Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The rise of orphaned assets

June 14, 2018

As a result of developments in the production of solar technology panels and batteries for generating and storing electricity, the cost of producing and delivering energy in this form is rapidly declining.

I pay 15 cents per kwh for electricity delivered to my home in Ottawa: the 15 cents are the cost of the electricity plus the delivery cost. In Tucson, Arizona, residents pay 4 cents (US) per kwh resulting from the use of solar power and battery technology. As solar energy is introduced into the grid, many of the fossil fuel driven power plants and pylons delivering the electricity will become orphaned assets having little more than scrap value. It makes no economic sense to build new traditional power plants.

Because solar energy is captured at different times and for different periods of the day it has to be stored, and may be supplemented by energy supplied from traditional power plants. The location and demand for energy will determine how fast and far the substitution of solar for other forms of energy takes place.

There is evidence that it is already happening. A large school in Copenhagen, which is three degrees south of Juneau Alaska and gets less sunshine than more southerly locations, has built a school with walls made of solar panels which provide half of the buildings energy costs. Australia has 25% of its homes supplied by solar energy.

To see how fast this change is coming and how it already is affecting different industries, see Tony Seba’s presentation at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2b3ttqYDwF0

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Can the US be saved?

April 9, 2018

A wide range of questions arise with the arrival of Trump on the US political scene, and it will be some time before any explanation finds widespread acceptance. Consider the backdrop. For a long time, the twentieth century was described as a period of two world wars separated by two decades of peace, 1919 to 1939. Now some describe it as being thirty-one years of war from 1914 to 1945. It took two world wars and the period in between to reach some sort of world peace that has existed since 1945. But since 1945 there have been all sorts of regional and civil wars mixed up with terrorism, brands of which are practiced today and will occur in the future. The possibility of an apocalyptic outcome has existed since the 1945 explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This technology is now in the hands of autocratic political leaders of several states, and more worryingly could get, and may already be, in the hands of terrorist groups who have no states to protect.

 

A more optimistic view is provided by Harvard Professor of Psychology, Canadian born Steven Pinker. In his 2018 book Enlightenment Now he notes aspects of global development, among these are: world life expectancy has risen from 29 years in 1700 to 71 years today; world literacy has risen from 10% in 1820 to 80% today; and access to safe drinking water has risen from 50% in 1981 to 90% of the world’s population today. Other supporting facts are presented and of course there is discussion of what story these facts tell. There is no single way, apart from description, to get a feel of whether we are better off overall, but Pinker provides evidence for a favourable judgement. A reasonable conclusion would be that things have been getting better in many ways, but the threat of nuclear disaster for some or for many is high.

 

Moving from the global picture to North America, what measures can elected politicians take to slow down or reverse the situation presented by the economic and political events associated with the Trump administration? I hesitate to call it a Republican administration because many traditional Republicans would like to be divorced from the President’s policy moves. In fact, Republican leaning voters are split between the Tea Party Republicans and the rest, and not all the Tea Party members agree with each other. On the Democratic side there are divisions, those that support Bernie Sanders and those who have more centre-left leanings. In the 2016 election, many of the Sanders supporters may have voted for Trump, attracted by his desire to shake up the Washington elite and to show their distaste for Clinton as their candidate.

 

No obvious Democratic candidate has emerged to lead the party in 2020, despite public support for Trump remaining in the 35% to 40% range after 15 months in office. Former President Obama left the Democratic party in bad shape, not helped by the fact that he took two $400,000 fees for speaking engagements within six months of leaving office. This helped to confirm voters’ opinions that the politicians of both parties were filling the swamp and their pockets.

 

It is never easy for a large ship to slow down and change course. The same is true for the US political-economy. It requires recognition that the ship of state is on the wrong course, then deciding on an alternative and getting general support for it. Examples do exist but required brutal action. Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal have all thrown off dictatorships since WW2. The first postwar election in the UK, threw out the Conservatives lead by a politician who was widely praised for his wartime leadership, and elected a Labour government promising to bring about social change. In earlier times the French Revolution resulted in political change but it was accompanied by considerable bloodshed and violence.

