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February 14, 2011

Egypt keeps on protesting

POLITICS - Egyptian President Mubarak finally stepped down three days ago, but the protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities remain as many of his cronies stay in power and control the assets of the nation.

Egyptians are now demanding that the European Union freeze all assets belonging to members of Mubarak's regime until such time that it can be determined that they've haven't been swindling the Egyptian people.

Britain's foreign secretary and various EU finance ministers however are insisting that they won't take action to freeze accounts unless there is evidence of “illegality or misuse of state assets.”

However how would they prove illegal misuse of funds unless they first freeze the assets and mount an investigation? The cronies they are speaking of are still in power and still in control of Egypt's money.

(Seriously, sometimes you have to wonder if politicians are just plain stupid, or if they are just protecting the 'stolen' assets of their friends in Egypt because they are worried it might happen to them too.)

As the protests continue Egyptian soldiers are now clearing out the remaining demonstrators from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which was the protest camp's headquarters for the 18-day revolt. The protesters had tents, medical clinics and giant banners demanding the removal of Mubarak's regime.

At the height of the protests over half a million people had clogged the downtown streets.

The remaining protesters are now demanding the release of their friends who have been unlawfully confined during the protests and not allowed bail or trial.

Egypt is still counting the death toll from clashes between police and protesters.

Home Improvement Vs the Divorce Rate

By Charles Moffat - February 2011.

CANADA - When I was younger every time my parents decided to do home renovations I thought for sure they might get divorced several times during various incidents/arguments.

These days I've concluded that they're just plain stuck together for a variety of reasons and they seem to happier now that all of birds have flown the nest and eventually the chirping of grandchildren will be heard.

Nevertheless it does make me wonder what percentage of divorces are brought on by home repair, improvement, renovations, etc.

ie. Lets say you like swimming pools... My parents put in their swimming pool in 1974 roughly (I am guessing the year, I admit) and from what my mother says that was the first true test of their marriage. It was argument after argument and probably a few migraine-ish headaches too. (Probably a lot less stressful to have someone else dig and install the swimming pool, but my parents like being Do-It-Yourselfers.)

And then there was the deck beside the swimming pool. That was actually two projects, one when they first built the pool and the deck, and again in the 1990s when they installed a new deck because the old one was rotting.

Trust me, patio furniture was the least of their worries.

Then there was the matter of how to heat the pool. My parents decided to use a low-tech option of solar heating, using black tubing that was coiled up on top of the roof. The tubing absorbed the heat from the sun and during hot summer days would reach 110 degrees F or hotter. The water flowed through the tubing, into the pool and that kept the pool water in the 60 to 75 degree range depending on the time of year.

However for this system to work the water had to be pumped through all those tubes. The pump was notorious for breaking down and only a few years ago did my parents finally agree to buy a better pump which wouldn't break so easily. It was a nuisance to fix and the new one apparently is much better.

Its the same problem with cars too. During the 70s, 80s and early 90s my parents had a tendency to drive beaten down cars that always needed repairs. They were a constant source of arguments. I eventually argued (and I am proud to say I won this argument and convinced them despite being a teenager at the time) that they would be better off buying a new car that was in good condition and wouldn't require repairs constantly. I argued that the cost of repairs on a car not worth that much would be better spent on a newer car that was more reliable and would actually save them money over the long term because they wouldn't need to spend so much on maintenance/repairs.

I have also been trying (unsuccessfully so far) to convince my parents to buy a windmill (or 3) and a couple solar panels for their home. Instead they decided to buy an electric gas-powered generator, because they were more worried about black outs/etc than they were worried about saving money.

When it comes to home improvement my parents (and many other people like them) do like to save money. The real question is how much will they save and how quickly.

Well one of the quickest and easy ways is home insulation. And there's many ways to do it, ie. rigid foam insulation and similar wall systems. That is a much easier sell for getting them to save money because they see it very quickly on their gas heating bills (especially with gas prices going up).

And once the insulation is in place there is also Geothermal Heating Systems.

And thanks to various government programs, like the Ontario MicroFIT program, home owners can also get income tax rebates on home improvements they make. The incentives are out there if Canadians bother to do the research and the math and calculate how much they need to install in order to either break even, save money, or even make money by selling electricity back into the grid.

As our society becomes more technological savvy (complete with wireless broadband internet, mobile laptops, smartphones, complex sorting and manufacturing software, computers, servers and any number of gadgets working/charging off the grid) we are going to need a lot more electricity. In fact our electricity use in Ontario has gone up 45% in the last 8 years. By 2020 it is expected to double 2010 numbers.

