Category Archives: Technology

We are all connected

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It should surprise exactly no one that not one Canadian municipality makes the World Economic Forum’s list of most successful cities – not Toronto, not Montreal, not Vancouver, and certainly not any of New Brunswick’s three major urban areas.

We are, after all, in this province mere cartographic postscripts comporting ourselves in much the same way we always have: with one toe tentatively dipped in the future and one foot firmly planted in the past. I sometimes think we like it that way. In fact, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it.

Armies of retirees, fresh from their career conquests in other more economically vigorous parts of the world, have chosen communities like Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John to settle into their sanguine senescence. Here, crime rates are low, house prices are stunningly reasonable, and the natural environment is, by every comparison, downright pristine.

But, ultimately, no region can survive its own sleepy traditions and predilections by insulating itself from the rest of the world. What is virtuous about a place can eventually become disadvantageous. Whether we like it or not, we are all connected on this planet.

Over the years, the urgent conversation among those here who recognize this simple fact of life in the 21st Century has concerned the character of progress. How far can we go without compromising that which makes this part of the world unique and efficacious? We’ve not settled on a definitive answer, but we have found some enlivening clues.

The World Economic Forum offers some insight. “Forces of globalization, urbanization and technological advancement are transforming the definition of a ‘successful’ city and reshaping the global urban hierarchy in the process,” it recently posted on its website. “Success can no longer be measured simply by considering a city’s size and historical attributes. Today it is more likely to revolve around innovation, ‘liveability’ and the ability to transform and adapt.”

On this score, it elaborates, “Many of the top 20 cities in the 2016 City Momentum Index – including London, San Francisco and Sydney – are home to vibrant mixed-used districts which create and amplify opportunities to conceive and commercialize new ideas. This reinforces the idea that city momentum involves much more than GDP growth. It also requires building an innovation-oriented economy through technology. It means creating cutting-edge new businesses. And it involves attracting talent and nurturing a diverse and inclusive workforce.”

Are we, in New Brunswick, doing enough of this? If the size of a place no longer matters as a determinant of economic and social health, where are the large and small innovations that really do make a difference? The New Brunswick Innovation Foundation insists they’re out there. “With over $70 million invested, plus $380 million more leveraged from other sources, NBIF has helped to create over 90 companies and fund 400 applied research projects since its inception in 2003, with a current portfolio of 42 companies,” its website declares. “All of NBIF’s investment returns go back into the Foundation to be re-invested in other new startup companies and research initiatives.”

Fair enough, but we need more of this. The fact that I can count the number of business incubators in this province that regularly garner mainstream media attention on one hand suggests that we haven’t truly leveraged the global innovation agenda to our full advantage.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Silicon Valley was a craggy patch of earth on California’s west coast. Shall we, in New Brunswick continue to consign ourselves to a similar condition, or shall we make our success stories convincingly and finally resonate?

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Cybernauts in New Brunswick?

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In his well-documented piece for Maclean’s magazine in March, Martin Patriquin – who japes that he “writes about Quebec and sometimes everything else” – makes a distressingly large number of good points about the tattered condition of New Brunswick society.

Naturally, we in “the picture-perfect province” bristle whenever a major, national magazine sets out to shine a light on our evident flaws – just as enthusiastically, perhaps, as we cheer when said magazine periodically rewards our universities with top-of-class status in Canada. (Yeah, go figure).

But Mr. Patriquin’s analysis is bolstered by several instances of “et tu Brute then fall Caesar”, all of them rather, well, revealing.

As quoted by Maclean’s, for example, Mount Allison President Robert Campbell apparently said: “You’d think small would be simple, but New Brunswick is the classic example of how that really isn’t true. For a little province like this, we just can’t get our act together.”

In fact, I know Dr. Campbell a little bit, and he has never effused anything remotely like that about this province to me. Of course, if accurate, his incendiary revelation doesn’t mean he’s now wrong; perhaps he’s simply discerning about whose lap on which he decides to spill the beans.

The same goes for former provincial, Liberal cabinet minister Kelly Lamrock, who Mr. Patriquin reports said this: “We’ve targeted our policies on just getting re-elected and so we prop up failing industries and we bail out failing companies. Atlantic Yarns went under and lost an $80-million loan. The government I was a part of lent $70 million to (Miramichi-based) Atcon, a failing construction company that went under a year later. The Marriott call centre closed. It turns out they were subsidized to the tune of $20,000 a job and just left when the subsidies ran out. And the list goes on. We have generally been about keeping the majority of people comfortable rather than attracting new people.”

