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Reflections on Max 8: Sophisticated Airplanes and Self-Driving Cars

Would you feel safer flying in a Boeing 737 Max 8—or in the 40-year-old formerly mothballed plane pulled out of retirement to replace it?

Have 40-year-old planes actually been pulled out of retirement and put into service? Probably not. But, since hundreds of Max 8s have been grounded, replacements have had to come from somewhere. Airlines don’t have hundreds of extra planes sitting around. It will take months or years to build new planes. The only alternatives have been to cancel flights, look for older, underused airplanes, and/or reduce routine maintenance in order to keep existing planes constantly flying.

Much of the reporting of the Max 8 issue has been shallow. The idea that air travel is safer now that the “dangerous” Max 8s are grounded ignores the alternatives. “Dangerous” is a relative term when dealing with complex machines and equally complex human beings.

Generally, air travel is very safe. When accidents happen, there are mass casualties, and that draws attention, but such accidents are actually very rare. Airplanes have far better technology than cars, and pilots are much better trained than automobile drivers. The standards are higher.    

The Discovery channel program Mayday provides a wealth of information about aviation issues. Each episode of this program recounts the investigation into a single plane crash. The investigations take months. It takes a long time to decode and analyze what is in the black boxes. There are actually two of these boxes (painted orange)—a cockpit voice recorder and a data recorder that records speed, altitude, control settings, fuel consumption, and dozens of other pieces of information.

In addition, investigators examine the wreckage in minute detail, talk to witnesses, interview air traffic controllers, interview survivors, interview mechanics, review pilot histories, check training procedures and manuals, check maintenance histories and maintenance procedures, look at previous crashes, and even investigate human psychology in areas such as blind spots, distractions, and fatigue.

After months of painstaking investigation and analysis of an accident, the investigators write a report. What often emerges is that a crash had multiple causes. Airplanes have many safety and backup features designed to prevent accidents. If a mechanical problem occurs, pilots are trained to work around the problem and keep the plane flying. If a pilot makes an error, the co-pilot is there to offer a correction, often using a troubleshooting manual, and the plane itself will sound a warning or even override the pilot’s error. Therefore, when there is a plane crash, it is usually caused by a combination of human and mechanical failures. This happens for instance, when a pilot chooses the wrong response to a mechanical problem or when a pilot is confused because more than one thing went wrong at the same time. It is easy to blame pilots for such errors, but modern airplanes are very complex, and pilots often have only minutes or even seconds to diagnose and respond to problems. A complicating factor is that pilots have learned to depend on airplanes’ automated and safety/backup systems and can become complacent. In a crisis, it may take precious time for them to realize there is a problem, take responsibility, analyze the problem, and act.

The Max 8 Accidents

What seems to have happened in the Max 8 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia is that a sensor was out of position and gave incorrect data to the airplane’s computer, which triggered an automatic safety response; that is, the airplane computer received data that suggested the plane was about to stall, and so the computer pushed the nose of the plane down to prevent the stall. The pilot’s response should have been to disengage the safety system and fly the plane manually.

The Max 8 is a new plane with many new safety systems to prevent crashes, and that has raised a number of questions. There have been allegations that the pilots were not fully trained to understand these new systems and know how to handle this new technology. There have been suggestions that the training programs themselves were not fully developed and not readily available. Regardless of training, it is undoubtedly true that the pilots had not flown the planes enough to have become experienced in dealing with the new systems. There have also been allegations that there were bugs in the plane’s computer systems and/or design flaws that had not shown up in the testing of the new plane model and that may only have become evident in a few of the many varied situations that airplanes actually fly in. Since both Max 8 crashes occurred in the Third World, there have also been suggestions that that these pilots were less well trained on the new plane than North American pilots, perhaps because of language issues, but that might not be the case either.

As far as I know, while preliminary conclusions have been reached pointing to design faults and inadequate training, the final reports have not yet been written on the two crashes, and so the full answers are not yet fully known.

Even if the same problem brought down both planes, solving the problem is obviously taking considerable time. Overhauling a complex set of operating guidance systems is not an easy process. Fixing one problem might create new ones. Retraining pilots on all of the many things that might go wrong is also a lengthy and complex procedure.    

It is disconcerting to ponder that a computer-controlled system designed to keep the airplane safe might actually have caused it to crash.

Implications for Automobiles

The recent Max 8 crashes and the resulting safety concerns also raise questions for automobile safety.  

Like piloting a modern aircraft, driving a modern automobile requires interaction between human beings and increasingly complex mechanical and computerized machinery. Modern automobiles have self-parking technology, lane departure warnings, automatic braking systems, innumerable sensors, and much more. These systems are designed to make automobiles safer, and in general they do, but they do not necessarily make driving simpler.

And such systems are only the beginning.

Automobile manufacturers are now designing autonomous or self-driving cars, assuring us that this will make us much safer. They tell us that since human error causes most automobile accidents, eliminating human control will eliminate accidents.

This leads to several thoughts.

1. Computerizing cars and adding safety warning, backup, and autonomous systems is reducing accidents in automobiles just as it has done in airplanes, and further innovations will no doubt reduce accidents even further.

2. While in the past most accidents were due to human error, in the future most accidents will be due to computer errors or failures in the interaction between human beings and the computer-controlled machine. The reason most accidents are currently due to human error is because most vehicles are currently controlled by humans. When most vehicles are controlled by computers, most accidents will be caused by mechanical failures and computer problems.

