News

1. Is a “climate action tax” different from any other tax?

Halifax City Hall in October 2021. Photo: Zane Woodford

Halifax has a climate action plan that Zane Woodford has previously described as “woefully underfunded.” Council is thinking of changing that, by earmarking a special tax of 0.023 cents on every $100 of taxable assessed residential property value for climate-related capital projects.

But, Woodford reports, council is divided on whether the tax should be broken out separately on municipal tax bills, as are, say, transit and local recreation taxes.

During a virtual budget committee meeting on Wednesday, Coun. Cathy Deagle-Gammon moved for a briefing note on the risks or benefits of listing it that way.

“I was of the mind that I would like to see it separated out. It’s a new initiative. It’s a big deal. If it comes, it’s the first one in Canada, I think we’ve been hearing about,” Deagle-Gammon said.

Coun. Kathryn Morse questioned the value of listing the tax separately.

“I think it sends a negative message. If we put our roads maintenance as a separate item on the tax bill, for example, I think that would make people upset,” Morse said.

“I think it just doesn’t send the right message when we’ve all agreed that HalifACT is something we need to do for the municipality.”

Some councillors also liked a proposal to pay for climate-related projects by increasing the gas tax — something they don’t have the power to do.

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2. Goodbye “system access charge”

Let’s hope he doesn’t fall. Photo: Bill Mead / Unsplash

Remember the days when our mobile phone providers charged us a system access fee for the privilege of using our phones on the one network they were locked to? The cellphone companies kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge pretended they were government fees and charged them for years, until a class action made it to the Supreme Court.

Ah, those were the days, the brain trust at Nova Scotia Power must have thought, as they came up with the brilliant idea to charge customers generating their own solar power a system access fee, to prevent them from, uh, freeloading by producing their own power. (I saw someone on Twitter who goes by “That cranky old guy” saying, “I should be charged a fee for growing my own veggies in the summer. It’s not fair because not everyone can grow their own food, therefore to level the field I should be charged a ‘growers fee.’”)

Well, the dream is over.

First, the utility said it would delay implementing the charge (if approved) by a year. Then Premier Tim Houston essentially said, over my dead body, and after that the utility said it would be withdrawing the application altogether. (Its other proposed rated increases will still go before the Utility and Review Board, though.)

Tim Bousquet reports on how we got here, and on Houston’s press conference yesterday. The story includes this exchange between Bousquet and Houston, in which the premier is skeptical about the possibility of re-nationalizing Nova Scotia Power, but doesn’t rule it out:

Bousquet: Doesn’t this proposed rate increase argue that the decision a previous conservative government made to privatize Nova Scotia Power was a bad decision? And is there any hope to see that decision partially or fully reversed?

Houston: It’s pretty hard to go back in time and put yourself in the shoes of people who made decisions 30 years ago, so I wouldn’t try to do that. I’ll leave that to people much smarter than myself. But they would have had some information at the time, they would have made their decision and that’s 30 years ago, a lot of time has passed. But what I can say going forward today, my obligation is to Nova Scotians. There’s no confusion about that. So we’ll look at what’s in front of us. But buying back the utility, I’ve heard people say that. I mean, we can run some numbers on that, but it would be, I assume, a very significant cost to the taxpayers, a very significant increase in the debt load of the province. We already know that we spend about a billion dollars a year in servicing interest on our existing debt. Every dollar that goes towards interest is a dollar that can’t be invested in health care, can’t be invested in education, can’t invest in community services, can’t invest in our roads, can’t be invested on behalf of Nova Scotians. So it’s easy to say something like that, but in practice, here in the real world, it’s a little bit more difficult than that. But we can certainly undertake those those discussions. I mean, I’m quite sincere when I say that no option is really off the table when I think about how to protect Nova Scotians.

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3. Six new COVID-19 deaths reported yesterday

Reader Laura Kenney created a Maud Lewis-inspired hooked rug with a COVID theme.

