Category Archives: Communications

As the world of work turns

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

I may have dodged a bullet.

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

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

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

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

Yeah, no kidding Sherlock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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Word power in the picture-perfect province


Never underestimate the propensity of the human mind to concoct new terms to express its latest preoccupations – or, in this case, its ability to find them perfectly suited to a place like New Brunswick, where two official languages provide plenty of linguistic elbowroom for clever word play.

What, for example, do we call people who belong to a certain social class that enjoys neither job security nor any real expectation of a safe, predictable retirement? I am tempted to answer: An increasing number of New Brunswickers. But we’re not alone in this western, industrialized economy. Forget the shopworn reference to the proletariat. Does “precariat” ring a bell?

How do we describe that workplace condition in which swaths of employees show up for their appointed rounds, after having pulled double shifts, too tired to keep their eyes open let alone focus on their keyboards? It’s not absenteeism. Enter the age of “presenteeism” – as in present in body only.

And when one of these members of the precariat, suffering from, say, periodic bouts of presenteeism, decides, in his desperation, that he needs a break from the daily grind but also realizes that the state of his bank account precludes a trip to some exotic locale, what form of vacation remains open to him? All hail “microtourism”.

Oddly enough, I have direct and personal experience with all three of these expressions, coined by others, in the course of my duties.

As the self-employed owner of my very own writing factory (with a workforce of precisely two), I have been an upstanding member of the precariat for more than a quarter of a century. I can couch what I do under the mantle of entrepreneurship and boldly go where so many men and women have gone before. But, if I were to be completely honest with myself, I would have to say that, in reality, I’m just a journeyman odd-jobber – no different, at least in terms of economic security, than a carnival barker in a travelling road show.

Indeed, my occasional struggles with presenteeism have manifested themselves at certain times of the year when two or more contracts conspire to throw up concurrent deadlines. This invariably requires me to pull a few ‘all-nighters’, which can be fun if you’re a college student. When you’re a guy in his mid-fifties. . .well, not so much.

Still, there is something ennobling about surviving the hour of the wolf, between 4 and 5 am, just as early-bird workers rouse themselves to trudge off to their various hamster wheels. I am reminded of the old U.S. army recruitment ad from the 1980s: “We do more before 9 am than most people do all day.” Oh yeah, semper fi my fellow mutant mole people.

All of which makes microtourism a necessity. According to one official definition, a microtourist is someone who enjoys “collective, individual or family-identified/driven tourism that focuses on the unique attributes of your community – both commercial (smaller off-the-commercial-track farm-stays, B&Bs, tours and tour-routes, camping/fishing/farms/lodges etc.,) and especially non-commercial attributes (such as historic sites, flora and fauna, ecological assets and uniqueness).”

I’ll buy that. Still, I prefer my own variant, which I’ll call “backyard tourism”. Here, all the monuments are familiar and lovingly tended with compost. The entrance fees are waived and the tours are short. And, if you care to, you can spend an entire day digging, with your hands, into the good earth, listening to the birds warble, and engaging in the best sort of presenteeism any card-carrying member of the precariat has a right to expect.

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Between a rock and a loud space


Back when the only noise-making machine on any self-respecting scribbler’s desk was a manual typewriter (mine happened to be a vintage Underwood I inherited from my grandfather), a person might actually hear the birds chirping outside his distinctly non-hermetically sealed window.

No more, alas, no more.

I write one of these a day, sometimes more, and I can’t remember the last time at least one of my various computers didn’t startle me with a flood of alerts and notifications (emails, text messages, tweets, voicemail, etc.), momentarily goosing my 55-year-old heart rate to dangerously high levels and generally throwing me off my game.

My younger, more tech-sanguine colleagues laugh when I periodically complain (as I do here). “Just turn down the volume, old fella,” they say. “Better yet, turn off the features altogether and go grab a nap.”

And I would, except for one unavoidable anxiety: I’m afraid I’d miss something.

What if a nuclear broke out, and I slept right through it? How embarrassing would that be for a journalist of my seasoned flavour? What would I write for my next blog posting? How radioactive dust makes a great fire-starter for the summer barbecue?

