In defence of Facebook

I like Facebook but I’m not an apologist for the social media giant.

Facebook has done things wrong. They failed to prevent Cambridge Analytica from gathering detailed information of millions of users. The method used was especially disturbing. They developed a quiz in which 270,000 people responded. Then the response snowballed to 50 million as data from friends was gleaned.

However, while Cambridge Analytica’s tactics were sneaky, they didn’t get anything more than what they could have obtained through a paid ad. Facebook says they are going to make the source of those ads transparent. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says: “People should know who is buying the ads that they see on Facebook.” About time.

Last year, Facebook admitted that Russian provocateurs bought 3,000 ads.  The ads were insidious because they generated anxiety over social issues: immigrants, gun rights and the LGBT community. This disquiet played well in the hands of the populist Donald Trump.

Facebook’s mistake was that it didn’t do enough to prevent such abuses. Zuckerberg said so on CNN: “This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data.”

Facebook performs a valuable service. It connects me to friends and family and a larger community of Kamloopsians. I have found friends from decades ago through Facebook. I can correspond in Spanish with Mexican friends with the help of Google translate.

Grassroots action groups are made on Facebook. I learn of musicians and artists coming to town through Facebook. The city posts notices on Facebook. Small businesses can advertise by just starting a Facebook page. I can send complaints to big businesses by just posting on their page.

Russian ads are not unique. All Canadian political parties pay for ads on Facebook that target specific groups, and all have detailed information on voters.

It’s not just Facebook. Every time I use a “points” card at a store, information is collected. Any time I use Google services –the browser, Gmail, or YouTube- my behaviour is tracked for the sake of advertisers.

Such a wealth of intimate data can be used for good or evil. It could be used to determine the democratic will of citizens. It could be sold to the highest bidder. Facebook needs to be regulated.

Zuckerberg himself admits it; although his reservations are revealed in his double negative: “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he said. “I actually think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than yes or no, should it be regulated?”

When Marshall McLuhan said that “The medium is the message,” he meant that nature of media affects society more than its content. Just as the printing press changed our perception of the world, so has social media.

The content of Facebook is staggering; more than just kittens and social agitation. It embraces our global digital collective consciousness. Embedded in the algorithms are the wishes and desires of one-third of the world’s population.

But more than the content, Facebook represents a new media which is altering our perceptions in ways yet to be discovered. Resistance to social media is simply an indication of how disruptive and new the technology is.

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Immigrant women’s STEM skills untapped

If it makes sense for girls to enter programs in science, technology, engineering and math, then it makes even more sense to employ immigrant women who already have these skills.

    image: CIVIC York

Girls should to be encouraged to enter STEM fields. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops is holding a camp for girls at Harper Mountain this summer. The program will provide positive female role models and build confidence in STEM studies.

It’s not just a question of gender equity but one of necessity. Canada faces a skills shortage. Jobs are waiting to be filled. TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar says:

“The top item on the innovation minister’s national agenda is ‘the need to secure the right people—including women, immigrants, and training for the next generation—who can help us close the gap between the number of jobs posted and the number of workers available to fill them (CCPA Monitor, Nov/Dec, 2017).’”

In the field of information and communications technology alone, there will be a shortage of 182,000 workers by 2019.

What’s missing from this equation is the fact that immigrant women have these skills and that talent is being wasted.

Immigrant women aged 25 to 34 are twice as likely to have a STEM degree as Canadian women of that age (23 versus 13 per cent).  Not just women but all immigrants, on average, are highly trained says Muzaffar:

“Almost nine out of 10 newcomers with credentials above a high school diploma had a university degree at the time of landing in Canada. Among these, 82% held degrees in fields of study ranging from engineering to agriculture, biology, physics, mathematics and health sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences. Two-thirds held professional jobs before immigrating to Canada; in management and business administration, natural sciences, health and education.”

Here are the factors that discourage talented immigrant women from being employed:

Immigrant families arrive with a lot of talent but little money. The husband finds work wherever he can, usually in a low-paying job like driving a taxi. Since the cost of child care is prohibitively expensive, the wife stays at home with the kids. The longer she is out of a job that employs her skills, the less likely she will ever be employed. Each passing year removes her connection to the workforce.

Even if immigrant families find daycare with friends or grandparents, they face the problem of having their education and work experience recognized. Accreditation can be a frustrating and expensive process. B.C. and Alberta are the worst when it comes to accreditation.

Immigrants who represent visible minorities face discrimination.

