Author Archives: brucescribe

The life deeply lived

After decades of taking names and kicking ass in universities around the world, Halifax-bred oceanographer Anya Waite comes home to launch her next, excellent adventure on the high seas of academe

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Once, many years ago and for no particular reason, a Portuguese cop proclaimed that the future scientific director of the Ocean Frontier Institute in Halifax was a prostitute.

“I was 20, alone in the Azores, waiting to join a five-week research cruise of the North Atlantic,” Anya Waite recounts. “Suddenly, this guy grabbed my arm and started dragging me down the gangway. He saw I was the only woman among 100 scientists and crew on board. He was sure I was. . .well, you know.”

Then again, people have been saying strange things to the good doctor, about the good doctor, for as long as she can remember.

There was that time, for example, when an academic superior tried to corner her by insisting: “Feminism is over; stop fussing and get back to work.”

There was that other time when a lab supervisor attempted to compliment her by professing: “Your data set gives me a hard on. Thanks.”

And how can she forget the moment when the new dean of one university, which employed her as the sole female acting head of school, commented that it did not, in fact, employ any female acting heads of school?

It’s not that she goes out of her way to attract the attention of weirdos, she says. It just seems to come naturally (like the violin, which she plays avidly when she’s not examining the biological-physical couplings of marine organisms).

Or maybe it goes with the territory of having worked on almost every continent, doing some of the most prestigious academic jobs, in oceanography and environmental systems engineering, the world has to offer.

“You have to put yourself in the way of things,” she smiles broadly. “It’s about the life deeply lived.”

That should come in handy now that she’s at the helm of one of Canada’s more intriguing and recent experiments in public-private sector collaborations. Part think tank, part incubator, part Dragons’ Den, the Ocean Frontier Institute came to life 28 months ago thanks to a $227-million investment from the feds and various non-governmental agencies to push the limits of collaboration between marine researchers and the rest of us.

Global warming has started the countdown on sustainable innovation in ocean sciences, where practical applications already affect everything from offshore fisheries and aquaculture to transportation and renewable energy. The Institute, which is led by Dalhousie University and its partners at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Prince Edward Island, aims to cultivate the best, newest ideas for everyone, everywhere.

According to Waite, who became its science head only last year, it’s exciting, timely and necessary. “We’re trying to move ocean studies to a more useful place in the conversation,” she says. “Historically, research is an ivory tower, and we’re really working to break that down; to make the dialogue easier between academics and their potential stakeholders, which include governments, industries and communities. In fact, it won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be a straight line.”

That, alone, may render her the perfect candidate for the job.

Born and raised in Halifax, the youngest daughter of a famous historian and a woman who had once been arrested for anti-Nazi agitation in her native Croatia, Waite’s early life wasn’t exactly placid or predictable.

“Dad taught classes and wrote books, but most of all he loved to just get up and head out the door and into the woods,” she says about her father P.B. Waite, now 97. “My sister Nina and I would put on back packs and go with him when we could. He was passionate about conservation. He actually wanted to be a forester. In fact, he was one of the reasons Crystal Crescent Beaches became a provincial park. He and three of his walking buddies from Dal arranged to have the land purchased from the owner – who had wanted to turn it into a gravel pit – and put into the Province’s hands.”

Her late mother Masha, meanwhile, was a force to be reckoned with. “She once hosted a delegation of Chinese economists in the 1970s before that country’s markets had opened up,” Waite says. “At one point during dinner, my mother blurted, ‘Chinese economists, eh? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’ To their credit, they loved it. The thing about her was that you couldn’t really get away with anything. She expected us kids to perform academically, engage with the world, stay fit, and, above all, challenge shoddy thinking wherever we encountered it.”

It was a tall order, and Waite did her best to fill it. After high school, she studied violin, thinking she might become a concert musician. She switched to English because, she says, she loved to write. In the end, though, biology grabbed her and held on tight. And she was good at it, though that did not always guarantee smooth sailing.

The thing about inheriting both your father’s and mother’s passions and principles – in this case, and in equal measure, wanderlust and intellectual honesty – is that you tend to invite a certain amount of disruption into your life. So it was for Waite in the early 1990s, when – having earned a BSc from Dalhousie and a PhD from the University of British Columbia – she entered a post-doc program at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. She hated it. “I left because I was devasted that the conversation there wasn’t about science anymore,” she says. “It was about money just when funds were shrinking.”

