Thursday 28 February 2019

A Canadian scandal

Like many Canadians who follow politics I have been consumed by the bizarro world that Washington inhabits these days, Canadian politics being dull and boring in comparison. However we now have our very own home-grown scandal upon which to focus our attention.

First, some background. SNC-Lavalin is a large, international engineering firm based in Quebec. They have a history of dodgy business dealings and are currently either in court or under investigation for various offences including bribery of Libyan officials under the Gadhafi regime. Previously the company lobbied hard for a deferred prosecution agreement to be established in law (essentially a get out of jail free card) to protect it from further repercussions related to these offenses. Dutifully, and somewhat shadily, the Liberal government passed such a law a couple of years ago. (This kind of law is currently in place in the USA and Great Britain, so it’s not unique in that regard.)

SNC-Lavalin, facing these charges of corruption and fraud, have now been pushing hard for the federal government to use that deferred prosecution agreement option to allow it to avoid prosecution. But the auditor-general and her staff, having done their own research, felt the law didn’t apply in this case and proceeded with the legal process.

As the story develops, the Prime Minister, his key advisors, and some other Cabinet members, all subsequently applied unrelenting pressure upon the auditor-general, Jody-Wilson Raybould, (who was also the Minister of Justice) to go easy on SNC-Lavalin and give them the easy out. One of the main reasons proffered  was that damaging a Quebec-based company the size of SNC-Lavalin would hurt the electoral prospects of the governing Liberal party in the province.

But she refused, and insisted the legal action should continue.

For this she was demoted from her position as justice minister and shuffled off to a more junior position in Cabinet, leading to her subsequent resignation. (Effectively a constructive dismissal.)

After weeks of speculation, the details of this sordid mess came out yesterday in a she-said, they-said series of appearances before a parliamentary committee, public statements by various principal actors, tweets, re-tweets, accusations, rebuttals, and mud-slinging. (Sound familiar so far?)

Now Jody Wilson-Raybould, while accomplished, is likely no saint herself. (She is a politician, after all.) Though she is lauded by some as a hero for standing up against a white male dominated “system” (she is also Aboriginal) there is still a question as to whether her passionate defense of her position is more a matter of integrity or vengeance.

Probably some of both, but that doesn’t really matter.

What matters is the independence of the attorney-general and the scrupulous avoidance of any real or perceived political interference in the Canadian justice system. And that line has been clearly crossed in this instance. It was crossed when the Prime Minister and his acolytes (who do have the right and responsibility to lobby in support of their constituents) refused to take “no” for an answer and continued, and in fact escalated, the pressure on the auditor-general and her staff. And it was crossed again when the Prime Minister demoted her from a job which she was, reportedly, doing well to a lesser position, to be replaced by a, presumably, more agreeable Quebec minister.

Of course the opposition parties feel like it’s Christmas all over again and they’ve just been given the gift that keeps on giving. So this is sure to consume many, many more days of recriminations, counter charges, explanations, excuses, and personal attacks, not to mention charges of sexism and racism, sprayed around like water from a firehose.

All in all it smacks of the most Trumpian of politics. Sad.

Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould in sunnier times (Photo: Canadian Press)

Wednesday 27 February 2019

True believers

We hear about true believers in many contexts. Faith and politics are the two most common but there’s a third, and that’s technology.

The younger generation(s), those who Gerry Seinfeld once described as “our replacements”, have an inordinate (and unhealthy, in my opinion) belief in the infallibility of electronics. Not unlike the serfs of medieval times for whom the minutiae of daily life was controlled by the local priest, these young people are well and truly lost without an electronic device to provide guidance. And, like the serfs of yore, they rarely question or challenge their modern oracles.

We frequently read (on-line, of course) about drivers who follow their GPS into a swamp, or down a one-way street, the wrong way.

And we’ve all, at one time or another, been confronted by a cashier who is unable to do the most basic of math processes – providing change – when their cash system isn’t working for some reason.

