Thursday, March 30, 2017

Executives of "cash-strapped" Bombardier get 50% pay rise

Not that much time has elapsed since I was reporting on the $1.3 billion gifted by the Canadian and Quebecois governments to the troubled aerospace company Bombardier Inc.
But here I am reading another article explaining how Bombardier's senior executives received a nearly 50% increase in their compensation last year.  So, at the same time as the company was laying off thousands of workers, pleading poverty and failing to deliver products on time, it saw fit to reward its top brass with unprecedented wealth: among others, board chairman Pierre Beaudoin raked in $5.2 million, and CEO Alain Bellemare earned $9.5 million; the top six earned a ridiculous $32.6 million between them.
And the justification for such largesse? Apparently, achieving profit and cash flow targets, securing orders for the C-series airplanes, the first flight of the Global 7000 business jet, and making significant progress on the company's plans to revive its fortunes.
All of which makes one wonder why the company needed a huge injection of public funds.

UPDATE
After a huge public outcry and substantial demonstrations outside their Montreal headquarters, Bombardier's CEO Alain Bellemare has announced that the increases that have so incensed people will be postponed. Actually, just over half of the proposed increases will be deferred  ("deferred", notice, not cancelled), so that the poor beleaguered execs of Bombardier will now have wait until 2020 for their 2016 bonuses.
It's too little, too late, of course, but hey, now no-one can accuse Bombardier of being crass and insensitive...

Fearless Girl only serves to improve Charging Bull

The recent addition of a little girl, staring with resolve and a measure of disapproval and confrontation at the Charging Bull on New York's Wall Street, has garnered a good deal of admiration and approbation since the installation of the new bronze statue. Most people see it as a welcome foil to the machismo and testosterone represented by the bull, which can itself be seen as a reflection of the prevailing state of affairs on Wall Street and in the financial industry as a whole.
However, not everyone is happy about it - when were they ever? The artist who created the bull, Arturo Di Modica, is livid. And you can kind of see his point: his career-defining work of art has been usurped, even over-shadowed, by an artistic (and perhaps commercial) decision over which he had no control. There again, his bull was originally plonked down in front of the New York Stock Exchange back in 1989 without any invitation, permission or license, installed under the cover of night as a kind of guerrilla art. Does he, then, retain ANY artist's rights?
The other criticism being leveled against the new addition, both by Di Modica and others, is that it is merely a thinly-veiled advertising campaign for State Street Global Advisors, the company that commissioned the Fearless Girl statue from artist Kristen Visbal. State Street Global Advisors is not known for its strong advocacy of women, numbering just 5 women among its leadership team of 28, and it has been facing its own PR challenges of late, with several high profile lawsuits directed against it. And, yes, the statue does indeed boast a small street-level plaque in the company's name. But corporate patronage of the arts is just the name of the game nowadays, just as historically patronage came from wealthy burghers, royalty and churchmen. And remember, Di Modica himself has profited greatly from his Wall Street Bull statue (which he once considered selling the for $5 million), and he has even sold replicas to other cities.
Certainly, Fearless Girl does indeed change the meaning and impact of Charging Bull, both as a work of art and as a symbol. But, as I see it, that's not nesessarily a bad thing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trump administration playing fast and loose with scientific data

And finally, the third in a string of consecutive posts on the Trump administration's War on the Environment, here is another depressing article about another plank of his campaign.
There is incontrovertible evidence that, in the few weeks since coming to power, important and irreplaceable data has been disappearing from government-controlled science databases and websites, particularly data concerned with climate change and the Arctic. Arctic researcher Victoria Hermann reports that she has seen valuable data disappear, almost before her very eyes. She has been receiving a deluge of invalid citation warnings as previously-available resources are mysteriously taken offline.
The alarm was sounded, in the weeks and months before Trump's inauguration, that websites and data on polluters, climate measurements, etc, needed to be backed up and copied in case they became "lost" in the new administration's overhauls. At the time, it sounded like paranoia, but apparently it was a good, even an essential, call, and most data has indeed been backed up, and alternative sources are usually available, albeit with a bit of extra sleuthing.
As Ms. Hermann points out, American environmentalists - and researchers throughout the world - were lucky enough (if that is the right phrase) to have learned a lesson from the last time something like this happened: just three years ago, the government of our very own Stephen Harper closed down no less than 11 Department of Fisheries and Oceans regional libraries, including the only Arctic centre. Reports and studies from over a century of research were lost overnight, a loss from which Arctic research has still not recovered.
Frankly, I find it amazing that such data is not copied and stored redundantly as a matter of course, and maybe now it will be. But imagine the panic this kind of scientific revisionism would strike into the hearts of committed environmentalists and scientists! Let's hope that nothing irreplaceable has been lost in this current round of right-wing over-zealousness.

