Technology Folklore

Technology Folklore

Nathan Misanthrope was sleeping soundly, exhausted from a whirl-wind tour of his many businesses. His rest was interrupted with the shadowy arrival of Emily Caruthers, a previous partner, now deceased…..

Don Thurston Blog

Let’s Make A Deal-A Tale of Social Innovation

Very soon after the end of World War 2, following fifty years of the most destructive conflict in history, European diplomats from eleven countries assembled. Their mission, not let such an event ever happen again. The five year war caused the death of at least fifty million people, civilians and combatants alike. Carnage was everywhere, entire countries disappeared, economies were destroyed, and atrocities the order of the day. Large tracts of Europe were wastelands; millions were left without a home and a country.

The forerunner of the European Community was authored by visionaries in response to a checkered-half century when civilized countries had plumed the depths of savagery, folly, tyranny, and genocide. No work of science fiction could approximate the devastation.

Most telling, the countries participating in the conclave were the same as the combatants including Germany, France, Luxemburg, Italy, Holland and the United Kingdom. Winston Churchill, said “We are here to cure the European continent of nationalism and war mongering”.

The magnitude of such a social experiment can hardly be imagined. Nothing in world history had such a venture ever been attempted; no blue prints to provide guidance existed; none of the planners had any experience in assembling an organization dedicated to cooperation only months away from trying to wipe each other off the face of the earth. History is strewn with empire building in which nations were added to the pot however reluctantly. This time the process did not involve invasions from without but by mutual agreement.

The path to economic, social, and political unification took many twists and turns.  The inaugural steps were relatively small compared to the big picture. Steel and coal supply were the first steps to cooperation because the rebuilding of the continent was such a formidable task after years of mass destruction. Sharing among the signatories was deemed beneficial to them all; an important first step.

Off to a good start, what followed is a truly a social innovation miracle. Trade was liberalized, citizens of each member country became citizens of the European Union, trade barriers largely eliminated, and wonder of wonders, a common currency adopted. Through the piece new countries joined. A sound governance structure evolved.

Mission accomplished? Not quite. A day seldom goes by without Brexit in the news, some member countries suffering severe finial difficulties, immigration issues are now front and center. Headlines featuring insurrections of many kinds are ubiquitous. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy draw criticism. Talk of a complete collapse receives knowing nods of agreement.

Before condemnation, take stock of what has happened. In a period of seventy years ruins have disappeared, economies restored, political structures stabilized, wars eliminated, disputes settled by negotiations, trade liberalized, infrastructure funding available to new enrollees-truly social innovation at its best. Historically the Union came to pass because far sighted statesmen wanted to rid the world of the horrendous consequence of settling disputes with the gun rather than the pen.

Cheer on the leaders maintaining this visioning.



Mount Pleasant Don Thurston

View from the Street

Two thousand and seventeen marks Canada’s One Hundred and Fiftieth Birthday.

As part of the celebration, FDC University at Mount Pleasant’s Faculty of Political Science and Faculty of  Communications are asking citizens to write about their personal Canadian experiences. A panel of journalists and political scientists will select five of the best entries for publication on the FDC website and in the Mount Pleasant Observer.

Canada will be seen through multiple lenses as citizens spin personal tales of a diverse, complicated, irksome and awesome land.

Following is one such story.

My personal Canadian journey began about sixty years ago.

By nineteen sixty  Montreal was my new home. After completing engineering and business degrees  in Ontario and British Columbia, employment in Quebec provided a perfect spectrum of technical, business, cultural and social challenges. My employer was a diversified, multinational company. Corporate headquarters were in New York.  Canadian operations were distributed from coast to coast. Head office was in Montreal.

So the stage was set….. everything was new, exciting, and intimidating.

Imagine the forces at play including professional challenges, differing economic, political and social circumstances plus a new perspective on Canada. Working and playing in two languages added to an already full agenda. Such a steep learning curve.