The province announced yesterday that six more Nova Scotians have died of COVID-19. They are all women, ranging in age from their 60s to over 100.

As he does every day, Tim Bousquet updates us on all things pandemic.

There are currently 95 people in hospital with the disease in Nova Scotia.

The vaccination status of the 95 is as follows:
• 23 (25.0%) have had 3 doses
• 47 (51.1%) have had 2 doses but not 3
• 1 (1.1%) have had 1 dose only
• 21 (22.8%) are unvaccinated
Note that just 8.7% of the population is unvaccinated.

There is pop-up testing at a bunch of sites for the rest of the week. Note that there are several outside of HRM. (Please don’t go to a pop-up testing site if you have symptoms).

Thursday
Halifax Central Library, noon-7pm
Enfield Fire Hall, 2pm-6pm
Tatamagouche Legion, 2pm-6pm
Baddeck Legion, 11am-3pm

Friday
Chester Basin Fire Deptartment, 11am-3pm
Pictou Legion, 11am-3pm
Arichat OLA Parish Hall, 11am-3pm

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4. Huge increase in eating disorder treatment services

EDNS clinical therapist Rania ElSouri. Photo: Contributed

Yvette d’Entremont reports that Eating Disorders Nova Scotia has seen a 900% (yes, you read that right) increase in demand for its services since the start of the pandemic.

As executive director Shaleen Jones wraps up the 2020-2021 fiscal year, she notes the non-profit helped more than 3,000 people over that period — a 900% increase in demand for their services from what they anticipated in 2019.

“We know that people were struggling before the pandemic hit, and it’s just exacerbated underlying conditions, existing mental health struggles, for all of us,” Jones said in an interview on Tuesday.

“We’ve been just going full tilt to try to keep pace with the demand, adding more support staff, adding more mentors, and trying to do a better job of meeting people where they’re at and keeping that front door open so that when folks are ready to talk about this we’ll hear right away.”

This is a really good and in-depth story by d’Entremont. She talks to clinical therapist Rania ElSouri who works with people who have eating disorders, who says the pandemic “kind of triggered something.”

What were we looking at during the pandemic? What sorts of messaging were we receiving during the pandemic? Were we all about the home exercises from the minute I opened my eyes, to the minute I go to sleep,” ElSouri said.

And we hear from Scott Ellis, who was hospitalized because of anorexia nervosa, and thinks access to programs like those offered by EDNS could have helped him.

She also points out that eating disorders do not just affect young people. ElSouri says she sees a lot of people over 60.

Ten years ago, I wrote a story on eating disorders among older women for Reader’s Digest. For reasons I can’t recall, it never ran. (Maybe a change in editors? I do recall that they paid me for it.) I was really moved by the number of women who were willing to share their stories with me, and also by how common the tricks were to cover up eating disorders. I told a woman in my Tae Kwon Do class about the story, and how women had shared some of the ways they hid their eating disorders when they had to eat out, and she immediately said, “Oh yeah, order a salad and just move it around on your plate.” She later let me interview her.

Anyway, you should read d’Entremont’s story.

5. New Tideline podcast

Episode 65 of the Tideline, with Tara Thorne, has been published. You can listen here, or subscribe through your favourite podcast app.  This time around, Thorne offers up a little bit of everything. Here’s the show description:

Here at the top of February things are normal: It’s freezing, the sidewalks are a mess, and Nova Scotia Power wants to hike the rates. Neil Young threw a big punch at Spotify that actually landed, but was it for the right reasons? (Spoiler alert: LOL.) No one can stop talking about Euphoria, the HBO show that single-handedly revived a dead film stock and set a record for non-pornographic full-frontal male nudity — that also happens to be made by the son of an Oscar-winning producer and director (it’s always the hardest-working ones who succeed.) W. Kamau Bell bravely waded into The Discourse with his searing, can’t-miss series We Need To Talk About Cosby, and in our only bit of joy news, Mitski finally returns with Laurel Hell (just in time for Bandcamp Friday’s triumphant comeback). That’s a lot for one week! Plus songs by Mo Kenney, Terra Spencer, and Aquakultre.