3. Computers are fragile. The life expectancy of a cell phone is two to three years. The life expectancy of a desktop computer is about five years. The lifetime expectancy of a computerized home appliance is five to ten years, about half the lifetime of the non-computerized older appliances. No matter how well the systems work when heavily computerized vehicles are new, how well will they work when they are five to ten years old?

4. Sensors are also fragile. The misalignment of a single sensor might have brought down the Max 8 planes. Like airplanes, autonomous vehicles will only be as reliable as the data they receive. In an automobile, the sensors must correctly measure the position of other vehicles, the edges of highways, and much more. And sensors on vehicles are more vulnerable. What happens if mud or slush or a rock gets splashed or thrown onto a sensor? What happens if a sensor fails?

5. Airplanes rely on radar and airport guidance systems. Automated vehicles must rely on GPS systems and external data, which are more complex and less dependable. There are far more cars on the road than there are airplanes in the sky, and GPS systems are not maintained with the same rigorous attention to detail. What happens if a dog or a rock or a snowbank or something else unexpectedly appears on the highway? What happens if there is a detour? What happens if someone has incorrectly entered the wrong coordinates or other data into a GPS system?

6. Computerized and autonomous vehicles are more expensive. I once had to get rid of a car because a sensor designed to measure evaporation in the gas tank failed and it would have cost too much to replace the sensor and the computer system that monitored it.

7. Will autonomous vehicles have the same level of testing and reliability as airplanes? Can we expect a $100,000 vehicle to be as safe as a $100 million airplane?

8. Airplanes undergo rigorous maintenance and inspection regimes. Pilots are required to inspect and check all systems before takeoff. Can we expect drivers of autonomous vehicles to be as diligent?  

9. There is more congestion and far less reaction time in vehicles. The Max 8 pilots had minutes or seconds to correct their problem. Now imagine if they were flying in close formation with a thousand other planes. That is the situation on most highways.

10. In spite of their automation and sophistication, modern airplanes require the presence of two (and sometimes three) trained pilots. Can automobiles be expected to be so safe that they do not require a human backup system?

11. Pilots learn to depend on the automated and computerized safety systems in airplanes and can become complacent. In a crisis, it often takes precious time for them to realize there is a problem, take responsibility, and act. Drivers of computerized and autonomous automobiles will be tempted to also become complacent. Will a human being who becomes conditioned to just being along for the ride be able to react in time when a problem arises?

12. One of the factors in the Max 8 crashes seems to have been that the pilots were not fully trained on how to monitor and troubleshoot the problems in their highly sophisticated aircraft. As automobiles become ever complex, they will require far more and better driver training, not less.

13. When an airplane crashes, investigators spend months investigating every facet of the crash and determining ways to make airplanes safer so that similar accidents do not happen again. No matter how complex vehicles become, there is no way that experts can devote the same level of investigation into vehicle crashes. It is probably unrealistic to expect vehicle travel to ever be as safe as air travel.

14. Technology has generally made us safer. Computerized and automated systems on automobiles will make them safer and reduce accidents. But complex machines can break down just as easily as complex human beings. As much as we want to believe it, there is no person or machine or computer than can guarantee safety and eliminate all risk.

A version of this article was published in the summer 2019 issue of Collision Quarterly

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The Hypocrisy of the Entertainment Industry

Item: Netflix has decided to “ban smoking from all original content rated TV-14 or PG-13 and below.”

The media giant known for its risqué content will continue to present shows filled with violence, crime, sexual promiscuity, drug addiction, excessive consumption of alcohol, murder, theft, fraud, dishonesty, and occult practices. But it is good to see that Netflix wants to do the right thing and its shows won’t encourage young people to smoke.

Item: Some theatres have cancelled showings of the movie Unplanned, although it will still be screened by more than 24 theatres in Canada starting this weekend.

The showing of this movie has attracted considerable attention in the media, almost all of it negative. In this coverage, this movie has almost universally been labelled “controversial.” It is hard to remember any other movie that the media have called “controversial.” “Controversial” is a buzz word used by the media as a covert way of saying, “We don’t agree with it.”

The Canadian news media have generally shown their bias not only by referring to the movie as “controversial” but also by describing it as being “anti-abortion.” The media are careful to call other groups by their preferred labels, but the media insist on calling “pro-life” groups “anti-abortion” groups. The bias is evident in that they refer to groups such as Planned Parenthood as “pro-choice” groups rather than “pro-abortion” groups. Furthermore, the news coverage has not focused on the film itself nor the human story behind it, as would happen with other movies. Rather, the news coverage has been focused on the opposition to the movie and criticisms by groups such as Planned Parenthood.

When criticized for offering movies filled with sex and violence, for years movie makers and movie distributors have routinely said that they do not censor movies and are only giving people what they want. Yet they are often reluctant to show “Christian” movies and “controversial” movies such as Unplanned even though theatres are often “packed” when they do show such movies and empty when they show some of the more extremely violent and pornographic movies. In fact, the theatres often agree to show such movies only after an intense lobbying effort, such as occurred before they agreed to show Unplanned. And they certainly don’t waste much money advertising such movies as they do with other movies.

Many of the news reports have quoted a news release from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) calling Unplanned “a dangerous piece of anti-abortion propaganda.”

