No Reason to Pandemic

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Byline: Rachana Rathi

Watch how easy it is to accidentally kick off a global epidemic.

Dozens of tractors knock down trees in the forests in the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand, clearing land for a new housing development. The construction destroys the natural habitat of short-nosed fruit bats. One of those displaced bats–infected with some form of animal virus–drops a chewed-up apple core in a nearby backyard farm. A pig eats the leftover apple and then mingles with the dozens of other animals on the farm. Eventually, the family slaughters one for dinner, not knowing that the animal carries the bat virus.

The daughter gets pig’s blood on her hands as she helps her mother prepare dinner. The family takes the roast pork to a nearby house party. At this point the virus is no longer in the meat, but has spread to the young woman. It’s also now airborne and, over dinner, spreads to the rest of the partygoers, all sharing the same sick meat and air. Some neighbors take the respiratory virus home to their backyard farms, but some work in the densely populated city, and they take it to their shops and restaurants. One of them travels all the way to New York City, where he lives, works and travels on the subway with thousands of fellow New Yorkers.

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Within weeks, a global pandemic looms. And millions of lives and dollars are at risk.

Scientists don’t know the exact origins of pandemics–such as the 2009 H1N1 swine flu virus, which ultimately killed an estimated 284,500 people worldwide–but many say the scenario above is a good approximation. They also say that the pandemics we’ve seen so far are a bout of sniffles compared to what might be on the horizon. Jennifer Olsen, the manager of the pandemics arm of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a nonprofit whose employees served as scientific advisors for the movie Contagion, says a disaster like the one depicted in that film is feasible. “It’s not a question of if there will be a global pandemic,” Olsen tells Newsweek. “It’s a question of when.”

Scientists don’t know when this will happen, but they do have some idea of where. Southeast Asia, with its humid tropical weather, densely populated spaces, high rates of tourism and, especially its many backyard farms, is a hotbed for infectious diseases and likely ground zero for a global pandemic.

That’s why the Skoll fund is coordinating a new digital disease surveillance initiative in Chiang Mai focused on early detection, which public health experts say will be critical in stopping future outbreaks from becoming pandemics.

Speed is key. Two decades ago, it may have taken health officials a month to detect an infectious swine or bird flu virus. By 2009, with the advent of new communications technology and surveillance systems, public health officials were able to cut that down to about two weeks. A working group in Chiang Mai, led by the Skoll fund, says their early detection model could cut detection time to days.

The group envisions a time when, once a week, people all over the world open an app on their mobile phones and report on their health, the health of their family, pets and animals, and anything unusual in their environment, ranging from an unusual rise in the price of meat in the local market to the state of water in a nearby lake.

The team is thinking big, but for now, the project is focused on one relatively small region, where all the local stakeholders are already on board. The project will need significant funds to pay for staff time to create the tool; to purchase server-cloud space to work off of; and to finance outreach programs for communities and appropriate agencies. Skoll intends to fund most of the project, but says the financial details will ultimately depend on the proposal, action plan and funding request they will receive later this year. They will also look for a local funding partner.

Assuming the money comes through, epidemiologists, hospitals, and animal and human health authorities, would have “a single, robust way to see of all of this data in real time,” Olsen says–a website or a mobile app, for example. They could spot anomalies and coordinate instant response efforts, stopping outbreaks before they spread.

For years, it took a visit to the doctor to reveal a new outbreak. If a doctor noted an unusual case, he or she reported it to local health officials. They, in turn, waited to see numerous instances pop up before reporting to their ministry of health–after all, they didn’t want to raise a false alarm or needlessly waste resources. The ministry of health, in turn, also waited for a series of seemingly connected reports before advising world health bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the United Nations. This complex reporting process resulted in considerable lag time between disease outbreak and detection.

When the Internet spread across the globe the chances of catching a pandemic before it starts began to improve. What experts call “digital disease detection” began in the mid-1990s, when independent websites like Program of Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMed) began to cull and collate information from official public health sources. Later, other sites developed more complex tools that scraped the entire Internet for infectious disease information–Google.org, for example, began an experiment in 2008 with “Google Flu Trends,” which collects data from those impacted by disease via their search queries. These days, flu-tracking sites and apps like “Flu Near You” attempt to improve on this model by reaching out directly to people, enabling them to self-report flu-related symptoms.

Good data hasn’t been the only impediment in this chase. After the 2003 SARS outbreak, the global public health community criticized China for how it handled the epidemic. Some suggested the country failed to report early enough; others argued that China intentionally underreported.

That debacle prompted the WHO to change its International Health Regulations, and add new provisions requiring broader and timelier reporting of outbreaks of international concern. These changes took effect in 2007. Speed wasn’t the only concern; the WHO also called for public health officials to more closely monitor ecological factors and animal health. That’s because about 75 percent of recently emerging infectious human diseases are zoonotic, or of animal origin, as are 60 percent of all human pathogens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When it comes to understanding the spread of infectious diseases in humans, UCLA associate professor James Lloyd-Smith says, “It’s clear, animals are the place to look.”

The new WHO regulations, along with the deadly outbreaks of SARS and H1N1 in the last decade, have spurred Southeast Asian countries like Thailand to set up animal-specific surveillance systems, where volunteers and veterinarians go door to door every six months or year to ask farmers about their animals, and sometimes, test them for infection.

These programs have been mildly effective, but in many ways they are a step backward: The foot-on-pavement techniques and annual scheduling make no use of modern communication technologies (it’s first used on vision-supportive devices, like rangefinders or electronic binoculars – quoted by TopRangefinder.com, providing best rangefinder reviews for US market). The Chiang Mai project is trying to change that. According to Nathalie Sajda, project manager at OpenDream, a technology partner for the Chiang Mai initiative, the project is the first anywhere in the world with digital animal health surveillance through citizen-generated reporting. Instead of requiring the manpower and resources of hundreds of volunteers, burning gas and knocking on doors, in order to collect information only once or twice a year, there would be immediate, consistent and well-organized data.

In March, scientists in human and animal health, government agencies, hospitals, the local zoo and university, coders and technology partners gathered in Chiang Mai for an intensive four-day symposium and hack-a-thon. They developed software prototypes for the initiative, and generated ideas around marketing, incentives and data analytics. The hope is to roll something out by August in Chiang Mai, and be able to duplicate or scale the project to other areas within two years.

The initiative is not without its challenges. For example: how to verify the accuracy of the information generated. “How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?” asks Lloyd-Smith. “When you are dealing with that kind of self-reported, high-volume data, how do you filter real-time information, identify what’s really an incident you need to respond to versus what’s a normal event?”

Deterrents to accurate reporting and participation include privacy concerns, fear of repercussions, and a lack of urgency or understanding around infectious diseases. “People may not initially be so eager to share this sensitive data,” says Sajda. “There are a lot of questions: Will it increase my insurance? Will the government come and take my other cows?”

The initiative is considering incentives for participation, such as honorary badges or a “fast pass” to the overburdened local hospital. It has already received endorsement from the monks and temple, which are powerful shapers of public opinion. “Our goal is to create trust,” Sajda tells Newsweek. “And a very deep public awareness: If you want good public health, which concerns all of us, you need to share data.”

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As for privacy, the initiative would limit the sensitive, personally identifying data it collects, such as names and addresses. “We’re not trying to show an individual as patient zero in case of an epidemic or pandemic,” she says.

