Some kind of wonderful

Given the torrent of nonsense that masquerades as rational debate these days, it’s a miracle that anything useful ever gets done.

After all, when some random troll requires only a Twitter account to convince an alarming number of otherwise reasonable people that a certain U.S. president, who habitually equates lying with statecraft, is a breath of fresh air in a “post-truth” world, it’s tempting to flee the public square and hunker down for the coming dark age.

Still, despite evidence to the contrary, all is not lost: Not everyone is either running for cover or gorging on low-hanging fruit from the tree of absurdity. Consider a couple of recent and nearby examples.

Decades ago, Moncton’s burgermeisters decided, in their wisdom, to approve the construction of a causeway to join their city with communities on the other side of the Petitcodiac River. It seemed like a good idea at the time: Commuters would love the faster traffic; businesses would appreciate the more reliable and timely delivery of goods for sale. What could go wrong?

Within scant years, the answer was plain to see. The river – once home to dozens of aquatic species, and a recreational fishery worth, according to estimates, as much as $75 million a year – had become a muddy, silt-choked parody of its former self.

Following a quick stop with her family in the 1980s to observe the Petitcodiac’s world-famous tidal bore – historically, a meter-high wall of surf that ran twice a day – American humorist Erma Bombeck stood on the river’s banks and watched a meagre ripple wend its way toward the head pond. “What the heck?” she quipped. “I retain more water than that.”

Over the years, attitudes about the river cleaved and hardened. For one camp – notably, those who had purchased property along the waterway and who, therefore, had skin in the real estate game – the status quo was just fine. For another more progressively minded cohort, the Petitcodiac’s sorry condition was economically embarrassing and environmentally shameful. Tear down the fixed link, this group insisted, and let the water flow the way nature intended.

By the mid-2000s, you could illuminate the dark side of the moon with the degree of daylight that shone between these two factions – thanks, in part, to the use of social media (what else?) as handy platforms for off-the-cuff fulminations.

Then, something happened – something extraordinary.

People actually started talking to one another. In coffee shops and council rooms, they exchanged ideas – real, considered (gasp!) ideas. Eventually, a consensus began to take shape.

What if members of the community compromised? Environmental and economic assessments were clear. Replace a portion of the causeway with a partial bridge that would allow the river to recover. Bank-side properties wouldn’t be negatively affected. If anything, their values would increase.

That was two years ago. Today, with the provincial and federal governments contributing about half, each, to the cost of the $62 million project, the renewal is underway. As for the fish, they’re back, and so is the tidal bore. Since 2013, surfers have come from as far away as California to ride the wave. Thousands gather along the banks to cheer. As for motor traffic, it, too, still flows.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is not as rare as many might lament.

Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library, which opened in 2014, have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

In fact, according to the library’s website, the effort involved “five large public meetings (while) staff and architects met with a number of special focus groups to ensure that (they) heard the voices of a wide cross-section of customers and citizens: African Nova Scotians, cultural organizations, persons with disabilities, First Nations, new Canadians, the literacy and learning community, parents and young children, and teens.”

Of course, the new library never was, and is not now, everyone’s cup of tea. But as a product of rational debate, collaboration and cooperation, it is pretty convincing proof that, despite the nonsense regularly issuing from the meme merchants among us, useful things actually do get done.

Call that wondrous in this fractious age. On the other hand, the finest miracles are still the ones we work together.

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An Atlantic Canadian field guide to surviving recessions

The one thing Atlantic Canadians manage better than almost anything else is recession.

When the economic wind blows cold, we throw another log into the wood stove and cinch our collars.

When our spending money runs short, we whip out a tin of beans and tighten our belts.

When others across the country tremble at the mere thought of stock markets circling the drain, we cast a rueful eye to the storm clouds gathering on the near horizon and mutter, “Yeah, what else you got?”

Of course, we’ve had plenty of practice. Recessions – or weathering them – are kind of our thing. After all, two consecutive quarters of what experts call “negative growth” is, relatively speaking, a permanent way of life along the East Coast. It’s certainly no reason to panic.