Of course, movies such as Brokeback Mountain and Milk would never be called “propaganda” for homosexuality. And Million Dollar Baby would not be called “propaganda” for assisted suicide. As with “controversial,” calling something “propaganda” just means “I personally don’t agree with it.”

The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada “fears the movie could incite fanatics to commit acts of harassment or violence against clinics or doctors.” This is ironic considering that the Salmar Theatre in Salmon Arm, BC, cancelled its plans to show the movie after violent threats were made against theatre staff and their families. The Movie Mill in Lethbridge, Alberta, is showing the movie but has taken the precaution of hiring extra security. Which side is actually most violent?

Planned Parenthood also says that the movie contains “vicious falsehoods” and “has nothing to do with reality.” This is even though the movie is based on a true story, a memoir of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood worker who became a convinced pro-life advocate. “Based on” is a common Hollywood claim for many movies whose veracity is very questionable but rarely questioned. There is clearly a double standard at work.

ARCC executive director Joyce Arthur also noted that the film’s attempt to challenge abortion rights is “a non-starter in Canada, where women and transgender people have a Charter right to abortion based on their rights to bodily autonomy and equality.” Speaking of falsehoods, this is not technically true. When it struck down Canada’s last abortion law, the Supreme Court of Canada encouraged the government to enact an amended law; as far as I know, it has never declared that there is an unfettered “right” to abortion.

To their credit, the theatre chains Cineplex and Landmark have agreed to show Unplanned and to resist the calls to ban it—although only for a single week in a very few theatres. Furthermore, agreeing to show a movie is not the same thing as ardently promoting a movie, as they might do for “controversial” movies on the other side of the morality spectrum.

Unplanned reveals as much about the hypocrisy of the entertainment industry and the bias of mainstream news media as it does about abortion.

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Upset about the NHL Playoffs?

Sports fans are talking about the upsets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Upsets? Well, maybe. And maybe not.

The reality is that there is tremendous balance between National Hockey League teams.

This is largely because of the salary cap, which limits the amount of money teams can pay their players. This means that a team can only afford to pay two or three stars and the good players are spread fairly evenly among the 31 teams.

Each team plays 82 games in the regular season, and since a win is worth 2 points, teams can finish with anywhere from 0 to 164 points. But no team comes close to those extremes, and most of the teams are bunched together in the middle of the spectrum.

Okay, there was one series (and maybe one other) that could be legitimately called an upset in the first round of the NHL playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning even though Tampa Bay was 30 points better than Columbus in the regular season. But Tampa Bay is the exception. The Lightning were by far the best team in the regular season, finishing 21 points ahead of the next best team.

The other series that might be called an upset was in the Western Conference, where the 8th place Colorado Avalanche (with 90 points in the regular season) beat the first place Calgary Flames (with 107 points) despite the 17-point gap between them in the regular season.

All of the other playoff teams were bunched very closely together. In the Eastern Conference, there were only 9 points between the 2nd place team and the 8th place team. In the Western Conference, there were only 11 points between the 2nd place team and the 8th place team.

Consider the other first round playoff matchups.

In the Eastern Conference, there were:

· 5 points between the Washington Capitals (100 points) and Carolina Hurricanes (93 points)

· 3 points between the New York Islanders (103 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins (100 points)

· 7 points between the Boston Bruins (107 points) and Toronto Maple Leafs (100 points).

In the Western Conference, there were:

· 7 points between the Nashville Predators (100 points) and Dallas Stars (93 points)

· No points between the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues (each had 99 points)

· 8 points between the San Jose Sharks (101 points) and Vegas Golden Knights (93 points).

Consider that since teams can earn up to 164 points, these margins are relatively small. Even Tampa Bay was only about 18% (30/164) better than Columbus in the regular season, and Calgary was only about 10% better than Colorado. The difference between the teams in every other first round playoff matchup was less than 5%. Such small margins are statistically insignificant and can be accounted for by injuries and luck. In the playoffs, the balance can be tipped by further injuries, luck, confidence, lack of confidence, interpersonal conflicts on a team, and late season trades made at the trade deadline just weeks before the playoffs. (It is arguable that Columbus closed the gap on Tampa Bay by adding stars Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel and several other players through trades late in the season.)

Furthermore, of the non-playoff teams, four were within 8 points of making the playoffs and five more were within 16 points. That means that those nine teams (of the fifteen non-playoff teams) have to improve by only 5% to 10% to make the playoffs. And even that is misleading since teams that are not going to make the playoffs fall farther back because near the end of the season they get discouraged, trade veteran players for draft choices, rest good players, send players for off-season surgery early, and try out rookies. Many of them are closer to the playoffs than it seems.

Take the case of the Vancouver Canucks, a team which missed the playoffs by 9 points. Forty-two of the Canucks’ 82 games were decided by one goal, including 25 losses. The team would have had to turn only about 5 of those losses into wins to make the playoffs.

Consider the element of luck. The outcome of a game can depend on as little as an inch in only one or two plays. During any game, it is not unusual for one or more players to hit the goalpost when they are shooting at the net. A puck may hit the post and bounce away from the net. If the trajectory of the puck is another inch to the side, it will hit the post and deflect into the net. A couple of inches can also make the difference in many other plays—such as passes, offsides, deflections, and saves.

Looking at the issue in another way, we see that each team dresses 20 players per game. If one of those players has an argument with his wife, stubs his toe, or catches the flu, it can mean the difference between his team winning and losing.