Worse, what if I missed the latest Gap ad, promoting blockbuster savings on men’s skinny jeans, or advance word of the next episode of The Vampire Diaries on iTunes?

Apparently, I’m not the only one in this tricked-out, wakeful world caught between a rock and loud space.

Pointing out that “noise” is no longer a merely audible phenomenon, but also a visual one, Daniel Levitin, James McGill professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, recently wrote in The Guardian, “When trying to concentrate on a task, an unread email in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.”

He continued: “Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting.

“Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife-like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime.”

And, yet, say the great minds of history, silence truly is golden.

In fact, William Penn once insisted, it is “the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

Confucius scooped him by a couple of millennia when he declared, “silence is the true friend that never betrays.” Indeed, Walter Bagehot observed, “an inability to stay quiet is one of the most conspicuous failings of mankind.”

Or as Henry David Thoreau noted, “silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.”

So, then, the conundrum comes down to a choice: How much of the modern world shall we tolerate in our quietest moments? Going without our various feeds, alerts and notifications, altogether, seems absurd and absurdly precarious (given the degree to which our economic survival, these days, depends on these beeps and bells).

Still, perhaps we can sit back and just listen to the birds every once in awhile.


Crazy for crowdfunding



Once upon a time in a land far, far away, I presented a prospectus to my parents that argued, among other things, that a trip to London, England, with my 18-year-old girlfriend would be, for me, an edifying sojourn.

On the back of a dinner napkin, I laid out the particulars: Travel makes the callow youth wiser and tougher; life, for a time, in a different country connects the footloose to the ground on which he must tread for the rest of his life and, therefore, makes him a better financial risk in the future; and, most importantly, “c’mon, Mum and Dad, I want an adventure.”

To my astonishment, the parental units fell for it, and, in no time at all, my future wife and I were winging it, courtesy of British Airways, to the U.K. just in time to catch Joe Strummer and The Clash playing live in Hyde Park.

An item a couple of years ago in the Financial Times of London reported that “Crowdfunding is a new and emerging way of funding new ideas or projects by borrowing funding from large numbers of people.”

With all due respect to The Times, no it isn’t.

Although, the numbers from which I drew resources were not especially large, I was effectively crowdfunding when Silicon Valley and Menlo Park were still apple orchards.

Still, The Times persists in its inimitable way of explaining simple things in the most complicated and convoluted terms possible:

“In these (crowdfunding) markets, any individual can propose an idea that requires funding, and interested others can contribute funds to support the idea. These markets have recently emerged as a viable alternative for sourcing capital to support innovative, entrepreneurial ideas and ventures.”

In fact, “A novel aspect of crowdfunded markets is the nature of the publicly observable popularity indicators typically recorded and published within the marketplace. For instance, the information on prior investments in crowdfunded markets typically includes a time stamp and the specific amount contributed, or both. These values contribute to what is often referred to as a project’s current ‘funding status’. This status encompasses prior funding decisions made by others regarding a particular project, indicating the total funds raised, the number of contributors, and the duration over which that funding has taken place.”

Meanwhile, “Most crowdfunding offerings don’t involve an ‘ownership’ stake. Hence, equity sales are prohibited by regulatory bodies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission in the US. Recently, however, regulation is in the works to ease such constraints and enable equity stakes.”

In New Brunswick, it seems, the barriers have just come down. According to a piece in The Saint John Telegraph-Journal last week, “The province’s Financial and Consumer Services Commission has decided to allow crowdfundig for equity, opening up the doors for small businesses to sell shares online. Under rules announced by the commission, startup companies can raise a maximum of $250,000 per crowdfunding campaign, with up to two campaigns per year.”

The craze for crowdfunding in the small business sector ever since the financial meltdown of 2008 is, of course, perfectly understandable. Traditional lenders – banks and credit unions – are typically tight with their money. In Atlantic Canada, effective venture and angel capital is practically non-existent.

Still, crowdfunding also carries inherent risks, the biggest of which is that it is a broadly unregulated market built on trust and instinct (paradoxically, two of its biggest draws).

All of which is great, until Mum and Dad want to know what happened to their money while junior was. . .ahem. . .edifying himself.

