Friday, December 21, 2012

On the Turning of the Year (2012-13 Edition)

As 2011 turned into 2012, I posted an entry on this blog entitled "On the Turning of the Year." Well, today is December 21, 2012 and many foolish people are saying that the world is coming to an end. Just in case they may be right, I thought it would be a good idea to get a bit of a jump on the new year and start my "Turning of the Year" blog entry early.

I have to start with the painfully obvious: that calendars are human inventions and that the end of a period of time invented by humans for the convenient organization of human affairs has no meaning to the Universe at large. Having said that, the end of a calendar does make a suitable point of reflection.  This was what inspired last year's "On the Turning of the Year" and it is also what inspires the current edition.  I guess I have now also started a new personal tradition, namely to reflect on the turning of each year as it happens.  Unless, of course the Mayan Calendar nuts are correct and this will be my last day on earth ...

It is only four days until my favourite day of the year -- Christmas Day -- and I am in one of my favourite places in the world  -- Kaua'i, the "Garden Island" of the Hawai'ian Archipelago.  I am here with the full immediate family: wife, son, stepdaughter and two granddaughters. What better place or time could there be for some annual reflection?

Well, it has been another one of those years. On the professional front, some of my longest lasting files have come either to an end or to a logical place to pause and reassess my participation.  I have taken some decisive steps to simplify my professional life, reducing the size of my organization substantially. I will enter the new year with a feeling of freedom I have not experienced for many years, If ever.

There are some major outstanding loose ends, but nothing that will not be resolved in the months ahead.  The major loose end involves money, and how that is resolved will determine to some extent how much we will have to live on for the next number of years, but the way it comes to a resolution will not really affect anything important.

I say this because the personal part of my life is deeply satisfying. For the past 20 years, I have been part of a family unit that is strong, affectionate and deeply mutually supportive.  We have made the most important decisions already -- to stay together and grow old together, to stay where we live, perhaps in a new or renovated house, and to plan the rest of our lives on the pattern of how we live now, only better.  Better in the sense of being more healthy and having less stress.

In this plan, it will be nice if we have more money than less, but our future won't really be enriched or impoverished much if we have more or less money.  Not in any important way, at least.  Money would enable us to spend more time in Hawai'i.  Less money, less Hawai'i.  Money will enable us to give the younger members of the family more opportunity, but they already have lots and it is going to be up to them what they do with it.

I consider my own immediate future as being one where in which I have more control than I have ever had.  For 30 years my legal career has dominated all my plans.  Now, it is in the way of my plans.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Most Important Car in the World

Picking up from where I left off earlier in the week, I said that it may be possible an EV is the best car in the world.  If the Tesla Model S is not the best car in the world, which it may or may not be, then I am convinced that it is the most important car in the world.

Those who have driven the Model S have been effusive in its praise.  For example, what can you make of this quote:

Having driven the Tesla Model S on the neighborhood roads back-to-back not only against most of the other electric cars in the market today, but also comparing it against other premium cars such as Rolls Royce Corniche, I came to this startling conclusion: The Tesla Model S is so superior that it seems that it's just a matter of time until all the other car companies will have to file bankruptcy.
Others have been similarly over the top in their praise for this car, but since I have not even seen it, much less driven it, I am afraid that my own opinion on the question is yet to be formed. Suffice it to say that I cannot wait until I have a chance to form that opinion.

I believe that I can say that it is the most important car in the world because it is the first car ever to have been designed on the premise that an electric car might actually be the best car in the world.  Whether it has achieved that status is somewhat beside the point; it is enough to acknowledge the unique motive behind the car's conception.

Electric cars have, let us face it, not been devoted to the idea of excellence. They have been curiosities. Burdened by idiosyncratic styling, most electric cars have been cute but weird urban toys.

The late -- and ugly -- GM EV1
The General Motors EV1 was a perfect example.  Its styling shouted out that it was something other than a regular car.

Early hybrids were styled with the same approach.  The original Honda Insight looked like an ugly cousin of the EV1.  There was nothing attractive in these designs.  They were designed to appeal to ...  well, who exactly?  Presumably people who were above such trivial concerns as appearances.

The hideous Honda Insight
Cars have always been at least partly about sex appeal.  Good-looking bad cars will sell.  Ugly good cars won't.   When you go out of your way to make a car ugly and appliance-like you are either inept or appealing to a different market than the average car buyer.

Electric cars and early hybrids were deliberately made into anti-cars.  Every lustful reaction we may expect to have in relation to cars was erased.

The Tesla Model S is, by contrast, designed to be as sleek and lustworthy as any other car in its rather elevated class, a class that includes the Jaguar XJ, the Audi A8, the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes-Benz S Class.  These are formidable competition.  These are well-engineered, luxuriously appointed, fast and desirable.  And the Tesla Model S, an EV is, by design, every bit their equal.  And its very "EV-ness" may well make it their superior.

