News

1. Briefing today, as daily COVID cases hit nearly 500

Rapid Test Lineup-Changing Seasons. Illustration by Zak Markan — Instagram @zak.markan.art

The number of daily new COVID-19 infections in Nova Scotia has held steady at nearly 500 the last few days, Tim Bousquet reports.

Because of the high number of infections, public health is backlogged, and can’t maintain accurate numbers of active and recovered cases. But, as Bousquet has pointed out repeatedly, those are not particularly important numbers, unless you’re managing a hospital or public health system. Why?

Active cases are self-isolating and so aren’t a threat to anyone else, and “recovery” only means they’re no longer contagious and not necessarily that they’re, er, recovered.

The Omicron variant seems mind-bogglingly transmissible. I’ve seen it compared to measles. So far, hospitalizations in Nova Scotia remain low, which, of course, is good. But we should keep in mind that throughout the pandemic hospitalizations have lagged infections by about two weeks — so we wouldn’t expect to see a sharp increase from the Omicron wave by now. Remember also that even if only a small percentage of people wind up in hospital, Omicron is infecting far more people than previous variants, and a small percentage of a very large number = a large number.

We’ve hit a plateau the last few days. It will be interesting to see if we stay there or if it’s just a stop on the exponential way up.

One of the best ways to track infections in the community is rapid testing. Here are this week’s rapid test locations and times:

Additionally, pop-up testing has been scheduled for the following sites (take-home tests are also available at these sites):

Tuesday
Halifax Convention Centre, noon-7pm
Alderney Gate, 4-6pm
Lebrun Recreation Centre, 10am-5pm

Wednesday
Halifax Convention Centre, noon-7pm
Alderney Gate, 10am-2pm
Lebrun Recreation Centre, 10am-5pm

Thursday
Halifax Convention Centre, noon-7pm

Friday
Alderney Gate, 10am-2pm

Halifax Public Libraries have distributed more than 100,000 rapid tests, but they are now out of stock and, according to the library, there are no plans for more:

Update, December 20, 4:50pm: Out of stock and no longer restocking

All locations of Halifax Public Libraries are out of Take-Home COVID-19 rapid testing kits and our role as pick-up locations has been paused. We’ll let you know if or when we will be distributing take-home tests once more. You can pick-up tests at various locations and dates listed on the Province’s rapid testing info page, opens a new window.

A heartfelt thank you goes out to everyone who helped us distribute 27,480 kits, equaling 137,400 tests.

South Shore Public Libraries have also said they are out of rapid test kits and won’t be getting more before Christmas.

Premier Tim Houston and chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang have scheduled a briefing for this afternoon at 2pm, so I guess we will find out then what, if anything, is changing in terms of restrictions for the holidays.

I read an interesting piece yesterday by the BBC’s head of statistics, Robert Cuffe, arguing that the holidays may be a good time to take a break from obsessing over daily stats. Cuffe, being a statistician, isn’t making the argument based on some notion that you should be unplugging, but on the trouble with COVID data over the coming week or so.

First, Cuffe writes, the number of people being tested over the holiday is likely to drop. He points to the UK data from last year:

Christmas Day and New Year’s Day last year saw sharp falls in people testing positive. And the two biggest days for cases in the UK before the Omicron wave were the days after the Christmas and New Year bank holidays when we returned to work.

Then there’s the hospitalization question:

Normally admissions give us useful, but delayed, insight into the trends in infections. Someone who catches coronavirus today might not be admitted to hospital before 2022.

But, when things are moving so fast with Omicron, the daily admissions figures won’t provide the answer we need soon enough.

Cuffe explores a few other daily figures too, and the challenges of using them to get accurate information over the holidays, and he adds:

For these reasons, many devotees of the daily data will be taking a break.

Prof Oliver Johnson, a mathematician whose daily COVID charts have earned him tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, worries that the daily trends may not be “completely reliable”. He plans to step back from his charts until the new year.

On the other hand, people really do want data. I think one of the things people appreciate about Bousquet’s daily updates is that they don’t just provide numbers, they also provide helpful context.

Click here to read Bousquet’s complete update.

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2. Stay away from the pharmacy if you think you have COVID-19

People line up at the pharmacy counter at the Atlantic Superstore pharmacy in Lower Sackville. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Nova Scotians are going into pharmacies looking for rapid test kits — or worse, symptomatic PCR tests — and pharmacists want them to stop.

