Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Film Review “Everybody Flies”

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Trailer

I have not flown for nearly a year. My last trip was to New Orleans, in January last year. Looking back my usual pattern seems to be about 3 or 4 air trips a year, though in 2019 there was also only one flight as we had resolved to see more of our own province. But I have been on flights when there were odd smells in the cabin. I have not personally experienced a fume event but there are many.

The air in nearly every modern jet plane comes from the engines “bleed air”. The only exception is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner which has a separate, electric powered compressor for cabin air. The air is also recirculated through a HEPA filter which removes things like germs. Unfortunately it is not fine enough to remove smaller particles and that is where the trouble starts. Every jet engine needs lubricant and every can of that lubricant carries a health warning. It contains Tricresyl Phosphate a mixture of three isomeric organophosphate compounds. The “fume events” occur when the bleed air gets contaminated by the leaking lubricant. It can also be contaminated by other fluids. The aircraft industry has known about the issue since the 1950s and has always downplayed it.

Pilots and other aircrew, flying all the time, are much more likely to experience a fume event than passengers – but there are now records of large numbers of events affecting both. Former BA pilot Tristan Lorraine had to give up flying due to ill health and retrained as a filmmaker. “Everybody Flies” is his examination of the increasing amount of evidence that the air in most aircraft is nothing like as safe as the aircraft makers and airlines would have you believe. What he presents in his documentary are the first hand experiences of crew and passengers and their subsequent health issues. There is also quite a lot of independent research now and academics saying things like “if you don’t know what the safe level of exposure is, then it should be zero”. Captain Lorraine is also spokesman for the leading global organisation dealing with the issue of contaminated aircraft cabin air: The Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE).

The movie is gripping and the story has an eerie air of familiarity. The aviation industry is following the same playbook as the tobacco and asbestos industries used. Indeed one of the interviewees sounded like me. She had been trying to get her case into a courtroom. After 15 years she had to give up and declare bankruptcy. “They have far more money than I had” so they could spend more on delaying the process. Exactly the same message that lawyers gave me, more than once, when I felt I had a good case and a strong sense of injustice. The lawyers tended to agree that I had a strong case but “they have more money than you do.” Indeed one case was settled against me simply because that was cheaper than fighting it. There are also regulators. Usually government appointed bodies tasked with protecting the public and employees, but who have become entirely captive to the industry they are supposed to regulate. The National Energy Board protects the oil and gas industry and advances its interests, not those of society in general and certainly not the natural environment.

But the aviation industry also has to guard jealously its reputation for promoting safety. That has taken a big hit thanks to Boeing’s handling of the 737 MAX mess. Just as the automobile industry suffered from the VW cheating emissions systems – and the more recent Toyota scandal. Currently they are doing that by pretending that there is not a problem. This position is becoming untenable but has lasted 50+ years so far.

Everybody Flies” is “under consideration” for an Oscar and BAFTA. It already had a standing ovation at the Sundance Festival. Its release to theatres is delayed by COVID. I hope that it shows up on streaming services too. I feel very privileged to have been offered a review link – which, of course, I cannot share. But I do hope that you will get to see it soon. I also hope that you will click on the links I have provided for I am sure that there will be much more bafflegab and distraction before the industry as a whole moves towards acknowledging the problem and installing better air filters. Making a start on that now, while so many commercial aircraft are grounded makes a great deal of sense, but then that is never going to be the industry’s first concern.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 16, 2021 at 12:05 pm

Book Review: “Finding Our Niche”

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Okeover Arm Provincial Park
Okeover Arm Provincial Park, Lund, BC
my picture on Flickr
First Nations have been gathering oysters here for ages
They are delicious

There is a great deal of bad news around. In fact that is probably always true since conflict, drama, threats and warnings are what sell newspapers, or these days get clicks on links. And actually this review can include links to the author and his ideas, so I can refer you to those rather than rely on quotations from his text.

Right now most of the world is facing a pandemic. And one of the reasons that we are not coping with it well so far is that the people who make the decisions in our society are trying to keep the economy going no matter what impact that has on human mortality. Humans are naturally gregarious. Work is normally arranged around everyone being in the same place and communicating face to face. Yet at the same time the more we gather indoors, the less care we exercise on the distance we keep, the more we share the pleasures of eating, drinking and talking to each other, the more successful the virus becomes: spreading, mutating, infecting. Economy and human health are in conflict.

