Monthly Archives: May 2019

Attack of the killer widgets

Halifax computer engineer Colin O’Flynn makes one thing perfectly clear: Your fridge can’t hurt you. Not yet.

The future, though, is a whole other story.

“Think about down the road, and the stuff you’re going to buy,” says the Dalhousie University assistant professor and co-founder of New AE Technology Inc. “I’m talking about the ‘Internet of Things’. Even your thermostat is a pretty complicated computer, which might be connected to your doorbell. Someone could hook up to that and get into your Wi-Fi.”OFLYNN-Pose

You think it can’t happen? Think again.

In 2016, the researcher and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science, near Tel Aviv in Israel, made global headlines by hacking Philips Hue smart bulbs installed on that campus.

“We can cause lights to flicker at a range of over 70 metres while driving,” O’Flynn, Eyal Ronen, Adi Shamir and Achi-Or Weingarten wrote in one report, adding, “Philips has already confirmed and fixed the takeover vulnerability.”

That was, of course, the point of the exercise: To draw attention to growing security weaknesses in the online-enriched, but otherwise everyday, devices we take for granted.

Through New AE, the computer scientist’s proprietary technology enables technicians to attack their own products and, theoretically, solve problems before they occur. Over the past couple of years, the enterprise has sold more than 1,000 units to private and public organizations.

Says O’Flynn: “The biggest thing is ransomware. Someone demands $100,000 to keep the lights on. Then, what do you do?”

Fix a sandwich?

You might want to check the fridge.

For: Halifax Magazine, May 2019

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Welcome back, bug brain

Some bugs don’t know when to quit.

Almost nothing survives a Guysborough winter more buoyantly than the Armadillidium vulgare, otherwise known as the common woodlouse. You might also know it as the sow bug, pill bug or potato bug. My 81-year-old cousin refers to it and its buddies by a more generally descriptive term: “those little bastards”.

Every year at about this time, the population of Port Shoreham – a cartographic afterthought located halfway between Boylston and Saint Francis Harbour along provincial Route 344 – almost doubles as the Bruce clan and associated relatives arrive in cars and caravans to alight, for a weekend, at the old family homestead.

Theoretically, we come to celebrate the springtime, seasonal opening of the “the place” – a putatively festive moment that heralds the onset of reasonably decent weather for the first time in half-a-year or longer.

Still, those of us who’ve participated in this ritual for what seems like decades know better. Practically, we descend from our respective abodes in civilization, where the wifi never wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, to fight the “pitched battle of the bug”. (And of the occasional mouse, bat and some type of vermin none of us have ever seen before. But, I digress).

It’s the bugs that, above all, bug my cousin.

“Did you remember to have the electricity switched on?” she’ll inquire dubiously as we climb the front steps. “We’re going to need every vacuum humming, by gum,” she’ll declare before muttering, “those little bastards.”

I’ve never understood exactly what she’s got against the lowly woodlouse. According to the literature, nothing in Creation could be more benign. Even professional exterminators leave them alone.

“Besides living in the soil of houseplants, these pests cause little damage,” Orkin’s website helpfully informs. “In general, sow bugs are simply a nuisance, as they do not bite or sting and are harmless to humans. Their presence inside usually indicates a large population outside.”

In fact, if you must rid yourself of them, one article published way back in 1990 offers the following tips: “Tobacco water, the color of strong tea, usually works . . . Another home remedy consists of one tablespoon of cayenne pepper, two tablespoons of household detergent added to a gallon of water. Spray this in the area, or drench infested places.” The writer also advises deploying “one quart of rubbing alcohol”.

On such weekends, when I used to drink, I would cart a large tumbler of gin, a big yellow pad of paper and a fat pencil to the woodshed where I would commence to “write”. In no time, a call would sound upon the wind. “Hey Alec,” a bug-brained relative, Hoover in hand, would cry from the kitchen door. “Are you coming? We’ve got work to do in here.”

I would reply, “I am working”, and then return to my musings about, among other things, why geniuses are never truly appreciated in their lifetimes.

Now that I don’t (drink, that is), I imagine I will resort to more sober reflections on the morality of assassinating our creepy-crawly friends. “Hark well,” I will begin. “As the immortal German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once archly commented, ‘any foolish boy can stamp on a beetle, but all the professors in the world cannot make a beetle.’ Or as the immortal guitar-rock hero Mark Knopfler once wisely observed, ‘Sometimes you’re the windshield. Sometimes your the bug.’”

Oddly enough, my cousin and the Orkin man do agree on one thing: potato bugs belong outside or in a vacuum trap – whichever gets to them first.

Now, if we’re talking about the dreaded Simulium trifasciatum (black fly) or the wretched Culex pipiens (mosquito) in Port Shoreham’s merry month of May, that’s a whole other story. And don’t get me going on July’s brutal Tabanus sulcifrons (horse fly) and August’s equally nasty Chrysops callidus (deer fly), both of which roam the Chedabucto shoreline like muggers on a summer rampage.

Indeed, some Guysborough bugs just don’t know when to quit.