She thought about becoming an orthodontist because, she laughs now, “At least I’d have a dental plan.” Instead, she took a job running a microscopy lab in New Zealand. Then, after conducting a seminar for that country’s National Institute for Water and Atmosphere, she fell in love with oceanography all over.

She embarked on research excursions, honed her academic skills and credentials, published original papers on complex topics, and embraced the rigours of teaching and training young minds. In 1997, she moved to the University of Western Australia in Perth, where she rose to the lofty position of Winthrop Professor of Environmental Systems Engineering. Still, eventually, she ran afoul of that institution’s old boy network. “I was there for 17 years, most of them good ones,” she says. “But, it sort of closed in on me. There were serious gender issues. As I was getting more and more senior, I was getting more and more push back to the point where I was worried about my career.”

Then came an offer in 2014 from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, of section head for polar biological oceanography to lead studies in, among other things, the micro-environments of the tiny marine plants and animals known collectively as plankton. The move was a sea change, both figuratively and literally. “I thought here’s a spot where I can actually say what’s on my mind. I came from a place that said, ‘Please do sit down and be quiet,’ to one that said, ‘Speak up, we hired you for your brain. . .der kopf.’”

As chance would have it, that cognitive derring-do was precisely what Halifax’s Ocean Frontier had been searching for. So far, Waite has not disappointed. “From the moment she arrived last year, her enthusiasm at being back in Atlantic Canada and for ocean research were immediately evident,” OFI’s chief executive officer Wendy Watson-Wright (who holds a PhD in Physiology from Dalhousie) says. “Her abundant energy and ideas will certainly help us achieve a lasting legacy.”

Adds Waite’s long-time colleague Paul Snelgrove, OFI’s Newfoundland-based Associate Scientific Director who undertook his own post-doc at Woods Hole when Waite was there: “Working with her again, I can see her passion has not diminished whatsoever. It’s great to have her back playing a critical role for ocean sciences here in Atlantic Canada. She is already making a difference.”

Waite admits she wasn’t looking for a move back to her origins. But the timing seemed as irresistible as the opportunity. After 30 years abroad, here was a chance to bring it all home – to square the big, broad circle that has been her life.

Now comfortably ensconced in her hometown with her husband and kids, in a job she’s frankly crazy about, is she worried that things will get strange again – that the weirdos will come out to play again?

She shrugs and smiles slightly.

Yes?

No?

She hopes so?

After all, it’s about the life deeply lived. Is it not?

For: Halifax Magazine, October 2019

 

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The hellaciously happy life of Marq de Villiers

The world-beating, Nova Scotian journalist and author has another book out. It’s about the afterlife. And, as usual, it’s a helluva read 

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Marq de Villiers – who grew up in 1940s Apartheid South Africa, who became a Reuters news agency reporter covering the revolutionary bonfires of mid-20th Century Latin America, who moved to the Toronto Telegram’s Moscow bureau during the iciest days of late-60s Cold War mongering, who assumed the editorship of Canada’s most successful metropolitan magazine only to be slapped with a $102-million libel suit in the 1980s, and who has lived, since 1997, with his wife along a storm-lashed stretch of Nova Scotia’s South Shore – has been thinking a lot about hell lately.

Of course, that’s what you get when you write a book called Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, his latest and 18th released to generally warm reviews in March. People tend to ask questions, like: What is hell, anyway?

He could say something portentous. He could muse, for example, about hell as metaphor for the awful state of human affairs (which, he thinks, it is). He could talk about its many manifestations in the collective imaginations of civilizations through the centuries (which, in the book, he does).

But, in conversation, he’s more likely to confess he doesn’t really have a clue. The odd time, though, he does have fun with the question, as he does today during lunch at The Port Grocer Café in Port Medway, about six kilometres from his home at Eagle Head.

“Buddhists don’t have a god,” he says before tucking into a sandwich. “On the other hand, they sure do have plenty of hells.”

In fact, he notes, some historical texts portray ancient monks ardently embracing the notion of a supernatural that tortures the dead essentially by numbing them to death (again) with bureaucracy – perdition as a cosmic joke without a punch line but plenty of folding chairs.

