Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stupid To The Last Drop

When I first learned about Stupid to The Last Drop, by William Marsden, I knew that I had to read it. Not only did it relate to the oil and gas industry, it specifically focused on part of Canada. And even better, it was about Alberta, a province where I work every summer. In fact, I work in the oil fields (although I work for forestry companies, not for the energy industry). And saying that I work in “the oil fields” is probably misleading or non-instructive, since just about the entire province qualifies for this descriptor.

The product description for this book gives you a good idea of what it’s all about: “In its desperate search for oil and gas riches, Alberta is destroying itself. As the world teeters on the edge of catastrophic climate change, Alberta plunges ahead with uncontrolled development of its fossil fuels, levelling its northern Boreal forest to get at the oil sands, and carpet-bombing its southern half with tens of thousands of gas wells. In so doing, it is running out of water, destroying its range land, wiping out its forests and wildlife and spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adding to global warming at a rate that is unrivalled in Canada or almost anywhere else in the world. It’s digging, drilling and blasting its way to oblivion, becoming the ultimate symbol of Canada’s – and the world’s – pathological will to self-destruct.” Well, at least there is no misunderstanding of the author’s opinion about what’s happening in Alberta.

This book is not really focused on peak oil issues, although it touches on them. Rather, it is more written as a hard look at the current state of the industry, and mismanagement of the existing resources. The book has several separate sections which didn’t necessarily flow into one another, but which rather should be looked at as separate aspects of Alberta’s past and current history:

Thermonuclear Oil Extraction – believe it or not, in the late 1950’s, geologist Manley Natland proposed a plan to extract oil from the sands by detonating nuclear bombs under the sands, allowing them to collapse and collect into a spherical reservoirs, for easier extraction. Ironically, the science behind the plan was quite sound, although Natland was fairly dismissive of the consequences of radiation. The proposal was almost carried through, with the US government selling a test nuclear device to a Canadian company, and the federal and provincial government appeare to endorse the experiment until Diefenbaker’s Conservative government turned the tables by banning nuclear testing on Canadian soil.

The Importance Of The Oil Sands – the Canadian/US energy relationship is discussed, and a number of external international implications are brought into light, in an effort to explain the importance of Canada’s supplies of oil and natural gas. The book makes clear the value of oil to the United States, and talks about NAFTA and GATT implications.

Provincial Politics In Oil – a few chapters are devoted to Jeff Tonkin and a slew of Alberta O&G industry scandals including Stampeder Energy, Westar Petroleum, and Big Bear Exploration. I generally found these chapters to be pretty irrelevant and boring.

Reserve Depletion – everyone knows that fossil fuels will run out someday. Former Geological Survey of Canada geologist has speculated that Canada’s natural gas reserves could run out by 2014, if not earlier. “We have to drill an increasing number of gas wells just to keep up with demand. In 1996 we drilled four thousand productive wells to get 15.7 billion cubic feet per day of gas. By 2001 we were drilling 10,757 wells to get 17.4 billion cubic feet per day. These drilling figures have continued to rise. In 2005 we drilled fifteen thousand wells to get 17 billion cubic feet per day. Coal Bed Methane, which is another form of natural gas, was supposed to be the savior … [Hughes] came out with figures that showed recoverable gas was … enough to replenish our reserves for maybe another eight years at most.” This section made me want to re-read “High Noon For Natural Gas.”

Fort McMurray – there is all sorts of discussion about “Fort Mac” and the municipality of Wood Buffalo. Fort McMurray has suffered immensely with the problems that face any boom town with a rapidly expanding population and an inability to develop supporting infrastructure in a timely manner. What surprised me was the relatively low financial support levels that O&G companies in the area provide to the municipality. I would have thought that they would want to contribute a lot more funding to improving the city, because of the dividends that it would pay off in managing their work forces more effectively.

Contamination Of The Environment – there are several chapters devoted to groundwater contamination, the deleterious effects of drilling and “frac’ing” wells, and the general environmental destruction that the O&G industry is causing. Specific references have been made to the Rosebud River Valley’s water well contamination problems (water so saturated in combustible chemicals and gases that it will support combustion, right out of household taps), and Wiebo Ludwig, the “oil patch terrorist” who bombed sour gas wells in 1998 due to his belief that they were harming his family.