This has to some extent replaced coverage of the other great threat, not just to humanity but all life on earth. Global warming. In our province (BC) we have produced plans to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but we are actually trying to increase our production of them for export. We know we need the forests to store carbon from the atmosphere yet we are cutting them down faster than ever, especially the old growth forests which store the most carbon. Canada has declared a climate emergency but has just approved three more offshore drilling sites. We bought a pipeline, one that was clearly a future financial liability – otherwise it would not have been looking for a buyer. It is based on the least likely scenario, that more countries will want to buy diluted bitumen, when renewable energy producers like wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil fuels. Saving the planet conflicts with the economy too.

Clearly what we have been doing is not working. Add to that the near collapse of democracy in the country to the south of us, and it is no wonder we are pessimistic. So books that look at better ways of dealing with the place where we live should have a ready market.

The problem is that we have bought into a whole load of ideas which are either outright lies or at least wildly misleading. The Tragedy of the Commons, for instance is based on the misrepresentation of history. The commons were not over exploited by the overall greed of society in general, but rather the greed of the already wealthy and powerful. There were regulatory measures in place, managed by the community, to protect the commons for use by all, but a few had the ability to overturn that for their own benefit. Yes there are some very greedy, dangerous people, but we are not all like that nor do we behave like that whenever we get the chance. Terra Nullius was a lie too. America wasn’t fenced but that did not mean it was not owned by anybody. Just like Australia, or New Zealand, or the South Pacific Islands. There were lots of people there before “us” – Europeans. We didn’t actually discover anything (other than our own ignorance of their existence) and the people there were not savages.

In fact the societies that existed in those places were remarkably successful even if they did not adhere to our current preference for measuring GDP or possession of precious metals as measures of success. Philip Loring is an anthropoligst and ecologist. He is an academic at the University of Guelph, Ontario and this is his first book. It is based around the knowledge that people who have thrived in places for millennia have obviously understood their environment better than the people who have not learned the lessons that the industrial revolution ought to have taught us. We are also still in thrall to people like Thomas Hobbes, who coined the phrase “nasty, brutish and short” for life when it was in a state of nature. And Adam Smith who may hold the record as the most widely misunderstood economist of all time.

The ideas that Loring discusses are common to all indigenous peoples – all of whom have learned over very long periods of time what works in their places to make life better for everyone. We now know, thanks to academic research and archaeological evidence that the places Europeans colonised had been occupied by humans for thousands of years by people who were not just hunter gatherers, but who managed their resources carefully and adapted themselves and the places they occupied to be more productive. Many developed advanced civilisations, and there is also much to be learned in why they collapsed. But the people were still there after these collapses, and their lives were a great deal less stressful.

Indigenous knowledge is inextricable from place. And therefore is not only complex and interwoven with that place but also guarded by those people carefully. Actually the greatest loss of human knowledge might not be the loss of the library at Alexandria but the burning of all but ten of the books written by the ancient Maya. What Loring does is distill some of this knowledge into a remarkably small number of general principles. In fact his chapter headings are all single words. Keystone, Engineers, Pristine, Novel. There is very little of the usual verbosity of American academia. It is much more about storytelling. And he has some great stories. Some familiar – the clam terraces of the Salish Sea – and some new to me. The reasons the Hindus revere cows, for instance. And how life is possible in North Western Mexico even though the Americans have used up most of the water in the Colorado River.

I will also confess that I have a couple of difficulties which are not dealt with in the book. For a start, who gets to be regarded as an aboriginal? Obviously not me. I come from East London, England and my ancestors come from all over the place. Secondly the thing I learned about some of my ancestors is that they were fabulists. Great storytellers too, but the “histories” they told were far from the truth, though as all great myths and legends are, based on true events. So people who rely on oral histories, in my experience, have not been a reliable source – even though I am sure they were trying to pass on wisdom. Then there is the problem of how stories are guarded. There is one story that Loring says “is not mine to tell” – but then he does produce a precis of it.

Here is a story of mine. I was part of an environmental assessment of a proposed development on Vancouver Island. The development was opposed by the local First Nation, who hired a woman of European extraction to assist them in presenting their concerns. At one meeting she started to explain the use that the FN applied to part of the site, at which moment the head of that group objected. “That’s not your story to tell!” he said to her, angily and the meeting promptly broke up. It is difficult enough for me, with my background, to trust oral histories. It is even more difficult, I think, for aboriginal knowledge and wisdom to be passed along to people who need it, if the owners of those stories are not willing to share.

There are also three anecdotes in the book which illustrate the same point. He was trying to do something and someone else seemed to block him but without giving a reason. A bit like a teacher I heard of who told his student “You’ll figure it out” rather than actually explaining what he was talking about in a way that the student could understand.

