Wednesday Night #1466

Given  that this  evening’s special guest was Nigel Penney, much of the discussion centered on science and education, a natural follow-on to last week’s discussion of issues related to national policy on education.

The Marianopolis Summer Science Camp
In an attempt to provide a meaningful experience to students from grades three to ten, Marianopolis College, in collaboration with universities, hospitals and other science-related institutions and individuals, has initiated a summer Science Camp that will challenge the intellectual age-related capabilities of the campers with experiments in robotics, physics, chemistry and other disciplines in close contact with successful adults who have chosen science related careers. If successful, future generations may learn to equate the satisfaction of achievement with the satisfaction of being a front runner in the proverbial rat race.
The experiment is the camp. The very best people provide age-inappropriate science to the children There’s no final exam – they aren’t going to be tested on it – so if they can relate to something wonderful …  Bring your science, do it in front of the kids and if something happens …  We have fun with it. There’s a very serious purpose – we don’t beat the kids over the head with ‘I want you to think science is cool’. They’ll find out in their own time.
One of the keys to the success of the camp is the number of scientists who participate because, more and more, grants are linked to outreach efforts.

Science versus celebrity
When mention is made of Bill Gates, it usually refers to his wealth acquired through the development of Microsoft rather than his greater contribution as software architect whose intellectual skills made possible the personal computer.  Who can recall the name of the designer and builder of the Spirit of St. Louis? [Editor’s note: Donald A. Hall]  Aviation buffs and some others will recall the name of Charles Lindbergh, the first non-stop transatlantic flight, and the magic that they created in 1927.  But it is evident that the public values celebrity very much more highly than it does greatness or creativity, and, sadly, this is reflected in the striking gap in remuneration between the marketers and the creators.

Excitement is the only reward that Science has to offer
Science has enabled humans to enjoy healthier, easier lives and improved longevity, yet the majority of students tend to be attracted to studies that will, by a large margin, provide the potential for maximizing income, and not incidentally, require less hours of study and dedication, whether at CEGEP or university level. Income and celebrity tend to be the measure of the level in society that one has attained, valued far above achievement by the vast majority of the world’s population.  Very important sub-issues are the lacunae in the government and the private sector at both elected and appointed levels, of senior people with scientific backgrounds, making it difficult to legislate, support and regulate science issues. There is a need for a balance between people who produce science and people who are intelligent and visionary enough to use science. This may be a weakness in Canada.

Numerous hypotheses attempt to explain the paradoxical disconnect between meaningful achievement and remuneration, but certainly a majority of post-secondary students tend to opt for those occupational choices that offer them a virtual lottery ticket to wealth and celebrity as opposed to greatness, devoid of any thought of responsibility for improving the lot of their fellow man where the most likely reward might be peer recognition.  This explanation is offered as part of the reason for a less than enthusiastic desire to study the sciences.  Others believe that recently, the vast majority of post-graduate students are women, who perceive science as ‘wet and dirty occupation’  and as yet, lack a history of  positive role models.

Our politicians have little or no understanding or appreciation of science. There is little effective communication between these two groups, for the reasons so graphically illustrated  in the recent article in Nature, essentially because governments are focused on short-term objectives and certainty while scientists live in the realm of long-term probability (or potential). Until Science is accorded its place in the public policy sphere, we may continue to expect a lag in invention and innovation.

The dollar
The perception of Canada as a stable country, with well regulated banks, along with a wealth of commodities, contributes to the rise of the Canadian  dollar, which is reaching parity with its U.S. counterpart. (Russia is also a commodity-rich country, but there has been no concomitant rush to buy the ruble)  Cross-border shoppers and exporters of commodities are elated while exporters of manufactured goods see the situation as a hardship.  Prices are driven by supply and demand and currently Canada, as well as Australia, is favored by the increased demand in commodities.  Hypothetically, the value of the Canadian currency is based on balance of trade; in reality, decisions on the value of trading currencies are made by a small group of people.  Jean Chrétien is said to have had a tacit agreement with the unions allowing the value of the dollar to erode in order to keep our pulp and paper industry alive. Today, it appears that the government has no such commitment; the monetary policy as we see it is one that suggests that our interest rates will rise faster than those in the U.S., which will bring about a further increase in the Canadian dollar  Through such mechanisms as interest rates, there is no possibility of permitting the self-destruction of the Canadian economy through an unrestrained increase rise in currency versus the U.S. dollar.  The maximum politically acceptable limit is said to lie between $1.10 and $1.20. The exchange rate is always a source of complaint, and in Kimon Valaskakis’ view, we should talk about high/low rater than strong/weak, as there are advantages in both situations.   In fact, our economies are so interrelated that except for political considerations a common Canada-U.S. currency would make sense, but the politics would make it impossible. Parity would eliminate the exchange risk and competition is based on other grounds, rather than currency fluctuations. This would not be popular with the Bank of Canada, whose importance would be reduced to the equivalent of a regional federal reserve bank with no more influence on monetary policy.  We should also bear in mind that in the grand scheme, the Canadian dollar is an unimportant currency; inevitably we are caught in the backlash of events related to the euro, U.S. dollar, etc.
Canadian sovereign monetary policy is a figment of our imagination