All in all, the subjects are fairly disjointed, but appropriately, the book has been segmented somewhat into different sections. Being able to identify with a large number of the locations discussed, and the “grass roots” implications of the problems identified, I found this book to be a pretty interesting personal read. However, the book doesn’t seem to have any real editorial “conclusion” to it. At the end of the day, I got less of a sense of “so much for a sustainable future” and more of a sense that “you can’t mess with oil & gas.” I think the book would have benefited from a final chapter that discussed how readers or Albertans could take specific steps to improve the future of the province. Nonetheless, I was glad that I took the time to read it, and I did learn quite a bit in doing so.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Using A Seatbelt

I drive around quite a bit. Between my various jobs, I probably rack up about fifty thousand kilometers a year. Not nearly as much as a full-time truck driver, but it adds up. In my lifetime, I’ve definitely driven more than a million kilometers. And I’m quite proud to say that until yesterday, my driver’s abstract was completely clean and free of tickets or violations or accidents.

I’m a pretty big supporter of the use of seatbelts. The simple fact is that they frequently save peoples’ lives in major accidents, and they also prevent a lot of injuries in minor fender-benders. In my job supervising the camp of tree planters, I have about ten to twelve trucks on the road any given summer, driven predominantly by young males in their early twenties, driving large pickups on dangerous dirt logging roads. It’s a recipe for disaster. I try to force all of my employees to wear belts all the time, because the odds are that some of these vehicles will get into accidents. Over the years, my camp has completely written off about nine trucks. Several of my employees have been killed, although our track record has improved greatly in the past ten years or so. But even this summer, we had a roll-over for the first time in over a decade. Luckily, all five occupants of the truck were wearing their seatbelts, and all five got out without a scratch.

Anyway, last March, I got a ticket in Sackville for not wearing a seatbelt. It was a strange set of circumstances (I’ll explain in a minute). Since I was working out west all summer, my court date wasn’t until yesterday. I wanted to fight the ticket. When I got to court, the crown prosecutor suggested that I plead guilty. He said that if I did that, I could probably get out of the fine completely although the ticket would still go on my driving record. He also said that if I did contest the charge, the judge would have to impose a minimum fine but could alternatively charge a higher fine at her discretion (seems reasonable, as it probably would cover court costs). But I’m stubborn, so I decided that the principles were more important than the money.

I got up on the stand and told the judge what happened. I had been driving at the time (past the RCMP station, ironically) and stopped at the stop sign at the end of that street. My cell phone started to ring, while it was in my jeans pocket. I had my belt on. I looked in the rear-view mirror and there was nobody behind me, and since the car was stopped, I figured that I could answer it. I took my seatbelt off (partly) so I could dig my phone out of my pocket. As I was about to answer it, an RCMP cruiser drove past me around the corner. I had heard something in the news about it being illegal to use a cell in a vehicle, or that such a law was on the verge of going into effect, so I got worried and put the phone back down so the officer wouldn’t see me and give me a ticket. She drove by, then I put my belt back on, then started driving again.

A minute later, I got pulled over. The officer had turned around and chased me down (well, it was only about a block and a half away). I figured that I was either in trouble for the cell phone or maybe my registration stickers were expired. I was a bit startled when she said that she was pulling me over for the seatbelt, but of course, it immediately made sense. So off to court I went.

The judge found me guilty, despite the circumstances. I wasn’t really surprised, but as I said, I had to fight it on the principle of the matter. The judge reminded me that she could have fined me a higher amount, but graciously kept it at the minimum. She appeared to be a bit sorry about the matter. The RCMP officer also appeared to be a bit embarrassed, and had been extremely polite when she was on the stand. I didn’t really care about the fine ($172.50) but I was frustrated that I still got the points assigned against my license.

So much for the clean driving record. I now feel like a criminal. I guess that the moral of the story is that you should always wear your selt belt. And of course, don’t answer your cell phones while you’re in a vehicle.

PS: If any of the employees from the Town of Sackville happen to read this, please register my disapproval of the large tree at the west end of Union Street, which makes it almost impossible for drivers to see traffic coming from the north end of Salem. Somebody should cut that tree down. If I had been able to see the traffic coming more than twenty feet away, I probably would not have gotten this ticket. Half of the people in town hate that tree because it blocks the view of the road.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Lehman Brothers in Bankruptcy Protection

A year ago, there was an unobtrusive item in the news about the Bear Sterns mortgage hedge fund crisis. I wrote about that when it first happened, because although it didn't make the major news at the time, it was something that conspiracy theorists quickly jumped upon as the "straw that would break the camel's back" and finally expose the underlying weaknesses of the US financial system. Little did I know just how right they were.

Last week, the US government intervened to prop up Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two mortgage giants who hold almost half of the mortgages in the United States. Quite simply, the government could not allow them to fail.

A few hours ago, Lehman Brothers filed for Bankruptcy Protection in New York. The global financial implications of this are staggering. Lehman is a giant - a firm that is more than 150 years old, and an integral part of Wall Street. The company recently listed its assets as being worth almost $700 billion dollars. Yes, that's billion with a Big B, not million. Compare that to the assets of something like MicroSoft - about $72 billion. Yes, they are different types of companies and assets, but you get the picture. Lehman is/was Big League.

