News

1. City keeps policing report secret

Photo: Halifax Examiner

The city is keeping a $200,000 consultants’ report into police services private. Councillor Lorelei Nicoll requested the report in 2018 as a way to identify service gaps and ways to save money.

The report has been completed, but you can’t read it.

Zane Woodford writes about the report’s recommendations and the city’s response, including the refusal to release it.

Regional council voted in favour of a staff recommendation to accept the report and 26 of its 29 recommendations at its meeting on Tuesday. Most of the recommendations were released publicly in the staff report to council, but the report itself is noted under the in camera section of the agenda, marked “Public Security Matter,” and not available to the public.

When Coun. Waye Mason asked why the report is in camera, chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé told council he could release a “heavily redacted” version, but not the whole thing.

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2. Woodford covers council

Halifax City Hall. Photo: Zane Woodford

Lots of reporters at council yesterday, as councillors debated and voted on a motion for staff to prepare bylaw amendments that would allow ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in Halifax. Other agenda items included Shawn Cleary’s sensible proposal for a cooling-off period before councillors or senior staff take new jobs with organizations dealing with the city, a fire station tender and planning matters.

Zane Woodford was at the meeting for the Examiner, and provides comprehensive coverage here.

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I do want to note one interesting twist: Uber cheerleader Matt Whitman voting against the motion that would see the city develop regulations to cover ride-hailing. Whitman objected to a number of restrictions, including a fee for companies wanting to set up shop. At Halifax Today, Victoria Walton has this great quote from him:

“I’m opposed to a $25,000 fee for anyone regardless of how big or small they are,” said Councillor Matt Whitman. “I don’t want to see fees slapped on these companies in the name of capitalism. I think we need to make it easier for these companies to come and do business here.”

3. Give booters the boot

These boots are more attractive than the ones used on cars. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Emma Smith and Erin MacInnis write about the sketchy world of booting cars on private lots in HRM for CBC:

A Halifax resident who waited five hours in a parking lot for a car booting company to free his vehicle wants stricter oversight of an industry he says uses “predatory tactics and intimidation.”

Joshua Bernas thought he was parking in a visitor spot when he visited an acupuncturist at 50 Bedford Highway on Saturday. When he realized the office was closed, he returned to his car to find someone securing a boot to his tire.

When he asked what was going on, Bernas said the employee handed him a ticket from One-Shot Parking Solutions with instructions to pay $115 to free his vehicle.

Bernas refused to pay and called the police, who ordered the company to remove the boot.

I heard Bernas on CBC’s Information Morning today, and the radio piece had more quotes from him, including one in which he says the company only removed the boot after the police threatened to charge the owner with obstruction of justice and vandalism.

4. Worrying about fires

A man in a housecoat watches as firefighters work. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Tim has written repeatedly about the troubling suspicious fires in the South End, most recently here.

Today, CBC has a story on the 11 fires in the area over the last 22 months.

Paul Palmeter writes:

“There is definitely cause for concern. It is very disturbing,” said Matt Covey, division chief of fire prevention for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency.

“These are residential dwellings and the fires are happening at times when people would typically be home.”

Several fires are being investigated by Halifax police, but there is no evidence to suggest the incidents are linked.

The story is essentially a recap of the fires.

I would think it would be a news story if the fire service were not concerned about these fires.

5.  Get rid of drunk tanks

Corey Rogers died in a drunk tank. Photo: inmemoriam.ca

Andrew Rankin has an excellent story on the trouble with drunk tanks in The Chronicle Herald.

Back in November, two special constables were convicted of criminal negligence causing death in the case of Corey Rogers, who was left in a cell wearing a spit hood. In response, Halifax Regional Police have asked for more money to cover the costs of better supervising people locked up for intoxication.

Rankin writes:

Halifax Regional Police ought to be looking at alternatives to the drunk tank that are working in Canada, rather than asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra funding to enhance a flawed model that criminalizes addiction, says a Halifax expert.

“It’s really clear that the drunk tank model is not helping people seek treatment, it’s not helping people with their quality of life,” said addictions doctor Leah Genge, who treats homeless people almost exclusively.  “This is a chronic medical illness and having an alcohol use disorder is not a crime. Why are we treating it with a judicial lens?”

The story looks at alternatives already being used successfully elsewhere. Genge and Harry Critchley of the East Coast Prison Justice Society will be pitching alternative approaches to the Board of Police Commissioners at their next meeting.


Views

The humans behind the AI revolution

I keep thinking about a story from 2018 that I read last year. Written by Astra Taylor, it’s called The Automation Charade, and it appeared in The Logic.

