The future of smart radios

I imagine that the future of radio will combine traditional fm with the technology of smart phones.

I’m not talking about the distant future: the fm broadcast protocols already exist and most cell phones already have an fm radio chip, although you’d never know it. Chris Burns wonders why. In his article for SlashGear.com and he explains how you can find out if your phone has the chip:

“A whole bunch of smartphones out on the market today have FM radio capabilities – but their owners don’t know it. There’s no real good reason for this lack of knowledge save the lack of advertising on the part of phone makers. . . Today we’re listing the whole lot of phone devices that can run FM Radio right out the box.”

I first heard about the fm chip in cell phones last year on CBC Radio’s Spark. Barry Rooke explained how useful they could be. They could be used where no cell service exists and in an emergency when cell towers are down as in the wildfires of Fort McMurray in 2015.

Rooke is the executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association and he’s formed a consortium of broadcasters, including CBC, and radio listeners who would like to see the FM radio chip activated.

It doesn’t even have to be a smartphone to receive fm. A friend bought a simple cell phone in Mexico with the fm chip activated for $22 dollars, and that included free calls for eight days -no contract (it galls me how much more Canadians pay for cell phones, but that’s another column). You can hardly buy an fm radio alone for that amount.

The innovation that I imagine would be the use of graphics in smartphones. Some of the fm audio spectrum would be partitioned off for text and lo-res graphics. The text could include lyrics of the song being played and a picture of the artist, news, weather, sports, traffic, stock reports. In poor countries where the phone is more common than radios, it could include voting information, crop and commodity reports. Text and graphics could be saved for future reference.

The graphics would be stacked on the original signal with a subcarrier much in the way that left and right channels are now carried on regular fm as described in Wikipedia. The protocol already exists for car radios and would need to be adjusted for smartphones.

The best system would be a digital overhaul of the fm modulation signal. But that won’t happen because radio stations must be received by regular receivers as well as the new smart radios.

Broadcasters would never transmit a signal that can only be received by relatively few. That’s what happened when stereo radio was introduced. The new stereo signal had to be received by old mono radios as well as the new until the new technology was adopted.

The push for smart radios won’t come from cell phone service providers –they would prefer that you pay for data. It must come from broadcasters and listeners.

Bad law stifles freedom of the press

They should have called it the Suppression of Freedom of the Press Act. Instead, the Harper Government called it the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act. It was supposed to prevent cyberbullying.

It was used to spy on reporter Patrick Lagacé and find out who his sources were. The only way that whistleblowers are going to reveal corruption is if they remain anonymous. Once whistleblowers know that their identity can be revealed, they are less likely to talk to reporters.

The silence of whistleblowers is just one way of keeping the public in the dark. Former Prime Minister Harper simply refused to talk to the press. President-elect Trump has notched up his attack on the press by inciting hatred of reporters among his supporters.

Trump told supporters that journalists are “the lowest form of humanity” and that they are “disgusting and corrupt.” At rallies, crowds turned on the press shouting “CNN sucks!” and worse. Some Trump supporters have taken to shouting “luegenpresse (“lying press”),” the German slur that Nazis levelled against journalists, writes reporter Elizabeth Renzetti (Globe and Mail, November 4, 2016).

We don’t have to look far to see where this is going. After a failed coup in Turkey, President Erdogan declared a state of emergency in which he has locked up journalists and others. Journalists worry. “Turkey’s current state of emergency is being abused to indiscriminately target any and all who criticize the government.”

The silence of politicians; bad laws that deter whistleblowers; the vilification, threat of libel and imprisonment of reporters, –all threaten the flow information vital to a democracy. And there is the unwarranted intrusion through technology.

Cell phones contain a GPS chip that can be activated remotely by the service provider. A Telus Corp. spokeswoman explained that “we will provide real-time GPS locations … when ordered to by a court, in which case we are required by law to comply.” The chip serves a useful purpose when trying to locate a caller who has placed a 911 call but it’s a corruption of the technology when used to track reporters. The problem of technology goes beyond the GPS chip.

There are Stingray machines which mimic cell phone towers. When calls are made, a connection is made to the fake tower which police monitor. Triangulation is another way of locating a cell phone and there is Google Latitude. Once two cell phone users are located close together, it can be assumed that they met.

Technology is just a tool. It’s up to lawmakers to enact legislation that ensures that laws target the intended purpose. An act that was intended to target cyberbullying but suppresses freedom of the press was poorly written. Regardless, the police will use exploit poorly written laws as they see fit. RCMP Commissioner Paulson is candid:

“When you make applications to courts to seek those authorities, as long as everything is disclosed and the limits of your proposed investigative strategy are disclosed and it is understood as being linked to the evidence you are seeking, I don’t know what else the police could be asked to do.”