 

The functioning of liberal democracies is supposed to bring about change peacefully, but this may not happen today if popular support gets behind autocratic leaders. The focus today is often on the leader, but should be on why a significant part of the electorate support what he is doing.

Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind – A Review

December 7, 2017

Yuval Harari, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind (McClelland and Stewart, 2014)

 

There is no need to read this review of Sapiens by Yuval Harari as there are many excellent ones to read online, with praise offered by notables such as Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Jared Diamond. Harari is an historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a doctorate in history from Oxford. The author traces the origins and evolution of humans (homo sapiens) from 13.5 billion years ago, the Big Bang. Emphasis is placed on the past 200,000 years as humans are traced from Africa and their subsequent spread throughout the world. All inhabitants of North America, for example, are migrants from different times starting about 50,000 years ago.

Anyone who remains convinced that the Book of Genesis contains the genuine account of the creation of man and the universe should not bother with this book. The same goes for other religious beliefs about the universe’s beginnings. Accepted scientific findings to-date explain the origins in terms of the Big Bang.

Homo sapiens is one type of animal belonging to the genus homo. It has happened, largely by luck, to have become top-dog, so to speak, among other homos such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utangs.

Harari traces the evolution of man through three stages, the Cognitive Revolution (about 70,000 years ago), the Agricultural Revolution (about 12,000 years ago) and the Scientific Revolution (500 years ago). How this is likely to end is the subject of another book Homo Deus to be reviewed later.

The Cognitive Revolution describes how sapiens evolves as hunter-gatherers to provide food and shelter for their families; the Agricultural Revolution sees the creation of a division of labour as family members specialize in certain tasks, with males undertaking farming activities on fixed plots of land, as opposed to wandering around gathering food, and females mind things on the home front; and the Scientific Revolution sees the development of new sources of power as, for example, steam power and later electricity and atomic power substitute over time for horsepower and manual labour. The outcome is today’s industrialized political economy found in many parts of the world.

Evidence of life in Cognitive times is found today in aboriginals living in Australia and in tribes travelling in the Amazon rainforest and places like Papua New Guinea. And examples of the Agricultural Revolution are found throughout Africa, and parts of Asia.

The book is written in clear non-jargon prose. Harari developed it for a course in world history and listened carefully to the feedback from students, the questions they asked and the clarification that was needed. Would that other textbook writers did the same thing. Aside from history, the author has a good grasp of economics, sociology and politics.

One set of concepts used throughout the book are terms like imagined order and myths to explain ways in which societies are organized. Formal education and family life teach people about the merits of families, the state, religions and things like paper money. The last is based on the belief that others will accept it in exchange for goods and services even though the paper notes have no intrinsic value. The structure of societies and their interaction is based on beliefs, which are accepted truths by people that things will happen or people will behave in a certain way. There is nothing concrete about these norms of behavior, but societies operate as though they should be followed. Laws are passed and attempts made to enforce them. When they are not accepted then conflict is likely to occur.

There is no substitute for reading this book. I have read it twice, and will use it as a reference in the future to explore a wide variety of topics covering different disciplines.

Sapiens – A brief history of humankind – A review

November 15, 2017

If the author or authors – some think it was Moses – of the Book of Genesis had had the evidence provided by manned and unmanned missions to space, would they have given a different account of the origins of the universe and of humans. Space exploration over the past fifty years has expanded our understanding of the universe but with many questions still answered. Anthropological research has increased our knowledge of the evolution of humans.

 

Along comes Israeli historian Yuval Harari, author of first Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and in 2015 Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. The first traces how humans got from then to now, while the second speculates about their future. Both challenge our views of the world and our place in it past, present and future. Here I comment on Sapiens.

 

The time span of world history stretches from 13.5 billion years ago, while the story of Sapiens deals with the last 70,000 years, a small fraction of this period, when our forefathers emerged out of Africa and spread throughout the world including across the Bering sea from Asia to the American continent. All inhabitants of today’s Canada and the US, for example, are migrants from some time past. Even the first settlers were immigrants travelling south and west through today’s North, Central and South America.

