1. Violence against women study
“A study that led to recommendations for the development of a national action plan to address violence against women is expanding to include Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,” reports Yvette d’Entremont:
Last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada published recommendations from a community-based study led by Alexa Yakubovich, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Department of Community Health and Epidemiology.
The study (reported here) focused on violence against women (VAW) programming during the pandemic in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
“This is the first peer-reviewed analysis of the perspectives of VAW (violence against women) leaders, service providers, and survivors on what should be considered in Canada’s national action plan (NAP),” Yakubovich said of the published study.
2. Warming centre opens in Dartmouth
“A new warming centre opened in downtown Dartmouth two weeks ago, marking a new addition of supports for unhoused people in the community,” reports Suzanne Rent:
Grace United Church on King Street opened its warming centre early January, and operates Tuesdays from 5pm to 7pm. At the centre, visitors can find free Wi-Fi, tea and coffee and other refreshments, if they need to get out of inclement weather. A minimum of three volunteers will work each shift.
Mark Hazen, chair of the board at Grace United who led the group organizing the warming centre, said helping the unhoused and being a centre for the community in downtown Dartmouth is part of the mission of the church. Hazen said they checked with the local navigator and the library staff at Alderney Gate about how they could support people and were told there was a need for a warming centre.
3. Rents going up
“The vacancy rate in Halifax is still 1%, and rents are climbing at historic rates,” reports Zane Woodford:
That’s according to the latest rental market report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), published Thursday.
“There was no relief for renters in 2022, as the vacancy rate was unchanged and average rent increased at the fastest pace on record,” senior analyst Kelvin Ndoro says in the report.
CMHC conducted a sample survey in October 2022 of buildings with at least three units.
The Crown corporation says average rents rose 8.9%. That’s the highest ever single-year increase, and four times the average growth. The average rent for a two-bedroom, according to CMHC, is up 9.3% to $1,449.
“The increase in average rent was highest in Dartmouth North, at 12.7%,” the report said.
“This area had the lowest overall average rent in the city ($1,040).”
Click here to read “Halifax’s apartment vacancy rate remains at 1%.”
4. Proposed budget cuts to Halifax Transit
“There’s a list of big potential cuts to city services before Halifax regional councillors, but the process to go through with them has only just begun,” reports Zane Woodford.
Woodford details the potential cuts across several city departments. Here’s his list of possible cuts to Halifax Transit:
There are four potential cuts listed for Halifax Transit:
• “Service Reductions Option 1 – Permanent” ($4,162,418 in reduced spending for 2023-2024)
• “Service Reductions Option 2 – Reducing service in February until August. (Apr – Aug Numbers)” ($1,626,500)
• “Cancelling MFTP – Labour/Fuel/Maintenance/Marketing” ($1,650,000)
• “$0.25 Fare Increase” ($847,848)
Halifax Transit is scheduled to present its proposed budget to council on March 1. With the report on its spending plan, it will include briefing notes with more detail on each potential budget reduction.
If approved, fares would increase from $2.75 to $3, youth and senior fares would rise from $2 to $2.25, and presumably there’d be a corresponding increase in ticket and pass prices.
The service reductions are less predictable. Halifax Transit is already running lean, with further route cancellations announced this week amid a dire staff shortage.
Cancelling MFTP, the Moving Forward Together Plan, means cancelling some route changes that were supposed to be implemented in November 2022. They were already delayed due to the staffing shortage.
Yesterday, Nova Scotia reported 12 new deaths from COVID recorded during the most recently reporting period, Jan. 17-23.
As the reporting of COVID deaths lags, all 12 of those deaths occurred before the reporting period — i.e., before Jan. 17. For the same reason, it’s very likely that there were deaths during the reporting period, but they won’t be recorded until future updates.
In total, through the pandemic, 718 people in Nova Scotia have died from COVID, 606 of whom are considered Omicron deaths (since Dec. 8, 2021).
The age and vaccination status of the recent deaths won’t be reported until Feb. 15, but in general, 90%+ of the deceased have been 70 years old or older, and unvaccinated people are dying at about three times the rate of vaccinated people.
Additionally, in the Jan. 17-23 reporting period, 43 people were hospitalized because of COVID.
