Apr 22 2014

On Innovation in the Oil Sands

I don’t often post on the industries in which I work, but I felt this week like I should.  Outgoing Total E&P Canada president Jean-Michel Gires said at the end of 2012:

  • We are still too many mavericks around our own ideas.
  • saying we are the best in the world and we can develop technology by ourselves and we don’t need the other ones to do so, thank you very much.
  • is too much fragmentation and not yet enough of a cluster
  • Engaging smaller innovators is a particular challenge – garage inventors can change the world, but the oil sands, which spends money by the billion, has not traditionally paid enough attention to that potential resource. They could be playing a role if they were given a chance and we could have more appetite to develop further startups

Now I work well down the ladder from Mr. Gires in the industry (I am not with an oil company), but I see some of the things he sees.   First:

  1. There are too many at various levels of organizations who are “wedded” to a given technology or idea and they throw roadblocks at anything that questions their ideas.  Even when reason and logic show that the idea doesn’t make a lot of sense or that other options have better chances of success or improved economics it is nigh impossible to change their direction
  2. The industry lives in fear of failure, at any scale.  The fact is that the oilsands business didn’t get here by being risk averse or fearing new technology.  Successful people and businesses are not those that fail the least – it is those who are least afraid to fail.  If you are 5 for 5, that doesn’t mean you are better than 7 for 10, it means you were too safe and didn’t push your organization far enough.  Just because something “sort of works” or it’s not too bad doesn’t mean you should stick with it because you are afraid the next idea won’t work at all.  Remember that every time something doesn’t work we learn from it – the next technology or execution strategy isn’t invented from whole cloth and it has vast risks of failure.  Each step taken should try to account for all the things we’ve learned don’t work so well.   The tendency to fall back on what we did last time is dangerous and prevents improvements, whether they be technical, economic or environmental.  Yes, big failures are bad and risk needs to be managed carefully at that level – but small risks need not be avoided entirely or else you miss out on the opportunity to improve.
  3. The owner organizations have been bloated with teams who are not focused on the core business of those organizations – which should be operating facilities and learning what works and doesn’t work.  They should be piloting new technologies in their facilities to find the next step change in improving the operations.  They should get out of the business of executing capital projects.  There are firms who have specialized in that for over a century.  They should get out of the business of trying to invent technology themselves.  Let the equipment vendors, universities, and garage inventors do that.  Help fund them, but stop trying to to compete with them and don’t discount them just because you’ve never heard of them or they don’t have the educational or business pedigree.  The one area the oils companies should be involved with R&D is on the subsurface because you have the asset with which to experiment.  Work with the drilling community, downhole equipment suppliers and your own subsurface professionals to identify the best ways to get the oil out of the ground.
  4. Owner organizations also need to cut bureaucracy – they are often as difficult to navigate as the government.  The procedures that these firms have put in place to solve problems have often, like government, created a mess of unintended consequences that drive up manpower demands, costs of capital projects, costs of maintenance and drive down economic returns.  It has been said by many in the industry that many of these companies make money in spite of themselves.  I laugh whenever an environmentalist talks about the conspiracy inside oil companies to make money at the expense of everything else.  They spend a huge amount of time and money on the environmental and social issues (rightfully), but if they really put their minds to it I think they could make more money…

Apr 22 2014

George Brandis – another good thing from Australia!

I’m really starting to like some of the things I’m hearing out of our cousins down-under.  First it was them calling out homeopathy for being a fiction, and now this from their attorney general, George Brandis:

‘Because’, he says, ‘if you are going to defend freedom of speech, you have to defend the right of people to say things you would devote your political life to opposing. Your good faith is tested by whether or not you would defend the right to free speech of people with whom you profoundly disagree. That’s the test.’

Hallelujah!  Finally a western politician who is willing to stand up and defend Free Speech the way it was originally envisioned by Locke, Mill, Jefferson and Voltaire.  In recent weeks there have been numerous examples of those who believe themselves to be on the “right side of history” arguing that restrictions on free speech should be imposed to prevent people from presenting or discussing views they don’t agree with.  Rather than win a debate the old fashioned way, these individuals, would rather stifle dissent and shut down debate.  Whether it be on university campuses such a Brandeis backing down from letting the great Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak because it might make some people “uncomfortable”, or people writing to the the House of Commons at Westminster asking for restrictions on unpalatable speech, it is reprehensible.

