1. NS construction industry faces possible labour shortage
Construction and renovations are booming, and that means material is more expensive (how many people do you know who undertook projects during lockdown?) and builders are worried they won’t have enough workers.
Construction companies that build multi-unit apartment buildings, hotels, schools, and hospitals are also finding it harder to find enough skilled people to do the work. Some are ramping up training in-house. There is more demand than supply in trades such as bricklaying, drywalling, and carpentry according to Trent Soholt the executive-director of the Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council. That’s the non-profit association that does labour market research for industrial, commercial, and institutional builders such as Ellis Don, Fares Group, Westwood, and Southwest Properties.
Soholt says one response to labour shortages are the Community Benefit agreements signed by the province, contractors, and unions working on the new hospital and community college projects in Cape Breton. Contracts on these projects include language that expand and improve training opportunities for under-represented groups such as women, indigenous people, African Nova Scotians, immigrants, and people with disabilities.
“The NS Apprenticeship agency has been proactive in making this happen,” says Soholt. “I believe the under-represented groups are our biggest opportunity with these generational building projects and will help provide the workforce of tomorrow. The term ‘labour shortage’ isn’t a thing we will be facing all the time.”
I found this an interesting under-the-hood piece. It is for subscribers only. Please subscribe.
2. “Preposterous” water bill stands
Allie Fineberg has lost her appeal to the Utilities and Review Board over her absurd Halifax Water bill. You may recall Fineberg’s story, which the Examiner covered last June. The short version is that Fineberg got a water bill for over $2,500 after her meter showed her using 18,000 litres of water per day for seven weeks. Her registered consumption had been pretty standard before and after that period. Fineberg, who owns Allie’s Boutique, did not file an appeal in time (early pandemic days) but the UARB agreed to hear her case anyway.
Fineberg hired multiple plumbers, none of whom could find a leak or any explanation for the spike, let alone for the consumption returning to normal on its own.
“In my professional opinion, I do not think 10,000 litres a day of water is being used on these premises, or even close,” wrote one plumber…
On Jan. 4, the UARB released its decision, ruling that Halifax Water followed its regulations in billing Fineberg for the water. Board member McGrath wrote:
From the evidence before it, the Board cannot conclude that your water usage was erroneously measured or billed. In many cases in the past the Board has dismissed complaints about the overbilling of water rates based on the accuracy of the meter and the design of the meters that requires water to physically flow through them to record usage. Although this case is unusual because the measured consumption is so high, the Board declines to infer from the circumstances that the probable cause for the high measurement was that the meter was faulty and inexplicably started to record significant water usage and then fixed itself before it was tested.
Since Halifax Water followed correct procedures, the UARB ruled, Fineberg has to pay up. It boggles the mind.
3. COVID-19 latest
We’re getting regular vaccination numbers now too. So far, more than 3,000 people in Nova Scotia have received a first vaccine dose.
4. Competing visions: the Avon River aboiteau
Joan Baxter’s piece Small dam, big controversy is out from behind the paywall, meaning anyone can read it free.
Originally published December 8, 2020, the story is a masterful exploration of the many issues, visions, and competing interests at play over a small dam.
On one side, literally, are those determined that the aboiteau should restrict water flow in the Avon enough to maintain fresh water levels in the artificial reservoir, Lake Pisiquid, that is upstream from the causeway, and also protect it and more than 3,000 acres of agricultural land from turbulent, salt water gushing up the Avon River from the Minas Basin during high tides…
On the other side of the divide over the tidal dam are those concerned about the health of the fish species that depend on free passage in the Avon River to spawn upstream in fresh water. Among them are First Nations, environmental groups, fishermen, and a significant majority of people in the region.
