On “On Bullshit” (Princeton University Press, 2005)

October 14, 2014

I wish I had thought of the title. This 2005 booklet of eight thousand words by Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher at Princeton, was first published in 1985 as an essay. It was on the NYT best seller list for twenty-seven weeks. The message is that we are swamped with bullshit, which differs from lies in that there is no deliberate attempt to deceive, rather a milder form of deception either deliberately undertaken, or because the originator feels obliged to give an opinion about something she or he knows nothing about.

Does bullshit matter?

In many instances no, but when it causes conflict or expenditures of vast sums of money, it’s worrisome. Religion and the climate debate often fall into these categories. Frankfurt notes that “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted or dumped” (21-22). There are mounds of bullshit in different religions, which are or often have been in conflict with each other, not just Christians, Muslims and Jews, but within each of these beliefs, between Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shia Muslims, orthodox and non-orthodox Jews

Climate Change

An example of modern-day religion is climate change. Its Old Testament was the 1972 publication of the Limits To Growth by a group of distinguished writers. Forty-one years later in 2013, it was found to be wrong in many respects both about pollution and resource use – see http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-growth-and-its-critics-by-bj-rn-lomborg . The world did not run out of resources. On petroleum and gas, North America with a larger population, will become self sufficient, and the decline of output due to conflicts in the Middle East is coinciding currently with a fall in oil prices. They could rise again, but global energy shortage is not now seen to be a major problem.

When the price of materials which were forecast to be in short supply rose, either new deposits or substitutes were found. While renewable energy provides only a small fraction of energy requirements today, that share is increasing and other energy saving measures are found. In my house in eastern Canada in 1970, there was no insulation in the roof or walls. Older houses have now been insulated and new ones designed to require less heat. The revolution in communications has in many ways been energy saving.

Environmental Movement

Limits To Growth also became the Old Testament for today’s environmental movement. Watch out for not just traces but rich deposits of bullshit, which if the environmental storyline is wrong will cost us large sums of money, and cause as much trouble in its way as religious disputes appear to be doing today.

In order to separate the good stuff from the excrement, consider some of the facts, on the basis that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” (Attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a four time elected US senator who died in 2003).

Matt Ridley, a columnist for the Times (London) and a member of the British House of Lords has reported on climate change for 25 years. His summary of the 2014 Report of the International Panel on Climate Change is published in The Financial Post, June 19, 2014, p.FP9

“The IPCC commissioned four different models of what might happen to the world economy, society and technology in the 21stcentury and what each would mean for the climate, given a certain assumption about the atmosphere’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide. Three of the models show a moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just 2 degrees centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer.

Now two degrees is the threshold at which warming starts to turn dangerous……That is to say, in three of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC, by the time my children’s children are elderly, the Earth will still not have experienced any harmful warming, let alone catastrophe.”

The fourth scenario, Ridley notes, produces 3.5 degrees of warming by 2081-2100. It is based on the following assumptions:

The global population will increase to 12 billion – this is at least one billion more than the UN expects, and the rate of population growth is presently declining. The world will burn ten times as much coal as today, producing 50% of primary energy in contrast with 30% today. Assumptions made in the report about nuclear and renewable energy sources mean that fossil fuels will dominate energy production – Ridley considers these assumptions “very, very implausible.”

“That is to say, even if you pile crazy assumption upon crazy assumption till you have an edifice of vanishingly small probability, you cannot even manage to make climate change cause minor damage in the time of our grandchildren, let alone catastrophe. That’s not me (Ridley) saying this – it’s the IPCC itself.”

Listen well to Frankfurt, so as not to be buried under tons of what is currently being spread.

Once More Into The Breech – A view of the Middle East Conflict

October 11, 2014

What kind of war is it?

You cannot fight a war or engage in conflict by telling your opponents one or more of the following:  that you are only partially committed, that you will remove troops on a certain date, that you will re-evaluate your commitment three or six months hence, that casualties are unacceptable to you, that you will send troops and equipment but not arm them,  that your troops are there just to train local forces, that there will be no boots on the ground to fight, that you will only send planes and drones but don’t expect them to get their paint scratched, and that you are there for humanitarian purposes only.

If you act like this, your adversaries will have difficulty controlling their mirth, and be unable to believe their luck in having such dismal opposition. A boxer does not enter the ring promising to use either one or no hands. The lessons from all types of conflict from WW1 and WW2, to Vietnam, guerilla wars and terrorism are that your opponents will use any means to attack and try to defeat you. There are no rules of war for those who decide not to respect them. The Geneva Convention was signed by almost 200 countries, some with reservations. When it comes to unconventional warfare and terrorism, rules are neither recognized nor respected. The only rules are no rules. Stoning of women and beheading of prisoners by terrorists should be a reminder of this.

The ISIS/ ISIL conflict is not an isolated situation where if you decide not to be involved you will not be affected. The war metaphor is not Northern Ireland where Catholics fight Protestants locally with a few spillovers to bombings in England, and financing from Americans with Irish ancestry. It is more like the Crusades, a religious conflict where, from 1086 for 200 years, Christians fought Muslims over a wide geographic area; or where Protestants fought Catholics in Europe, and where Thomas More was beheaded at the Tower of London for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England, and for not helping the king solve his marital problems.

ISIS/ISIL may appear to be a local religious war but it has already mestastised into a much wider conflict including the Middle East, North Africa, and Africa from the Sudan across to West Africa. It has reached into Western Europe and North America with nationals from these regions travelling to the Middle East and returning to cause trouble at home. Remember the off-duty British soldier who had his throat cut on the streets of London by one such person.

Listen to former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, to spokespersons for the CIA and American counter-terrorist organizations. Listen to or read Leon Panetta’s latest book Worthy Fights. Panetta was head of the CIA and Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. All point out the dangers now facing the West, some of which may occur in the West like 9/11, and bombings in London and Madrid. There could be more incidents, even beheadings in the West, or attacks on soft targets like railway, bus and airline terminals before passengers go through the screening process.

Al Qaeda is a terrorist brand with headquarters in Pakistan. But the followers of what this brand represents have created their own branches, which often operate independently of each other. This is a far stretch from tanks and troops lining up against each other in trenches on a well defined battlefield as in WW1 and WW2.

What has Canada done?