Now, I love technology. I have worked with and on computers since 1966. I’ve owned personal computers since 1980. And if I’m not an early adopter I’ll at least be in the second wave of any new technology. But, really? This unquestioning faith in computers and the infallibility of the designers and programmers behind the scenes baffles me.

What brings this to mind is a recent discussion I had concerning a driver who couldn’t find their destination even though they had a GPS in their car. It seems that the default on the GPS unit was set to the shortest distance, which was via a road that was not maintained during the winter. So when Trixie (or whatever pet name the GPS was assigned) said “turn left” the driver, seeing nothing but a 6-foot high snow bank, continued on straight only to then hear the dreaded “recalculating” and instructions to make a u-turn. Only to be confronted with the same snow bank, on the other side now. It was a classic you-can’t-get-there-from-here scenario, resolved finally by a phone call (via cell phone, of course).

Fortunately someone was there to answer, otherwise the driver would never have known that there was another entrance a bit further along that was kept open during the winter. It just wasn’t Trixie’s preferred shortest route. And, unlike a human, she was not programmed to look at a physical map and work out an alternate route.

All of which is to say, when the zombie apocalypse happens we’ll have nothing to fear if we just hand out paper maps, because they’ll all blow their tiny minds trying to figure out where they are.

Sunday 24 February 2019

No. 2

Well I finally dragged the second 440LTD in from the shed. I decided to go with the '83 belt drive model as it seemed to be in the best and most complete condition. The belt is in good shape which is critical as replacements are near impossible to find. But if needs be I can swap it out for the chain drive off the '82. We’ll see.

A preliminary once-over shows it will need a few things like brakes, new bars, and cosmetic work - lots to do. But before investing any serious time or money I want to make sure it runs. So job 1 was to check out the carbs. Sure enough, one of the diaphragms was torn so it was back out to the shed to pull the carbs off bike no. 3. I was in luck; one of the diaphragms was still good (the second was also torn). This was good news for a number of reasons, not least of which is replacement throttle slides with diaphragm can run upwards of $150 each, used.

Cannibalized a few other carb parts and now I have a complete carb setup that seems in good shape.

The proof will be in the running, of course.

So now it’s time to put enough of the bike together to hopefully (fingers crossed) get it running. With the crappy weather forecast for the next few days perhaps I’ll have some good news in a week or so. Wish me luck.

Friday 22 February 2019

Has the time come for flying cars?

Some time ago I clicked on a link (no idea which one) in Facebook that put me on a list of recipients interested in human-sized drones and flying cars. And it’s now a rare day that goes by without some sponsored ad or video showcasing the latest technology. All of which got me thinking a bit about flying cars and whether they’d ever become a reality in my lifetime.

Flying cars have been predicted as being imminent for at least 50 years now with magazines such as Popular Science and Popular Mechanics leading the charge. For many reasons – cost and technology being but two – they have never really taken off (pun intended).

But that is now all changing, and quickly.

Multi-rotor drones of the type predicted in this 1967 issue are becoming commonplace as toys for hobbyists. They are also being used more and more in support of safety and security and business operations. Working prototypes have been developed that can transport a person some distance, limited only by the capacity of the battery power plant. And battery technology is also advancing at a rapid pace, further improving performance.

Another concern was the skill required to operate such a vehicle. With a majority of the population incapable of safe, focused use of a 4-wheeled motor vehicle operating in two dimensions, one can only imagine the chaos adding a third dimension would create. However, advances in AI for self driving cars will be the saviour here, taking control away from the lipstick-putting-on, texting, yelling-at-the-kids-in-the-back-seat, road-rage-inducing typical driver and putting it in the hands, so to speak, of computers. The only way these machines will fly is if they are capable of operating independently and without human interference.

The major roadblock will be the various well-entrenched bureaucracies such as the FAA and Transport Canada under whose authorities these vehicles would likely operate. Their starting positions will be that autonomous vehicles operating in shared airspace with regulated aircraft is a no-go from the outset. Which is not unreasonable as long as there’s a human behind the wheel/joy stick. But once the computers take charge of critical safety factors such as inter-vehicle clearances, etc., the doors will be well and truly opened for these types of vehicle to begin inhabiting the space above our heads.

