a conservative government. If the BC Liberals could introduce a carbon transfer and get re-elected, any conservative government could.

Pricing carbon is an easy sell to voters because most Canadians agree on pricing pollution, led by BC (84%) and trailing in Alberta where it’s still a majority (69%). And if there is no net cost to taxpayers, what’s not to like?

Kenney should be careful what he wishes for

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wants Canada’s equalization formula adjusted to be fairer to Albertans.

image: Macleans

When it comes to equalization payments to provinces, Albertans think that there must be a mistake. They see themselves as contributors to Quebec at a time when Quebec’s economy is on a roll and Alberta is in the dumps.

Kenney is being disingenuous when he claims that the current formula is unfair. His government was the author of the current formula in 2009 when he was a cabinet minister under the Harper Conservatives.

Kenney surely knows that one of the reasons Alberta pays more into equalization is that the province has more high-income earners. While only eleven per cent of Canadians live in Alberta, 21 per cent of Canada’s $100,000-plus earners live there.

Of course, high-income earners mean little if you are unemployed.  In October, 2019, Alberta’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 6.7 per cent compared to Quebec at 4.7 per cent.

Income is just one factor in determining equalization says business reporter Konrad Yakabuski:

“The basis for determining whether any province qualifies for equalization payments is whether its fiscal capacity – the amount of revenue it could raise if it applied average tax rates, combined with its natural resource royalties – is below the national average. Despite a recession in Alberta following the 2014 crash in oil prices, and a slow recovery since, that province’s fiscal capacity remains far above the national average (Globe and Mail, Nov. 27, 2019).”

Kenny would like to see Alberta’s natural resources removed from this calculation, presumably so that Quebec would receive less. That plan would backfire because Quebec, too, has vast hydroelectric resources. Quebec would actually receive more according to calculations prepared by University of Calgary economics professor Trevor Tombe.  Kenney’s plan would have seen Quebec receive $10.1 billion more in equalization payments over the past decade.

Kenney argues that unlike Quebec, Alberta’s resources are non-renewable and should be an exempt. Yet it was Kenney’s government that decided it would be unfair to distinguish between renewable and non-renewable resources.

Quebec is a convenient straw man for Kenney, deflecting attention from the fact that Alberta’s riches were used in averting a provincial sales tax and not saved for a rainy day. Oil production was unwisely increased without the infrastructure to deliver it to market –a remedy my pipeline, the “people’s pipeline,” is about to resolve with construction under way.

Quebec’s budget surplus has to do with taxes –Quebec’s tax rates are 30 per cent higher than the Canadian average, whereas Alberta’s are 30 per cent lower. Kenny doesn’t have the courage to address Alberta’s real tax problem: no provincial sales tax.

Alberta’s wealth is, in part, the result of my tax dollars being pumped into the oil and gas industry. The feds recently announced a federal aid package for Canada’s oil and gas industry amounting to $1.6-billion.

As an author of the current formula, Kenney knows that the equalization is fair and yet he prefers to whip Albertans into a frenzy of retaliation and separation.

Five nations, one Arctic

Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway lay claim to parts of the Arctic. It’s not a trivial matter -30 per cent of the world’s gas reserves, 13 per cent of oil reserves, as well as iron and rare earth minerals lay beneath the rapidly melting icecap.

image: Athropolis

Science can inform the decision as to who owns what, and diplomacy could play a role as long as the hotheads stay out of the way.

Cooperation has been a hallmark of Arctic operations in the past in areas of search and rescue and military coordination. But that was when the Arctic was covered with an impenetrable sheet of ice, out of sight, out of mind.

Who owned the seabed of the under Earth’s oceans used to be easy. In the 1600s, nations extended their territory the distance that a cannon ball could be shot (three miles).

As the resources of the seas began to be exploited some nations ignored the three-mile limit. To resolve the matter, 160 countries agreed to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. Sovereign rights could then be extended to 200 nautical miles from their shoreline; and even beyond that if nations could present detailed geologic evidence of the extensions of their continental shelves.

Continental shelves are the areas that stretch out under relatively shallow waters before dropping into the deep sea. However, the rights to the continental shelves apply only to the seabed, not the waters above. Fishing and navigation in those waters remain open.

So far, the determination of sovereign rights to the seabed is fairly straightforward. The tricky part is determining exactly where the continental shelf ends and the deep sea floor begins. Canadian geophysicist David Moser, formerly from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia and now professor at the University of New Hampshire, says: “that’s where all the science is (Scientific American, August, 2019).”

An international body, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), has been set up to review claims. The CLCS has received claims from Canada, Russia and Denmark that overlap. The U.S. isn’t expected to make a claim until 2022 but it will likely overlap with Canada’s claim in different area. It’s going to take years to sort it out. And the U.S. claim is weakened by the fact that they never signed UNCLOS although they are cooperating with the agency so far, but who knows how much longer with the current U.S. administration?

As if things weren’t complicated enough, another factor is muddying the waters. UNCLOS allows for nations to extend sovereignty beyond continental shelves to ridges. UNCLOS doesn’t define exactly what a ridge is other than a wide band extending from continental shelf.

One of those ridges, the Lomonosov Ridge, is massive. It divides the Arctic Ocean in half, stretching all the way from Russia to Canada’s Ellesmere Island and next to Greenland. All three countries have made claims on the Lomonosov Ridge.

It’s going to take years to sort through the science. Where the science is unclear, a diplomatic resolution is required. Meanwhile political leaders must be patient.

Another complication is the belligerence of the current U.S. administration. In June, the U.S. Department of Defense warns of an “era of strategic completion,” and “a potential avenue for . . . aggression” in the Arctic.

The rapidly-warming warming of the Arctic is enough of a problem without the addition of hot rhetoric.