Nova Scotia Health reported the COVID hospitalization situation as of yesterday (these figures do not include any, if any, children hospitalized at the IWK):
• in hospital for COVID: 36 (five of whom are in the ICU)
• in hospital for something else but have COVID: 105
• in hospital who contracted COVID after admission to hospital: 101
6. SaltWire gets even dumber
SaltWire is employing so-called ‘Artificial Intelligence.’
The company posted the following on its website yesterday:
Artificial intelligence (AI) is currently being used in areas such as healthcare, education, finance, technology, research, entertainment and of course, journalism.
Newsrooms around the world are using it and now SaltWire Network is, too.
SaltWire has something that not all industries can offer, however. We are a mission-driven industry where work is done not just for profit but to provoke thought and action for the betterment of our communities. This matters to people.
The term ‘artificial intelligence’ is tech hype, i.e., bullshit. There’s nothing ‘intelligent’ about the products touted as ‘AI’; they are at best high-powered spreadsheets — a distinction I was heartened to see SaltWire make explicitly:
AI is more like a spreadsheet than any kind of robot. It is an algorithm, or automation, or in our case, a computer program.
Still, one possible aim (but probably not the immediate primary aim, keep reading) is to use the programs to augment reporting, which means replacing or at least not hiring paid human reporters:
At SaltWire, sources email us hundreds (sometimes thousands) of press releases every day. AI helps us to quickly sort through these files and provides a thumbnail for our journalists to review and to develop.
Essentially, we put some of the releases we receive through a computer program to summarize dense data and extract information.
The summary created then goes to SaltWire editors who check it against the original release for any further editing or development.
Besides the “not hiring human reporters” thing, there are several other problems with AI-written news articles.
First, SaltWire isn’t the first news org to try this; the technology news site CNET has been using AI for the last month or so — and it’s been failing miserably. The media site Futurism detailed three “boneheaded” mistakes the CNET AI made in financial reporting, involving the calculation of compound interest in a savings account, how to calculate interest payments on a loan, and how interest is compounded in certificates of deposits.
Explains reporter Jon Christian:
All three screwups, each of which the AI presented with the easy authority of an actual subject matter expert, highlight a core issue with current-generation AI text generators: while they’re legitimately impressive at spitting out glib, true-sounding prose, they have a notoriously difficult time distinguishing fact from fiction.
Another issue that may be at play here is well known in the separate AI-inflected field of self-driving cars. Researchers have found that human safety drivers, tasked with sitting behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle to take over if it malfunctions, tend to quickly lose focus when they don’t have to actively work the controls. The same dynamic may be at play when an editor is put in charge of approving a deluge of AI-generated explainers: in the face of endless synthetic writing, maybe it makes sense that human editors start to go on autopilot themselves.
Relatedly, it strikes me that because the ‘AI’ (a bullshit term, but still) relies on the internet — or in SaltWire’s case, press releases — as its source data, it is immensely gameable. We all know that bad actors or just capitalists can affect google results and so forth, and for fucks sake, the Russians interfered with an American presidential election by running disinformation bots through social media sites.
Someone or some company wanting to pull something over on SaltWire readers could just bombard the company with multiple press releases from seemingly disparate but actually related sources, all containing the same disinformation, and that disinformation would be synthesized by the AI and published as fact.
As an editor, I tell writers to take a step back and ask: Do these numbers make sense? Is the scenario you’re outlining reasonable? If you can’t explain it to me by diagramming it on the back of a cocktail napkin, we might have a problem.
‘AI’ programs don’t have that bullshit-detection ability.
I don’t really know why SaltWire is going down this road, but I suspect it’s less about immediately replacing human workers than positioning itself as a hip, forward-looking, tech-friendly company. Basically, they want the people over at Volta to cream their pants.
But, again: ‘Artificial Intelligence’ is bullshit. It’s just a fancy phrase for a speeded up database, and certainly isn’t anything like, well, intelligence, or dog forbid, sentience. But should the science eventually get to such a place (which is by no means certain), it still wouldn’t be qualitatively better than human workers.
For one, there’s the lack of bullshit-detecting ability already discussed. But also, there’s no reason to think that a truly sentient machine built by humans would be any less susceptible to the emotional and mental health harms faced by humans.
I don’t know why anyone thinks this would be a good thing.
7. Junk science in the courtroom
I have not been reporting on the William Sandeson case’s murder trial. I have not been in the courtroom, and have not followed the evidence closely.