Still, in the midst of this completely understandable ‘self-loathing-palooza-festiva’ comes word that all may not be lost to the furies of chance and negligence in this province. For one thing, we always have the cybersecurity industry – hacking the hackers ­ – on which to fall back. Don’t take my word for it. A guy from Israel was scheduled to say as much at a conference in Fredericton just last week.

Actually, Roni Zehavi, who runs something called CyberSpark, said it first in a pre-event interview with Brunswick News: “The first thing is to have a dedicated entity within the province. In our (Israel’s) case, it was establishing a non-governmental organization like CyberSpark that is in charge of establishing a logistical system and serves the table with the people around it and dedicated to growth.” His bottom-line message: “The government made a decision.”

Back to New Brunswick, where governments make decisions all the time – some of which are wise, even prescient.

The cybersecurity industry, or something like it, is not new to New Brunswick. Government-enabled investments here in the 1990s installed some of the most sophisticated IT infrastructure anywhere in the western world. Clusters of technology excellence soon developed around the province’s major cities. These persist, and with a little intellectual elbow grease they can take a bite out of a global industry that is, according to credible sources, expected to double in size from current values to $170 billion.

As Mr. Zehavi says, “I look at cyber like health care.”

New Brunswick might well look at cyber as a lifeline to long-term economic health, before the next major magazine in this country pronounces us all but brain dead.

 

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It’s a whole new game for the Hub City

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I despise the phrase, “game-changer”.

The words conjure, in me, images of small boys on a football pitch, bullied by larger boys stealing the ball, kicking shins, shoving urchins into the mud, scoring on empty nets and then triumphantly celebrating their victory as a well-earned win, marked fetchingly in the “if-you-can’t-stand-the-trampling-stay-out-of-our-way” category of crooked competition.

Sort of like Wall Street in 1929, 1987, 2001, 2007 and anytime soon (pick a year) coming to an RRSP near you.

But every once in a long while “game-changer” seems to be an appropriate description for small cities with big appetites and even larger ambitions to beat the bully-boys at their own game.

So, then, witness, last week’s launch of Fibre Centre in uptown Moncton (somewhere amidst the nine-foot drifts of snow and ice and Centennial Park, where the more placid of our urban ilk still appreciate a mid-morning ski outing on Nordic trails).

There, hundreds of business and political elites gathered to hear the great news: Greater Moncton carved another notch in its belt as one of North America’s most competitive cities with the first “network-neutral colocation and interconnection facility providing a three-way junction point linking submarine and terrestrial dark fiber assets in Atlantic Canada.”

And before you shrug your shoulders and mumble “uh, come again”, the new technology works this way: For the first time anywhere in the region businesses of every size, complexity and stripe – along with public and private institutions, governments and public organizations – will have seamless access to the world through unused (ie., ‘dark’) fibre-optic cables which just happen to flow through Moncton.

The secret: There’s a lot of state-of-the-art, digital pipe going begging in these parts, these days.

“Moncton now has a physical access point to the mass of fibre optic networks that pass through, but heretofore have not actually been able to directly interconnect with each other here,” said Ukrainian businessman Iouri Litvinenko, Fibre Centre’s co-founder. “Facilities such as these have proven to breed economic development globally.”

Added the firm’s other co-founder, American tech entrepreneur Hunter Newby: “Fibre Centre is a neutral meet point for networks of al kinds. We are not a carrier, or network operator, ourselves but rather (we) own the building, known as a ‘carrier hotel’, and provide the managed real estate environment, known as a ‘meet me room‘, as well as data centre space, where all networks can colocate and openly interconnect with each other.”

Four years in the making, the deal’s the official launch podium featured Ben Champoux,, CEO of Greater Moncton’s economic development organization, 3+ Corporation; James Lockyer, chair of 3+; Gaetan Thomas, CEO of NB Power; George LeBlanc, Mayor of Moncton; Newby; and, of course, Brian Gallant, premier of New Brunswick.

Said Gallant: “This is a phenomenal opportunity. . .We should all be very proud of this firm’s decision to choose Moncton. Arthur C. Clarke (the late science fiction writer) once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I can tell you that Fibre Centre has a lot of magic.”

For his part, Mayor LeBlanc noted that the news burnishes Moncton’s reputation as one of the continent’s truly smart cities. “All digital roads lead here. . .or, rather, almost all,” he quipped. We, at the city, are happy to be Fibre Centre’s first customer.”

So, then, is this a game-changer for a community that has been switching up the rules for itself ever since the railway left and the nation’s retail behemoths took a powder?

Consider that nowhere in eastern North America is there as comprehensive and technologically sophisticated hub of fibre optic cable than here.