If an immigrant woman finds work in her field of expertise, it is likely to be in a temporary job with relatively low wages. There is an economic incentive for employers to keep immigrants and all women marginalized.

If we are serious about putting talented immigrant women to work, the solutions are obvious: affordable day care, simple and cheap accreditation, consolidation of part-time positions to full-time, acknowledge that we discriminate and correct our colour vision.

The future of blockchain mining in B.C.

Blockchain mines look nothing like copper mines. They are banks of computer that toil away at solving complex calculations. Blockchain is the digital ledger used by many cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Because the computers generate heat, they could be used to warm the greenhouses to grow the tonnes of marijuana needed for Canada’s budding legal market.

  image: coindesk.com

Blockchain is a revolutionary way of tracking secure, indelible transactions of any sort not just cryptocurrencies. Experts say it will revolutionize businesses in every field. Manav Gupta, chief technology officer of IBM Cloud Canada, is enthusiastic:

“We view blockchain as having the potential to change all of technological interactions the same way that the internet changed communication in the nineties (Walrus magazine, Jan/Feb, 2018).”

Where the value of Bitcoins is highly speculative, the value of blockchain is solid. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop blockchain from being caught up in a goldrush mentality. Irrational investors are madly rushing into some dodgy speculations. Convinced that anything with “blockchain” in the title is “the next big thing,” investors threw $2 billion into blockchain startups worldwide. One company saw shares rise 394 per cent by just adding “blockchain” to its name.

Blockchain can be used to secure any vital records such as medical files, business deals, legal agreements, tracing shipping containers, farm-to-market food security; even professional and academic records which are now open to fraud. Walmart and Nestle have already invested in blockchain.

Bitcoin miners loan their computers to solve the complex blockchain calculations required for each transaction. Miners are paid in Bitcoins in return. Drew Taylor has a Bitcoin mining operation in his Montreal house. He earns about $3,000 a month and pays additional costs of $200 for electricity. The computers generate a lot of heat. “But essentially it is free heat for at least one room,” he told CBC Radio’s The Current.

The amount of power used for each Bitcoin transaction is shocking high. Alex de Vries monitors the power used in Bitcoin mining. Just one transaction uses as much energy as the average B.C. household uses in 13 days. That’s 300 kilowatt-hours for each transaction. Researchers are looking for ways to reduce the power consumption.

The best place to locate Bitcoin mines is in places where the electricity is cheap. Montreal has relatively cheap hydroelectricity. Iceland has a large mine because the majority of their energy comes from geothermal and steam. Unfortunately, not all cheap energy is as green. China and India do most of the mining where the electricity is cheap but produced by burning dirty coal.

Once B.C.’s Site C dam is completed we will have lots of cheap, surplus electricity that could be put to use in blockchain mining.

Blockchain mining is comparable to copper mining because both use a lot of electricity. Highland Valley mine near Kamloops uses as much electricity as 60,000 homes, about twice what Kamloops uses.

An advantage of blockchain mining is that a secondary industry could use the waste heat. Marijuana greenhouses could use the computers as heaters so that not one kilowatt hour would be wasted. In addition, blockchain mines could be located near the dam to avoid the cost of transmitting electricity.

The digital mine would employ workers close to home in small towns in B.C. Instead of using our dam power to run LNG compressors, we could put people to work mining digital dollars and growing marijuana for Canadian’s burgeoning market.

Germany pays customers to use electricity

German power companies paid customers to use electricity on one hundred occasions in 2017. Companies paid customers a lot relative to what they normally receive -1,720 times more per kilowatt hour.

   photo: CleanTechnica

The reason why power companies were so eager to pay customers had to do with the wind. Wind turbines were generating too much power on the grid and they had to dump it quickly. Surplus electricity is a dangerous problem that has to be corrected quickly.

While wind turbines can be switched off quickly, fossil fuel and nuclear sources can’t. Power grid managers have to agile to compensate for gusty winds.

The problem with surplus electricity is that voltage quickly rises and that can damage equipment. Power grid engineering is complex but one thing is simple: power in equals power out. Managing the grid requires a balance in the production and consumption of electricity. The sum of all the power used by your TVs and toasters, and all that of your neighbour’s, equals the power produced by generators. If the power produced is more than what’s used, something has to give.  What gives is a precipitous rise in voltage.

Christmas Day, 2017, was pleasantly warm in Germany and the wind was strong. As well, demand was abnormally low being a holiday when factories and offices are shut down. Suddenly, the wind blew and power companies had to shed a lot of power from the grid. So the plea went out from power companies to start wasting electricity. Turn on your electric heaters and all the lights in your house. Open the doors. We’ll pay a lot is you do.