Not your father’s minority government

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government is not like his father’s. When Pierre Trudeau won minority government in 1972, he didn’t have the support of opposition parties. The government only lasted 1 year, 221 days. His minority government introduced the unpopular Petro-Canada Crown Corporation that reminded Albertans of the despised National Energy Program. Petro-Canada’s reddish-coloured headquarters in Calgary were tagged “red square.”

P.M. Lester Pearson. Image by Nobel Foundation, Associated Press

Given the bluster from the United Conservative Party of Alberta, you wouldn’t think that the Liberals have any support from the Conservatives until you consider that they both want the Trans Mountain pipeline built.

Consider the following, suggests my Calgary friend:

“I think the conservatives and liberals are not that far apart on the pipeline issue. If the liberals make good on our 4.5 Billion dollar investment in the TMP they will get no support from the NDP or the BLOC but the conservatives would be foolish not to support it.”

Wouldn’t that be something to behold? If the NDP or the Bloc Québécois opposed a pro-pipeline bill, how could the Conservatives not support it without appearing hypocritical? And the NDP and Bloc could then wash their hands of the project that offends environmentalists.

Justin Trudeau has consistently said that he is going to build the Trans Mountain pipeline. He repeated that goal after the October 21, 2109, election.

While reactions to the federal election have focused on a divided country, I see Justin Trudeau’s Liberals offering something for everyone.

The Liberals and the Bloc Québécois can work together on social policy and the environment. The Bloc Québécois has made it clear that they intend to support this Liberal minority government. BQ Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said that the Liberals should do “what it takes” to make Parliament work. He added there’s a law stating that government mandates are supposed to last four years. I’m not sure that’s true for minority governments but Blanchet’s support is clear.

Who knows, if successful, Trudeau’s minority government could be re-elected as was a minority government in 1965, one before Pierre Trudeau’s.

The NDP and the Liberals have the common goal of implementing Pharmacare. Both parties campaigned on bringing the much-needed plan into reality.

Canada is an anomaly among nations. We are the only industrialized country with a universal public health care system but no Pharmacare. Every study of Canada’s health care has identified the lack of Pharmacare as a major gap in our system. Medicare without drug coverage doesn’t even make sense. What good is a health care system that prescribes drugs but doesn’t cover them?

Justin Trudeau’s minority government should look to the accomplishments of minority governments before his father’s. Lester Pearson’s Liberals implemented universal health care with the cooperation of the NDP. And his minority government was so successful that it was re-elected as a minority government with back-to-back Liberal minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965.

How fitting is it that this minority government complete the Medicare program started by minority governments, a goal not attempted by his father.

Pipeline approval won’t help the Liberals

If the federal Liberals were as popular as the Trans Mountain pipeline, they would win the upcoming election in a landslide.

image: City News, Edmonton

The problem for the Liberals is that the pipeline is most popular where voters are least likely to vote Liberal and least popular where voters traditionally vote Liberal.

According to an Angus Reid poll, the strongest support for the pipeline is in Alberta and Saskatchewan, 85 and 71 percent respectively (ArmchairMayor.ca, June 21, 2019). That’s where Liberal support is weak. Only a total of five seats were won by the Liberals in the combined provinces. Meanwhile in Quebec, 40 percent disapprove. That’s where the Liberals won 40 seats.

While support for the pipeline in B.C. is 54 per cent, that average doesn’t reflect the difference of opinion between the Lower Mainland and the Interior. People in the Interior generally support the pipeline because of jobs and financial incentives offered by Trans Mountain. An informal poll by Kamloops This Week showed 80 per cent approval. The Lower Mainland opposes the pipeline because of potential spills.

Conservatives are placed in the awkward position of approving of the pipeline while disapproving the Liberals. Cathy McLeod, Conservative MP for Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, doubted the government’s ability to finish the job:

“I’m not all that optimistic that this government can get it done,” McLeod told Kamloops This Week. Her statement aligns with the Angus Reid poll where 40 percent of respondents didn’t think the pipeline would be built.

Another perceived hurdle is Bill C-69, passed by the Senate last week, which critics say will ensure that the pipeline will never be built.

Bill C-69 imposes more requirements for consulting affected Indigenous communities, widens public participation in the review process and requires climate change to be considered in the building of any development.

The Alberta-based Pembina Institute is cautiously positive of Bill C-69:

“This bill was never about individual projects, but rather a reform of the entire decision-making and assessment process. It is about creating tools and processes to ensure natural resource development decisions, whether about a mine or a dam or a pipeline, are made in a fair way (press release, June 14, 2019) “

If pipelines don’t determine how people vote, what does? Pollster Michael Adams has noticed something new in the way people view immigrants. Twenty years ago, anti-immigrant sentiment was evenly distributed among all three major parties. That’s changed, say Michael Adams, Ron Inglehart, and David Jamison in their article:

“Conservative supporters are more likely to agree with statements strongly hostile to immigration. For example, 50 per cent of Conservatives strongly or somewhat agree that “Overall, there is too much immigration. It threatens the purity of the country.” Fewer than a third of New Democrats (31 per cent) and Liberal supporters (24 per cent) share this belief. This relative concentration of xenophobic sentiment in one party is a new phenomenon in Canada (Globe and Mail, June 14, 2019).”

The researchers are careful to point out that the Conservative Party is not anti-immigrant: they just attract people who are.

Researchers call this the “authoritarian reflex,” a reaction caused by uncertainty and characterized by increased hostility toward “the other,” regardless of whether they are “deviants” in society or foreigners.

The contagion of populism that has been animated by the authoritarian reflex in the U.S. has spilled over into Canada. It will determine the way people vote in way not seen in recent history.