And small surprise. Even as I write this I have a fridge, a freezer, a heater, a cellphone charger and not one but TWO computers running at the same time. 10 years ago would have seen less stuff all sucking energy simultaneously.

So we NEED more electricity. And thus electricity prices are going to skyrocket as we run into a shortage of sources to draw energy from. (See my recent post about the Niagara Tunnel for one innovative way we are finding more electricity.)

But not everyone agrees on how to save money and get more electricity at the same time. Thus it can also be a source of arguments for many families, as money issues frequently are.

My parents once took the kids to see psychologists because they were apparently contemplating divorce. They even saw a marriage counsellor. I never got all the facts about what was really stressing my parents out, but statistics suggest it may have been a combination of stress and sex-related causes.

And because I am uncomfortable talking about my parents' sex life, lets just change the topic real quick and go back to the topic of divorce.

I mean they could have gone down that road. Divorced, sold the farm, they are not the type of people to hire a home stager (which is a much more modern idea).

Instead my parents stayed together and seem to be focusing on their love of travel now, getting away from home and driving all over North America in their relatively new car which doesn't break down so much. And they've focused on their interests of gardening and various hobbies. ie. In recent years my mother has taken up the bagpipes and drumming, both of which my father has been rather supportive of despite the noise.

I suppose they could have been like our family friends Jim and Sharon who took dance classes and go square dancing every Friday night, but to each their own.

In other news, Happy Valentines Day!

February 10, 2011

Niagara Tunnel an innovation worth paying for

CANADA/ENVIRONMENT - Deep underneath Niagara Falls a 4,000 tonne drill named "Big Becky" is drilling a 10.2 kilometre long tunnel, 14 meters wide, that is soon due to near its goal above the Niagara Falls. Once the pipe is completed it will channel 500 cubic meters of water / second through turbines and produce 1.6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually.

And better yet, it preserves the natural beauty of the Niagara Falls.

The $1 billion project has gone over budget and eventually came in at $1.6 billion, but that is normal for all large scale projects.

For example the refit of Bruce Nuclear is $2 billion over the original estimate and has cost $3.8 billion as of November 2010. Its also overdue for completion. New estimates say it will be $5 billion by the time its completely done.

And there is other examples too, too many to mention. But basically its the problem of labour management. When you hire people to build a bridge or construct a road, they give you an estimate. Its usually a "base estimate", but what they don't include is all the time workers stand around drinking coffee waiting for the cement trucks to arrive. And its not just waiting for trucks to arrive. There are often unforeseen delays. Its the delays that adds the extra costs.

See the following videos to see how a British team tried to fix a road in 1 day, a project that normally takes at least a week.





But back to the Niagara Tunnel...

The 10.2 kilometre tunnel will carry water from above Niagara Falls to the Sir Adam Beck generating station in Queenston at a rate of 500 cubic metres a second.

Right now there is 9.5 km done, there is less than 0.7 km left. Work started in 2005 when the 4,000-tonne drilling behemoth Big Becky was first built and 'she' started eating through the rock in 2006.

If everything stays on schedule she will be done in April.

The 14 meter wide tunnel will then be smoothed down to make the water flow through it faster. The more perfectly round and smooth the pipe is the more energy that the turbines can generate because the water will go through much faster.

The final completion date is in 2013.

The entire enterprise has meant moving 1.7 million cubic metres of solid rock, and there was an unforeseen obstacle. Underneath the Niagara Falls there is a subterranean gorge at the base of waterfalls which had be drilled around because the nearby rock was unsuitable for tunneling.

Engineering projects like this are WORTH DOING. They foresee our needs in the future and get them done today so we can avert higher electricity rates in the future.

Conservative leader Tim Hudak meanwhile thinks projects like the Niagara Tunnel should be scrapped because they are too expensive and always go over budget. He is correct about the over budget part, but he hasn't realized that they're still worth it because otherwise we will end up paying for our lack of foresight in the future. Apparently he thinks it would be cheaper to buy our electricity from the USA, a country where electricity rates are also skyrocketing and will certainly be more expensive.

Facebook and Google secretly bidding on Twitter... or not?

By Ai Lung Nguyen - February 2011.

TECHNOLOGY - It really boils down to a battle for market share...

Facebook and Google have been conducting "low level talks" concerning buying up Twitter (a website which has yet to make any money from advertising or any other revenue scheme).