But just tell that to the chattering class.

In times of yore, when the mighty wanted to know the shape of things to come, they would instruct an augur to read the entrails of a small animal. Today, they’re more likely to consult an economist.

Are we, in the western world, barrelling toward another recession?

Yup, says Martin Feldstein, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and a professor at Harvard University. “Ten years after the Great Recession’s onset, another long, deep downturn may soon roil the U.S. economy,” he wrote in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Maybe or maybe not, thinks The Toronto Star’s David Olive, who wrote this fall, “The Canadian financial system is among the world’s most stable. . .

But that is small comfort for Canadians. The global financial system is intimately interconnected. . .At all times, the world’s 300 or so biggest banks, including Canada’s Big Six, have enormous short-term loans outstanding to each other. Which means that the failure of just one giant financial institution could bring them all down.”

Anyone ready for a second helping of entrails?

Never mind. Here are some hard-won – if not exactly failsafe – tips for surviving the next recession in Atlantic Canada:

Avoid obvious and precarious flights of fancy. I once worked for a guy in the United States who truly believed that starting a magazine in the middle of a downturn was a grand idea. After all, there’d be no competition. Advertisers would surely flock to his venture, begging to spend their marketing budgets. The lesson learned? Don’t start a magazine in the middle of a downturn.

Still, don’t be afraid to embrace the big, wide world. If we have jobs, we should do everything we can to keep them. But if we don’t, because, well, we just don’t roll that way, we ought to double-down on our enterprising instincts. Is there a promising, new revenue stream just waiting for our particular talents and experiences? Are there two or three or even four? Indeed, when the world finally comes up for air again, our bank accounts will thank us.

Be pennywise, but not essentially miserly. It’s important to know the difference, which is sound advice even when good times roll. Ask ourselves whether the dollar we’re planning to spend will vanish like rain on a sun-caked riverbed, or germinate the seeds of new growth. We might take a course that will upgrade our suite of professional skills. But, unless the world’s supply of wicker suddenly dries up, we should ensure that course is not applied basket weaving.

Finally, float like a boat. If history teaches anything about Atlantic Canada it’s that periodic highs and lows in the regional economy are like Fundy tides: They come, they go, and there’s nothing we can do about them.

So, we throw another log on the fire. We crack open a tin of beans. We wait for the light.

Meanwhile, we manage.

We always do.

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As the world of work turns

(This column originally appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on November 19, 2018)

I may have dodged a bullet.

A report by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship – a Canadian think tank established in 2015 to predict, among other things, when the Great Robot Uprising will upend us all – suggests that professional journalists are only 11 per cent likely to be “affected by automation in the next 10 to 20 years.”

By “affected”, of course, it means eliminated, eradicated, annihilated, or otherwise extinguished. That means my peers and I in the scribbling trade still have an 89 per cent chance of surviving the coming artificial-intelligence insurrection with our livelihoods more or less intact.

Not so, sadly, for accounting clerks, technicians and bookkeepers, 98 per cent of whom will be as extinct as the Dodo bird. And consider the impending plight of administrative officers and assistants (96 per cent), or air transport ramp attendants and aircraft assemblers (99 per cent and 88.5 per cent, respectively), or aquaculture and marine harvest workers (87 per cent) and real estate assessors (90 per cent), or fishermen and fisherwomen (83 per cent), or fish processing plant workers (73 per cent) or food and beverage workers (90 per cent) or general farm workers (87 per cent), or, for that matter, actors and comedians (37 per cent).

Here’s who, the Institute says, is in virtually no peril of loosing their jobs to automation: advertising, marketing and public relations managers (2.27 per cent) and lawyers (3.5 per cent).

Yeah, no kidding Sherlock.

All of which is to say I wouldn’t want to be an average worker in a currently mainstream industry located in Anytown, Nova Scotia.