Also consider that nowhere in eastern Canada would an announcement like this draw hundreds of people to a spare auditorium, providing no parking, in sub-zero temperatures, surrounded by mountains of frigid white.

Game-changer, indeed.

I’d call it a game-opener.

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Has the webbed world finally killed civility?

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I’m not sure exactly when dread became my near-constant Internet-traveling companion – certainly, sometime after he first protocol suite went live back in the “me” decades of the late 20th century – but I’m having a hard time shaking my conviction that the online universe has rendered common courtesy deader that a door knob.

This is, by no means, an original observation.

“Have our brains become so desensitized by a 24/7, all-you-can-eat diet of lurid flickering images that we’ve lost all perspective on appropriateness and compassion when another human being apparently suffers a medical emergency?” CNN contributors Gary Small (M.D.) and Gigi Vorgan asked in a commentary posted (where else?) online a couple of years ago. “Have we become a society of detached voyeurs?”

Or worse?

According to a Canadian Press piece carried in newspapers across the country yesterday, “Research out of Simon Fraser University (SFU) suggests that the online abuse that has been so prevalent on the teenage battlefield is carrying through to the arena of adults at Canadian universities.”

The research, in fact, is the subject of a symposium, “Cyberbullying at Canadian Universities: Linking Research, Policy and Practice”, in Vancouver this week. One presenter, education prof Wanda Cassidy, notes the relatively high incidence of abuse hurled at faculty members these days.

In the abstract to her talk, she writes, “Survey data collected in 2012/13 revealed that 17 per cent of respondents had experienced cyberbullying either by students (12 per cent), or by colleagues (9 per cent) in the last 12 months.  Gender differences were apparent: 14 per cent of females had been targeted by students, compared to 6 per cent of males.  Only females experienced cyberbullying from colleagues, always by someone they knew, and primarily for work-related reasons. The messages were belittling, demanding, harassing, and/or excluding, impacting their work, mental health, and relationships.  Faculty members of racial minority status appeared more vulnerable to being cyberbullied.”

Another peresenter, SFU criminologist Margaret Jackson, says universities aren’t equipped to deal with the problem because their policy frameworks are out of date. “While most. . .outlined complaint procedures and possible sanctions, relatively few addressed the issue of prevention,” she notes in her abstract. “Only about one third made reference to ‘cyber’ behaviours, suggesting that the university. . .environment is not current with the information and communication technologies which occupy the daily lives of university students and faculty.”

As CP reported, “Cassidy said the emergence of cyberbullying in an older population comes with grown-up consequences, such as ruined professional relationships or reputations, anxiety, sleep deprivation and thoughts of suicide.

‘There was a fair proportion of people — both faculty and students — who said it made them feel suicidal. . .which is quite frightening, particularly when you think of faculty members.’”

If that’s not bad enough, the Competition Bureau of Canada issued a dire warning during its second annual “2 Good 2 B True Day” (Tuesday) this week. “Scammers are using the Internet in increasingly sophisticated ways to defraud Canadians of their money and personal information through malicious software, fake websites and online offers or job opportunities that are simply too good to be true,” it said in a statement.

What’s more, “Users of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest may be exposed to scams from ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ whose social media accounts are designed exclusively to promote fraudulent products. Scams promoted through social media may seem more credible because they appear in the same place as content created by a consumer’s friends and family. Social media users may inadvertently promote these scams by liking, tweeting or pinning information about these products.”

But, then, I wonder what we were expecting when we embraced the notion of running what amounts to a live wiretap right through our homes and businesses. The great innovation of the Internet was nothing if not vastly facilitated communications and information gathering. That why the American military establishment was an early and enthusiastic adherent.

Still, I comfort myself by acknowledging that the technology that makes it easy to anonymously mudsling and defraud on an unprecedented scale also makes it easy to crowd-source funds for disaster relief.

In the end, the only moral filters in the online universe come factory installed in the mind if the Internet traveler.

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The Internet of Things’ nosy, new tech

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It is an indisputable fact of modern life that even the fiercest defender of personal privacy will trade the juiciest morsel of intel on himself for the latest item of cool consumer tech – as long as said tech is connected to the vast, remorseless Internet.

This is, in a nutshell, the essential dialectic of our human nature in the 21st century: our contradictory urges and impulses that find nearly perfect expression in the exquisitely instrumented age of greed.

In this context, I sometimes wonder who Ann Cavoukian thinks she’s reaching when she complains about the shadowy doings at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), where spies toll the electronic highways and byways for tidbits about their fellow citizens.