In December 2010 however Twitter raised $200 million in financing in a deal that valued it at $3.7 billion, even though it has yet to monetize the website and churn a profit. Twitter, which allows users to broadcast 140-character messages to groups of followers, had 175 million users as of September 2010 (although seriously, most users only posted a couple times and then got bored. Even regular users like myself (twitter.com/charlesmoffat) don't tweet all that often.

Its really more of a celebrity / news buzz and comment feed. That is it. Its definitely not worth $200 million, let alone the $3.7 billion they claim it is.

The Wall Street Journal meanwhile today said that Twitter executives however meanwhile are quietly trying to sell it to executives at Facebook and Google. But so far neither Facebook or Google seem to be interested.

Could it be because they have concluded the same thing 92% of the population has already concluded? (Namely, that Twitter is twits. Only 8% of North Americans actually visit Twitter daily according to Alexa.com.)

According to WSJ Facebook and Google aren't the only companies they are trying to sell it to. Microsoft or Yahoo maybe? Or some other company?

Speculation of Twitters 'speculative value' ranges from $8 to $10 billion USD... but seriously, we doubt it will even turn a profit from anyone who buys it. People post comments and ideas on Twitters. Often its just nonsense crap about what they did today or did earlier. Or are currently doing. They don't really browse on there that often.

And browsing is where you can actually put ads and make a profit. People post on Twitter, they don't browse. Ergo, you can't make a profit from any advertising on the site even if it was monetized.

My thinking is that the Twitter executives have realized this and are now trying to sell the company off and hoping there is a moron out there with a big cheque book who will be dumb enough to bite the bullet for them.

And Facebook? Well that is another matter... they are barely profitable themselves. They cannot afford to be making acquisitions. The only companies making major profits in the online advertising industry are Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Everyone is else is small time. Peanuts. The leftovers.

The next step is not the acquisition of Twitter. That is a complete waste of cash.

The real next step is when Google, Microsoft and Yahoo starts buying up newspapers, TV stations, cable networks, etc.

According to the Wall Street Journal the "low level talks" so far have gone no where. All the players are refusing to comment.

Our guess? They've gone no where because everyone knows Twitter isn't profitable and never will be. Its the same fuss Second Life got years ago, but they never even broke 1% of the population.

Twitter meanwhile is refusing to disclose their financial situation. They could be bankrupt for all we know. eMarketer claims Twitter could be churning a profit of $50 million / year in advertising revenue based on visitor hits (except they don't have ads on the site anyway), but since 40% of visitors only stay a single pageview and their time on site is an average of 7 minutes (and dropping about a minute per year!!!) then that is proof that people on Twitter don't really browse much.

See http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/twitter.com for more statistics.

Meanwhile Google generated roughly $29 billion in revenue in 2010 and Facebook produced about $1.9 billion, according to eMarketer. The idea that Google would pay one 3rd of their yearly profits to buy crappy Twitter is preposterous. And Facebook couldn't even afford to buy it at such a huge price.

February 8, 2011

Canadians Boycotting Rogers and Bell

CANADA/TECHNOLOGY - Bell Canada and Rogers Telecommunications have embarked on a mission to start charging Canadians more money for their internet services, namely by jacking up the prices on their internet service plans (often without informing the customer) and continuing their practice of deliberately over-billing customers.

Various news media have been publishing on this topic for the past couple months so feel free to check out other sources and what they have to say.

Last week hundreds of thousands of Canadians signed a petition saying they would boycott internet service providers Rogers and Bell if they continued with their practice of "metering" internet usage. (Metering means they are charging extra for the more people download, and more so they keep upping the amount they are charging.)

Even the government of Canada has responded by ordering the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to set new regulations on the topic of internet metering and overcharging of customers. The same day the CRTC announced it would review the current practices over the next 60 days and proposed changes.

However it should be noted that CRTC decisions and regulations are often disappointing and lack enforcement, which leaves Canadians to take the matter into their own hands. (We will try to come back to that topic.)

Lets start with what Rogers and Bell keep doing which is causing such a fuss.

#1. They are imposing caps on internet usage, thus allowing them to overcharge users who go over the cap.

#2. They keep lowering the caps on internet usage, causing more and more people to be overcharged for their internet.

#3. They keep ignoring contracts and agreements signed 5+ years ago that guaranteed unlimited bandwidth indefinitely.

#4. They keep increasing the rate at which they overcharge customers (even though internet bandwidth is technically becoming cheaper, not more expensive).

#5. They overcharge for extra unwanted services on bills that often go unnoticed by customers.

