Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cowmand performance

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What worries us?

Leading research firm Ipsos tells us what's on Canadians' minds these days, and how that compares to those living elsewhere.

There are some interesting differences.

Our top three issues are healthcare, jobs and taxes, and Americans agree with us about the first two. But, surprisingly, despite all of the caterwauling about taxes south of the border, only 23% of them rank this in the top three, compared to 37% of Canadians.

Collectively, we are less concerned about poverty and social inequality than the French and the Germans, but much more so than the Americans.

The human propensity to focus on immediate problems, rather than longer-range threats that may actually have more dire consequences, is reflected by the universally small percentage given to climate change.

Except for the Yanks and the Brits, terrorism barely shows up on most people's radar.

Lots more to ponder:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Have a banana

Friday, November 25, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• The income threshold for the much-maligned 1% is $380,354 in the U.S., according to IRS statistics for the calendar year 2010, the latest available. For 2011 in Canada, it has been calculated at about $208,000.

• Light from the exploding stars, galaxies and other glowing cosmic beacons that arrived shortly (100 million years or so) after The Big Bang that created the universe 13 million years ago is just now becoming visible through the most powerful telescopes.

• The United States has about 2% of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves, but consumes 22% of the world’s oil production and 27% of the world’s natural gas production. It has 4.5% of the world’s population.

• Canada has the third largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Research indicates that generosity leads to a longer, happier life.

• There are 978,000 dairy cows in Canada, being milked at 13,000 farms.
How about that?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The penguin dilemma

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Soaring with ruffled feathers

You may have no interest in the recently deceased Steve Jobs or, by now, are tired of hearing about him.

I've always been interested in Jobs. During the late 1980s, I worked in Apple's Canadian operation for a while. This was in the period between his degrading expulsion and his triumphant return, but his imprint on the company was still visible on everything from office decor to product and packaging design.

I have been captured by Apple products ever since, including seven Macintosh computers, several iPods, an iPad, and an iPhone.

Walter Isaacson's fascinating new biography depicts Jobs with all his strengths and frailties, successes and failures, following his path from garage geek to gazillionaire.

I am particularly struck by the way he dealt with people. He was often arrogant, antagonizing, bullying, humiliating, insulting, overbearing, manipulative, and intimidating. He screamed at co-workers, attacked their competency, disparaged their efforts, shouted obscenities, and cried when things didn't go his way.

If this was all we knew of him, we would assume that his employees and colleagues were disgusted and demotivated, that they loathed having to deal with such a tyrant, that they found him soul-destroying, that they avoided being in his presence, and yearned for release from this particular purgatory.

Apparently not. Working with Jobs was seen as the apex of one's career trajectory. He is held in almost universal awe by former employees. Very talented people, with plenty of career options, craved a job at Apple. They celebrated the 90-hour weeks of repeatedly reworking miniscule details as demanded by the obsessive Jobs, while he bellowed that it better not delay the product launch. To be on Jobs' team meant you ranked near the top of the Silicon Valley pecking order.

Even Steve Wozniak, the Apple co-founder who was shabbily treated by Jobs, voices his admiration.

What gives? Why do people speak of getting chewed out by Jobs as a badge of honour?

Was it the high pay, stock options, and generous "perks" for which Apple was known? Was it the status of working for what was, arguably, the most innovative technology company in America? Was it the chance to learn from a rare genius. All of these, no doubt.

But I think it was mostly the sense of being involved with a guy who wanted to "put a dent in the universe," and who could say that without having it sound like a line of ad copy.

And he did.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Shifting out of park and into gear

The "Occupy" movements are being thrown out of the parks.

This is a good thing. For them.

No major protest movement has ever accomplished anything by passively sitting around drumming and singing songs. Such movements, to be successful, need resistance from opposing forces to validate them, test their mettle, attract media attention, and rally broader support to their cause.

The peace movement of the 1960's wasn't peaceful. Heads were bashed. People were thrown in the slammer. When people saw that on the evening news, some minds were changed. More heads were bashed. The National Guard shot students at Kent State. More minds were changed. Eventually the tide of public opinion shifted and forced change at the highest level of government.

Same thing for the civil rights movement, the Arab spring, and every other successful uprising in the name of injustice since the Athenian Revolution established democracy in Athens in 508 BC.