This is something entirely new.  An EV that makes no excuses, that does not hide behind weird looks and that is willing to go toe-to-toe with the very best cars in the world.

The Tesla Model S is sleek, handsome, well-appointed, fast, smooth and sexy.

The beautiful Model S
As are its competitors.  The Model S, though, has the advantages of being an EV.  This means that all the torque from its electric motor is available from 0 RPM.  This means that there is no noise from the powertrain.   There are no emissions at all.   Its enormous battery pack forms a floor to the car, lowering the centre of gravity and aiding in handling.  Regenerative braking means that kinetic energy is converted back into an electric charge to be reused again for propulsion rather than wasted as heat in an ICE car.

The lack of an ICE, a cooling system, a transmission, a driveshaft, a differential and many many more parts means that the Model S is simple and relatively free of parts that can wear out or break.  This also frees up huge amounts of space in the car for storage.  The motor needs almost no maintenance.  Regenerative braking greatly reduces wear on the brakes, which are only needed a fraction of the time compared with a conventional car.

All of this results in a driving experience, as every review of the car but I have read indicates, that is superior to any conventional car. But even with all of this, it is not why I believe that this is the most important car in the world.

Tesla, led by its CEO Elon Musk, has set aside the constraining conventional wisdom of the past 125 years, and has reimagined the car for our century. Not only that, Tesla has reimagined the car company itself, car manufacturing, and car sales and service. And all of this is due to the unique advantages of the EV over the conventional ICE car.

Elon Musk himself has gone on record as saying that he founded Tesla to prove that an EV could be the best car in the world.  I would say he has already proven that with the Model S.  At the same time, it is by no means assured that Tesla will survive.  As I write this, only 100 Model S cars have been made.  While Tesla can sell as many of them as they can make at the moment, its survival will depend upon the continuing credibility of the company to deliver on its promises.  Now that it has designed and started to make what is possibly the best car in the world, it must prove that it is capable of making a lot of them at a cost that will enable the company to make money.  This may prove to be a very significant challenge, given the decision of the company to be vertically integrated, making nearly every component of the car in house.

The all wheel drive chassis of the amazing Model X
Having going on at some length about the Model S, I should close by saying that it is not this car that I am interested in buying. I have my eye on the Model X.  Assuming that Tesla can stay alive, this car will be going to market in 2014.

It is a kind of SUV that can hold seven adults and all their luggage but will have the performance of a Porsche Carrera.  It will be a taller version of the Model S, and should have equivalent performance.

However, it will come in an all-wheel-drive version with a second electric motor at the front of the car.
Elon Musk showing off the "Falcon Wing" rear doors of the Model X

After that, Tesla has plans for a smaller and less expensive car that will compete with the BMW 3 series and others in its class.

Tesla has delivered. It has forever altered our idea of what an electric car can be, and in doing so has given us an idea of how in we will be able to continue to travel in comfort and with awesome performance while living sustainably.  No longer do we have to look ahead to a future in which we have to abandon our beautiful sexy vehicles for hideous objects like the EV1.

It all makes the future of driving exciting again.   For now, I am going to take great pleasure from driving my last hydrocarbon burners.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The End of Internal Combustion?

I love cars.  I love driving them, and I especially love buying them.  I don't like selling them so I end up with more cars than I need.

As I have written about in this Blog, I bought a 1993 Bentley Continental R last Fall.  When I really analyse my motives for this irrational purchase, it is becoming clear to me that nostalgia is the main one.  Nostalgia for beautiful big hydrocarbon burners.  Cars like my Bentley will never be seen again.  The engine is too big, at 6.75 litres, and the car, at 5300 pounds, is hopelessly excessive.  It is built like a tank, and it is built for a world with endless supplies of oil.
The Magnificent VW Phaeton

My next car may well be a Volkswagen Phaeton.  I can pick up a 12 cylinder example from 2004-2006 with low mileage for under $20,000.  The VW W-12 engine is the same one that Bentley used for the Continental.  Again, this is a car that time has passed by.  VW discovered that North American buyers would not pay $100,000 for a car with the same badge as Hitler's "people's car." The value of 12 cylinder Phaetons have melted like an ice cream cone on a summer day.

But I want to own one, to drive one, while I can.  Before it is too socially unacceptable to drive a gasoline car of any kind, much less one with way too much displacement and way too much mass.

My car after that will almost certainly be a Tesla.