 

Today’s humans have evolved from the genus Homo of which there were many types whose known origins are traced by anthropologists to about 2.5 million years ago in Africa. The evidence used is the carbon dating of stone tools. Fast forward to 200,000 years ago when Homo sapiens is traced to east Africa – sapiens being one species of the genus Homo. We are not alone but one part of this genus.

 

While there were and are several species of the genus Homo, the interesting puzzle is to find out why Homo sapiens survived and why many but not all of the others became extinct. Sapiens belongs to the same genus as gorillas for instance. Harari describes how three revolutions have lead humans to the so-called civilized state we enjoy today – the Cognitive Revolution (70,000 years ago) and the emergence of language, the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago) with the domestication of plants and animals and the emergence of farming to replace the hunter-gatherer; and the Scientific Revolution (500 years ago) of which the Industrial Revolution (100 years ago) is one part.

 

In the broad scheme of things, the present day is a small part of human evolution and will likely pass to another stage which Harari discusses in his second book Homo Deus (to be reviewed later). There are many excellent reviews of Sapiens, all favourable except for the odd academic who wants to quibble with some issue to reveal his or her brilliance…..usually his.

 

What struck me was the short space of time that humans have existed, and the recognition that this could and is likely to come to an end; that we are closely related to gorillas and chimpanzees, and that in certain environments they would survive and we would not. This is aside from extinction of all forms of life resulting from a nuclear holocaust due to the madness of politicians. Today’s politicians make the “Madness of King George” look like a fairy tale. One of my ancestors was an ear doctor who may have hastened his demise. This book makes it difficult for many religions to retain their account of the origin and nature of the universe which is continuing to expand.

Is Trump a modern day Luther?

November 13, 2017

Fifty years hence will people describe the political rise of Donald Trump as having similarities to the career of Martin Luther (1483-1546)? Of course the details are different in numerous ways, but the general circumstances giving rise to both men have similarities. Both had a following united by what they felt to be injustices or wrongs being committed by those in power. Luther was considered to be a royal pain in the arse by the Catholic hierarchy in Rome as well as church leaders in other parts of Europe. Trump claims to champion those in the US  who have been left behind in the economic growth of the past three or four decades, estimated at 35-40% of the population. The circumstances of these people are described by Michael Sandel, Professor of Politics at Harvard and J.D.Vance author of Hillbilly Elegy.

The personalities of the two men are quite different, but the conditions giving rise to their success have similarities. Luther was appalled by the corruption perpetrated by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church such as the sale of indulgences, and set about creating the Protestant faction of Christian believer. Given the times, it is surprising that he was not imprisoned and/or executed.

Trump plays to the support of those left behind in the prosperity enjoyed by people with higher incomes, and the growing spread between the very rich and the rest. While his tactics do not appeal to many because while he also legislates in favour of the rich, and behaves in unconventional ways, at least he manages to keep the support of about one-third of the population.

How long Trump survives politically is moot at this time, but looking back it may be seen, that like other political rabble rousers, he was adept at identifying sensitive points of the establishment’s behaviour. His use of Tweets may come to be seen as similar to Luther’s authorship of the “ninety-five theses”  containing a critique of the church and the need for reformation.

Dunkirk – a miracle? Perhaps but “wars are not won by evacuations.”  

September 30, 2017

The escape of British and allied forces from Dunkirk is labelled by some as a miracle. If the Germans had captured the more than 400,000 rescued troops and then invaded England and forced an armistice, the global landscape (and my life) would have been very different.

German plans for the occupation of England and then the other parts of Great Britain included the following, described in detail in William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon and Schuster (1990) 782-785:

  1. Males between the ages of 17 and 45 inclusive would be interned and dispatched to the Continent.
  2. All those opposing German occupation would be liable to immediate execution.
  3. Immediate execution would also befall those who failed to turn in firearms or radio sets within 24 hours.
  4. The German forces would be organized from a headquarters in London with centres in Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, or Glasgow if the Forth Bridge was blown up.
  5. Individual Germans were named to undertake management of the occupation.