Here’s the skinny on this eastern Canadian province’s major contributors to annual GDP in 2017, in descending order of economic importance, according to one website:

Real estate, rental and leasing (think assessors); public administration (think administrative officers and assistants); health care and social assistance (think, again, administrative officers and assistants); and manufacturing (think aircraft assemblers). Fourteenth on the list is agriculture, forestry and hunting (think marine harvesters, general farm hands and fish processing workers).

Of course, there’s always something called “survivor bias”, which The Economist defined, earlier this year, thusly:

“In South Korea, for example, 30 per cent of jobs are in manufacturing, compared with 22 per cent in Canada. Nonetheless, on average, Korean jobs are harder to automate than Canadian ones are. This may be because Korean employers have found better ways to combine, in the same job, and without reducing productivity, both routine tasks and social and creative ones, which computers or robots cannot do. A gloomier explanation would be (that) the jobs that remain in Korea appear harder to automate only because Korean firms have already handed most of the easily automatable jobs to machines.”

I once believed that if this whole writing thing didn’t work out, I could always sweep floors in a warehouse or greet shoppers at a big-box, discount store. Ah, how naïve of me.

So far, not even Robby the Robot can do what I do. Not yet, at any rate.  As I said, I may have dodged a bullet.

For now.

Alec Bruce is an author and journalist who lives in Halifax.

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A bridge too far?

0044_Bridge-WalkThese days, when I cross the water between Halifax and Dartmouth, I sometimes find myself denying the existence of bridges, especially during rush hour. This is despite the fact that I am evidently travelling on one and, from my perch in the passenger’s seat, I can see boats in the harbour and buildings on the near horizon – that is, if I care to look.

Naturally, I don’t care to look because my eyes are otherwise occupied by my smart phone, that tiny blinking box about the size of an old-timey dime-store novel from which the “real” news of the world, the “true” nature of reality, froths forth by the microsecond thanks to so-called social media.

“Apparently, some guy has proof that climate change is a hoax,” I mutter.

“Is that so?” my driving companion inquires absently.

“Yup,” I reply. “He also rejects claims that the Earth is spherical, that NASA ever sent men to the moon and that ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.”

“Okay,” my friend says, “I’ll bite. Who did build the pyramids?”
“Aliens. . .I suppose you’ll want to know why.”

“Do tell.”

“Interstellar travel lounges.”

Why not? Who are we to begrudge weary Alpha Centaurians en route to Betelgeuse for the biannual lotus festival taking a well-deserved load off their tired dogs in north-Saharan Africa? Not everyone flies first class, you know.

I kid, of course. But there is a point.

In a world where fantasies increasingly supplant facts and rank opinions replace measured judgements, how long before we imagine that the state of things as they actually exist is far less absorbing (and, therefore, less legitimate) than the mechanics of our own tortured hallucinations?

Worse, perhaps, for the health of our public institutions, economy and the democratic rule of law, how long before this type of infantilizing meme-merchandising infects the body politic at the most basic level and in everyday ways?

How long? How does right about now sound?

In a 2016 piece, “Why are people so incredibly gullible?”, David Robson, a feature writer for the web magazine BBC Future, wrote, “Cast your mind back to the attack of the flesh-eating banana. In January 2000, a series of chain emails began reporting that imported bananas were infecting people with ‘necrotizing fasciitis’ – a rare disease in which the skin erupts into livid purple boils before disintegrating and peeling away from muscle and bone.”

The scare was completely. . . well. . .bananas, but that didn’t stop scores of people from rejecting an official report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control debunking the bizarre story. Or, as Robson reported, “Within weeks, the CDC was hearing from so many distressed callers it had to set up a hotline. The facts became so distorted that people eventually started to quote the (Centers) as the source of the rumour.”

Still, you don’t have to be a flesh-eating banana to know how easily and far we are prone to slip. Here in the Canadian Maritimes, we regularly replenish our various silos of stupidity with the cloyingly sweet elixir of self-righteous certitude.

Somebody writing on the Internet declares that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas will kill us all – as will, indeed, fossil fuels in general. Somebody else, scribbling in the ethersphere, rejoins that environmentalists are nuts and that there’s nothing wrong with cracking slate to get at the good stuff to power our industrial lifestyle.