The bottom line is that not even experts can predict the outcome of hockey games, and anyone who bets on hockey games is a fool.

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Why Is It So Hard to Give a Clear Answer?

University professors are like gods. Not in the sense of being wise and all-knowing. Nor in the sense of being good and benevolent. They are godlike in the sense of being powerful beings. Especially when it comes to graduate students.

The success of undergraduate students, those enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program, is determined by a myriad of tests, exams, assignments, essays, and research projects. Undergraduates are part of a mass of largely anonymous students, they have many professors, and there are appeal mechanisms if they disagree with an assigned mark. But it is much different for graduate students, those who have already graduated with a bachelor’s degree and are hoping to earn a master’s degree or a doctorate. Graduate students frequently work one-on-one with only two or three professors and with only one professor in particular, their thesis advisor. This being the case, a student’s fate can be decided by the whim of a single professor.

As in all occupations, there are many professors who are fair and just, good and equitable. And there are some who are, well, tyrants.

This being the case, there are examples of tyrannical professors keeping a grad student hanging around for years—doing one more reading program, one more research assignment, one more research paper, etc.—with no intention of ever granting the student a degree.

Why would a professor do this? For two reasons, or maybe three. First, governments give much larger grants to universities for a graduate student than they do for an undergraduate student, and that money helps to pay the professor’s salary, with all its perks, and to keep the university solvent. Second, graduate students can be useful research assistants, doing most of the grunt work while the professor gets all the credit. They provide free or cheap labour. The third reason? Universities would never admit it, but some professors just seem to enjoy the power trip, holding another human being’s life and career in their hands.

When I was working on my doctorate, there was a young man who had been a graduate student in the department for seven or eight years and was still a long way from earning even a master’s degree. The assessment by the other students was that he was not so much a scholar or researcher as he was a social activist. He had been able to finance those wasted years because he was the son of wealthy parents (as many social activists are). University administrators finally took pity on him and expelled him from the program for not making more progress toward a degree.

And then there is the case of the patron saint of graduate students Theodore Landon Streleski. Streleski was a graduate student in mathematics at Stanford University who murdered his former faculty advisor, Professor Karel de Leeuw, with a ball-peen hammer on August 18, 1978. Shortly after the murder, Streleski turned himself in to the authorities, claiming he felt the murder was justifiable homicide because de Leeuw had withheld departmental awards from him, demeaned Streleski in front of his peers, and refused his requests for financial support. At his trial, Streleski said that the slaying was “a rational act” meant to dramatize his claim that Stanford mistreated its graduate students. Years later, when Streleski was released from prison, he refused to say he was sorry for what he had done, repeating that in his opinion the professor had deserved it. Streleski was likely mentally unstable, but he may have had a point. At the time of the murder, he had been pursuing his doctorate in the mathematics department for 19 years.

A Parallel Situation

This brings us to consider the actions of other unreasonably tyrannical authorities.

An obvious example is the case of Enbridge Inc., which spent about 10 years and over a third of a billion dollars trying to get approval for its Northern Gateway proposal to build a crude oil pipeline from Alberta to Prince Rupert, BC. That proposal was never turned down. It had passed through many stages of the approval process without ever being allowed to begin construction. The process dragged on for so many years that Enbridge just gave up in frustration.

Personally, from my very limited knowledge of the subject, that proposal seemed inferior to Kinder Morgan’s proposal to double its already existing Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta to Metro Vancouver. That pipeline has also never been turned down. In fact, it has been approved at several stages. But it has never been built. Kindred Morgan also gave up, finally selling the pipeline to the federal government for $4.5 billion. Kinder Morgan’s shareholders rejoiced when Kinder Morgan executives found a lucrative way to escape from the legal and political quagmire they were in. Construction has still not begun on the twinning of the pipeline, and it remains to be seen whether the government will ever get the project built. While the government is scheduled to give final approval to the project in June, some group could easily launch another legal challenge and bring it to a grinding halt once again.

And the Liberal government is making the process even more difficult through its Bill C-69, which is wending its way through Parliament. Bill C-69 will create three additional hoops for companies who want to build projects such as pipelines to jump through. First, there must be an additional “consultation” phase with environmental and indigenous groups before the formal assessment and approval process can even begin. Second, the bill will allow anyone for any reason (not just those with “standing,” that is, those who will be directly affected by the project) to intervene in the approval process, which will greatly lengthen the proceedings. Third, the bill will force companies to satisfy objections based in science, but also objections based in traditional indigenous knowledge and objections based on sex and gender equality. A company will have to demonstrate that its pipeline will promote LGBTQ rights.

In graduate school, after I had been in the program for a year, I went to my senior advisor, the professor I worked under most closely, and asked, “You’ve seen my work for a year. Do you think I’m going to make it?” I was quite willing to keep working on the program, but if I wasn’t going to make it, I would rather have known then than waste several more years attempting something I was never going to achieve. My professor was surprised. It was a question rarely asked. He did not promise me that I would succeed. But he did tell me I was doing well and was not wasting my time. After a few more years of hard work, I was granted my PhD.

Like me, when facing regulatory agencies and governments, most companies would prefer to have straight answers. They would rather be told no than maybe. If they are told no, they can stop wasting time and go off and do something else.