These plans were more detailed and repressive than in many other parts of Europe occupied by the Germans. Among Himmler’s papers was found a list of individuals who would be incarcerated. Aside from the obvious political leaders were authors including Virginia Wolf, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, J.B.Priestley, Stephen Spender, C.P.Snow, Noel Coward, Rebecca West, Bertrand Russell, Harold Laski, Beatrice Webb and J.B.S.Haldane.  

Dunkirk was followed by Hitler planning for the invasion of England by weighing the relative strengths of the opposing armies, navies and air forces. He judged that while his army was better trained and equipped, England had the stronger navy, and while Goering boasted that the Luftwaffe would wipe out the RAF, this turned out not to be the case, as became apparent during the Battle of Britain which commenced in earnest in September 1940.

German and British air raids began in the summer of 1940 with the German raids increasing in ferocity in September. London received 57 consecutive nights of bombing from September 7th to November 3rd 1940. Because invasion would require the cross-channel transport of personnel and equipment, Hitler became convinced that it was a risky proposition. At the same time, he was anxious to open up a front in the East, where he could gain land by invading the Soviet Union and fulfill his dreams of a German empire to match the extent of the British Empire and the US.

While Dunkirk marked a turning point in the war, the miracle was hardly a victory. Churchill noted in Parliament on June 4th, 1940 that “wars are not won by evacuations.”

What Miracle at Dunkirk?

September 14, 2017

The movie Dunkirk, released in the summer of 2017, gives an account of the rescue of British and allied soldiers in June 1940 as a result of the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland. Surrounded in a narrow stretch of land with their backs to the English Channel, some of these troops managed to escape by boat across the approximate 30 miles separating France from England. The film tells only a part of the story; there is another aspect to the miracle.

The events, as recounted from the British side, describe the rescue by boat and retreat across the channel. One aspect of the miracle is the rescue, a second is what might have happened if the German army had been allowed to advance to the Dunkirk beaches and prevent the escape.

About 340,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force were rescued by sea together with about 100,000 French and Dutch troops. They left behind all their trucks, guns and other heavy equipment. Around 65,000 allied personnel were killed or captured by the Germans. Those rescued became the core of the British army which was to go on with its allies to defeat the German, Italian and in the east the Japanese forces by 1945.

Missing from the film is a sense of what might easily have happened. In the period that the evacuation took place, the last days of May and first few of June 1940, the allied troops were surrounded by German tanks and soldiers who were less than 15 miles from the Dunkirk beaches, where the allied troops were being bombed and shot at by the Luftwaffe (the film does show German planes).

Some of the German high command advised Hitler to order the tanks to advance and force the allied troops to surrender before they could escape. Others cautioned against such action and their view prevailed with Hitler. Goering, as head of the Luftwaffe, assured Hitler that his planes would provide the knock-out blow, wrongfully as it turned out.

Hitler was persuaded by some, but not all of his generals, by two other factors, first that his tanks had outrun their supply lines for gasoline and might become victims of the allied forces, and second that the land separating the tanks from the beaches was marshy and difficult for tanks to traverse. The tanks would be vital later for Hitler’s campaign on the eastern front.

A second aspect to the miracle of Dunkirk is that if the allied troops had been defeated and forced to surrender, the British would have had to sign an armistice based largely on German terms. The postwar years would have been notably different, including my own.

The Promise of Canada by Charlotte Gray – A review

November 7, 2016

I would strongly recommend this book to all diplomats posted to Canada, as well as to all Canadians posted abroad who need to understand the history of their country. In fact, the same is true for all Canadians who, if like me, may think they know how Canada evolved but would be pushed to identify all the relevant factors. Charlotte Gray has done this in a brilliantly researched and written way.

I came to Canada from the UK over sixty years ago and have lived here ever since, except for a period of study at the London School of Economics. Two years after arrival I became a landed immigrant and after a further thirteen a citizen. My children and grandchildren are all Canadian by birth.