They’re both right and wrong – something they would know if they actually chose to talk to one another, rather than bury themselves in the popular “literature” of half-truths.

Fact: The science of climate change says we must reduce our consumption of petroleum products. Another fact: The science of engineering says we still need the junk to intelligently transition to a cleaner, more renewable future. The only question that should remains is: Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?

Fortunately, in many other ways many can and do here.

Consider the enormous amount of consultation, collaboration, tolerance and good will that was required to begin transforming the Petitcodiac River in Moncton, N.B., into a vibrant waterway that is quickly becoming the envy of nature lovers, commercial enterprises and local governments, alike.

While we’re at it, ask the question: Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

Think about the non-stop talking and sometimes-disputatious mediations that paved the way for Moncton’s freshly minted downtown event and cultural centre or the new marine sciences initiative on the Dartmouth waterfront.

These were not bridges too far to cross. And I can only assume that in the rooms where their construction began, all the smart phones were, for once, mercifully silent.

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It’s in the air

Today, the snow flies for the first time as fall quickly heralds an early winter in the old port town of Halifax, N.S., where hale and hearty cruise ship passengers scramble down their respective gangplanks in skivvies and shorts. One – and only one – question burns fevered urgency into their one-track minds.

“Where. . .uh. . .can I get a smoke if. . .uh. . .you know what I mean?”

To which the helpful Haligonian – her tote bag of cannabis well and duly tucked away from the inquisitive eyes of the good town’s constabulary (which is already overworked policing the first day of legal, recreational pot in only the second nation on earth to entertain such a thing) – replies:

“Where?” she arches a knowing eyebrow. “Why anywhere you like. After all, we’re all pirates and privateers in these parts. As to where you can smoke it without earning a parting gift, a.k.a. a fine, from these fair shores, try one of our pillars and posts conveniently located at random and for no particular reason along the waterfront, across the suburbs and in the vicinity of some of the finer bus stops we can offer. . .Party on, dude.”

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Ignorance on the rise

Posters and flyers in Moncton recently depicted two women in politics as tethered to the whims of men. This is, of course, absurd in a putatively enlightened and generally progressive society.

Still, stupidity appears to be on the rise in this democracy of ours. What did the late, great Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill once say, presciently? “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe,” he once reflected. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Naturally, no one is perfect, least of all those who, last week, deposited handmade paper missives against New Brunswick Finance Minister Cathy Rogers and Liberal candidate for Moncton Northwest, Courtney Pringle-Carver. According to a report by Brunswick News Inc., “The message carried by hundreds of posters strewn about Moncton, insinuating two female provincial politicians are controlled by their male colleagues is insulting, says one of the victims of the caricature.”

To be clear, the report continues, the caricature displayed both women under the direct sway of the political boys of summer. All of which is broadly offensive and lamentably emblematic of an uptick in harsh and ill-informed speech. Is this the way we are suddenly leaning in this province?

Let us hope we are not. But, I fear, we might be turning that way. After all, we can’t seem to resist the western world’s latent lust for demagoguery, intolerance, outrage and sheer imbecility.

The evidence of a new enlightenment is sketchy.

Trumpism south of the border has galvanized, if not created, a seething disbelief in everything that is empirically provable. Consider these excerpts from a report a year ago by Canada’s public: “A study co-authored by University of Montreal researchers suggests that while 79 per cent of Canadians do not doubt the reality of climate change, 39 per cent don’t believe it is caused by human activity. . . Survey respondents seemed to be deeply divided on what is causing climate change. For example, only 33 per cent of people living in the Fort-McMurray – Cold-Lake riding in Alberta believe climate change is partly or mostly caused by humans. That compares to 78 per cent in the Quebec riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie, where the rate is the highest.”

Meanwhile, another study conducted by the Ontario Science Centre over the summer concludes, and I quote, “Nearly half of Canadians believe science is a matter of opinion”. Specifically, “Canadians are hungry to learn about new science but their trust in science news has declined to alarming levels. . .While Canadians understand the basics and have a desire to deepen their knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes, their mistrust in the way science is covered in the news has serious implications for society.