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6. Remembering Jeffrey Hutchings

Jeff Hutchings. Photo: fishlifehistory.ca

Dalhousie University biology professor Jeffrey Hutchings has died. He was 63. Hutchings was an influential and much-loved figure in his academic field and beyond, known for his passion, his integrity, and his vocal concerns about political interference in scientific research.

From a Canadian Press story:

Aaron MacNeil, a former student who became a colleague at Dalhousie University, said his mentor will be remembered for advocacy of “the primacy of science in decision making,” as well as the obligation of scientists to speak the truth once they’ve discovered it.

“He knew that science can help make better decisions and this can have a major influence on peoples’ lives and livelihoods,” he said.

On Twitter, colleagues remembered Hutchings as inspiring, deeply committed to science, brilliant, and generous.

Hutchings spoke with Joan Baxter twice over the last year for stories published in the Examiner. One of the stories was on climate change, Atlantic salmon, and sea lice:

“Our waters are getting warmer along coastal Nova Scotia,” says Dalhousie University biology professor Jeffrey Hutchings… “They’ve been getting warmer for a while and they will continue to get warmer. So we were looking at this interaction of increasing water temperature and the degree to which this might exacerbate the negative influence of sea lice on salmon growth and survival. And we found that it exacerbated it quite a bit.”

Hutchings calls climate change the “elephant in the room” and something that “we are not accounting for” in any of our coastal industries, including how warming ocean waters will affect Atlantic salmon.

And anything that affects sea lice infestations has major implications for open-net pen salmon farming…

Hutchings tells the Examiner that Australia has been accounting for climate change and how warming waters affect aquaculture for a decade or more. Not so, Canada, where he says, “We don’t seem to have a climate change-related strategy for dealing with the management of our oceans.”

The second piece is called “Sacrificing wild Atlantic salmon for gold.”

Hutchings talked to Baxter about the impacts of gold mining on salmon populations:

Although he’s not involved with the West River project, Dalhousie University biology professor Jeff Hutchings is also concerned about anything that jeopardizes the health of rivers and wild Atlantic salmon in Nova Scotia. Hutchings tells me:

“There’s a long history of mining operations having less than positive impacts on aquatic organisms. So I think one should be extremely mindful and careful about any additional human stressors on those salmon populations…

“Because salmon migrate between the ocean and through the estuaries into freshwater, it’s one of those few species that is almost like a harbinger of environmental quality. If salmon are doing well, it kind of suggests that those three aquatic ecosystems are doing well. If salmon aren’t doing well, then it suggests that one or more of those three is not where we would like it to be.”

Hutchings points out that industrial activity has already led to the disappearance of salmon populations in many rivers in Nova Scotia, climate change is causing higher ocean temperatures, and wild Atlantic salmon populations are all at “increased conservation risk.”

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Views

Breaking out of the algorithmic box

Some of the huge variety of music offered to me by Spotify. (Yes, I have my Spotify in Greek.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about algorithmic recommendations, how they keep us in a box, and how we can break out.

Take Spotify. It quickly figured out who it thought I was, and consistently presents me with recommendations best described as more of the same. A couple of years ago, I listened to every Bob Dylan album. That must mean I want endless recommendations for Dylan covers. The thing is, once Spotify’s algorithm dropped me into the “classic rock” box, that’s where it seemed determined to keep me.

The recommendation engine picks up on what you’re listening to, then feeds you more similar material designed to reinforce that: daily mixes based on your listening, “best of” playlists with more of the same, a “Discover weekly” playlist with little new to discover. Even the search function is tailored to bring up what it thinks you will like first.