Taylor goes into the history of employers threatening workers who start advocating for better pay or working conditions by telling them they can just be replaced:

Robots lend this centuries-old dynamic a troubling new twist: employers threaten employees with the specter of machine competition, shirking responsibility for their avaricious disposition through opportunistic appeals to tech determinism. A “jobless future” is inevitable, we are told, an irresistible outgrowth of innovation, the livelihood-devouring price of progress. (Sadly, the jobless future for the masses doesn’t resemble the jobless present of the 1 percent who live off dividends, interest, and rent, lifting nary a finger as their bank balances grow.)

Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.

Taylor then goes on to point out that much of what we think of as automated still involves humans. You might order a meal on a tablet at your favourite fast food joint, but someone is still cooking and delivering it. She calls this overselling of automation — seemingly automated processes that still depend on humans — fauxtomation.

As socialist feminism usefully highlights, capitalism is dedicated to ensuring that as much vital labor as possible goes uncompensated. Fauxtomation must be seen as part of that tendency. It manifests every time we check out and bag our own groceries or order a meal through an online delivery service. These sorts of examples abound to the point of being banal. Indeed, they crowd our vision in virtually every New Economy transaction once we clue into their existence.

One recent afternoon I stood waiting at a restaurant for a to-go meal that I had ordered the old-fashioned way—by talking to a woman behind the counter and giving her paper money. As I waited for my lunch to be prepared, the man in front of me appeared astonished to receive his food. “How did the app know my order would be ready twenty minutes early?” he marveled, clutching his phone. “Because that was actually me,” the server said. “I sent you a message when it was done.”

Here was a small parable of labor and its erasure in the digital age. The app, in its eagerness to appear streamlined and just-in-time, had simply excised the relevant human party in this exchange. Hence the satisfied customer could fantasize that his food had materialized thanks to the digital interface, as though some all-seeing robot was supervising the human workers as they put together his organic rice bowl.

There is a lot more depth to this piece, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

I would argue that the flip-side of fauxtomation is fawning over robots doing things humans can do pretty easily. I shot the video at the top of this piece back in January, at a robotics open house hosted by local engineering firm Enginuity. I did meet some people there doing really interesting work (and am writing a story about one of them), but I was also struck by the banality of some of the robots’ actions. One picked up and moved six-packs of beer. Another moved baked goods from one conveyor to another. The one in the video picks up and moves tins of smoked fish. I understand there is probably some very interesting technology that goes into producing a robot that can handle baked goods without damaging them, and some of the fine motor control was cool to watch too. But none of this seemed really revolutionary.

A few days ago, as I was trying to find this article (I couldn’t remember who had written it or where I had seen it) I asked for help on Twitter, which led to a few people sharing other articles. Writer Mary-Dan Johnston pointed me to a recent LA Review of Books piece called Confessions of a Cake Boy. Written by Ramsey McGlazer, the piece talks in part about burrito-delivering robots on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.

A fleet of food delivery robots had arrived at UC Berkeley. Called Kiwibots, the robots on wheels were made and run by a startup based on campus and backed by venture capitalists. The idea, my students explained, was that you could order a burrito, say, from the library, pre-pay, track the burrito-bearing robot’s progress, and claim your delivery — all without leaving the library.

It wasn’t immediately clear what was wrong with leaving the library…

But here’s where things got really interesting as well as truly strange, taking a turn south. My students, many of them aspiring engineers and computer scientists, went on to describe how the Kiwibots worked. To everyone on campus they appeared to be fully autonomous, successfully self-driving. But they were in fact constantly monitored and regularly remote controlled by human workers based in Bogotá. These Mechanical Turks were Mechanical Colombians. Kiwi Campus had managed to outsource the labor of food delivery to people working — surely in some kind of infomaquila — a continent away.

I know this section is called “Views” and I feel like I should have some big, over-arching point here, but mostly I wanted to point you to these two stories, both of which are worth reading and full of insights about humans, robots, and labour.


Noticed

Narrator voice: No they are not.

I don’t know about you, but people in my social media circles keep sharing stories about Finland moving to a four-day work week. Over the last few years, I’ve seen plenty of progressive types either shaking their heads or feeling smugly superior when they look at the stupid garbage their political opponents share.

But, of course, they are not immune to sharing incorrect content that aligns with their own beliefs and prejudices. When these stories get picked up by media outlets, you get an endless feedback loop that results in people posting this stuff over and over again, sometimes for years. And correcting the mistakes makes no difference, especially since corrections usually run at the bottom of the story, while few likely read beyond the headlines.

In my early and more naive days on social media, I would point out to people when stuff they were sharing was not true. I wasn’t trying to be a dick; I genuinely thought people would want to know that, say, the photos of police cars with Arabic writing on them was not a sign of the spread of Sharia in Canada, but part of an initiative to use different languages on police vehicles.