This is how he puts it in his book: “In Chinese Buddhism, hells were ever more pedantic and ever more frustrating. More impressive than even the punishments are the lists of sins. . .Here we find people who keep other people’s books, pretending to have lost them, people who lie about their ages when they get married, people who throw broken pottery over fences, those who write anonymous placards, those who allow their mules to be a nuisance, and people who complain about the weather. Hell often seems to consist of endlessly waiting in anterooms.”

He takes a sip of wine. “Now that,” he smiles, “is what I call hell.”

Of course, that might only mean that de Villiers – born 79 years ago, the son of Rene and Moira de Villiers, in Bloemfontein, a small city in the South African province of Free State – has never really gotten the hang of the whole “waiting in anterooms” thing.

Even as a kid, boredom not brimstone was the real adversary. Avoiding it is what first drew him to writing – eventually about everything from the turbulent history and politics of his native country to modern life along the storied Volga River, from the fate of the world’s supply of water to fermenting the perfect glass of wine, from the clipped beauty of the schooner Bluenose to tips for surviving a post-apocalyptic future – more than 60 years ago.

“I had just finished high school and I was waiting to start college at the University of Cape Town,” he recounts. “I had seven or eight months on my hands, so I walked into the local newspaper where the news editor told me to go into town and come back with a story. I had no idea what he was talking about. But I talked to a few people, and went back to write the thing. ‘That’s great’, the editor said. I remember thinking: ‘People get paid to do this?’”

That’s not to say his writing life has always been hell-free. Learning how to cover the turbulent politics of South America from his London-bound desk at Reuters in the early 1960s wasn’t much fun. (“That was about the worst job I ever had,” he says flatly.)

Similarly, covering Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon’s delicate dance during the breaking days of international détente as the Toronto Telegram’s Moscow correspondent in the early 1970s could be tricky. And there was almost nothing uplifting about being sued, along with writer Elaine Dewar and his bosses, over a 50,000-word piece he authorized as Editor of Toronto Life magazine in late 1980s that cut a tad too close to the bone for the powerful Reichmann family’s liking. (The suit was later settled out of court. “That was not the funnest part of my career,” he grimaces”)

Still, he has to admit, he’s led a pretty charmed life: A decent education at the University of Cape Town and London School of Economics; generally good and interesting gigs on three continents; a truckload of prizes, including a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction; a happy and lasting marriage to journalist Sheila Hirtle, his sometimes writing partner; and a wildly beautiful spot in Nova Scotia, where he and his wife have made a cozy home since 1997.

Mostly, though, he’s been free to write pretty much whatever and whenever he chooses – a liberty that his fans, friends and colleagues appreciate almost as much as he does. “He’s a fascinating blend of the down-to-earth Canadian and the exotic,” says Nova Scotia journalist and author Silver Donald Cameron, who in the 1970s shared contributing editor duties with de Villiers at Weekend Magazine in Toronto. “He’s rooted here, but he writes hauntingly about Africa, where he was raised, and he writes with great authority because of the depth and accuracy of his research.”

So, then, given his broadly rewarding circumstances, here’s the other question he gets concerning Hell and Damnation (University of Regina Press): Why’d you write it?

The closest he comes to a public explanation is in his own blog: “This book is for those with an interest in the picaresque, but also for those who look on the human religious project with a certain scepticism, and are keeping a wary eye on the continuing overlap between faith and politics.”

Privately, the explanation is even simpler: Hell is damn funny.

“I was reading this piece in The Economist back in 2012,” he says. “It was called ‘Hell: A very rough guide’.”

That article began: “Hell is steadily losing adherents. The Infernal Tourist Board) has therefore produced a promotional flyer.” It ended: “To sum up: ‘Hell: Your first resort, and your last!’”

De Villiers deadpans: “I found the piece very interesting. . .well, that and the fact that Galileo once pegged the centre of hell at a place 422 kilometres straight down from the surface of the Earth, because that’s where Satan’s naval was indisputably located.”

He pauses, and digs for his wallet. Apparently, it’s time to blow this particular anteroom.

“You know, I have an idea for another book,” he says absently.

Is this one about heaven, perchance?

He pretends not to hear.

“I’m thinking about calling it The Longbow, the Schooner, and the Violin.

That seems benign.

“It’s about wood.”

He rises to leave.

“Actually it’s about wood, commerce and art.”

He steps towards the Café’s exit.

“And war.”

Then, he’s gone into the salt smell of sea air where, far short of eternal damnation, he goes to think a lot about whatever the hell he wants.