A poll conducted in Hants County in September 2020 for the Mi’kmaw Conservation Group and Oceans North showed that 77% of those surveyed said they supported restoring free passage of fish to the Avon River, and 65% said that maintaining the existing “man-made reservoir (Lake Pisiquid)” should not be “prioritized over Indigenous rights and the need to restore free passage of fish and balance to the ecosystem.”…
Here lies the crux of the problem. There seems to no agreement, not between levels of government nor within the community on how — or if — it is possible to ensure free fish passage without opening the sluice gates and letting the tidewater flow, which would spell an end to the freshwater lake.
To say it is a complex, contentious, and confusing political mess would be an understatement.
There are projects that I look at and think wow, there is no way that would be built now, and the Avon River Causeway is one of them. (The highway along the edge of the dunes in the eastern portion of PEI National Park is another.) But once these projects are built, they can create situations like this one which are exceedingly difficult to resolve.
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5. CBC tracks a year of Nova Scotia power outages
Nova Scotia power outages are so frequent, we’ve developed a kind of dark humour about them. (Salty fog, anyone?)
CBC decided to find out just how often the power goes out in this province. So reporters tracked outages during 2020 and found the power was out somewhere every single day.
Carolyn Ray writes:
We discovered unplanned outages every day of the year. Of the outages we recorded, 80 per cent affected at least five customers.
Nova Scotia Power reports outages on an online map. But the outage map doesn’t tell the true number of customers taken offline.
It doesn’t include those experiencing a second or subsequent outage, or households temporarily taken off the grid by Nova Scotia Power when the company is carrying out restoration work.
In the story, Ray interviews people who experience very real hardship as a result, including a woman who can’t work from home because her power — and, consequently internet connection — is so spotty. Her community of Meaghers Grant saw the power go out three times in one week at the end of last year.
You will be shocked to learn that nobody from Nova Scotia Power agreed to be interviewed for the story.
6. Can you say pie in the sky?
There is still hope that rockets will take off from Canso, Tom Ayers reports for CBC:
Construction has yet to take off on a spaceport that was expected to launch satellites into orbit as early as this year from the southeastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia.
I would like to know who really expected that we’d be launching satellites from Canso this year, but never mind. Onward.
Can I jump the gun and call Maritime Launch Services CEO Steve Matier the Bullshitter of the Week?
How close are we to launching rockets? Well, Ayers writes:
the company has been negotiating a Crown lease with the Department of Lands and Forestry and has begun some survey work on the property.
“Now it’s time to ramp up the activity associated with the compliance pieces,” he said.
Hold me back! Some survey work!
There is also the little question of funding, which Matier’s company doesn’t have, not because it is proposing a cockamamie scheme, but because of our old friend, “red tape.” Ayers again:
“When I started this initiative, I had expectations about how quickly different government agencies would be able to act or react or do what I expected to be the next parts, and I’ve learned a lot that these things can take a lot longer than one thinks or expects,” Matier said.
Matier said there’s been progress on talks with potential suppliers and customers, but it’s too soon to provide a new timeline for construction.
This is like me writing a couple of chapter drafts for a novel and telling you my book is definitely coming out soon, but I’m in progress talks with potential agents and publishers and it’s taking longer than I expected.
There is more to Ayers’s piece and if you want a good morning chuckle, I encourage you to read the whole thing.
Neo-Confederate claptrap, or lament for the little man?
The always excellent On the Media podcast has a segment in the current episode about the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band.
Written by Robbie Robertson, whose musical development was heavily influenced by time spent with his mother on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, the song was a huge hit that some argue has not aged well. But is it a celebration of the Confederacy? (And how the heck did a bunch of Canadians — all the members of The Band except Levon Helm are from north of the border — come to help define the Americana sound for decades?)
In the On the Media segment, host Brooke Gladstone interviews writer Jack Hamilton, who looks at the song in some depth without, I thought, being an apologist. (He says he is a huge fan of The Band, but doesn’t particularly like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”)
Gladstone says on paper the song can seem like “a nostalgic retelling of the Civil War seen through the eyes of a downtrodden farmer.”