Sometime into my journey, signs of worsening business conditions appeared.  Within the conglomerate on both sides of the border, accelerating international competition influenced Canadian and American operations alike. In Quebec antiquated facilities, feudal organizational practices and a branch plant mentality interfered with business success.

Political policies of the day encouraged establishing small Canadian operations.  Good for nationalism but not good in the face of changing international landscapes in which size mattered.

Personally my life in Quebec, particularly Montreal, could not have been more fulfilling.

To be sure the well-known French-English divide influenced every nook and cranny. Anglo domination in commercial enterprises aggravated an already difficult environment.  Long standing norms were not changing at a pace commensurate with the rest of Canada nor around the world. With the full benefit of hindsight these issues festered, only to erupt several years later as nationalistic fervor took a nasty turn.

Expo 67, as a festival, mesmerized Quebec, Canada and the world. In retrospect the celebration was a diversion away from escalating  social, political and economic problems.

We all know what happened next.   Altering circumstances  accelerated with the emergence of the Parti Quebecois, the FLQ events, the separation referendums, the migration of financial institutions, wealth transfers and citizens with long term roots leaving Quebec. What a dismal era for all.  I left as well.

Canadians had little appreciation for the difficulties facing Quebec, and soon to threaten  the country’s very existence. Charles de Gaulle ignited decades  of turbulence on July 24, 1967 by shouting for all to hear “Vive le  Quebec Libre”.  This single proclamation was the catalyst for what was to follow Changes  were no longer optional. All that remained was their extent and what they were going to be.

Well many happened and continue to do so.

 Have a look in this one hundred and fiftieth year since Confederation. Now new buildings, refurbished old ones, street side eateries, parks, new and old, looking fresh and user friendly. Construction cranes dominate the skylines  More subtle are the attitudes. Highways and byways over flow as individuals and crowds exude senses of belonging and inclusion. Quoting a friend who accompanied me on this journey “The road has been long. I am heartened that with reconciliation we now have a day when we can say wow I never sthought this was possible”.

 My tale is not based on learned research. Sometimes one has to go with observations and feelings, eschewing essays concerning the state of the nation and speculation about the future, good or bad.   All the evidence is anecdotal, pointing to a city and province now content in their own skins.

More than anything this has been – and remains a personal journey,  moving from concern to alarm to shock to despair to optimism and now to gratification that much has changed for everyone’s benefit.

 The Canadian Confederation remains a work in progress—so far so good

Don Thurston Blog

Perhaps energy issues are about more than name calling and finger pointing

Energy generation has an interesting and telling history; interesting because of a twisted path, telling because within this history are the reasons for today’s issues.

For example waxy materials used for lighting were odoriferous and toxic. As scribes laboroued over their parchment, products of combustion contaminated their surroundings. The Inuit knew a better way: whale and seal oil worked very well in enclosed settings, supplying ample heat and light to meet their uncomplicated needs. There is no evidence that Martin Frobisher transferred this technology to Europe after exploring Eastern Baffin Island. Nevertheless Europeans adopted whale oil holous bolas as a major source of light.  This was bad news for whales.  Centuries of harvesting diminished the population almost to extinction in oceans everywhere.

During the middle of the eighteen hundreds petroleum began a long and storied journey.  A primitive distillation process yielded a low volatility product suitable for lighting-kerosene, soon to be a substitute for whale oil. Harvesting whales was becoming more and more problematic as supply diminished. Coincidentally the United States Government of the day needed more and more resources to finance the Civil War. What better source than taxing whale oil?  Prices rose, both for oil and in sympathy, kerosene; perhaps the first but not the last government intervention to benefit the fossil fuel industries.

Coal was and remains a major energy player, reaching domination by fueling the industrial revolution. Included were heating ferrous ores for iron and steel metal production, generating steam for engines and lighting systems by  the production of coal gas, piped under cities to homes and street lights.