I am not arguing that we should lower our environmental standards and allow companies to build whatever they want—anymore than I am arguing that academic standards should be lowered for graduate students. It is almost the opposite. We should have strong, well-defined environmental standards. We should also have strong, well-defined employment standards so that workers are treated fairly. We should also have strong standards protecting human rights.

But companies also deserve to be treated fairly. There should be very clear standards, and companies should be given clear and timely answers based on those standards.

It should also be said that governments are elected to make decisions. On difficult or controversial issues, too often governments are afraid to make a decision, afraid that someone will be upset. Instead, they put off the decision, dithering and postponing in the hope that they will find an easy way out. They offer vague answers and outright deception, promising everything to everyone and trying to keep everybody happy. In the end, they make no one happy. Not to decide is to decide. And too often this means that the answer ends up being no even when the government had no real intention of saying no, and nothing gets done.

I am aware that major, complex projects need considerable study and research before a decision can be made on their impact and whether they should be approved. I am also aware that there are differing opinions on what standards should exist and that political processes can be slow and cumbersome. But no process should take ten years and a third of a billion dollars. It is unreasonable to expect a company to invest that amount of time and money and still not be given an answer. In future, what company would ever invest that kind of money in any Canadian project?

Instead, like tyrannical professors, our governments demand that companies undertake one more study, engage in one more consultation, meet one more court challenge, meet with one more regulatory body—with no prospect of ever being given an answer. And all the time, these companies are spending more time and money for nothing. If governments don’t want development, they should simply announce that and save everybody a lot of wasted time and effort.

This issue is not a problem just for oil pipeline companies but for almost all potential investors in Canada. And it is not just an issue at the federal government level. Provincial governments can be just as unreasonable. At the municipal government level, developers do not complain so much about the requirements to meet environmental and community standards as they do about red tape, bureaucratic delays, and political indecision.

Time is money. Justice delayed is justice denied. It is not fair for governments to string companies along for years when they want to avoid making hard decisions or when they have no intention of ever approving the proposed projects. This is no more fair than university professors stringing along graduate students for years with no intention of ever granting them a degree. It is much kinder and fairer to say no, they don’t measure up, than to keep them jumping through hoop after hoop. Why is it so hard to say no—or even yes?

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Black Holes and Other Investments

Let me ask you a question. As an investor, would you invest in BlackBerry Limited?

This is a company whose sales dropped from almost $20 billion a year in 2011 to less than 1 billion in 2018. This is a company that racked up losses of over $10 billion between 2013 and 2017. Its work force has dropped from about 20,000 employees to about 4,000 employees. Share prices have dropped from a high of $140 a share in 2008 to less than $12 a share today.

So, would you invest in this company?

I have news for you. You already have.

Lost in the furor over the SNC-Lavalin affair is the fact that on February 15, Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government is investing $40 million in BlackBerry to help it develop software to operate self-driving cars. With its cell phone business in tatters, the company is trying to reinvent itself as a software developer.

The announcement also included the reassuring news that BlackBerry would spend $310.5 million “of its own money” to create 800 new jobs and maintain an additional 300 positions over the next 10 years. It also promised to provide 1,000 co-op job placements for students from 10 unspecified Canadian post-secondary schools. The announcement did not specify where the new jobs and placements would be.

Presumably, BlackBerry needed the money because its current reputation makes it difficult to raise money on the open market. As I said, would you invest in BlackBerry?

To be clear, this $40 million is not actually an investment. It is also not a loan. It is a gift. If BlackBerry’s current project succeeds, no matter how well it does, the government will not get any of its money back. For our $40 “investment,” we taxpayers will not get to share in any of the company’s profits. The government will collect corporate tax on the company’s profits (if any), and income tax on the employees’ incomes, but that is tax money the government would have gotten anyway.

While it is helpful for governments to create conditions where a market economy can flourish, it is almost never a good idea for a government to subsidize a specific company.

The market economy is based on competition, designed to reward competence and punish incompetence. Government subsidies do the opposite. Good companies don’t need the help. And subsidies and bailouts don’t usually save badly run companies anyway. An infusion of cash does nothing to correct the organizational, structural, productivity, product quality, and market deficiencies that are the reason these companies are struggling in the first place. One subsidy or bailout is usually followed by further subsidies and bailouts. Such companies often become dependent on them, and when the subsidies end, the companies often collapse altogether.

Not only do they fail to save struggling companies, but subsidies and bailouts can also have negative effects on other companies. Let’s consider why that is.

Contrary to popular belief, governments do not give away their own money. A government does not have any money of its own. It only has money it raises through taxation. So who does it tax? Not badly run or struggling companies, the ones it gives money to. They don’t have any profits to tax. The government gets its money from taxing the profits of successful and profitable companies. In essence, the government takes money from successful companies and gives it to failing companies. It punishes success and rewards failure. This is folly. It undermines the market economy the government wants to help. It puts formerly successful companies at a disadvantage as they struggle to compete against their subsidized counterparts, and it increases their tax burden. In this way, subsidies turn profitable companies into unprofitable companies and successful companies into unsuccessful companies.

It is always possible that a government subsidy can help a struggling company navigate its way through an unexpected difficult set of circumstances, that the subsidy can provide breathing space while the company reorganizes and renews itself. But it rarely happens.

There is some evidence that BlackBerry might be successful in its attempt to reinvent itself—it  made a small profit in 2018—but it is probably too early to tell.

