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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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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.

Tagged , , , ,

One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy. . .

One morning in Port Shoreham, back in the late 1980s, a young woman prompted by a profound sense of neighbourliness impressed a couple of city girls by showing off her new pony, all of 12 hands tall.

At the sight of the hoofed beast loping down the stone path towards our family homestead, my eldest daughter (who was eight at the time) exclaimed: “Yikes, get me outta here; there’s a camel comin’! I need to make a call.”

As I remember, so did I – but not about a horse.

Some weeks earlier, I had yanked my young family from the cacophony and congestion of Toronto and determined to live more convivially, though never impecuniously, in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia.

So, as my kid marvelled at the free-range livestock, I was on the phone attempting to explain to my editor in Ontario’s biggest metropolis why a paying gig in Yarmouth did not entail a mere 20-minute drive down the highway.

The conversation went something like this:

Rewrite Man: “What you mean you can’t file that piece on Wednesday?”

Yours Truly: “It’s already Monday.”

Rewrite Man: “So, it’s just a colour story. What’s the problem?”

I was about to give up when a disembodied voice joined the discussion.

“Look,” the grumbling male baritone said, “it’ll take him the whole day just to get there from here. Then, he has to do the work, jump in the car and spend another day driving all the way back. When do expect him to write the thing?”

To which I responded: “Uh, yeah. . .what he said.”

I did not know then (and I do not know now) who that fellow was, but his ghostly presence all those years ago confirmed for me another dimension of distinctly rural neighbourliness in the setting years of the 20th century in this part of the world: the party line.

I was reminded of this last month when the CBC reported the following: “Canada’s largest telecommunications group is getting mixed reviews for its plan (to) collect massive amounts of information about the activities and preferences of its customers. Bell Canada began asking its customers in December for permission to track everything they do with their home and mobile phones, internet, television, apps or any other services they get through Bell or its affiliates. In return, Bell says it will provide advertising and promotions that are more tailored to their needs and preferences.”

Nowadays, of course, we shrink in terror at the passing thought that somebody could be listening in on us. After all, shadowy hackers are always ready to steal our identities. The “Deep State” is perpetually out for our hides.

Still, once upon a time, before the Internet and depending on where you lived, almost nothing was private. In the days when two or more families shared a telephone connection, you could be sure someone – a stranger, an acquaintance, a neighbour – always knew at least a morsel of your business. Twitter didn’t invent the grapevine.

Naturally, it worked both ways.

I recall, for example, hearing part of an exchange between two people that, for sheer raciness, could easily compete with anything Kim Kardashian now chooses to post on Instagram. Of course, as prolonged eavesdropping wasn’t, and isn’t, my thing, I quietly cradled the receiver and went back to my episode of Coronation Street. (Oh, Percy Sugden. . .You’re such a busy body).

Days after my daughter’s equine awakening, she breathlessly shared her experience in a telephone call to a chum in Toronto. Not long after, she received a neatly-wrapped, locally postmarked envelope festooned with ribbons.

The card read: “Horses are fun, and so are you!”

For an evident breach of privacy, that’s about as neighbourly as it gets.

(Recently published in The Guysborough Journal)

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