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Exactly why twitter is so aptly named


With nearly 300 million twits mouthing off each and every day on what must be the most pudden-headed social-media platform ever created for, again, 300 million twits each and every day, one might have hoped that the mayor of New Brunswick’s capital city and the current president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities would have curbed his lip, or, at the very least, sit on his hands.

But, alas, no. Here’s what Freddy Town’s burgermeister, Brad Woodside, had to say about linguistic duality in New Brunswick on his Twitter feed last week:

“Bilingualism I understand, duality makes no sense. This should be on the table Mr. Premier as we look to save money. You asked.”

Indeed, Brian Gallant did ask. He just didn’t expect such an idiotic response.

Or, maybe he did. The young premier is, after all, proving himself to be an able political warrior – routinely stripping the veneer from his partisan opponents to reveal their true colours. Care for a game of bait and switch, anyone?

Poor, old Mayor Woodside. He knows not what strife he causes for himself by attempting to condense an extraordinarily complex and controversial subject into 140 characters or less. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. #Dumb@brucescribes.

Still, he’s in good and much more illustrious company than his own.

Twitter has been luring otherwise smart and accomplished public figures into thoughtlessness for nearly ten years. There’s just something about the freedom to whip off any stray thought that seems irresistible to those who should properly put down that tenth cup of coffee and head straight to bed.

According to a recent story in The Daily Mail online edition, “Shortly after it emerged that (former Republican governor of Florida) Jeb Bush had hired Ethan Czahor as his campaign’s chief technology officer, the co-founder set out to do some spring cleaning on his Twitter. But it was already too late to discreetly delete a handful of ‘jokes’ the Santa Monica product manager had made where he calls out ‘sl**s’ and frets about gay guys at the gym.

“‘New study confirms old belief: college female art majors are sl**s, science majors are also sl**s but uglier,’ one deleted tweet read, with an expired link. Other deleted tweets include a couple gay panic jokes Czahor made about working out at the gym. ‘When i burp in the gym i feel like it’s my way of saying, ‘sorry guys, but i’m not gay,’ another said.” 


But no more so than former U.S. federal legislator Anthony Weiner, who, in 2011, tweeted what he apparently considered was the best of himself in tighty-whities. (“I did not have sex with that pair of underwear,” he was overheard, possibly apocryphally, to have insisted in private).

Meanwhile, that same year, occasional funnyman Gilbert Gottfried reportedly tweeted in the aftermath of the tidal wave that wrecked coastal Japan: They (the Japanese) don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”

Then, there’s actor Jason Biggs who freelance San Diego writer Alex Matsuo reports, “found himself in hot water after he tweeted from his account @JasonBiggs,

‘Anyone wanna buy my Malaysian Airlines frequent flier miles?’ This tweet occurred 65 minutes after it was announced that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had crashed. Followers began to reply with their disgust over Biggs’ words.”

In this offensive company, Woodside is quite likely bush league.

Still, here’s a tip, mayor: When you want to issue an incendiary statement about linguistic duality in this province, don’t tweet it. Write an Op-Ed.

Then, put down that coffee, and get some rest.

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On the Internet, what’s old is new again




Once upon a time in the cybersphere, I awoke many mornings to tidings from a Nigerian prince in dire need of my inestimable services as a funnel for his improbable wealth. “Dear sir,” the missive would begin, “I write to you today concerning a large sum of money. . .”

That booty was his and I stood to earn a big chunk of it the moment I forked over my personal banking information. 

It was, of course a scam, and, interestingly enough, not an especially novel one.      

Says one Lauren O’Neil writing in “Your Community Blog” on the CBC News website in 2013: “Also known as a ‘4-1-9‘ or ‘Advance Fee Fraud’ scheme, according to, millions of these emails are sent each year by spambots. So many people receive them, in fact, that the concept of the ‘Nigerian prince’ has itself become an internet meme.”

Ms. O’Neil consults for this fulsome explanation: “This style of scam has been recorded as early as in the 19th century with a confidence trick known as The Spanish Prisoner, but the modern Nigerian 419 scheme began as a postal scam during the corrupt years of the Second Nigerian Republic between the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

“During this time, numerous variations of the scheme were discovered for the first time, many of which claimed to have been written by wealthy members of the royal family, businessmen or government officials soliciting for personal financial information such as bank account numbers.”