Which will then lead to congestion, demands for runway space/landing zones, noise complaints….

Ah, progress.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Montana Canada?

My favourite news aggregator had these two items posted together this morning. One wonders what would happen if both were to occur.

Canada’s redneck province, Alberta, has decided that it’s not getting a fair shake from the Rest of Canada (ROC) leading some to call for separation. This is mainly because, for a variety of legitimate and not so legitimate reasons, initiatives to build more pipeline capacity to move crude oil out of Alberta to tidewater and/or the US have been stalled for years. There is some validity to this argument although there is also the point to be made that the oilcos have significantly increased production without the necessary delivery infrastructure in place, leading to over production and the inevitable downward price pressures that creates. Add to that the fact that successive provincial governments have been fiscally irresponsible, borderline criminal, by not making provisions for the typical boom-bust cycles of resource development and you have a population that feels hard done by, looking over the fence to our southern neighbour as being a more reasonable dance partner than the ROC.

The Montana petition is a slightly different proposition as the proposal is to sell the state to Canada for $1 trillion to help reduce the US national debt. The proposal has attracted interest from residents of the state for a variety of reasons: “Kristen Inbody, a columnist for the Great Falls Tribune in Montana, told CTV Regina she has spoken to a number of residents who listed legal marijuana, healthcare, better tea, and Tim Hortons as potential draws in Canada”.  All worthy objectives to be sure.

While neither proposal has a hope in hell of becoming reality – Alberta separation is the wet dream of a loud-mouthed minority and selling Montana is a joke – I can’t help but think of a scenario where both occur and a separate Alberta finds itself totally surrounded by Canada, with no access to anywhere, while the ROC simply bypasses the country-previously-known-as-Alberta by swinging a few miles to the south. One almost wishes it could happen.

Besides, Montana Canada has a nice ring to it.

Thursday 14 February 2019

What happens in Vegas...

Well, I’m now back from a four-day guys trip to Vegas. While a core group goes yearly for Superbowl weekend, I tag along only periodically. As one would expect there’s usually some golf involved, some drinking involved, some eating involved, and some gambling involved, and this year was no exception. What was the exception was the weather. It was, compared to previous years, dreadful. Freezing temperatures, cold winds, drizzle, and some hail made the golf memorable, even if for all the wrong reasons.  And having to bundle up in layers to go walkabout was not my idea of fun – even if the scantily-clad showgirls on the Strip still managed frozen smiles in hopes of getting tips for photos from parka-clad passersby.

And, as usual, there were the characters. The most memorable for me was the 60-year-old (she told us) female cabbie who entertained us with tales of her grandfather’s golf with Sam Snead, how her grandmother was a rich socialite from Pittsburgh. Married twice, subject to spousal abuse in both cases, divorced, she now has a room-mate (male) who spoils her dogs, softening them up to the extent that the police are no longer afraid to come to her house. Never prejudiced before coming to Las Vegas, she now hates pretty much everyone – and she wasn’t shy about articulating why. And Uber drivers “are the worst”. It was a 20-minute monologue, frequently punctuated by a smoker’s hack, that left one wondering if it was all just an act put on for the rubes.

Then there was a friend’s shuttle driver whose story was he hailed from South LA. A gangbanger gone straight (he says) after a couple of prison stints. He has 9 children by 9 different baby-mamas back in LA. He was married to a “crack whore” but that didn’t last once he found out she was into drugs. He is now remarried but is having trouble with his wife because he refuses to buy a tent for her homeless brother so he’ll have a place to sleep. “He can get a job and buy his own damned tent!” He doesn’t know how long this marriage will last. Perhaps he’ll soon need his own tent. And just what are the qualifications for driving a cab in Las Vegas anyway?

But the strip was as gaudy and glitzy as ever, the new Harley dealership was imposing, the casinos were rowdy, and the drink girls were omnipresent and generous, so it was a good time overall. And a nice break from the bone-chilling temperatures we’d been enjoying (?) in January. Now if only I had more than lint in my wallet when I got home...