Satellites make good neighbours

A lot of fuss is being made of the Apollo 11 landing of a man on the moon one-half century ago but not so much about Canada’s launch of the Alouette 1 at the same time. Canada was a leader in space -the third in the world to launch a satellite.

Alouette 1. Image: National Post

And Canada was the first to launch a satellite in 1972 that would allow television broadcasts to be broadcast from coast-to-coast-to coast: the Anik A1.

Anik A1 personally affected me. As a microwave technician, I worked on microwave stations that used to be to only way to get signals across Canada. Now the microwave system had been made redundant by the Anik A1.

As more countries launched satellites, their use expanded beyond communication to rescue. This capability is especially important for countries in the Arctic Circle like Canada where populations are sparse and the environment harsh.

Canada, France, the U.S. and Soviet Union cooperated to pool the resources of dozens of satellites. The first rescue took place in 1982 in northern B.C. just weeks after the Soviet Union launched COSPAS-1.

With the belligerence of the current U.S. administration, it’s hard to imagine that they could cooperate on anything.  But the original agreement, forged when tensions with the USSR were high, is still in force. Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, says:

“Yet, satellites-based search and rescue exists only because of a remarkable exercise in Cold-War co-operation (Globe and Mail, July 27, 2019).”

After the Cold War ended, co-operation continued with joint military exercises between Arctic countries. One, called Vigilant Eagle, had U.S., Russian, and Canadian jets responding to a mock hijacking of a commercial aircraft.

After a South Korean fishing trawler sank on the Russian side of the Bering Sea in 2014, Russia requested help from the U.S. Coast guard which sent help immediately.

Russia has been a major contributor to the International Space Station and last month, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques returned from the station in a Russian Soyuz capsule.

Despite tensions with China, the Chinese tech giant Huawei is working in partnership with Canadian internet providers to launch satellites to improve connectivity in Canada’s north. Without the new satellites, two million Canadians in Arctic communities don’t have reliable high-speed internet.

Unlike the old technology, the new satellites will be placed in a much lower orbit. Traditional satellites have two problems. One is the low bandwidth because of the curvature of the Earth. The other is “latency,” that’s the delay in getting signals to and from the satellite. You may have noticed it in TV broadcasts where the foreign correspondent stands in silence after being asked a question –they are waiting for signals to bounce around the globe.

The Trudeau government recently announced that it is investing $85 million to build a Low Earth Orbit constellation of 120 satellites in Canada’s north. At only 1,000 kilometres above the ground, latency is not a problem and since the satellites can be networked, bandwidth is as good as optical fibre.

It’s a good investment, not only because it connects Canada’s rapidly warming North with the rest of the country but because the sale of high-speed internet service a lucrative business.

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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.

 

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.

 

The rise of populism in the attention economy

We only have so much attention to give and as such, it’s a valuable resource. Everyone wants our attention: social media, advertisers, politicians, family and friends. Attention is a limited resource and technology gobbles up at lot of it; just look at the number of people glued to their screens on any street or in any cafe.

Herbert Simon image: Wikipedia

Noble Prize winning political scientist Herbert A. Simon described the concept of the attention economy in 1971. The growth of information dilutes our attention. Simon says:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

More recently, James Williams has researched how technology absorbs our attention. Williams is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University but before that he also spent 10 years working for Google. He believes that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

Williams spoke to CBC’s Spark about the misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves and the goals that our technologies would impose on us. Technology attracts attention that we would really like to apply elsewhere. He told host Nora Young:

“The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we’ll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren’t really represented in the system and aren’t really the sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today (June 1, 2018).”

Seen from the goal of attention-getting, U.S. President Trump makes a lot of sense. He does whatever it takes to get our attention because he understands the impact that it has on his ratings. The content of his Tweets may be sheer fabrication but that’s not the point. His years as a TV showman taught him the effect that outrage has on tribalism. What is factually true is irrelevant.

“This is what people didn’t realize about him [Trump] during the election, just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it,” says Simon. “But I don’t think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.”