The trouble with coding in schools

B.C. Premier Clark’s plan to introduce computer coding in schools is full of difficulties.

Coding is now mandatory in English schools

Coding is now mandatory in English schools

Teachers aren’t trained in coding. Even if teachers were taught the basics of coding, it’s not enough says Sheena Vaidyanathan. Before she was a high school teacher in computing, she was a software engineer in Silicon Valley.

“There’s a big difference between learning the basics of coding and knowing it well enough to do it professionally,” she told Scientific American (August, 2016) “Learning coding is like learning a foreign language.” “We wouldn’t expect students to be fluent in French or Spanish because they took a couple of semesters of instruction in high school.”

Then there is the difference between being able to code and understanding the principles on which computers operate. Like math, coding is simply the expression of something more abstract. Writing computer code involves the ability to take larger problems and break them down into component parts. This requires conceptual thinking and analysis.

Computational thinking is interdisciplinary. Another experienced school teacher, Eli Sheldon, says: “I work with teachers to incorporate computational thinking into the subjects they teach, whether it’s English, or math, or biology.” “Because students are encountering the same mental tools across many different courses, they come to see how universally applicable they are, even outside of school.”

Canada’s economic disparity presents another problem. Students from affluent families will have access to computers and digital devices at home that poorer students don’t. And even those who have smart phones have a false sense of how computers work. Parents marvel at how “computer literate” their children are when the real marvel is the user interface developed by skilled developers who understand human behaviour as well as programming.

There are questions about the political and commercial motives behind the push to bring coding in schools.

Premier Clark is no fan of public schools. As Education Minister in 2002, Clark introduced Bills 27 & 28 forcing teachers back to work and banning collective bargaining. Her instance on closing schools is becoming an election issue. Underfunding and closing public schools, while expecting teachers to do more is a sure way to guarantee failure and a reason to promote private schools.

And while students should be taught the skills involved in problem solving and analytical thinking, why should schools be preparing them for specific skills that industry should provide?

What will coding replace? Curriculums are already full. It would be a big mistake to replace arts with industry-driven curricula. The tech hero, Steve Jobs, was neither a coder or hardware engineer. His skill was his artistic sensibilities that forced the redesign of clunky mobile phones and computers. It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said, “that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Coding will require a massive undertaking by training teachers, revamping courses, integrating computer science into other academic subjects and changing graduation requirements.

It’s fine to announce grand plans with a election just months away, but unless Premier Clark comes up with a plan to implement those plans, it’s mere rhetoric.

Uber Apploitation

When I fly to Los Angles next week, I was going to take an Uber taxi. Now I’m not so sure after reading Andrew Callaway’s article in the CCPA Monitor.

George, 35, protests with other commercial drivers with the app-based, ride-sharing company Uber against working conditions outside the company's office in Santa Monica, California June 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT TRANSPORT CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3VKJ9

George, 35, protests with other commercial drivers with the app-based, ride-sharing company Uber against working conditions outside the company’s office in Santa Monica, California June 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson 

“Oh, Canada! I’m writing you from Berkeley, California to warn you about this thing called ‘the sharing economy.’ Since no one is really sharing anything, many of us prefer the term “the exploitation economy,” . . . Whatever you want to call it, the basic idea is that customers can outsource all the work or chores they don’t want to do to somebody else in their area.”

Since phone apps can be used to order just about anything you want from groceries and restaurant food to laundry pickup and house cleaning, the exploitation economy might be better labelled as the “apploitation economy.”

On the surface, the sharing economy seems ideal. Independent workers can pick up jobs whenever and wherever they want. But dig deeper and you find that drivers are not so independent. They certainly are not employees. If they were employees, they would receive fixed wages and benefits, deductions for employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan, and taxes.

If Uber drivers were truly independent, they could control their rates and  conditions of work. Callaway soon found out some of the drawbacks when he worked for a company similar to Uber called Lyft. He found out that, without warning, ride-sharing companies will lower drive wages. By the time drivers notice the cut, they have invested in cars and are stuck in the job.

Ride-sharing companies are careful not to send drivers to pick up specific passengers because that would make them employees. Instead, drivers are given red zones which supposedly indicate where passengers will likely be. But by the time that other drivers move to the zones, the likelihood is reduced. It’s inefficient for the drivers but avoids the company’s responsibility.