First, though, I want to say something about the internal combustion engine (ICE, as electric vehicle (or EV) fans call it).  After about 125 years of development and the application of many of the best minds, the ICE has been engineered to something close to perfection.  When I think of the cars of my youth and compare them to the cars of today, there is no question that ICE engines today are more powerful, more efficient, cleaner and far more reliable than the engines of the past.  Cars in general also stop and handle far, far better than the cars of the past.

But the ICE is inherently inefficient.  The reciprocating engine involves hundreds of explosions of fuel and air that make pistons go up and down in such a way as to make a crankshaft turn.  But where ICE reciprocating engines operate at about 20% energy conversion efficiency, electric motors can operate at 90%.

The ICE runs, of course, on fossil fuels that are both finite and full of carbon.  Emissions include carbon dioxide, the very gas that is causing climate change.

We have invested enormous time, energy and creativity to improve the ICE and the infrastructure that gets its fuel from underground or underwater and to refineries and to pumps where we consumers access it.  And of course if we take into account the wars that have been fought over the stuff (two wars in Iraq, for example), and the environmental risks of getting at it (the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico for example), the costs of the ICE have been very great indeed, as -- of course -- have been the benefits.

Now, let's look at the EV.  Not only is it mechanically far more efficient, but a well-designed electric motor can run virtually forever with minimal maintenance.  An electric motor is far smaller and lighter than an ICE of equivalent power.

There is the important issue of generating the electricity that will run your EV.  There are dirty ways to generate electricity, such as burning coal or oil, and also ways that involve other risks like operating nuclear power stations in earthquake zones.  Hydroelectric generation is clean but can seriously disrupt land uses that are affected by the manipulation of water levels.  The best bet for the future is solar, and breakthroughs can be expected that will eventually make it the dominant mode of generating electricity.  See for example this article about recent progress by IBM that may erase the cost discrepancy between solar and fossil fuel energy within a decade.

There are also issues of disposing of EV batteries at the end of their useful lives, full of lithium and other exotic materials.  But on balance there is no comparison between the environmental impact of an ICE vehicle and an EV.  And when we really start to use our energy income (solar power) instead of our capital (fossil fuel) the EV becomes an obvious -- and inevitable -- choice.  And once we begin to invest the brainpower in making the EV real and successful, as we have made the inherently flawed ICE so dominant, things can only get better.

There are of course issues with range and with the time to recharge.  We are used to having cars that will run for hundreds of kilometers on a tank, and to finding a place to fill that tank in minutes nearly anywhere.  The EV doesn't offer these advantages, although in time these discrepancies will vanish.

The Tesla Model S can already operate for 480 kilometers on a single charge, not much less than an equivalent ICE car on a full tank of gas.  However, once you have depleted that charge it is a matter of plugging it in overnight.  "Superchargers" are coming that will cut that time dramatically, but they are still some months and maybe years away.   So, yes, range is still an issue.

But let's look at developments in battery technology.  Important breakthroughs are being made.  See for example the website of California Lithium Battery.  The Chief Technology Officer of Tesla Motors estimates that the capacity of lithium-ion batteries is being improved at a rate of 7-8% a year.  This means that in ten years the range of the Model S might well be 1,000 kilometers or more per charge, not 480.  99 per cent of people will, after driving 1,000 kilometers, want to stop for the night.  And 10 years from now we can be confident that there will be a place to charge your car when you do stop.  And then, every morning, you will start the day with the equivalent of a full tank that can keep you going all day with no anxiety whatever.

When you do charge your car it will cost a fraction of the cost of an equivalent tank of gas, even at today's artificially low gas prices.  Yes, today's prices in North America are far too low to reflect the true costs of using fossil fuels, and we can pretty much count on a continuing escalation of gas prices over the foreseeable future, as the cost of extraction in increasingly challenging environments climbs and cartels keep working to exact their profits.  Outside North America, consumers are of course already accustomed to gas prices far higher than ours.

The cost of making electricity, on the other hand, should over time remain relatively stable, or even come down in price as renewable and clean sources of power benefit from technical and manufacturing breakthroughs and then achieve economies of scale.

So, you might wonder, why not wait the ten years and see if this wondrous world of EVs actually does come to pass?

Because, in my opinion, it is just possible that the best car in the world today is actually an EV!

Presenting the Tesla Model S
To be continued.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fifty Years On

The Empress of England
(A collection of postcards showing the ship can be seen here.) 
It is hard to believe that fifty years have gone by.  Fifty years ago this week the Pratt family were embarking on our most exciting journey.  I was 10 years old, the middle child of five.  A Canadian Pacific liner, the Empress of England, conveyed us from Liverpool to Québec City, where a rubber stamp in the hand of a clerk made all of us “landed immigrants.”