One of the comments on the site cited above scared me especially:

There is no utility in having people express views that are false in fact, nor free of consequence. The classic example is freely shouting “fire” in a theatre.

Egads – conflating yelling fire in a crowded theatre with expressing views that are “false in fact” depends on someone being the absolute arbiter of “truth”.  Reminds me of things that were done under Stalin!  Of course, most of the people expressing this view today don’t see themselves as totalitarians – because they are expressing their view out of genuine belief that you can have such limits and control on society without being totalitarian.  Unfortunately that belief is false.  The success of western civilization over the past four hundred years comes from our freedom to think, speak, print and debate.  And to figure out that sometimes we are wrong, whether it be about science, social ills, or economics.

Andrew Coyne expressed this very well in a recent National Post column:

The idea that the state should refrain, as a rule, from regulating speech, the willingness of the public to legislate restraints on the state’s ability to do so, the readiness of those in power to be so restrained, all are born of a climate of opinion that recognizes the intrinsic value of speech, even or perhaps especially where it offends.

So far as we follow the opposite impulses in our private interactions with each other, so far as we attempt not to argue with others but to intimidate them, so far as we indulge the toxic nonsense that there is a right not to be offended, we undermine that consensus, and so in turn weaken our defences — intellectual, political, legal — against the government doing likewise.

As did Mark Steyn from the Spectator:

Free speech and a dynamic, innovative society are intimately connected: a culture that can’t bear a dissenting word on race or religion or gender fluidity or carbon offsets is a society that will cease to innovate, and then stagnate, and then decline, very fast.

But I await such candor and backbone from a Canadian politician, of any stripe.


Apr 09 2014

Australia correctly calls homeopathy quackery

Australia’s government has published a report that correctly identifies homeopathy as quackery:


now if only Health Canada would do the same.

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Mar 22 2014

Secrecy in Schools, Followup

On Thursday evening, I met with my daughter’s Grade 10 Science teacher, and she was pleasant and did a good job explaining the exam and I now feel that this teacher is at least competent.  However, I also met with the vice-principal, and asked for further explanation of the “secret” exam policy.   I am paraphrasing, but the reason for it comes down to this:

Our teams put a lot of effort into developing unit exams, which we do to ensure that all students take the same exam.  Because of the effort, we like to use the standard exam for a whole term or even whole school year.  However, we find it necessary to “secure” the exams because once they “get out” students get their hands on them and many students are then able to have an unfair advantage.

My fundamental problem is that parents are not allowed to see these exams except for a brief meeting with a teacher.  The only route my child has to learn from her mistakes is to schedule an appointment with the same teacher and review it with her.  If she struggled to understand from the teacher in the first place, it might help if that parent could try at home.  But that is not allowed.

The reason for keeping the exam secret also bother me because it assumes that parents would “leak” the exam to other students.  That lack of trust seems problematic to me.

However, the single biggest failure in this scheme is that exams at a high school level need to be set by committee, creating significant overhead and the need for such ridiculous policies in the first place.  Any teacher competent enough to teach a high school subject should also be capable, and required, to set their own exams.  Yes, students in one class may get a different exam than another class in another term or year, but it shouldn’t matter.  Based on the curriculum topics, a competent teacher should be able to set a high school exam in no more than twice the time the students are given to write it.  In fact, I know from professors I had in University that one of the fun parts of teaching was coming up with creative exam questions.

The other topic for exams that this episode has caused me to get frustrated is the move away from exams where students must show their work or express themselves towards multiple choice exams where only the answer is evaluated.  This is a terrible way to test whether someone knows something.  Evaluating a student when demonstrating their capability but making a small error (such as dropping a 2) allows them to receive “partial marks” and for the teacher to better explain the error to the student so they can learn from their mistakes.  Multiple choice exams do not do this.