The market
The stock market has risen by 71% since March, 2009 and 13.2% since October 2009.  Although the market is currently awaiting the quarterly results, it is anticipated that it will continue to rise (no reason to turn around for the next 30 weeks), with commodities and somewhat surprisingly (but cyclically coherent), paper stocks beginning to boom despite the declining newsprint sector.  A superior banking system and good financial and political stability augur well for the foreseeable future.  The price of gold is expected to continue to increase, and our technical expert expects it to reach $1300 shortly — and $3000 long term.  The one possible glitch suggested by the skeptics is our unpreparedness to deal with disasters, natural or man-made.

Media interviews
A clip of Wednesday Nighter, Dov Zigler’s recent interview on CBC brought forth a number of constructive and good-humored comments from our former journalists regarding interview techniques; staying on message (which he did); moderating one’s delivery to avoid the impression of telegraphing information; compensating for the interviewer’s lack of expertise; and the need to identify which camera to look at so that it appears that the interviewee is speaking to the audience. They pointed out that documentary interviews are very different from studio interviews and that news interviews have a specific focus which is hard to evade. If I say I don’t know anything about it, I look incompetent and if I do admit to knowing something about it I may look as though I am covering up.

Sheila Arnopoulos will be launching her book Saris on scooters How Microcredit Is Changing Village India on Tuesday, May 18 6- 8 p.m at Paragraphe Books – more information to follow

T H E  I N V I T A T I O N

Late-breaking news: In Kyrgyzstan, President Flees as Opposition Claims Control
Large-scale protests appear to have overthrown the government of Kyrgyzstan, an important American ally in Central Asia

Some Good, Some Bad and Some (Very) Ugly this week ….

CONGRATULATIONS to Alexandra and James Greenhill. The West Wing of Wednesday Night celebrates its 2nd year anniversary this Wednesday with a range of good topics including a couple of our favourites. We know so well the demands placed on them as organizers/conveners/creative thinkers and are grateful that they continue to carry the torch of WN.

A note for your calendars: This Saturday, April 10, the Open House of the Marianopolis Summer Science Camp takes place from 1-4PM. This (successful) brainchild of Nigel Penney, who will be with us this Wednesday, is an exciting and innovative program which we should all support in any way we can. First off – go to the Open House and take children, grandchildren, or strays to get them excited about science. Spread the word.

Welcome back to all who have returned from your Easter/Passover holidays. As Kenneth Matziorinis reminded us, while wishing us Καλή Ανάσταση (Have a Good Resurrection), this year Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter together following the conclusion of the Jewish Passover.

We hope the Easter Bunny was good to you and that you have not put all your eggs in one basket.

Economy and finance notes

Speaking of nest eggs, we have been entertainedand informed by an exchange among several Wednesday Nighters on the topic of the euro, prompted by a link forwarded by Gerald Ratzer from Uncommon Wisdom “Speeding Toward the Currency Graveyard“. The author believes that the collapse of the European Monetary Union is preordained and that the U.S. faces the same fiscal nightmare, which the dollar will not survive (Have a nice day!). Among his recommendations for your basket(s):
“Natural resource markets will benefit the most. Gold, oil, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, water.
“Rare earth metals too, critical to the advancement of technology and science, and of which there are only 17 elements, including scandium, yttrium, and neodymium, critical in electronic components and for the future of hybrid cars and alternative energy.
“And it will be very bullish as well for basic necessities, from cocoa, sugar and coffee … to lumber, soybeans, corn, wheat, and dozens more.”
Finally, to the delight of more than one Wednesday Nighter, he says “No matter what, hold your core long-term gold positions. And if you don’t own gold, I strongly suggest you buy some now.”  No doubt we will hear more about this – and soon!