In Québec City we spent an afternoon sightseeing.  I remember that we went to the Eaton's department store and my older brother Stan bought a Toshiba transistor radio.  The next day we re-embarked for the final stage of our voyage.   In Montréal it had been snowing, a thing we did not expect to encounter in late April.  We took a train to Toronto, where my uncle Norman and his family met us at Union Station and took us to their home for our first night.  I remember being struck by the enormous size of the Royal York Hotel as we left the station.

The next day was the hottest we had ever known, 86º Fahrenheit (30º Celsius).   From snow to oppressive heat in a single day:  this Canada was a strange and extreme place for sure.  

Like the people of other poor countries, we Scots for centuries have escaped our dour little country, largely denuded of timber but rich in sheep, oats and rain, seeking a better life in a better place.  In Canada we found an apparently limitless country, with extremes of hot and cold, wet and dry, mountainous and flat, treed and barren. 

It has always seemed to me that we immigrants, even those of us who came to Canada in childhood, can and must see Canada differently from those who were born here and thus can take it for granted.  I myself feel indebted to this country that somehow managed to find a place for a fifty-year old man with bad lungs and no education, along with his wife and five dependent children. 

I have tended always to recoil from public expressions of patriotism, just like a real Canadian.  I dislike singing the national anthem in public or displaying the flag, but in my heart I love the country deeply. 

I still like to think of myself as a Scot, deep down, but the truth of it is that I have now been in Canada five times longer than I lived in Scotland.  I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if we had stayed.  But I can't.  But I do know that Canada gave all of us opportunities that we would not have had in Scotland and I am very happy to call this country my home.

Half a century now, and counting.

Thank you Canada.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


I got a package in the mail today.  A couple of months ago I was looking at the website of the Scottish National Party and ordered its publications about the planned referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

I was born in Scotland, but I left in 1962 at the age of 10.  I  have nostalgic feelings about Scotland as my homeland, but I don't have an adult understanding of how Scotland works.

As a Canadian, I have witnessed the playing out of separatist aspirations of many of the people of Quebec.  As a Canadian I have been on the side of keeping Canada together.  At the same time it is self-evident that Quebec is a "distinct society" within Canada, just as Scotland is a "distinct society" within the UK, as are Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

As a constitutional lawyer, I have been interested in the legal dimensions of separatism.  In Canada these have included a Reference to the Supreme Court of Canada and the development of the Clarity Act to govern future attempts to hold a referendum on the subject.  The ongoing discussion in Scotland, including preparations for a referendum on separation, is taking place with a keen awareness of the Canadian precedents.

So, as a Scot by birth I am sentimentally in favour of Scottish autonomy.  As a Canadian I understand the importance of keeping countries together and at least the arguments against separation.  As a lawyer I find it fascinating that the experience of my adopted country might influence the experience of the country where I was born.

I don't know how I feel about Scottish separatism.  I don't really know how I feel about the nation-state in this twenty-first century.  The circumstances of Scotland and Quebec are very different.  Scotland was a sovereign state that joined England by treaty in 1707.   Quebec has never been recognized as an independent state.

I am going to start reading now.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Tale of Two Monsters

Eastern Ontario, as peaceable a part of the world as you can find, has recently had the dubious privilege of witnessing two of the most horrific and high-profile murder trials in the history of Canada.

In 2010, in Belleville, the world was transfixed during the sentencing of Russell Williams who had pleaded guilty to two first-degree murder charges and many dozens of lesser charges. Only days ago, in Kingston, three members of the Shafia family were sentenced to four counts each of first-degree murder for the so-called honour killing of three teenage members of their family and the first of Mohammad Shafia's two wives.

In each of these cases, the conduct of the accused was absolutely incomprehensible to the average onlooker. In each case, the circumstances of the killings were monstrous and therefore surely the perpetrators were monsters.

Russell Williams
The first monster, Russell Williams, was a most unusual sexual predator. So far as we know, he had never acted upon his deviant sexual urges until well into his adult years. He began breaking and entering into houses that he knew would contain female undergarments. He videotaped himself in various acts involving those garments. This he repeated dozens of times, including in the homes of his neighbours and people he knew in his private life.  He targeted the homes of women and young girls.

Williams' private life was another feature that made him a most unusual monster. Unlike many and perhaps most sex offenders, he was an outwardly successful and well-adjusted man. He had a successful military career as a pilot, having been chosen to fly Queen Elizabeth on one occasion. He rose to the rank of Base Commander at CFB Trenton. He was seemingly happily married, and he was to all appearances an exemplary citizen and soldier.

However, his sexual fetishism escalated into sexual assaults and eventually to two blood-curdling murders of women who had come to his attention and who he had used for sexual gratification.  All of his crimes were meticulously recorded by him so that he could relive them again and again in the privacy of his own sick mind.