“Technology allows our every move to be tracked, collected and catalogued by our governments,” Mr. Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner writes in a commentary published yesterday in the Globe and Mail. “Yet, while our U.S. neighbours are debating the future of phone and Internet surveillance programs, our government is maintaining a wall of silence around the activities of (CSEC). This silence is putting our freedoms at risk.”

She is, of course, utterly correct, and I applaud her determination to tear back the veil that hides the snoops, creeps, plotters, conspirators, crooks, crackpots and incipient blackmailers from plain view.

Then again, what else would I say? I’m a hopeless paranoid who believes that former National Security Agency analyst, and latent whistleblower, Edward Snowdon is actually a red herring and that the truth – whilst still out there – is worse than you can possibly imagine.

Most people are more sanguine than I about the nakedness with which they comport themselves while the world tunes in and out, variously following the motions and transactions that comprise their quotidian existence. Indeed, members of my own family couldn’t care lees who’s been peeking at them through the drapes.

Says one: “My life is an open book – and a pretty boring one, at that.”

Says another: “Dude, sacrifices must be made. Ever think what you’d do without the Internet?”

To which I respond, “Don’t call me dude.”

In fact, I have often pondered what I’d do without the web. And, if I’m honest with myself, the story never ends well. Still, I wonder just how much Kool-Aid the so-called “Internet of Things” requires its true believers to quaff?

“With never-before seen tech breakthroughs and thousands of new products launched, innovation took center stage at the 2014 International CES (Consumer Electronics Association conference) in Las Vegas, Nevada.”

That was from the press release following the event – during which “3,200 exhibitors showcased their latest technologies and major tech breakthroughs, launching some 20,000 new products to capture the world’s attention” – earlier this month. Here’s what Karen Chupka, senior vice president of International CES and corporate business strategy, had to say:

“Technology of the future was widespread  at the 2014 CES where executives from every major industry came to see, touch, interact and do business at the world’s intersection for innovation. Amazing new products emerged in the areas of wireless, apps, automotive, digital health and fitness, 3D printing, startup tech and so much more. It was an incredible event that brought the global tech community together and successfully celebrated and showcased the amazing innovation that is a hallmark of our industry.”

Welcome, indeed, brave new world.

Common – nay, fundamentally crucial – to all such gadgets is their Internet connectivity. Everyday household appliances – once inert and dumb; now active and smart – will keep tabs on your habits, schedules and coming an goings in both real and digital worlds.

Leading the charge, naturally, is Google. The giant announced earlier this month that it would buy Nest Labs Inc. for a cool $3.2 billion in cash. Nest manufactures  thermostats and smoke alarms. But not just any thermostats and smoke alarms. In their effort to make you a more intelligent energy consumer, these ones talk to you through your Internet-enabled computer, and this, of course, raises the specter of spying.

For its part, the new venture has insisted that it would never tabuse its position by mishandling personal information that might come its way via its new “nests”.

But, really, if the choice is between privacy and cool, new tech for the vast, greedy marketplace, are Google’s assurances even necessary these days?

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Big Brother’s eyes are everywhere

Birds of a feather?

Birds of a feather?

I summon a certain phrase whenever the world’s Internet-traveling tech companies assert their moral authority to protect their millions upon millions of customers from Big Government’s snoops and sneaks: something about foxes guarding henhouses.

In ads in major newspapers across the U.S., and on dozens of websites, Google, Microsoft, Apple, AOL, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo (call them the eight horsemen of the digital apocalypse) have announced a new consortium, the purpose of which is to pressure governments everywhere to stop the growing practice of warrantless and unaccountable spying.

That’s a little like asking a gossip to keep a secret. Nevertheless, here’s what they say: “We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.”

What’s more, and for their part, “We are focused on keeping users’ data secure –deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope. We urge the U.S. to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”

All of which raises but one question: Do these 100th-of-a-one-percenters, these brilliant geeks who, in some cases, kissed off their Ivy League educations to make billions of bucks in the open market, seriously think we buy their pieties about personal privacy? This is all about business, pure and simple.

That’s what Google CEO Larry Page means when he observes that “the security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information. This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It’s time for reform, and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way.”

In fact, the productive relationship between government R&D and the technology sector, has produced most, if not all, of the communications innovations of the past 75 years. That includes everything from the application software that makes your smart phone chatter on command to the Internet, itself. Separating these partners in this continuum of invention would be akin to extracting chlorine from a swimming pool.

What’s at stake is the integrity of Big Data – a jewell so profoundly valuable in the tech world that anything that might cause a public (i.e. consumer) rebellion against its collection and deployment in the service of capitalist enterprise must be quelled. Simply put: When Big Brother overreaches, he hurts the bottom line.

