by Geoff Olson

When a strange craft glided over Huffman prairie in 1905, the general manager of Dayton’s rail line and his chief engineer ordered the conductor to stop the train while they and the passengers on board watched in astonishment. Piloting the strange Ohio craft – one of the world’s first flying machines – was a man by the name of Orville Wright.

In his 1994 book Alternative Science, author Richard Milton writes: “From December 1903 to September 1908, two young bicycle mechanics from Ohio repeatedly claimed to have built a heavier-than-air flying machine and to have flown it successfully. But despite scores of public demonstrations, affidavits from local dignitaries and photographs of themselves flying, the claims of Wilbur and Orville Wright were derided and dismissed as a hoax by Scientific American, The New York Herald, the US army and most American scientists.”

Cut to over a century later. In December 2014, Cho Hyun-ah, vice president in charge of in-flight service at Korean Air, had a meltdown over the way she was served macadamia nuts in a first-class cabin of her employer’s airline.

Hyun-ah allegedly struck a flight attendant and ordered the plane back to the gate of a New york airport as it was taxiing for takeoff, so she could boot out the chief flight attendant. As a result of her “nut rage,” the airline executive lost her job and was charged with endangering flight safety. South Korean prosecutors are recommending a three year prison term.

It’s a testament to human adaptability that you can pack a few hundred people into a pressurized metal tube and fling them partway across the globe, without stories of meltdowns becoming as routine as in-flight Adam Sandler films. But New York Times writer Frank Bruni suggests otherwise. In a recent article, he insists it’s bad up there and getting worse.

‘’There are few better showcases of Americans worst impulses, circa 2014, than a 757 bound from New York to Los Angeles or from Sacramento to St. Louis. It’s a mile-high mirror of our talent for pettiness, our tendency toward selfishness, our disconnection from one another and our increasing demarcation of castes. It’s a microcosm at 30,000 to 45,000 feet,” he writes.

I haven’t flown either route, but I’ve done a fair bit of airline travel across the US and Canada and have very rarely witnessed the kind of behaviour that Bruni infers as typical for the Orcs in couch class.

“Courtesy is dead. The plane is its graveyard,” he concludes, working the rhetorical wa-wa pedal harder than Rex Murphy on Screech. Sure, it’s easy to insist that US passengers deserve better from the airlines and each other, when in fact their plane ticket prices have dropped 50 percent in real dollars since 1978.  On both sides of the border, passenger light has become the aerial equivalent of bus rides to middle class customers. The sense of entitlement in first class is correspondingly higher.

In the public mind, it’s not just normal but necessary for relatives to jet across the country for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  As a result, what was once breathtaking has become banal. In a much-viewed comedy routine on YouTube, Louis C.K. mocks an imaginary passenger who complains of waiting on a runway for 40 minutes: “Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.”

Myths are impossible by definition.  According to Richard Milton, a main road and a rail line bordered the Wright brothers’ testing ground in Dayton. So for years, thousands of people had witnessed their flying experiments. It didn’t matter – experts had concluded that heavier-than-air flight was the stuff of Icarus and other fictional frequent flyers. Ergo, there was no need to investigate claims of success.

Eventually, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered public trials at Fort Myers, to settle the rumours once and for all. In 1908, the Wright brothers won official credibility when the army and scientific press accepted their flying machine as reality rather than myth.

Two brothers taking turns in chairs in the sky. And a hundred years later, millions of people follow their lead, spewing carbon compounds and complaining of cattle car conditions,  with the occasional tantrum over service. But mostly, politely enduring what was once considered impossible.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 6



by Geoff Olson

Target, noun: A person, object, or place selected as the aim of an attack. – Oxford American Dictionary

133 stores. 20 million square feet. 17,600 employees, whose 16 week severance pay adds up to less than the $61 million package reportedly given to former CEO Gregg Steinhafel to walk away last May.

There’s nothing comic about Target’s implosion in Canada, but you’ll be excused any bitter laughter over an American firm that inexplicably chose to enter a big-box market already dominated by US behemoth Walmart.

Yet mockery is better placed on a succession of Canadian leaders, from both the Liberal and Conservative parties, who waltzed us into a branch-plant economy in the first place.

A brief history lesson. In January 2005, American billionaire Jerry Zucker purchased Hudson’s Bay Company, and its subsidiary Canadian properties, including Zellers. Shortly after, Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal purchased Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, which includes Chateau Laurier, Royal York and Banff Springs, for $4.5 billion. The buy-ups were big news at the time.

In 2011, Target acquired 222 Zellers stores from  Hudson’s Bay Company for a cool $1.8 billion.

Ottawa puts few restrictions on the repatriation of capital or profit by foreign investors. As a result, Canada attracts a high level of foreign investment, and the global business press pitches our nation as a great low-tax berth for big money.

When I interviewed Mel Hurtig in a Vancouver coffee shop in 2008, the former publisher and nationalist was well into his second decade of warning Canadians of the selloff of their retail operations, industry, resources, and culture. No other developed country in the world would dream of allowing the degree of foreign ownership and foreign control that we have, he told me.

“There are 36 different sectors of the Canadian economy that are majority foreign owned and controlled. How many of them are there in the United States?”

“Zero?” I hesitantly replied.

“Zero. Did you think the Americans would ever allow their chemical industry, their rubber industry, their computer industry, their petroleum industry, etc. to be majority foreign owned? I mean what a laugh!”