He was caught for the simplest of reasons. He happened to have a vehicle with a fairly rare tire tread pattern and because of this the police could place him at the scene of one of the murders. He walked into a police station, filled with the confidence and arrogance of a military man whose orders are promptly obeyed, in order to answer a few routine questions, but he never left. During a lengthy interrogation, he was confronted with the evidence against him and made a full confession.

After living a double life for many years, Russell Williams chose to make a clean breast of it. He pleaded guilty plea to all the charges and he co-operated in the gathering of evidence against him. He was forced to sit through a sentencing hearing during which all of the humiliating evidence that he had gathered to document his various sick triumphs was used to justify a life sentence.  We were all left in a state of shock at what the evidence he had gathered against himself disclosed.  He was a narcissistic and unfeeling sadist.  He also had no respect for persons under his care.  One of his victims was a member of the Canadian military under his command.

Mohammed Shafia, Tooba Yahya and Hamed Shafia
The Shafia case, just concluded in Kingston, was very different. Mohammad Shafia and his second wife and their son were convicted of the premeditated murder of three teenage daughters of the family and the first wife of Mr. Shafia. Unlike Russell Williams, the accused have vociferously protested their innocence, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.

The murders took place because three teenage girls wanted to be free of the medieval rules under which their father wanted them to live. Their stepmother died because she was sympathetic to the girls. Mohammad Shafia lived in a world in which the sexuality of his daughters was his to dispose of. Unauthorized behaviour, including the wearing of clothing of which he did not approve, was a betrayal of his "honour." His second wife and their son were complicit in these murders but the father was the instigator, the real monster.

Or, rather, the monster is the belief system that the father acquired in his native Afghanistan and that survived within him after he emigrated first to Australia, then to Dubai and finally to Montréal. The daughters of Mohammad Shafia were, in this belief system, not independent young women to be encouraged to choose a mate or a career. They were his property. They were, in fact, his property to the extent that when they rejected his view of the world and of their future as envisioned and indeed dictated by him, by simply acting as normal teenagers, he saw no alternative but to murder them. It appears that his wife and son were so steeped in the same sick worldview that they readily agreed and assisted in the simple harebrained scheme he came up with to dispose of them.

The facts came out at trial revealed Shafia to be a small-minded, penny-pinching, petty, tyrannical and ultimately stupid man. He formulated a plan that had no chance of remaining undetected by law enforcement officials. He left evidence of the plan and half-baked attempts to cover-up the plan all over Eastern Ontario.

What can we learn from the cases of these monsters? Perhaps the first thing of note is that the best way to avoid the notice of such people is not to be a woman. Both Russell Williams and Mohammad Shafia acted out of perverted ideas about, or at least responses to, sexuality. Apart from that, what do we make of these two cases? Russell Williams terrifies us because he could be anyone in our midst. A successful man with a ready smile, he was the type of man people trusted. Who could possibly know that a Mr. Hyde lurked within him? How can we ever know who among us carries such perversion within him? How can we protect ourselves from people who can so well conceal their capacity to extinguish human life for their own gratification?

But at least Russell Williams knew that what he was doing was wrong. When he was confronted with the evidence, he confessed, almost with a sense of relief. Mohammad Shafia will almost certainly go to his grave knowing that he was right to murder his daughters and his first wife. No condemnation by our society can make a dent in his unalterable belief that he had the right to dispose of his daughters as if they were chattels because they would not bend to his will. The trial judge called him dishonourable and despicable, but one must take away the sense that these words coming from a representative of our mainstream society mean nothing to a man like him, because only his internal sense of honour matters.

His son had been researching whether a landlord could still look after real estate from jail before the murders had taken place.  It seems that they expected to be jailed, or at least looked into that possibility before carrying out their murderous plan.  Despite this the Shafias lied through their teeth in attempt to escape the most harsh penalty our society can exact. But all of this was nothing as compared to Mohammad Shafia's sense of damaged honour.

Many people have noted, and I accept their word on this, that honour killing is not an Islamic phenomenon.  I have no doubt that the Koran is opposed to this despicable practice, and that it is based in cultural norms that likely far predate the birth of Mohammad the Prophet.

Honour killing is in fact found in other cultures.  Just a couple of weeks ago a mother in Maple Ridge, BC was arrested for arranging the murder of her own daughter in India.  The murder took place ten years ago, but only now, and after extensive media coverage, have Canadian police laid a charge.  The family are Sikhs.  The sin of the daughter was to marry a man the family did not approve of.  And for that reason the family killed her, or so it seems.

And so, which of these is the greater monster? Only a year ago I would have said that I could imagine no worse monster than Russell Williams. Now I'm not so sure. The cold-blooded murder of three of one's children for the reasons that animated Mohammad Shafia will be hard to top.