So, Canadians, take pride in your new investment. But don’t count on it to take care of you in your retirement.

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Stephen Harper’s Other Book: The Politics of Hockey

Stephen Harper’s new book, Right Here Right Now, is receiving widespread attention and stirring considerable debate. Even those who disagree with his political observations have to agree that it is a formidable book that cannot be ignored. That is far different from the response to his previous book.

Reviewers never quite knew what to do with Harper’s hockey book, A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey, which was published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster. Libraries didn’t know whether to classify it as a sports book or a political book or whether to buy it at all. Other reviewers seem to have had a hard time trying to decide if Harper was serious. Some newspapers and magazines were so puzzled that they didn’t review it at all. What was Canada’s prime minister doing writing a book about hockey instead of about politics? How did he have time, and why did he do it? In the Acknowledgements, Harper said that he wrote the book because he needed a hobby away from his demanding job. It is hard to conceive of writing a book for fun or as recreation. Writing a book is very hard work. This certainly reinforced the image of Harper as a serious, work-before-play kind of man, the person who said he didn’t have enough personality to go into the family business of accounting.

On the other hand, for those who took the time to read it, it was clear that the book upset a number of preconceptions. Many people considered Stephen Harper to be someone who was totally preoccupied with politics. For them, it was almost inconceivable that he would devote so much energy and passion to something as frivolous as hockey.

Harper was also considered by many to be a narrow-minded right-winger (in the political sense, not the hockey sense). And yet the book showed a remarkable sensitivity to social, cultural, and economic issues affecting average people. In one sense, the book was more a social history than a sports book.

Harper was also often characterized as a dyed-in-the-wool Albertan, a western Canadian with little understanding of or interest in “central Canada.” And yet the book focused on Toronto and on Ontario and Quebec, showing considerable understanding of the socio-economic, cultural, and intellectual history of Canada’s largest provinces. This should not have been surprising since Harper grew up in Toronto, but it still came as a surprise to many people.

Finally, many liberal intellectuals tended to dismiss Harper as an intellectual lightweight. It was no doubt puzzling to them that Harper could produce a well-researched, well-documented, and well-written volume—the kind of book a university professor might write—especially in his spare time.

The book traces the development of professional hockey in Canada (and the US), with a strong focus on Toronto. It culminates with the story of the Toronto Professionals, the first Toronto team to play for the Stanley Cup (in 1907, losing to a team from Montreal), and the Toronto Blue Shirts, who actually won the Cup in 1914. Harper pointed out the irony that neither of these teams has been acknowledged as part of the heritage of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Stigma of Professionalism

Part of the puzzlement arose from the fact that Harper began the book with a long and insightful explanation of why there was such opposition to the development of professional hockey, in Ontario especially. It is an attitude that seems puzzling today. Yet, as Harper explained, at the start of the 20th century sports were considered to be an activity for upper class young men at upper class schools. Sporting activities were seen as a preparation for war. If hockey players needed to be paid, it meant that they were from the lower classes and should therefore be spending their time working rather than playing sports.

Harper did not spell out all of the ramifications of this attitude, such as that it was championed especially by upper class men of British ancestry. He did explain that the central figure in this was John Ross Robertson, “an ardent British imperialist.” For years, Robertson ruled the Ontario Hockey Association, which fought an unrelenting war against professionalism, banning every player even suspected of receiving payment for playing any sport. Robertson’s view had strong support from the leading Toronto newspapers of the day. This was no accident. Robertson himself was the founder and publisher of the Toronto Telegram. His close colleagues in the OHA included Francis Nelson, sports editor of the Toronto Globe, and W.A. Hewitt, sports editor of the Toronto Star.

It is interesting to note that it is the intellectual descendants of these men, the intellectual and financial elites of Ontario, who have often derided the attempts by a man like Stephen Harper to write a book (or to be prime minister). They seem to feel that writing books (and running the country) should be left to the elites (such as government-funded university professors, wealthy businessmen, and lawyers) who do not need to make money from the process. It is also interesting that many of the modern Olympic officials who likewise continued to champion amateur sports throughout the 20th century were descended from European aristocracy. 

Although Harper did not deal with this in his book, the idea that sports should be reserved for the upper classes was not a new one even in the early 20th century. There is an oft-quoted and probably apocryphal statement by the Duke of Wellington that “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” (Eton is an upper class English boarding school for older boys founded in 1440, which has trained 19 British prime ministers and many members of the aristocracy.) Of course, the statement implies that battles are won by officers, not the soldiers who are doing most of the fighting. Later commentators from other perspectives have pointed out that a lot of battles have also been lost on such playing fields—by arrogant, narrow-minded, incompetent upper class officers who did not understand what was actually going on in the trenches. World War I, which took place shortly after the era Harper was writing about, is a prime example.

The attitude goes back much farther even than Wellington—to the Middle Ages, when nobles (defined as knights who could afford a horse and fought on horseback) dominated warfare. Back then it was sports such as jousting and hunting that were reserved for the upper classes. But even then, the theory often outran reality. In the Hundred Years War, the English victories in France were often won by lower class long bowmen (archers) who mowed down the mounted horsemen of the French nobility. Of course, all of this goes far beyond the era that Harper was researching for his book.