Engines, both internal combustion and electrical soon emerged, along with the electric generator. The exploitation of a much- improved steam engine evolved earlier, forever a testimony  to Watt’s creativity. Paradoxically the full potential of these inventions coalesced in the same era, all after many decades of development. Diesel, Tesla, Westinghouse, and Siemens are household names as a result.  In the blink of an eye manual labor and horses became much less important.

Returning to petroleum; producing kerosene generated a more volatile concoction and with further modification morphed into gasoline. At that time this by product was dangerous and likely not much more than a nuisance. Fortunately the internal combustion engine was lurking on the inventor’s desk. This and Henry Ford’s determination started what we now know as the most -friendly innovation of all time.

Meanwhile lighting innovations of another kind were underway as the incandescent bulb emerged and Thomas Edison extend ending his long creative history.  Lighting was a fraction of the impact of energy generation from the coal-boiler-steam-electric generator-electric motor quintet.

So the stage was set; in very short order we have a huge uptake of coal, oil and natural gas powering internal combustion engines, electric motors, and turbines and heating systems. These now combine to do a great deal of the worlds work and provide most of the lighting to watch them perform.

While fossil fuel producers occupy the same energy space there is fierce competition among the thousands of oil, natural gas and coal companies all the way from exploration, exploitation, refining, transportation and marketing. Consumers have benefited accordingly.

The business has done a marvelous job of fueling economic growth of gargantuan proportions to such an extent that alternate sources have great difficulty in gaining a foothold.  Convenience, supply, efficiency, quality and cost have combined to do a wonderful task.  Alternates are hydro and nuclear.  Hydro needs elevation changes and water supply combined; virtues not all that common throughout the world. Nuclear has significant barriers to entry, some financial some technical and others social.

Many aspects have not changed over one hundred years. Consumers still fill up at gasoline pumps, coal is still  shipped over long distances before  introduction  into boilers, and we pipe natural gas into furnaces. We still harvest and ship the stuff, albeit in much more efficient ways and then break the carbon-hydrogen bond at generating stations and in internal combustion engines. By comparison, witness the lack of innovation as opposed to the way we communicate. The latter has gone from drums, smoke and flags to digital signals allowing worldwide connectivity…cheaply.

Industrial processes everywhere prosper, in part by using the planet as a convenient disposal medium. Rivers, oceans and land have been low cost receptors from the start. Now we are discovering that these habits include employing the atmosphere as an air- borne effluent collector is at the very least, a questionable practice, at the very worst, fatal. Compounding the problem, gaseous products tend to stay around for very long periods of time as well and disperse very slowly.

Awareness of the amount of man-made substances entering the water systems and solids in the ground has precipitated many disputes. As to gaseous materials in the atmosphere, consternation is the order of the day. The consequences are widely debated, made difficult by the systems under study. They are effected by many variables, other than those resulting from human involvement.  Under these circumstances the possibility of absolute determination remains out of reach. As a minimum we know that land- based eco-systems have been severely influenced by solid and liquid by products ; extending this to air born goop into  the atmosphere is not much of a stretch.

Energy is fundamental to economic development. Aiding and abetting the fossil fuel industry is one tool for promoting industrial  development. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created during the 1930s depression years to stimulate a flagging economy. Governments supported all manner of projects, many of them for power generation. Equipment suppliers benefited hugely as did power consumers. The Interstate Highway System project was a direct result of highway building in the United States to provide much needed transportation and hence aid industrial growth. Auto manufacturers were strong advocates; the oil and gas producers were beneficiaries. Electrification  in rural areas throughout North America, supported by government funding,  was a boon to the agricultural industry and of course  to the fossil fuel industry

Recapping: Fossil fuels dominate because the industry supplies a cheap, reliable, convenient way to fill our energy needs. Economies rely on the stuff to sustain and promote growth. Political influences applied  directly and indirectly constantly interrupt market forces.  Antiquated delivery systems have changed little over many years. The processes are hazardous. Environmental concerns are gaining traction. The industry is well and truly global, therefore addressing issues requires global participation.