Then, shortly after that bombshell, another press release just notified the world that the Bank of America, after failing to come to a deal to rescue Lehman (as many had hoped), is going to buy Merrill Lynch (another Goliath) in a deal valued at $50 billion. There is little doubt that today, September 15th, is going to be one of the most gut-wrenching days in history for global financiers.

On a positive note, the Federal Reserve is taking extraordinary measures to try to calm markets. They have been wary of intervening too directly, after they got involved in the Bear Sterns mess and were highly criticized. But they are taking behind-the-scenes steps to steady the markets, through changes in debt collateralization rules. But even so, I doubt that they can have as much of an impact as they would like. Today is a holiday in Asia, so the Asian markets are closed, but Europe opens shortly, and when Wall Street opens, some financial analysts are predicting a bloodbath. A lot of people might shrug and say, "Who cares?" but the bottom line is that the fallout from this weekend's events will send ripples through the global economy for months and possibly years to come.

And don't think that this is the end of it. More American banks are going to fail in the next year. The economy will get worse. With the run-up to the American presidential election in November, chances are that the economy will enjoy a temporary two-month "grace period" where the shocks aren't as bad as they could have been, but 2009 looks like it could be a very ugly year. We'll see large jumps in businesses scaling back operations or folding, large jumps in unemployment, and rapidly rising food and gas prices at the same time to deal a double-blow to everyone. The worsening American debt crisis is reaching a global tipping point. It's not just mortgages and energy, it's the entire financial system that is not-so-slowly collapsing. As I've said before, America is an empire in steep decline. As Ernest Hemingway said in 1932, ""The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists."

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but brace yourselves ...

ETA, 15 hours later: The Dow Jones dropped over 500 points today (biggest point drop since 9/11), the TSX dropped over 500 points today, and other markets around the world are also reeling. In the US, my bet is that Washington Mutual will be the next giant to fall.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Google Turns Ten

Ten years ago today, Google was incorporated as a company. At the time, it didn't appear to have much for assets: a $100,000 bank account, four computers, and the ingenuity of its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. However, since then, Google has gone into the history books as being the fastest growing company in history (taking in $20 billion in revenue this year).

Google's search engine has always been the core product for the company, but as any computer geeks know, Google has expanded into many other niches – Adwords/Adsense advertising, GIS offerings with Google Earth and Google Maps, the purchase of YouTube, free Gmail email accounts for the world, and hundreds of other examples. In fact, Google has become so ubiquitous that it has become the de facto standard for people trying to check if their internet connections are working. If Google doesn't come up, the internet must not be working.

However, it isn't what Google has accomplished in the past that is important, it's what it will accomplish in the future. Management at Google have some pretty lofty goals:
- Digitizing copies of all of the world's books.
- Further improvements to its search engine, so it can fully understand questions in "plain human language."
- Providing software to businesses over the internet.
- Fully extending their data platforms and applications to cell and other mobile devices.
- Leading the change from fossil fuel reliance to alternative energy sources (this one seems to be a bit of a tangent, but do some research, and you'll be surprised at some of the investments that Google has made).

The company is not without a sense of humour. For its IPO several years ago, it picked a seemingly random number to value as its initial float - $2,718,281,828. Wall Street scratched their heads. Geeks everywhere instantly recognized this number as "e" – the complex number that represents the natural logarithm. And if you go to the Google Pranks page on Wikipedia, you can read about a lot of their other practical jokes and April Fool's Day pranks. One of my favourites was the fake "Google Romance" application in 2006. Their splash screen introduction was a classic: "Dating is a search problem. Solve it with Google Romance." And of course, another classic joke happened on April Fool's day this year, when Google rickrolled the world.

Happy Birthday, Google! And happy birthday to my nephew, Evan, who also turned ten on Friday.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The OhMiBod Vibrator

Watching the growth of the iPod over the past several years, it’s been amazing to see just how pervasively it has entered and affected many peoples’ lives. And speaking of “pervasive entry,” I’m going to introduce a neat little iPod accessory today that some girls have already heard of: the OhMiBod.

The OhMiBod is a vibrator that hooks up to your iPod. Turn on the music, and the unit pulses to the beat. What could be more simple? For the girls who enjoy music, and who also enjoy sex, this is definitely a winning combination.

I meant to write about this several months ago, but I got distracted at the time. However, the well-known vocalist Marcie emailed me last night about something else, and it reminded me of a certain OhMiBod commercial, since she did the vocals for the music in the commercial:

YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6oYmSG-ccs

If you want to buy the track that accompanies the commercial above, here’s what to search for:

Tyler Michaud feat Marcie – Dirty Girl (System Recordings, 2007).

Beatport has a package of five different remixes available – search for Tyler Michaud and then go through his library.