If drivers don’t like the arrangement, why do it? “Realistically, people aren’t driving around strangers because they love it. The most common defence of the sharing economy I hear is, ‘if it’s so bad, why are so many people doing it?’ Many do it out of desperation. I’ve talked to a number of drivers who will work over 30 hours every weekend in addition to a full-time job just to have enough money to pay rent and take care of their kids.”

And if drivers like conditions so much, why do they want to organize unions to protect themselves? Seattle City Council recently approved a bill that would allow drivers for ride-sharing apps to form unions. The vote is a victory for the App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA) of Seattle, an organization of on-demand contract workers that lobbied for the legislation. Union organizers in California have said that the Seattle vote could influence actions taken in their own cities.

Ottawa recently joined Edmonton as the second Canadian city to legalize Uber. The move will put pressure on others. Canadian cities need to pay attention to the American experience and get ride-sharing right by easing restrictions on taxis and reducing apploitation. If Uber really wants to provide a useful service, it needs to treat drivers fairly by allowing greater rate control and working conditions.

Stop calling royalties a tax

In raising royalties, Rachel Notley’s NDP government is simply returning Alberta to its roots. Former premier Peter Lougheed urged a sensible development of the tar sands and fair royalties. After flying over the tar sands in 2006, he remarked:

Bust

“I was just up there on a trip, just helicoptering around, and it is just a moonscape. It is wrong in my judgment, a major wrong, and I keep trying to see who the beneficiaries are. It is not the people of the province, because they are not getting the royalty return that they should be getting.”

Corporations like to confuse royalties and taxes because they would rather not pay anything to government, regardless of merit or ownership. Royalties are “rents” says Gordon Laxter, economist and founder of the Parkland Institute of the University of Alberta.

“Many think of royalties as taxes. Any government fee must be a tax. Wrong. Private woodlot owners and musicians collect royalties. No one calls them taxes. When governments collect royalties they aren’t taxes either. Royalties are one way to capture economic rents. Leases, ecological charges and corporate taxes are other ways. Government ownership of resource companies is the only way to collect all the rents,” he says in the Monitor magazine.

By rents, Laxter means the profit from a piece of land or real estate. A tax is not that, it’s a levy on income. Royalties are rents, compensation for the use of public land.

When Lougheed flew over the tar sands moonscape, he was being rhetorical when wondering who the beneficiaries were. As former premier, he knew that the beneficiaries were Big Oil and not primarily those who owned the land.

Despite Lougheed’s pleading for Albertan’s to “think like an owner,” successive Alberta governments fell sway to the push from Big Oil who threatened to leave Alberta if royalties were increased. It was an idle threat, of course. Other governments, like Norway’s, impose higher royalties and Big Oil still continues to profit.

Western provinces tend to think small when it comes to their economies.  Like a young adult, no longer a teenager, provinces fail to think in grown-up ways. Western provinces have trouble seeing beyond living their parent’s basement and working at the equivalent of a fast-food restaurant – quick and easy natural resource extraction.

Mel Watkins, one of Canada’s foremost political economists, foresaw adult economies in his 1963 “staple theory of economic growth.” Simply put, his three pronged maturation involved the export of resources only after they had been processed; then on to the production of finished products instead of importing them; and finally, mature economies which become self-supporting and not dependent on resource extraction.

It hasn’t dawned on Western Canadians that we are there, at the third stage. We have cities with populations over a million; we are large enough to be self-supporting. Unfortunately, the quick-and-easy resource extraction mentality is hard to shake. B.C. Premier Clark imagines our future as the exportation of LNG and has lowered rents to please investors.

The reality is that B.C. and Alberta have the population, the talent and ingenuity to complete the last prong of Watkins’ vision. We need to think like grown-ups.

 

Pro-cavity groups proven wrong

Tooth cavities have increased in Calgary since the city stopped adding fluorides to its water in 2011 according to a study published in the journal Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology. Researchers from the University of Calgary compared the number of cavities in children for Edmonton, where water is still fluoridated, with Calgary where it is not.

natures-way-cause-tooth-decay

The lead author of the study is candid: “This study points to the conclusion that tooth decay has worsened following removal of fluoride from drinking water, especially in primary teeth, and it will be important to continue monitoring these trends.”

The pro-cavity groups –let’s call the anti-fluoridation groups what they are – ran a scare campaign against the fluoridation of Kamloops’ water supply in 2001 and won.

Like good scare campaigns, theirs contained an element of truth. Yes, fluorides are produced by chemical companies but to claim that they were dumping their toxic byproducts into our water was misleading. Yes, too much fluoride can lead to fluorosis but that would take much more than what was added to Kamloops’ water.