Should Canada send troops to the Middle East and what should those troops be tasked to do? By a majority vote in the House of Commons, with Liberal and NDP members voting against the resolution, the decision has been taken to send troops and planes. The opposition supports troops but only in a non-combat role. But there is no such thing as a non-combat role, unless you tell the troops that they will not carry arms and cannot defend themselves if attacked, even if acting only in an advisory role. The enemy is unlikely to recognise such a distinction. Fine distinctions are seldom respected when shells are flying. Even Liberal/NDP Bob Rae and humanitarian promoter Liberal Lloyd Axworthy recognize the situation for what it is, rather than for what Liberal and NDP supporters would like to believe it is.

Members of Parliament have every right to vote against the motion to send armed forces and planes to fight. Now parliament has done so, these members are in the position of signaling to troops on the ground or in the air that they do not support what they are doing. T’was ever such for pacifists in wartime, and it is happening now in Canada. Opposition MPs who were at one time members of the armed forces, or are reservists now, are withholding their support for active members of the armed services. I would imagine it is not a comfortable position to be in, but even less comfortable for the armed forces and their families.

There is another dimension to the parliamentary decision which has to do with domestic politics, and the historical lack of enthusiasm by Quebec voters to support any type of foreign military action. With 78 of the 338 seats after the next federal election coming from Quebec, it is unsurprising that the opposition parties have an eye on how their actions will be viewed by this electorate. Jack Granatstein deals with this issue in detail in an article in the Globe and Mail for Oct.10, 2014.


The Middle East situation is incredibly complex pitting countries against each other, and lining up religious groupings on opposing sides – Muslims versus Christians and Jews, and some Muslims against other Muslims. Anyone offering views on this situation will be influenced by their own background and experiences. I offer mine for those who want ammunition to disagree on personal rather than substantive grounds.

My father served and survived as a junior infantry officer in WW1 on the western front. He was wounded three times, once at the Battle of the Somme, and each time returned to the trenches. After the war he served as a staff officer to General Carton de Wiart, who was in charge of the British military mission to advise the Polish military in the early 1920s. WW1 continued after 1918 on the eastern front.  Poland fought the Soviet Union which was trying to extend its territory westwards.  I grew up in England during WW2, living in southeast England thirty miles from London during and after the Battle of Britain. I survived, but my mother did not, dying as a result of an accident that could have occurred in peacetime, but was more likely to and did happen because of the wartime conditions. Later I served for two years required National Service (1952-54) as a junior infantry officer in the British army, in Germany and then Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.

Ghosts of Empire – Part 2.

October 8, 2014


The Empire in parts of the world today

Writing in Fall 2014, news headlines refer to major stories in The Middle East, Africa, Russia, and China (Hong Kong and the South China Sea). What links Churchill’s empire (1875-1964) to each of these areas and events? When I started writing two weeks ago, Hong Kong was not in the news. Today it is. Where and when will the next major event occur?

The Middle East

The end of WW1 coincided with the demise of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. With the British Empire still intact, and France one of the winning countries and a small empire of its own, these two, through the Sykes-Picot Agreement decided on the boundaries of Syria, Lebanon, and the countries which are today Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Gaza/West Bank. Currently violence reigns in this region.

A map of the world in 1900 and 2000 shows how the region – see http://www.euratlas.net/history/europe/1900/index.html – was divided up after WW1, leaving the Middle East as host to a series of countries with new borders in which resided different, and often hostile, ethnic groups. Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Kurds, Jews, Christians and various Arab tribes today reside together or apart in these countries. The mix has lead to unstable and violent situations.

As of October 2014, the area from Turkey south and east is in turmoil, especially in Syria and Iraq with ISIS/ISIL trying to establish an Islamic state from existing countries in the region. Iran is also involved, at one time of special interest to the Empire because of its oil resources, especially after the Royal Navy converted from coal to oil, at a time when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty.

England had also promised a homeland for the Jews which is part of the background to the current Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In addition, Great Britain needed to control Egypt because of the Suez connection to the east (the Indian subcontinent and Hong Kong) and to colonies in east Africa. For these and other reasons, the Middle East was important to the empire.

Moving east, Afghanistan is another hard to govern country. Three times, England invaded Afghanistan first in 1839 and twice more over the next 80 years, each time with disastrous consequences for the invaders. Its aim was to prevent Russia establishing a port in the Indian Ocean and threatening England’s trade with India and points east. William Dalrymple provides masterly coverage of these wars in Return of a King (Penguin 2012).

In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and withdrew in February 1989. The US with allies including the UK and Canada entered Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attack and have since withdrawn. So far no foreign country has been able to subdue the tribes which inhabit Afghanistan. No one would want to unless they caused trouble outside the country’s borders. But with modern technology that is what could happen and why Afghanistan along with Middle Eastern countries remain a threat to the West.

Indian subcontinent

Moving east to the Indian subcontinent of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, all of which were part of the British Empire and most of which remain members of the Commonwealth – Myanmar as Burma left in 1949 – conflict continues in the west of Pakistan as an extension of events in Afghanistan. India has established a stable democracy with a mix of cohabiting Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. British based institutions exist in its parliamentary and legal institutions. In some of the subcontinent, British influence prevailed and in others not so.

While the Suez Canal and coaling stations in Aden were important for England’s connection with India, the jewel in their crown, these have become less important with air transport and electronic communications. Further east, Malaya, now Malaysia and Singapore, and Hong Kong have strong imperial connections and traditions in both their political and legal institutions and the commercial institutions which still operate there. Trading companies such as The East India Company, Jardine Matheson, the Swire Group and British banks operate in these countries, or in regions of China as in the case of Hong Kong.

The lease on Hong Kong from China which ended in 1997 was originally established so that the British opium trade to China would continue as a means to provide payment for tea and spices from China. (Britain’s control over Hong Kong began in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking which ended the First Opium War). Parts of the empire thrived on the drug trade, as it did on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Empire, warts and all, are with us today. In the case of slavery, as a result of Ebola, the US is talking about banning visitors from West African countries, which marks a change in the earlier welcome of transatlantic flows of persons to America from Africa.

There are obviously imperial connections to be made with events in the Caribbean and Central and South American countries, but these can wait for a future posting. At this time happenings in Europe are noted.