No tale of science fiction could do justice to the past twelve decades of industrialization fueled by carbon- based energy  Tales of energy are ubiquitous because most plane Earth residents are up front and personal with related issues on a daily basis. Calling upon simple solutions  to solve  hugely-complex problems begs the question.  The question before the house is more properly”How can, if ever, one or more  energy -supply systems emerge that will compete head to head with the fossil fuel  based systems now in place”?

Among many systems, electrification is attracting major investment dollars. Every part  from generation, to transmission, to storage, to application are under-going change. Outcomes of lower cost, increased efficiencies, convenience, and expanded access are reasonable expectations.

Stand by as the next chapters unfold in this saga. Approaching is a world when  consumers will have choices about the types and sources of energy to suit their needs.

While analogies have limitations, imagine a world of a single transportation system, say the automobile…no trains, no planes, no buses, no rapid transit, no motorcycles, no bicycles, no skate boards, and so on and so forth. Worse, we would not have the joy of watching John Candy and Steve Martin careen their way through Trains, Planes and Automobiles.


Don Thurston Blog

The honey bee and the clover farmer; a fable

Decades ago in a distant land, a farmer searched for crop diversification.  A close relative suggested clover production.  In particular he recommended growing clover with four leaves which would garner superior prices because of the good fortune they brought.  Such a venture would surely be profitable thought the farmer.

In spite of the farmer’s best efforts, bountiful crops were fleeting and four leaf clover production was particularly limited. Khthonioian efforts improved the harvest only slightly; the project languished as a result.

As was his custom, the farmer frequented a regional market, buying locally grown vegetables, fresh meat, dairy products and breads.  Luxury items were sometimes included such as pickles, jams and honey. Honey was a particular favorite, often in short supply.

By happenstance the farmer fell into a conversation with one of the very few talking bees in the area. After exchanging pleasantries he mentioned to his new friend the dilemma about low clover productivity. After a brief deliberation, the bee said the problem was likely the shortage of his brethren, thereby limiting pollinating, necessary for clover reproduction

Presently, an entrepreneurial bee keeper recognized local honey and bee’s wax shortages and soon built an apiary adjoining the clover patch. Bees proliferated; harvests of clover and those with four leaves increased; honey and bee’s wax production sky rocketed. The bee was delighted with an influx of new friends.

Increased usage and reduced productivity of the clover patch necessitated adding fertilizer. Not a problem, the farmer was able to buy manure from a local dairy.

An unintended consequence of spreading manure was odors cascading throughout the neighborhood, causing neighbors to be more than a little annoyed

A citizen’s review committee summarized the situation. The clover-honey combination benefited the honey producer, the clover grower and the bees.  However the clover-honey-manure-dairy farmer quartet inflicted major negative influences on neighbors. They gained nothing directly from the commercial enterprises but suffered the consequences of living in close proximity to the clover farm.

Government officials were ambivalent.  Benefits accrued to the producers. Employment opportunities increased; business and personal tax revenues went up. On the other hand residents in the local and regional areas had very legitimate objections.   Disadvantages accrued from air pollution, associated health risks, reduced property values and a lessened quality of life. Throughout, voters were clamoring for remedial action.

A proposal under consideration- the clover farmer assume some responsibility for his actions burdensome to those living in proximity of the clover fields. Implementing a manure odor tax gained some traction. Actions of this nature could cause the farmer to reduce noxious emissions. Proceeds would be applied to discovering manure odor reduction methods and alternate ways of fertilization.

Some committee members are certain that draconian actions of this nature would force businesses to relocate. Nearby districts hunger for new businesses, offering all manner of enticements including a friendly tax regime.