Yvette d’Entremont spoke with Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia CEO Allison Bodnar, who said pharmacies provide most of the province’s vaccinations, and having staff in isolation because of COVID exposure could quickly become a problem:

Bodnar said PANS is concerned for pharmacy teams across the province, teams she described as already stretched thin. She said she hopes Nova Scotians reflect on the fact pharmacies provide about 95% of the COVID-19 vaccines and they can’t afford to lose members due to exposures or infections.

“We don’t have excess staff just sitting around waiting for somebody to be sick so they can be called in, so we need people to think about the fact that these vaccine clinics are critical to getting out of COVID,” she said…

But despite the fact Nova Scotia’s pharmacies don’t carry the free self-testing kits and don’t conduct symptomatic testing, Bodnar said far too many who are symptomatic, close contacts of positive cases, or simply worried they could have been exposed are showing up at pharmacies in communities throughout Nova Scotia.

“They are coming to our pharmacies across the province looking for either free kits — which pharmacies don’t supply — or looking for testing to be done in-pharmacy,” Bodnar said.

If you have symptoms, book a PCR test here. Find out where to go for rapid testing (for those who don’t have symptoms) here.

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3. Is the time right for bike-sharing in Halifax?

Bike Share Toronto bikes at a docking station. Photo: Maarten Van den Heuvel / Unsplash

Earlier this fall, on a trip to Montreal and Toronto, I made extensive use of bike shares for the first time. In Montreal, it was very pleasant to go out to dinner (outdoors), then rent bikes with my partner, and ride across town to the home of the friends we were staying with.

In Toronto, I didn’t bother with transit at all. My father-in-law lives near a Bike Share Toronto docking station, so I would just grab a bike whenever I wanted to go somewhere. I rode along the Don River, crossed town to go to a Blue Jays game, and used a share bike for short trips.

The cities use different pricing systems. In Montreal, you pay by the minute. In Toronto, you can get unlimited rides over a certain period (day, week, month, year) but you have to dock your bike every 30 minutes or face additional charges. This adds an extra layer of complexity for longer rides, and it feels a bit pointless. You’ve got to make sure you hit another bike station before your half hour is up, dock the bike, then unlock it again and carry on. I understand the purpose though: just like parking spots downtown aren’t meant for people to leave their cars all day, bike-share bikes are meant for short trips.

Riding around these cities got me wondering about what ever happened to the idea of bike sharing in Halifax. There have been calls from activists and institutions like universities and the IWK to institute some kind of bike-share program for nearly a decade, and in 2019 city councillors called for a staff report.

That report is supposed to come to council early in 2022, and it will make recommendations on whether or not Halifax should launch a program for shared bikes and/or e-scooters, and what form such a program should take.

Today, the Examiner is publishing the first in my two-part series on bike sharing. In part one, I look at how bike shares work, why they have taken off around the world over the last five years, and what we can learn from the experiences of other cities.

While there a lot of factors to consider, there is one key to success that overshadows all others: an extensive network of protected bike lanes:

Saint Mary’s University professor Alec Soucy, who is studying the culture of cycling in Halifax, said in an interview that when it comes to cycling infrastructure, the city tends to “water everything down to the point where it’s not good enough for anything … They do something half-assed, it doesn’t work, and it still pisses off the drivers.”

Experts say making bike share work here means a robust and connected network of bike lanes, a large area of coverage, and a sufficient supply of bikes.

Nicholas Scott, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University who studies cycling and the relationships between cars and bikes, said by far the most important element of a successful bike share is a proper network of protected bike lanes.

“That is the biggest thing,” Scott said in an interview. “Research for Halifax shows us that the biggest fear is mingling with traffic, with two-tonne glass and metal machines. As soon as you get dedicated separation from car infrastructure, you have a chance to really provide a coherent network to get around. Especially for tourists coming in, who are less familiar with the city and maybe a little bit trepidatious … That’s what I point out in terms of the biggest lessons learned over the last decade or so.”

The story also looks at docked vs dockless bikes (ie, ones you have to park at a station and ones you can drop off anywhere), and how to work around the challenges of hilly streets and a mandatory helmet law.

One thing I was interested to learn is that we have a few micro bike-share programs in the province, including the Dalhousie Bike Centre, which lends students bikes for a week at a time, and the Annapolis Valley Regional Library, which lends bikes for the day. (The library’s bikes are all named after authors, so you can borrow Chain Austen and take her for a spin.)

The next part of the series will look at whether micro-mobility programs like bike shares actually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and how to make them equitable and accessible.

Click here to read part one. 