Still, I have often wondered why, if the fraud is so transparently obvious and ancient, those behind it even bother. Then, the other day, I came across the following “comment” in my own blog site’s spam folder:

“I see a lot of interesting content on your page. You have to spend a lot of time writing. I know how to save you a lot of work. There is a tool that creates unique, Google- friendly articles in couple of seconds. Just search in Google: k2 unlimited content.”

Intrigued, I followed the link and promptly entered the domain of “article spinning, text rewriting” and “content creation”.

To say that I was gob-smacked is only to say that I am an old fogey who doesn’t get around much in the truly hip neighborhoods of the webbed world of wonder. But apparently and increasingly much of what we read and imagine to be original word-smithing on the Internet is nearly as old as a 200-year-old Spanish-prisoner-cum-Nigerian-prince grift.

Here’s what helpfully informs:

“You don’t have to lose many hours writing content on your blog, you can rewrite articles from other sites and pass copyscape test.”

For those readers who, like me, are broadly unfamiliar with most online tools, copyscape is a plagiarism detector. By using’s promoted product, WordAi, “Google will love your new unique articles.”

As the good folks at WordAi, itself, declare, “Unlike other spinners, WordAi fully understands what each word content means. It doesn’t view sentences as just a list of words, it views them as real things that interact with each other. This human like understanding allows WordAi to automatically rewrite entire sentences from scratch. This high level of rewriting ensures that Google and Copyscape can’t detect your content while still remaining human readable!”

The website even provides an example of the software in action.

“Original sentence: Nobody has been arrested by the police officers, but the suspect is being interrogated by them. Automatic Rewrite: Law enforcement are interrogating the defendant, although they have not detained anybody.”

What’s more, says another service, Spinbot: “For you blog users, the newly added ‘Post Spun Text to WordPress or Blogger’ feature will save you from having to take the additional steps of copying and pasting your spun content into a separate (authenticated) web browser tab/window. You can now post whatever rewritten article you have created directly to your WordPress or Blogger blog from the same page you used to rewrite the article.”

Hey presto! Something for nothing over and over again. 

All of which, I suspect, explains why so much Internet content – apart from that which resides safely behind pay walls and the equivalent – is so numbingly familiar. Does this apply do various iterations of Nigerian princes?

Who knows, but here’s what just popped into my inbox:

“Dear Madam, I communicate with you on this fine morning regarding a fortune with which I would like to make you acquainted.”

Where have I heard that before?


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The CBC’s slow-motion death from a thousand cuts



Given the tongue-lashing my esteemed colleague, Norbert Cunningham, issued to the CBC in his regular space this Tuesday, I hesitate, for a moment, to crack my own bull whip. Then again, whaddya know? The moment’s gone.

The sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English television network hasn’t been much good since I was glued to Mr. Dressup in the mid-1960s. The other sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English radio network, once fantastically varied, has become a mere echo of its former self (though, miraculously, the quality of its on-air journalism and talent hasn’t slipped).

In fact, through most of my life, my relationship with the CBC has been littered with routine, tedious disappointments with its upper management. And so, when the corporation’s honchos announced last week that it was slashing 657 jobs and cutting $130 million from this year’s budget, I quietly mumbled, “What took you so long?”

That’s the one question CBC President Hubert Lacroix did not address in his statement to employees, which began on an appropriately humiliated note:

“Well, here we are again. This is the third time I have to stand up before you in these circumstances, and, I have to tell you, I hate doing this. I imagine you feel the same way. So how did we get here?”

Yes, Mr. Lacroix – you of the inadvertently claimed (and repaid) $30,000 expense claim – do tell.

Well, first, of course, there was that whole hockey disaster. Losing the NHL broadcasts to Rogers was, let’s just say, disappointing. But that wasn’t the only thing that went sideways over the past 12 months.

“There’s an industry-wide softening of the television advertising market – down approximately 5 per cent overall in the last year,” Mr. Lacroix said. “This is common to all conventional broadcasters, and neither CBC nor Radio-Canada was spared. 