But even so I recommend this book to you as it is thought provoking and it does carry a message that is hopeful and may help you feel a bit more optimistic. You can read more about the book here, and more about the author here.

Finding Our Niche: Toward a Restorative Human Ecology

by Phil Loring, Arrell Chair in Food, Policy, Society and Associate Professor of Geography at the Department of Geography and Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph.

Publisher: Fernwood Publishing

ISBN-10: 1773632876

ISBN-13: 978-1773632872

Available from wherever books are sold

Written by Stephen Rees

January 14, 2021 at 4:40 am

We don’t all feel the same.

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EVERYBODY ON EARTH
IS FEELING THE SAME
AS YOU
Sign seen at the North End of the Arbutus Greenway
January 3, 2021

“Everybody on Earth is feeling the same way as you” asserts a sign posted recently in the City of Vancouver.

When I saw that sign my first thought was “What makes you think that?” I suppose it must be some reference to the current pandemic. But my experience tells me that not all of us think the same way about the events we are living through. And this assertion seems to me to be quite easy to disprove.

I posted this image to Twitter and then added a number of thoughts of my own. I seem to have made a mess of the threading process and it got a bit derailed by a misunderstanding with a commenter, so I thought I could set matters straight here.

Here is a very far from comprehensive list of those who definitely are not feeling the same way as me:

There is a small group of highly privileged people who feel now is the time to travel to warmer climes.

There are a large number of people who are very anxious about when they will get the vaccine.

There are people who have made lots of money thanks to the pandemic.

There are people who feel it is really important to try and reverse the result of the last US presidential election

There are people who are utterly certain that there is a God, and that he is an old white male who prefers them over everyone else.

There are people who feel that by driving a Tesla and installing solar panels in their summer home that they have done more than enough to qualify as environmental activists.

There are people who are optimistic about the future of humanity on this planet.

There are people who are more concerned about ducks than you or me. “Foie gras is produced by force-feeding ducks”. [From an email I got from one of the petition generation sites.] No it’s geese actually.

I am pretty sure if I had conducted a survey of my Twitter readers I would have got a very mixed bag of “feelings” – and if you think you can add something feel free to comment below. One thing I know for certain is that everyone carries their own bag of hammers (credit Michael J Fox for that one) and their feelings are going to be very different on any subject you choose. I know of individuals right now whose feelings have very little to do with the pandemic but very much on their recent experiences. The loss of a mother to suicide. The surprising recovery of a husband not suffering from Covid but a very serious condition indeed: we thought that he was going to die and he is getting better.

There are also people who seem convinced that Covid won’t hurt them. The blithe certainty of a family we know that seems to think that many “bubbles” can overlap with no risk. The people who gathered in downtown Vancouver – and elsewhere – to protest the requirements to wear masks.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 4, 2021 at 11:40 am

Posted in Pandemic

Recent transport news items

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Mass Transit discusses the recent ransomware attacks on TransLink and STM (Montreal). They were preceded by a number of similar attacks on U.S. transit properties. TransLink is still rebuilding some of its online service affected by the ransomware attack.

Trains magazine commented on VIA’s 2020-2024 plan. VIA states the current iteration of The Canadian is unsustainable and lays the blame on “host railroad actions”. A return of tri-weekly service is not possible because VIA does not have enough equipment to support the 5 required consists.

The full VIA report (PDF) makes for depressing reading, particularly for western Canadians.  

The report links to the federal Transport Minister’s Mandate Letter in which VIA rates two mentions – one to work on high speed rail in the Toronto-Quebec City corridor (Windsor-Detroit no longer matters?) and the other to improve VIA travel to National Parks. There is not much here for the west, although the National Parks connection might be used to justify extending The Skeena back to Edmonton, over CN’s objections, of course..  

BC Transit and the Fraser Valley RD proposal (PDF of the Agenda go to page 103) to extend the Fraser Valley Express bus service (Chilliwack-Abbotsford-Langley) from Carvolth Exchange to Lougheed Town Centre SkyTrain station was put on hold due toCOVID. BC Transit has asked the FVRD to recommit to this proposal with a planned implementation in January 2022.


A synopsis from the Toronto Star of  what can happen (i.e. not much) to rapid transit plans when conflicting political and bureaucratic agendas overwhelm the  process.

Thanks to Rick Jelfs

Written by Stephen Rees

December 19, 2020 at 10:38 am

FACT CHECK “BC Transit retiring Victoria’s original double decker buses, were 1st in North America”

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BC Transit Dennis Trident Victoria BC 2007_0909
One of the buses to be retired: my picture

The Headline is taken from a CTV Vancouver Island news story which is just wrong.