This use of “committees” to do work that can and should be done by individuals is a critical flaw in many parts of our society.  And in the schools it seems even more ill-placed.   Committee development tends to the lowest common denominator and generally removes creative ideas because consensus is more important than quality.  I see this in my job (which has nothing to do with education) and I can now see the mess it is causing in education, whether at the individual school, board or even provincial ministry level.

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Mar 17 2014

On secrecy in the schools

I recently have had some problems with the public schools in Calgary (specifically those run by the Calgary Board of Education). A few years ago, the new “discovery math” failed my eldest daughter, forcing significant investment in tutors to correct the damage caused by Alberta Education and the CBE.  This also led to my support of Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies’ petition to fix the math curriculum in Alberta.

Last year, my eldest daughter had to suffer through a science teacher who was, in my opinion, not quite competent.    I gave the teacher the benefit of the doubt, because you never know if a teenager is really grasping the concepts or giving you the whole story.  But that teacher confused such topics as valence and isotope, and when challenged on it actually giggled…  My daughter survived that class, and has moved on to high school.

Where things have not improved.   Now, she has a teacher you might be ok – but I am suspicious because her teaching method appears to involve having vague presentations and then telling the students to read the textbook and fill out a workbook.  They could do that in a correspondence course.  Further, my daughter who seems to understand the concepts and usually rates straight A’s and suddenly is getting a C.

Anyway, my latest complaint is that I asked my daughter to show me the unit exam (Grade 10 Physics) to see where she went wrong.  She said the teacher didn’t let them keep their exam.  I told her to ask for it so I could see it.  She was told that the school policy was that exams were “secure” and she couldn’t have a copy of her exam.  I then emailed the teacher and asked for a scanned copy of the exam.  I was also told that the exam was “secure” and I couldn’t have a copy.  I could however, book an appointment to come and review the exam, or they could have it available during my 10 minute parent-teacher meeting.   Lots of time to review a physics exam.

I complained, again via email,  that I couldn’t understand the “secure” exam policy.  How could a publicly funded institution keep this a secret from the parents and taxpayers.  This is when the teacher stopped talking to me.  I received a phone call from the vice-principal, who reiterated the policy and offered for me to come into the school to review the exam.   I asked for him to explain the secure exam policy, and he stated that it grew out of the provincial diploma exams, which he said “obviously” had to be kept secret.  I stated that when I wrote the diploma exams 25 years ago the previous term’s exams had been posted on bulletin boards, WITH SOLUTIONS, for the next term’s students to use as a study guide, and for past students to understand where they might have gone wrong.  He said that things had changed due to changes in policy and that they kept exams secure to prevent students who hadn’t written the exam yet from getting their hands on it.  I advised that it seemed ridiculous that I should have to submit a Freedom of Information Request with the Provincial Government to get my hands on a Grade 10 Science Exam…

Now, my experience with any organization is that if you are trying to keep something secret it usually means you have something to hide, especially if there isn’t a business secrecy or national security reason.   Public sector endeavors should almost never need to keep such mundane documents secret.  Unless they have something to hide.

I have two theories:

  1. The exams are kept secure so they can reuse the exam over and over again, minimizing the work teachers needs to do to write and mark exams.  This also allows teachers with less experience or expertise to be assigned to teach a course, knowing they don’t have to write an exam.  This may not be the case in this situation, but there are other circumstances I haven’t disclosed here (yet) that lead me to be suspicious.
  2. The exams are kept secure to prevent parents from seeing exactly how the teachers are marking exams – because it may expose the fact inexperienced teachers have been assigned.  If a teacher marks incorrectly because they don’t understand the subject matter, it is easier to cover up if you hide the evidence.

I will update this page as this develops – I will be attending my parent-teacher meeting on Thursday and plan on photographing the exam if necessary.   I also encourage others to share their experiences.

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Feb 16 2014

The Decline of Western Civilization

Recently, there have been a number of things in the news that make me think that Western Civilization is in decline.  It doesn’t take much to look at parts of Europe that are bankrupt, both morally and economically, or at the United States where cities like Detroit are bankrupt and in ruins, or states like California where regulation is driving businesses out of the state and turning the Central Valley from a breadbasket to a desert to save a small fish that is truly endangered not by a lack of water but by the introduction of sport fish (bass) which eat the tiny delta smelt…

But there are two things that really get me going, and they are related.