Russell Williams is one of a kind, and whatever produced him could arise in anyone, anywhere.  And at least whatever produced him is not contagious.  Mohammad Shafia is the prisoner of a culture.  It seems that anyone brought up this culture can come to act upon its hateful principles. Which should we fear more:  the individual psychopath or the contagious, toxic culture of hate?  Frankly, for me it is the latter.

Even here, in in the most peaceable country of Eastern Ontario, there be monsters.  It would be nice to think that we might be done with them for a while.  But all the same, they are here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Patriotic Purchase

Everybody knows that I am an Apple guy.  I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an iPhone and numerous iPods.  My family are also Apple people.  I like the way Apple devices work, the way they are designed and the thought that goes into them.  Since Steve Jobs turned the company around Apple has been on a roll the likes of which we have rarely if ever seen in the business world.  I deny that I am a "fanboy," whatever people mean by that, in the sense that I do not slavishly purchase or praise everything Apple puts out.  But it is a company that makes it easy for its customers to remain loyal.  In recent years they have rarely put a foot wrong while reinventing many business sectors and inventing brand new ones too.

On the other hand, as a Canadian, I greatly admire the way that Research In Motion has created and dominated an important class of device.  The Blackberry is ubiquitous and synonymous with secure messaging.  The largest corporations and governments around the world have come to rely on this Canadian product.  Blackberry was, until recently at least, a gold standard around the world.  And it is all due to two very clever Canadians from the Waterloo area and the company they built right here.

However, and sadly for those of us who want to see Canadian firms succeed, RIM has encountered a bad patch.  Now, instead of being a unique provider of a unique product--secure messaging services for the government and enterprise market--RIM has become just one of many purveyors of the "smartphone."  And it is taking a beating.  Apple entered the smartphone market in 2007 to jeers of derision from the industry.  How could a mere computer company understand their industry?

But Apple is now making the most successful smartphone in the world and everybody else is copying what they do.  Nokia was a world leader, but faded so fast that it had to sell its soul to Microsoft just to survive.  RIM itself has become a world-class underachiever, over-promising and under-delivering over and over.   It is losing market share and the confidence of users and shareholders alike, to the point that its market value is a fraction of what it used to be.

Take the Playbook.  This is a tablet, with a 7 inch screen, that RIM released about a year ago and apparently thought could compete directly against Apple's iPad.  Guess again, RIM!   For a first generation device the iPad 1 was, if not exactly as Steve Jobs claimed "magical" it was at least extremely well thought through.  I bought one the first day they went on sale in 2010 and it has never let me down.  Apple got it right with the iPad two years ago and sent all its competitors off to their drawing boards.

And guess what they all did, RIM included?  Well, they thought that if they produced tablets that did what the iPad did and priced them to match up with the iPad, they could grab a fair slice of the tablet pie.   What they have all found out is that to take a piece of Apple's market share they have to considerably outperform or underprice Apple, or both.  In addition, Apple's real ace in the hole is its stores for apps and music.  It is a question of having the right hardware, software and content.  It seems that only Amazon has figured this out.  Its new Kindle Fire tablet comes in at $199 but it is a limited device with limited aspirations, and it is selling very well because of Amazon's store and content.

The Playbook that RIM tried to fob off on the market was a tablet that was smaller than the iPad and, perhaps fatally, had a new operating system that was a work in progress.  It did not even have a mail application.  There were few apps for the device.  As a result, the marketplace killed them.  A major software upgrade to correct the shortcomings was promised and then delayed.   Meanwhile, of course, Apply has released and sold millions of the iPad 1 and iPad 2 and an iPad 3 is in the works.  Apple is working very hard to maintain its lead.  RIM is still struggling to make its first generation Playbook a realistic option.

Finally, in recent weeks, RIM has been forced to do what Hewlett Packard did some months ago.  They slashed the price to clear inventories.  For HP, the market told them that their tablet was a great value at $100, a price point that was obviously unsustainable.  For RIM, it is not quite so clear what the market is saying, but a 64 GB Playbook that was previously offered for sale at $699 can now be bought for $299.  At the same time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the long-promised Playbook OS 2.0 has been receiving raves from the press.   It is finally ready for prime time.

So, the long and short of it is .... (drumroll please!)  I bought one.

Why, you might well ask?  Well, I can evade that question by saying that I didn't actually need a Bentley either!  I don't know why I bought it, other than to say:
  • I was really curious
  • I wanted to support a Canadian company
  • What I have read about the device is very intriguing
  • I can't resist a bargain
So, here is my assessment so far, with the caveat that everything on the software side will change in February with the release of Playbook OS 2.0.