“This breakdown in trust has serious consequences for Canada because our future health, prosperity and security all depend on making important, sometimes difficult, decisions based on scientific findings,” said Dr. Maurice Bitran, CEO and Chief Science Officer, Ontario Science Centre. “If we don’t trust the sources, or don’t understand the information we are receiving, we can’t make informed decisions. The findings of this 2017 survey demonstrate a vital role for authentic scientific voices in public education on critical issues that affect public policy and human health and wellbeing.”

Good luck with that. Stupidity and intolerance tends to stick like fly paper, even here, even now.

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HAL, are you out there?

To read press releases issued recently by federal and provincial government operatives, Atlantic Canada is poised to become the next North American hotbed of ‘artificial intelligence’. But does the reality live up to the billing?

The answer is as complex as a coding exercise. The phrases that come to mind are ‘maybe’, ‘not yet’ and, quite possibly, ‘no’. That’s a subtle ternary calculation that only human brains can, thus far, fathom (some more effectively than others, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s morning tweets on just about anything and everything).

Still, according to a recent piece in the Memorial University Gazette of St. John’s, NF/LA, Ottawa and that province’s investments will enable the institution “to undertake a three-year research initiative focused on. . .systems (which) teaches AI systems how to make decisions based on past experience and deep neural networks focused on learning about large data sets by creating AI based on the human brain.”

Added Dr. David Churchill, assistant professor in the department of computer science at Memorial: “Artificial intelligence at its core is about developing computer technologies that make intelligent decisions – to help us solve problems not only in academia, but in many industrial sectors as well. AI is predicted to become one of the largest economic sectors in the world, and I believe that establishing a state-of-the-art AI research lab at Memorial University will help promote innovation, motivate future students, and have long-term benefits for our province.”
That’s fair enough. I’m all for the type of innovation that will wean this region from the debilitating and downward spiral of our expectations. At the same time, though, the thoughfully sceptical among us must recognize that artificial intelligence is a denominator, not a numerator. And if you, dear reader, do not understand my point, then you have made mine.

The bottom number in a fraction (the denominator) will grow as AI technology receives increasingly more money). The top number (the numenator) must increase in tandem to extract maximum economic benefits from the largest number of people possible (experts who will apply their skills in this region to solve, in their own ways, innovation gaps, economic adversity and, ultimately, social dislocation).

Look at it this way: For every ten dollars invested in any form of AI innovation, you will need an equivalent number of professionals operating at top efficiency to produce one new job. In that event, what’s to stop the companies involved from moving to places where they might get 20 dollars of investment to produce two new jobs? Does this feel like a good deal?

Beyond economics, though, does AI acutally live up to its hype?

A wonderfully written piece, by Ian Bogost, in The Atlantic last March makes the following points:

“In science fiction, the promise or threat of artificial intelligence is tied to humans’ relationship to conscious machines. Whether it’s Terminators or Cylons or servants like the ‘Star Trek’ computer or the Star Wars droids, machines warrant the name AI when they become sentient – or at least self-aware enough to act with expertise, not to mention volition and surprise.

“What to make, then, of the explosion of supposed-AI in media, industry, and technology? Autonomous vehicles, for example. . .deploy a combination of sensors, data, and computation to perform the complex work of driving. But in most cases, the systems making claims to artificial intelligence aren’t sentient, self-aware, volitional, or even surprising. They’re just software.”

That’s right. And we are the wetware that created them. The question is only whether we remain the truly intelligent ones in our midst.

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What New Brunswick needs now

As the sun swims down below the horizon faster as every day passes, the temptation is to believe that so do we all. Perhaps, that’s a natural, if not entirely reasonable, conclusion.

Time passes, the foundations of our youthful ambitions crack, we swell in the middle of our lives (and, by the way, in our midriffs), our tongues lash when our ears should listen.