The first paragraph tries to nuance the headline a bit but doesn’t get it right either. The twenty year old retiring buses were “reportedly the first double decker buses to ever be used in a North American public transit system.”

Actually there were double deckers running on 5th Avenue in New York City in 1912 – as a Google search will confirm.

Postcard of a double decker bus on 5th Avenue
A post card scan from flickr

Paul Bateson reminds me that Brampton Transit in Ontario had a double decker Leyland Olympian that entered service in March 1989.

Victoria, of course, has had double decker sightseeing buses – most retired from the UK – for many years

former NYC Atlantean Gray Line 406 Victoria BC 2007_0909
Sightseeing bus in Victoria formerly used in NYC: my image

Written by Stephen Rees

December 2, 2020 at 7:54 am

Posted in transit, Transportation

Driving on the Greenway

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Kia Sorrento HR0 70K

This photo was taken on Sunday November 29, 2020 at 11:52am

The location of the Christmas tree sales moved across the street to the north east corner of Arbutus and 8th Ave – where there is no parking. So people buying trees are now driving on the Greenway and parking on the grass.

The Van Connect app doesn’t have a way to report this issue.

ICBC responded “As this is a law enforcement matter, you’re best to consult with local police.”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 29, 2020 at 1:53 pm

Posted in cars, Transportation

Internet Images of Old Trains

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“You can now head over to a new collection at Flickr and search through an archive of 2.6 million public domain images, all extracted from books, magazines and newspapers published over a 500 year period. Eventually this archive will grow to 14.6 million images.”
source: Open Culture

So, of course, the first thing I did on reading that was search for train pictures, and hit gold with the first try.



Image from page 188 of “Electric trains” (1910)

Westinghouse Motor-Coach Complete.{Heysham Branch of the Midland Railway.}

View of Train consisting of Siemens Motor-Coach and Two Trailers.

Liverpool Overhead Railway 1884
LNWR coaches with District Railway Electric Locomotives 1884
 Ramsay Condensing Turbine Electric Locomotive 1910

Basically the point of this exercise is to remind me to go look here next time I need an image.



Written by Stephen Rees

October 16, 2020 at 4:19 pm

Canada Wind Energy

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Map of Canada showing wind turbine locations

The map above comes from Natural Resources Canada. What I think is very striking is the almost complete absence of wind turbines in BC. Given the weather that we experience the idea that we could not benefit from wind energy but have to rely on daft ideas like the large scale disaster at Site C and the larcenous deals signed with private sector run of the river pirates.

There is also a wind turbine data base which can be downloaded as a docx file

Written by Stephen Rees

October 13, 2020 at 9:46 am

Posted in energy

Tagged with

Book Review: “Words Whispered in Water”

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Just over a week ago I got an email from a PR flack that was headed “An activists’ deep dive into the destruction of Katrina, the culprits behind it, and what we can learn from it.” What really bugged me about the email was that it was malformatted. I couldn’t actually read it on my screen as the text didn’t fit – and I had to scroll sideways just to find out the most basic information. However, I was both intrigued and somewhat connected since I have actually been to New Orleans, twice. And, of course, in 2005 everybody had heard about Katrina. And the very curious way that the federal government seemed to have adopted to their responsibility. Not as as bad as the way they have – and are – treating Puerto Rico. But bad enough. I must admit in 2005 I was facing my own issues so my attention to Katrina and its aftermath faded – and during our visits I do not recall seeing or hearing much about it or the aftermath.

I have also had to work with engineers in my career, and have had cause to observe the way that engineering companies and individuals have to work in the intricate overlapping worlds of the consultants and the government agencies that employ them. The penalties for those who do not obey the largely unwritten rules and conventions that govern this relationship mean that those who offend can be cast into the outer darkness and be denied future employment, often on no more than a whim of an official or a rumor – the least reliable sources.

The decisions that were made by the American Army Corps of Engineers, charged with building the flood defences of New Orleans were quite remarkably difficult to determine – deliberately so – and there was extensive collusion between the very people who we rely on to look after all of us to try and create a narrative that shifted attention away to the local government officials. They were branded as inept or even corrupt when that was not the case, but the mainstream media and in particular the leading local newspaper, The Times-Picayune preferred to ignore what should have been fairly obvious. The Corps were responsible for building the levees. When the levees broke it was due to fundamental flaws in design. But the corps did not want to admit that and looked for a scapegoats who would have a hard time explaining that it was the Corps and not the local Levee Board. As the author herself puts it, when a building collapses you look at the architects and the builder not the janitor. But a story had been created to shift the blame to – of all people – environmental activists and local politicians.