I’ve gotten some feedback from female friends of mine who use the OhMiBod. It’s been suggested that albums like Madonna and Nine Inch Nails are good. Music that has some variation is more interesting, so house or trance music with a straight four-four beat wouldn’t be that great. But some heavy drum ‘n’ bass music might be very stimulating. The volume of the iPod controls the strength of the vibrations. Music that has been heavily compressed with a hard limiter would have an almost constant output, so tracks that have been compressed that way wouldn’t be that great. Of course, if you aren’t intimately familiar with music production, you’d have no idea what that means, and it would be tricky to sum it up here so I won’t bother. I’ll just say that sticking to classic rock would provide much more variation than heavily over-produced dance music. As far as the product itself, one of my friends said, "It’s obviously very much a novelty vibrator, and does not really compare to the more 'complex' ones such as the Jack Rabbit, but in comparison to other vibrators, the power is great. The different pulses are very interesting - teasing perhaps."

And if this isn’t enough to intrigue you, check out the company’s new vibrator that attaches to your cell phone. It’s designed to add a whole new dimension to phone sex …

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The "Chrome" Browser

Today, Google made another bold move in the global computing scene. Google now has a free internet browser available to the public, called “Chrome.”

Want to download it? http://www.google.com/chrome

I was kind of curious to see how they set up the browser, although I didn’t really expect that I’d want to use it in the long term. Most of the time, I use MicroSoft’s Internet Explorer. After all, I work on several different computers in various locations, and IE is pretty common for any Windows-based machine. And it gets the job done in most cases. I also use FireFox occasionally, but that’s more for when I’m downloading larger files (because of Mozilla’s download manager). I don’t really like the bookmarks layout of FireFox, compared to IE’s favorites table, otherwise I would probably use it more often than IE.

But so far, my initial impressions of Chrome have been pretty positive. First of all, downloading and installing Chrome is fast – the whole process took well under two minutes on my first machine.

Chrome also has a very simple and clean interface. There are far less visible options than in Internet Explorer or FireFox. I think that quite a few options are fairly irrelevant anyway, so keeping the screen lean and clean is probably a positive move. And of course, think of Google’s search page – a simple search box on almost empty white space. Nobody has had better success with that approach. Keep it simple.

Under the hood, Chrome’s big advantage (especially for intense users) is that it loads pages many times faster than IE or FireFox. And for someone who surfs the web constantly, that is going to make a big difference. In fact, it will make a big difference for a lot of people from business users to casual surfers, not just for the internet junkies. Google (and other companies) have done a lot of studies and it has become very clear that when pages load faster, even if it is only by milliseconds, even casual users who can’t even really notice the difference will browse more frequently. And, lest you think that Google has become completely altruistic, remember that increased browsing often leads to increased placement of Google Adwords, since they have practically taken over the internet. Google is, after all, a $150 billion company – they do make money with some of their activities. The importance of fast page-loading also applies to searching, not just browsing, so it’s no surprise that Google would put such an emphasis on making sure that its browser is blindingly fast. Oh, and by the way, for the tech-savvy readers out there, Chrome is very JavaScript friendly, just like FireFox.

Perhaps Chrome’s biggest attraction is how Google has seamlessly integrated both the URL (address) bar and the search bar into a single search box called the “omni box.” I won’t lie – I really disliked the Google Toolbar, but mostly because it took away a line of screen space when I was browsing. So I’ve always avoided that add-on like the plague. However, the whole idea of being able to do your web searches without having to go to a bookmarked page (or having to type Google into the address bar) is quite appealing. And after playing around with the functionality of the omni bar for a few minutes, it certainly seems to work.

Of course, no matter how good or bad the browser turns out in the end, there will be mixed feelings about it. Some people will use it even if it isn’t that good, because they appreciate what Google is doing to make end-users’ computing experiences better. Some people will not use Chrome no matter how good it is, because “Google is evil and taking over the world.” Chrome will probably never take over the dominant market position from MicroSoft’s Internet Explorer, but I have no doubt that it will gain a devoted following pretty quickly.

So in short, I haven’t fully road-tested Chrome out yet, but my first impressions were pretty positive. Lean, clean, fast, and robust. Give it a shot …

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Short-Term Individual Changes To Reduce Energy Consumption

As a society, we have to make a lot of changes to mitigate the effects of energy depletion. However, a lot of people feel helpless when it comes to effecting change, because they feel that their actions won’t make a difference. However, it would be a mistake to think that. Above and beyond the role that societal changes play, people making individual changes in their consumption patterns can actually make a major difference. Just as conservation became a popular buzzword after the oil shocks in the early 1970’s, a large mass of people making changes in personal habits will possibly put off major declines in our standards of living by a few or several years. One should not underestimate the power of grassroots societal shifts.