#6. They incorrectly charge the wrong amount, often directly to a customer's bank or credit card which makes it difficult to get the amount reimbursed.

#7. They deliberately use machine operators and long lineups for customer complaints so that customers get tired of being on the phone with them and hang up.

#8. Even if you stop being a customer, they keep your phone number on record and then sick telemarketers on you in an attempt to get you back and get access to your bank and/or credit card again.

#9. If you cancel your service, they charge you an extra month in advance. (You have to cancel your credit card or change your bank account to prevent this.)

#10. They charge you a fee just for canceling your service, even if you're not on a time sensitive contract.

And if you've gone through any of this nonsense you can probably think of a couple more reasons why you hate Rogers and Bell (ie. not just for their internet services, but also their phone bills too).

The problem however is that Bell and Rogers have a virtual monopoly on the internet provider business in Canada. Smaller providers do exist, but are often buying their access to the system from Bell or Rogers (who in turn meter their amounts as well, thus you wouldn't save any money unless you found a company which isn't subcontracting from one of the big networks).

In other words even if you did try to avoid Bell or Rogers, you would have to get your internet most likely from someone buying their access from the wholesalers. Canadians are screwed due to lack of choice in the market.

Meanwhile this monopoly and metering of internet usage (and even caps on speed) is effecting Canada's ability to compete on a business level. WHY?

#1. Because the internet in Canada is slooooooow.

The networks impose caps on speed levels and then charge users different rates for access to higher speeds. If you go to any other country there is no cap on speed. ie. In South Korea you can easily download items 5x faster and they are charged pennies in comparison to what Canadians pay.

#2. Compare the Cap Difference

U.S. giant Comcast has a 250 gigabyte per month cap. In Canada many internet providers have caps of a mere 2 GB/month, and after that they start charging an arm and a leg. (Source: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.)

#3. Bell Canada admits over-charging 10% of customers

We think the number might be a lot higher than that. The extra charges are widespread. When we ask people in Canada what they are being charged, slightly over half of the people we've spoken to say they've been overcharged for their internet usage on a regular basis. So customers (and businesses, which frequently have internet at work) are undoubtedly being overcharged on a regular basis.

#4. Other countries aren't doing this

ie. In Britain (and many other countries) customers are charged the amount they were promised. This means other countries are more competitive on a business platform.

#5. Negative effect on the Canadian digital economy

This cap and overcharge system is harming innovation and keeping new business models out of Canada. The virtual monopoly of Bell and Rogers means other companies simply cannot compete, and is thus breaking Canada's fair competition laws.

So how do we, as Canadians, solve this problem?

#1. We need to ban this automatic over-billing of customers.

#2. We need to allow other companies easy access to Canada's internet market by removing foreign investment barriers.

#3. We need to allow more wireless broadband services in the forthcoming spectrum auction.

#4. More Canadians needs to switch to companies which are not reliant on the dominant ISPs.

#5. We need Canarie (Canada’s research and education high speed network provider) to offer alternatives to the mass population instead of just schools and universities.

#6. The Canadian government needs to impose open access requirements into new residential developments, municipal construction, and other initiatives so that its not all owned by Rogers or Bell.

#7. We need a national network, owned by the Canadian government / operated by the CRTC, which can be sold wholesale to anyone who wants to offer internet service.

#8. The CRTC needs to be more aggressive in auditing internet service providers to know whether they are continuously over billing customers. And fine them + demand customer refunds.

And for those of us currently being overcharged, we need to look at our bills more often, set up our credit card/bank info differently so that we do NOT pay automatically and only pay when we see fit.

And on top of that, threaten to switch providers and see if they will offer a discount.

February 1, 2011

Historic Blizzard Stretches from Mexico to Canada

By Ai Lung Nguyen - February 2011.

ENVIRONMENT - The biggest blizzard in decades is heading north towards Toronto and is currently so big that it stretches from Mexico to Canada. Many regions of the United States have been hit hard by the historic blizzard which has already killed over 30 people in 20 states.

The eye of the blizzard is expected to reach Toronto on Wednesday night, but for now it is passing through central American states and covering all it passes over with 30 to 90 cm (1 to 3 feet) of snow.



As global warming gets worse we can expect to see more blizzards like this in the future, the result of the flip side of climate change: Erratic weather. The greater the temperature change, the stronger the extremes of weather we will see.

UPDATE: By the time it reached Toronto this blizzard was pretty calm by Canadian standards. America was much harder hit in states not used to blizzard conditions.

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