The above recommendations don’t mention wine, but the Financial Post suggests you should have Liquid assets in your portfolio, adding that Wine is a high-return low-risk delicious kind of investment – and appropriate for Wednesday Nighters!

Meanwhile, if you want more on monetary policy and related issues of the economy and the financial crisis, we commend to you FINANCIAL CRISIS WITH PROFESSOR HAROLD CHORNEY and The Return of The Keynesian Revolution with Professor Harold Chorney – clear, concise and well argued.

Canada notes

We thought that after proroguing Parliament, Mr. Harper was going to make everyone work through all the subsequent holidays, but, everyone is off until April 12, so we need not worry about anything much happening for another week – and the Loonie sailed upwards without the Conservatives’ help. However, [the Loose] Cannon is taking advantage of the break to visit the Arctic and is apparently preparing to invite Russia to collaborate on mapping; the minister also appears to be quite sanguine about the ability of science to overcome geopolitics – he is quoted  as saying that it “can settle any future international disputes over Canada’s Arctic borders and those of its neighbours”. It might help if Canada had been a bit more attentive to some of those neighbors and the local inhabitants last week (Arctic summit highlights tensions, competing interests)

We did of course note the blaze of glory with which the enquiry into the Rights & Democracy stand-off ended last week. Nor can we neglect the announcement that CBC management (oxymoron!) is forcing Barbara Budd of As It Happens to step down. What are they thinking of? Presumably these are the same wonderful programming brains who replaced Fred Langan with the inane and annoying duo Lang & O’Leary (we refuse to link to them), and of course, have fired Nancy Wood from her slot – and before that, there was Anne Lagacé Dowson’s problem. Seems like competence is rewarded in a very peculiar way at CBC these days.

There’s interesting reading to be found in the Clerk of the Privy Council’s Annual Report regarding renewal in the federal public service. You need not read all 67 pages, the conclusions will tell all; we found the demographics particularly noteworthy. One informed Wednesday Nighter makes these comments: “My particular ‘take aways’ were: a) the change to a risk management culture and b) an entire IT change and renewal program for the next few years.  This is huge. We have been anticipating this move for several years, but never thought of it in the context that you cannot interest new recruits unless you provide them with the state of the art tools that they have been using all their lives.  The implication follows that the same will apply to industry in a very short time. This alone will be a major driver of economic recovery.” (So, back to the economy and thoughts of investing, along with lots of work for the tekkies.)

Afghanistan

Three news items point to the insurmountable problems facing the NATO allies in Afghanistan.
Afghan Leader Threatens to Join Taliban
(AP) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened over the weekend to quit the political process and join the Taliban if he continued to come under outside pressure to reform, several members of parliament said Monday.
Afghanistan’s New Bumper Drug Crop: Cannabis
(TIME) It’s hardly news that Afghanistan’s huge opium crops supply more than 90% of the world’s heroin. But now U.N. officials say Afghanistan is also the world’s biggest producer of another drug – hashish. In its first attempt to calculate how much cannabis is grown in the country, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime says in a report released in Kabul on Wednesday that Afghan farmers earned up to $94 million last year from selling 1,500 to 3,500 tons of hash.
Afghan president Karzai accuses UN over election fraud

(BBC) Fraud had been widespread, Mr Karzai conceded, but he blamed foreigners for it, saying the UN was its focal point.
Mr Karzai singled out Peter Galbraith, the then deputy head of the UN mission, who he said had organised the fraud. We can only point to Tom Friedman’s comment in his timely column of March 31 “Rule No. 1: When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go.”

Finally, we cannot ignore the Very Ugly — Collateral Murder
On Monday, WikiLeaks.org released a classified U.S. military video of a 2007 helicopter attack in Baghdad, showing the killing of a Reuters photographer and 11 other people. It is horrifying and so is the evidence that American forces totally ignored the Rules of Engagement. The complicity of the U.S. military in the cover-up is well documented. It is a tragic story whose publication will no doubt have both predictable and unpredictable ramifications. The Guardian ; Al Jazeera ; BBC

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