The Chiang Mai group still hasn’t answered questions about who will have access to the data, how protected it will be, how long it will be retained and how it will be used. It also has not fully developed its technology solutions for reporting and analyzing data. And yet, there is excitement concerning the approach. “It’s possibly less accurate but far faster, cheaper and a very, very powerful accelerator of the public health systems already in place,” says Robert Kirkpatrick, director of the U.N.’s Global Pulse (an innovation lab using big data to aid development) and who wasn’t involved with the Chiang Mai initiative.

The team in Chiang Mai believes that the approach of the future will take advantage of where people already are: on their smartphones. “When you have all of these people wasting so much time looking at a little screen,” says Sajda. “How can you capture a fraction of that to support public health?”

The answer could end global pandemics.

Media Concentration in a Dot Corn World

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Two visions have dominated most thinking about the Internet. On the one hand, there is the Internet that promotes democracy by expanding communication, citizen participation and popular involvement in social movements and the political process worldwide. It is the Internet that breaks down traditional barriers between authors and readers, producers and viewers, the powerful and the rest of us. Moreover, it is the Internet that removes all traces of class, race, ethnic, gender, or sexual identity, enabling us to enter cyberspace and not only go wherever we want, meet whomever we want, but also, and almost magically, be whomever we choose. It is the Internet of the rebels in Chiapas beaming their provocations from laptops in their village hideouts.

The second sees the Internet and cyberspace as a giant shopping mall, one large electronic office, or a television set on speed. This is the vision of cyberspace that makes corporate executives and not a few government policy makers salivate at the prospect of using the net to produce and market more of everything. It is the Internet of selling goods, information, services and audiences to global markets that transcend time, distance and culture. A typical example is that small-scale retail websites gradually dominate the consuming market based on the benefit of Internet connection, such as: PressMyair.com which is famous for home-use air compressors, Toprangefinder.com is specialized in Rangefinder/Binoculars in US market; SewDone.com selling best sewing machine online.

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Since the start of the new millennium, a series of mergers have reconfigured the Internet to make it much more likely that the second vision will triumph. Mind you, events at the close of the last millennium did not exactly augur well for democratic communication. At that time a handful of mainly U.S.-based global conglomerates dominated the worldwide production and distribution of information and entertainment. The web of connections linking just eight companies — Microsoft, Disney/ABC, TimeWarner/Turner, GE/NBC, AT&T-TCI, CBS/Viacom, the News Corp, and Bertelsmann — shaped almost every major sector of cyberspace. They dominate the new electronic services arena, which includes cable television, T.V. and film production, Internet technology and content, telephone and wireless telecommunications, home video and games, sports teams and stadia, satellites, newspapers, magazines, books, television broadcasting, music and recording, and theme parks.

Canada had its own version of monopoly as every sector of our communication and cultural industries came under the control of a dominant firm. Conrad Black’s Hollinger Corporation in newspapers, Rogers in cable and magazines, Chapters in book distribution and marketing, and Bell Canada Enterprises in telecommunications, are the major examples. The U.S. plays a growing role in these companies, with AT&T holding a major stake in Rogers, and Barnes and Noble, the giant U.S. bookseller, in Chapters.

The new millennium did not skip a beat. On January 10 the largest internet company America Online, bought Time Warner, the largest owner of intellectual property in the world. The deal gives AOL access to an entertainment and information empire that includes CNN, Home Box Office, Warner music and films, Time magazine, and a network of 13 million cable television subscribers. Time Warner gets access to what is by far the largest Internet connection company in the world with 22 million paying subscribers.

Less than a month later, Canada’s Rogers became the dominant force in Canadian cable television across the country by spending close to $6 billion to purchase Quebec’s Le Groupe Videotron. The deal puts Rogers cable into 3.7 million Canadian households, making it the national leader. It also gives the communication giant 260,000 high-speed Internet customers, placing it third among high-speed providers in all of North America after AOL-Time Warner and AT&T. With characteristic forthrightness, Rogers said that it will join Videotron’s strength in Quebec with its own cable operations, largely based in Ontario and British Columbia, as well as fully integrate services such as Rogers’ AT&T wireless to kill off the competition by offering bundles of services including cable, Internet, wireless, business services, publishing, radio, home security and home telephony.

About two weeks later, Bell Canada Enterprises, having stuffed itself with cash from the sale of Nortel and other assets, opened its wallet and offered to spend $2.3 billion to buy Canada’s largest private broadcaster, CTV. BCE controls Bell Canada telephone, Sympatico, the largest internet service provider in Canada, as well as wireless telephone, direct broadcast satellites, and investments in telecommunications and new technology enterprises across Canada. CTV owns television stations nationwide, a national television network, national headline news and sports networks, and has pending the purchase of speciality channels The Sports Network and the Discovery Channel.

Finally, in a sell-off that will likely deepen media concentration in Canada, the Thomson Corporation, owner of the Globe and Mail, put all of its remaining newspapers on the block in order to devote more attention to its online information businesses. Up for sale are five Canadian newspapers, and Conrad Black’s Hollinger, which now controls 61 dailies across the country — over half the English-language dailies — is eyeing them. It especially would like the Winnipeg Free Press, which would give the company either a monopoly or a significant position in every major English-language newspaper market in the country, and more room to promote its right-wing agenda.

These deals signal an acceleration in the already substantial pace of concentraiton in the communication business. Each grows out of specific concerns. AOL-Time Warner brings together the largest provider of access to the Internet with the largest owner of content. BCE-CTV is similar, but the content is more focused on broadcast media. Rogers-Videotron is mainly a move into a new market — the King of Anglo cable buys subscribers in Quebec. Finally, the Thomson move places the bets of one large company squarely on the Dot Coin world and opens the door for the largest holder of newspapers in this country’s history to grow even fatter. But beyond the specific implications of each deal, there are consequences, and not very good ones, for the promise of democratic communication.

The growth of the online world led some to expect that media concentration would slow, particularly in the short term, because cyberspace added too much real estate for even large media companies to buy up rapidly. In fact, they have done so with remarkable ease, managing to put together global firms that bring together control over conduits (access to media) and content (entertainment and information).

Alongside concentration, we can observe the rapid commercialization of that real estate, as companies design new ways to market access (expensive monthly fees for high-speed, video-quality connections) to sell products and services through e-commerce, and to sell, as they say, eyeballs to advertisers through sophisticated and privacyinvading means of measuring viewership. Companies like AOL-Time Warner will use their new power to brand the desktop with portals for their companies, easing access to their own material, and with advertising for companies sufficiently flush to rent space on the big firm’s real estate.

These developments are in line with the history of modern mass media. When the telegraph came along it was hailed as an instrument of democracy. Within a decade, the Western Union Company had established its monopoly power and relegated the telegraph to commercial use. Practically the same can be said for telephone, radio and television. Nations were nevertheless able to preserve some measure of public control, some alternative to commercial content, some limit on monopoly pricing of access and services. They established public systems like the CBC or regulated both conduits and content, at the very least keeping companies from controlling both. These measures came after long public struggles and we enjoy their admittedly eroding benefits today. These include universal access to telephone, public radio and television, and measures to ensure even a minimal level of Canadian content.