In late August, New Yorker Editor David Remnick, ruminated on U.S. President Donald Trump’s absurd rise to power: He wrote:

“(The) ascent was hardly the first sign that Americans had not uniformly regarded Obama’s election as an inspiring chapter in the country’s fitful progress toward equality. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, had branded him the ‘food-stamp President.’ In the right-wing and white-nationalist media, Obama was, variously, a socialist, a Muslim, the Antichrist, a ‘liberal fascist,’ who was assembling his own Hitler Youth. A high-speed train from Las Vegas to Anaheim that was part of the economic-stimulus package was a secret effort to connect the brothels of Nevada to the innocents at Disneyland. He was, by nature, suspect. ‘You just look at the body language, and there’s something going on,’ Trump said, last summer. In the meantime, beginning on the day of Obama’s first inaugural, the Secret Service fielded an unprecedented number of threats against the President’s person.

“And so, speeding toward yet another airport last November, Obama seemed like a weary man who harbored a burning seed of apprehension. ‘We’ve seen this coming,’ he said. ‘Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails.’”

Do we all become what we fear and loathe, regardless of our various demographic and geographic locations? Do we all sink below the horizons of our better, finer natures?

In this era of political insanity, what New Brunswick needs is clarity, policy innovation that actually leads to practicable solutions and, above all, sanity.

Specifically, it needs early childhood education that’s universal, accessible to all, and publically funded. It needs remedial literacy programs designed to reverse the pernicious trends, which threaten the foundation of education in this province, and the underpinnings of informed, democratic consent. It needs immigration settlement services that will truly integrate newcomers linguistically and culturally without compromising their personal and national stories of origin.

What we don’t need are more roads that lead to absurd amounts of public debt. What we don’t need are more state-of-the-art schools that run next to empty simply because the population base has dwindled or aged into extinction. What we don’t need is venality and absurdity masquerading as justifiable policy making in government.

The project is both simple and complicated (which human endeavour is anything but?). It starts with political transparency and accountability. It moves to social equity and ends with economic diversity. What are required are the voices, the ideas, and a fulsome degree of respect for one another.

Two years ago, the national, public broadcaster’s Julie Ireton reported, “Canada’s Public Policy Forum published a report authored by a group of business executives and former political leaders from across the country. Kevin Lynch, a former Clerk of the Privy Council and one of the report’s authors, agreed the public service must be allowed to provide analytic-based policy options.”

New Brunswick is a jewel of a province. Let us polish it before the sun also sets on us.

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A writer’s life

What I do is a little like skateboarding on thin ice, a cup of strong tea in one hand and a print-out of the local headlines in the other, searching for speed without managing to fall on my ass in the process. Some days it works; other days it doesn’t. Last Friday was the other day.

Out of the blue, and without warning, the news dropped: The Moncton Times & Transcript would no longer require my five-times-a-week column (occasionally six-times-a week), which I have been producing since 2010.

Oh well, I thought, this is merely the writer’s life: easy come, easy go. On the other hand, in this business, in this era, you had better grow a hide as thick as a rhinoceros’s. Otherwise, to paraphrase the late, great Warren Zevon, “They’ll rip your lungs out, Jim.”

From what I was told in a two-minute conversation, the decision had nothing to do with the quality of my work but rather an ephemeral policy shift governing the direction of the Op-Ed pages. And, to be fair, I did resign some months ago, expecting to move back to Halifax and be closer to my parents and kids, before being persuaded to hang in for the foreseeable future.

The future has changed, but the past is written. So, before I go, I’ll take this one, last opportunity to regale readers with some of my pithier comments this column supported over the past year

On New Brunswick politics, I wrote: “Every morning at about 5:30, after I awake and dress for the day, I embrace the singular displeasure of feeding an aromatic breakfast to ‘Sid the kid’. No, he’s not a hockey star from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, but in Moncton he moves like one. In fact, he’s a five-year-old house cat who can, and does, fly up vertical inclines as if he’s a dragon fly. He’s also a marvellous arbiter of important news during my morning coffee.