Eastern Europe

Russia has fought with and against the Great Britain at various times. In WW1, Queen Victoria was head of state in England with two of her relatives being leading statesmen in her ally Russia and her enemy Germany. For a short time, in WW2, Russia allied with Germany against, France and, from 1941, with the US. When Germany invaded Russia, the latter became allies at least until 1945. The Cold War then broke out and lasted until 1989 and the Humpty-Dumpty demise of the Soviet Empire. Putin is now trying to glue these parts together again in the Ukraine and Crimea with threats towards Moldova, parts of Georgia and the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Finland may even be on Russian radar.

The British Empire has out of geographic necessity been concerned with developments in Western as well as Eastern Europe stretching into Russia. The UK became and remains a member of NATO which may get a new lease of life with the current threatening behavior of Russia. In earlier days, the Empire competed with European (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal) countries for colonies, especially in Africa at the end of the 1900s.


This journey started in the Middle East including Egypt which after the demise of the Ottoman Empire was in fact ruled by the British. Today there is violence in varying degrees in parts of Africa, going clockwise from Egypt to Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, the Sudan, Rwanda, Angola, Nigeria, The Congo, various locations in West Africa, Algeria, and Libya. Many of these countries were at one time part of the British and other European Empires. Their success in weathering the present unrest, and the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, may have some connection with their former colonial status. It’s too soon to know.

One of Churchill’s earliest books was My African Journey (Hodder and Stoughton, 1908). It contained an account of his time as a journalist both in Afghanistan and in South Africa during the Boer War. Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire, opens (p.ix,x) with the description of a 1954 meeting between Churchill and a white Kenyan settler, Michael Blundell. Their discussion concerns the then Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Churchill remarks that the Kikuyu rebels were “a happy, naked and charming people.” He goes on to say that the Kikuyu “were persons of considerable fibre and ability and steel, who could be brought to our side by just and wise treatment.” In fact, after independence, Kenya not only remained within the Commonwealth, but its first President, Jomo Kenyatta when released from prison by the British took no revenge on his captors. Many of the white settlers remained to farm coffee, tea, sisal and now cut flowers sold mostly in Europe. Currently, Kenyatta’s son is President, and the country is home to the father of President Obama. Has this President brought America back into the imperial fold? Churchill never forgot that he had an American mother and English father and thus his constant reference to the “English speaking people,” although more Americans may now be speaking Spanish.


The Ghosts of Empire Today – Part 1

October 8, 2014



The British Empire continues to play a major role in world history. The question is how? Richard Toye Churchill’s Empire, The World that Made Him and the World He Made, (Macmillan 2010) places a spotlight on the role Churchill played in the empire’s evolution and decline. Though not written with this purpose, Toye provides a backdrop to events in the world today. In the Middle East, Africa, North America, the Caribbean, and China current affairs have strong empire linkages. Others are found in Europe, parts of Asia and Russia. The Empire in its heyday was involved in many parts of the world which today feature in news headlines.

Churchill lived from 1875 to 1965, the period in which Richard Toye and others have documented his imperial mood swings. For example, Churchill’s reluctance to grant independence to India is well known, although he always knew that at some time it would be one man one vote on this subcontinent. However in East and South Africa, he resisted the idea that Indians would be treated equally with whites at least until independence was declared. Until then, all non-whites were to be second or third class citizens.

This was the situation Gandhi (1869 – 1948) confronted when he arrived in South Africa in 1893, and which he fought unsuccessfully to change. Previously Gandhi had studied law in England. When discussing independence for India in 1931, Churchill made some now famous disparaging remarks –  “It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace….”. This is only one of the many examples of Churchill’s interest in the Empire. Only a reading of Richard Toye’s book can do justice to this topic.


Spread of Empire

From Elizabethan times, the British Empire grew geographically to around the early 1900s and then declined, and had almost disappeared by the 1960s in terms of its political influence over parts of the world. But, I would argue, its influence and ties in other respects remain with us. Many of today’s independent countries were previously part of the empire including the so-called white commonwealth of the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, many African and Caribbean countries, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka), Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Over time, the empire evolved into the British Commonwealth, and then in 1949 British was dropped and it became The Commonwealth, where the two most important events are the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting every two years, and the Commonwealth Games every four years. Presently, it has 53 member states, two of which, Mozambique and Rwanda, were never part of the British Empire. The Queen is the Head of The Commonwealth and monarch of 16 of it’s the member states.

The members today account for about one quarter of the world’s land area, one third of the world’s population, and seventeen percent of world GDP. If the US is included, on the basis that the original 13 colonies were part of the empire, the land area increases from 25% to over 30%, population from 33% to around 38%, and share of world GDP from 17% to 42%. Commonwealth member countries adhere to certain values but are otherwise independent. With these metrics, it is unsurprising that fallout from the British Empire is found in many parts of the world, which feature in today’s news headlines.


Churchill and empire

Churchill was born into and grew up in an atmosphere which exuded empire topics. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849 – 1895) was Secretary of State for India (1885 – 1886) in a Tory administration lead by Gladstone, although he was highly critical of Gladstone’s support for certain British adventures in Africa. Lord Randolph, who may have contracted syphilis, died ten years before his son was appointed Undersecretary of State for the Colonies from late 1905 to April 1908; and Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921-1922.

Winston Churchill’s reputation suffered during WW1 as First Lord of the Admiralty due to the Gallipoli fiasco of 1915. After resigning from the cabinet, he served in the army on the Western Front before returning to England. He was a Conservative MP from 1900-04 and from 1924-64, and a Liberal MP from 1904-24. His life and interests coincided with the Empire which reached its peak around the early 1900s and then rapidly declined to the 1960s, leaving, as noted, the Commonwealth and other influences in its wake. It is these influences and connections which I try to trace in today’s world.


Today’s use of English

As a child of American and British parents, Churchill often spoke of the English-speaking world which included not only most of Commonwealth member countries but the US as well. He argued that WW2 was fought not just by the Britain and its Empire against Germany, Japan and the axis allies, but by the US as an English speaking countries as well. Until the revolution, the thirteen American colonies were part of the British Empire. While there was reluctance and opposition by some in the US to join the allied forces in both the first and second world wars, it entered WW1 in 1917 and WW2 in Dec 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

The spread of empire coincided with the spread of the English language. Today’s use of English is described by the British Council,

“English has official or special status in at least seventy-five countries with a total population of over two billion, (about 30% of world population). English is spoken as a native language by around 375 million and as a second language by around 375 million speakers in the world. Speakers of English as a second language will soon outnumber those who speak it as a first language. Around 750 million people are believed to speak English as a foreign language. One out of four of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence. Demand from the other three-quarters is increasing.”