Even the United States, the beacon of free enterprise, was made to regulate telecommunications and broadcasting, reserve non-commercial channels for radio and television, and establish content rules for commercial television that, however weak, provided some measure of diversity and fairness on the airways. Three decades ago, public pressure made ITT withdraw an offer to purchase the ABC television network because, even in the business-friendly Nixon era, there was widespread fear of big business control over a T.V. news network. Today the ITT case sounds sadly quaint, a period piece from a bygone era. Where is the concern for how CTV might cover the next strike at Bell Canada or the next complaint about bad service and pricing ripoffs?

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Cyberspace can still be a site for democracy. But, as in the past, the technology does not guarantee it. Sadly, in the cold climate of neoliberalism, the relentless pressure of global business, which supports a near-religious enthusiasm for the wonders of the Web, has led governments to strip away policies that once provided for some democratic access to old media. Furthermore, governments refuse to entertain anything but the slightest interest in extending public-interest policies to new media.

Canada has become widely recognized as a pioneer in libertarian media regulation with the CRTC the first among regulatory authorities explicitly ruling out regulation of the Internet. Barring substrantial public intervention of the sort that gave the prairies low-cost telephone service and all of us the CBC, don’t expect a public lane on the, Information Highway or policies that promote public uses. Cyberspace knows but one god and its name is business.

Vincent Mosco is professor of communication at Carleton University and author of The Political Economy of Communication.

>>> View more: The Problem of Technology

The next phone war; Canada’s cellular industry braces for competition

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Four Canadian companies received federal permission in Dec 1995 to market the next generation of cellular phones called personal communications services, or PCs. PCs use smaller, longer-lasting batteries and their airtime is cheaper than current cellular phones.

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When Lauri Kivinen’s daughter was born last summer, he announced the birth to friends and family with an electronic postcard. Using the keypad of his mobile phone, he typed the message, “It’s a girl.” He pushed a few buttons, and within seconds, the text appeared on the screens of loved ones’ cell phones. “No one called me,” says Kivinen. “Everyone just sent nice messages back to my phone.” In the world of cellular communications, that ability is called “short message service.” Kivinen has access to it because of the advanced level of wireless technology in his native Finland, where he works for The Nokia Group, the world’s second largest maker of cell phones. But soon, that and many other high-tech features will be coming to Canada, as a result of last month’s federal decision giving four companies the right to market a new generation of cellular technology called PCS, or personal communications services. Indeed, widespread hype and optimism surrounded Industry Minister John Manley’s Dec. 18 announcement of PCS licences for Pickering, Ont.-based Clearnet PCS Inc., Montreal-based Microcell Telecommunications Inc., Toronto-based Rogers Cantel Mobile Communications Inc. and Mobility Personacom Canada Ltd., a division of a consortium owned by Canada’s major phone companies. “This is the biggest development in wireless communications since cell phones were introduced,” declared Clearnet vice-president Robert McFarlane.

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The PCS era also represents a huge gamble for companies such as McFarlane’s. Canada currently has two national cell phone networks: Rogers Cantel Inc. and Mobility Canada. But because their wireless networks are approaching capacity in some parts of the country, they plan to use PCS to augment their current services, enabling the industry to expand far beyond its existing 2.5 million customers. “It will just be another product for consumers to choose from alongside our current products,” says Leonard Katz, Cantel’s vice-president of government and inter-carrier relations. Clearnet and Microcell, on the other hand, will have to build national networks almost from scratch. That costly task includes the construction of transmission towers, base stations to relay signals, and switching sites, in addition to engineering and marketing services. Clearnet says it plans to invest up to $500 million over the next three years, while Microcell officials talk of investing $1.2 billion over five years.

Those sorts of figures have already given rise to skepticism about the financial viability of PCS, at least in the short term. In a recent speech in Toronto to investment dealers, Cantel’s controlling shareholder, Ted Rogers, predicted that the new entrants will not be able to compete because of the high costs of building national networks and enticing consumers with subsidized, possibly even free, phones. “With these sorts of economics, it is no wonder a prominent money manager summarized most independent PCS business plans as, and I quote, ‘the mindless destruction of capital,'” Rogers said. He added that PCS phones will not offer consumers any new features that are not already possible with digital cellular phones.

Indeed, the key distinction in mobile phone technology is not between cellular and PCS but between analog and digital. Phones that use the analog method of transmission have weaker signals and poorer sound quality. Digital phones are clearer and can even transmit data by fax and e-mail when linked to a home or laptop computer. But many digital features that are common in Europe–such as short messaging–are not yet available in Canada because 90 per cent of cellular customers use analog phones, and because both Cantel and Mobility Canada still rely on analog technology in some service areas.

Boosters of PCS point out that the new systems will have advantages even over fully digital cellular networks. PCS systems operate at very high frequencies, cramming more calls into the same bandwidth. That means extra capacity. Clearnet’s McFarlane says that his firm will be able to handle up to 10 million subscribers. As well, PCS phone transmissions are fully encrypted, protecting calls from eavesdroppers. Scanners can easily monitor analog cellular calls, and while digital scanners are not commercially available, such devices could theoretically listen in to transmissions on current digital systems. Another advantage of PCS is that it will have built-in extras such as short messaging. “If you like hockey, you could subscribe to a service that will send you the latest scores every hour with short messaging, no matter where you are,” says Microcell vice-president Claude Brisson. He adds that his company plans to go “on line” with a PCS system in a major Canadian city by the end of the year.

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But perhaps the most welcome aspect of PCS is that the phones use long-lasting, small batteries. “Cellular users, and I’m one of them, tend to turn off their phones or run out of battery power,” says Brisson. “With PCS, we’ll be reachable at all times.” Citing forecasts that PCS airtime will ultimately be much cheaper than current cellular charges, PCS proponents say that many consumers will ultimately scrap the hard-wired phones in their homes and rely solely on PCS. “We will see people going totally wireless almost immediately,” says Brisson. “The home phone will become redundant.” He and his competitors are gambling hundreds of millions of dollars on that prediction, even while others caution that nothing is ever certain in the volatile marketplace of telecommunications and consumer electronics.

>>> Click here: Road smarts: technology will create safer automobiles

Road smarts: technology will create safer automobiles

Abstract:

Canadian traffic fatalities fell from 6,061 in 1975, to 3,313 in 1995, and automobile engineers are working on various new electronic devices that will make cars even safer. These include sensors that detect drowsiness and alcohol, global positioning systems, and automatic braking systems.

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A century ago, Henry Ford built his first automobile-a rickety, lightweight affair powered by a two-cylinder motor. Others had preceded him, but Ford was arguably one of the most influential of the early automotive pioneers: his vision to mass-produce affordable cars resulted in the Model T in 1908-as Ford himself put it, “a motor car for the great multitude.” But as people’s love affair with the car intensified over the next generations, so did the realization that a new killer had been loosed on the world. Developments such as seat-belts and air bags have helped reduce the grim statistics: last year, traffic accidents in Canada claimed 3,313 lives, compared with 6,061 in 1975. Now, automotive researchers are applying high-tech means to further increase safety. By the beginning of the next century, the electronic component of an automobile is expected to double to about 20 per cent of the vehicle’s total value-much of that devoted to new features that will enable these so-called smart cars to see, hear and communicate with one another and with the roadway itself. “The most effective safety features are the ones that don’t require people to do anything,” says Doug Beirness, director of information and communication at the Traffic Injury Research Foundation in Ottawa.