Several people have emailed to ask me what they can do to try to help solve the problem on an individual level, or what I’m doing personally to help. So before I write a post talking about ways that our collective society should change, I’ve come up with a short list of five simple things that I’ve already done to change my personal habits, which each play a small part in reducing my overall energy footprint. These changes go beyond common-sense items like allowing your house to be cooler in the fall and winter (in northern climates), not standing in front of the fridge with the door open, and pledging not to buy a new car. And just so you know, I don’t have to do any of the things on this list: I just want to. It makes me feel like I’m contributing to the solution (partly) rather than being solely a part of the problem:

01. Compact fluorescent light bulbs: If you haven’t seen compact fluorescent bulbs yet, you will soon. They are becoming immensely popular. Yes, they may cost about four to six times as much as a regular incandescent light bulb, but they usually have a rated life that is five to ten times as long as an incandescent, so the cost equals out. Where you gain, however, lies in the fact that it only takes about one third or less electricity to power these bulbs compared to regular bulbs. Aside from a very small number of applications (ie. if you ‘need’ or prefer yellowish/incandescent light in a particular area, or if the bulb needs to support certain shapes of wire shades of a lamp cover), these bulbs are a sure-fire way to reduce your electrical bill.

02. Wash with cold water: I’m no fashion king, but when it comes to washing my clothing, I’m pretty sure that cold water does almost as good a job as hot water. And it uses far less electricity, because you don’t have to heat the water. Even whites can be washed in cold water – try it yourself.

03. Turn down your water heater: The way that a water heater works is that it keeps a large amount of water on hand at a certain temperature, let say around 150 degrees Fahrenheit. That water may sometimes come directly out your taps as original “hot water,” or it may be mixed slightly with cold water, depending on how you run your taps. If you find that the water coming out of the taps in your home is too hot to run your hands under, so you mix it with cold, or if you need to have a lot of cold mixed in with the hot to make your shower bearable, then your hot water heater is probably set higher than it needs to be. Turning it down by ten degrees or so probably won’t make your life uncomfortable, but over the course of the year, if you only have to keep the water ten degrees cooler than before, you’re saving a lot of electricity again. The only disclaimer I have about this task is that you shouldn’t play with the settings on your hot water heater if you aren’t comfortable working around electricity. Turning the temperature down is quite easy for an experienced handyman, but if you’re not that type of person, ask a friend who is comfortable to turn down the thermostat.

04. Walking to work more often: As a tree planter, I walk about fifteen to thirty kilometres per day, on average. I don`t know why I tend to get so lazy in the winter. Western civilization has made me decadent, but I can change. During the fall and winter, I can certainly take a ten-minute walk to work, rather than driving there. The less that I travel in the car, the better, and since most of my driving is in a very small radius around town, walking is quite often feasible. And for the days when I’m busy and running late, walking will just mean that I have to plan my time better. Besides, spending more time walking to work and from work will be healthy. Well, except maybe for my liver – if I`m walking home from work all the time, I`ll be able to have a couple drinks before I leave.

05. Refrain from using Christmas lighting: A lot of Canadians take great pride in decorating their houses with extensive Christmas lights in December. This will be a hard tradition for many to let go of, but the fact is that it burns a lot of unnecessary energy. If you hold off from putting the lights up this coming Christmas season, you’re effectively saying to your neighbours, “I’m doing my part to help conserve energy.” I`m not saying that you should refrain from having a decorated tree inside just yet (although that may also change in the future), but at least the outside lights can be sacrificed. If you’re not sure about this decision, look at your electric bill before you go digging out the Christmas lights this December.

You may find it interesting that only one of these specific five items, #4, deals with saving fuel or oil directly. The other four items deal with reducing electricity usage. But remember, a high proportion of the electricity generated in North America comes directly from power plants that consume oil or natural gas, so if you can minimize your electrical bill, you’re actually reducing the amount of oil and/or natural gas that you are consuming. And the best thing about all of these items (except for #4) is that it really takes NO effort or willpower to do these. All you have to do is make a decision one time, and you’ll continue to get the benefits again and again after that. Take the plunge – go out right now and make a list of five things that you`re going to do to save energy, and follow it. You can borrow from my list if you want.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Paperback Writer

When you meet someone new, and you've gotten to talk to them for a while, the conversation often turns to the subject of (for young adults) the rest of the family, including your parents and what they do. So to set the record straight for the curious, my parents are fairly normal. Mom had an arts-related career since she was an elementary school teacher, and she was also interested in writing. Dad, on the other hand, was more of the scientific type. His careers intertwined with several individual disciplines. He started out as a land surveyor with some engineering background, then went on to work for Lafarge Canada as a quarry manager and also a shipping terminal manager.