The first is the inability of society to get anything done in a reasonable amount of time.  The reason isn’t that things are necessarily more difficult – we have technology that specifically makes a lot of things easier.  It’s because we have added layers of regulations and requirements and checklists and consultations and approvals on top of everything we do.   The used to be said that if you built a better mousetrap the world would beat a path to your door.  The truth is that if you built a better mousetrap the world would now be asking if you have permission to devise that mousetrap, did you do the proper environmental impact assessment on killing mice, or the impact on cats who will have fewer mice to hunt?  Did you consult with the local people who might not want to kill the mice (or maybe they do, but you still have to consult with every single one of them).  My daily job causes me great frustration when I am presented with requirements written into a specification, regulation or other directive that are said to be necessary, but when questioned, those who are enforcing the “rules” don’t even know why they were written t

he way they were or what the other consequences might be.   I also get frustrated with how much time and effort is wasted on paperwork and processes that do not result in anything getting done better, faster, safer or more economically.   Often the paperwork and procedures are there to cover someone’s ass from being questioned – not really to improve anything.   To give you an example, I must give credit to Kate at SDA:



As you can see, during wartime 7 decades ago, a major infrastructure project got built in under a year.  Now, to do something arguably much easier it takes nearly a decade to get the paperwork ready to get approval to build something that will take another five years or so to complete.

This is a disaster for our society.  When you ask questions about why employment levels continue to be anemic following the Great Recession, recognize that we have created a society where it is far to hard to DO ANYTHING.  Wouldn’t it employ more people to actual build bridges and pipelines than to argue over them?

The second part of the my rant today is about one of the reasons for this, particularly in western societies.  That is the extension of individualism (which I generally like) to the bizarre extreme of believing that everyone has a valid opinion that should be considered and that every individual’s opinion should be given equal weight, and that the dislikes of individuals or a small group should trump the desires or needs of the many.  It’s like Star Trek III, only more unbelievable.

I came to this realization a few weeks ago when it was pronounced in the news that the town of Kitimat, BC was going to hold a referendum on whether or not the Northern Gateway Pipeline should be built to their port.   While I normally think that referenda are a good idea, the problem with applying them too liberally is that you get situations like this – a small group of people hold a vote on a subject that affects far more than their circle of control, even if it has negative effects on millions of other people.  Why should the voters of Kitimat, BC, have the power to kill a capital project that will have dramatic economic benefits for the people of the whole country?

This is happening all over the world, where people are fighting things they don’t understand, or refuse to understand, in the name their “rights”, but they are ignoring the rights of everyone else.  It is situations like this that create ridiculous consequences like regulations that require that industrial facilities store human waste (i.e. sewage) in double-hulled cisterns, while farmers are allowed to do so in simple single-walled septic tanks and then pump the “treated” waste into a field.   Because people don’t want to think – they want rules written to protect everyone and everything.  And people refuse to trust anyone else to do the right thing.  And especially they refuse to accept that other are acting in good faith and with generally good intentions.  We don’t want to built Keystone or Gateway to destroy the environment.  We want to supply the world with energy.  We don’t want to build bridges across rivers to destroy the environment – we do it to GET TO THE OTHER SIDE!.

Stop making everything so hard.  It doesn’t need to be.  Just let people act.

As I have stated before, Ayn Rand’s books, the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were supposed to be warnings to society about the dangers of overarching government and regulation.  But we have gone and turned them into how-to manuals.  And look where it is leading us…



Oct 29 2013

The real goal of Obamacare

In recent days, I have come to a conclusion about the Affordable Care Act (2010), passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Obama.   Mark Steyn wrote over the weekend:

A few years back, I too was retailing horror stories from Canadian (and British) health care — wait times, C difficile, etc. But once Nancy Pelosi & Co passed the bill and we found out what was in it, it seemed obvious that Obamacare would be far worse than the Canadian or any other First World system.

He then presented an example (one of soon to be millions) of American’s who have had their health insurance cancelled because their existing coverage doesn’t meet the legislated requirements of the ACA (such as mandatory maternity coverage, even for seniors).