What do people use English for? Again the British Council weighs in:

“English is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, diplomacy, sport, international competitions, pop music and advertising. Over two-thirds of the world’s scientists read in English. Three quarters of the world’s mail is written in English. Eighty per cent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English. Of the estimated forty million users of the Internet, some eighty per cent communicate in English, but this is expected to decrease to forty per cent as speakers of other languages get online.”

See: http://www.britishcouncil.org/learning-faq-the-english-language.htm

One benefit of the internet is that it allows groups of people, such as speakers of minority languages, to create communities worldwide and speak to each other. To some extent, this will decrease the importance of major language groups, but when minority languages wish to interact with each other, English will likely remain the preferred language – much to the annoyance of the French and probably the Chinese. Watching television today, it is remarkable how well foreign leaders, especially those from non-English speaking countries, can communicate in English. I can now carry on my freeloading behavior with greater ease as a non-linguist.


Institutions and Democracy

As important as language are the institutions which developed over centuries in England, and which have spread as various forms of democracy with elected institutions and courts. The actual examples do not always reflect the standards which are expected from a civilized society. China, Russia, North Korea, Zimbabwe and other repressive regimes claim that they are democratic by holding elections for legislative institutions, and by operating courts and judicial systems. But the process is flawed. In many generally admired countries, elections and legislatures also have flaws such as the gerrymandering of electoral districts in the US so that incumbent representatives are seldom defeated; elected members in the British House of Commons for Scotland who can vote on matters that affect only England and Wales, while the reverse is not the case; and in Canada where an appointed senate has input into the passage of legislation. Examples such as these are legion, but as long as free elections are held regularly, democracy works reasonably well.

While no country is perfect, and it took England nearly a thousand years to develop a respectable democratic model, the influence which the UK has had throughout the world as a model for other countries is a remarkable achievement, and to the Empire must go some of the kudos. One obvious example is the creation of the US after the 1765-83 revolution. The founding fathers established a country with institutions based on the British model, but included features which were seen to address the deficiencies of how it worked. With its checks and balances, the US constitution created three elected branches of government in contrast with two in the mother country. An elected President replaced a hereditary monarch as head of state.

That was then, this is now. While democracy in its benign form is still the goal of civilized society, it has, in many formerly admired countries begun to decay. That is the opinion of Francis Fukuyama in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014). But I would still argue that what Churchill and others admired and promoted is found most often in places at one time associated with the British Empire.

When Churchill talked of the role of “the English-speaking people” in world events and especially during both World Wars, the phrase was code for “empire,” or those parts of the world which had once been part of it. These were the countries which would stand up against the tyrannies of fascism, communism and nationalism prevailing at different times in places such as Germany, the Soviet Union, China and Japan. While all these countries traded with and were sometimes allied to the Empire, none are considered part of the “English speaking world.”

While there are almost 200 so-called independent countries today compared with far fewer (around 50) at the end of WW2, indices show how democratic they are now. Many had earlier links to the British Empire. The obvious cases are The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and countries of East Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. South America had commercial (trade and investment) ties with the UK, which made some of these countries part of a shadow or informal empire.

The Global Democracy website (democracyranking.org) ranks countries by the quality of their democracy. Ranked “very high” are the US, Canada, the UK, most of Western Europe from the Scandinavian countries to Spain, Australia and New Zealand. India, parts of Southeast Asia and South Africa are ranked as “medium.” Most other parts of Africa are marked “not available, and some parts “low.”

In many parts of the world, there is a good news story for the Empire, based on these rankings, with the not-so-good news being in Africa where the British and other European empires were involved, and the results have been less than encouraging. The reasons are many and some argue the empire is one of them.

Personally, I think that the British influence was pretty positive in many instances, and I am quite familiar with the horror stories which are listed by critics. In contrast with Belgium and Portugal, the British were saints. France, Germany, Italy and Russia are other countries with colonies, and are situations where the record is decidedly mixed.

In a second part to this posting, I will attempt to link the empire to events today in different parts of the world.

Patient Care in Ontario

September 26, 2014

From the medical frontlines



A recent experience illustrates, at least to me, some of the issues which exist in the delivery of healthcare in Ontario. There is a good and a bad news story to tell. Following earlier postings (cmaule.wordpress.com), I concluded that Ontario, and I assume other Canadian provinces, have well trained and qualified doctors, nurses and support staff. It has modern equipment and operating theatres, some perhaps requiring further expenditures, such as the recent shortage of MRI equipment which seems to have been solved, at least in the Ottawa area where MRI wait times have been reduced. The treatment of emergency and life threatening cases seems to work well, although hospitals can be dangerous places due to a persistent high level of infections which arise after admission. Don’t hang around longer than you have to.

The statistics which are worrying are the wait times to see specialists, and the wait times for patients to be operated on by specialists. The reasons are complex involving different aspects of the healthcare system which include, amongst others, the constitutional dimensions of the system, the authority and responsibility of the different players, actions taken by patients and the methods of funding healthcare. Royal Commissions have studied these issues, so that what follows is a barebones description of what happens, as seen mainly from a patient’s viewpoint.

Wait Times

A typical path for a patient is fairly straightforward. A visit to a GP is followed by referral to a specialist perhaps with some X-rays, ultrasound and blood and other tests. The tests are conducted quickly but delays frequently occur in getting an appointment with a specialist. There appears to be a shortage of specialists, especially in some areas like urology, endocrinology and gerontology. What is a reasonable wait time? Opinions differ, but I would suggest 12 to 24 weeks for many non life-threatening cases. A year seems too long and an indication that the system is malfunctioning. What are some of the problems? Geoffrey Simpson in Chronic Condition and others have pointed to a number of them.

Operating facilities

Operating theatres are not fully utilised and therefore have spare capacity, more than may be needed to handle any possible disasters. There are either not enough doctors, nurses and hospital beds to provide treatment and allow more patients to pass through the hospital system, or the administration of the system is faulty.

The single most important factor for lengthy operating wait-times appears to be the lack of hospitals beds and care for post-operative patients. Why the shortage? The main reason is that hospital wards are full of chronic care patients awaiting transfer to other facilities. The congestion is caused because of the lack of these facilities elsewhere in the system.