Technology writer, Katherine Arline had this to say in a piece for mobile.pro last month: “Telecommunications equipment maker Cisco Systems announced an anticipated 8 to 10 per cent drop in revenue for the current quarter, sending shares tumbling 13 per cent . . .Cisco said concerns about network security in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures fueled the decline.”

Specifically, Frank Calderone, the company’s CFO said he had seen “a significant increase in the ‘level of uncertainty or concern’ among international consumers. ‘I have never seen that fast a move in emerging markets,’ Calderone said. Cisco customers are concerned that the NSA has backdoors into network hardware from U.S. makers, and analysts think  that companies including IBM and Microsoft are also at risk. Jim Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, told Reuters that more U.S. companies are likely to be affected. ‘All the big U.S. IT companies are concerned,’ Lewis said. ‘But so far Cisco is bearing the brunt.’”

It may be true that the allegations against the National Security Agency – that it routinely and illegally snoops on average folks by extracting data from unwilling tech companies who must, nevertheless, comply with its edicts – are exaggerated.

But in an industry where reputations are everything and brand loyalty is paramount, perceptions are even more important than reality. Internet-traveling tech companies playing the role of public defender No. 1 is great spin.

Indeed, it might even work.

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Give The Hub a well-deserved hug

Up, up and away for Moncton

Up, up and away for Moncton

We touched down on the tarmac of the delightfully and grandiosely named Greater Moncton International Airport, and a line from an old Eric Clapton tune immediately sprang to mind: “Hello old friend, it’s really good to see you once again.”

We had been away, out west, where the news from the cities of our births had been simply and detestably rotten.

My Toronto was riven by controversy. Mayor Rob Ford had failed to obtain a clean bill of moral health from Hog Town’s top cop, Chief Bill Blair, who announced the results of his full-metal-jacket foray into a nest of alleged drug dens in the city’s north end. Writing in the Globe and Mail, municipal affairs columnist Marcus Gee reported, “The raid centred on the Dixon Road apartment complex associated with the purported Rob Ford crack video. Minutes away is the house where a photo was apparently taken showing Mr. Ford with three men, one of whom has since been murdered.”

As Mr. Gee archly observed, “What is not excusable is the mayor’s own persistent refusal to answers questions about the affair. He told reporters. . .that he knew nothing about the raid and had nothing to hide, but has yet to say. . .whether he has anything to do with the men in the notorious photo, what he was doing at the house where it was taken or whether he knows the people who live there (two of whom have criminal records, one for trafficking in cocaine).”

A few hundred kilometers up the St. Lawrence, the mayor of my wife’s Montreal, Michael Applebaum, had just resigned after Quebec police slapped charges of fraud, breach of trust and corruption on him.

As the CBC recounted the sorry saga, “(Mr.) Applebaum was selected as mayor by Montreal city council Nov. 16, 2012, following the resignation of Gérald Tremblay amid allegations of corruption. . .The province’s anti-corruption unit, UPAC, said the charges (against Mr. Applebaum) relate to obtaining permission and political support for two real estate projects in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough between 2006 and 2011, during which time Applebaum was the borough’s mayor.”

All of which caused me to wonder whether Moncton’s Hizzoner, George LeBlanc (as honourable a fellow as the summer day is long), had misplaced his invitation to the party of Canadian mayors acting out. Thank Almighty God for the small mercies of prudence in public office, rare though this quality of character may be. These days, the headlines from The Hub are nothing but good, nothing but fortifying.

After a vote of 8-2, Moncton City Council agreed to purchase the former Highfield Square site in western part of the downtown area – the logical move towards building an events centre that could generate millions of dollars a year in tax and private-sector revenue. In fact, a related ballot green-lighted a request for proposals. According to a report in this newspaper, “If all goes according to the city’s timeline – funding help from the federal and provincial governments being the overwhelmingly large missing piece of the puzzle – work could start in 2015 and the project would be completed in early 2017.”

Meanwhile, the Moncton-based Atlantic Cancer Research Institute has made national news with its novel technology. Again, this newspaper reports, “(It’s) a time-sensitive, non-invasive clinical test in which a sign of cancer could be recognized without having conducted a biopsy. . . .Not only could the product detect early concentrations of diseased cells attributing to cancer, it could be used in detecting heart disease, neurological ailments, and many more health issues in both humans and animals.”

Granted, the ACRI – which has received many plaudits from leading scientific think tanks around the world – does not benefit directly from the good works and sound planning of the municipal authority. But both institutions say something larger about the community in general. And, compared with the sick melodies sung in certain other urban centres in this country, it’s a welcome and familiar refrain for a weary, returning traveller.

“Hello old friend,” indeed.

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