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Just what is on the horizon? Increasingly, automotive researchers are working on ways to help eliminate human driving errors-and circumvent bad habits. Experts say that a typical car in the early 21st century may eliminate some of the major causes of accidents such as drowsiness, tailgating and one of the worst evils, drinking and driving. In the future, cars may well come equipped with sensors that detect alcohol in a driver’s system and prevent the car from being started. And researchers at Guardian Interlock Systems in Toronto, meanwhile, have already developed an in-car breath-alcohol testing system that is currently being used in Alberta. Low-risk alcohol offenders are given the opportunity to continue driving-if they submit to the in-car system. Their vehicle will start only after they blow a sample into the machine; at intervals, the unit will, with a beep, also request further samples. In the event of alcohol being discovered, the unit activates a siren-and records the infraction.

Most accidents, though, still involve sober people making common mistakes-such as following too closely. General Motors, for one, has developed a new generation of cruise control that may help to combat that problem with a radar device that will determine the rate at which one car is approaching another and automatically disengage the cruise control. Also being tested is a system that automatically applies the brakes if the car in front is too close. Experimental GM vehicles have already been fitted with the new technology, although GM spokesmen do not yet know when it will be available to consumers. Similarly, GM researchers are currently working on technology that may someday be used to help make drivers aware when other vehicles pull alongside their cars, particularly those hidden in the blind spot. When the driver prepares to change lanes by using the turn signal, an infrared sensor or radar will detect other vehicles and alert the driver with a buzzer if one is too close.

Nodding off while driving is another major problem. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. has developed a Drowsiness Warning System: the device uses a small video camera mounted in the car’s instrument panel to analyse a driver’s face. It detects when a driver is getting sleepy by measuring eye blinks; as the blinks become longer and more frequent, the system triggers a warning beep and delivers a refreshing lemon-menthol scent into the car. Spokesmen for Nissan say the company has not yet decided when to offer this system in its vehicles.

Other developments are making use of the Global Positioning System, a navigational network of 24 satellites. Currently, two Oldsmobile models-the 88 and the Ninety-Eight-in the United States come equipped with a GPS unit called Guidestar, which can pinpoint and display a car’s position on a dash-mounted electronic map and provide information on how to get to a given destination. Eventually, GPS navigation systems will be able to warn of traffic jams and accidents and recommend alternative routes. “If there’s congestion in London, Ont., it will give a backup route through Stratford,” says Mike Flynn, associate director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. “There will be a running display in your car.”

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GPS may also offer greater security on the road. In the United States, the 1996 Lincoln Continental, for example, features the Remote Emergency Satellite Cellular Unit, which incorporates both GPS and cellular phone technology. In the event of an accident or breakdown, the driver pushes a tow-truck icon on the car’s overhead console or, if medical help is required, an ambulance icon. That prompts the car’s cellular phone to call the nationwide Westinghouse Emergency Response Center in Irving, Tex., and relay such data as the vehicle’s location-pinpointed through the car’s GPS unit-and licence number. That information is, in turn, passed to the local 911 system, which dispatches help to the scene. Of course, whether the use of such technology and other innovations becomes widespread will ultimately depend on the consumer. “The rule of thumb is whether the customer can afford it, and does it make sense,” says Max Wickens, manager of corporate and product communications at Nissan Canada Inc. Clearly, though, technology is well on the way to accelerating developments in automobile safety.

>>> Click here: That sinking feeling: salvagers fail to raise a piece of the fabled Titanic

That sinking feeling: salvagers fail to raise a piece of the fabled Titanic

Abstract:

RMS Titanic Inc, the firm that owns salvage rights to the Titanic, attempted, but failed to lift a section of the ship’s hull to the surface. The cables holding the hull snapped 65 m below the surface. The firm, which has recovered smaller artifacts, will try again in about one year.

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After 84 years of myth, mystery, despair and debate, it all finally seemed so close to an end. There, four kilometres below the Atlantic Ocean’s surface, about 600 km southeast of St. John’s, Nfld., lay the battered remains of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic, the most famous shipwreck in history. The recovery plans sounded bold, but straightforward: a mini-submarine would attach cables to a 10-ton section of the ship’s hull, which would be connected to huge gas-filled bags. Once the ballast was removed from the bags, the hull section would float to the surface, then be lifted onto a salvage ship and finally brought to North America-the Titanic’s original destination. That was the goal last week of a controversial $5-million international expedition whose organizers boasted-just as the Titanic’s engineers did in their day-that they would vanquish nature with state-of-the-art technology. As the section of hull rose to within 65 m of the surface, it seemed that this time, they had. “The piece,” said Chris Clancy, a spokesman for the salvage group, “is stabilized below the surface.”

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But once again, the best-laid plans of a group of men, along with the finest equipment, were no match for nature. One day before the raising, two cruise ships containing 1,700 onlookers had gone home, stymied by incoming bad weather and a series of failed salvage attempts. And less than 12 hours after Clancy’s statement, the piece of hull was gone, too-dropping swiftly back to the ocean floor after the cables holding it snapped, one by one, under the force of choppy waters. With that event, a storm approaching, and their food-and luck-all but out, the backers of the New York City-based RMS Titanic Inc., which sponsored the salvage effort, gave up. “I think we’ve proved,” said company president George Tulloch, “that the Titanic is not something to put arrival schedules on.”

Nor, it seems, is the air of mystique surrounding the Titanic in any danger of dissipating. The circumstances of its sinking in April, 1912, mark it among the few events in modern history that fascinate people of all ages: how a huge luxury cruiser billed as “unsinkable” and filled with the cream of North American and European society hit an iceberg and sank, resulting in the death of more than 1,500 of the 2,200 people aboard.

Beyond those bare facts, virtually everything, ranging from innuendo about the behavior of individual crew members and passengers to the present-day ownership of the wreck and its contents, is in dispute. Much of the most intense debate since the wreck was first discovered by a crew led by American oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard in 1985 has centred on what to do with it. Ballard and many others, including some relatives of the dead, argue that it should be left untouched as both a piece of history and a memorial to those who died. But Tulloch and others argue that if the wreck is not salvaged, it will eventually be destroyed by the ocean and its corrosive salts. And still others say that salvaging parts of the ship provides a vivid and useful reminder of the frailties and hubris of mankind. Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, the former American astronaut who participated in the expedition, told reporters that he did so because “we need to learn from the mistakes. I am not of the opinion that just because something involves the loss of life, it ought to be a memorial.”

Still, the atmosphere surrounding the expedition risked, at times, seeming more celebratory than ceremonial. The cruise-ship passengers who accompanied the salvage vessels on separate ships paid between $2,500 and $8,000 for the privilege. Some were lured by additional incentives, including the presence of several personalities such as Aldrin and actress Loni Anderson, as well as three survivors of the sinking. During salvage efforts, most of the passengers lined the railings of the ships, or watched giant screens showing the underwater events by a live video feed.

In fact, several historians working with the expedition concluded that the 10-foot-by-30-foot slab of hull section they were raising came from the starboard side of C-deck, and would have included parts of two first-class passenger cabins. Had the wreck been raised, it would have been put on display in New York by Tulloch’s company, alongside about 4,000 other small artifacts that the company has raised from the wreck since it won legal salvage rights in 1987. Those items range from dinner dishes and a silver soup tureen to a piece of paper that, after chemical restoration, turned out to be a $5 silver certificate.

