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

Archive for September 2020

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”

 

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 ,

The Social Dilemma

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You are using social media. WordPress is not mentioned in this movie. Facebook is. So are Twitter, Instagram, Google, …

The movie is a Netflix original.

I just posted this on Twitter

“I have just watched “The Social Dilemma” served to me by Netflix. (Netflix thinks I am someone else, btw.) I think you should watch it too. Because it deals with why social media – like Twitter – is a Real Problem. An existential problem.”

This is getting very post-modern very fast. But at one point during the movie I began to understand why it was so important for me to get off Facebook and Instagram.

I have the impression that I am probably controlling my social media consumption since I seldom accept what is offered to me. Except that I just wanted to watch something different and the last time we watched Netflix is came up with an interesting suggestion. The movie suggests you never accept another recommendation from YouTube.

I do not use Twitter through its webpage or its app, I use Tweetdeck. That changes how tweets get ranked. I just see a time series. No algorithm is deciding which tweets get priority. So it feels a lot more controllable.

I think that I understand what truth is and I have a pretty reliable bs meter. But using Facebook, bad actors has so managed to convince significant numbers of users of manifest falsehoods.

My suggestion is that if you have a Netflix account you watch the movie, because I would like to see the comments thread below start to fill with suggestions about what we can do to make sure the bad guys don’t win.

And since I have stopped worrying about Views on Flickr, I am also going to abandon any concerns I might have had about Favs.

I am now going to get my dopamine fix from a better source.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 14, 2020 at 9:28 pm

Posted in Transportation

Discounted Doctorow

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I was surprised and charmed to get an email from Cory Doctorow this morning. He had my email address since I wrote to him back in 2013 about an error I found in an ebook of his.

I am also authorised by his email to share its content with you. 



Tell your friends!  Social media is actually good for something,
every once in a while!

 

So I am going to share with you the opportunity to buy his latest audiobook for less than it will cost when it is published on October 13. 

Now I am going to overshare with you material that is about me – and you really want to read about this opportunity – but you can always scroll down now and come back later if you want. I don’t like audiobooks. I don’t listen to them. Or podcasts come to that. I don’t like my attention being monopolized any more. Which is odd because back in the day I was often entranced by radio – especially stories and drama. In fact for while I liked radio better than tv. When I first encountered “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, that was on radio. Now I like reading and  prefer old fashioned dead tree books, but put up with ebooks because sometimes they are free and occasionally more convenient than a real book. For instance in the old days when travelling. I haven’t been anywhere at all since January and don’t plan to go anywhere anytime soon. So when I got this offer I wasn’t sure that I was going to take this offer up.  

What Cory Doctorow has done is to start crowdfunding. And when I went to his page I found that there was a great more on offer than just one new audiobook

you can pre-order the ebook – and also buy the previous
ebooks and audiobooks (read by Wil Wheaton and Kirby Heyborne) – all DRM free, all free of license “agreements.”

The deal is: “You bought it, you own it, don’t violate copyright law and
we’re good.”

So to backtrack just a little, here is the deal that Cory offered which I am passing along:



Attack Surface – AKA Little Brother 3- is coming out in
5 weeks. I retained audio rights and produced an AMAZING edition that
Audible refuses to carry. You can pre-order the audiobook, ebook (and
previous volumes), DRM- and EULA-free.



https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/doctorow/attack-surface-audiobook-for-the-third-little-brother-book

That’s the summary, but the details matter. First: the book itself.
ATTACK SURFACE is a standalone Little Brother book about Masha, the
young woman from the start and end of the other two books; unlike
Marcus, who fights surveillance tech, Masha builds it.

Attack Surface is the story of how Masha has a long-overdue moral
reckoning with the way that her work has hurt people, something she
finally grapples with when she comes home to San Francisco.

Masha learns her childhood best friend is leading a BLM-style uprising –
and she’s being targeted by the same cyberweapons that Masha built to
hunt Iraqi insurgents and post-Soviet democracy movements.

I wrote Little Brother in 2006, it came out in 2008, and people tell me
it’s “prescient” because the digital human rights issues it grapples
with – high-tech authoritarianism and high-tech resistance – are so
present in our current world. But it’s not so much prescient as
OBSERVANT. I wrote Little Brother during the Bush administration’s
vicious, relentless, tech-driven war on human rights. Little Brother was
a bet that these would not get better on their own.

And it was a bet that tales of seizing the means of computation would
inspire people to take up digital arms of their own. It worked. Hundreds
of cryptographers, security experts, cyberlawyers, etc have told me that
Little Brother started them on their paths.

ATTACK SURFACE – a technothriller about racial injustice, police
brutality, high-tech turnkey totalitarianism, mass protests and mass
surveillance – was written between May 2016 and Nov 2018, before the
current uprisings and the tech worker walkouts.

But just as with Little Brother, the seeds of the current situation were
all around us in 2016, and if Little Brother inspired a cohort of
digital activists, I hope Attack Surface will give a much-needed push to
a group of techies (currently) on the wrong side of history.