Ha ha ha ha.

There are so many types of fake news out there now, from the propaganda of Ontario News Now and the Alberta Energy Centre, to those who deliberately pump out false stories designed to outrage (and create profits), to stories like the four-day work week in Finland, which results, essentially, from an editing error.

The story doing the rounds was this: Finland, led by 34-year-old Prime Minister Sanna Marin, was set to introduce a four-day work week. Not only that, the country might move to a six-hour work day too.

This was candy to progressives, right? The Nordic countries lead the way again, millennials are making changes to the old ways of doing things, etc.

In the UK, The Sun ran a story under the headline “FLEXI-PRIME Finland to introduce a four-day working week and six-hour days under world’s youngest prime minister Sanna Marin”. That story is now gone, replaced with the statement, “We now understand that the Finnish Government does not have the plans reported, and are happy to set the record straight.”

Sure, you can’t expect much from The Sun, but the story was picked up by The Guardian, Quartz, and dozens of other media outlets from Detroit to South Africa.

Is there any truth at all to the story? A kernel. Back when she was transport minister, Marin mused about a four-day work week during a panel discussion in Turku, during a Social Democratic Party event.

That’s it. That’s the basis for all the stories on the country introducing a four-day work week.

Many of these outlets have kept the stories up, but re-edited them to note that Marin’s comments were made when she was transportation minister.

News Now Finland does a great job of explaining how Marin’s words got turned into inaccurate stories around the world.

The next time the story crops up is 2nd January 2020, when Brussels-based newspaper New Europe published an article by journalist Zoi Didili whose headline was “Finnish PM Marin calls for 4-day-week and 6-hours working day in the country.”

It gives the impression that this is an initiative announced after Marin became PM with the opening paragraph “Sanna Marin, Finland’s new Prime Minister since early December has called for the introduction of a flexible working schedule in the country that would foresee a 4-day-week and 6-hours working day.”

It gets several things wrong in that one sentence, and while it does reference the SDP’s Turku event, it doesn’t actually quote Marin saying there should be a four-day week, or six-hour days, and frames the whole context as if it’s a new initiative since Marin became PM.

It’s off to the races after that, with a slew of stories treating this as though it were fact.

Last week, I sat in the sauna at the gym between two guys discussing the downing of the Ukrainian Airlines plane in Iran. At the time, the government of Iran had not admitted to shooting the plane down. The guys talked about Fox News, CNN, and other news outlets, and the difficulty of figuring out what’s true and what isn’t. One of them said he just couldn’t tell anymore. There was a bit of silence after that.

Ultimately, inaccuracy in the number of days people work in Finland is not that big a deal. And, to my pleasant surprise, many of the outlets that have since reported the story have offered corrections.

The thing is, corrections hardly matter. This story is not particularly damaging, but others are. And the entire phenomenon of rushing to print/post without verifying basic facts has led to the frustration of the guys I shared the sauna with. The next step beyond that frustration is giving up. Nobody knows what’s real, nobody can know, who cares?


Government

City

Wednesday

Budget Committee (Wednesday, 9:30am, City Hall) — see the agenda here.

Heritage Advisory Committee – Public Information Meeting Case H00448 (Wednesday, 6pm, City Hall) — Stefan Frent wants to demolish the Municipal Registered Heritage Property known as Victorian Streetscape at 1029 Tower Road. More info here.

Thursday

Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee (Thursday, 10am, City Hall) — streetscaping and canoeing.

Active Transportation Advisory Committee (Thursday,4:30pm, City Hall) — among other items, there’s a discussion of free ferry and transit service.

Port Wallace Public Participation Committee (Thursday, 6pm, Cafeteria, Dartmouth High School) — to discuss the Port Wallace Master Plan.

Province

No public meetings scheduled for the rest of the week.


On campus

Dalhousie

Wednesday

PEGaSUS (Wednesday, 3pm, Human Rights and Equity Services, 4th Floor, MacDonald Building) — the first of 10 workshops for the Psycho-Educational Group for Survivors of Adult Sexual Assault. More info here.

Focus on Communication: Canadian Culture and Languages (Wednesday, 4:35pm, Room 2110, Mona Campbell Building) — a workshop to discuss the elements of Canadian culture and history and their contribution to “the rich repertoire of languages in Canada, in addition to English language.”​ More info here.

Architecture Lecture (Wednesday, 6pm, Room B224, B Building, Sexton Campus) — Betsy Williams from Williamson and Williamson will talk.

Artist Talk with Michelle Sylliboy (Wednesday, 6:30pm, MacMechan Auditorium, Killam Memorial Library) — Michelle Sylliboy will read from her new book Kiskajeyi—I Am Ready.