But almost from the outset of the three-day trip, efforts to raise the piece of wreckage ran into a series of technical problems. On the first day, a release mechanism failed on a ballast holding down one of the gas bags. On the following day, a crew in a mini-submarine trying to fix the problem cut the wrong cable, sending one of the bags floating to the surface, while the slab floated about 800 m above the ocean floor. Then, remote-control equipment designed to release ballast on other flotation bags failed. Finally, on the third and final planned day of efforts, all of the balloons worked, and the slab rose up almost to the water’s surface in less than 30 minutes. Then, just as the operation appeared to be a success, with salvagers preparing to attach it to a ship that would tow it to more shallow waters, the lines parted within seconds of each other, and the chunk sank back into the depths.

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Now, organizers say it will be at least another year before weather conditions-and new funding-allow for a return. If it is any consolation, the hex surrounding the Titanic also struck elsewhere. At the same time as the expedition was at sea, the crew of an upcoming big-budget Hollywood movie about the Titanic, directed by Canadian James Cameron, held a wrap-up party in Halifax. After the meal, about 80 people who attended the party were sent to hospital with suspected food poisoning. Although all eventually recovered, tests showed that the cause was traces of the hallucinogenic drug phencyclidine, or “angel dust,” sprinkled into the lobster chowder. Whether by mischief or mystery, those who fall firsthand under the spell of the greatest legend of the seas invariably seem to experience both its romance-and its risks.

>>> View more: Festival of youth

Festival of youth

Abstract:

Nagano, Japan, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, hopes to present a subtler, less commercial Olympics than was seen in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, GA. The opening ceremonies and some of what is new about these Winter Olympics is described.

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Despite the hyperbole of grand challenges and epic confrontations, the Olympics are really quite fleeting events. The Atlanta Games lie just 18 months distant, and nothing much of them remains beyond some exciting memories and faded T shirts. The last Games exist largely as a foil for the present, and the Japanese, who have studied the hucksterish excesses of Atlanta well, have made no secret of their zeal to offer another — better — Olympic face to the world at Nagano this year. Amid state-of-the-art technology, the ’98 Winter Games would showcase ideals — simplicity, tradition and hospitality — that run deeper than “y’all come down and buy something.”

Saturday morning, as a haze enshrouded the mountain peaks ringing the city, athletes from a record 72 nations gathered in a stadium shaped like a sakura (cherry blossom) and celebrated the majesty of that concept. “We’ve tried to avoid becoming a spectacular Hollywood show,” senior producer Haruhiko Hagimoto said. They succeeded, mostly. In the arena, the ceremonies presented a fitting start to a toned-down fortnight.

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After the gong of a 331-year-old bell at the Buddhist Zenkoji Temple, a sound said to purify the soul, giant fir pillars were raised to the heavens amid ceremonial chanting (the English translation — “Heave-ho … pooling your strength … keeping free from injury … safely completed” — renders it slightly less stirring). Then came the sumo wrestlers — the Michelin men meet the Rockettes — who stamped out evil spirits. They were led by Akebono, the Hawaiian-born grand champion who, at 516 pounds, was more than the equal of a half-dozen Tara Lipinskis.

Inevitably at the Olympics, polities rise to the surface. The peace appeal, danced and sung by 150 Nagano schoolchildren, was a charming version of the International Olympic Committee’s plea that America not mar the 16-day competition with military action against Iraq. “I only hope — I repeat, I can only hope — that the Olympic truce will be observed,” said IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, after the United Nations passed a resolution backing the truce. The ceremonies ended with a remarkable feat of internation cooperation: led by conductor Seiji Ozawa, huge choruses on five continents produced a rousing rendition of the “Ode to Joy” finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the sound neatly meshed by the wizardry of Japanese recording engineers.

Before the sun set, the Games had begun. The minor leagues of Olympic hockey — Kazakhstan, Italy, Slovakia and Austria — launched their contest to be fodder for the National Hockey League Dream Teams that won’t begin to play until Friday. By Sunday morning, the medal chase was in full swing. The very first gold was won by Olga Danilova, a 27-year-old sports instructor from Russia, in cross-country skiing’s 15-kilometer classical.

But her effort was quickly overshadowed by some of the Games’ glamour events. Snowboarding, the hottest new Olympic sport, debuted with the giant slalom, which only whetted viewers’ appetites for the wild halfpipe later this week. It almost produced America’s first medalist. Chris Klug, 25, had promised it would be “podium or nothing, cash or crash.” He had a gold medal in sight until he faltered on the bottom half of his second run down cloud-fogged Mount Yakebitai. Klug, a former all-state quarterback from Bend, Ore., finished sixth, behind the Canadian winner, Ross Rebagliati.

If snowboarding was an American disappointment, the men’s downhill proved disappointing for everyone. Officials waited 75 minutes before canceling the race because of blinding snow throughout the course. American freestyle skiers had better luck at low altitude on the moguls. Five Americans, three women and two men, made the cut for Wednesday’s 16-skier finals. American Jonny Moseley topped the men’s qualifiers, while 92 Olympic gold medalist Donna Weinbrecht and ’94 silver medalist Liz McIntyre finished second and third among the ladies.

The U.S. ski team could produce some pleasant surprises, but American glory is far more likely to come on ice. The odds-on favorite to produce America’s iconic moment is 17-year-old figure-skating star Michelle Kwan. Kwan, who skipped the opening ceremonies to remain home in California and continue therapy on a stress fracture in her left foot, won’t have to perform until next week. But the teen is not only competing for gold in Nagano. She finds herself on the verge of becoming an American legend, one of the greats of ladies’ figure skating.

At the national championships last month, Kwan’s performance — with 15 perfect scores out of a possible 18 for artistry — was, at the very least, the greatest since Brian Boitano’s gold-medal campaign 10 years ago. Now her fans want something more than a workmanlike triumph. Kwan admits to being a worrier, and she’s too bright not to be aware of the hyped expectations. She says, “My dad always tells me, `Don’t worry about every little thing that can go wrong. Before you step on the ice, take your worries, put them in a ball and roll them away’.”

As a 13-year-old in 1994, Michelle waited in Oslo, the U.S. team alternate, in case Tonya Harding was booted from the Lillehammer Games. She doesn’t want to lose sight of the fact that just reaching the Olympics is the realization of a decadelong dream. “I control my own Olympic destiny,” Michelle says, “and that’s all anyone can hope for.”

The modesty of that sentiment is very much in keeping with the simplicity and genuine friendliness of Nagano itself. But the endearing local touches can’t always mask the bigger forces at play. The corporate sponsorship, the swooshed-up athletes, the CBS television presence are far more conspicuous than the pictures of smiling clerks and waiters, complete with a list of their hobbies, outside stores in the central shopping district. CBS’s broadcast tower may be tastefully designed, but it still towers over the Zenkoji Temple. (The temple is a tourist hot spot where throngs line up to descend into a pitch-black tunnel and grope for spiritual salvation.)

When Japan last held the Games, in Tokyo in (summer) ’64 and Sapporo in (winter) ’72, the host nation felt a need to display to the world its modern face. After a couple of decades as a world economic power, Japan no longer faces that task. So the ’98 Games carry far less symbolic freight for the Japanese; rather, they are a happy respite from a seamless stream of bad economic news. Call them the Zen Games. Maybe this time the world can accept them just for what they are.