One day, a year or so ago, my mother called me on the phone. Luckily, my parents have both wholely embraced the use of email (after I initially accused at least one of them as being a Luddite). So phone calls are fairly irregular now, and I wasn't sure what merited this one. Anyway, mom got right to the point: "So, guess what? Your dad has a new career. Can you guess what it is?"

I couldn't.

Her reply, "He's writing romance novels."

I suspect that there was a long pause at this point, before I finally replied, "Pardon me, but can you repeat that?"

I had heard her clearly. He had decided to become a writer. And no, I could have guessed for months about his alleged new career, but I would never have guessed that.

His first novel, Tatamagouche Inheritance, is already out in print. Dad grew up in Tatamagouche (and I spent many summers playing on the farm there while I was growing up), so it seems like a fitting setting for his first novel. I have a backlog of about 200 books at my house, sitting by the bed, which I really wish I had time to read, so I haven't actually read his yet. However, some of my female friends have read excerpts from his book to me aloud, much to their own amusement. Maybe I'll have to keep several copies on hand just to give out. However, I somehow inwardly cringe at the thought of bringing someone home to "meet the parents" someday, and have her get all excited to meet this wonderful romance writer in person, and it's my own father.

Anyway, this book is now available from the Wild Rose Press, for anyone looking to pick up some summer reading material. It promises to be full of conflict and sexual tension, and he has more books on the way. You can also check out www.davidclark.ca for more background about him.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

GlobalStar Satellite Phones

While I’m supervising a bush camp of tree planters, I occasionally make use of a satellite phone for remote communications. These phones are invaluable for people working in extremely remote locations, where there is no cell or radio-phone coverage. Although they are a relatively new technology (I first saw them in widespread use in planting camps beginning about five years ago), their use has exploded in situations where the basic ability to communicate with the outside world is what matters, and where the cost is fairly irrelevant. For instance, as of last summer, GlobalStar (the provider that I’m familiar with) had over a quarter of a million phones in operation in over 120 countries around the world.

The way that the satellite phones work is quite simple. They are very similar to a cell phone in look and operation, but instead of getting a signal from a tower on a nearby mountaintop, the signal is transferred between the user and a satellite in low-earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit. GlobaStar has a network of 52 low Earth orbit satellites to provide coverage. The satellites fly about 1400 km above the earth, which in aeronautic terms is “fairly low.”

GlobalStar has a few problems, however. First of all, their satellites have to be close enough to an earth-based station (known as a gateway) to operate properly, so there are areas around the world where coverage does not exist. For instance, there are no gateways in remote areas of the ocean, because traffic in those areas is almost non-existent (except from passing ships). Therefore, even though the satellites fly over these areas, their phones don’t work there. Also, because the Globalstar satellites have an inclination of 52 degrees, they don’t provide coverage over the polar areas, which are “out of sight” of the satellites.

GlobalStar’s satellites were launched between 1998 and 2000, and were mostly expected to have a lifetime of seven to eight years. Accordingly, in 2005, some of the satellites started to be taken out of service. They are currently designing new satellites with much longer life expectancies, but I have no idea when they are being launched. I think they expected availability is around 2010, but I may stand to be corrected.

The big problem is that in early 2007, GlobalStar filed documents with the SEC in which they admitted to a problem with their S-band amplifiers (a critical part of the communications equipment) which would lead to a significant loss of operational capability by this year. In fact, I started having extreme difficulty in using my own satellite phone last summer. The company went so far as to issue the following statement last year: “Based on its most recent analysis, the Company now believes that, if the degradation of the S-band antenna amplifiers continues at the current rate or further accelerates, and if the Company is unsuccessful in developing additional technical solutions, the quality of two-way communications services will decline, and by some time in 2008 substantially all of the Company’s currently in-orbit satellites will cease to be able to support two-way communications services.” So in other words, the reliability of the GlobalStar network is highly questionable right now.

One of the other planting camps in my own company had a medical emergency today. An employee was found unconscious on a remote block by another member of her crew. She is quite fine this evening – the crew had the proper first aid personnel and gear on site to provide proper care, and a helicopter was called immediately to take her to the nearest hospital. However, the helicopter was summoned by satellite phone, using a GlobalStar phone. It worked well today, but we can’t count on the phones being reliable in all situations.

As a supervisor, I have to plan for safety every day, and have reliable methods of dealing with emergencies. My plans no longer rely on the assumption that my satellite phone will work. It’s funny – I spent fifteen years working in remote camps without a satellite phone, and never worried in the slightest. But now that I’ve become used to having it, I feel very uneasy knowing that the technology is no longer reliable.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sackville Fire in 2006

Two years ago, on the night that I returned to Sackville from my summer on the West Coast, there was a large fire in downtown Sackville, my hometown. The date was August 11th, 2006.