Other Nuggets

In addition to their other failures to appreciate Stephen Harper, few in the mainstream media have been willing to recognize that Canada’s 22nd prime minister had a well-developed sense of humour. Harper’s hockey book is filled with a number of other fascinating nuggets, which may or may not have relevance for the present day:

            · Most early games were played on natural ice, with the result that championship games in the spring were frequently postponed or played on slushy ice.

            · Early hockey games were more violent than current games, with brawls sometimes even involving fans and officials.

            ·  Professionalism in hockey took root in the US, the Canadian West, Quebec, and northern Ontario before it finally gained a strong presence in southern Ontario. (Those places were less tied to upper class British tradition.) 

            · It was the professional leagues that created the modern game out of something quite different. For instance, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (in which all teams were owned by the Patrick family) established 22 rules that are now standard in the National Hockey League and other leagues. The original game had seven players per side, few substitutions, no red and blue lines, and no forward passing.

            · The first professional players were itinerant, sometimes moving from team to team and league to league several times in the same season. Few of them married or had children.

            · Within a year of the founding of the National Hockey Association, competition for players led to exorbitant salaries, complaints by owners that they were losing money, and attempts to establish a salary cap.

            · The first professional hockey team in Toronto, imaginatively named the Professionals, was formed to give Toronto a chance at finally winning the Stanley Cup, which had so far eluded the city. It didn’t work.

            · The National Hockey League was formed in 1917 in order to get Toronto and its troublesome owner out of the league. (This was accomplished by dissolving the National Hockey Association and reforming the league under a new name with most of the same teams.)

            · After winning the Stanley Cup in 1914, the Toronto Blue Shirts’ roster disintegrated. Many of the same players won the Stanley Cup again while playing for the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917.

            · Contrary to popular opinion, Vancouver has won a Stanley Cup, in 1915 with a team called the Millionaires.

            · The real and original Montreal Canadiens are the Toronto Maple Leafs. (The original franchise was sold and moved to Toronto.) The current Montreal Canadiens are actually the Haileybury Comets. (That franchise was moved to Montreal from a small mining town in northern Ontario.)


Another version of this article was earlier published in C2C Journal.

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The Harsh Winds of Winter

People in Eastern and Central Canada have no idea how greatly we suffer when winter strikes here in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

Take Sunday, for instance. We had a whole inch of blowing snow. This reduced visibility and created slippery conditions, causing a ten-car pileup and shutting down the Trans-Canada Highway. Here in this part of the country, we don’t have all the luxuries that people in the rest of Canada enjoy, such as snow tires, snowploughs, and road salt.

When we drove to church, we had to turn on the windshield wipers AND the rear window defroster.

The snow was followed by strong outflow winds from the BC Interior that gusted up to 40 kilometres per hour. This dropped temperatures to minus 8 Celsius with a windchill of minus 18!!

This morning, I had to get all bundled up in a coat, hat, and gloves to go out and shovel the driveway—only to find that the wind had already blown all the snow off the driveway. What a waste of time!

To top it off, I had to walk almost fifty feet down the street to recover my blue bag full of recycling, which had blown away.

Since hummingbirds live here year-round, we have two hummingbird feeders. Today, we have had to swap them out every two hours because the sugar water kept freezing. This is unprecedented.

And the cold has probably caused damage to some of our early flowers and blossoms. It is the beginning of February, and spring should have arrived by now.

We are thinking of demanding that the federal government offer financial assistance to help us with this natural disaster. After all, if it weren’t for the government’s misguided efforts to fight global warming, we wouldn’t be suffering like this.   

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People often listen to and even sing songs without understanding what they are singing. A case in point is “God rest ye merry gentlemen.”

Why would the composer of this Christmas carol wish God to give rest to “merry gentlemen”? Is it that they were partying too much and are in need of rest? No.

Why would the composer of this Christmas carol wish God to give rest to “merry gentlemen”? The answer, of course, is that he wouldn’t.

Modern listeners may be confused by the archaic meaning of some words and the pattern of sentences.

“Merry” means joyful. It is related to our modern English word “mirth.”  

Often, we do not punctuate song lyrics. I don’t know why. Punctuation would help us understand. In this case, a comma should come after “merry” rather than before it. The gentlemen are not merry.

Something that is “at rest” is not in motion; it remains in one place. So the writer of the carol is asking God to help the gentlemen to remain merry.

The next line may also be confusing: “Let nothing you dismay.” The writer here is telling the gentlemen not to let anything cause them “dismay”; that is, he is telling them not to be worried or afraid of anything.

In modern language, we might phrase the first two lines of the carol this way, “Men (and women and children), cheer up! Don’t be afraid! Don’t worry!”

The carol writer was not addressing “merry gentlemen.” He was addressing people who were not merry and telling them that they should be. Why? Because “Christ, our Saviour was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” People have sinned and are thus in the power of Satan, the evil one. But people should be joyful because Jesus came to earth to save them from evil and from sin.

No wonder the carol writer said this is “tidings (news) of comfort and joy.” God comforts us when we are feeling fear and worry, and He gives us joy when we are not feeling merry because of our sin.

So, cheer up! Don’t be afraid! Don’t worry! Merry Christmas!

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Of Mice and Men

Abbotsford writer Jerry Raaf’s new novel is all about mice. The Mice in Sophie’s Mattress— Giuseppe, Patrizio,Angelo, and dozens of others—are living a happy existence in an old mattress in an old farmhouse. The house is safe and warm, and there is an abundance of food. All goes well until the farmer’s wife, Sophie Brunzhoffa, decides to buy a new mattress. The old mattress, with its resident rodents, is unceremoniously dumped at the back end of the farm, where life is much more difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous.