“In addition, on the CBC side, since last summer, our prime time TV schedule performed poorly in attracting 25-54 year-old viewers, the most important demographic for advertisers.”

Combine this with the loss of professional hockey broadcasts, and the revenue hit came to about $47 million. And that’s still not all.

“As you know, advertising sales on CBC Radio 2 and Espace musique are much weaker than expected,” Mr. Lacroix continued. “This is a major disappointment. We’re trying to fix this, but the initial projections won’t be met. We are not close. This represents a $13 million shortfall, nearly all of it impacting English Services.”

Throw in the federal government’s “two-year salary inflation funding freeze” of $72 million, and, hey presto, we arrive at our present dismal circumstances.

Of course, if all this feels somehow familiar, it should. None of Mr. Lacroix’s explanations/excuses seem particularly novel. To one degree or another, they are variations on a theme that has been playing and replaying since I was a kid: a business that – if left to stitching together its own safety net – should have been out of business  along time ago. 

Currently, 64 per cent of Mother Corp.’s $1.8 billion in annual revenue come from taxpayers. Another $330 million derive from advertising. The balance is from specialty services (subscription revenue and advertising from CBC News Network, bold, documentary, Explora, ARTV and the Réseau de l’information de Radio-Canada) and financing.

It’s that billion bucks from citizens that gets right-wingers and purse-string-pullers riled up. They don’t like anything that smacks of welfare (corporate or otherwise). And they don’t watch or listen to the CBC, which, in their heart of hearts, they believe is a nest of socially progressive vipers. 

Of course, they’re right, which is why I continue to be an avid consumer of CBC radio. I grew up with it. I fell asleep to Max Ferguson and Allan McFee. I woke up to Peter Gzowski. And despite the cutbacks, it still produces damn fine programming – just not enough of it.

I don’t give a fig about the public money. Make it $2 billion a year. But, for God’s sake, let us finally acknowledge what the CBC (radio, at any rate) does peerlessly well: public affairs journalism and documentary reporting that reflects the moral compass of the Canadian majority.

Forget the rest; just do more of that. Okay, mother?



Has the webbed world finally killed civility?


I’m not sure exactly when dread became my near-constant Internet-traveling companion – certainly, sometime after he first protocol suite went live back in the “me” decades of the late 20th century – but I’m having a hard time shaking my conviction that the online universe has rendered common courtesy deader that a door knob.

This is, by no means, an original observation.

“Have our brains become so desensitized by a 24/7, all-you-can-eat diet of lurid flickering images that we’ve lost all perspective on appropriateness and compassion when another human being apparently suffers a medical emergency?” CNN contributors Gary Small (M.D.) and Gigi Vorgan asked in a commentary posted (where else?) online a couple of years ago. “Have we become a society of detached voyeurs?”

Or worse?

According to a Canadian Press piece carried in newspapers across the country yesterday, “Research out of Simon Fraser University (SFU) suggests that the online abuse that has been so prevalent on the teenage battlefield is carrying through to the arena of adults at Canadian universities.”

The research, in fact, is the subject of a symposium, “Cyberbullying at Canadian Universities: Linking Research, Policy and Practice”, in Vancouver this week. One presenter, education prof Wanda Cassidy, notes the relatively high incidence of abuse hurled at faculty members these days.

In the abstract to her talk, she writes, “Survey data collected in 2012/13 revealed that 17 per cent of respondents had experienced cyberbullying either by students (12 per cent), or by colleagues (9 per cent) in the last 12 months.  Gender differences were apparent: 14 per cent of females had been targeted by students, compared to 6 per cent of males.  Only females experienced cyberbullying from colleagues, always by someone they knew, and primarily for work-related reasons. The messages were belittling, demanding, harassing, and/or excluding, impacting their work, mental health, and relationships.  Faculty members of racial minority status appeared more vulnerable to being cyberbullied.”