If the Occupiers have the guts to rebound from these initial skirmishes with the authorities, and regroup to carry on the fight in new ways, they will have demonstrated to themselves, and to the world, that they have the right stuff and are committed to their cause.

They will show that they just might have enough grit to stay the course. Otherwise, they are doomed to be a minor footnote in the history of social change.

The 1% are never going to say, "We hear you, and you're right. We have way too much wealth and power, so we're going to give it all back. Thanks for pointing this out."

On the contrary, the rich and powerful will use all means at their disposal to stomp on any threat to the status quo.

If you're not ready for that, don't start a rebellion.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• Cows contribute more to greenhouse gases than do cars, and 95% of the methane produced by a cow is burped out the front end, not farted out the rear end.

• City of Toronto police cruisers are not fitted with snow tires for winter.

• Canadians' use of food banks has jumped by 26% since 2008.

• Strangely, many Americans who receive benefits from government programs fail to grasp that these benefits come from the government. This disconnect applies to 60% of homeowners who qualify for a home mortgage interest deduction, 44% of social security recipients, 39% of those on medicare, and 53% of people with government-backed student loans.

• The botherations of the mega-rich are unknown to the rest of us. Consider the headache of finding a suitable vacation spot now that the south of France, Tuscany, and the Greek Islands are so overrun with the riff-raff. Help has arrived in the form of the yacht island. Yes, it's an island that you can relocate at your whim.

• It was was Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, who got "In God We Trust" printed on U.S. currency, despite the founding fathers insistence on separation of church and state.
How about that?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Crabby Old Man

[Thanks to Anita and Wayne for sending this along]

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in North Platte , Nebraska, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value.

Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital.

Since then, the poem has been reproduced far and wide in magazines and slide presentations, distributed via eMail, and now you're reading it here.
What do you see nurses? . . . . . What do you see?
What are you thinking . . . . . when you're looking at me?
A crabby old man . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit . . . . . with faraway eyes?

Who dribbles his food . . . . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . . . . . 'I do wish you'd try!'
Who seems not to notice . . . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . A sock or shoe?

Who, resisting or not . . . . . lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you're thinking? . . . . . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . . . . . you're not looking at me.

I'll tell you who I am. . . . . . As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, . . . . . as I eat at your will.
I'm a small child of Ten . . .. . . with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters . . . . . who love one another.

A young boy of Sixteen . . . . with wings on his feet.
Dreaming that soon now . . . . . a lover he'll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . . . my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows . . . . . that I promised to keep.

At Twenty-Five, now . . . . . I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . . .. . With ties that should last.

At Forty, my young sons . . . . . have grown and are gone,
But my woman's beside me . . . .. . to see I don't mourn.
At Fifty, once more, babies play 'round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . . My loved one and me.

Dark days are upon me . . . . . my wife is now dead.
I look at the future . . . . . shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing . . . . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . . . and the love that I've known.

I'm now an old man . . . . . and nature is cruel.
Tis jest to make old age . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles . . . . . grace and vigor, depart.
There is now a stone . . . . where I once had a heart.

But inside this old carcass . . . . . a young guy still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys . . . . . I remember the pain.
And I'm loving and living . . . . . life over again.

I think of the years, all too few . . . . . gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people . . . . . open and see.
Not a crabby old man . . . Look closer . . . see ME!!
How often are we tempted to brush elderly people aside, without really seeing them, in our impatience to get on with our busy lives.

With any luck, we we will all be there soon enough.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Signs of the times

Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed. ~ Irene Peter
• Automobile enthusiasts may now make the trip to the great beyond in their favourite car. Last Rides will sculpt a replica of your beloved jalopy or the exotic wheels you couldn't afford.

• Richard Muller, a prominent physicist and skeptic of global warming spent two years trying to find out if mainstream climate scientists were wrong. In the end, he determined they were right.

• 18.6% of American men aged 25 to 34 are now living with their parents, according to the U.S.Census Bureau.

• Not to be dissuaded by economic storm clouds, the 1% are shopping. Third quarter sales for LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the worlds largest retailer of luxury goods, rose 18% to $8.26 billion.

• Only one in ten Canadians are planning to leave money to a charity as part of their estate, says Leger Marketing.

• Pole dancing classes and parties may be arranged at the Toronto studios of Brass Vixens. Girls' and boys' classes available.
Looking for change? Check the sofa.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A day made of glass

A preview of the future. Amazing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The doctor is in

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering Willie

On November 11, we think of the muting of armies, of acres of graves, of old, beribboned men with heads bowed before a cenotaph.