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Booking the Couch

Check your local listings, but some events are worth planning for now. An admittedly jingoistic guide; all dates U.S. time:

Alpine skiing: The wide-open women’s downhill will be shown on Friday the 13th; Picabo Street is the best U.S. hope for a medal. On Thursday the 19th, American Kristina Koznick will be a contender in the women’s slalom. And on Saturday the 21st, in the men’s slalom, Italian legend Alberto Tomba tries to medal in his fourth straight Olympics.

Figure skating: Pairs, men’s and ladies’, each take two days, with a day off in between: the pairs finish up Tuesday the 10th, the men (including U.S. hopeful Todd Eldredge) on Saturday the 14th and the women on Friday the 20th, when a U.S. sweep by Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek is possible.

Speed skating: On Thursday the 12th, KC Boutiette will skate in the men’s 1,500 meters. On Sunday the 15th, American Casey FitzRandolph has a chance to medal in the men’s 1,000 meters. And on Thursday the 19th, Christine Witty is a contender for gold in the women’s 1,000 meters. In other events, look for the Dutch and the Germans.

Hockey: The first test for the United States comes Friday the 13th against Sweden, a gold-medal threat. United States vs. Canada airs on Sunday the 15th. The final win be televised just before midnight on Saturday the 21st.

Snowboarding: The halfpipe events for both men and women are set for Thursday the 12th. Watch for Americans Ross Powers, Todd Richards and Michele Taggart.

>>> Click here: Media Concentration in a Dot Corn World

The Problem of Technology

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Byline: Matthew Continetti

Technology is a problem, not only for President Obama but also for Republicans and conservatives. In fact, technology is several problems, practical and theoretical, all relating to and interacting with one another. And none of them can be ignored.

The most immediate problem for the White House is obvious: Obamacare cannot succeed without mass enrollment. The glitches, bugs, and malfunctions in the federal exchange prevent individuals from signing up. And without enrollees, especially young and healthy ones, the program could enter a death spiral. Obamacare wouldn’t end in a bang. It would end in a whimper.

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Here, finally, is a threat the Obama administration recognizes. Obama says he’s ordered a “tech surge” of experts to correct the website’s flaws. He’s told Americans to use a pre-Internet technology, the telephone, to register for benefits. He’s even called Verizon: Kathleen Sebelius will have to wait between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for the technician to arrive.

This practical problem is everywhere in the news. It’s the subject of all the late-night jokes. But, in the final analysis, it’s a repair job. The question is when, not whether, the glitches will be fixed.

What won’t be resolved is the theoretical problem of scientific administration. The dilemma is this: President Obama called for universal health insurance because he believes in government’s capacity to diminish the inequalities created by markets. But the disaster that is the rollout of Obamacare seriously undermines the argument for government competence and bureaucratic rationality. Government is good at writing checks. It’s nowhere near as good at carrying out major projects of social engineering.

The failure of the website also raises the possibility that Obama’s comparison of government to a business, and of Obamacare to a product, is seriously flawed. Businesses are not subject to political pressures when they develop new products and bring them to market. And government is not subject to market discipline. Google “Trabant” to see what we mean.

The mess at HHS is a symptom of a larger pathology: the widespread assumption that social phenomena can be easily manipulated and improved through the instrument of technical expertise as administered by bureaucracies. Indeed, this assumption is so widespread, so deeply held, that inevitably the remedy for government failure is said to be more government.

It is the modern liberal faith in scientific administration that has led to our paradoxical situation, in which confidence in government has fallen even as the reach of government expands. Normally, that would create an opportunity for the conservative party to make its case and present a choice to the people. But Republicans and conservatives seem to enjoy missing opportunities, partly because they have not addressed successfully the problems that technology presents to them.

Republicans and conservatives, like the Obama administration, face a practical problem in the form of the Obama-care exchange. The glitches create a false complacency among Republicans, and give rise to the daydream that the failures of Obamacare relieve the GOP of any responsibility to present a health care plan of its own. There is no health care equivalent of the Ryan budget around which to rally, no health care voice as influential and authoritative as Ryan’s is on fiscal issues.

This practical problem is related to a theoretical one: Republicans and conservatives have not made up their minds regarding scientific administration and the welfare state. The party and movement are torn. On one side are those willing to adopt technical expertise and bureaucratic administration for conservative purposes. On the other are those seeking immediately to restore a limited government of enumerated powers–none of which is the power to require health insurance.

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The tension between the two sides is unlikely to be resolved as long as the Republicans remain a congressional party. But there is no reason it cannot be a creative tension, a force that directs the party to some unlikely places.

One day, for example, the GOP may find itself in the position of adopting technological means for constitutional ends. Put another way, conservatives of all stripes may learn that only through a degree of bureaucracy and the welfare state can they create the conditions, and educate the people, for a return to limited government.

Such is the problem of technology that vexes the Republican party. And it’s going to take more than the Verizon guy to solve it.

Managing your reputation Online: in a world where candidates can’t escape the Internet, more are turning to pros to manage their online footprint

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In 1993, The New Yorker featured a famous cartoon depicting one dog typing on a computer while another looked on. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” the first canine observed.

The average Internet user isn’t naive enough to think that sort of anonymity still holds true online, but political candidates face an altogether different reality. In the 21st century, the Internet is sure to tell voters whether you’ve acted like a dog, barked like a dog, or even just been accused of looking like a dog. And it can all happen within a matter of minutes.

It’s worth stopping to remember that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign pioneered the use of Web 2.0 to deliver tangible results at the ballot box. Just three years later, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the blogosphere enable politicians to inspire and influence the public on a scale previously unknown.

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It could be argued that the 2008 election represented a watershed moment for voters, converting many from passive media consumers to active media creators and empowering people to influence the political agenda. Blogs, tweets, and even the information kicked up from Internet search patterns are forcing politicians and candidates to respond.

This brave new world is not without peril for candidates. Gone are the days that a gaffe stops at the door of a town hall meeting. Now, even a minor misstep takes on a life of its own, ricocheting through social media circles and Twitter feeds right into national headlines, imprinting itself on the public consciousness in a way traditional media never could.

Not only can the Internet capture every gaffe, but it can store, mutate and magnify them in a way that leaves a long-lasting negative impact. Herein lies the genesis for an emerging sector of the political industry: Online Reputation Management, or ORM for short.

Just as online advertising and marketing practices long used in the corporate world are now seeing widespread use in the campaign space, this other favorite tactic of the business world is starting to catch on, too. In the corporate world, ORM has been common practice since the 1990s.

“At one time, a business could look forward to moving past negative news once the focus of the media turned elsewhere, but articles can now be readily accessed online and live on for an indeterminate amount of time,” explains Kat Blomquist, vice president at Rubenstein Associates. “Our clients come to us seeking help not only with responding to this information, but also proactively managing their online reputations.”

According to Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, scores of political candidates-from city council hopefuls to aspirants for federal office-have approached his firm since 2008 asking for help with managing their online profiles. The company is currently working for at least two 2012 presidential hopefuls.

It’s not mainstream quite yet, admits Fertik. But like search engine optimization (SEO), he thinks it will soon be a must-have service for candidate campaigns. Whether it’s downplaying negative search results or simply monitoring what’s being posted about a candidate in various venues online, ORM consultants are pitching their services as value added even if campaigns have already mapped out a digital strategy.