Thursday

Newfangling Rounds: How emerging wireless technologies can shape the future of healthcare (Thursday, 8:30am, Bethune ballroom, VG Site) — Srini Sampalli will talk.

Michelle Sylliboy. Photo by the artist.

Komqwejwi’kasikl (hieroglyphic) Birch Bark Workshop with Michelle Sylliboy (Thursday, 4pm, Indigenous Student Centre, 1325 Edward Street) — Art supplies provided, limited space. Register here.

The Human Right to Food (Thursday, 6pm, Community Room, Halifax Central Library) — a panel discussion.

The right to food protects Canadians from food insecurity and hunger. However, this does not obligate the Canadian government to feed citizens. This panel will examine the practicality of harnessing private sector food supply chains to provide affordable and nutritious food as well as assessing policy mechanisms that can protect Canadians against hunger and malnutrition. Can government action, public distribution systems, food networks and private supply chains secure the right to food security?

Email here for more info.

Architecture Lecture (Thursday, 6pm, Halifax Central Library) — Nicholas Demers-Stoddart from Provencher_Roy will talk. Poster here.

Medical Students Art Show 2020 (Thursday, 7pm, Tupper Building Link and Foyer) — The theme is “Everyday Victories.”

Climate Goals: Addressing Intersecting Crises (Thursday, 7pm, Ondaatje Hall, Marion McCain Building) — Meghan McMorris from the Ecology Action Centre will talk.

Saint Mary’s

Wednesday

Why it matters how we eat: Food ethics and eating as a self-shaping activity (Wednesday, 7pm, Archibald Roomn, New Academic Building) — Megan Dean from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, will speak.


In the harbour

01:00: YM Express, container ship, sails from Fairview Cove for Rotterdam
06:00: Atlantic Sail, ro-ro container, arrives at Fairview Cove from New York
06:45: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, arrives at Autoport from St. John’s
11:30: Primrose Ace, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Davisville, Rhode Island
16:30: Primrose Ace sails for sea
17:00: Atlantic Sail sails for Liverpool, England
20:00: Elka Eleftheria, oil tanker, sails from Irving Oil for sea


Footnotes

I visited a school yesterday where the fountains have been covered up until lead testing is complete. The school had 18-l water bottles in the hallways and conical cups for the kids to use. The kids were THRILLED at this novelty and kept lining up to get water. At the end of the day, the teachers were handing out notes asking guardians to send their children to school with refillable water bottles, because they were going through the paper cups at such a prodigious rate.

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’d like to say that anytime anyone says anything remotely negative about Uber, Whitman runs around with his head on fire but……

    Uber is an evil company that is living off the avails of a corrupt corporate model and the largesse of venture capitalists. Great business model for Halifax to tie its wagon to.

    1. Fawning Over Robots

      “Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.”

      The above is the tip of the algorithmic iceberg. Computer engineers, analysts, developers and programmers have no more ethics/morality/conscience than, say, the financial engineers that have brought us the runaway Debt Economy. “Does it make a Fast Buck?” (As exemplified by the Global Government Bailouts, including Canada, of these same financial engineers continuing and going back to 2008.) It should be noted that this financial engineering would not be possible without, yes, computers!

      Beyond simple robots and social media threats lies General Artificial Intelligence. Such notables as Elon Musk:
      “I have exposure to the most cutting-edge AI and I think people should be really concerned about it,” he said in July.
      https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/elon-musk-artificial-intelligence-openai-neuralink-ai-warning-a8074821.html

      Other notables such as the late Stephen Hawking, even Henry Kissinger (wowee), and Bill Gates have all expressed concern about AI. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, has had a number of enlightening interviews with AI experts such as Nick Bostrum, Max Tegmark and Yuval Noah Harari on his podcasts.

      There is no regulation of AI development. NONE! So, think for a moment about all the National Governments, large Corporations, University Research Centers, rogue Billionaires (how many sociopaths among them) developing their own versions and concepts of AI.

      Some experts have suggested that humans are engaged in programming their own extinction. And some government experts suggest: Learn Coding!

  2. I am not a fan of the taxi business in Halifax, but Uber is a taxi service no matter how they phrase it. You pay someone to take you from point A to B. As a taxi service they need to be regulated and the public given some measure of protection.

    1. Why is this such a difficult concept for people? Every time I mention the need for regulations before allowing ride-hailing, people say “but cabs are so hard to find at 1 AM”.

  3. I particularly liked the “views” article and the Examiner in general. There always seem to be thought provoking articles and discourse on major public issues. Keep up the excellent work and reporting.

  4. One of my favorite signs of all time. On the windshield of a booted car in a parking lot on Quinpool about 10 years ago:

    “This vehicle has been immobilized for your convenience.”

    And then a number where the hostage-taker could be reached.