Bitter laughter, needless to say. Hurtig was among a few high profile but unheralded Canadians who saw the writing on the wall back in the early nineties. These Cassandras insisted an alphabet soup of cooked transnational trade agreements would wreak havoc with national sovereignty.

In 2005 alone, over $22.3 billion of foreign-controlled corporate profits left the country. Hurtig relayed this figure and other troubling information in his most recent book, The Truth About Canada. In his research, he did something quite novel by citing a reliable source that our business press seemed loathe to consult: Statistics Canada.

(Ironically, the federal bureau was itself not immune to the dynamic outlined by the author. In 2011, Statistics Canada contracted out census hardware and software applications to the Canadian subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, a major US defence contractor.)

When Brian Mulroney came to office in 1985, the Tories drastically reduced the mandate of the Foreign Federal Investment Review Agency and tellingly renamed it Investment Canada. Between that date and my interview with Hurtig, over 13,000 Canadian companies had been taken over by foreign buyers. Only 2 takeovers had been blocked, said the author. Most of the takeovers in Canada were signed, sealed and delivered with our own money by Canadian bankers.

The North American Free Trade Agreement  (NAFTA) – globalization’s Arc of the Covenant – was signed off by prime minister Brian Mulroney and president Ronald Reagan in 1992. It came into force in 1994, and Jean Chretien stopped making noises about renegotiating NAFTA once the Liberal leader got into office.

Throughout  this period of time, the federal Near Death Party was holding seances with the identity politics crowd, instead of spooking the electorate about dirty deals done dirt cheap.

This all explains, in part, why Canada is a now place where a retail vacuum can be created, entered, and left at will by foreign investors. And now the most invasive trade agreement to date, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is ready for “fast tracking” by the leaders of member nations. This document is engineered to further ensure that investment trumps sovereignty and capital trumps labour, the world over.

Target, indeed.

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 23


by Geoff Olson

A friend recently expressed disappointment in his stock market portfolio. It hadn’t performed appreciably better than chance over a significant stretch of time, he told me.

Welcome to the world of chance.

If you take 300 students, ask them to correctly call 10 coin toss flips and graph the results, the result is a nice, fat bell curve, visually representing correct versus incorrect guesses. With the above result in mind, financial researchers tabulated the performance of 300 mutual fund managers for a 10 year period, from 1987 to 1996.

“In this case, the horizontal axis represents not correct guesses of coin flips but the number of years (out of 10) that a manager performed above the group average,” observed physicist Leonard Mlodinow in his 2008 book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. The result: a nice, fat bell curve that sits snugly over the graph from 300 students tossing coins 10 times.

In other words, if you’re seeking the best among financial advisers, you might as well stick some names on a dart board. Worse yet, Mlodinow notes that in a study of 153 financial newsletters, a researcher at the Harvard Institute of Economic Research found “no significant evidence of stock-picking ability.”

For centuries, human beings have sought predictable outcomes through divination, witchcraft, prayer, political ideologies, marketing systems, financial speculation, and scientific models. Our kludged nervous systems have taken our species from the savannah to the space station in a geological blink of the eye. But our gift of pattern detection can run gently amok at times.

For example, if you dump a bunch of coloured jellybeans into a glass jar and shake them, you will see a pattern on the inside wall of the jar traced by contiguous jelly beans of the same colour. This perceptual glitch usually isn’t problematic, unless emotional processing from the brains limbic system kicks in. Hence the occasional reports from the American South of Christ’s face on toast, windowpanes and barn doors.

Consider that bane of our best-laid plans, the weather. On its website, Environment Canada attaches a probability figure to its predictions. However, long-range predictions come the proviso that some “results are not significantly better than chance.”

“It’s like saying flip a coin, throw a dart,” explained senior climatologist David Phillips in the 2012 CBC documentary, The Trouble With Experts. “We have to say something; we can’t just sort of put a blank map saying the weather this month has been cancelled, so the best way to communicate is to give something but then say ‘user beware.’”

Weather is one thing; wine is something else entirely. Researchers have long known that the average oenophile is hopeless at judging wine quality.

Now it turns out that wine experts are also largely without a clue.

Vintner and oceanographer Robert Hodgson regularly selects the best wines from his small California winery to enter into local competitions. He began to wonder why the results were so inconsistent over time for different brands. Drawing on his experience in statistics, he organized an experiment at the California State Fair wine competition.

He found through his label-concealed taste tests that accomplished palates are no better than untutored tongues. “The results are disturbing,” Hodgson told The Observer in 2013. “Only about 10 per year of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year.”

It’s not the wine that’s wonky. It’s the linkage between our ancient olfactory sense and a linguistic faculty that is evolutionarily recent. Pompous wine-trade descriptors (“wet stone,” “spring hedgerows” and “nervy” for example) are verbal camouflage used by wine snobs to disguise an inability to communicate their own subjective states. You might even say they’re full of shiraz. (In 2007, Princeton economics professor Richard E. Quandt created an algorithm to generate impressive-sounding reviews of imaginary wines, employing his “vocabulary of bullshit.”)

Inaccurate or fictitious assessments of wine, weather and stock funds are hardly enough on their own to take our species over the cliff. But when it comes to other areas of high complexity — economics, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, geopolitics, and climate science — experts would do the rest of us a favour by looking out for the jellybean factor in their own assessments.

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 23