Let’s get the facts straight; ones that I challenge the pro-cavity groups to deny. All water is naturally fluoridated. As I said in my column of 2001 “All river water, well water, filtered water, reverse osmosis water, bottled water, and tap water is fluoridated.  The only water that isn’t is rain water collected in sterile containers, and distilled water.”

No wonder: Fluorine is the 13th most abundant terrestrial element. The concentration of natural fluorides depends on the acidity of the water and length of time in contact with rocks and soil. River water is less fluoridated than well water. Kamloops’ water is naturally fluoridated with more than one-half the concentration necessary to prevent tooth decay.

Fluoridation is nature’s way of reducing cavities. The benefits of fluoridation weren’t discovered by some mad scientist who experimented on his tortured patients by pouring fluorine down their throats. The benefits were discovered incidentally in the early 1900s by a Colorado Springs dentist, Frederick S. McKay, who noticed that many of his patients had brown stains on their teeth and reduced cavities. The brown stains were caused by too much fluoride (fluorosis). When the fluorides were reduced, the stains went away and the benefits remained.

If our water is already fluoridated, you might reasonably ask, why add more? At about 0.5 parts per million, Kamloops’ water doesn’t have quite enough. When I wrote my column in 2001, the recommended amount was 1 part per million but according the Calgary study, 0.7 parts will do.

Some countries act responsibly. I just returned from Mexico where I noticed that fluorine are added to salt, much in the way that iodine (another halogen) is added to ours to prevent of intellectual and developmental disabilities, and thyroid gland problems. Children in Mexico are protected from the pro-cavity groups.

I take the issue personally. While researching Kamloops before moving here, one of the appealing features was the city’s fluoridated water supply. My son grew up with flawless teeth due to fluoridation, dental hygiene, and heredity. I don’t know of any studies in Kamloops but my dentist tells me that he sees more cavities now, especially in low income families.

The dental health of Kamloops’ most vulnerable have been put at risk because of a misguided lobby.

Why carbon storage won’t save us

Politicians can be expected to act irrationally during election years. By that measure, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is acting as expected.

SaskPower

A rational, albeit flawed, argument is that Saskatchewan can produce clean electricity from dirty coal by capturing the carbon and selling it. It’s the equivalent of selling your garbage.

Carbon capture holds promise to rescue Premier Wall from a problem of geography. Unlike B.C., Saskatchewan has few hydro dams and lots of coal. In promoting carbon capture, Wall attempts to position himself both as a climate defender and friend of Big Coal.

At first glance carbon capture seems magical. The technology works some of the time and Cenovus Energy of Calgary agreed to buy the carbon dioxide from Saskpower. The plan is for Cenovus to buy all of the CO2 produced by the Boundary Dam generating/capture site, a total of one Mega tonnes a year. Cenovus use some of the CO2 to pressurize old oil wells near Weyburn, forcing the remains up to the surface and some would be simply be stored in underground caverns.

Irrationality number one: CO2 would be captured, then used to recover more fossil fuels which would be burned to produce more CO2.

Then there’s Wall’s obstinate posturing in advance of the meeting of the premiers with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for talks on a national climate strategy on March 3. The feds hope to have a deal in place for a minimum carbon price that would allow provinces to use their own mechanisms to achieve the pricing. They aim to have a deal with a minimum of $15/tonne in six months.

Wall flatly rejects a broad-based carbon tax: “I’ve already made it clear … that if we’re re-elected, our government will not be pursuing any tax increases or new taxes, and neither would we support any new national taxes.”

Irrationality number two: The Saskatchewan premier doesn’t want a level playing field. He wants other provinces to pay for carbon pricing so his province would have a competitive advantage. Alberta has plans for a price of $30/tonne. “I don’t want a level playing field for our province. I want this to be the most competitive place that it possibly can be … and that does not include a new carbon tax, especially now, given the state of the economy.”

That leads to the third irrationality. My question is this: “If your carbon capture technology works so well, premier, why worry about pricing carbon that you won’t produce?” Carbon in the ground won’t cost producers anything.

The embarrassing answer is that the technology doesn’t work that well. When the plant is working properly, it captures 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide but, in fact, because of mechanical issues, the facility has only operates 45 per cent of the time. It works so poorly that Saskpower has to pay penalties to Cenovus for not supplying enough CO2 as specified in their contract.

The problem is not unique to Saskatchewan. There are only 15 such sites in the world. China has abandoned theirs. The costly, complicated technology is wishful thinking. Its chief product is political irrationality in election years.