Vaguely, I gather through news reports that the crown has a strong case, but for various reasons, I’m not confident that the reporting is sufficiently critical (in the analysis sense of the word).
Which is to say, I can make no informed comment on the merits or lack thereof of the crown’s case against Sandeson.
Still, one part of the reporting has jumped out at me. CBC reporter Blair Rhodes related Wednesday’s court testimony as follows:
A blood spatter expert has testified that he found blood on the handgun belonging to William Sandeson, who’s standing trial on a first-degree murder charge.
RCMP Sgt. Adrian Butler said he was given photographs of Sandeson’s gun after it was seized from his apartment in south-end Halifax.
Butler said a close examination of the photos showed about 44 minute stains on one side of the gun and another four around the muzzle.
He said the stains matched the DNA of Samson, the man Sandeson is accused of killing.
Butler told the jury that the stains on the gun were consistent with what he called back spatter: a stain created by blood travelling back from the impact point.
He said the stains suggest the gun was less than four feet (1.2 metres) from the blood source when it was fired.
The photos Butler studied were taken by Det. Const. James Wasson, who served as file co-ordinator during the investigation into Samson’s disappearance.
This raised all sorts of alarm bells for me.
First, Butler didn’t examine the crime scene or the gun itself, but rather photos of the gun. The degrees of separation from the actual evidence is problematic.
But a far bigger concern for me was that Butler was qualified as an ‘expert’ in the first place, apparently without challenge from Sandeson’s lawyer.
Expert witnesses are given wide latitude in court, and are allowed to present their opinions about evidence, an option not given to other witnesses. Jurors are then encouraged to take those opinions as a high standard of evidence.
But blood spatter evidence is not a real science. In fact, in the wrongful conviction community, blood splatter evidence is considered ‘junk science.’
In 2009, blood spatter evidence was one of the many so-called forensic sciences called into question by a landmark U.S. Department of Justice report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.
A 2018 article by ProPublica reporter Leora Smith, “How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like a Virus,” explores the history and misuse of blood splatter evidence.
Smith relates how the entire ‘science’ was created by one man — Herbert MacDonell, who started making claims about blood spatter evidence in the 1960s — and shows how courts across the U.S. began allowing the questionable science to be admissible as evidence. (I’m not clear on when the ‘science’ became accepted in Canadian courts.)
MacDonell first published his claims in a 1971 paper, “Flight Characteristics and Stain Patterns of Human Blood,” writes Smith:
In his report, MacDonell openly acknowledged the accuracy of his methods could not be quantified. “Final conclusions should be considered from the legal viewpoint of ‘proof within a reasonable scientific certainty,’” he wrote in the introduction. “Little attempt has been made to express data in this report in a statistical manner.”
The uncertainty did not slow his momentum.
Soon MacDonell quit Corning Glass Works to work full time as an instructor and forensic expert for hire. He branded his unaccredited basement lab with an impressive title, “The Laboratory of Forensic Science,” and named himself its director. In time, MacDonell would testify and publish books and articles using this official-sounding moniker. Few realized the limited scale of the operation.
He began crisscrossing the country teaching 40-hour “Bloodstain Evidence Institutes” to groups of mostly law enforcement officers who trekked from small towns like Estherville, Iowa; Gulfport, Mississippi; Appleton, Wisconsin; and Sanford, Florida, to attend his courses. Although MacDonell would emphasize his own scientific education when acting as an expert witness, his advertisements assured students there were “no minimum educational requirements to be accepted into the class.”
By 1982, MacDonell had taught 19 institutes in eight states (Mississippi, New York, Florida, Alabama, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana and Colorado), turning out scores of newly minted blood-spatter experts. He also gave single-day seminars in Germany, Italy, England, Switzerland and Canada.
At the end of each course MacDonell administered an exam, handing out certificates to students who passed. He would eventually teach for 38 years and recalled only five students who failed.
Then, he expanded his offerings. He began teaching advanced courses to students who already passed his basic course. Graduates of his first advanced class formed a new professional society — the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts — in 1983. The following year, IABPA published the first issue of the Journal of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis. MacDonell was named IABPA’s sole “distinguished member” in honor of his contributions.
In the span of about a decade, MacDonell had created an industry in which he became the reigning expert.