A diagnosis of the overall problem of wait times is complicated due to the system established by Canada to deliver healthcare. What follows touches on some of the main factors which seem to me to be important. In some ways Canada has a self-inflicted problem due to past decisions by different levels of government, with advice from interested parties and little input from patients except as tax payers. Other countries have better functioning systems, so it should be possible to see how delivery could be improved.

Who is responsible?

Healthcare is a provincial responsibility according to the Canadian constitution. At the same time provinces have agreed to treat patients from other provinces in certain cases. Thus elements of a nation-wide system are grafted onto one of provincial responsibility. In the case of emergencies, Canadians will receive treatment in any province regardless of their province of residence. In other cases, such as a patients deciding they would prefer to be treated in an out of province facility, that facility can refuse service, provide service and collect funding from the other province, or if this funding is less than that charged in the province of delivery ask the patient to pay the difference.

An example of what happens in practice is that Ottawa hospitals receive patients living across the provincial border in Quebec. Assuming non-emergency situations, the Ottawa hospital can accept patients and receive one or other form of payment or reject the patients, if it is just a case of preferring to be treated in the Ottawa facility. Both things can happen. But if the Quebec patient is treated in Ottawa and patients are treated in the order they arrive, then subsequent Ontario patients will have longer wait times. Service may be delayed to Ontario residents as a result of Quebec not providing certain services within a part of the province.

It could work the other way and at different provincial border locations throughout Canada. For example, a Cornwall, Ontario resident may find desirable healthcare providers in Montreal

This provincial healthcare scheme with certain universal or federal add-ons can have the following results. One province may decide that rather than expanding its own facilities it will depend on those of another province even though it has to pay that province. It may decide that it is cheaper to encourage its patients to travel across a provincial border than to invest in its own facilities. If so, the patients from the province providing the treatment will experience longer wait times. At one time, it was more lucrative for certain hospitals to treat out-of-province patients than Ontario patients. Apparently this is no longer the case but is illustrative of how a province based system with out-of-province features can affect delivery times.

Types of surgery

A more general issue is that there are certain types of surgeries which are routine and repetitive, especially with an ageing population. Hip, knee and other joint replacement, hernia operations, and certain types of eye surgery are fairly standard procedures and could be treated in facilities which cater to the specialties. This happens in the case of the Shouldice Clinic for hernia operations in Ontario. It is a private clinic but is paid for under the Ontario healthcare scheme. Other specialized clinics could be established in order to make better use of resources. At present, too wide a range of different medical procedures are conducted in the operating rooms of general hospitals. If these regular surgical procedures were confined to specialized locations, public or privately owned, then wait-times would be reduced.

Privately operated specialized clinics are seen as creating a two-tier healthcare system. If such clinics are operated efficiently and relieve the pressure on general hospital facilities, then delays of surgeries due to the lack of beds for post-operative care would be reduced.

A related issue is that emergency facilities are used by patients who don’t have emergencies and should be treated in clinics. In part this is because patients are not registered with a GP, although this seems to be changing with the opening of walk-in clinics. Doctors however find that patients who do not get a prescription from one doctor will visit other clinics until they feel satisfied. In 1984, I was part of a commission in Ontario that examined the dispensing fee allowed for prescribed drugs. At that time the government had a record of all drugs prescribed and paid for in Ontario, but would not use the information to reduce the costs of overprescribing within the province. I think this situation prevails today.

Administrative issues

An administrative wrinkle which complicates delivery in Ontario is the Ontario Hospital Act which gives certain responsibilities to the CEO of the hospital, but this does not include the services of doctors who are independent contractors reporting to the Chief of Staff not the CEO. In the case of fees charged, surgeon practices or malpractices, these are dealt with by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, a body of doctors regulating other doctors. This is not the case of the fox guarding the hen house, but the fox guarding the other foxes (or hens the hens). Obvious conflicts of interest may arise affecting both patient costs (either private or via taxation) and services provided.

Some forms of healthcare are either not funded by the government or are only funded in part and may be covered by privately purchased insurance, such as dental work, eye care, hearing aids and some prescription drugs. In Canada, it is estimated that about 70% of healthcare costs are covered by the government and 30% by a combination of private insurance and user pay. What the rationale is for public funding of some healthcare procedures and not others, such as eyes, ears and teeth, is a mystery to me. The original rationale for a public system was to address catastrophic illnesses. Over time it has been extended so that general public care is seen as an entitlement for almost all conditions. Once granted, politically it is close to impossible to withdraw.

A visit to a dentist, optometrist and hearing specialist is possible without a long wait. Their facilities are often spacious and well staffed in contrast to many general practitioners. This suggests that these skilled resources are organized, administered and paid for in a manner which allows for timely delivery of the services. In other segments of the system, as suggested, this is not currently the case. Thus my one year wait to see a specialist for a non-life threatening situation. But when age itself is a life threatening condition, then the wait is not appreciated.

Overall my view is that there are administrative shortcomings to the Ontario healthcare system which could be addressed to improve its performance and reduce costs or the rate of cost increase. Some might actually save money. The most important factor may be increasing the number of beds available for post-surgery patients which would require the assignment of other patients to facilities which specialize in their requirements.


I am grateful to David Rothwell who provided detailed remarks on an earlier draft of these comments. I alone am responsible for the above draft. I recognize that the administration of healthcare services is a highly complicated process. Many countries and jurisdictions do it, so that it should be possible to learn from best practices undertaken elsewhere, which may be adopted by Canadian provinces and the federal government. When healthcare and education account for 70% of provincial revenues in Ontario, and probably in other provinces, then we need all the help we can get to achieve cost efficiency, whatever that might mean. If my experience offers any lesson, it is that there must be room for improvement.

Boots On The Ground

September 23, 2014

The last time I was asked to become involved with armed adversaries, some years ago when undertaking national service, I would not have appreciated it if my side had told the opposition what we would do and not to do if they attacked us. This is not how one usually plays lethal or non-lethal games. And yet this is pretty much what the US and its allies are saying when they state that they will not put boots on the ground in combating terrorist fighters in the Middle East. You don’t tell your opponents on the sports field in advance what plays you will make, and you don’t tell people who are pointing a gun at you that you will not defend yourself, especially when they may behead you. Even Gilbert and Sullivan might have had difficulty in dreaming up such a scenario for a musical opera.