I am really impressed.  It is well-built and well-designed.  The 7 inch screen is bright and clear.  The supplied HD video sample is breathtaking on this screen.  There are stereo speakers in the front of the device, something Apple has not been able to do so far.  The size splits the difference nicely between my iPhone 4 and my iPad.

It is fast and responsive.  It seems to run multiple apps simultaneously with no effort.

It has a micro-HDMI output and connects with no effort to an HDMI supplied television.  Everything on the Playbook screen is mirrored on the television screen in full 1080p resolution and looks truly wonderful.

The Playbook has front and rear facing cameras, at 3 and 5 megapixels respectively.

Being in Canada I have not had a chance to see a Kindle Fire, but the screen has identical specs as the Playbook in size and resolution.  However, it has only 8GB internal storage, of which 6GB is available to the user.


My impression of Playbook OS 1.0 is that it is "promising."  It is intuitive to use and navigate and the supplied apps work well.  The real story will be OS 2.0.  Android application compatibility and a powerful messaging and mail app are promised among other goodies.

The existing apps available on the Blackberry store are disappointing to say the least.  There does not even seem to be a Kindle app, although there is an app for Kobo and a number of other e-reader apps.

The browser is perfectly fine, and Flash works as advertised.

I have not tried the videoconferencing app yet but would be surprised if it does not work well.


At $299 for a 64 GB Playbook, I don't see why it can't trounce the Kindle Fire with 12% of the memory for $100 less, assuming OS 2.0 brings with it a Kindle app.

At $299 it is a legitimate alternative to the $699 Apple 2 for cost-conscious buyers and for those who value the smaller form factor and the Blackberry Bridge function.  I have not mentioned this latter feature yet, and personally have no use for it, but it could be a killer app for the large numbers of people who use Blackberry smartphones.

I really like the Playbook for reading text, including ebooks.  The iPad's screen resolution is perfectly adequate for most purposes, but for text there is an annoying amount of pixellation that can distract from the reading experience.  iPad 3 is rumoured to include a "retina display," which on my iPhone 4 is brilliant.  The Playbook displays text almost as well as my iPhone, which means that no pixellation is evident as normal font sizes and at a normal distance from the eyes.  The 7 inch screen is the size of a paperback page and the device is very comfortable to hold for extended periods while reading.

I also like the Playbook for watching video.  The screen is vivid and there is no difficulty displaying full HD content.  Having front-facing stereo speakers enhances the video and gaming experiences.

The HDMI output displays HD video and stereo sound to an external television or monitor.  This makes the Playbook an excellent choice if you are travelling and want to show a presentation on an HDMI supplied screen.


I am still looking forward to the iPad 3.  But it will come in at more than twice the price of the Playbook at its current pricing, and I doubt it will be twice the machine.  It may match the resolution of the Playbook screen and will offer a better selection of apps, but I think that RIM deserves its chance in the marketplace if its new operating system is as good as it looks.  It will depend on reviewers and developers and finally the buying public.  Reviewers have been killing RIM for the past year.  I think the company deserves a chance to see what this device can do with reasonable expectations attached to it.

Developers are going to have to see that it is worth their while to develop apps to take advantage of the hardware and operating system, but Android compatibility may greatly level the software playing field.

As a Canadian I don't want to see RIM go the way of Avro and Nortel.   I hope that the market travails of the past year have taught RIM's management that they need to be realistic about the markets they are in, and to define the market segments for their devices with greater precision so as to give buyers good reasons to buy their products.

Bottom line:  the Playbook is going to stay in my briefcase because it is a perfect road companion, especially for reading ebooks.  Once Playbook OS 2.0 is out it will be an excellent e-mail device for the road as well.  I will likely start leaving my iPad at home for surfing on the couch and playing games.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On the Turning of the Year

It is January 3, 2012 and bitterly cold in the Ottawa area.  Just a few days ago we were in British Columbia visiting the west coast branch of the family, and for 10 days we didn't see the sun. "At least it isn't snowing," we said.  Today it is brilliantly sunny here at home, but about -20 degrees Celsius.  I am thinking about Hawaii!

Another year has passed, making a total of 60 for me now.  I suppose I am now at the age where just surviving another year is the biggest accomplishment of all, and something to be celebrated in itself.

On the family front, all is well.  She Who Must Be Obeyed continues her quest to achieve immortality through raw foods and smoothies.  She maintains a bewilderingly varied social network of contacts with like-minded people all over the world and she is a hub of support and wisdom for her very large family.  Son has begun to find himself in high school and has grown into a man-sized teenager with a tremendous wit.  Daughter has her smoothie business, now located on an Island, near Vancouver, and Granddaughters continue to be interesting, beautiful and smart girls who are growing into interesting, beautiful and smart young ladies, like their mother and grandmother before them.