Another peresenter, SFU criminologist Margaret Jackson, says universities aren’t equipped to deal with the problem because their policy frameworks are out of date. “While most. . .outlined complaint procedures and possible sanctions, relatively few addressed the issue of prevention,” she notes in her abstract. “Only about one third made reference to ‘cyber’ behaviours, suggesting that the university. . .environment is not current with the information and communication technologies which occupy the daily lives of university students and faculty.”

As CP reported, “Cassidy said the emergence of cyberbullying in an older population comes with grown-up consequences, such as ruined professional relationships or reputations, anxiety, sleep deprivation and thoughts of suicide.

‘There was a fair proportion of people — both faculty and students — who said it made them feel suicidal. . .which is quite frightening, particularly when you think of faculty members.’”

If that’s not bad enough, the Competition Bureau of Canada issued a dire warning during its second annual “2 Good 2 B True Day” (Tuesday) this week. “Scammers are using the Internet in increasingly sophisticated ways to defraud Canadians of their money and personal information through malicious software, fake websites and online offers or job opportunities that are simply too good to be true,” it said in a statement.

What’s more, “Users of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest may be exposed to scams from ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ whose social media accounts are designed exclusively to promote fraudulent products. Scams promoted through social media may seem more credible because they appear in the same place as content created by a consumer’s friends and family. Social media users may inadvertently promote these scams by liking, tweeting or pinning information about these products.”

But, then, I wonder what we were expecting when we embraced the notion of running what amounts to a live wiretap right through our homes and businesses. The great innovation of the Internet was nothing if not vastly facilitated communications and information gathering. That why the American military establishment was an early and enthusiastic adherent.

Still, I comfort myself by acknowledging that the technology that makes it easy to anonymously mudsling and defraud on an unprecedented scale also makes it easy to crowd-source funds for disaster relief.

In the end, the only moral filters in the online universe come factory installed in the mind if the Internet traveler.

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Modern mythologies in the post-apocalypse



It’s been precisely 10 months and 10 days since the Mayan long count calendar ran down and the world, as we know it, was supposed to have ended in a cataclysmic fury. Not for nothing, but we’re still here.

Fortunately, as the world survives, popular myths and misconceptions continue to proliferate. I say “fortunately” because in the absence of such apocrypha, grim, intractable reality would be well-nigh impossible to bear.

A well-known, national newspaper columnist contends this week that “the idea that people ever achieved secure and stable lives with ease is largely a myth.”

Indeed, The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente writes, “My grandparents weathered the Depression. My folks lived with them until having their third child. My dad had health problems in middle age and lost his business. That’s life. I’m pretty sure that most of today’s up-to-their-necks-in-debt graduates will be fine.”

Sure they will, just as soon as they manage to obtain gainful employment, which is also “largely a myth”. Or so says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a September 27 report, to wit:

“In 2013, the unemployment rate for Ontario youth aged 15-24 fluctuated between 16 per cent and 17.1 per cent, trending above the Canadian range of 13.5 per cent to 14.5 per cent and placing Ontario as the worst province outside Atlantic Canada for high youth unemployment.

“Windsor, Oshawa, Brantford and London stand out as youth unemployment hotspots: their youth unemployment rate is over 20 per cent, similar to the European Union rates. Toronto’s youth employment rate – the measure that determines how many youth actually have jobs – is 43.5 per cent. That’s the worst employment rate of any Ontario region and it may be driving some youth out of the province in search of work. Toronto also gets the prize for having the largest gap between youth and adult employment in the province, at 21.8 per cent. That’s the highest it’s ever been.”

Higher still, of course, is the percentage of voting-age Canadians, either employed or otherwise, who support the reigning federal Conservatives as they bob for apples at their policy convention tonight.

Received wisdom had called for a shellacking of Tory prospects in the court of public opinion – so appalled are we with the Senate expense scandal and the knobby knees of short-panted factotums in the Prime Minister’s Office.

But received wisdom begins to look like a myth when Ipsos Reid reports that the Conservatives currently enjoy a 30 per cent approval rating – virtually unchanged from a week ago, before the most serious allegations came to light.

Here, in New Brunswick, rank politics takes a back seat to. . .well. . .rank politics as we juggle the myths and realities associated with shale gas development.

The provincial government says it is committed to consulting with opponents of hydraulic fracturing, yet it has no intention of slowing down the exploratory work that has sparked most public protests and demonstrations.