Charlotte Gray arrived in 1979 and has become a superb chronicler of the evolution of Canada over the past two centuries. In my time here, I have not fully appreciated what was going on around me, but now I do, as she has skillfully authored an account of the country’s evolution from the time of politician Sir George-Etienne Cartier (1814-1873) to rapper Shad (1982- who is new to me).

It requires an enormous amount of skilled research (using both secondary sources and interviews) to develop these materials, and still more to integrate them into an intelligent portrait of a country which has grown in both size and numerous other ways.

Canadian literary blue-bloods have rightly given the book outstanding reviews. Rather than add to these, I will try to outline several things I have learned or have come to appreciate about Canada.

  1. One starting point to understanding Canada is geography, both its relation to other parts of the world, and what goes on inside. As for the latter, there are very few people in Canada in terms of population density or persons per square km. In 1961, the figure was 2/sq km and in 2015 4/sq km. Comparable figures for other countries are Russia 7 and 9; US 20 and 35; China 70 and 146; Singapore 2541 and 7829. Canada is largely empty.
  2. By far the majority of Canadians live in urban areas,18 million (about 60 %) in the ten largest metropolitan areas as of 2011. A light map of the country shows most of these people living close to the US border, while large swathes of the country are drenched in darkness.
  3. The rural population expects preferred treatment and often has difficulty in making its voice heard. The continuation of such measures as supply management for dairy products shows that in some instances this occurs.
  4. The diverse regions in which Canadians live include the Maritimes, Central Canada, the Prairies, British Columbia and the North. The economic, cultural and social character of each has meant that it is often difficult to get agreement on things that affect the whole country, and explains why parts, especially French Canada, from time to time toy with separation. Holding the parts together is a continuing challenge for federal politicians.
  5. All Canadians are immigrants who have arrived at different times. The original settlers came out of Africa about 60,000 to 100,000 years ago, travelling up to and through today’s Russia, across the land bridge to Alaska and down into North and South America. Later settlers, the ones most often covered in history books, came from Europe, especially the French, English, Dutch and Spanish. The arrival of each changes the lives of those already there, and does so for migrants arriving today.

It is how Canada has and continues to respond to these geographic and demographic factors which has influenced how the country has and may evolve in the future. Charlotte Gray’s detailed portraits of nine Canadians from different walks of life, politician, policeman, artist, academic, lawyer, and vignettes of five others (journalist, business, mayor, rapper and pop artist) provides the reader with an outstanding introduction to understanding Canada today and how we got here from there.

Rule or Cruel Britannia

October 5, 2016

Tears of the Rajahs (Simon and Schuster, 2015) by Ferdinand Mount, describes how the British East India Company dealt with the local populations on the Indian subcontinent from around 1600. It was often not a pretty picture and provides more ammunition to British Empire bashers.

I am aware of the list of documented atrocities and Mount helps to confirm them. But there is another side to the story, at least regarding the state of India and the countries which were once part of the Empire. Like most major happenings, there is a good and bad news story to recount. This one links to what is discussed under the rubric of globalization and suggests a good news outcome.

There are several stages and meanings to the idea and process of globalization. A world map for 1905 (I have one on my wall) shows countries of the British Empire coloured red. They include the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Africa, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar), and numerous places like Malaysia, Singapore and a series of rocks and islands. Until 1776, the thirteen American colonies would also have had a reddish hue, and in many ways still do.

From around 1600, and from a geographic viewpoint, the process of globalization lead to Britain becoming the world’s main superpower. On the way it had to compete with Holland, Spain and France in North and South America, in Africa and in parts of Asia. Naval superiority aided by piracy helped to establish British footprints around the world.

Soon after 1905, the British Empire started to decline, and within fifty years of the end of WW1 it was over in a political, economic and military sense, but not, I would suggest, in a cultural and political sense. Its political institutions had become established in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. No formal empire existed, but in its place the British Commonwealth, now the Commonwealth, was formed, reinforcing British views on many issues. English has become established as the common language for international interactions. Even the EU is reported to be considering retaining English as its working language after Brexit.