A few days earlier, the same Mark Steyn wrote about how the rollout of the healthcare.gov website has been a fiasco, partly due to the complexity of the regulations and the fact they hired CGI of Montreal, who was known to have wasted billions of Canadian tax dollars on unworkable software for gun control and health records.

There has obviously been a lot of coverage on television (Fox and NBC), newspapers and online about the mess that Obamacare clearly has become and will obviously become worse.  But I think many of the talking heads are missing the point.  This was INTENTIONAL.  Many conservatives have posited that Obama and his socialist cohorts are incompetent.  For a while I suspected this was the case, because I couldn’t imagine a worse plan than what the ACA proposed.

But then I recalled what Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s former Chief of Staff, once said:

Never let a crisis go to waste.

I think this is exactly what Obama and his socialists are doing – except that they have engineered the crisis.  And they have patience – they knew it would take longer than the Obama administration to achieve.  Obama himself might even be a pawn, because the failure of Obamacare is a key part of the plan.

The complex regulations and failure to rollout the exchanges effectively will create a mess where many Americans who had health insurance will find themselves having to shell out significantly more for policies they don’t need.  They will get frustrated.  And the Left will blame the insurance industry.  The left will wait until their is frothing outrage, but carefully funnel that outrage towards the insurance companies, who will be blamed for not offering the affordable insurance plans Obama promised the American people.  The protestations of the insurers that they had no choice, given the constraints of the ACA will be for naught, as that argument is complex and requires rational thought.  The Left’s argument will appeal to the heart and emotions on the street.  In times of crisis, that always works better.

The solution, to be proposed by Obama or his successor, will be to remove the “evil” insurance companies completely, and create the state-run, single payer system of which the left dreams.   To use Steyn’s title, they will create a system worse than Canada’s just so they can have a system just like the ones that Canadian’s suffer with today and which will slowly bankrupt both countries.



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Sep 28 2013

On Socialism in the Schools

The forces of so-called “Social Justice” continue to rampage in our educational institutions.  My daughter is attending a public high school and she started asking me questions about her Social Studies homework.  She didn’t like my answers because I sounded like one of those evil capitalists…  So I asked to see what material she was being taught.   I always need the curriculum was skewed to the left, but I had no idea how much.

She was given a hand out called “One Size Fits All”, a commentary on how the cultural mosaics of the world are being subsumed by mass media and cultural imperialism.  In four short pages it covered the extinction of small languages; the ubiquity of western television and music trends at the expense of local cultures (which is placed firmly at the feet of multinational media companies); the expansion of western brands around the world, with a focus on fast food; and dominance of western capitalism over alternative economic systems.

For the first, it makes a pretty strong case that the extinction of languages is terrible because something is being lost.  However, language is simply the human development to allow higher level communication.  The fact that people might choose to speak English or Spanish instead of Inuktituk or Basque doesn’t prevent communication.  All it does is make is EASIER for everyone to communicate.  Many people argue that the advance of English as the dominant language on the planet is due to the “imperialism” of Britain and then the United States.  While there is obviously something to the former (actual imperialism), I would make the point that English is more dominant because English is a very flexible and very expressive language (largely because of it’s fluid rules).

With regard to the second, or cultural imperialism subsuming local cultures – it would be far more interesting to talk about WHY this happens, rather than just bemoaning it.  The culture of Western Europe, North America, Australia and to a lesser extent Japan, is attractive to people in other parts of the world because it offers them a window and a hope for a better life.   The so-called “West” has been rich and relatively free for a couple of hundred years. Rich and free is attractive, especially for people who are poor and oppressed (either by religion, culture or politics).  Some cultures do survive contact with the west (e.g. Bollywood).  For those that bemoan the loss of cultures because a reduction in diversity is a bad thing should ask themselves a question – are all cultures equally valuable?  Are all societies equivalent?  The obvious answer is no – but cultural relativists have been lying to many for decades.