I’m skipping over a lot about MacDonell, including that he shot dogs in order to get ‘evidence’ about how live bodies bled out, he soaked a female employee’s hair with human blood and had her shake her head to supposedly illustrate what would happen after a woman was shot, and that he obsessively collected his own fingernail clippings in apparent hopes of starting yet another bogus science, among other bizarre incidents — so read the whole article.
But after the U.S. Department of Justice’s critique of blood splatter science was published in 2009, there actually was some science brought into the field: Daniel Attinger, a fluid dynamics specialist at Columbia University, took up blood splatter as a field to investigate:
That summer, Attinger attended one of MacDonell’s final 40-hour workshops. By fall, Attinger’s team won a grant of just over $632,000 from the DOJ to start their studies.
In 2013, Attinger published his first blood-spatter paper in the journal Forensic Science International. One of his three co-authors was a now-retired Canadian police officer who had been an assistant teacher in MacDonell’s workshop.
The paper showed that the hypotheses that underpin bloodstain-pattern analysis remained largely untested. And, it said, analysts’ assumptions and errors could make their conclusions rife with uncertainty. Analysts failed to properly account for gravity when using bloodstains to calculate victims’ locations. They assumed things about how speed influences blood patterns that had never been scientifically proven.
A review of Attinger’s research reveals some investigation of fundamental questions, like trajectories of blood in flight. But his experiments are highly simplified and extremely specific when compared with the complex problems faced at crime scenes. “The key in doing meaningful experiments,” he said, “is to start from the simple, understand it and then go to the complex.” A recent paper, for example, examined distortions of bloodstains on perfectly flat-lying military fabrics, results that Attinger and his co-authors said could be generalized to any woven fabric that had been laundered four or more times.
“There’s this belief out there that you can look at the patterns of blood at a crime scene and it’s the be-all end-all,” [said Ralph Ristenbatt, an instructor of forensic science at Pennsylvania State University and 15-year veteran of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York City], “when in reality bloodstain-pattern analysis is just one tool in the toolbox of what we call crime-scene reconstruction.” The very idea that bloodstains will “tell the story for us,” he said, is “misguided.”
Attinger now appears to be a part of the very industry he was hired to scrutinize.
In 2015, he co-taught an advanced bloodstain-pattern analysis course to members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. His partner was Craig Moore, the retired officer who co-authored his first blood-spatter article. Attinger taught an introduction to ballistics and the fluid dynamics of blood-stain pattern analysis, while Moore taught the practical application of the discipline. “An advanced class is designed for a person who will be testifying in court,” Moore said. Attinger said he had “no opinion” as to whether the students were qualified to act as expert witnesses after completing the course.
Craig Moore is just one of six IABPA-certified blood splatter instructors in Canada, albeit he is now retired. Four of the other five teach only the ‘basic’ 40-hour class. (The fifth is Pat Laturnus, who teaches a 160-hour class.)
Getting IABPA-certification as an ‘expert’ does not require any university-level training in physics or fluid dynamics. According to his LinkedIn page, Adrian Butler, the ‘expert’ who testified in the Sandeson trial, received a BA in Accounting and Business Management from Saint Mary’s University before joining the RCMP.
In the wrongful conviction community, such credentialed witnesses are labelled ’40-hour-experts,’ their training gathered over a weeklong course in a moldy motel ballroom, drinks at 5 in adjacent seedy bar.
As I say, I am not informed enough about the crown’s case against Sandeson to offer meaningful overall comment. There may very well be a preponderance of other evidence that will lead a jury to convict. I just don’t know.
But it bothers me that the crown put forward a to-my-eyes unqualified ‘expert’ witness, the defence didn’t challenge it, and the court accepted a very questionable forensic ‘science.’ There can be no doubt that the jury trained on the CSI TV shows will conclude that Butler’s testimony is not just ‘science,’ but science, an unassailable fact.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking at other examples of junk science used in Nova Scotia courts, and the real-world affects on potentially innocent people.
8. Hateful graffiti in Liverpool targets information centre
“LGBTQ+ advocates on the South Shore are asking that vandalism of the visitor information centre in Liverpool be investigated as a hate crime,” reports Suzanne Rent:
Steve Ellis is the chair of Lunenburg Pride said he received a photo of the spray painted graffiti on the building from a social media post from the mayor of Region of Queens Municipality, the day after the vandalism was discovered. The graffiti has since been painted over, although it’s still a bit visible.
“We’ve called out for the RCMP to investigate it as a hate crime,” Ellis said. “The words that were used as hate speech. There’s no way to avoid that.”