For: Halifax Magazine, October 2019

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When people are strange

Almost nothing about her job as the new president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is familiar, but Aoife Mac Namara wouldn’t have it any other way

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In the vestibule of the downtown Halifax campus of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design the commissionaire is telling Aoife Mac Namara about a book. He doesn’t remember its title, or the author’s name, but it has something to do with 10,000 hours. “That’s how long it takes to get good at something,” he says.

The new president of the university is hanging on his every word. She grips the corners of his desk. She shuffles her feet. She nods enthusiastically as if they were dear, old friends. They’re not. They just met.

Or maybe they met a few weeks ago when, on her first day of work, she paused briefly to introduce herself and pronounce her name – which is Irish for “radiant” and sounds like “ee-faw” – before bounding up the stairs to her new digs on the fourth flour.

Her office is sparse. Sticks of furniture rest by a window that affords a view of Historic Properties and the harbour beyond. She has spent the past four years as Dean of Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communications, Art and Technology in Burnaby, B.C. This, too, is very strange. The space is queer. She’s not used to it. She likes it.

“We have to get used to the unfamiliar,” she says, not actually referring to the room where she sits or the man in the lobby. “We have to embrace it, be happy with it. That’s how we make ourselves more open.”

In fact, that’s been her signature move for most of her life. Born in Amherst, N.S., her Irish parents moved the family back to their homeland when she was three. As a young woman, she received two masters degrees and a PhD in fine arts before climbing the academic career ladder and eventually returning to Canada as Dean of Visual Art and Material Practice at Emily Carr University in Vancouver and then to Simon Fraser.

“She’s a visionary, and students are at the centre of this,” Ellen Balka, Associate Dean of SFU’s communications faculty, says about her old boss. “But she also has a very strong understanding of structures and how they work. She’s not afraid to jump right in and figure things out, and that means she knows how to make change.”

She’ll have to as NSCAD endures one of its existential moments. Students fret about purpose and prices. Faculty (who went on strike earlier this year) worry about workload and wages. Administrators deliver balanced budgets to their Board of Governors, while outsiders question whether the 132-year-old institution can stomach the pressure to become more “market-savvy”, more “job-preppy”.

Mac Namara insists she packs no silver bullets. But she does have a plan, of sorts. She wants to know what, exactly, students hope to pull from the place. She’s keen to understand what, precisely, teachers need to cultivate imaginative thinking. She’s determined to meet with and hear from as many citizens of her college as she possibly can, and to fold their promising ideas and inspirations into the school’s curriculum.

She also wants to know who isn’t there. Who is, well, unfamiliar. “Why, for example, are other people not partnering with us?”

By “partnering”, she means with the big, wide world beyond the university’s doors. “We must demonstrate the impact that cultural industries have in different ways on the economy. It’s actually huge.”

She’s not wrong. Canadian Heritage estimates that in 2017 creative industries accounted for $53.1 billion, or 2.7 per cent, of national GDP, and more than 600,000 direct jobs. That’s bigger than mining and agriculture, combined.

“Ask anyone, though, and they won’t believe you,” she says. “So, we need to have better alliances. We we need to go out and talk to our neighbours, to strangers – to all of the people who are building partnerships and enterprise in the knowledge economy, in the ocean superclusters right here. It’s our job to help them comprehend us.”

She wouldn’t be the first head of a fine arts university to throw down this particular gauntlet. Today, as she moves from her seat to take in the view of an alien waterfront, she just sounds like it.

“I don’t buy this whole arts versus the rest of society argument,” she says. “It’s a false dichotomy. But I can sympathize. People believe that stuff. The story goes that you’ll never get a job and that universities don’t add value unless they provide clear programs that lead to existing, traditional employment. That’s disingenuous. We are living in a time when even the most stable professions are beginning to lose massive numbers of workers. Automation is completely changing the workplace.

“What I do buy is this: Students need to talk to people they don’t know. Teachers need to do the same thing. We all need to do this – to be open, to be empathetic, to learn, to collaborate. That’s how, when we walk out these doors, we’re all going to be future-ready.”

Ready, indeed, for the unexpected, which can be as exciting as getting to know a new job brimming with boundless creative possibilities, a different sea bound coast on the other side of the country, or a stranger who shares the same tastes in reading material.