“Whenever New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant hits the early radio news, he rolls over and wants a belly rub. Whenever Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s latest spout from Ottawa arrives as the sun slowly rises, he arches his back, begging for a good, hard cuddle. Whenever, Donald Trump tweets the latest outrage from the fringes of American democracy, he runs to the barn, not to be seen until noontime.”

On New Brunswick economics, I wrote: “Be honest. Who doesn’t love a good acronym these days? Why, a whole generation of kids lives for them. They message them, tweet them and even pepper their casual conversations in coffee shops with them. Even POTUS (that would be ‘President of the United States’) prefers this short hand of the modern age over, say, actual sentences.

“Who am I to buck the trend? As the subject of what to do about New Brunswick’s anemic economy comes around, as it so often does, I will posit an acronym of my own. Call it HOT, which stands for Hope, Opportunity and Technology. Maybe this will grab some attention.”

On the general condition of Canadian democracy, I wrote: “Official pronouncements from the parliaments and assemblies of Canadian democracy have a tendency to send me into a deep sleep. I slept extraordinarily well last night. Then, I heard this from federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau in his well-timed fiscal update: We’re doing great; the country is going gangbusters; there’s nothing to see; move along people; go about your business.”

See you, dear readers, in some other version of the ‘funny papers’. This is Alec Bruce, still skateboarding on thin ice.

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The way things were

I spent my formative, misspent years in the scribbling racket grabbing coffee and cigarettes at 2 a.m. for an unruly crew of Canadian Press editors and rewriters ensconced at the old Roy Building in downtown Halifax.

I was what people once knew in that industry as a “copy boy”. I was 15 and right off the boat – literally. Prior to earning this august position, I had spent two weeks on a tall ship enroute from Halifax to New York just in time for the 1976 American bicentennial. I spent many days and nights clamouring up masts, rigging sails and booms and doing my level best to stay out of Davy Jones’s locker. As I was a small, nimble shite of a boy, I managed to save my own life several times in 30-foot seas.

In other words, it was good training for the rough and tumble of print journalism in the mid-1970s, when everyone in this industry seemed to think he was one acrobatic leap away from becoming another Woodward, another Bernstein, between cigarettes, coffee and hurricanes of bad breath.

Following my extended university career during which I majored in beer and minored in billiards, I managed to land myself a job at the Globe in Mail in Toronto. I was, to say the least, a fraud. I knew nothing abut the stock markets to which I was hastily assigned to cover. Banks, monetary and fiscal policy? Fuggetaboutit! Somehow, I survived.

They say the traditional newspaper is dead, and ‘they’ may be right.

As Paul Starr wrote almost 10 years ago, when the first clarion sounded, “We take newspapers for granted. They have been so integral a part of daily life in America, so central to politics and culture and business, and so powerful and profitable in they’re own right, that it is easy to forget what a remarkable historical invention they are. Public goods are notoriously under-produced in the marketplace, and news is a public good – and yet, since the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers have produced news in abundance at a cheap price to readers and without need of direct subsidy. More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems. It is true that they have often failed to perform those functions as well as they should have done. But whether they can continue to perform them at all is now in doubt.”

He continued: “Even before the recession hit, the newspaper industry was facing a mortal threat from the rise of the Internet, falling circulation and advertising revenue, and a long-term decline in readership, as the habit of buying a daily paper dwindled from one generation to the next. The recession has intensified these difficulties.”
Now, almost a decade later, the recession is over, the Bank of Canada assures that the economy is going gang-busters, and I still remember my ink-stained friends from my misspent youth: Dan Westell, who literally taught me everything I know about financial journalism; John Wishart, who taught me the value of grace under fire; and now that fine boy Rod Allen, who retired from the Moncton Times & Transcript at the close of business, October 31.

Wise, witty, acerbic, funny and a superbly talented scribbler, Rod has been a great friend to my good self over the years. He is also the best headline writer I have ever known (and believe me, I have known many).

It’s sad to see the finest moving along. But we’re no longer “copy boys”. New lives beckon. Grab them all.

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