Do I frequently play AC/DC, Judas Priest, and, of course, Dylan? Sure. Do I occasionally indulge in listening to April Wine? OK, yes. But should that mean that’s all I’m interested in? I’ve deliberately focused my listening habits on various genres to see if it makes a difference. Lately I’ve been playing lots of mid-century jazz. I’ve spent weeks listening to nothing but hip-hop. There was a week where I didn’t listen to any vocal music at all. It does make a difference, but it’s marginal. Spotify keeps feeding me the stuff I could hear anytime on the radio, including the amazing recommendations in the screenshot above.

But there are ways to work your way out of the algorithmic box.

The always interesting Clive Thompson wrote about this recently, in an article called “9 Ways to ‘Rewild Your Attention,” with the sub-head, “How to inject more weirdness and randomness into the stuff you read and see.”

Thompson writes that the problem with algorithmic recommendations is twofold:

  • material that’s customized for you — except it’s a dull, Demographics 101 cartoon of who you are and what you’re interested in [Hello, “Best of Rock 1973”]

Many of Thompson’s suggestions are for offline activities (eg, “Talking to people and asking them questions”), but he also points to things like weird search engines that deliberately suppress the most popular results (I used one of them to find someone’s personal website mentioning a story I wrote for a long-defunct weekly).

To do his own bit to help with this “rewilding” process, Thompson built a simple app called the Weird Old Book Finder. The concept is simple: You enter a term, and the engine searches the Google Books archive of public domain books published before 1925. But here’s the kicker: it only returns one result.

Here’s Thompson explaining why he loves weird old books:

Old books are socially and culturally fascinating; they give you a glimpse into how much society has changed, and also what’s remained the same. The writing styles can be delightfully archaic, but also sometimes amazingly fresh. Nonfiction writers from 1780 can be colloquial and funny as hell.

And man, they wrote about everything. Back in those centuries they wrote books about falling in love via telegraph wires, and about long-distance balloon travel. They wrote books that soberly praised eugenics, and ones that inveighed against it. They published exuberant magazines of men’s fashion and books on how to adopt vegetarian diets. The past being the past, there’s a ton of flat-out nativism, racism, and gibbering misogyny — but also people fighting against that, too.

It’s rarely dull.

But why return only one result?

 I wanted to avoid the paradox of choice, where we get frozen when we’re confronted with too many options.

I entered “samurai” into the Weird Old Book Finder and, to my surprise, got a 1913 building supply catalogue from New York.

Result from the Weird Old Book Finder.

The reason: A product called “Samurai Cement and Brick Coating.”

I have three terrariums here in my office, so while writing this I decided to search for “terrarium” and “Wardian cabinet.” (Ward invented what we could currently think of as the terrarium in the Victorian era, and it went by “Wardian case” or “Wardian cabinet.”)

The results were a booklet from Cornell University aimed at helping schoolteachers teach natural history, and a record of the meetings of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society from 1876. In the book, one W. H. Halliday writes:

Everyone should have a hobby, says Prime in his preface to “I Go A Fishing.” Mine has been, for a dozen years, Wardian cases and Feneries…

The chances of failure are so small, when one has started in the right direction, and the satisfaction of growing, in your own home, plants whose delicate forms and beautifully marked foliage are a wonder even in a greenhouse, is so great that it is surprising to me that all lovers of plants do not possess one of these little tropical gardens instead of the long drawn, sickly looking plants we see at windows, as we pass along our streets, that cost so much time and trouble in their cultivation.

Reader, I nearly gave up on finishing the Morning File at this point, and was ready to follow W. H. Halliday on a journey into the wonders of Wardian cases.

When Thompson shared the Weird Old Book Finder on Twitter, freelance writer John Last wrote “I feel like this was made specifically for me.” I contacted Last, a Canadian who lives in Padua, Italy, to talk about why. Last says he has a fondness for weird history and oddball books, and has a collection of 18th and 19th-century works he “carted across the Atlantic” when he moved to Italy.