Ten-thousand hours to get good at something? That’s from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Aoife Mac Namara is not familiar with the book. But, chances are, she will be.

For: Halifax Magazine, September 2019

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Dave O’Connor gets the party started

It’s not that he’s perfectly fine with a global shortage of helium. In fact, his voice actually seems to rise at the mere mention.

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It’s just that Dave O’Connor, president of, arguably, Nova Scotia’s leading party-supply outfit, doesn’t let much get him down – something about tears of a clown, which would be bad for business.

In fact, over at Dartmouth-based Glow – where 35,000square feet of tables, chairs, tents, tablecloths, glasses, ribbons, streamers, signs, placards, and, when the season requires, costumes, beckon to celebrants of every disposition – business couldn’t be better.

That might be partly due to the worldwide growth over the past five years of the ‘instant party’, a social-media-driven phenomenon that now recognizes World Goth Day and International Talk Like Pirate Day alongside Christmas and Easter.

But O’Connor, who started the business 23 years ago and now employs as many as 150 people at various times of the year, prefers to explain his success as a combination of good, old-fashioned customer service and a buoyant, anything-goes attitude.

“We are a one-stop shop with five divisions,” says the Halifax Chamber of Commerce business leader award-winner (2018). “We do signs, games, parties, events, and Halloween. Hey, we’re on the cutting edge of bounce castles.”

Says one of the store’s Facebook friends: “Glow is the best place to go for balloon bouquets. We release balloons every year (into the air) and they are biodegradable.”

Until, of course, the helium runs out. Still, says O’Connor with typical élan: “If we have to, we’ll fix ‘em to sticks.”

For: Halifax Magazine, July 2019

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ROCKET MAN: Will Canso become the next Cape Canaveral?

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One bright, sunny day in the near future, the inhabitants of tiny Canso, Nova Scotia, might spy from their craggy shoreline a new vessel launching into the great wide open. This time, though, it won’t be a fishing boat they see, but a rocket carrying commercial satellites.

That’s because an unassuming, yet oddly garrulous, mechanical engineer from New Mexico has proclaimed that this, of all possible places in the world, is the perfect site on which to erect a commercial spaceport for Ukrainian-built, Yuzhnoye Cyclone-4M missiles; replete with a blast-off pad, a vehicle-handling complex, and mission control.

Meet Stephen Matier, a former NASA project manager who worked for 16 years at the White Sands Test Facility developing propulsion systems for the American Space Shuttle program. That’s another way of saying that while the president and CEO of something called Maritime Launch Services Ltd. (MLS) may be laughing, he isn’t kidding.

The Albuquerque native, who now resides in Halifax with his wife and two kids, has almost singlehandedly spearheaded the venture over the past three years. He’s met dozens of provincial and federal officials. He’s conducted myriad public meetings and given speeches to community and business groups. He’s completed and submitted environmental assessments and negotiated Crown land-use agreements.

He’s arranged about $210 million in private financing with international and Canadian investors to help vault his start-up company over the initial operational hurdles. He keeps a lid on the details; nevertheless, he reports in an email, “We are looking at a cross cut of equity, non-dilutive debt, [and] launch pre-sales, etc., for our entire needs to get to first launch. The specific split is, of course, fluid and we are under non-disclosure agreements at this point.”

Still, he adds, “My wife, Anne, and I have a lot riding on this in terms of investment, sweat equity and otherwise having transplanted our family here. We’ll be making some investment announcements [soon].”

Through it all, he has fought a pitched battle against critics who think his project, which received provisional environmental approval in June from the Nova Scotia government, is naïve, reckless, or both.

Chuck Black, one of the few journalists in Canada who cover the nation’s commercial space industry full time is somewhat more sympathetic, but only somewhat. “I’m really of two minds about this,” the editor of the Toronto-based Commercial Space Blog says. “In the first place, I appreciate what he’s facing.”

Black notes that the process involved in obtaining a launch licence in this country is cumbersome and primitive, compared with other jurisdictions, such as the United States and the European Union. In this context, he adds, “Matier’s company is putting in enough money at least to go through the process. That should help Canadian governments find out what they want and then, presumably, they’ll start licensing launch providers.”

On the other hand, Black observes, the basic Ukrainian missile technology MLS plans to employ is almost 20 years old. “I know about 100 commercial rocket companies around the world,” he says. “Some of them are really big, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Some of them are really small. About half of them are already using innovative technologies that have been developed within the last five years. But if MLS goes ahead, it would be like competing in the modern car market with new Studebakers.”