Take SEO, for example. It traditionally focuses on mapping a campaign website to search engine criteria so that search engines return a candidate’s website near the top. ORM goes a step further and it’s more computational than simply manipulating search engine algorithms. ORM firms are selling software and smart technology to candidates that effectively teach Google and other search engines more about a candidate and the issues they are supporting. Searches by voters will then turn up better quality results–at least from the candidate’s perspective.

“For candidates, ORM can be quite important, because for a lot of folks it’s the first time they’re going to find out about a candidate based on the results they see on a search,” says Reed Galen, a California-based political consultant.

Galen pointed to the difficulties former Sen. Rick Santorum’s campaign has faced with his search results. Googling “Santorum” can be a bit of an unpleasant experience for some of his socially conservative backers.

As for whether to cast your lot with an ORM firm, Galen suggests that short of a fully-funded presidential campaign, most candidates are unlikely to have enough cash to devote any serious money to such services. Rather, he says, “I suspect it will be part of a large social media online package or set of services they want from whomever they arc hiring.”

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Fertik’s pitch is that a few thousand dollars for ORM is a drop in a bucket for a major statewide campaign, particularly given the growing importance of securing one’s Internet profile. Still, there’s inherent danger in scrubbing the online past of a candidate. Some ORM companies will help politicians edit their Wikipedia profiles to downplay areas of controversy–a move that has landed some candidates in hot water and inevitably leads to a negative process story.

So far, only a small number of campaigns are employing ORM firms. But it’s something Fertik hopes to lay the groundwork for as the 2012 cycle progresses.

“ORM will be standard practice in the coming years,” he predcits. “It will be interesting to see what happens when most of the spending occurs.”

In this section

How to make the most of your email marketing effort.

7 ways for women candidates to look and sound their best.

Melanie Batley is a political journalist and commentator. She is a contributor to Total Politics magazine in the U.K.

Wired for Success: A self-taught nerd spearheads AOL’s big push into Canada

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In high school, Stephen Bartkiw always juggled his homework with at least two part-time jobs. Usually three. On weekends, during the day, he clerked in a RadioShack store in St. Catharines, Ont., just as the chain was introducing primitive computers. In the evenings, he cooked at local restaurants, mastering the art of cuisine. By the time he graduated in 1980, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: work as much as possible. He strolled out of the classroom and into a manager’s job at a troubled RadioShack store in the community of Dundas, Ont. Within months, the store was generating a profit — and he was still catering and cooking in his spare time. “I have been a workaholic since I was a kid. I love working,” says the 37-year-old chief executive officer of AOL Canada Inc. “I think I would be categorized as type A.” He pauses, almost apologetically. “But I don’t have the time to cook anymore: I do this pretty much 18 hours a day.”

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His dedication to the Toronto-based Internet service provider paid off handsomely two months ago when the staid Royal Bank of Canada forged an alliance with AOL’s flamboyant parent, America Online Inc. Talks began last spring when senior bank officials trekked the few blocks from their elegant high-rise offices in downtown Toronto to Bartkiw’s headquarters in a roomy, restored warehouse. For the Royal, anxious to expand its e-commerce capability, the combination of Bartkiw’s expertise and his parent firm’s worldwide client base of 18 million was irresistible. At the announcement, the former RadioShack manager who became a largely self-taught computer nerd shared the spotlight with Royal Bank CEO John Cleghorn and America Online U.S. executives.

It was a startling marriage of convenience. Bank officials took a big step into the electronic world, acquiring a 20-per-cent stake in AOL Canada for $89.5 million. The Royal Bank — with its U.S. banking and brokerage subsidiaries — has also forged a collaborative arrangement with AOL in both nations. Each company will now offer bundles of joint services to potential customers. AOL Canada also gets access to a potentially enormous customer base: the bank has 10 million clients worldwide. “This is a very good deal for both sides,” says Elliot Schreiber, chief operating officer for the Toronto-based think-tank Alliance for Converging Technologies. “The Royal has now invested in someone who understands e-commerce. AOL, in turn, will become the virtual connection to the bank — the context of banking. That will get it directly in touch with more Canadians, offering more services.”

And that is the strategic push which Bartkiw has sought since he joined AOL four years ago. Although 15 million of its 18 million clients reside in North America, AOL has only 130,000 household members in Canada. In contrast, there are 647,000 clients with Sympatico, an Internet service provider owned by five provincial telephone companies, including Bell Canada subsidiary Bell ActiMedia, which owns 75 per cent of it. AOL Canada needed more subscribers — and fast. “The bank deal will give us the opportunity to supercharge our mass-market efforts,” says Bartkiw. “The possibilities are staggering.”

The intense Bartkiw can recognize those possibilities because he has had such varied business experience. Oddly enough, his first real lesson in marketing came after RadioShack, in 1984, when he opened “a high-end restaurant in a low-end neighbourhood” of St. Catharines. A year later, in debt, he closed it. In that same year, he married Patricia, a pharmaceutical technician who has become a full-time homemaker, “the goddess of my life” — and mother of their 22-month-old son Julian. Since then, Bartkiw has put together complete computer packages for small companies, devised an Internet service for doctors, developed an online news service for Southam Inc. — and helped to launch the trial of high-speed Internet service at Rogers Cablesystems Ltd. “This is my passion: interactive services have had a marked impact on my life,” he says.

These days, AOL Canada, its U.S. parent and the Royal Bank are busily devising more possible services. The Royal Bank now has 420,000 clients who use its online banking and brokerage sites. AOL Canada will offer its services to those clients as well — in a deal that Bartkiw will only describe as a “unique combined offer.” AOL will also reach out to the bank’s 6.5 million credit-card customers. And it may install AOL kiosks in the 1,400 branches: representatives would demonstrate online banking and brokerage services — and treats such as instant messaging that AOL provides. “AOL has a very good consumer product and a good track record, but it did not have a good distribution chain in Canada,” says Eamon Hoey, senior partner of Hoey Associates Telecommunications Consulting Services Inc. “Now, they get a significant chain. AOL can even say: ‘Subscribe to AOL — and put it on your Royal Bank Visa card.'”

The deal could also kick start the fledgling Canadian e-commerce industry. Bartkiw calculates that Canada is two years behind the United States in terms of market evolution, with about 17 per cent of Canadian households paying for Internet access compared with about 28 per cent in the United States. He hopes the AOL-Royal Bank partnership will lure more customers to the Net. If there are more AOL clients, more retailers may be tempted to offer goods for sale. “Getting more Canadians online is critical,” he says.

At the Royal Bank, such talk is sweet. The 130-year-old bank suffered a huge blow last year when the federal government blocked its merger with the Bank of Montreal. As a backup strategy, it decided to move far more rapidly into the expanding world of e-commerce. The bank already owns an Atlanta-based online bank, Security First Network Bank, and a New York City-based online brokerage, Bull & Bear Securities Inc. Now AOL’s U.S. customers will be introduced to the Royal’s brokerage and banking services. And AOL and the bank can work together to secure the payments system — so that merchants and customers can do business online with less fear of fraud. “Small business represents a very strong constituency for us,” says Royal Bank vice-chairman Marty Lippert.