Solar geoengineering may be Trump's favoured solution to climate change

As if Donald Trump's latest executive order, the so-called Energy Independence Executive Order (which I looked at in some detail in my last blog entry), were not enough, I have been reading about some of the other planks of his War on the Environment (or at least War on Environmentalism). One such is the issue of solar geoengineering, which, although not well advanced, or even well regarded, from a scientific point of view, is apparently firmly in the sights of the Trump administration.
Solar geoengineering is the idea that the atmosphere can be engineered (for example, by spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere, or cloud whitening) to reflect more sunlight back into space, thus theoretically controlling the increase in atmospheric temperatures that are occurring due to global warming. The idea has been around for decades, but Harvard professors David Keith and Frank Keutsch are making a lot of noise recently about a possible large-scale test in 2018 (their last planned test, back in 2012 had to be cancelled, but now they seem to think they are ready).
The Obama administration sensibly distanced itself from such rash, and potentially dangerous, large-scale manipulations of the Earth's ecosystems. Many scientists have warned that such tinkering could have catastrophic implications for the Earth's weather systems, including a high possibility of droughts and food supply threats for much of Asia, Africa and South America. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a moratorium on such geoengineering projects back in 2010, and reaffirmed that position just last year.
The USA never ratified that motion, though, and the current administration seems quite enthusiastic about the technology. In particular, David Schnare, a major player in Trump's scheme to turn the Environmental Protection Agency into an Environmental Destruction Agency, has strongly lobbied for a multi-phase geoengineering plan, involving real world testing within 18 months, followed by massive stratospheric spraying for up to a hundred years. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also a big fan, seeing in it a method of appearing to make a move on global warming while not impacting his beloved oil sector.
This administration just gets scarier and scarier.

