Million dollar bungalows, hasty exits and sweetening cola's image

Reporter Nelson Bennett on the news that caught his eye this week

Vancouver's real estate prices have become so high it has spawned a website that challenges viewers to distinguish crack shacks from $1 million homes.

Are Chinese investors really responsible for Vancouver’s insane real estate prices? Stephen Harper earlier this week promised that, if re-elected, his government would start collecting data on foreign ownership of real estate in Canada, in an effort to answer this question once and for all.

In other words, a re-elected Harper government will do the sort of thing that one expects governments to do as a matter of course.

“If, in fact, foreign speculators are driving the cost of housing to unaffordable levels, that is something the government can, and should, find a way to address,” Harper said in a Conservative Party press release.

A number of media, including the CBC, reported that Harper has pledged to spend $500,000 collecting data on foreign home ownership in Canada.

This idea that investment from Mainland China is largely responsible for inflating real estate in the Lower Mainland and creating “zombie” houses isn’t exactly new. As a Richmond resident, I’ve been hearing this for years. I’m sure incumbent Conservative MP Alice Wong, Richmond Centre, has heard it too. 

My colleague, Jen St. Denis, said she attended a panel discussion in 2012 that addressed the issue.

So why has it only now occurred to the Conservative government that it is something worth looking into?

Seems to me that collecting basic economic data like this is something that government agencies like Statistics Canada should be tracking as a matter of course, not as a campaign promise.

“It’s code for ‘I just got whacked’"

Hands up everyone who buys Telus’ explanation for this week’s surprise announcement that the CEO’s position is being handed back to Darren Entwistle because Joe Natale can’t relocate from Toronto to Vancouver for family reasons?

Yeah, neither did investors or industry analysts.

Telus’ stock took a 1.5% dip Aug 10 when Telus announced that Natale, who had only assumed the CEO’s position in March 2014, was stepping down due to family reasons.

The company said Natale had recently told the board of directors that it would not be possible for him and his family to relocate to Vancouver for several years and that the board felt it was necessary to have its senior management located in Western Canada.

Kevin O’Leary wasn’t buying it.

"It's almost humorous to read 'for family reasons' in the exit of a CFO, CTO, CIO or even a board member for that matter,” he told BNN.

“It's code for 'I just got whacked,' and usually because I didn't perform.”

Natale’s departure followed another recent departure that has set the blogosphere aflame with speculation – last week’s announcement that University of BC president Arvind Gupta was quitting the his post after just 13 months on the job.

Gupta’s abrupt departure was more difficult to read, as some university officials and many of Gupta’s peers expressed surprise – and dismay – over his announced departure.

Gupta, the former CEO of Mitacs, officially assumed the president’s role in July 2014.

UBC’s board of governors gave no satisfactory explanation for Gupta’s abrupt departure. In a press release, it stated that Gupta planned to resume his academic career.

According to The Ubyssey, three vice presidents resigned during Gupta’s brief tenure, so maybe he just wasn’t able to gain support among other university leaders for some of the changes he implemented.

In a personal blog post earlier this week, Nassif Ghoussoub, a UBC math professor and former board of governors director, was in full dander, calling out the current board of governors chairman, John Montalbano, over Gupta’s resignation, saying it tarnished the university’s reputation.

Ghoussoub appears to place full blame for Ghoussoub’s departure at Montalbano’s feet.

“Frankly, your botched announcement has caused disrepute to our university,” Ghoussoub blogged in a letter addressed to Montalbano.

Ghoussoub was part of the presidential search committee that ended up recommending Gupta, whom Ghoussoub described as a “breath of fresh air” for the university.

“You must be aware that the last presidential search, inauguration, and transition costs alone are counted in the millions of dollars,” Ghoussoub wrote.

That’s millions with an "s".

Dying for a Coke?

This week saw two soft drink giants – Coca-cola and PepsiCo – tackling consumer concerns over sugars and sugar substitutes in soft drinks.

The New York Times reported that Coca-Cola has donated $1.5 million to the Energy Balance Network, whose scientists have been pushing the mantra that people should worry less about the calories they consume than the amount of exercise they get.

Coca-Cola’s support for the network’s work is, naturally, suspect, especially in light of the falling sales of soft drinks in North America. (Soft drink sales have been falling for a decade, according to the Wall Street Journal .)

Coke has not used the network’s research to actually flog the notion that the sugar in Coke is actually good for you, although that’s the way the story has been framed by various media outlets, including the Guardian, which had this headline – Coca-Cola says its drinks don’t cause obesity – despite the fact Coke hasn’t actually said that. Nor did the story below the headline actually suggest that it did. Never mind – it’s a good headline.

Meanwhile, also this week, PepsiCo announced it will removing Aspartame from Diet Pepsi – but only in the U.S. It will not be removing Aspartame from its Diet Coke in Canada.

Asked why, the company explained that it was responding to its customers concerns in the U.S. about Aspartame. Which suggests that its Canadian customers have not rang the alarm bells over Aspartame in soft drinks the way Americans have.

Perhaps that’s because Americans, overall, tend to be more prone to conspiracy theories than Canadians, and in the realm of Internet conspiracy theories and junk science, the anti-Aspartame meme is one of the oldest and most persistent.

Cambridge University professor Richard Evans – who specializes in conspiracy theories – has stated conspiracy theories are more common in the U.S. than many other countries. And there is no junk science theory more widespread than the Aspartame-causes-cancer-and-MS meme.

According to a number of debunking sites (snopes.com and skeptoid.com, for example), it started as early as 1995 with email and usenet posts under the name of Nancy Merkle (not a real person) that appears to have actually been written by a “Doctor” Betty Martini (not a real doctor) that described a discussion of Aspartame and its negative health impacts at a conference on multiple sclerosis. (There appears to be some some question whether such a conference ever took place.)

“Doctor” Joe Mercola – a naturopath who is also an anti-vaccine and anti-flouride advocate – appears to be largely responsible for keeping this meme alive, since much of the anti-Aspartame propaganda on the Internet appears to trace back to him in one way or another.

The fact that Monsanto – believed by many to be the most evil corporation on Earth  – once owned the company that developed Aspartame has no doubt helped fuel the Aspartame-is-poison meme.

The fact Aspartame has been one of the most thoroughly researched consumer products on the market – with none of the alleged links to things like cancer, MS or Lupus supported – seems to be irrelevant for those who prefer to believe the science of “naturopaths on the Internet.”