Sandy Rosenthal was directly impacted by the disaster and she didn’t buy the story that the Corps, and the media, were peddling. Apart from anything else there are these permanent plaques on the levees, put up by the Corps, recording their appreciation of the work done by those charged with maintenance of the levees and the associated equipment over many years. But she was initially on her own. She created a website Levees.org with the aid of her son and WordPress – the people who provide the same service for this blog. The more she uncovered, the more questions she asked, the more she gathered supporters. But also the trolls who bedevil online activities of all sorts. And, it turns out, the PR company hired by the Corps – and some employees of the Corps itself – joined in by pretending to be concerned local private citizens – textbook astroturfing. There were also the inevitable opportunists who never let any crisis go to waste and who were busy grinding out their own preferred solutions – which would pay them generously.

We now know why the levees broke. And, thanks to the cover of the pressure for answers when everything in New Orleans was in chaos from people who did not have enough time or resources, an eventual revelation of the decisions and why they were so badly wrong. The book itself is 300 pages but a very quick read. There are 503 endnotes for those who want to dig deeper. Sadly there is no index. And for people who do not have detailed knowledge of the complex geography and local nomenclature maps would have been very welcome but there are none. Even so I heartily recommend it.

And if you think that somehow this is just a problem for a distant community with little in common with yours, understand that more than half the population live in places that depend on levees. And we all live on a planet where the climate is becoming much more hostile, and hurricanes much more common and far stronger than before.

PS  The word levee means “an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river”. In other posts in this blog about risk of flooding I have used the term dike “an embankment for controlling or holding back the waters of the sea or a river”. Yesterday we went for a walk along the west dike in Richmond – the one that faces onto the Salish Sea. It has not been raised at all despite the recent King Tides, and the very evident international refusal to reduce ghg emissions that are essential to slow the rising sea levels.

There is also this recent article https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/24/england-vital-flood-defences-almost-useless

Seen on my Twitter feed December 6, 2020

 

Written by Stephen Rees

September 24, 2020 at 8:13 pm

Research finds pervasive lobbying against climate change regulation by Canada’s oil & gas industry

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SHARE’s analysis shows fossil fuel companies across the sector participated in lobbying activities out of alignment with Paris Agreement climate goals.

September 16, 2020 –  The latest research from SHARE finds Canadian oil and gas companies are continuing to lobby for weaker climate regulations in the interest of short-term profits, while providing inadequate disclosure to investors.

The report Climate Lobbying in the Canadian Energy Sector: Investor Benchmark of Oversight and Disclosure analyzed 22 companies listed in the S&P/TSX Capped Energy Index (TTEN) on their climate lobbying disclosure and found that all have participated in lobbying activities, while none have disclosed their overall spending.

Because investors cannot protect their portfolios from the systemic nature of the climate crisis, they must rely on effective climate policy and regulation to mitigate those risks across the economy,” said SHARE CEO Kevin Thomas.

Even after the Canadian government adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015, parts of the Canadian oil & gas industry have actively lobbied policymakers to block, delay and weaken federal and provincial attempts to transition towards a low-carbon economy. 

“A failure to reach the Paris Agreement’s climate goals will result in massive costs that will ultimately be borne by investors and society as a whole,” said Sarah Couturier-Tanoh, Senior Shareholder Engagement and Policy Analyst at SHARE. “The millions of dollars spent on lobbying have delayed or undermined climate regulation, even though many oil and gas firms have publicly stated their commitment to tackling climate issues.”

The report identifies opportunities for investors to improve their due diligence of corporate lobbying and to engage with investee companies. It also provides companies with a reporting framework and points to better industry practice in Canada to help them improve their climate lobbying disclosure over time.

Read the full report here: https://share.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/SHARE_climate_lobbying_3-1.pdf

About SHARE (Shareholder Association for Research & Education)

SHARE mobilizes investor leadership for a sustainable, inclusive and productive economy. We do this by mobilizing our investor network and amplifying their voices in support of improved corporate sustainability practices and better rules and regulations that govern capital markets.

For more information on SHARE, visit: www.share.ca

The above is copied from a Press Release of unusually appropriate content. I am not sure I agree about being unable to protect your portfolio. Divestment from fossil fuel corporations seems a good place to start. Then looking for promising opportunities in renewables will probably enhance investment performance. Big fossil is not doing very well right now so it is both an ethical and profitable approach to dump your holdings in those 22 companies and get something better oriented to the future.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 17, 2020 at 11:06 am

Posted in Transportation

Tagged with ,