He said, “It’s comforting reading that stuff because it brings home how… most people will look like idiots in 100 years.”

Last said he appreciates that the finder returns one book at a time, because “there’s no context whatsoever. So we’re just thrown in with the book in and of itself. It reminds me of the discount book bins in front of used bookstores. You can flip through them without necessarily committing to much.” But if something does grab you, you are more likely to get “a deeper level of engagement” seeing just one book than scrolling through a long list.

The day I spoke to him, Last had been reading a book he found on Roman architecture, which, he said, was great, because he loves illustrated books, and because being in Italy made it more immediate.

I asked about the whole notion of rewilding attention, and Last said, “I think a lot of journalists generally do that anyway, because that’s how you find stuff that isn’t already fed by that algorithm. I’m always scanning blogs and I have alerts for new journal articles and that kind of thing, because I would like to know about stuff that’s going to be worth a story before it’s actually been published.”

“But,” he added, “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you almost need someone to just kind of throw a dart at a dartboard and start you on a search so that you can try and find something interesting.”

When it comes to finding music, I have a few other tricks I like. One is to just enter some random string of letters, or the first word that pops into my mind. This is how I wound up listening to a metal band called Warthog yesterday. My daughter, Phoebe, searches for a particular word or phrase and then listens to the songs that come up. She has a playlist called “Phoebe” which is, you guessed it, all songs called “Phoebe.” A good way to find artists whose music you wouldn’t otherwise come across.

I am a fan of the New York Times Spelling Bee game, which features a daily pangram — a word made up of all seven letters in the game. For awhile (until I got tired of it), I had a playlist going called “Pangram” that featured songs with the daily word in the title. Would I have come across songs called “Horological Nightmare,” “Logotype,” or “Exultant in Chthohnic Blasphemy” otherwise? Probably not.

This algorithmic narrowing is not a new issue, of course. I’ve been trying to find an old episode of Spark, or maybe Definitely Not the Opera — probably about 10 years old — in which host Nora Young interviews an artist who, as I recall, created an app that erased your iTunes library when you ran it, as a way to fight back against restrictive recommendations. So far, no luck.

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Noticed

Five-pointed star created by artist Cheryl Simon. Photo: Mi’kmaq Quill Art by Cheryl Simon Facebook page

A few months ago, I wrote about the Quill Sisters podcast, featuring co-hosts Cheryl Simon and Kay Sark talking about various aspects of quilling.

Well, the Quill Sisters currently have a show at the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax. Called Matues Revisited, the show features work by Sark, Simon, and Melissa Peter-Paul. From the show’s website:

Matues Revisited is a gathering of vibrant porcupine quillwork art created by The Quill Sisters: Melissa Peter-Paul, Kay Sark, and Cheryl Simon. These artists have dedicated their time, passion, and creativity to reinvigorating the unique and dynamic tradition of Mi’kmaw quillwork embellishment on birchbark forms.

Each artist works to push their designs beyond traditional utilitarian structures to explore conceptual artistic expression including sculpture, wall pieces, and geometric studies. The artist’s hands are present in every step of each element, which requires gathering all materials from the earth and preparing them to be ready for creating designs of fine precision. Matues Revisited offers a space to visit with an artform that holds teachings in sustainability, environmental awareness, patience, and gratitude, evident in each step of quillwork creation.

Angel Moore of APTN did a story on the show. She writes:

“We’re often thinking about our ancestors and our grandmothers who were making quillwork to sell to settlers,” Cheryl Simon tells APTN News. “And we’ve been thinking a lot about if they had been making art to be creative, as opposed to surviving, and to make money to get by with their families, how would the art have formed.”…

“I find that the Indigenous community often feels when they go into museums is that they are talking about us to someone else and it never feels like a space is ever made with us in mind,” says curator Aiden Gillis.