None of which seems to daunt Matier. His 2016 project description calls the Yuzhnoye Cyclone-4M rockets the “latest model,” “highly reliable,” and “proven.” If all goes as planned, perhaps as soon as 2021, he’s certain this technology, combined with his industriousness, will transform an unprepossessing spit at the eastern edge of the continent into the only facility of its kind in the country.

That raises the tantalizing possibility of Canso with barely 739 souls (where the average age is almost 50 and the median annual income is less than $24,000) becoming the next Cape Canaveral (with all the economic benefits that might accrue) in the hot, new race for private-sector ascendency over outer space. Not bad for a town where the only other claim to fame is the summertime Stan Rogers Folk Festival.

But that still raises the question: Why now and why, on Earth, here?

“I used to get that a lot,” the budding astropreneur says by phone during one of his frequent business trips. “Consider the old adage: location, location, location. I started several years ago by doing a study that looked at 14 potential venues —from Chiapas in Mexico to Newfoundland and Churchill, Manitoba; from Alaska to California and Virginia. And of all of them, Canso fulfills every criterion I had outlined.”

The coastal village’s remoteness (it faces the ocean on three sides, and only one road in and out connects it to civilization) is its greatest advantage. It’s an ideal spot, he explains, for ensuring optimal rocket trajectories and safeguarding people along the seaboard from the statistically minuscule risk of falling debris.

It’s surrounded by hundreds of hectares of leasable, publicly owned wilderness, some of which would be cost-effectively handy when the time comes to install launch pads, buildings, roads, power lines, and sewer systems. And despite its relative seclusion, Canso is relatively near major entrepôts such as Halifax’s airport and the Mulgrave Marine Terminal, both of which would be essential to the timely delivery of launch vehicles and associated equipment.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, local support for the scheme seems to be growing. “You can’t do a damn thing without a community that stands solidly behind you,” Matier says.

Vernon Pitts, warden of the Municipality of Guysborough (which governs Canso) echoed the attitude of many area residents last summer when he declared in a letter to then-Nova Scotia Environment Minister Margaret Miller, “We look forward to . . .this project and encourage its expeditious review and approval. [It] has the potential to provide significant benefits to a region that has been greatly impacted by the collapse of the cod fishery in the 1990s.”

If there is something poignant about this sentiment, there’s also something concrete to it. This is not Matier’s first rodeo in the high frontier. As he told the House of Commons Finance Committee last fall, apart from his experience at NASA, “I have been an independent consultant working directly with the U.S. commercial space industry on building and licensing spaceports and working with launch vehicle operators from around the world.”

The Canso operation would reprise that approach by managing the lift-offs of as many as eight, medium-range orbital rockets a year, plus booking and processing the payloads of satellite providers. MLS would make its money as an “integrator” or middleman, charging fees for the services it renders.

As for the commercial marketplace’s appetite, Matier isn’t worried. He points to research by the Space Foundation, an unaffiliated think tank based in Colorado Springs, and others, which stipulate that revenues from the “global space economy” now approach $350 billion US annually. That represents yearly growth of about 15% since 2004, with most of the expansion having occurred after NASA retired the Space Shuttles in 2011.

The launch segment of the industry is currently struggling to meet burgeoning demand for mid-range rocket systems and operations. These are the work horses that provide frequent and cheap access to near-Earth orbit, which is crucial to modestly sized satellites designed to collect real-time, up-to-date information on just about everything. . .well. . . under the sun: From the layout of municipal street grids to the condition of residential roof tiles.

Into all of this, Matier expects, MLS and, of course, Canso will step. He’s loath to predict economic returns to his own company, but he has no problem outlining the potential boons to the town. “Our employment is probably going to be in the neighbourhood of 40 or 50 people,” he says. “So that would be plumbers, pipefitters, instrumentation technicians, and the like. They are the backbone of any facility like this. We will also have 24-7, 365 security services, as well as emergency response capabilities.”

He added in a recent email updating the project’s progress: “The community support has been great. They collected about 750 signatures in a petition in Canso, Hazel Hill and Little Dover, and it was tabled by MLA Hines [Guysborough-Eastern Shore-Tracadie] … before the legislature rose.”