Trump's anti-environment directive may not be quite as disastrous as it appears

As Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt's new (and now misnamed) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) start on the main thrust of their long-promised destabilization of the basis of America's environmental regulations, just what does his Energy Independence Executive Order on environmental regulation actually take aim at, and, given how impractical and unsuccessful many of his previous directives have been, how successful might this one be?
  • Roll back President Obama's Clear Power Plan - Obama's signature climate change policy was aimed at cutting emissions from US power plants to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. The policy has not yet come into force as the Washington DC Circuit Court is still considering various legal challenges to the drafting of the plan, the emissions targets it sets for the individual states, and whether it contravenes the 10th Amendment by "forcing" states to make cuts. Trump, nevertheless, wants to completely rewrite (and water down) the provisions of the plan, mainly to placate the coal lobby. This could take a long time, and it will still need to go through the court process, just as Obama's plan did, and any rewrite can expect to face strong legal challenges from environmental groups.
  • Reconsider carbon standards for new power plants - The EPA under President Obama also set stringent CO2 standards for the building of new power stations, standards that effectively make new coal power plants all but impossible without expensive carbon capture and sequestration measures (which make an already rocky economic case into a prohibitive one). Trump and Pruitt will not be able to avoid carbon standards entirely, but they will look to water them down, again in (rather forlorn) hope of making coal cost-effective again.
  • Reconsider regulations on methane emissions - Obama and the EPA's standards changes also looked to reduce emissions of methane (a major greenhouse gas) from oil and gas operations to 40% below 2012 levels by 2025. Trump et al will try to reduce that commitment, although they will have to justify any changes through the courts.
  • Reduce the estimate of the "social cost of carbon" - Under President Obama, a dozen or so federal agencies established a social cost, or effective price, of carbon, based on scientific modeling. In 2009, it set this cost at $36 a tonne, a value to be used in setting efficiency standards for appliances, etc, based on cost-benefit analyses. Mr. Trump will try to reduce this in any way possible, although once again he will face significant court challenges (and many federal agencies believe that it should actually be significantly higher).
  • Lift the moratorium on federal coal leasing - The Department of the Interior under President Obama stopped the government from leasing out federal lands with coal reserves buried below for commercial development until the program had been reviewed and evaluated. Trump wants to lift the moratorium, although it is far from clear that mining companies will actually be interested in such leases anyway, given the adverse economics of coal right now.
  • Do away with climate change guidance for federal NEPA reviews - Under President Obama, the Council on Environmental Quality issued guidelines on how federal agencies should incorporate climate implications into their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews. Trump's executive order will repeal the need to follow these guidelines and generally make the whole process much easier, although federal agencies will still need to carry out the environmental reviews, and the lack of guidance may in fact lead to more litigation, not less.
  • Rescind other Obama executive orders on climate change - These include the Climate Action Plan (laying out the country's overall goals on climate change), and orders to urge federal agencies to reduce their CO2 output, and to help communities reduce their own individual carbon footprint. There seems to be little to stop Trump from just cancelling these.
  • Instruct federal agencies to review any rules that might inhibit the development of domestic energy production from any source - Trump's justification for this is that it will promote "energy independence", but the agencies will be merely instructed to report their findings to the White House, and it is not clear what will happen then (although the Trump administration's favour of the coal, oil and gas industries is well known).
This is a large and potentially important executive order, although as noted above, the various changes are by no means slam dunks, and it is not even certain that Mr. Trump's own party will accept all of the changes he is proposing. Nor is it likely to affect the momentum towards renewable energy and carbon-responsible decision-making that has taken hold among American utilities, states and businesses. One recent study by the Rhodium Group suggests that, even if Trump's executive order were to be adopted wholesale, emissions may remain stable or even decrease slightly, thanks to market forces and other policies that Trump cannot affect. Of course, this would be nothing like the progress that would have been made under Obama's Climate Action Plan. But hopefully this will only be, at worst, a four year hiatus anyway.
Leaders throughout the world have expressed their disappointment with Trump's trajectory on climate change, and on the environment in general, with most seeing this latest directive as a major mis-step. With somebody's idea of a flair for the dramatic, Trump signed the order surrounded by a gaggle of photogenic coal miners, repeating his promise to "put our miners back to work". But industry experts say that ship has already sailed, and the coal industry is unlikely ever to be the powerhouse it once was. As the Washington Post points out, there are less than 70,000 workers in the coal industry today, including less than 16,000 of what might actually be called coal-miners (extraction workers or helpers, mining machine operators or earth drillers), although the strength of their lobby is grossly outsized compared to their employment statistics.
One thing the executive order has done, perhaps predictably, is to set business groups and environmental campaigners at each others' throats once again. Supporters say it will create thousands of new jobs in the coal, oil and gas industries; opponents say it will only create more jobs in the legal profession, as challenge after challenge are brought forward. Environmentalists should be wary of just jamming things up in the courts indefinitely, though, because that is partly what Trump wants - inaction on climate change. And the status quo will not get the USA to anywhere near its Paris climate deal commitments - which is also playing into Trump's hands.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Canadian Conservative leadership candidates an uninspiring bunch