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The importance of being Annie

VALENTINA-PoseWith Halifax dramaturge Annie Valentina, you don’t always get what you see.

Forthright and passionate about her craft, she’s also soft-spoken and circumspect. Neptune Theatre calls her its “Artistic Accomplice,” but she seems more of a persuader than partner in crime.

Still, she likes the title her boss, Artistic Director Jeremy Webb, gave her when he hired her last summer to help build a more inclusive and regionally relevant creative environment. “It could mean a lot of things,” she smiles over sips of black tea, “so it’s a good way of seeing.”

What matters now is how others in local theatre see her.

She’s certainly not an unknown quantity. Since emigrating from Norway in 2000, the playwright-producer has taken the indie scene by storm. Last fall in Halifax, she mounted “What to Expect When You Aren’t Expected”, a piece she composed and directed based on an academic examination of the experiences of LGBQ+ birthing women in Nova Scotia.

Says Dr. Lisa Goldberg, a Dalhousie professor of nursing who generated the original research with her colleague, Dr. Megan Aston: “It went better than I could have expected. She’s brilliant, and I adore working with her.”

All the same, Webb insists, “she won’t take crap from anyone.”

She’ll need that winning combination of protagonist and philosopher to help manage Neptune’s new Chrysalis Project, designed to support emerging artists. “There is a lot of wonderful truth-telling work coming out around here,” she says. “We need to show it.”

After all, with Annie Valentina, you tend to get what you need.

For: Halifax Magazine, May 2019

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Tales from the gig economy – Part I

A potential employer writes:

We will expect the following from you: Computer literacy, because you’ve been using computers for as long as you can remember, and find it easy to pick up new things. You might not know WordPress in-depth (yet), but you’re confident that you’ll pick it up quickly; attention to detail, as you consider yourself a perfectionist, and having the time available to create high-quality work is important to you; passion for learning, because you love the idea of diving into a role where you’ll learn new things every day, and value constructive criticism as a means of boosting your skills and experience; and a love for remote working, because you value the flexibility and autonomy of a remote working arrangement and ideally have experience working under your own impetus.

I reply:

As for the expectations for this position, I’ve been using computers since PCs cost $5,000 a pop (that’s a long time). Yes, I’m a quick study and, no, I may not “know WordPress in-depth (yet)”, but I’m willing to learn and confident that I’ll “pick it up”, thanks partly to my “attention to detail”. For example, the sentence “know WordPress in-depth” should read “know WordPress in depth” or “in detail” – otherwise the hyphenation signifies an adjective to modify a noun that ain’t, in this case, forthcoming.

Sorry to be such “a perfectionist”, but my “high-quality work is important” to me. In fact, it’s next to godliness and to my clean and cluttered kitchen, which also happens to be next to my comfortable, yet remote, office where, thanks to my ability to parse the mysteries of the online world (Did Kim Kardashian really abuse elephants in Bali by posing with them?), I “learn new things every day”, which, in turn, feed my passion for, well. . .learning. But please feel free to tell me I’m wrong. I would love some “constructive criticism” as I am, in case I forgot to mention, working remotely. . .Oh, so remotely. . .

Your pal,

Alec Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

The new space race – Nova Scotia style

DSC_0237On some glittering summer’s day, this decade or maybe next, you might find me rusticating on the back deck of my ancestral home overlooking the great, grumbling Chedabucto Bay – as deep and dangerous as the firmament, itself.

There, I will hoist a late-afternoon drink, cast my eyes toward the town of Canso and count down to what my wife and I will have dubbed ‘the greatest show on earth’. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.

“Honey, be quick,” I will bark. “You’re going to miss it, again.”

My beloved will rush from the kitchen, a glass of ginger ale in hand, and settle into a lawn chair – one of several we’ve dubbed ‘pods’. There, above the rolling hills of Tor Bay, about 100 kilometers due north, a rocket carrying orbital satellites – and even, perhaps, the odd, impossibly wealthy cosmic tourist – will penetrate the celestial plain.

Welcome, earthlings, to the future home of the Guysborough Aeronautics and Space Administration (also known as GASA). According to one CBC report last year at about this time, “Nova Scotia is familiar with launching ships, but never quite like this. The province could soon be the site of a $148-million rocket spaceport that will be used to launch commercial satellites into space as early as 2020. Maritime Launch Services confirmed plans to build the facility near Canso and begin construction within one year.

“The Halifax-based company, which is a joint venture of three U.S.-based firms, hopes to launch eight rockets annually by 2022. The facility would launch with 3,350-kg payloads on a due south trajectory at a cost of $60 million (apiece).

The site would include a launch pad and a processing building, as well as a control centre positioned about three kilometres away.

Presumably, the total estimated price tag of $304 million for this Cape Canaveral of the Great White North does not include the cost of a slice of Cyclone 4M pizza, named after the rockets’ make and model, now offered at AJ’s Pub in Canso.

But, I digress. There’s actual news on the wild, blue yonder front.