Even so, not everyone in the province is sold. Following an initial assessment last July, Environment Minister Miller wrote back: “During the EA review, concerns were raised regarding the potential impacts of the project on: water resources, soil, air quality, noise, flora and fauna, fish and fish habitat, protected areas and parks, human health and contingency planning.

These concerns came up through public and Mi’kmaq submissions, plus submissions by Nova Scotia Environment, Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry, Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Health Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Department of National Defence.”

According to a CBC news report at the time, “In one of the 25 letters received, an Environment Department staffer wrote any spill of hazardous material from the site ‘would destroy the impacted ecosystems with no chance of recovery for the next several hundred years.’”

Another critic, writing in the opinion pages of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, went further, calling into question MLS’s decision to manage rockets that use the propellant Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), a known carcinogen.

“A launch failure at Canso would not in itself be of great concern—except for those 10 tonnes of UDMH within the upper stage [of the rocket],” British Columbia political scientist Michael Byers wrote. “The last UDMH-fuelled rocket launched from the United States was in 2005. European and Japanese launch providers have also switched to non-toxic fuels. Even China and Russia are replacing their UDMH-fuelled rockets with more modern, non-toxic alternatives.”

Matier says he addressed all concerns, dealing with each in a brick-sized tome he filed with the Environment Department in March. Here, for example, is only part of that 475-page document’s dissertation on UDMH: “The effect of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine on the human body is irritation of the mucous membranes of the eyes, respiratory tract and lungs, damage to the central nervous system, and damage to the digestive tract. Concentrations of 240 milligrams per cubic metres (mg/m3) is considered human-tolerated during exposures up to 10 minutes, and concentrations up to 120 mg/m3 for 30 minutes.”

Nevertheless, the report adds, “propellant spills would occur only in the event of malfunction of ground support equipment and/or personnel errors.” In the worst case, “the procedure of collection and neutralization in combination with personal protective equipment allows quick elimination of the spill with minimal risk of acute and chronic exposures.”

Even so, Matier assures, the probability of such an accident is vanishingly small. “Look,” he says, “we list 50 different launch pads in a dozen countries that still use UDMH, and the reason they do is that there is simply no replacement for it at this point in the technology. A forest fire is pretty scary, too. But that doesn’t mean we stop cooking or using our fireplaces. It all comes down to engineering controls. And that’s what I’ve done with my time for a whole career.”

For now, the provincial government seems to concur, although it requires MLS to reimburse Nova Scotia Environment as much as $100,000 a year for the public costs of monitoring its compliance. Says Matier in an email: “My. . .team was surprised [by this], but to me it is a measure of the uncertainty of them of embracing Canada’s first orbital satellite launch facility. It seems prudent and once we are up and operating, they should find that it might not be needed. We are or will produce almost everything they’ve asked for in the normal planning, design, development and operation of the launch site.”

For the time being, the oft-travelling engineer will spend most of his time filling out forms, answering questions, deflecting verbal barbs, and issuing occasional bromides to the bureaucrats and elected officials who hold the virtual launch codes of his ambitious undertaking. “We are now moving to complete the land lease application with Lands and Forestry as efficiently as possible,” he reports.

Sometimes, though, he does afford himself a few moments to imagine that bright, sunny day in the near future when he will watch, from tiny Canso town, the first rocket ship ever to launch into the great, wide open of Canada’s craggy, eastern shoreline.

Originally published in Halifax Magazine, June 27, 2019

 

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Gigging it in the free world

Are you weary of your reliable job? Do your paid vacation, company pension plan and full medical coverage leave you cold? Are you pining for the sort of precarious work that only self-employment can promise?iStock-589429506-e1559794167654Well, friend, you’ve come to the right place.

Here, at GigsRUs, we won’t bore you with bromides about workplace security, dignity and other horse hockey that, frankly, lull lesser beings. No sir!

We’re a jobs board with an edge so sharp you could cut an artery. Take a gander at one of our recent postings: “Got a PhD? Got a GPA so high that the folks who give out the at the Nobel Prizes think your too damn good for them? Fuhgeddaboudit! You want ‘flexible’ hours. You want to wear a nifty uniform. You want a pair of steel-toed boots. You want to answer the phone at 2 in the morning. You want $12.50 an hour. Am I right?”

Absolutely, because our clients know that what you really you crave is the challenge only daily threats of personal ruin and imminent bankruptcy actually offer.