But Hamilton says context is important. The Civil War in the song is likely a stand-in for the Vietnam War, telling the story of a poor farmer conscripted into military service against his will. It’s more about class and current politics than anything else. But as Gladstone points out, this reduces the Civil War to metaphor, rather than history whose ongoing effects are still felt.
“I don’t think those of us who hummed along when it first came out….I don’t think we saw the Civil War back then as living history the way we do now,” Gladstone says.
Hamilton points out that the song makes it clear from the first line (“Virgil Kane is the name”…) that the song is told from a particular point of view, and it’s not clear that the narrator is all that reliable. And what about the bells ringing and people singing in the chorus? If the song is from the point of view of defeated confederates, why is there celebration in the chorus?
“I think the song is extremely complex and nuanced,” Hamilton says. “There are a lot of dimensions you could potentially pull out of this song. I don’t think it’s a neo-Confederate song at all, but I think there is a population of people who hear it that way.”
The segment refers to a story on country singer Early James in Rolling Stone, who says there is no question about how it was interpreted in Alabama when he was young.
Growing up in Troy, Alabama, a small city about two hours south of Birmingham, where he currently lives, James often heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” side by side with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and other songs of Southern pride. “You can’t be from the South and not,” he says. “People take that song as their anthem. When people had songs as their ringtone, I remember that being one.” (He notes one irony: “They had no idea Robbie Robertson was Canadian. If they had, they would’ve hated it! People are just ignorant.”)
As a young child, he attended a private elementary school — in part, he says, “because my dad didn’t want me to go to school with black people.” After his parents split up, he ended up transferring to a more integrated public school. He remembers one history teacher around ninth grade who was particularly fond of Confederate nostalgia. “He would say Robert E. Lee was a military genius, say that he didn’t own slaves — even though he did! He’d say it was all about states’ rights. Just glorifying the South and making all the excuses in the world.”
This particular episode of On the Media is called Breaking the Myth, the myth in this case being the romanticism of the Confederacy. I thought the segment called Why Appeasement Won’t Work This Time Around, featuring Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, was particularly powerful.
Debunking fake supermoons and other internet garbage
An enormous moon looming over the landscape. A clay model being passed off as a newly hatched baby tortoise. A gigantic airplane (in a city in which the sun apparently shines from three angles simultaneously) framed perfectly between skyscrapers by someone looking straight up.
The Internet is full of fake and misleading imagery, and for the last six years Paulo Ordoveza, aka Pic Pedant, has been assiduously debunking some of the more egregious examples on Twitter. Ordoveza, who moved to Dartmouth from Washington, DC in 2018, is a web designer and developer working for a local independent production company. (His debunking work is completely separate from what he does for his employers, and he didn’t want to name them.) He started Pic Pedant back in 2014, when he was working on contract with NASA, and was appalled by some of the images shared online. In an interview yesterday he explained:
I was doing support for internal communications, doing video editing, some code, some graphic design. I was always into astronomy, and I was into Twitter at the time, and I distinctly recall Earth Pics posted a photo — I don’t even remember what the photo was anymore, but it was some space photo that was absolutely fake. And a co-worker at NASA replied to it with, “Stop. Please just stop.” Because not only did they post this, but they repeatedly posted it again and again. Every two to three months they would post the same fake photo with the same caption scraped from Reddit.
Someone needs to get on Twitter and start telling these people that these pictures are fake. Kind of scold them. I could call it Pic Scolder, but that’s a shitty name. Since I’m being pedantic, I guess I’ll call it Pic Pedant, and that’s how it started.
There is a whole ecosystem of Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing photos — often as original work — stolen from elsewhere. Sometimes these are digital art pieces passed off as incredible pictures. Sometimes they are crude photoshop jobs that somehow people still believe are true.
Many of the images and captions are scraped from Reddit. In other words, a bot pics up the original image and caption, then reposts it to Twitter. The process “makes it look like they’re doing the hard work of creating or curating content when all they’re really doing is plagiarizing Reddit,” Ordoveza said. Of course, the creators of the original photos and artworks don’t get any benefit from all this. When he can track them down, Ordoveza gives them credit in his tweets.