Trump is not interested in unifying the country –he wants to divide it so the largest tribe is his.

Research published in the February issue of American Sociological Review reveals the way Trump supporters view his acknowledged dishonesty. Participants in a study were told that one of Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax had been definitely debunked –that global warming is real. Trump supporters saw the tweet, not as literal, but as a challenge to the elite (Scientific American, September, 2018).

Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, foresaw the impact of technology:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” and “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”

Four decades later, McLuhan might have added: “Populism is the politics of the global village.”

When am I dead?

When I’m dead I won’t be writing these columns. But other than that, indication of my demise might not be certain. The problem is that our definitions of death vary according to legal, cultural, religious and philosophical perspectives.

  image: slideserve.com

There was some dispute about whether Taquisha McKitty of Brampton was dead. Doctors said she was but her parents disagreed. She went into cardiac arrest following a drug overdose and was declared neurologically dead. A death certificate was issued.

McKitty’s father said: “My daughter is not dead -she shows that every day.” He maintains that his daughter shows signs of life: squeezing the hands of loved ones and even shedding tears.

Whether she was living was finally decided through a court decision. A judge ruled that McKitty was, in fact, dead.

Keeping someone alive with life support is not an issue. Canadians are kept alive with pacemakers, kidney dialysis, mechanical hearts and lungs while awaiting transplants. The issue is whether we should maintain one’s bodily functions when they are dead.

McKitty’s family might disagree with my last sentence. If they believe that bodily functions define life, then the squeezing of hands indicates that Taquisha was alive.

Others could argue that breath itself is life. If so, breathing is an indication of life. Genesis 2:7 says: “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Still others believe that the soul, the essence of life, resides in the heart. The ancient Egyptians thought that the heart was vital. During mummification, they discarded the brain by removing it through the nose but kept the heart. They likely believed that as long as the heart is pumping, a person is alive.

In Western culture, the brain defines life because it’s the seat of the mind. Some philosophers suggest that it’s the mind that defines life. They argue that since the mind resides in the brain, and because the brain is a (biological) machine, the mind could reside in any machine. If complex computer could be built, the mind could continue to live in a solid state environment without a body.

The Japanese would disagree. They see the body and mind as a single unit so that the mind is not independent of the brain. To be alive is to experience bodily sensations and desires as well as cerebral thoughts.

The judge in McKitty’s case ruled that the brain is central in determining death. If the brain is dead, so is the mind. This opinion coincides with doctors’ assessments. Dr. Sonny Dhanani, a pediatric critical care physician in Ottawa, concludes:

“When brain death occurs, there is no blood and oxygen going to it. The brain ceases all function. There are no functions left to be lost. This means there is the irreversible loss of any ability to have thoughts or feelings or memories (Globe and Mail, July 6, 2018).”

I won’t know when I’m dead and given the definitions of life, maybe no one else will be sure any time soon.

B.C. firm extracts fuel from air

It may sound like alchemy but Carbon Engineering Ltd based in Squamish captures carbon from the atmosphere and turns it back into automotive fuel.

Carbon Engineering,
Squamish, BC. Image: Google maps

It’s not just wishful thinking. Investors with deep pockets are putting money into the project, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

Co-owner of Carbon Engineering David Keith describes the technology as “direct air capture” (DAC). They’ve been running a pilot plant since 2015 and hope to build a commercial-scale operation soon. The plant has been producing a variety of fuels, such as diesel, gasoline, and Jet-A since 2017.

Carbon capture technology is not new but the price barrier has been too high to make it feasible. Previous processes have cost US$600 a tonne. Professor Keith says they have broken the price barrier:

“At Carbon Engineering, we now have the data and engineering to prove that DAC can achieve costs below US$100 (Globe and Mail, June 8, 2018).”

Former processes haven’t worked, as Saskatchewan found out. At higher cost and lower reliability, they extract CO2 and store it into the ground. Former Premier of Brad Wall had high hopes that his province could avoid a federal carbon tax by carbon capture. However, these plants are only operational 45 per cent of the time. The old technology has been tried globally and abandoned; China cancelled theirs.