And yet this is the situation politicians have created for themselves and their forces in the Middle East. The US President and his allies including Canada have said they would help. Like the others, Canada is being asked by some to spell out exactly how far it will go in letting its forces intervene in Iraq and Syria. Canada’s parliamentarians want a debate and some want to know what instructions the troops will have. Will they be allowed to shoot if the occasion arises? This is not just silly, but dangerous for those on the ground. The ISIS forces must either be laughing or at least welcoming the good luck they enjoy from having stupid adversaries.

I would expect Canadian troops will be there to assist the anti-ISIS forces, but exactly what they are allowed to do should not be spelled out in public. To do so would be to arm the enemy and place the Canadian forces in more danger than they will already experience.  If the NDP requests more detailed information, then they should be held morally and financially accountable to the troops and their families as well as to the Canadian public for any adverse consequences. Have a debate by all means, but don’t ask for detailed tactical information.


On a related topic, why is it that the Iraq army, after all its training by the allies, is so incompetent? A New York Times journalist gave some answers. First, the professional army of Saddam Hussein was disbanded by the US.  Many of these soldiers are now working for ISIS. The replacement Iraq army has few trained professionals and those who command pay the troops while receiving kickbacks from them. At the same time, there is no effective chain of command where orders are passed down and executed. The Iraq army is a poorly run criminal organization except for the transfer of monies to the bosses. In contrast ISIS appears to be fairly well administered, although they have other problems which will become more apparent. This is a war where the enemies’ mechanized vehicles are often Toyota trucks with machine guns mounted on them. Use of captured sophisticated tanks and planes require not only fuel supplies, which ISIS has, but parts and mechanics to service the equipment, which may be in limited supply. Moreover, large items are easier to detect and destroy.

For me, the moral of this story is that when a country fights a war that is largely unconventional relative to many past conflicts, such as the use of beheadings by the enemy, poison gas and fighters living amongst civilians, then it has to be fought using unconventional methods. These may in the future become conventional, such as the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria without asking permission from the government of Syria, if one still exists. Apparently this took place on Septemeber 22, 2014.

The public has to be educated in both the nature of the conflict and the means which our side will need to use. I would hope that our politicians will take the lead in providing this education and not undermine the forces sent to the front lines on their behalf.

An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth – a review

September 10, 2014

Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, (Random House, 2013).

The title tells it all. Based on the many years that it takes to become an astronaut and be sent on missions, what is it that the rest of us mortals can learn?  Hadfield’s answer is informative and educational. How one conducts one’s daily life, interacts with other people, learns from them as well as instructs them is crucial to understanding both personal success and team achievement.  Astronauts have to be team players, each of whom may have specialties unfamiliar to others but necessary for mission success. Respect and trust are important attributes. This can be especially difficult to achieve when working with people trained in different countries, but who are brought together on a common mission where all have to cooperate in a highly sensitive environment. Mistakes can not only cost millions of dollars but jeopardize lives.

Hadfield’s book achieves two things, a detailed and personal description of what is required to be chosen as an astronaut, and what happens in fulfilling the job both on land and in orbit. There is much more that astronauts can tell us and maybe they have in other books. The following are questions which arose in my reading of this book:

  1. How does an astronaut balance family and work life? Hadfield does a good job of including members of his immediate family in the narrative, but there are many questions that the reader would like to learn from family members. (Maybe they would prefer not to share them.)
  2. How do the parties interested in space collaborate to persuade governments to provide the substantial funding required for something where the payoff, if it exists, is a long way off? Space travel is at the other end of the spending spectrum from building a highway or school, where the results can be seen relatively soon after the funding decision is made, and politicians can claim credit which will benefit them at the polls.
  3. How do you get a crew of astronauts and their ground handlers from different countries with different languages to operate as a team to build the equipment and manage it for launch, in orbit and for return to earth? The close cooperation which astronauts from Russia, the US, Canada and other countries have had tells you that it can be done, but how? What are the issues and how are they managed? Personalities play a part but so does the management and set up of the project.
  4. Once space travel is found to be possible, what are the next stages of exploration and how can financing be provided, either privately or through continued government support? This type of question must have faced Columbus after discovering the American continent. He was able to find valuable commodities for trade which encouraged others to provide further risk capital. How money can be made out of space or space travel is not yet obvious, at least to me?

None of these questions are criticisms of Hadfield’s book. They represent the type of issues which emerge from its content, and will be of interest to those concerned with this frontier for exploration. The book also helps to remind readers that earth is a minuscule object in the solar system, and, if it disappeared by being hit by a large meteorite, no-one elsewhere, if such people exist, would notice. In a universal context, we really don’t matter.

When skim milk looks like cream

September 7, 2014

Numbers provide information about different aspects of the world. But how reliable and useful is the information? Daily temperature, pressure and rainfall are accurate about the past and provide a forecast of the future. Short term forecasts tend to be more reliable than longer term ones. Economic statistics like GDP (Gross Domestic Product), inflation, employment/unemployment, interest rates, and stock market prices are recorded for the past often with forecasts for the future. How reliable are these statistics which each often measures a group of activities not one variable like temperature and pressure? This is the case with GDP which measures the output of all sectors of an economy.

Canada is chastised for not spending 2% of GDP on defense, a level reached by some other NATO countries. But what if the GDP of different countries is not a reliable comparative measure of a country’s yearly output? And what if different countries include different items in their defense expenditures? I will leave the latter for the defense gurus to discuss, and suggest why GDP has always been an approximate measure of output and today is increasingly so and more unreliable as a comparative measure.