This novel is about mice (interspersed with some interesting insights into the lives of the humans who own the farm), but it is no more a children’s story than George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

It can perhaps be seen as an elaboration of the well-known Robbie Burns poem that “the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley” (often go wrong). By telling a story about mice, Raaf shows that people, like mice, are often ambushed by the bad things (and the good things) that happen to them as a result of powerful forces and movements from the larger world outside their peaceful little communities. These powerful forces are not only beyond their control but also beyond their understanding. The mice in Sophie’s mattress have no idea why disaster has befallen them. They only know that good times do not last forever and bad times come. Unable to control what happens, they can only control their own reactions to what happens, and they learn to face the vicissitudes of life with faithfulness, resilience, and self-sacrificing love.

Raaf is a good storyteller and an insightful observer of human nature. He draws the reader into the miniature world of mice and tells a story full of mystery, pain, folly and wisdom, failure and perseverance. He offers no easy answers, only an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of joy and suffering and the deep questions of life.

 The Mice in Sophie’s Mattress was published by Mill Lake Books, my publishing imprint.

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Manufactured Authoritativeness and Contrived Objectivity

I have noticed a disturbing trend in modern news media, particularly television news. It is a tendency to engage in something I would call “manufactured authoritativeness” or “contrived objectivity.” What I mean is the increasing use of statements such as the following in news stories.

Many news reports start with a statement such as “There is outrage over…” A careful analysis of the rest of the report often reveals that the “outrage” is mainly being expressed by the reporter or news anchor. This suggests that the reporter or news anchor is telling listeners to prejudge an event before they even hear what that event is. The reporter or news anchor is saying that the listeners should feel outrage over whatever it is that has happened. Of course, this means that the reporter or news anchor is not so much reporting the news as shaping and even making the news.

To be fair, reporters and news anchors might not be aware that they are doing this. They might simply assume that their own ideas are so obviously right that everyone—or at least “all right-thinking people”—will agree with them and be outraged.

Another often used statement in news reports is “There is a scandal…” “Scandal” is a vague word. It suggests that something very terrible has been done, so obviously terrible that it should be condemned outright without further thought or investigation. In fact, “scandal” implies that public opinion has already passed judgement on whatever has been done and so the details no longer matter. Those involved in a scandal have no recourse. Judgement has already been passed, the details don’t matter, and so there is no way for them to defend themselves. And yet the reporter and news anchor remain above reproach. They have not accused those involved of committing any specific crime or immoral action. They have simply reported a “scandal,” that there is a vague feeling among the public that something wrong has been done.

A similar term often used by news reporters and anchors is “controversial”—a person or an action or an idea is labelled “controversial.” This doesn’t actually really mean much of anything. If someone else is opposed to a person, action, or idea, then, by definition, there is a controversy. “Controversy” is defined in the dictionary as “a discussion marked by the expression of opposing views”—from Latin words meaning “turned against.” By that definition, it is hard to imagine a person, action or idea that is not controversial. However, by labelling one person, action, or idea “controversial,” the reporter or news anchor is implying that the “controversy” is the fault of the person, action, or idea so labelled. Strangely, the opposing people, actions, and ideas are not labelled “controversial” even though the first person, action, or idea is opposed to them. The reporter or news anchor is telling listeners which people, actions, and ideas are wrong. And, of course, this means that the reporters and news anchors, their actions, and their ideas are right.

Sometimes news reporters and anchors are more straightforward. They say, “There is growing opposition to…” To prove it, they have done “investigative reporting,” gone looking, and found somebody who is opposed to whatever the story is about. By “growing,” what the reporter or news anchor really means is that he or she is using his or her position to try to increase the opposition.

Another frequently used phrase is “There is great anticipation/excitement for Joe Flibbertymus’s new album/movie/book/song/TV show.”  What the reporter or news anchor really means is, “I have great excitement/anticipation for Joe Flibbetymus’s new work.”

Something similar happens when the news reports that someone or something is “being praised.” Indeed that person or thing is being praised—by the reporter or news anchor.

Finally, there is the phrase, “There is a lot of media buzz about…” Reporters and news anchors report this as if “the media” was something different from them. They are really reporting about themselves. If they were honest, they would say, “We in the media are buzzing about…”

One of the reasons I have noticed all of this is that my ideas are often different from those of many reporters and news anchors. Listening to the news reports, I realize that I am not outraged, I am not opposed, but I am controversial. And I have never heard of Joe Flibbertymus.

It all reminds me of some words of wisdom spoken by that great Canadian philosopher Red Green, who said that things were better in the past: “In the old days, Walter Cronkite told us what happened. He didn’t tell us what to think about it.”

Personally, I was inoculated against such nonsense a long time ago. When I was in university, a fellow student (cynical, opportunistic, or manipulative, take your pick) explained how to work the academic system: “If you want to state something for which you have no evidence, just cite anonymous sources. Say ‘Research indicates…’ or ‘Studies show…’ or ‘Statistics demonstrate…’ If you say it with enough confidence and conviction, few people will question what you say, no matter how dubious your assertion.”

I guess many reporters and news anchors went to the same school. It is not a school I would recommend.