Professor Keith researched his DAC technology at the University of Calgary. The process is relatively simple in theory. First CO2 is extracted from the air. Then hydrogen is created from water through electrolysis using any energy source, preferably renewable. Solar cells, for example, could create hydrogen by breaking water into its component parts. In the final stage, hydrogen and CO2 are combined to produce hydrocarbon fuels.

The novelty of Professor Keith’s technology is that it solves three problems: rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, drilling for fossil fuels, and the storage of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Of course, if you are going to extract CO2 from the air only to convert it back into fuels that will put the CO2 back in the air, that hardly seems like a solution. But at least it is not producing any more CO2. And mining the air for fuels is certainly better than fracking shale deposits.

Using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to produce automotive fuel seems counterintuitive at first. The problem with renewable energy sources that they produce energy when it’s not needed and none when is -it has to be stored somehow.  The surplus electricity could be stored in batteries for use later. Or it could be used in conjunction with other renewable sources such as hydroelectricity.

Storing renewable energy as fuel is a good idea because the engines to burn the hydrocarbons already exist. There is no need to build new vehicles with electric motors.

The fuel produced is expected to cost 25 per cent more than traditional gasoline but it would fetch premium prices.

“It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not too cheap to meter,” says Professor Keith, “but it’s something that really we think could be built out, and could be built out at relatively low technical risk. So we hope it is really a turning point.”

 

Anonymity is not enough in apps

You can set your privacy settings on apps so that personal data is not shared. But even anonymous data can threaten security.

Take the case of the fitness tracking app Strava. Their website tracks exercise routes of users and plots them on a map of the world. The routes show up as bright lines; the brighter they are, the more they are used. You can’t pick out individuals on the map because they are only sharing data anonymously. They are revealing in ways that were never intended.

In this Strava map of Kamloops, you can see familiar areas of the city that where people have been exercising. There’s the downtown grid, Rayleigh, and Sun Peaks on the upper right. Some areas are a bit mysterious, like in the lower left. I went to Google Maps to see if there is a community there but couldn’t find any. Someone, or group, exercises near Chuwhels Mountain above New Gold Afton Mine. Is there a camp that I don’t know of?

 Strava map

Australian student Nathan Ruser was doing some similar browsing, comparing exercise routes on Strava to Google Maps, when he came across exercise routes around U.S. military bases in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. The Strava map revealed much more than the Google map did: it exposed troop movements. It probably never occurred to soldiers how much they were lighting up the base.

While the locations of the military bases are not exactly top secret, the movements of soldiers could compromise the operational security. The fitness app could highlight sensitive outposts and troops’ habitual routes during military drills and patrols. Ruser, who is also an analyst for the Institute for United Conflict Analysts, tweeted:

“If soldiers use the app like normal people do, by turning it on tracking when they go to do exercise, it could be especially dangerous. This particular track looks like it logs a regular jogging route. I shouldn’t be able to establish any Pattern of life info from this far away (January 27, 2018)”

Air Force Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told the Washington Post that the military was looking into the implications of the Strava map.

It probably didn’t occur to soldiers that they were compromising base security by simply turning on the fitness tracker. After all, none of their personal information was being shared.

This way of thinking ignores the greater good according to Arvind Narayanan, a computer scientist at Princeton University.

“This assumes that my behaviour affects my privacy,” Narayanan told CBC Radio’s Spark, “but really I think what Strava story has shown is that it’s more than that. That’s when privacy becomes a collective issue (February 2, 2018).”

The privacy settings can be confusing. Someone going out for a run doesn’t want to spend time trying to figure out which boxes to check.

Beyond the actions of individuals and their privacy settings, there is the vulnerability of big corporations.

“Strava has been in the news but there are dozens of companies sitting on sensitive data. There’s not a lot of public oversight around these super sensitive databases about billions of people,” adds Narayanan.