Too much wind power is not unforeseen. Germany spent $250 billion to develop wind turbines and they now produce 20 per cent of the country’s power. The remainder of Germany’s power comes from fossil fuels and nuclear.

Germany has obviously solved one part of the greenhouse gas problem by investing heavily in renewable sources but the other side remains unresolved –how to store surplus energy. Battery technology doesn’t have the capacity to store huge amounts of power. If it did, surplus wind power could have been stored.

Batteries will work on a smaller, household scale. Elon Musk sells his Tesla Powerwall battery for $7,000 and it holds enough power to run your house for about 3 days. Imagine being paid to store electricity and then to use it to supply your energy needs for days? In Germany, you’d be doing yourself and the power company a favour.

If you live in B.C., not so much. British Columbia has the enviable position of generating power by hydroelectricity; 95 per cent of it with the remainder by natural gas plants.

B.C. can’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially by switching to wind and solar. Small scale installations in houses can reduce the cost of electricity for homeowners. Because dams hold stored power, storage of surplus electricity is not a problem.

Germany has reduced the burning of fossil fuels with wind and solar. Now, if they could only find some way to store the surplus electricity.

Canada’s internet remains flat, despite challenges

Canada remains a world-leader in keeping our internet equal for all. Challenges to tilt the internet in favour of special interests come from at home and abroad. Last month, Canada’s telecomm regulator ruled that all online data be treated equally.

The ruling comes after Videotron, a music streaming company, offered their wireless service to subscribers at no charge for data used. This practice, called “zero-rating,” is violation of net neutrality because content would be biased in favour of their service. Subscribers to other music streaming services would pay more. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled the practice illegal.

In his ruling, the CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais suggested a less disingenuous tactic for Videotron:

“Rather than offering its subscribers selected content at different data-usage prices, Internet-service providers should be offering more data at lower prices,”

The ruling is a victory for the little-lobby-group-that-could, OpenMedia.ca (which I support financially).

“We just won again!,” they crowed in an email to me, “The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) just decided in favour of historic Net Neutrality rules that prevent Big Telecom from unfairly manipulating data caps to discriminate against certain apps and services.”

Michael Geist, professor of Internet and E-commerce Law, was equally enthused but more muted in his response:

Most notably, Canadian consumers and creators will benefit in the long term from the Net-neutrality policies.”

Canada’s firm support of net neutrality extends beyond a level playing field. Without it, giant telcomms could start to collect browsing habits of unsuspecting customers and sell them to advertisers for the purpose of targeting specific demographics.

The concept of a flat internet is vital to free expression and innovation. In an earlier column, I argued that net neutrality is fundamental to democracy:

Canadians must stand on guard for a free and democratic internet.”

Net neutrality in the U.S. has been tilting back and forth. In 2014, the U.S. appeals court ruled that the internet was not a “common carrier.” A common carrier is like a telephone line, simply a conduit to carry information. If telephones weren’t a common carrier, telephone companies could make it easier for businesses to access your phone than your friends and family.

The designation of common carrier is vital to net neutrality. Without that designation, internet service providers could effectively suppress content by making it more costly to view.

Sensibly, President Obama restored the designation of common carrier in 2015.

Now President Trump’s appointees to the U.S. telecomm regulator, called the FCC, intend to overturn net-neutrality in the U.S.

Canada faces a mixture of faux worry and resistance from the U.S.  A Trump-appointed advisor to the FCC, Roslyn Layton, said “My biggest concern for Canada is that you continue to add regulation that deters the incentive to invest,” Her fake concern for Canada not believable. Many big U.S. giants such as Netflix oppose the Trump initiatives because they don’t want their subscribers paying more than competitive video-streaming. They fear that U.S. telcomms will do what Videotron tried to do and tilt the internet in favour of their own services.

I have a feeling that Layton’s real concern is that U.S. tech start-ups will move to Canada where innovative technologies still have unbiased access to the internet.

Stem cell centre coming to Kamloops?

My curiosity was sparked when I read that a stem cell centre was opening in Kamloops (Kamloops This Week, March 21, 2017).

So I went to the location of the centre at 470 Columbia St only to find a parking lot. Thinking that the address might be wrong, I searched the directory of the medical building next door and found that no stem cell centre was listed.

The Stem Cell Centers website lists Kamloops as the only one in Canada. Dr. Richard Brownlee is named as the surgeon with “more information coming soon.”