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4. Nova Scotians in the dark about how much they are paying for replacement power

A map showing the various transmission components that connect Muskrat Falls to Nova Scotia. Graphic: Emera Credit: Emera

Muskrat Falls is supposed to be delivering 10% of Nova Scotia’s power. But it’s not, and Nova Scotia Power refuses to tell us what replacement power is costing, Jennifer Henderson reports.

Four years after renewable electricity from Muskrat Falls in Labrador was supposed to supply 10% of Nova Scotia’s needs, Nova Scotia Power continues to keep the public in the dark about how much it is costing the company to buy replacement energy. 

It’s an important question because whatever Nova Scotia Power (NSP) has paid will eventually be downloaded on ratepayers and show up on the power bill. 

In a galling display of arrogance, the power company is so far refusing to answer that question raised by Consumer Advocate Bill Mahody during a public hearing earlier this month.

The piece is Henderson at her best: informative and scathing at the same time.

This story is for subscribers only. Subscribe here. And it’s not too late to give a gift subscription!

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5. What? You don’t want your credit limit raised to $1 million?

Cobequid Pass toll booth. Photo: CobequidPass

This is one of those stories that’s fun to laugh about after the fact, but not so much fun at the time.

Jean Laroche reports for CBC on people being charged $999,999 for driving the Cobequid Pass, after the removal of tolls for Nova Scotians.

Laroche speaks to Kat Felix, who was happy to get a $16 e-pass refund, but not so happy with subsequent attempts to charge their card a million bucks. Felix got texts (which they ignored) and then a phone call from the credit card company:

The agent informed Felix the Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation was looking for a hefty toll payment to pass through the 45-kilometre section of highway that connects Cumberland and Colchester counties.

“They are trying to charge you a million dollars, so we wanted to make sure,” Felix recalled the agent saying.

Then the agent asked if Felix wanted their credit limit increased.

“Of course, I’m not going to request a credit limit increase for that.”

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What’s it all about?

The dreaded “about” page. Screenshot from Innovacorp

When I’m researching stories, I often wind up at websites for various agencies, non-profits, startups, and so on. Sometimes it’s not clear what these organizations do, so I go check their “about” page. And, astonishingly frequently, I come away from reading those pages still having no — or very little — idea what they do.

This seems to me to be the classic “you had one job” situation. The job: Tells us what your organization is and what it does. (So maybe two jobs.) You know how you’re supposed to be able to do an elevator pitch? Sell people on your project in the time it would take to ride an elevator? Your “about” page should do that. That’s the job. It’s right there in the title: “About.”

Tech-related companies and organizations tend to be pretty bad in this regard. And by “pretty bad” I mean “the worst.” For my series on bike shares, I spent some time reading up on PBSC Urban Solutions, because the company has a complex history. How would I describe them? Well, let’s see how they describe themselves on their “About Us” page. First, you see this, in large, bold letters:

Ride into a wise, healthy world that’s eco-friendly, efficient, and fun.

This tells me something I should do or want to do, not what the company does. Also it is nonsensical. I’m going to ride into a “wise” and “fun” world?

Maybe if I scroll down some more:

PBSC’s reliability, innovation, and fun have inspired 500 million rides and counting, while embracing the power of bike sharing for active people, smart cities, and a healthy planet!

This doesn’t say anything that could be remotely construed as “about us” and it appears beside the word “manifesto.” It’s not a manifesto either.

Then there is a timeline of the company’s history. Let me scroll back up. Did I miss something? Oh, over there in tiny letters at the top right:

Our customized urban solutions lead the global bike share movement with compassionate, healthy, sustainable systems built on smart technologies, top engineering and design

Well, this gets us a bit closer. They provide “solutions” that “lead the global bike share movement” but it’s up to you, dear reader, to figure out what those solutions may consist of.

Why does this happen? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, it’s hard to write about yourself. Ever have to provide someone with a bio? It’s not easy to do. But hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done. When I get immersed in a project, sometimes I lose sight of what it’s about, or to think everyone knows the fundamentals — when they clearly don’t.

I used to see this a lot in other people when I did a lot of work marketing documentary films. Someone may have spent two years working on a film about, say, school violence, and then when I would discuss the project with them they would say, “It’s not about school violence.” To an outsider, it is very clearly and obviously what it’s about, and sure, that touches on other important issues as well. But to the filmmaker immersed in it for two years, school violence seems like just the starting point, perhaps barely worth mentioning, because they’ve gone so deep into the subject.

I think organizations go wrong in describing themselves for a few reasons: they fall in love with terminology, they think the basics are obvious and so drift away from them, they mistake biography or origins stories for an explanation of what they do and — most perniciously — because they are trying to obfuscate.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Almost a year ago, in January 2021, we learned about changes coming to the Seaport Market space. I remember getting this press release from the Port of Halifax and trying to figure out what the heck it was actually trying to communicate.