Another stage of globalization began after 1945, when the US became the main superpower challenged only by the Soviet Union and its satellites. By 1990, the Soviet Union had dissolved and Russian influence diminished globally and especially in central and eastern Europe. Meanwhile China was on the rise following the death of Mao and the reign of Li Peng. While China has become a global economic player, its neighbor Japan has receded somewhat from the global economic scene.

The foregoing is a ridiculously brief summary of how globalization has evolved geographically and politically over the past 120 years, but it does suggest quite a change over a reasonably short period of time. Few if any forecast these changes five years before they occurred. The same is true today and those who make even short term forecasts, say 2-3 years, are usually wrong.

Another dimension of globalization is more economic and technology related. Steam engines, railroads, cars and planes were technological changes stemming from the 19th century. The past several decades have seen the spread of computer-communications technology affecting different areas of economic, political and social activity. Enormous changes have taken place in numerous areas of our lives. These have been rapid and difficult to predict, but entrepreneurs are active around the world, as are criminals who have created a whole field of cyber-security.

In sum, the globalization initiated by the British Empire, although faded in some ways, is still very much present associated with the spread of democracy, certain human values, the English language and many types of sporting activity. How it got there was not always a pretty picture, but in the long run the results have not been too bad. Large parts of the world today still have a reddish hue. Rule rather than cruel Britannia is probably a better summary of many aspects of globalization today.

Brexit and all that (2)

July 6, 2016

What would the reaction have been if the UK vote had been 52/48 in favour of staying in the EU? Almost half the UK population would still have wanted to leave and would have continued to lobby for such an outcome. The message seems to be that there is extensive dissatisfaction with the status quo, as there is in the US for different but related reasons. But the historical and geographical circumstances differ.

Think back to 1945 and the end of WW2. For at least the next 35 years there was a period of global prosperity with rising per capita income reasonably distributed in developed, and in an increasing number of developing countries, as well as in countries ravaged during the war. This postwar fiscal stimulus prevented a return to the dirty thirties.

Politically, the postwar period contained a number of regional wars, Algeria, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam being examples, while colonies gained independence in Africa and Asia. The Soviet and Chinese empires remained mired in their communist molds, each of which was broken but with differing outcomes. China has since experienced rapid economic growth with an economy promoting exports of manufactured goods, while Russia has depended on export earnings from energy and other natural resources. The politics of the two communist systems differ.

The next 35 years, say since 1980, saw major technological change especially  the introduction of computers and the internet affecting many industries such as communications, transportation and manufacturing as well as resource based industries. Around 2008 there was a global recession with the slowdown affecting countries, industries and occupations differently. While Gross Domestic Product grew in most countries, it did so unevenly,  in that some citizens  made a great deal of money, while many saw their real incomes either stagnate or shrink, leading to dissatisfaction and the general malaise found in both Europe and North America. Supporters of Trump and Sanders in the US, and those unhappy with the EU are a reflection of these events. Immigration and the crossborder flow of refugees and displaced persons are other factors affecting both areas in ways peculiar to their locations.

Brexit has understandably forced attention on conditions in Western Europe. Meanwhile the rest of the world has not stood still. Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and parts of Africa, Chinese naval actions in the South China Sea, Russian moves in eastern Europe, and the nuclear factor in countries like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are also cause for concern. The list of political/economic factors could easily be lengthened, one of which is cyber-terrorism (for a future posing)..

A summary of these issues illustrates the context within which Brexit is taking place in a domestic and international setting. If the vote had been no, the context would have changed very little, with the same set of dissatisfactions remaining. For a fuller listing of these see the web report by Maudlin Economic, posting for July 2nd, 2016.

I have no idea what will happen. There are too many factors at play. It easier to forecast the result of a World Cup soccer game, a Wimbledon tennis match, the Tour de France, or even a chess game than it is to assess how world events will evolve.

In the UK, I will watch how the political parties and parts of the country respond, and how other European countries react to the British vote and what follows. It already seems that the EU Council of Ministers, if not the EU Commission made up of officials, recognize that something needs to be done. The fallout from the US November election is even more difficult to forecast.