Leaders of the Elsipogtog First Nation, chief among the anti-frackers, decry what they term unnecessary provocation in the debate, yet they formerly resolve to reclaim Crown land to “save our waters, lands and animals from ruin.”

Meanwhile, the stories we tell ourselves dip in and out of verisimilitude heedless of their sources.

“Britain’s energy secretary on Wednesday advocated a public awareness campaign to promote shale gas and dispel the ‘myths’ surrounding fracking, the controversial method for unlocking the natural gas,” the Wall Street Journal online reported this summer. “Energy Secretary Ed Davey said the concerns were being dealt with through study and regulation, suggesting they had given rise to false notions about the dangers. The industry’s main challenge is to win over the public, he said.

‘Because those myths have taken hold in some areas, and sometimes when a myth takes hold it’s quite difficult to dispel it,’ he told a cross-party parliamentary group on unconventional oil and gas.”

For its part, Friends of the Earth Europe reports, “The American myth of ‘cheap and abundant’ energy from shale gas is based on artificially low prices driven by speculation and industry overestimates. Trying to repeat this experience in Europe would only lead to even higher gas prices and would lock public subsidies into fossil fuel use at the expense of renewable energy and energy efficiency policies.”

Who’s right?

We may have survived the apocalypse, but we might not live long enough to know the truth.

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I spy with my digital eye


It is, perhaps, amusing to discover that a city with more than three million closed circuit television cameras pointing in every direction where people gather and gambol can still get riled up over antiquated notions of privacy.

Of course, that’s London, England, for you – always wanting to have its tea and drink it, too. Frankly, advertising executive Kaveh Memari doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. So what if his company has installed digital technology in trash cans that “reads” people’s smartphone signals? As he exuberantly told The Associate Press the other day, “We will cookie the street.”

No you won’t declares the City of London Corp., which has ordered Mr. Memari to cut it out. A press release from the municipal authority is unequivocal: “The collection of data from phones and devices carried by people passing sophisticated waste bins in Square Mile streets should stop immediately. . .A spokesman said, ‘We have already asked the firm concerned to stop this data collection immediately and we have also taken the issue to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Irrespective of what’s technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public.’”

The statement continued: “The bombproof waste and recycling bins, which also carry TV screens with public information, were installed as a way of re-introducing waste bins to City streets. ‘This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought – in the meantime data collection, even if it is anonymised, needs to stop,’ added the spokesman.”

What a party-pooper. And he’s not the only one. The New York Times reported last month that shoppers were none to happy to find that fashion retailer Nordstrom was spying on them with “new technology that allowed it to track customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones. ‘We did hear some complaints,’ said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for the store. Nordstrom ended the experiment in May, she said, in part because of the comments.”

In fact, reported The Times, “Nordstrom’s experiment is part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behaviour and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.

“All sorts of retailers – including national chains, like Family Dollar, Cabela’s and Mothercare, a British company, and specialty stores like Benetton and Warby Parker – are testing these technologies and using them to decide on matters like changing store layouts and offering customized coupons.”

Now, back to London where the civil liberties group, Big Brother Watch, is so incensed its spokesman Nick Pickles told The Associated Press that “questions need to be asked about how such a blatant attack on people’s privacy was able to occur.”

On the other hand, just try and bar Internet access to an iconic work of English literature, and the subject of privacy assumes an altogether different complexion.

“In the latest development of over-zealous internet filtering, the British Library has blocked access to Shakespeare’s Hamlet because of its ‘violent content’,” declares a recent Big Brother Watch blog post. “We have repeatedly warned that there is a fundamental issue with filtering legal content based on a subjective moral view, often made by a third party and not the person operating the network. Does the British Library really think that the content of Hamlet is so violent to justify access being blocked to one of the most famous plays of all time?”

This is the paradox of our digital times. People want and expect all the world’s information to flow seamlessly into their desktop computers and mobile devices, just as long as none of that information pertains to them.

We may nurture the illusion of privacy by turning off our cell phones. Until, of course, we see the closed circuit television camera point straight at our furrowed brow.

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