I am not a Conservative, that much will be clear to anyone reading any of these blog posts. Neither am I a Liberal, other than in a very small-l kind of way (although I will admit to entertaining some hopes for the progressive platform of Justin Trudeau, before he started to lose his way). Nor, for that matter, do I support the NDP, at least not since Tom Mulcair decided to throw their traditional values under the bus in the pursuit (presumably) of populist votes. In a world where strategic voting was not needed, I would probably vote Green, if anything.
So, I am observing the ongoing d├ębacle of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership campaign with something like dispassion. But, boy, am I glad I'm not a Conservative. What a bunch they have, vying to lead the party and, potentially, the country! What an unedifying and depressing spectacle!
Where once there were fourteen candidates, we are now effectively down to four:
  • Kevin O'Leary, defiantly unilingual and expatriate reality TV personality and businessman, with no political experience and no personal charm, self-consciously copying Donald Trump almost note for note with his social media outbursts and his petulant allegations of unfairness.
  • Maxime Bernier, clearly not a Conservative at all but an unrepentant Libertarian, complete with plans for an extreme scaling back of government, and carrying with him the baggage of his earlier disgrace when he left sensitive government documents with his biker gang-related girlfriend.
  • Kellie Leitch, a firebrand populist also hoping to jump on the Trump bandwagon (despite evidence from the recent Dutch election that right-wing populism may no longer be the flavour of the month), with her stridently anti-immigration, nativist slant.
  • Andrew Scheer, perhaps the least offensive of the four and the favourite of the Conservative caucus, but lacking in star-power, personality and (perhaps) electability.
The race has already started to get nasty, with name-calling and allegations being bandied around, although still nothing like to the extent of the Trump nomination race. And now there are allegations of widespread fraud and vote-rigging, which O'Leary is determined to pin on Bernier, but which, in my opinion, seems much more likely to emanate from the O'Leary campaign itself.
All in all, not a pretty sight. Perhaps, I should be pleased to see so many apparently unelectable Conservatives, but then that's what we said about the American Republican Party a year ago. And look how that turned out.

UPDATE
It's looking like my initial suspicions about the vote-buying issue may well have been correct. A Brampton-based O'Leary official was probably responsible for fraudulently purchasing Conservative Party memberships using pre-paid VISA cards. O'Leary then tried to lay the blame his main competitor. If, like me,you thought O'Leary was sleazy, then your suspicions are more than confirmed.

Friday, March 17, 2017

US women's hockey team stay strong under pressure

Kudos to the U.S. women's hockey team as they don't even blink while pursuing their insistence on fair wages and support as the World Championships loom imminently.
The US women are the best and most successful hockey team in the world - sorry, Canada, but, in recent years at least, that's true - having won gold in six of the last eight world championships (including the last three), and a medal in every Olympics. And the annual IIHF Women's World Championship is the premier international competition in women's hockey.
The gutsy US women's team have selected this sensitive time to pursue a contract with USA Hockey that compensates them fairly. Currently, they are expected to train year round with only a nominal payment, except for a slightly better-paid six-month residency period in the run-up to the Olympics. Most have second, and even third, jobs to make ends meet, and even then they are expected to jet off to international games and a regular national team camp every few weeks, during which they lose those wages. They also get inequitable support for equipment, staff, meals, travel and publicity and, furthermore, they complain that the boys' National Team Development Program is much better funded than the girls' equivalent.
In protest at this inequitable and unfair treatment, they are willing to boycott the highest profile competition of the year. They have even spoken with possible replacements that USA Hockey might use in their place (such as the Under-18 and Under-22 teams, college hockey programs, and the National Women's Hockey League) and obtained their general support, to the extent that they are confident that those young players are unlikely to want to risk their potential welcomes on the national team by strike-breaking action.
USA Hockey has now upped the stakes and laid down a deadline for the women to commit to playing in the Worlds, but they remain steadfast in their determination and in their cause. Good for them!

UPDATE
USA Hockey blinked first in this game of chicken, and the national women's team struck a significant deal to address the inequitable treatment of girls' and women's programs in the USA.
Congratulations flooded in from little girls in small-town America, to the national men's team, to the unions representing the NHL, the NBA, the NFL and the MLB, to the US women's soccer team (which has had its own equity issues).
And, after all that, the USA faces off against Canada in the first game of the women's world hockey championship in just a couple of days, full of confidence and basking in the glow of almost universal approbation.

Injection device that does not use a needle

Well, how cool is that? They've invented an injection device that does not use a needle, just like on Star Trek (and every other science fiction movie you've ever seen).
It actually emits an ultra-thin stream of liquid which somehow enters the skin directly without the need to puncture it, and it is propelled by a powerful battery/electric motor that is able to inject even thick viscous liquids that are difficult with traditional needles.
The future is here already.