On the writing front, I reworked my novel Grey Eyes during the summer, but my work schedule has made it very hard to maintain any sustained attention to fiction.  But it is getting there...

As detailed in three earlier blogs, I bought a Bentley and having it is a great pleasure.

On the work front, I reached major milestones in some of my largest and longest-lasting matters.

But the overall impression I have of 2011 is of exhaustion.  All the accomplishments came at a great price.  My resilience seems to have left me.  A significant part of this is due to having ballooned into a caricature of my old self, carrying more than 100 pounds that I don't need.  Part of it is the result of spending virtually every week on the road to serve my clients.  There have been too many nights getting home at 2 am after a long day of negotiations followed by hours and hours of travel home.  Far, far too many airplanes. Far, far too many hotel rooms.  The rush to get to an airport through traffic, then the waiting.  The delayed flights, the missed connections.  The airport shuttle buses.

Most of all, I am no longer sustained by my optimism that my professional work will benefit the people I am working for.  As I am getting close to settling major land claims the news is full of horror stories about First Nation communities.  A housing crisis in Attawapiskat.  Widespread Oxycontin addiction in many communities in northern Ontario.  These are problems that more land and more money cannot solve.  Law has no answers.  I hope that my experience with First Nations communities can still be put to use to try to find answers, but that is not something I can expect to happen through practicing law.

But it is more than that.  Yes, I am tired and yes, I am losing my sense of accomplishment even as I am achieving professional goals.  I am suffering from a deep weariness that does not go away with a weekend of rest or even a vacation.  It is as if I have drawn on all my knowledge, all my emotions and all my physical energy for so long that there is nothing left.  I talk about recharging my batteries, and on the level of tiredness I can recharge and then go back at it again, but there is something deeper in me that is depleted and cannot be recharged, at least not with the time available to me in my current circumstances.

In 2011 I resolved to end this way of life.  I am going to "semi-retire" in 2012.  Jokingly I have told people that this means having a normal work schedule.  But it is more than that.  I really need to make dramatic changes to my life if I am going to get back to enjoying my work.

So here is the "Plan."  As my claim files reach a conclusion I will make no attempt to replace the work.  During the coming year I will be down to 50 per cent of the workload I have been carrying.  I will have time to read, to think, to listen to music, to write, to play my guitar.  I can drive Andrew to school and pick him up.  I can sit in Starbucks and read the whole morning paper over a latte.  Wife and I can go for long lunch dates.

We are considering a move to a better climate.  Likely it will be in the Vancouver area.  From my first visit there in 1974 as part of a travelling gang of gypsies selling old documents to lawyers (a story for another time!) I have been enthralled by Vancouver and its surroundings.  It is always green.  There are always mountains, and there is always the sea.  Life seems slower, somehow, although it is now a very large metropolis.  "I could live here,"  I have said to myself on every visit over the years.

But do I want to?  After 10 sunless days, days of constant rain and low clouds, I wonder.  Could I survive those winters?  Could I ever live in a city with a team named the Canucks?

I could live in Hawaii, but then there is the fact that it is (likely illegally according to international law) part of the United States.  Could I ever live in a country where Sarah Palin and Rick Perry are considered politicians?  No, I don't want to live in any part of the United States, even though Hawaii would deserve an asterisk.

What I really want is to live in B.C. but with a month or two a year in Hawaii.  That may be possible.

Getting back to the Plan, now.  With all the extra time I want to look into issues that I have enough time to contemplate but not to investigate.  Here are some:

  • What is the truth about global warming?  I believe we humans have contributed to the process but I suspect it is too late to do anything about it, at least through cutting back on emissions.  What we need to do is capture the CO2 and take it out of the atmosphere.  Maybe we are going to have to alter the albedo of the Earth and do some other things that sound like the premise for a disaster movie.  
  • How can humanity make the transition from its addiction to fossil fuels to a solar-powered future?  What are the technical, economic and political obstacles?  What is the critical path?
  • How can we redistribute the wealth of the Earth so that no child is hungry or lacking in the basic necessities of life?  What stands in the way?
  • Why is so much of humanity driven by religious fervour?  I don't understand why belief in a deity must in so many cases translate into hatred for others.
I also want to read or re-read many of the great books.  I want to listen to great music.  

Mostly I want to stop wasting my time on airplanes and sitting in airports or in traffic trying to get to airports so that I can be driven to distraction by government representatives and sometimes clients too.

The Plan presupposes that I am going to survive, so it also presupposes that I am going to get rid of the 100 or so excess pounds of me.  So I will conclude with that.  I am going to be lean, but less mean.  I am going to learn to meditate, to live in the moment and not the billable hour.  It is time for a new me, or at least a different one than the one who has been inhabiting my body these past few years!  Interesting times ahead.