Consider the following, much of which can be found in Diane Coyle’s excellent book, GDP, A brief but affectionate history (Princeton 2014):


  1. In 2010, Ghana’s GDP was increased 60% overnight when the country’s statistical agency changed the weights assigned to each sector of the economy when calculating GDP. Previously the weights for 1993 were being used.
  2. Six other African countries are undertaking a similar exercise which may increase their GDP by as much as 40%. Nigeria, already a large African economy, may then exceed South Africa, at present the largest on the continent.
  3. The service sector of all OECD economies now accounts for a larger share of GDP than previously, over 75% in many cases. Services output is notoriously difficult to measure in contrast to goods. How do you measure the advice given by a lawyer, accountant or economist? By the amount paid for the advice. But what happens if it is given for free (probably an unlikely case)? In the first case there is a record for inclusion in GDP, but not in the latter, even though production has taken place.
  4. Each country’s underground economy is by definition not measured. Services are often activities which are more susceptible to being exchanged without a record being kept, thus diluting the accuracy of GDP accounting. Tax measures often influence the size of the underground economy.
  5. There are many other examples of services which don’t get recorded. The woman who marries her chauffeur, the man who marries his housekeeper both cause GDP to decline while there is no change in the underlying economic activity – although other aspects of their lives may change drastically.
  6. While consumers tend to focus on items which are more expensive today than yesterday, many things have decreased in price and some are now consumed for free. They are not included in GDP as currently measured but do constitute part of a country’s economic output. I use to pay for long distance phone calls. Many today are free with access to the internet. Facetime is free. Skype calls are a fraction of what was formerly charged for long distance calls. Emails substitute for letters and the costs associated with writing and delivering them. In each case the nature of the economic output has not changed but it is no longer measured for inclusion in GDP accounting.
  7. Consider the production and distribution of videos, music, television, newspapers, books, magazines, education (online), all of which are affected by communications technology. Their real output has increased but measured in monetary terms their per unit value has declined. GDP relies on figures which measure monetary not real output, and with the growth of services this is far more difficult to do.


Other uses of GDP

Countries are classified as high, medium and low income based on GDP per capita. Their responsibilities and treatment will depend on where they rank. At times, a country may want to advertise that it has moved up the scale, such as its attractiveness for foreign investment. But for receipt of foreign aid, it may prefer to stay as a less developed country. Ghana’s sudden increase in GDP per capita in 2010 may result in it no longer being a recipient for certain types of aid and require it to make a larger contribution to the budgets of international organizations.

A country’s treatment for trade preferences is also determined by its level of per capita GDP. Ghana has become a middle income country and is now required to negotiate a free trade agreement in order to keep its preferences in the EU, and will be removed from Canadian GSP (General System of Preferences) in 2015



The foregoing represents only some of the difficulties in measuring and interpreting GDP. These have increased over time especially due to technological change. Like changes in weather conditions, changes in GDP get widely reported. The increasing unreliability of the latter should be an issue of concern for those using this information. GDP data often result in adjustments to fiscal and monetary policies, and inform investors about buying and selling securities.

In the medical arena, doctors prescribe on the basis of indicators like temperature and blood pressure. If the readings are false then the treatment may kill the patient. In the realm of economics, false or misleading information can undermine the health of an economy. This occurs now in the case of an important economic measure. Next time you read about change in a country’s GDP, interpret it with a few grains of salt.

Other economic statistics should also not be taken at face value, like the unemployment rate, inflation and the current account surplus or deficit on the balance of payments. In contrast, the current price of a stock, the interest rate and terms for various types of private and public debt are numbers which mean what they say. The moral is that familiar numbers do not always mean what they appear to say…..there is some quotation about skim milk made to appear like cream, but I have lost the source for this saying


Will 2014 mark the start of WW3?

September 4, 2014

One thing which concerns me today is that the present looks a lot like 1939 with Putin playing Hitler and the west unable to decide how to respond. Canada is reported to have sent five jets to the Baltics but they are unarmed, and one ship to the Mediterranean, that’s about half the operational Canadian navy! Not only do we not know what the world will look like five and ten years hence, we don’t know what it will look like tomorrow.

In 1914, Queen Victoria’s relatives headed England, Germany and Russia, countries which went to war over how to divide up Europe and parts of the world. England and Russia had their empires and Germany wanted one. From 1919 to 1939 they took a time out. Later play resumed with much the same teams but different coaches. The boundaries of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn after 1919. Today, borders are being fought over in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Or looked at another way, WW1 took place as the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires were in decline. The British Empire was near its peak and the American one on the rise. After WW2, the British Empire was relegated to the second division, and the USA became the sole super power, with the USSR its only adversary but not a very strong one except for its nuclear weapons. Now there is a weaker American Empire, a weak Russian Empire trying to redraw boundaries in Eastern Europe, and a vague Islamic empire made up of feuding parts. Weakness signals unrest. And none of this includes those parts of the world where half the world’s population lives – China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and neighbouring Asian countries. They have both their own and interrelated problems because of regional and international interdependence.

In 1914, the German invasion of Belgium triggered England’s declaration of war; in 1939, it was the German invasion of Poland. What might it be for NATO in 2014? Putin has already said (August 2014) that he could occupy Kiev within two weeks. This may say more about his arrogance than good judgment, but the latter seldom prevented the outbreak of wars.

The state of the world – is the glass half empty or half full?

August 27, 2014

“NOW is the best time in history to be alive. Our world has experienced a sustained period of positive change. The average person is about eight times richer than a century ago. Nearly one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the past two decades, living standards have soared, life expectancy has risen, the threat of war between great powers has declined, and our genetic code and universe have been unlocked in previously inconceivable ways. Many of today’s goods are unimaginable without collective contributions from different parts of the world, through which more of us can move freely with a passport or visa, provided we have the means to do so. Our world is functionally smaller, and its possibilities are bigger and brighter than ever before. Never before have so many people been optimistic about their future.”


This is the opening paragraph of the Oxford Martin Commission For Future Generation’s Report (2013, available online). It continues by listing the challenges facing future generations. These are read about and viewed daily. The details sell newspapers by attracting audiences for advertisers. But is Armageddon approaching, or is there a more hopeful story to be told? It depends on how the issue is framed. On population/overpopulation, is it where people live, what they have to eat, what illnesses they have, the environment they live in, the conflicts they face? Pick an issue and depending on geography (one of the frames), the future seems ultra bleak or extremely hopeful.


The statement about the threat of “war between the great powers” was written about 365 days before a Malaysian airliner was shot down over the Ukraine, increasing the probability of serious conflict between powerful countries either directly or through their sidekicks. Unexpected, if not unknown, events can change the landscape overnight. The 1914 assassination in Sarajevo was followed by a world war. What are the known unknowns which will occur in the next twelve let alone sixty months? Nobody knows but we can make more and less informed guesses.


One difference today from 50 years ago, that’s 1964, is globalization, an omnibus term which, through overuse, has become almost meaningless. But if the focus is on the shrinkage effect of technology and how it has connected all parts of the world, then the implications of how things have changed become clearer. Examples abound. At the firm level, production and distribution involve supply chains so that many final goods involve activities in several countries with intermediate goods and services being traded internationally and domestically. It applies to services as well, such as newspaper publishing where content is collected from around the world with much greater ease than in the past. Haircuts and burials may still remain unaffected by globalization, except that the fashions and practices of one country are imported into another.