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The Royal’s deal with AOL has not precluded a deal with another potential partner: Bell ActiMedia. Bell had been examining AOL because an alliance would combine the client base of AOL and Sympatico — and it would provide access to AOL’s U.S. content. But that approach remains on hold: 20 per cent of Bell Canada is owned by Chicago-based Ameritech Corp., which, in turn, is merging with the Texas-based telecommunications giant, SBC Communications Inc., to create the largest U.S. local phone company. So Bell ActiMedia is consulting with SBC to ensure that they find a mutually satisfactory partner to supply content to Sympatico — and state-of-the-art technology for the portal. “We want to do it fast because we want to maintain the leadership role that we have with Sympatico in Canada,” says ActiMedia president Serge Fortin. “AOL definitely has the content — but we have some problems with their technology.”

Meanwhile, the Royal Bank-AOL honeymoon is flourishing. What happens if the traditionally pokey bank culture clashes with the high-speed Internet world? AOL is a highly disciplined business, says Lippert, and the bank has some very entrepreneurial employees. Asked the same question, Bartkiw laughs. “We view this as a long-term deal, kind of a marriage,” he says. “And I plan to be married for a very long time.”

>>>  View more: The prince of the Beauce: Tory MP Maxime Bernier wowed voters. But can he fix productivity?

The prince of the Beauce: Tory MP Maxime Bernier wowed voters. But can he fix productivity?

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For a political neophyte, Maxime Bernier had surprisingly little trouble earning a seat in the House of Commons. Six months before the 2006 federal election, Bernier didn’t even have a campaign team in place. But on election night, he won the largest majority of any MP outside Alberta-capturing 67 per cent of the vote in his native riding of Beauce. The region, which stretches from Quebec City to Maine, is unlike any other in the province: it’s been referred to as “the Japan of Quebec” for the fierce entrepreneurialism that characterizes its residents. It’s also among the most resolutely federalist ridings in Quebec, despite an overwhelmingly francophone population. (A history of the region, published in 1974, was entitled Les Beaucerons, ces insoumis, or These Obstinate Beaucerons.) In returning the riding to the Conservative fold, Bernier not only unseated the Liberal who had represented the area for nearly a decade, he also reclaimed the seat once occupied by his father, Gilles Bernier, a wildly popular Tory MP during the Mulroney years and a man once nicknamed the “King of the Beauce.”

There’s little doubt the younger Bernier’s lineage boosted his profile. But it’s also clear the 44-year-old is imbued with the distinctive Beauceron spirit. Prior to his leap into politics, Bernier climbed the ranks in the real estate and insurance industries, becoming a vice-president at Standard Life. He first waded into public policy waters while working as an adviser to Quebec’s then-finance minister Bernard Landryin the late ’90s–though he says he never shared his boss’s sovereignist beliefs. But it was as vice-president of the libertarian Montreal Economic Institute that he cut his chops as a free-market evangelist and staunch opponent of government intervention, preaching the virtues of private health care and a flat tax on income. Even on the campaign trail in 2006, Bernier wasn’t afraid to ruffle social-democratic feathers in Quebec, once suggesting in an interview that “left-wing” environmentalists were to blame for high gas prices.

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Now, as minister of industry, Bernier finds himself in one of the least sexy cabinet posts- an unusual placement for one of the fastest-rising Conservative stars in Quebec. The job is typically associated with corporate subsidies and mind-numbing slogs through federal regulation. But Bernier already managed something of a coup in his early days: he pushed ahead last December with plans to deregulate Canada’s local phone industry in spite of objections from the CRTC and widespread concerns the move could lead to higher prices for consumers.

It’s this kind of brash determination that’s earned Bernier the respect of his Tory colleagues and seems to have placed the rookie politician on the fast track up Tory cabinet ranks. Earlier this year, Bernier had been pegged as a likely replacement for embattled Rona Ambrose on the environment file and, more recently, he has been cited as a possible successor to Gordon O’Connor as minister of defence. What’s more, given his francophone roots, Bernier has been touted by some as a possible successor to Stephen Harper. But his future as a leader within the party may hinge on whether he can successfully tackle one of the toughest challenges still facing his department: the ever-widening productivity gap.

The disparity between the productivity of workers in Canada and those of the U.S. is one of the most stubborn issues facing Canadian policy-makers. Whereas Canadians tend to work about the same number of hours as their American counterparts, they produce nearly 20 per cent less wealth. Most worrisome is the fact that the gap has steadily widened since 200, leading some of the country’s leading voices on economic policy to sound the alarm. Last month, David Dodge, the governor of the Bank of Canada, said the country’s persistent failure to improve its record on productivity “has been very disappointing.” Sean Finn, chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, concurred, adding, “our own government is hurting our ability to [compete globally].”

Economists say part of the difficulty in drawing the public’s attention to the competitiveness problem is that, on the surface anyway, there is no problem. The number of new jobs created in June doubled initial estimates, which sent the loonie soaring. The country’s unemployment rate continues to hover around the six per cent mark–a 3 3-year low. Add to these a thriving resource sector, and prosperity seems like it should be the least of Canadians’ worries.

Still, for Anne Golden, the president and CEO of the Conference Board of Canada, the time to act decisively on productivity and competitiveness is now. She says the high demand for Canadian resources has provided the government with a unique window of opportunity to address these pressing issues. But she warns the window may be rapidly closing. “It’s not that Canada, right this minute, is on a burning platform and that we’re in crisis,” she says. “What makes it urgent is the acceleration of global changes. Things are urgent in the sense that we will close off options to have prosperity that is sustainable in the future.”

That responsibility now falls on Bernier’s shoulders. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, Bernier identified the productivity file as a priority within his ministry and said an aggressive corporate and personal tax-cutting agenda will form the basis of the government’s approach to the problem. “The government’s logic is quite simple,” he said. “Canadian business owners need money and capital if they want to invest in new machinery or state of the art technology in order to improve their productivity.” At the same time, Bernier expects something of a self-correction to take place thanks to the high Canadian dollar. Given that much of the machinery and equipment used in the manufacturing process comes from outside the country, he believes a strong loonie can help minimize the cost of investing in specialized technology.

But while Bernier’s approach may address the holy trinity of concerns from the business community (lower taxes, deregulation, and the free movement of goods and labour), some experts say it doesn’t go far enough. For instance, a recent essay by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, and Gordon Nixon, president and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, argues for a sharp increase in personal income and consumption taxes, and the slashing of corporate tax rates. They point to Scandinavian countries as an example: as a group, their tax take is nearly 1 1/2 times that of Canada, but business and investments are taxed at hall the Canadian rate. According to Martin and Nixon, high taxes impede corporations from “investing, innovating and creating high-paying jobs.” As the socialists have figured out, they write, “the way to tax corporate activity is to tax at a personal level the earnings that rich people collect from the ownership of corporations.”

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But, as Jim Millway, the executive director of the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, notes, “Some of the tax-policy ideas that most economists agree with make for terrible politics.” Nobody is going to win an election in Canada–not to mention a majority government-with a platform calling for extreme taxation measures. Evidently well aware of this fact, Bernier and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty are exploring more palatable solutions, too. They recently announced the creation of a five-member expert panel charged with reviewing Canada’s competition and investment laws, which is expected to report back to the government by June 2008. And Bernier says he’s also working with the provinces to remove the barriers that prevent professional workers like engineers and nurses from working in other provinces without going through extra training. Ultimately, though, Bernier says there’s nothing like putting money in people’s pockets, and so the tax-cutting course is the smartest one. “Competitiveness and productivity are nice concepts,” he says, “but the fact remains that it’s the fiscal and economic environment that makes a business productive or not.”