Too often, when we remember the men and women who fought and died in foreign wars, we think of them only as soldiers. But, of course, they were young people in their prime, full of energy, curiosity, and hormonal urges.

Such was Calgary's Willie McKnight, born just days after the first World War's armistice, and therefore coming of age just in time for the second.

Having been expelled from medical school, and running away from a turbulent relationship with girlfriend Marian, the rambunctious McKnight fell into the welcoming arms of RAF recruiters and signed on as a fighter pilot. He shipped off to Little Rissington, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham, England, for training to fly Hurricanes.

Skirmishes with those in authority continued, including an incident that had him and a classmate charged for "being perpetrators of a riot."

McKnight scored his first kill in a dogfight over Cambrai when he brought down a Messerschmidt Bf 109 by entering a steep climbing turn to get on the tail of the diving German.

Ultimately, in the only calculus that mattered in wartime, he had 17 kills, plus 2 shared and three unconfirmed, thereby becoming Canada's first air ace of the war.

Also confirmed, in the midst of all this, was an affair with a French girl who was escaping from Paris. Willie described it thus:
"This girl and I took a flat in Nantes and had a hell of a time for about two weeks. . . I tried to smuggle the girl back on one of our bombing planes but one of the few big noises left in France caught me and raised a merry hell. It was too bad because she was certainly one first class femme - she had been to university and was a modiste until the Hun started toward Paris when she had to evacuate and then I ran into her."
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Bar, for his efforts in the Battle of Britain.

He was killed on January 14, 1941, by anti-aircraft fire.

He was 22.

[Written with information from World War 2 Eagles]

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Signs of the times

Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed. ~ Irene Peter
• Every hour, Canada has 42 births, 28 deaths, and 25 immigrants, and is growing at 1% annually.

• Battery recycling is lagging behind the wave of electric and hybrid vehicles now entering the marketplace, according to The New York Times. Lithium, used in the current generation of batteries (which can weigh up to 250 kilograms each), costs five times as much to recycle as to mine, so legislation will likely be needed to force recycling. One possibility is to use the batteries to store energy from wind farms or solar panel arrays.

• The profit per square foot from an Apple Retail Store is six times the profit of a Best Buy.

• A Canadian organization, Small Change Fund, is based on the idea that many small donations can make some big things happen. It provides an online platform for charities to pitch their projects, and for donors to give a few dollars to the one that resonates most with them.

• Social responsibility is seldom considered by Canadian investors when selecting their investments, according to a recent Ipsos survey.

Cleavage seems to be a really big deal in China. All part of the Great Leap Forward, no doubt.
Looking for change? Check the sofa.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ancient mysteries solved?

A retired carpenter demonstrates the ingenious methods that may have been used to construct huge, ancient, stone structures like Stonehenge, without metal tools.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A singular notion

For about 200,000 years, homo sapiens have been the planet's smart guys.

That may be coming to an end, and not because we wipe ourselves out, as probable as that may seem to some, or because aliens arrive from outer space.

No, the new top gun, many believe, will be something else entirely, something with intelligence far beyond even the best human brains. Further, it will be capable of rapidly reproducing, with each generation measurably more intelligent than the preceding one.

Some refer to this as the Singularity. This is based on the belief that several technologies (artificial intelligence, direct brain-computer interfaces, biological augmentation of the brain, genetic engineering, etc.) will converge to produce intelligence that is smarter than humans.

OK, take a deep breath.

This isn't exactly science fiction, but it's also not the kind of thing that gets reported on the six o'clock news. Not yet, anyway.

But maybe it won't be long, if some very smart people are right.

Well-known futurist/inventive genius Ray Kurzweil thinks the crossover point is about 20 years out, followed by the intelligence explosion. Others, such as Intel's chief technology officer, Justin Rattner, are less "optimistic." He's thinking 2048 is about right. Others think it's unlikely for quite a long time.

According to the Singularity Institute, here's what sets off that intelligence explosion:
"We may one day design a machine that surpasses human skill at designing artificial intelligences. After that, this machine could improve its own intelligence faster and better than humans can, which would make it even more skilled at improving its own intelligence. This could continue in a positive feedback loop such that the machine quickly becomes vastly more intelligent than the smartest human being on Earth: an 'intelligence explosion' resulting in a machine superintelligence."
Kurzweil thinks humans will have to integrate themselves with the machines in order to keep up. Brain/computer interfaces are already with us in the form of the bionic eyes, cochlear implants, and a thought-controlled robotic hand. These will appear very primitive in a decade or two, but offer a glimpse of the possibilities.