According to a fine report by this newspaper’s very own Helen Murphy, published late last month, “Maritime Launch Services CEO Steve Matier is sounding optimistic after a setback last year when the company was required to submit a more detailed focus report in its pursuit of environmental approval. During an interview, he told The Journal the company plans to file with the Department of Environment in late March.”

Meanwhile, any groundbreaking in, say, July, would be largely ceremonial on account of a population of nesting birds in the area. Accordingly, says Matier, “We are looking at starting with roads in September” after they’re. . .um. . .done.

Still, this is not the first time stargazing capitalists have turned their attention to this part of Canada’s East Coast as the next home of the putative ‘great frontier’. Some years ago, NASA seriously considered northern Cape Breton as an ancillary location for one of its launch pads into the great wide open. As it happened, that didn’t.

But should a spaceport find its way to the craggy, windswept shores of Stan Rogers’s country, I will do what any sensible chap would: check my property and ascertain how, exactly, I can cash in.

Shall I turn my large, rural home into an Air B&B, catering exclusively to Swiss, German and Saudi techno-junkies? Shall I buy a fleet of limos with which to ‘uber’ my customers to their various look-off points?

Shall I transform my property into a version of Burning Man, where electronic music aficionados, unreconstructed hippies from bygone epochs and creatively mad artistes set fire to effigies of social inequity timed perfectly with the launch codes of distant rockets?

Yes, indeed, on some brilliant summer day, this decade or next, you might find me finishing my drink as I watch a spear of human ambition penetrate the afternoon clouds.

Meanwhile, my wife will have handed me the morning mail.

What’s this?” I will ask.

She will reply: “It’s the new property tax assessment”.

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Spooky action at a distance

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At this time of the year, when the worm moon greets dawn’s croaking grackles, I find myself unable to quit my weather app, which I check obsessively.

A decade ago, friends of mine from England asked what sort of outerwear would be suitable for our Canadian Maritime climate in the middle of May. I said something like, “Don’t worry your pretty little Brit heads. We’re well past the worst of Mother Nature’s seasonal tantrums.”

They arrived, happy and shiny and right on schedule, at Stanfield International Airport. Two days later, 40 centimetres of snow dropped.

Friends of mine from England are no longer speaking to me.

But, then, how was any of this my fault?

I had a weather app, for God’s sake.

“You know I actually work for a living,” a tech-savvy Meteorologist acquaintance of mine protested over the phone the other day. He was alluding to the fact that I am a lowly freelancer who prefers to scribble in his “leisure suit” between bouts of weather-induced paranoia.

“Sure, sure,” I spluttered, “but what do you make of these forecasts? How do you know what is or isn’t going to happen in my backyard 14 days from now?”

One word, he said: “Algorithms . . .The less snow that falls in any given winter, the more snow gets computer modelled and pushed to the end of the year. It’s math, boy, simple math.”

So, all of this is accurate, yes?

“No,” he sighed. “Well, sometimes.”

That, I declared, “is not fair.”

No, it’s not, he sighed. “Neither is the fact that you’re an idiot.”

Be that as it may, in the Great While North – where Spring often meets Winter for a robust afternoon of ice dancing on some cosmic frozen pond of their mutual liking – I am not alone in thinking that I have a right to understand, with a smartphone in hand, the shape of all the universe’s spooky actions at a distance.

Some years ago, under crisp and brilliantly clear late-April skies, I peeled out of the driveway of my Guysborough County farmhouse to commence the first leg of a business trip to Halifax. The coast was clear. The CBC said so.

Twenty kilometres up the highway, a snow squall forced me off the road. When it was over, I limped back to the shore through 12 centimetres of treacherous, rapidly melting muck, listening to the public broadcaster predict, “Nova Scotia will be absolutely beautiful today.”

Of course, the weather – like hockey – is one of those glorious preoccupations Canadians almost never get right. A Farmer’s Almanac item recently observed: “Before there were apps for your phone, Doppler radar or the National Weather Service, people looked to the signs of nature to prepare for what’s to come.”

The venerable source was talking about the American Midwest, but the folklore could easily apply to the Canadian East Coast: “Heavy and numerous fogs; racoons with bright bands; woodpeckers sharing trees; thick hair on the nape of cows’ necks; and pigs gathering sticks.”

On the other hand, according to my limited research, here are some sure signs that spring has sprung: Heavy and numerous fogs; racoons with bright bands; woodpeckers sharing trees; thick hair on the nape of cows’ necks; and pigs gathering sticks.

And what about that balefully glaring “worm moon” (also sometimes known as the “super moon” when it appears, as it did this year, on the vernal equinox). Scientists think it might make certain animals. . .uh. . .friskier than normal. Isn’t that also a sure sign of spring?

As for me, I continue to rely on my weather app. It tells me in its own inimitable, techno-spoken language about thick mists, critter fur, avian condo dwellers, and the porcine obsession with twigs – all that I may expect in the coming weeks.

Thank you, weather app.

Unless it snows.

Then, curse you weather app.

It’s funny how I never do this in the middle of summer.

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