Before announcing the latest “transformation” to the Seaport, the release tells us what’s going to happen to the market:

The Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market will be reimagined as a dynamic outdoor operation during the warmer months and a successful indoor weekend farmers’ market operating within Pavilion 22 during the winter months. The new outdoor weekend market will operate in a dedicated space near the current location and will include an overhead covering and amenities.

So, they’re going to reimagine it as successful? Okay.

So, what were the plans for the space occupied by the market at the time? Let me give you the full explanation in all its glory:

The Halifax Seaport Market Building will be renamed “The PIER” at the Seaport, and will be transformed into a living lab for the transportation industry. PIER is short for Port Innovation, Engagement & Research. This will be a collaborative space where we bring partners together to work on problem-solving and explore new technologies in a live environment.

“The PIER” at the Seaport will include permanent leased storefront spaces for retail/eateries, providing those tenants with the best of both worlds – weekday traffic from those working at the living lab, and traditional weekend farmers’ market customers. This will further activate the area and help draw more people to the historic Halifax Seaport District.

So, a living lab for transportation where problems are solved. No idea what the “living lab” part means, and “we solve problems” describes the “about” for just about any endeavour you can imagine. You see, the key part is communicating to people what those problems you are setting out to solve might be and how you are going to go about it.

But let’s cut the communications people at the port some slack. The “transformation” hadn’t happened yet, so maybe they weren’t in a good position to describe it. Now that The PIER is up and running, perhaps their about page can help us understand just what they do. It doesn’t start off promising:

The PIER, established by the Halifax Port Authority, is a sector-focused living lab for maritime transportation and logistics.

And then, somehow, it gets worse:

We have created a centre of gravity in Halifax with a roster of national and global members dedicated to solving persistent sector challenges. The PIER provides opportunities to interact directly with end users, receive actionable insights, and for solutions to be visible to industry specific investors. The PIER provides a landing space for companies with expertise in maritime transportation and logistics who see opportunity to develop solutions alongside global industry leaders.

And that’s it!

I could pick this apart, but I’m sure you can do a fine job of it yourself. “Centre of gravity,” “opportunities to interact,” “actionable insights” and, of course, “solutions.”

Just in case, there was more information to be had elsewhere on the site, I tried my luck on the “membership” page:

The PIER is a membership-driven living lab that brings together a mix of industry partners, innovators, researchers, and regulators to tackle big industry problems. We have several different options for membership.

What I learned about The PIER is that they really, really like the term “living lab.” Beyond that, I can’t really tell you much.

Once upon a time, there was a company that offered the perhaps boring, but also very useful service of helping people send documents that were too big to send by email. It was called (drumroll please), YouSendIt. It was called YouSendIt, and it let you send it, whatever it was.

As you can imagine, that could not stand. So the company became Hightail. Hightail, you see, doesn’t just send files. What do they do? Let’s click that “about” link:

About OpenText
Helping you tackle the most complex digital transformation programs with confidence

The first time I did this, I thought I’d made a mistake, since I wanted to know what Hightail does and now I was reading about OpenText. Oh, it turns out OpenText now owns Hightail. So we’ll learn about OpenText instead. Spoiler: We won’t learn much beyond some phrases like this:

OpenText solves digital business challenges for customers, ranging from small and mid-sized businesses to the largest and most complex organizations in the world

You see, unlike other companies, what makes this one stand out is that they solve problems.

I used to use YouSendIt, but I had completely forgotten about it. Now, for large files, I turn to WeTransfer, which has a name that is both boring and descriptive. But wait! Like Hightail, WeTransfer does more than file sharing now. Unlike Hightail, however, it is able to succinctly describe itself:

Having made our name in the game of quick and simple file-sharing, WeTransfer has grown into a collection of tools designed for and inspired by the creative process. As we continue to evolve, creativity remains at the heart of everything we do. Because while not every idea will change the world, every world-changing idea has to start somewhere.

Sure, it doesn’t tell you exactly what each tool does, but there’s a list of each of the tools listed right there on the page, and each one has a clear explanation of who it’s for and what it does.

Now, back to Nova Scotia for one of my favourites of this genre: the Innovacorp “About” page. Innovacorp, as you may know is the… well maybe we should let them explain:

You’re an entrepreneur with a vision. You’ve spotted a market opportunity, gathered a team, and you’re launching a new venture. You’re inventive, organized, and ready to step up your game. All that’s needed is the means to make it happen. Innovacorp is here to help. We get invested in Nova Scotia’s entrepreneurs.