What’s in it for these accounts? Eyeballs, which translates into money. Once they gain enough followers they start posting sponsored tweets or commercial affiliate links. Or they turn around and sell the account to someone looking to buy tens of thousands of followers in one go. Sometimes, Ordoveza said, the results can be a little weird:
One of the funnier ones was this random guy in South Asia who was just posting Reddit-scraped photos for years. Then suddenly one day his 42,000-follower account was named Cleveland Cabinets. [It now has 76,000 followers.] All it was posting was pictures of cabinets by this random company in Cleveland, Ohio. And the whole thing was just sold to a cabinet builder who wanted the 42,000-follower audience. Another one called High From Above suddenly turned into an escape room company… Suddenly all these photos which were scraped from an aviation photo sub-reddit — suddenly they were just posting ads for escape rooms. And you wouldn’t know, because they deleted their history but kept the follower count.”
There are other debunking accounts out there, each with their own niches and approaches. Ordoveza said his main focus is “science, history, and space” but inevitably politics gets involved too — for instance, when the people behind a fake photo account “accidentally betray their true feelings and start posting anti-mask and anti-vaccine screeds.”
Ordoveza’s been at this a long time. He was born in New Jersey, then grew up in the Philippines before returning as an adult to the US, where he lived in California, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, before moving to Canada with his wife and son. Back in the 90s, he ran a website debunking Filipino urban legends (“I was always that guy,” he said), which circulated by email at the time. He remembers one in particular, and it’s a great example of the persistence of misinformation. It was called the three days of darkness.
It was one of those apocalyptic eschatological urban myths that they used to scare religious kids. And, you know, the Philippines being a very Catholic country, they would say that in the future — in the near future — there would be three days of darkness. And this was prophesied by so-and-so saint, and during the three days of darkness, you have to stay indoors and you can’t look outside or you’ll die instantly. And you have to say this many rosaries or avoid sinning for those three days.
And recently I saw one of these accounts post the seven days of darkness. But instead of being prophesied by a saint, now it was a warning from NASA, ostensibly. It was not religious. It was more pseudoscientific, but it was the same deal. It was saying things like, if you look outside you’ll die, and it’ll be dark for seven days. And this is warned by NASA. And it was so similar to the three days of darkness, the urban legend of my childhood.
I used to spend a fair bit of time (let’s be honest: too much time) correcting misleading or out-and-out incorrect information, particularly on Facebook. Doing it is exhausting. And what I found particularly dismaying was that people didn’t seem to actually care about the truth anyway. I remember at the height of anti-ISIS hysteria someone sharing some misleading photo seemingly indicating how terrible Muslims were, and when I pointed out the photo was showing something completely different from what the poster thought (and backed it up with sources) the response was something along the lines of, “Yeah, but it makes you think.”
Eventually, I just hit the button saying I wanted to see less stuff like this, until my Facebook feed became mostly the kind of benign stuff I want to see there. So I asked Ordoveza how he keeps it up, year after year, when the Internet is awash in fakery, and when so many people don’t particularly care about whether what they are sharing is true or not. In many cases, even when they realize it’s not, it doesn’t bother them, because they think the image is beautiful.
But Ordoveza said that, apart from the question of plagiarism, these accounts can also cause real harm with their fake timelines:
I think one of the worst ones is where they take a volcanic eruption that was posted as being right now and use that caption again and again, saying “volcanic eruption right now”, even months later, which I imagine might cause a mild panic in places where that volcano was. I remember when Taal Volcano erupted in the Philippines — I was there just two weeks before it erupted, in 2019.
This account, which is now suspended, by the way, just kept posting it every three weeks or so saying, “erupting right now.” And it was not erupting at that time anymore. One of the main hazards of running an automated plagiarism account is that you might be plagiarizing breaking news and posting it as current even months later.