A second example of increasing interdependence is social media undertaken via a myriad of means, many of which confuse me, from email to text messaging, SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Facetime, Skype and many others. People interact with each other much more so than in the past. Is this beneficial or harmful? A bit of both. It can be used to further corruption and criminal activities like child abuse, but it can be used to catch child-abusers who were there long before the internet. (The New York Times August 24, 2014, has an article about the Vatican’s representative in the Dominican Republic who has been engaged in child abuse for a number of years. It was detected by a Dominican reporter without the use of the internet, but the internet quickly spread it.)


Today is different from the past as might be expected but many things are the same, not necessarily worse, such as the “bads” like corruption, conflict, abuse of human rights, treatment of children, women and disadvantaged groups in society. Today, there are means and a greater willingness to address and alleviate if not eradicate these issues. There is a good news side of the story to be told about the “bads” which are the main focus of the media and of public discourse. Most of the Oxford Martin report is given over to discussing the “bads” and what the commissioners feel needs to be done. Fair enough, but context is required in order to understand and evaluate the state of the world. Many things have got better over time.


The environment

I have deliberately avoided mentioning the environment because the debate has become toxic, and whatever is said will result in being branded as a supporter of one side or the other. I will back into this by presenting some facts on the basis that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” (Attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a four time elected US senator who died in 2003).

In 1972, a group of distinguished writers drafted a report entitled The Limits To Growth (LTG). It became a catalyst for the environmental movement, and had dire warnings about the exhaustion of various natural resources which would limit future growth. Forty-one years later in 2013, LTG was found to be wrong in many respects both about pollution and resource use – see http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-growth-and-its-critics-by-bj-rn-lomborg, posting by Professor Lomborg in June 2013.

In 1980, Professor Julian Simon, an economist bet Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb that the inflation adjusted price of any five commodities Ehrlich chose would have declined in ten years time. Ehrlich chose chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. The world population grew by 800 million in the decade and the price of all five fell – three in nominal terms and all five in inflation-adjusted terms. Ehrlich lost the bet. (More details on other resource bets are discussed in “Simon-Ehrlich wager” in Wikipedia.)

The environment and global warming is a topic with many facets so that selective use of facts and data can lead to a wide range of conclusions which are then used selectively to support a viewpoint. My non-expert view of this topic notes the following:

  1. The earth has experienced periods of cooling and warming with the onset and decline of ice ages. I vacation in a part of Ontario covered by lakes which were gouged out as the ice retreated northwards. Whatever the temperature data records today it has been subject to change in earlier times.
  2. The extent to which warming is taking place is measurable. The extent to which it is due to human activity is open to debate, as is the extent to which this is a disaster for mankind.
  3. Matt Ridley, a columnist for the Times (London) and a member of the British House of Lords has reported on this issue for 25 years. His summary of the 2014 Report of the International Panel on Climate Change is published in The Financial Post, June 19, 2014, p.FP9

“The IPCC commissioned four different models of what might happen to the world economy, society and

technology in the 21stcentury and what each would mean for the climate, given a certain assumption about the atmosphere’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide. Three of the models show a moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just 2 degrees Centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer.

Now two degrees is the threshold at which warming starts to turn dangerous……That is to say, in three of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC, by the time my children’s children are elderly, the Earth will still not have experienced any harmful warming, let alone catastrophe.”

The fourth scenario produces 3.5 degrees of warming by 2081-2100. It is based on the following assumptions:

The global population will increase to 12 billion – this is at least one billion more than the UN expects, and the rate of population growth is presently declining.

The world will burn ten times as much coal as today, producing 50% of primary energy in contrast with 30% today. Assumptions made in the report about nuclear and renewable energy sources mean that fossil fuels will dominate energy production – Ridley considers these assumptions “very, very implausible.”

“That is to say, even if you pile crazy assumption upon crazy assumption till you have an edifice of vanishingly small probability, you cannot even manage to make climate change cause minor damage in the time of our grandchildren, let alone catastrophe. That’s not me (Ridley) saying this – it’s the IPCC itself.”

  1. The rate at which icebergs and ice sheets melt is one measure of global warming. For Greenland, ice sheet data are reported at http://nsidc.org/greenland-today/ I urge anyone concerned with this topic to interpret the results so as to give an unqualified yes or no re global warming. One comment on what summer 2014 data mean so far is that sea levels might rise 2 mm.



My partial list of issues of concern for future generations includes the rate of global population growth, urbanization of populations, age structure of populations, old and new forms of criminal activity facilitated by communications technology – cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, terrorism combined with the use of nuclear and chemical weapons, and the breakdown of the working of democratic institutions including a growing sense of entitlements which the democratic process generates to plant the seeds of its own destruction. If forced to provide an answer, I see the glass as being half full. More appropriate perhaps would be to apply to the future William Goldman’s conclusion about Hollywood, that despite there being smart people involved “nobody knows anything” that is about the future success of a film.


Some afterthoughts

A related topic for future generations is a recent Pew study of the impact of robotics on future jobs – see  http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/06/future-of-jobs/

AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs

By Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson

“Key Findings

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

Key themes: reasons to be hopeful:

1) Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.

2) We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities.

3) Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way.

4) Ultimately, we as a society control our own destiny through the choices we make.

Key themes: reasons to be concerned:

1) Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.

2) Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment—but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst.

3) Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices.

Some 1,896 experts responded to the following question:

The economic impact of robotic advances and AI—Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?

Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

These two groups also share certain hopes and concerns about the impact of technology on employment. For instance, many are concerned that our existing social structures—and especially our educational institutions—are not adequately preparing people for the skills that will be needed in the job market of the future. Conversely, others have hope that the coming changes will be an opportunity to reassess our society’s relationship to employment itself—by returning to a focus on small-scale or artisanal modes of production, or by giving people more time to spend on leisure, self-improvement, or time with loved ones.

A number of themes ran through the responses to this question: those that are unique to either group, and those that were mentioned by members of both groups.”

In sum, the experts agree that technology will make a difference to employment opportunities in the near future, but are divided on what that impact will be. There is however a broader consensus on the failure of the educational infrastructure to adapt to the swift changes which are taking place.




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