It started out fairly innocently. I had just arrived at the Pub minutes before, when someone came into the bar and said that they had just been kicked out of Ducky's because the fire alarm went off. This was (and still is) a fairly frequent occurrance. Everyone assumed that it was a false alarm. This was still fairly early in the evening, shortly after 9pm.

An hour later someone else come up to the Pub and reported that the building really was on fire. Fifteen minutes later, another call came in to tell us that it was a major fire. A couple of us decided to walk down to see what was happening, and I grabbed the video camera.

When I arrived, we immediately realized that this was definitely a major fire, it didn't take long to realize that the building would be destroyed. I stayed at the scene for about an hour, and the police officers, recognizing who I was, allowed me close enough to get some pretty good footage. A lot of my video footage was used on a couple of the regional news networks the following day.

Anyway, I also took some of the more interesting shots and put together a short video, about seven minutes long, and we put a copy of it online on the Pub website, so alumni and students from out-of-town could see what happened. The Pub website had over three thousand visitors in the following 24 hours as word got around. I was also happy that we were able to use the video later that same year in putting together a fundraising/awareness video for the Sackville Fire Department.

Anyway, I found a copy of the video yesterday, so I put it up on YouTube. A lot of students at MTA right now (everyone in first or second year) won't have ever seen what the downtown used to look like before half the block burned down. Here's a copy of the video:

Here's a direct link to the YouTube page, for Facebook readers who can't see the video as an embedded object:


Monday, February 11, 2008

Marketing Brilliance

As a marketing major in my undergrad, and also having taken several marketing courses when completing my MBA, I tend to analyze various marketing campaigns that I come across in the world around me. And I tend to appreciate unusual, intelligent, or subtle marketing ideas, because there aren't enough of them in the world today. I also tend to really shake my head at other marketing approaches. For instance, what about WalMart's plan to market products for the Chinese New Year, by proclaiming that the products were "authentic products for the Chinese New Year, made in China!" Um, someone can correct me here if I'm wrong, but isn't the majority of stuff sold by WalMart made in China already?

Anyway, I'm in Vancouver this afternoon, and I came across a billboard that was so creative and yet stunning in its simplicity that I didn't know whether to clap or shake my head in disbelief. The ad is for NEW Diamond Shreddies. I was always a big fan of Shreddies as a breakfast cereal, so I was intrigued by the "new" Shreddies. Well, as the photo below will attest, the difference with the new cereal is that they turned a Shreddie around when they took the photo, so it looks like a diamond rather than a square.

Just don't be disappointed if you find that they taste similar to the square ones.

And by the way, what is the proper spelling of Shreddies in the singular? Is it a Shreddie or a Shreddy?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Distortion in Windows Media Player

I'm moving the content of this post over to:


Have you ever listened to songs in Windows Media Player and found them to be distorted in places, so the sound quality is terrible? The same files may play perfectly in all other programs - I've had files that worked in WinAmp, RealPlayer, Quicktime, Nero, and a host of other programs with no problems, yet Windows Media Player would not handle them properly.

As it turns out, MicroSoft has a Creative PlayCenter MP3 decoder resident in the operating system which (in many but not all cases) is what causes the problem. Certain versions of Windows Media Player use this decoder, but there are compatibility problems. If you're not using that decoder file for whatever reason, you probably won't run into the distortion problems.

The simplest way to fix the problem, assuming that you're running on a Windows operating system, is to go down to your start menu on the bottom left side of the screen, click on it, then go into "search." You need to search your C: drive (or whatever drive your O/S resides on) and look for a file called "Ctmp3.acm" - if you can find that file, don't delete it, just rename it to "Ctmp3.bak" instead.

If you can't see the file extensions when you're doing searches (the default option on Windows, but one which I detest and disable immediately whenever I set up a new computer), I'll show you how to make your file extensions visible. Go to Windows Explorer, either through your Start menu or by holding down the "flying window" key (left of your left side alt key) and then pressing the letter "E" at the same time. Next, go into the Tools menu, and chose Folder Options in the drop-down Tools menu. In Folder options, click on the "View" tab. The seventh or eight option in that list usually says "hide extensions for known file types" and has a check beside it. Uncheck this, then click OK. Now you'll always be able to see file extensions in Windows Explorer and associated panels. If you're quite computer savvy, you might also want to set the other three options above and below that let you show hidden files, show O/S files, and display the full path name in the Title Bar (although this is only applicable if you're trying to conserve system resources by switching to Classic View, such as for intensive audio or video processing).

Anyway, now you know how to show file extensions, and how to fix the distortion problem on Windows Media Player. This may not be a problem on newer versions of Vista, but it certainly was on certain versions of WMP running on XP.