The word “groomers” was painted on the front of the building, while the words pedo, fags, groomers, and scum were painted on the rainbow stairs leading up to the building’s main door. The acronym GTFO meaning “get the fuck out” was also spraypainted on the stairs.
“If that’s not hate speech, I don’t know what it is,” Ellis said.
9. Pedestrian struck
A Halifax police release from Thursday:
At approximately 11:25 a.m. officers responded to a vehicle pedestrian collision on Brunswick Street. The driver of a vehicle stuck a man who was crossing Brunswick Street. The man has been taken to hospital with what are believed to be non-life-threatening injuries.
1. Stephen McNeil’s health care record
Richard Starr reviews Dan Leger’s biography of former Premier Stephen McNeil:
Although he devotes a chapter to the “inside story” of McNeil’s and his advisors’ attack on public sector workers – especially those in the health care sector – Leger pays scant attention to the overall Liberal record on health care. This is despite the fact that for his entire tenure McNeil was dogged by failure to live up to a 2013 campaign promise to ensure every Nova Scotian access to a family doctor. Add to this the anger caused by creation of the centralized, top-heavy Nova Scotia Health Authority in place of local district health boards and the Liberal Achilles Heel begins to appear.
Those two issues – and the interaction between them – provided plenty of question period fodder and newspaper headlines. But it was the combination of fiscal restraint and brutal labour relations that formed the core of the McNeil government’s health care record. Even though Nova Scotians are still trying to recover from the damage caused, Leger glosses over that record.
Leger does tell readers that McNeil believed Nova Scotia had too many public employees, including health care workers. And when it came to those health workers, McNeil was convinced they had too much power and made too much money. He set out to reduce that clout with legislation – curtailing the right to strike, forcing changes in the collective bargaining process and imposing a wage pattern on the entire public sector that limited increases to less than three per cent over four years (zero, zero,1.0 and 1.5 per cent).
While succeeding in restraining the pay rates and cutting the number of RNs, McNeil failed miserably in delivering on the campaign promise of a family doctor for everyone who wanted one. It was a rash commitment, and it soon became clear the Liberals had no idea how to deliver it, especially while negotiating a slightly modified zero-zero wage pattern with physicians. Belatedly the Liberals came around to the idea of promoting more collaborative care centres as a solution to the family doctor shortage. But another initiative – the Need a Family Practice Registry – backfired politically.
Dan Leger’s biography of McNeil is an easy read and will be enjoyed by political junkies, especially those whose sympathies lie with the Liberals. However, it is disappointing that despite giving such prominence to McNeil’s clash with health care unions the author fails to explore the impact of that hard-line approach on the health care services people need. It would be too bad if in future McNeil’s handling of the health file is seen strictly as a roadmap to personal political success rather than as a cautionary tale.
Budget Committee (Friday, 9:30am, City Hall and online) — agenda
On Watery Ground: Photographing Everyday Life on a Sinking Island in Swastik Pal’s The Hungry Tide Project (Friday, 12pm, Room 3111, Mona Campbell Building) — Nandini Thiyagarajan from Acadia University will talk
Narrative of Nature and Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Friday, 3:30pm, Room 1170, Marion McCain Building and online) — Julia Poertner from Dalhousie University will talk
Conference of the Early Modern (Friday, 6pm, KTS Lecture Hall) — continues Saturday; more info here
In the harbour
05:45: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, moves from Bedford Basin anchorage to Pier 41
06:00: Gotland, cargo ship, arrives at Pier 27 from Moa, Cuba
06:00: X-press Irazu, container ship, moves from Bedford Basin anchorage to Pier 42
10:00: AlgoTitan, oil tanker, moves from anchorage to Imperial Oil
13:00: Atlantic Sea, ro-ro container, sails from Fairview Cove for New York
15:00: Atlantic Sky, ro-ro container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Baltimore
15:30: Grande Torino, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Valencia, Spain
16:00: X-press Irazu sails for sea
16:30: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, sails from Fairview Cove for Saint-Pierre
19:00: Oceanex Sanderling sails for St. John’s
04:30 (Saturday): CMA CGM Marco Polo, container ship (176,546 tonnes), arrives at Pier 41 from Tanger Med, Morocco
I fear that American cities are going to explode tonight. After all the other police killings, I don’t know that calls for restraint will, or even should, be heeded.