All of this is aided by continuing miniaturization, faster microprocessors, advances in neuroscience knowledge, and advances in AI theory.

Would it be a healthier/happier/safer/more just world? Intelligence is responsible for our great advances, but also for weapons of mass destruction, so that remains to be seen.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Worth a trip to the mall

Friday, November 4, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• In Canada, the leading causes of death vary by age group. For infants under age 1, it's congenital abnormalities; accidents for those aged 1 to 34; cancer for those aged 35 to 84; and heart disease for those aged 85 and over.

• Every hour spent outdoors each week can reduce a child's chance of becoming short-sighted by two per cent, a study by Cambridge University scientists suggests.

• Dr. Gregg Homer at Stroma Medical in California has a new laser procedure that will turn your brown eyes blue in 20 seconds.

• Many autistics, not just "savants," have qualities and abilities, including perception and reasoning, that may exceed those of people who do not have the condition, according to Dr. Laurent Mottron at the University of Montreal.

• Good grooming generates a wage premium of 4% to 5% for young men and can partially offset the earnings disadvantage of not being physically attractive, say researchers at the University of Miami.

• No word in the English language rhymes with month, orange, silver, or purple.
How about that?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Signs of the times

Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed. ~ Irene Peter
• In Copenhagen, Denmark, a city of 1.2 million, 55% of workers commute by bicycle.

• Hertz terminated the employment of 25 Somali Muslims at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after they refused to clock out for prayer times. Hertz had set up a prayer room at the airport.

• Sending used clothing to developing countries may actually do more harm than good, as it takes business away from local industry. Increased used-clothing imports accounted for about half of the decline in apparel industry employment in Africa between 1981 and 2000. Better to send money.

• Half of all U.S. workers earned less than $26,000 in 2010.

• The dream of a 58-storey "SkyFarm" in downtown Toronto is unlikely to come true, admits it's designer.

A study using brain scans of over a hundred college students showed a correlation between the number of Facebook friends a person has and the size of certain parts of their brain.
Looking for change? Check the sofa.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The pension problem

Unless retirement is on the horizon for you, you may not be paying much attention to the matter of income when your working days are over.

By nature, actuaries and pension fund managers aren't inclined to be alarmist. Maybe we need them to become noisier in order to get our attention on a looming problem that will confront most Canadians.

• Statistics Canada says six out of ten Canadians have no formal pension plan.

• Canadians are not making sufficient use of the tax-deferred saving power of RRSPs, having undercontributed by more than half a trillion dollars, according to StatsCan. Decades of middle class wage stagnation, and an absent sense of urgency among young and middle-aged workers, are among the causes.

• On average, Canadians each contribute $2500 annually to their RRSP, accumulating $60,000 by retirement. Using a standard formula, that translates into a monthly income of $250.

• The defined benefit pension plan, a standard benefit for 50 years from almost every employer of substance, is going the way of the Dodo bird, replaced by voluntary plans funded mostly by employee contributions.

• Even companies that have traditionally provided defined benefit plans are moving to much less generous defined contribution plans for new hires. And of course pension commitments that were thought untouchable have been known to evaporate, as former Nortel employees and others have discovered.

• The Canada Pension Plan is paying retirees about $500 per month, on average. Add in another $500 and change in Old Age Security benefits.

The RRSP, CPP, and OAS add up to about $1280 per month, or $15,360 per year. If that's your total income, you would also qualify for the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which will get you to $16,320 total income.

That's less than half the average wage, so it represents a big change in lifestyle, even considering that former work-related expenses will cease.

For comparison purposes, the Canadian government's Low Income Cut-off level for individuals, which is often cited as a "poverty line," ranged in 2009 from $15,301 to $22,229, depending upon community size.

In fact, it now appears certain that poverty among the elderly will be widespread, perhaps epidemic. The human and economic costs of this will be severe. Without exaggeration, extreme hardship awaits.

No wonder that there is growing envy, unfair as it may be, of public servants and unionized workers who are entitled to pension benefits that look comparatively generous.

We are about to test the famed Canadian social conscience.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

People are awesome