And, of course, last week in Washington we saw a particularly extreme example of what misinformation and disinformation can lead to. (I am pointing to them as contributing factors, not the sole cause.) Ordoveza said:
I’m happy to be out of Washington, DC, for obvious reasons… Those hallways you see on the news, I was walking through them two years ago. I was a data visualization designer for the Congressional Research Service from 2016 to 2018… Seeing that was not unexpected and it was one of the reasons I quit my job there and got the heck out of D.C. But it’s still shocking.
I asked Ordoveza if there was a category of images he was surprised consistently fooled people, and he replied, “Photos of the moon.”
Any time the moon is huge. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to take a picture of the moon with your phone or any camera that does not have a 200mm zoom lens. And even with a 200mm lens, moon’s not that huge. Any time a full moon is sitting close to the sun, any time a crescent moon is not facing towards the sun. I’m doing the moon a lot, because the moon is a particularly frequent offender. There’s one I just did this morning, which was the Prohodna cave in Bulgaria. It’s the cave that looks like two eyes, and someone pasted an overlarge moon into it, even though the cave is very clearly daylit.
There is something I find depressing about those ridiculous moon shots because we’ve almost all seen the moon, right? We have some idea what it looks like.
Ordoveza said “one of the sad realities of the debunconomy, as I call it, is that it’s a losing battle.”
But he persists.
Near the end of our conversation, Ordoveza quoted the line about how a lie gets halfway around the world and back again before the truth has laced up its boots, then said he couldn’t remember who had said it — Mark Twain maybe? I said I thought it as Twain. He looked it up and saw it had first been attributed to Twain in 1919, but he died in 191o. “So even the quote that is relevant to this is disputed — in true meta fashion,” he said.
Halifax Regional Council, Committee of the Whole, and Budget Committee (Tuesday, 10am) — virtual meetings. Committee of the Whole agenda; Budget Committee agenda; Regional Council agenda. Live webcast instructions at the links, with live meeting captioning available.
Budget Committee (Wednesday, 10am) — virtual meeting. Live webcast and captioning available.
Design Advisory Committee (Wednesday, 4:30pm) — virtual meeting. Live webcast not available.
Health (Tuesday, 1pm) — video conference. Long-Term Care is the agenda, with Kevin Orrell and Vicki Elliott-Lopez from Continuing Care; Susan Stevens from Nova Scotia Health; Jason MacLean and Lynette Johnson from NSGEU; Michele Lowe from Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association; Govind Rao from CUPE; Janet Hazelton from Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union; and Linda MacNeil from Unifor. Info, CART services, and viewing links here.
Public Accounts (Wednesday, 9am) — Mental Health Services – November 22, 2017 Report of the Auditor General, Chapter 2. With Kevin Orrell from Health and Wellness; Brendan Carr from Nova Scotia Health Authority; and Annette Elliott Rose and Maureen Brennan from IWK Health Centre. Info, CART services, and viewing links here.
University Prep 101 (Tuesday, 8pm) — 30-minute webinar to explore Uprep courses, in case you were thinking of going to university. Info and registration here.
No public events.
Alumni Talk (Wednesday, 12pm) — Lindsay Cameron Wilson will discuss her new book FOOD + REFLECTION. Open to the first eight alumni who register, as well as two current students. Info and registration here.
In the harbour
06:45: Acadian, oil tanker, arrives at Irving Oil from Saint John
15:00: Atlantic Sun, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Liverpool, England
22:00: Atlantic Sun sails for New York
23:30: CSL Tacoma, bulker, arrives at National Gypsum from Port Hawkesbury
Halifax-based writer Francesca Ekwuyasi’s debut novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread, has gotten a lot of attention in Canada, making both the Giller and Canada Reads long lists. Now, the New Yorker has taken notice too, reviewing the book in the January 18 issue of the magazine. Pretty sweet. My partner bought the book this weekend (directly from Ekwuyasi, at her retail job) and I’m looking forward to reading it.