Supporting industry members echoed such a view.  A spokesperson from The Manure Spreaders Association (TMSA) quoted “Our members are already suffering from the encroachment of synthetic fertilizers”. Honey producers are encountering similar problems as artificial sweeteners take a bigger market share. Added taxes and more stringent regulations would most certainly be unwarranted burdens. A prominent executive and opponent of any measures influencing agriculture profitability has suggested that such taxes are an excuse for governments to increase revenues.

Conversations continue.

Politicians, the electorate and industries of the day can take some solace. Debates about similar situations are emerging.   A current hot button:  coal fired power plants, while owners benefit, effluents are harmful far and wide.

Don Thurston Blog

The little old woman who lived in a shoe, a tale of impact investing

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe

She had so many children, she did not know what to do

She gave them broth without any bread

Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed

The little old woman’s name was Grace Sandal. Her extended family was embarrassed by such living arrangements and deemed it totally unacceptable. The child abuse compounded the problem, threatening the Sandal name and inviting legal intervention.

Relatives agreed that something needed to be done to help her find new directions. They knew her as an industrious well-meaning person, but somewhat misguided.

Grace’s cousin Clarence Sandal was asked to approach Grace for a conversation concerning a possible life-style change and if so what resources would be required.  He was  selected because of his well-known negotiating skills, the warmth of his personality, a deep commitment to his fellow citizens and his reputation as a successful business person.

Clarence called on Grace. He cited her behavior as inappropriate, both as to her housing and unseemly, if not illegal, disciplinary habits.  Much to his pleasant surprise  Grace listened carefully, welcoming the observations demonstrating considerable emotion at the same time.  Tearfully she told a tale of living uncomfortably on a very limited income. Her children were frequently a source of frustration and as such, sometimes received a whipping.

Clarence had an inclination to assist Grace. In his capacity as a senior executive of a major shoe manufacturer, he had helped his company craft an impact investing strategy.

He correctly surmised that the three essential ingredients for such an enterprise were present in this case.  The community was in need of low-cost housing: Clarence could supply the funding and Grace could manage the enterprise.

To make a long story short these three ingredients coalesced into a very successful social enterprise including filling a housing need, providing a return for the company and giving Grace a whole new career.

Now the little old woman manages low-cost homes for large families with many children. No whipping allowed.

Don Thurston Blog

If you have fresh water supply problems and no water department, who do you call?

“Would you tell me please which way I should go from here?” asked Alice. “That depends a great deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh you are sure to do that,” said the Cat, “as long as you walk long enough”.

This quintessential Lewis Carol excerpt is often paraphrased to “If you do not know your destination then it does not matter how you get there”.

A good example is the well-intended objective of providing fresh water to communities in Malawi by drilling and equipping water wells; laudable certainly, but limited in scope and outcomes. A water well alone does not a water department make. For sure a source is vital. However by itself a source does not mean reliable potable water delivery. Much more is needed to construct a sustainable supply including well locations, repair, planned maintenance, spare parts, transportation and trained personnel.

Now we have a job for a systems designer and builder. Wonder of wonders, on the job was a Canadian organization, Engineers Without Borders. This group of human development pioneers identified a major deficiency: not establishing the destination first and then starting the journey.

The water department destination defines the outcome; building the components are the tasks. Technology stepped in by providing terrestrial location methods. Now existing wells can be located and new ones positioned. Following close behind is monitoring the life cycle of hand pumps, wells and boreholes, training community members, provision of spare parts and building partnerships. Two water organizations have invested to scale up the program. Upon completion, EWB will have mapped over a third of all water points in Malawi.

The Malawian Water Department, Alice and EWB now have the potential for a mutual outcome. If Alice asks where to drill a water well, the Cat may well answer, “That depends a great deal on what she wants to achieve”; if she asks the Cat how to create a sustainable water supply for all Malwians, the Cat may well answer, “Build all the elements that constitute a water department”.

Ask Engineers Without Borders and their Malawian partners to give you a hand.