The expansion of western brands is another funny one, particularly as they call out the fast food industry as the example.  Is fast food bad for us – in excess, of course.  But it provides a service to fill the market for cheap, quick meals for people on the go.  But if we look at other industries, one should note that there are more and more multinationals that are not “western”, and definitely not “American”.  Soon, Volkswagen will be the worlds largest and most profitable carmaker.  Samsung is one of the largest electronics manufacturers in the world. HSBC is one of the few “global banks”.  You see their logos everywhere, around the world.  The expansion of mass market brands around the world is a fact of capitalism.  The reason the first wave was dominated by American and European firms was that they understood capitalism first.   The rest of the world will come around.

Finally – the arguments expressed in the document on capitalism are atrocious:

The economic culture of the west is totally dominant…  Some countries have tried other systems, notably communism in the Soviet Union, China, and other nations, but they have been crushed by the capitalist juggernaut.

This makes it sound like these other systems were actually viable.  No clear statement that Capitalism is dominant because it is the only economic system that works and is stable over the long term.

Another part of the article talks about the damage globalisation and capitalism had on Mexican corn farmers when NAFTA went into effect.  It states that American agribusiness (not farmers) sold corn in Mexico below the cost of local production, putting Mexican farmers out of the work and damaging the village culture in rural Mexico.  There is no mention made that this action also reduced the price of food for the much larger group of Mexican consumers.  Nor does it mention that in later years government mandated ethanol production drove the US price of corn so high that Mexican families suddenly couldn’t afford food and the economic status of the Mexican farmer was suddenly improved.

Finally – the report references the socialist text “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” by Chris Hedges, quoting:

The corporate culture…has seeped into our classrooms, our newsrooms, our entertainment systems and our consciousness.

Egads!  Corporations come off sounding as if they are an evil plague on our society.  No mention that the development of the corporation in Italy in the 15th century is one of the reasons why the west got rich and developed technology…

In future posts, I will critique the CBE Grade 10 Social Studies text, Perspectives on Globalization.  A brief perusal of this book finds many quotes from such eminent persons as Maude Barlow and glowing sidebars on such enlightened leaders as Evo Morales.   That alone should make this text unacceptable for our children.

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Sep 09 2013

On Levant vs. Nenshi

In the last couple of days, there has been much press about the Twitter spat between Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Sun News personality Ezra Levant.  This began with a column Levant wrote about questioning the spending of taxpayers money by the City of Calgary to hire the Pembina Institute at the University of Alberta.  The truth is, this dispute goes back 25 years or so.

I remember Levant and Nenshi as politically active students at the University of Calgary (where I was also a student – although my education kept me a little too busy to be so politically involved outside my own school).  They were usually on the opposite side of issues there – not surprising as Nenshi has been a “feel good socialist” his entire adult life, and Levant a “conservative capitalist”.   However, this latest spat reminded me that not much has changed.  Levant and Nenshi are both creations of our political culture – not just in Canada but throughout the democratic world.

Nenshi, as a feel-good socialist, believes that the state can and should do more to make people’s lives better.  However, he has learned that getting into hard facts and details about numbers / costs is detrimental to the cause because.  So, like much of the “smart left”, they appeal to feelings and emotions to get people to support their cause due to guilt, feeling satisfied, or some odd “social justice” motive.

Levant, as a conservative capitalist, believes that the state should get out of the way and let business increase economic growth and make us all richer (as it has done in the Western world for the last 200 years or so).   However, while hard facts and details about numbers are supportive of this cause, the answers are often unpalatable and unpleasant – no one likes the feeling of “austerity”.  The positions of the right are easily attacked because such policies – at first blush – may appear to be unfeeling or hurtful to the less fortunate.   Therefore, like other Conservative commentators – especially those in the United States – Levant has taken to trying to pick out the ridiculous or obviously contradictory statements of leftists.

With regard to the twitter spat, I suspect that Levant baited Nenshi into some ill-placed statements.  Having known him for more than 20 years, he could guess at his reaction and probably expected some piece of well-known rhetoric.  The problem is that many of the followers on Twitter are not experienced rhetoricians and, as occurred, overreacted to Nenshi’s statement.  The danger of the undereducated audience and a 140 character limit.