“So there is that beauty of trying to be inclusive, but we are feeling alienated no matter where we are by being on our own territory.”

The exhibition runs to March 13.

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Government

City

Thursday

Board of Police Commissioners (Thursday, 11am) — virtual meeting

Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee (Thursday, 1pm) — virtual meeting

Women’s Advisory Committee (Thursday, 4pm) — virtual meeting

Friday

Budget Committee (Friday, 9:30am) — virtual meeting

Province

No meetings


On campus

Dalhousie

Maintenance of respiratory health by the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR): can one protein really do it all? (Thursday, 11am) — Carolyn Baglole from McGill University will talk

MSVU

Thursday

No events

Friday

He ‘is supposed to have with him forged Certificates of his Freedom, and Passes’: Slavery, Mobility, and the Creolized Counter-Knowledge of Resistance  (Friday, 12pm) — virtual Black and Indigenous Speaker Series lecture featuring Charmaine A. Nelson from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; register here.


In the harbour

Halifax
05:00: MOL Experience, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Antwerp, Belgium
06:10: Oceanex Connaigra, ro-ro container, arrives at Pier 41 from St. John’s
07:30: Algoma Integrity, bulker, sails from Gold Bond for sea
10:00: MSC Brianna, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Gioia Tauro, Italy
10:50; East Coast, oil tanker, arrives at Irving Oil from Saint John
16:30: MOL Experience sails for Port Everglades, Florida
18:00: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, arrives at Fairview Cove from Saint-Pierre
21:00: Oceanex Connaigra moves to Autoport
21:30: MSC Brianna sails for sea

Cape Breton
03:30: CSL Tacoma, bulker, Coal Pier (Sydney) from Coal Pier (Point Tupper)
20:30: Abliani, oil tanker, sails from Point Tupper for sea
21:30: Lilac Victoria, oil tanker, moves from Port Hawkesbury outer anchorage to Point Tupper


Footnotes

Saw a big cat (as in bobcat, not large house cat) casually walking across the frozen pond in our yard and heading into the woods.


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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. I turn off all reccomendations from apps or websites.
    No interest in some algorithm deciding what it thinks I like, because of yesterday. Prefer to find what I want to listen to, watch or read myself. I have particular interests but enjoy learning all sorts of new things.
    Figure algorithms acutally make me less aware of the world around me. And Youtube algorithms have been shown to be insidious to both left and right of centre folks. Doesn’t help them grow their knowledge.

  2. We will h as be to pay a lot more for inaction on climate change so paying up front will be a wise choice to do make. Yet in the midst of everything we now know and understand about impacts of climate change we sit idly by and watch the millions being thrown away setting a counter example by building the new art gallery in the worst possible spot. The sheer willful ignorance is astounding.

  3. Solar feed in is all well and good in cloudy Nova Scotia where few have solar panels. A better analogy is “I grow my own lettuce, and Sobeys should buy any quantity of lettuce from me at retail prices. I have no obligation to grow any lettuce, and also Sobeys also always has to have as much lettuce for sale as I want and can afford”.

    1. and Sobeys and the government encouraged me to spend thousands of $ to build an organic garden so they’d stop shipping lettuce grown by child labour in terrible conditions from across the globe. They told me they’d buy my lettuce for a fixed price for the next 25 years and now they still want my lettuce they just want to pay the same as they do for their crappy lettuce. FTFY.

    2. I’m not sure “renationalizing” NSP is necessarily a good idea, but coming from an accountant, Tim Houston’s caveat doesn’t make sense. Any debt incurred by taking over NSP would be paid by ratepayers, not taxpayers, and it would be part of the monthly bill, the way it is today. It would not add to provincial net debt or take money that should be going into health or other social programs. And given current interest rates compared with the 9 percent rate of return now given to NSP, ratepayers may get lower rates. I would like to see some independent body “run the numbers,” and see what results.