Wait, this is about me? I thought it was about you. You “get invested” in me if I’m an entrepreneur. What does that mean?

As an entrepreneur, you understand risk. So do we. We’re willing to take risks, and make early stage investments in your venture. As your partner, we’ll play a key role in transforming your business into something extraordinary.

It goes on. I mean, you can piece this together, but it would be nice to have something nice and succinct that answers the question “What do we do?”

Organizations in the startup world — I’m sorry, ecosystem — also seem to want to avoid mentioning that they are in any way connected to government, even if that world would not exist without massive government support. Innovacorp is a Crown corporation, but you would be hard-pressed to find any mention of that on its website.

You can find it under the president and CEO’s job description:

Established in 1995 and based in Halifax, Innovacorp is a Nova Scotia crown corporation, an agency of the Department of Business that helps start-ups commercialize technologies for export and succeed in the global marketplace. Target industries include information technology, life sciences, clean technology and ocean technology.

You can also find mentions of the fact that Innovacorp is a Crown corporation in various PDF files hosted on the site. It’s a fundamental part of who you are. Just admit it.

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Noticed

Tents fill most of Nick Meagher Park, where unhoused people in HRM have been camping since mid-August. The site has been informally renamed “People’s Park” by volunteers and residents. Photo: Leslie Amminson.

In my Morning File last week, I noted that Toronto declared homelessness a “national disaster” more than 20 years ago. I wrote:

Now, the city has a “Deaths of People Experiencing Homelessness” dashboard. In 2019, 128 deaths were recorded. The number rose to 143 in 2020, and stands at 94 so far for 2021. The “other” category for cause of death includes “complications from diabetes, hypothermia, influenza, liver disease, organ failure, pulmonary disease, and respiratory disease.”

The context was Campbell McClintock of Halifax Mutual Aid saying he worried it would take the death of someone on the streets before the city or province took homelessness seriously. I was more pessimistic.

On December 17, the Globe and Mail published a piece by Liz Renzetti called “The emergency you aren’t hearing about: Toronto’s unhoused are dying in record numbers.” It has a hell of a first couple of paragraphs:

Cathy Crowe remembers when deaths of homeless people were so infrequent in Toronto that advocates would hold a press conference for each one and then pound on the glass doors outside the mayor’s office demanding action.

Now that kind of individual attention is impossible, both because of the skyrocketing numbers of deaths among the unhoused and the fact that, to put it bluntly, people just don’t seem to care.

Halifax is not Toronto, but we have many of the same issues here: Unaffordable housing, an overdose crisis, a pandemic that disproportionately affects the vulnerable. And then there are the cities’ actions:

As Ms. Crowe pointed out, there’s another crisis, and that’s one of inattention. For a brief moment this summer, when the city sent in police to forcefully clear out encampments in three city parks, there was public outrage at the sight of police on horses and hired security guards clashing with peaceful activists and encampment residents. It turns out the city spent $2-million flushing people out of their tent homes. The ombudsman’s office is investigating the clearance, but you don’t have to be the city ombudsman to wonder if that money couldn’t have been better spent providing actual housing rather than tearing shelters down. The dismantling of encampments continues in Toronto’s parks, even if public attention has drifted away.

(The August 18 evictions in Halifax cost just under $50,000 according to documents released to the provincial NDP caucus as part of a Freedom of Information request.)

Renzetti’s is a sobering piece, and I encourage you to read it.

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Government

No meetings


On campus

No events


In the harbour

Halifax
21:00: Siem Aristotle, car carrier, sails from Autoport for sea
17:00: Tropic Lissette, cargo ship, sails from Pier 42 for Palm Beach, Florida
18:30: Sopot, bulker, sails from Pier 28 for sea
22:30: Gotland, cargo ship, sails from Pier 31 for Bilboa, Spain

Cape Breton
09:30: Marathon TS, oil tanker, arrives at Point Tupper from Mongstad, Norway
17:15: Shelia Ann, bulker, arrives at Point Tupper coal pier from Puerto Bolívar, Colombia


Footnotes

Thanks to Nicola Davison of Snickerdoodle Photography for the new headshot in the little box at the bottom of my stories.


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Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a writer and audio producer, and the author of the book Adventures in Bubbles and Brine; Website:...

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  1. Another thing about those “About” pages: I want to know about the personnel involved, i.e. who’s the executive director, who’s on the board of directors, who are the principal players. When I can’t find that info, I instantly lose trust in the organization.