I don’t blame Twitter’s format – for decades politicians and commentators have sought short “sound-bites”, and more importantly “silver bullet phrases” to shift public sentiment.  Whether it be Nixon sweating during the debate with JFK in 1960, or Mulroney telling Turner “you had an option, sir!” in the 1984 Canadian federal leaders debates – this is what debaters dream of.  The only problem is that they are like Hail Mary passes in football – a successful one is very rare.

I do blame Nenshi and Levant, and all others like them.  They should be trying to raise the level of political discourse.  Educate the people so we can make better choices.  Be honest and explain situations fully and fairly.

I also blame the people.  We have become like sheep, willing to be led down garden paths by leaders promising us easy solutions.  We are also lazy – many of us are too lazy to seek our the knowledge necessary to take part in intelligent discourse on many of the challenges facing our society.  Nearly everyday, I cringe when I hear a politician on the radio talking about issues that are small and easy and shouldn’t be wasting the time of the public when there are significant issues that lie undisturbed because they are politically dangerous.  We ALL need to be more brave and accept that as citizens we need to take on the difficult challenges we face.

To close, I will return to the original cause of the Nenshi / Levant spat.  Should Nenshi’s city council have hired the Pembina Institute, ostensibly to consult on “energy efficiency”, and does Pembina have any relation to Nenshi’s campaign or other activities?

Levant gets it wrong by asking whether Nenshi would hire the Fraser Institute, a “conservative capitalist” think tank, instead of Pembina, a “feel-good socialist” think tank.   WRONG QUESTION.  First, no politically active “think tank” should be granted contracts by the state for advice.  Pick any one of the think tanks in Canada and an issue and I can tell you, with nearly 100% accuracy, what their conclusions will be on that topic.  It is a waste of money – used by politicians of all stripes to provide ammunition in the low-brow arguments that pass for political discourse in the 21st century.   If you wanted to hire a “third party” to study or provide advice on energy efficiency, you should have hired an Engineering Consultant.  They are the only ones who actually understand energy efficiency – I doubt any of the people at the Pembina Institute who billed the City of Calgary on this contract could answer the question “What fundamental limit is there to energy efficiency?”  But any mechanical or chemical engineer could.


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Sep 02 2013

On Public vs. Private Schools

A few days ago, Slate.com published a column by Allison Benedikt where she declares that all parents who send their children to private school are bad people.  The general scope of her complaints about public school can be distilled to two things:

  1. American public schools are a valued institution and for the greater good of the nation.  If everyone sent their kids to public schools and got involved on parent councils and in their children’s education, eventually all public schools would be better.  In the long run, this would be good for America.
  2. She did fine in public school.

I will approach this bluntly and without resorting to dismantling her viewpoint one sentence at a time.

First, public schools were a great institution, right up until the 1970s when the teachers unions and leftist feel-goods took control.  This is when the quality of education started to decline.   This control removed the ability of parent councils to have any influence over curriculum, teacher hiring/firing and other school activities.  Having tried to deal with the public system in my district for my own child, it is like talking to a brick wall.

Second, the experience even in the United States is that charter schools provide a better education for exactly the reasons removing them from the public sector unions and bureaucracy and giving parents more influence.  This is a path to better schooling.  Another approach would be to privatize all the schools, allow teaching staffs to “take ownership” and pay them on a per head basis of students they can attract and retain.  Good schools would thrive and grow; bad would wither and die.

Third, I don’t care about the long run when it comes to my child’s education and success in life.   I care about them succeeding.   And it I want to spend money to improve their odds, so be it.  In what freedom loving country is that against the rules, even it is only by moral suasion?  Do I care about the long run, yes – but I am happy to let the free market work it out.

Finally, Ms. Benedikt claims she did fine in public school, but then proceeds to show that she didn’t learn some of the things that should be critical to being a good citizen.  If it is true she only read one book in high school and struggled in college (how did she get in???), the system failed her and she good have done much better for herself.    I too went to public school – but I don’t think the public school I experienced in the 1970s and 80s can be compared to the current system – the current system wastes time on classes like “Innovative Technology” and teaching kids that using technology to solve math problems or spelling or grammar is acceptable.

To close – on reading Ms. Benedikt’s column, I was first incensed.  Then I wrote this.  Now I harbour suspicions that she was being facetious – or writing an argumentum ad captandum


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