If you want a different approach to disabling the problem codec, here's another set of instructions:

The Creative Playcenter software rudely blocks the Windows MP3 codec. The following instructions show how to unblock it on Windows XP system. The instructions for other Windows versions are the same except the steps to get to the audio codec area from the control panel varies. Note that this will disable the MP3 capability of the Playcenter software. You can re-enable using the same steps or replace the Playcenter software.

1. Go to the Control Panel
2. Double click on "Sounds & Audio Devices"
3. Select the "Hardware" tab
4. Double-click on "Audio Codecs"
5. Select the "Properties" tab
6. Double-click on ctmp3.acm
7. Select "Do Not Use this Audio Codec"
8. Then click on the "Apply" button

Edit, a few years later:

Please note that there are a few posts online now from MicroSoft that might give you additional insight into this problem. Here are the links:

     answers.microsoft.com suggestion (June 2010)

     support.microsoft.com suggestion (September 2011)

Hopefully, between my own suggested solutions, and the comments that MicroSoft has brought forward, you'll be able to fix any issues that you might have.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hitchhiking Safety

I haven't posted on my regular blog for a while. Since the middle of November, I've been pretty involved with moving my restaurant, (see here for more details) which takes up almost every hour that I'm not at work at my job at the university. It's been pretty time-consuming, so my email-answering and other communication has been minimal during these past two months. However, right now I'm sitting in Seattle and waiting to fly home (I played a show here last night), so before I get back to work on some paperwork for the Pub, I thought I'd take a few minutes to write something here.

I get a lot of random ideas. When it comes to "problem solving," I've been told that I excel at lateral thinking. Sometimes these ideas are pretty crazy, sometimes they are fairly intelligent or creative (this is my own assessment). My blog has been a bit boring lately, so over the next few months, when I have time, I'm going to share a few of these ideas and let people reading here make their own opinions.

Today's idea came to me because I was thinking about the "Highway Of Tears." This is the name that some people use to refer to a section of highway in British Columbia, in particular, the section of the Yellowhead (Route 16) which runs from Prince Rupert to Prince George and eastward. Over the past decade, a number of women have disappeared from this highway - so far there are about ten documented cases which are assumed to relate to the highway, and of course, there may be more unreported cases. The theory is that someone is preying on hitch-hikers along that highway, targeting mostly women with Native backgrounds. However, one victim in particular (Nicole Hoar) raised the awareness surrounding this subject, at least for myself. Nicole was a tree-planter, and her disappearance brought national attention to the area. If you do a search on Google, you'll find more information about this situation.

Hitch-hiking is a fairly common practice for some people. It's an inexpensive way to get from place to place for people on a low budget, and you can meet some interesting people when doing it. I used to hitch-hike regularly between university and home before I got a car, and I also did it fairly often the first several years that I was tree-planting, when I had to deliver vehicles to a different town or city and then return to Prince George. However, in the past few decades, I think it has become less common, as people become aware of the danger of getting picked up by a psychopath. Who knows, it's probably safer than some other things that people do regularly, but "safer" doesn't mean "safe."

My idea is something that would make hitch-hiking "safer" than it is currently. I think someone (a not-for-profit institution of some sort, or maybe one of the big auto-makers) should set up a toll-free hotline for hitch-hikers, something like 1-800-HITCHHIKE, although of course the exact number would have to be picked carefully (that one has too many digits). The concept would be that if someone is hitch-hiking, as they are walking to the vehicle that picks them up, they call the toll-free number and leave a message on the hotline saying, "My name is XXX, I'm calling from about 10 miles east of Prince George on route 16, and I'm getting picked up by a red truck with BC license plate KC 7839. I'm heading East to Jasper."

That's it, that's all there is to my idea. There wouldn't have to be a detailed conversation. The hitch-hiker wouldn't have to call once they arrived at their destination to say, "I've made it safely" - that way, there is far less work for the operator, and many hitch-hikers would be too lazy to call once they had arrived at their destination. However, if the hitch-hiker goes missing, at least there would be a record somewhere of what might have happened. Now of course, this still doesn't prevent all problems. For instance, hitch-hikers are often low on money, which means that they probably are less likely to have a cell phone than many other people. However, so many people have cell phones these days that this is becoming less of an issue.

Anyway, if you happen to get into a car and the person turns to you and says, "Hi, I'm an axe murderer, and you're in deep trouble now," then you could turn to them and say, "So are you - I've just left a message with the Hitch-Hiker Hotline to tell them your license plate number, and if I don't make it to Jasper safely, they'll know where to start looking." Now of course, this still may not deter the axe murderer from cutting you up into tiny pieces and feeding you into a woodchipper, but if it DOES happen, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that he or she is more likely to be caught.

That's my idea for the day. In the meantime, be safe and take the bus.