“Stem cell therapy,” says the website, “can help with orthopedic or pain management, ophthalmological conditions, cardiac or pulmonary conditions, neurological conditions, and auto-immune diseases, among many other conditions and disease that results in damaged tissue.”

One of the ophthalmological conditions they treat is macular degeneration. “If your vision is fading due to macular degeneration, you know it’s time to seek help. Our non-invasive Stem Cell Therapy treatment might be the solution for you.”

I wanted get Dr. Brownlee’s reaction to news that an unproven stem cell treatment had resulted in blindness according to the New England Journal of Medicine as reported in the Globe and Mail, March 20, 2017.

”This week, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported on three individuals who went blind after receiving an unproven stem cell treatment at a Florida clinic. The patients paid thousands of dollars for what they thought was a clinical trial on the use of stem cells to treat macular degeneration.”

The writer of the Globe and Mail article, Timothy Caulfield, Research Chair of the in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, doesn’t name the Florida clinic.

The Stem Cell Centers website refers optimistically to treatment for macular degeneration at a Florida clinic, although apparently not theirs since no Florida clinic appears on their list. It tells of how Doug Oliver suffered from macular degeneration before stem cells were extracted from his hip bone and injected them into his eyes. Almost immediately, Oliver’s eyesight started to improve. “I began weeping,” he said.

Caulfield encourages caution. “Health science gets a lot of attention in the popular press. People love hearing about breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and emerging cures. The problem is, these stories are almost always misleading.” “It can also help to legitimize the marketing of unproven therapies.”

Reports from the Stem Cell Centers’ own website are cautionary as well. It quotes an abstract from a study done by the Southern California College of Optometry on how “stem cells might ultimately be used to restore the entire visual pathway.”

The promise of stem cell research is phenomenal. Scientific American (Jan., 2017) reports that brains can be grown in a lab dish from stem cells taken from skin. These samples can be used to research brain disorders ranging from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s disease, and to explore why only some babies develop brain-shrinking microcephaly after exposure to the Zika virus.

However, Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, concludes that there are only a handful of clinical applications available and they are for skin and blood-related ailments.

Practice, it seems, has not yet matched the promise of stem cell research.

 

 

 

Books are vehicles of insight

If it seems odd that I would defend print media by using this digital media that you read on a screen, let me explain.

Conceptual Books

We might be reading less print media but we are not reading fewer words says Dr. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. “We are reading more than 100,000 words a day,” she told CBC’s Spark, “but it is fragmented; not the immersive, sustained, deep reading of our past”

According to Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message” and internet media are designed to be distracting through the interjection of various animations, popups and social media that create a “cognitive storm,” says Dr. Wolf. Kindle and other book readers are a bit better but not as good as the immersive media of a book.

Media on the internet involve an evolutionary mechanism of “what’s next.” It’s a state of mind that’s useful in scanning our environment for potential dangers and opportunities. In evolutionary terms, it’s useful to know when food becomes available or when a poisonous snake is on the path. But multitasking is not a good mental state for quiet contemplation.

Reading is not something we have evolved to do. We are not born to read, Dr. Wolf told TVO on YouTube. A child will naturally develop other skills like vision and speech but reading is an acquired skill in which mental circuits have to be reassigned from vision and language in order to read. It’s a window that opens to take us beyond what we were originally programmed to do.

Because reading is not innate, it requires effort to develop. Even then, there are complications. As the mother of a dyslexic child, Dr. Wolf is acutely aware that reading development of cannot be taken for granted. Parents have to expose children to books at an early age. By ages five to seven, mental circuits have been sufficiently integrated to develop an automatic system that accesses the deep reading process.

Slow, deep reading requires focus.

“The book is an amazing vehicle for the elicitation of our critical intellectual processes and our own, if you will, vehicle of insight,” Dr. Wolf says. “It’s an amazing invention because the book as we know it is something that we can turn to, and be completely by ourselves, and with nothing else be transported literally, emotionally, socially, intellectually, into the perspective of another.”

Writing is the opposite. In preparing this column I listened to a radio program, watched a video, and read online references. That these words on your screen have any meaning at all is a testimony to the power of the written word. If all goes well, the ideas will unfold as you read.

While these ideas may be thought-provoking, I have no illusions that this column requires deep concentration. The value of short articles such as this is to introduce ideas that can be explored at depth in books (which I don’t read enough of). From my own experience of reading online, I suspect that you are already looking for “what’s next.”