As I learned from Little Brother, there is something powerful about
technologically rigorous thrillers about struggles for justice – stories
that marry excitement, praxis and ethics. Of all my career achievements,
the people I’ve reached this way matter the most.

 

 

So I am having so much fun trying to get this blog post to format properly thanks to WordPress imposing its new block system – where the old “classic” method is just another block.

What I can tell you is there is something mesmerising about watching this crowdfunder takeoff in front of your eyes. Click that kickstarter link to see how far he has got. Last time I looked it was four times the goal already with another 29 days to go.

And I started typing this before I had decided which of the offers I was going to choose. Ebooks of course. But just this one or all three? Hmmm.

I can tell you that a Doctorow book is all engrossing, hard to put down and gets under your skin. I also follow @doctorow on twitter – and there is also Boing Boing and Craphound – where you can also find all of this content too. And there is also pluralistic.net

Good luck Mr Doctorow – you deserve it!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2020 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Transportation

Stanley Park Survey

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I have copied below an email I received today. It is a reply to one I sent a while back as part of a campaign to retain a bike lane by reducing car capacity on a Stanley Park roadway.

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your earlier feedback. I will do all that I can to try to make the separated bike lane in Stanley Park permanent.

Can you take the survey about the issue at:

https://shapeyourcity.ca/stanley-park?tool=survey_tool#tool_tab

Also, if you are able to ask any friends or family who are supportive to take the survey, then that would be great.

Take care

John Irwin Vancouver Park Board Commissioner

I have not been in Stanley Park at all this year, so I do not qualify for this survey, but maybe you do. If so please take a moment to let them know your thoughts.

 

Written by Stephen Rees

September 6, 2020 at 4:28 pm

Posted in Transportation

Alberta might have one last oil boom.

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The marker which shows where the well was

Western Canada’s First Oil Well: Waterton Lakes, Alberta

 

The headline comes from The Globe and Mail.

The cause:

Analysts predict global oil demand could peak as soon as 2022. Even some big oil companies see peak demand by the 2030s.

But between then and now, in the mid-2020s, oil companies such as France’s Total forecast higher prices on a combination of steady demand and tighter supply.

This scenario, if it plays out, won’t mean $100 for a barrel of crude. But it would mean a profitable oil industry – and potentially quite profitable. Given that Alberta is among the biggest producers of oil in the world, this outlook could be very good news for the provincial treasury.

This annoyed me so much I found that I was writing a reply in my Plague Diary. Which will not be seen by anyone – at least not for a very long time. Perhaps they will have fun comparing the prediction with reality.

I cannot imagine that the provincial treasury will see all that much. Mostly because politicians do not have a long term focus. And this seems to apply in spades to Conservatives and Albertans. The early paragraphs of the editorial lists what happened in previous oil booms. My prediction is that while the mistakes may have some differences, the political instinct will be to devote any windfall to spending that will bring enough popularity to improve the chance of winning the next election. That is all the party in power thinks of. Yes, there are lots of good causes, and plenty of lobbyists. The ones that promise significant donations to party funds and other help to win elections will get the most favorable hearing. And the oil and gas lobby is still the biggest and most generous. While the statistics show Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction, at 16.12% of GDP, CAPP continues to claim “30% of all economic activity in the province” which is obviously not the case.  But most Albertans and nearly all of the politicians probably don’t see it that way.

What has been happening is that the oil and gas sector has been largely bought up by foreign investors. Large multinationals, most of whose profits get squirrelled away in places where there are no taxes. There is a huge overhang of environmental damage, most of which will remain for the public purse to repair long after the end of the age of oil and gas. I doubt that much will be spent on this in the short term unless there is some major catastrophe to concentrate minds. Some inspiring folk are converting abandoned well sites to  solar capture. But the amount of space that occupies compared to the huge swathes of wrecked boreal forest is tiny. And the first thing that a conservative thinks of when there is a “surplus” is tax cuts. Actually it is the only thing no matter what the state of the balance of revenues to spending – unless it is spending cuts to hurt those least capable of withstanding them.

Of course we all know what works and what doesn’t. Conservatives are not persuaded by evidence, they like stories, and they love the old stories. They keep on doing what they have always done even though the outcome is always the same too.

If oil prices rise so too will oil and gas production. Right now there is a glut and the places to store the surplus are at capacity. Note too that the higher prices are predicted by an oil company. Not exactly an unbiased source.

But we also know that Canada has not a hope of meeting its commitments to reduce ghg emissions – mostly because the Canadian government spends far more on propping up a dying industry instead of promoting the green alternative. “As part of its COVID-19 response, Canada’s government is spending $1.7 billion to clean up “orphan” and inactive oil and gas wells in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.  Industry should be footing the bill…” (source: Suzuki ibid

Many other governments are doing far more than Canada to promote sensible investments in renewables – and they are seeing good rates of return on those investments as well as moving in the right direction. I do not see a Jason Kenney government following that path – but maybe that will not survive long enough to see the predicted boom times.

More likely the predicted boom is unjustified optimism. Or downright lies – which is what I think that CAPP claim is.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 3, 2020 at 2:08 pm