We also know that you are not alone in this great, undeveloped greenfield we dearly call ‘the Atlantic Canadian economy’.

In this region, more and more people of every age and background are choosing to get with the part-time job market. They’re ‘gigging it’ like trapeze artists drawing each breath as if it’s their very last. That’s how much they cherish a little something we like to call ‘freedom’.

But don’t just take our word for it.

According to the latest labour force assessment from Statistics Canada, between March 2018 and April 2019, the number of exciting, death-defying part-time jobs in Nova Scotia grew by 6.9 per cent, compared with an increase of only 0.5 per cent in sleepy, tedious full-time positions.

Over the same period in New Brunswick, the part-time rate soared 12.6 per cent, while the full-time measure dropped like an anchor, by 1.9 per cent. Meanwhile, in Newfoundland and Labrador part-timers gamely swelled the employment ranks (5.2 per cent) as full-time knobs rolled over (2.2 per cent) in their beds.

Even BMO Wealth Management is giggin’ it.

“Over time, the labour market has shifted from one characterized by stable or permanent employment to a ‘gig economy’ of temporary or contracted employment, where an on-demand, freelance or contingent workforce is becoming the norm,” the venerable Canadian financial institution reported recently.

“This type of staffing model allows an organization to fill skills gaps by hiring on a temporary, on-demand basis. These are not the ‘temps’ of the past; instead, they are short- or long-term contracts for personnel ranging from blue-collar light-industrial workers to highly skilled IT, engineering, accounting and HR professionals.”

Then there’s this from Peter Swaniker, founder and CEO of scheduling and time tracking company Ximble, writing in Forbes Magazine earlier this year:

“Last year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 55 million people in the U.S. are ‘gig workers’, which is more than 35 per cent of the (American) workforce. That number is projected to jump to 43 per cent by 2020.

“If you’ve never heard the term, ‘gig work’ is basically just a buzzy way of describing an independent contract or part-time job, like driving for Uber or freelance copywriting.

“Millennials, the generation credited with disrupting everything from housing to marriage, are gravitating towards gig work for the promise of greater work-life balance. Boomers and other generations on the brink of retirement are drawn to gig work because it brings in a little extra income without a major time commitment.

“And recent technologies like Skype, Slack, and DropBox have made the gig life a reality, giving you maximum freedom, an ideal work-life balance, and the chance to pursue your passions.”

Hell, even governments are getting into the act. Last year, the Business Development Bank of Canada – a federal Crown Corporation – wisely advised its clients to consider using temporary workers especially those who are willing to work remotely. That way, private sector employers can pocket the money they’d otherwise waste on things like cubicles, break rooms and indoor plumbing.

So, friend, what’s stopping you from diving into the pool of precarious employment? After all, what do you really have to lose?

I mean, you know, apart from just about everything.

For: Huddle.Today, June 2019

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Cari Duggan’s happy life on the edge

Sometimes it takes only a few seconds to change your mind forever.

Just ask Halifax’s Cari Duggan, the president of a hockey-training academy whose plane crashed returning from Florida in 2015. “Suddenly, you realize this isn’t going to go well,” she almost understates.

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Still, broken-backed and bedridden for six months, she had plenty of time to think about her life. To be sure, it was a good one.

“I was a labour negotiator for Canadian Blood Services,” says the MBA graduate from Saint Mary’s and former senior manager at Bell Aliant. “It really was my dream job. But I had also been involved as a team manager in minor hockey. My son James played. As I lay there, I kept wondering, ‘Why am I missing the kids so much?’”

That’s when Halifax hockey coach Chris Pierce, with whom she had formed an informal training partnership years earlier, suggested they establish a real school. With that, Outside Edge Hockey Development was born.

In just three years, the enterprise has grown from hosting fewer than ten kids to accommodating the children of more than 100 families in the metropolitan area. It also maintains training contracts with Dalhousie University and the Halifax Mooseheads.

Most recently, Duggan became the first woman admitted to a prestigious MBA (Certified Professional Hockey) program offered by the Business Hockey Institute (BHI). “We’re delighted that we have scored an extremely qualified student in Cari,” BHI co-founder Ritch Winter told Saint Mary’s alumni Magazine last year. “She’s shown the determination to succeed.”

That, too, may be an understatement.

For: Halifax Magazine, June 2019

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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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