Category Archives: Technology

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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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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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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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)

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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We are all connected

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It should surprise exactly no one that not one Canadian municipality makes the World Economic Forum’s list of most successful cities – not Toronto, not Montreal, not Vancouver, and certainly not any of New Brunswick’s three major urban areas.

We are, after all, in this province mere cartographic postscripts comporting ourselves in much the same way we always have: with one toe tentatively dipped in the future and one foot firmly planted in the past. I sometimes think we like it that way. In fact, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it.

Armies of retirees, fresh from their career conquests in other more economically vigorous parts of the world, have chosen communities like Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John to settle into their sanguine senescence. Here, crime rates are low, house prices are stunningly reasonable, and the natural environment is, by every comparison, downright pristine.

But, ultimately, no region can survive its own sleepy traditions and predilections by insulating itself from the rest of the world. What is virtuous about a place can eventually become disadvantageous. Whether we like it or not, we are all connected on this planet.

Over the years, the urgent conversation among those here who recognize this simple fact of life in the 21st Century has concerned the character of progress. How far can we go without compromising that which makes this part of the world unique and efficacious? We’ve not settled on a definitive answer, but we have found some enlivening clues.

The World Economic Forum offers some insight. “Forces of globalization, urbanization and technological advancement are transforming the definition of a ‘successful’ city and reshaping the global urban hierarchy in the process,” it recently posted on its website. “Success can no longer be measured simply by considering a city’s size and historical attributes. Today it is more likely to revolve around innovation, ‘liveability’ and the ability to transform and adapt.”

On this score, it elaborates, “Many of the top 20 cities in the 2016 City Momentum Index – including London, San Francisco and Sydney – are home to vibrant mixed-used districts which create and amplify opportunities to conceive and commercialize new ideas. This reinforces the idea that city momentum involves much more than GDP growth. It also requires building an innovation-oriented economy through technology. It means creating cutting-edge new businesses. And it involves attracting talent and nurturing a diverse and inclusive workforce.”

Are we, in New Brunswick, doing enough of this? If the size of a place no longer matters as a determinant of economic and social health, where are the large and small innovations that really do make a difference? The New Brunswick Innovation Foundation insists they’re out there. “With over $70 million invested, plus $380 million more leveraged from other sources, NBIF has helped to create over 90 companies and fund 400 applied research projects since its inception in 2003, with a current portfolio of 42 companies,” its website declares. “All of NBIF’s investment returns go back into the Foundation to be re-invested in other new startup companies and research initiatives.”

Fair enough, but we need more of this. The fact that I can count the number of business incubators in this province that regularly garner mainstream media attention on one hand suggests that we haven’t truly leveraged the global innovation agenda to our full advantage.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Silicon Valley was a craggy patch of earth on California’s west coast. Shall we, in New Brunswick continue to consign ourselves to a similar condition, or shall we make our success stories convincingly and finally resonate?

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Cybernauts in New Brunswick?

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In his well-documented piece for Maclean’s magazine in March, Martin Patriquin – who japes that he “writes about Quebec and sometimes everything else” – makes a distressingly large number of good points about the tattered condition of New Brunswick society.

Naturally, we in “the picture-perfect province” bristle whenever a major, national magazine sets out to shine a light on our evident flaws – just as enthusiastically, perhaps, as we cheer when said magazine periodically rewards our universities with top-of-class status in Canada. (Yeah, go figure).

But Mr. Patriquin’s analysis is bolstered by several instances of “et tu Brute then fall Caesar”, all of them rather, well, revealing.

As quoted by Maclean’s, for example, Mount Allison President Robert Campbell apparently said: “You’d think small would be simple, but New Brunswick is the classic example of how that really isn’t true. For a little province like this, we just can’t get our act together.”

In fact, I know Dr. Campbell a little bit, and he has never effused anything remotely like that about this province to me. Of course, if accurate, his incendiary revelation doesn’t mean he’s now wrong; perhaps he’s simply discerning about whose lap on which he decides to spill the beans.

The same goes for former provincial, Liberal cabinet minister Kelly Lamrock, who Mr. Patriquin reports said this: “We’ve targeted our policies on just getting re-elected and so we prop up failing industries and we bail out failing companies. Atlantic Yarns went under and lost an $80-million loan. The government I was a part of lent $70 million to (Miramichi-based) Atcon, a failing construction company that went under a year later. The Marriott call centre closed. It turns out they were subsidized to the tune of $20,000 a job and just left when the subsidies ran out. And the list goes on. We have generally been about keeping the majority of people comfortable rather than attracting new people.”

Still, in the midst of this completely understandable ‘self-loathing-palooza-festiva’ comes word that all may not be lost to the furies of chance and negligence in this province. For one thing, we always have the cybersecurity industry – hacking the hackers ­ – on which to fall back. Don’t take my word for it. A guy from Israel was scheduled to say as much at a conference in Fredericton just last week.

Actually, Roni Zehavi, who runs something called CyberSpark, said it first in a pre-event interview with Brunswick News: “The first thing is to have a dedicated entity within the province. In our (Israel’s) case, it was establishing a non-governmental organization like CyberSpark that is in charge of establishing a logistical system and serves the table with the people around it and dedicated to growth.” His bottom-line message: “The government made a decision.”

Back to New Brunswick, where governments make decisions all the time – some of which are wise, even prescient.

The cybersecurity industry, or something like it, is not new to New Brunswick. Government-enabled investments here in the 1990s installed some of the most sophisticated IT infrastructure anywhere in the western world. Clusters of technology excellence soon developed around the province’s major cities. These persist, and with a little intellectual elbow grease they can take a bite out of a global industry that is, according to credible sources, expected to double in size from current values to $170 billion.

As Mr. Zehavi says, “I look at cyber like health care.”

New Brunswick might well look at cyber as a lifeline to long-term economic health, before the next major magazine in this country pronounces us all but brain dead.

 

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It’s a whole new game for the Hub City

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I despise the phrase, “game-changer”.

The words conjure, in me, images of small boys on a football pitch, bullied by larger boys stealing the ball, kicking shins, shoving urchins into the mud, scoring on empty nets and then triumphantly celebrating their victory as a well-earned win, marked fetchingly in the “if-you-can’t-stand-the-trampling-stay-out-of-our-way” category of crooked competition.

Sort of like Wall Street in 1929, 1987, 2001, 2007 and anytime soon (pick a year) coming to an RRSP near you.

But every once in a long while “game-changer” seems to be an appropriate description for small cities with big appetites and even larger ambitions to beat the bully-boys at their own game.

So, then, witness, last week’s launch of Fibre Centre in uptown Moncton (somewhere amidst the nine-foot drifts of snow and ice and Centennial Park, where the more placid of our urban ilk still appreciate a mid-morning ski outing on Nordic trails).

There, hundreds of business and political elites gathered to hear the great news: Greater Moncton carved another notch in its belt as one of North America’s most competitive cities with the first “network-neutral colocation and interconnection facility providing a three-way junction point linking submarine and terrestrial dark fiber assets in Atlantic Canada.”

And before you shrug your shoulders and mumble “uh, come again”, the new technology works this way: For the first time anywhere in the region businesses of every size, complexity and stripe – along with public and private institutions, governments and public organizations – will have seamless access to the world through unused (ie., ‘dark’) fibre-optic cables which just happen to flow through Moncton.

The secret: There’s a lot of state-of-the-art, digital pipe going begging in these parts, these days.

“Moncton now has a physical access point to the mass of fibre optic networks that pass through, but heretofore have not actually been able to directly interconnect with each other here,” said Ukrainian businessman Iouri Litvinenko, Fibre Centre’s co-founder. “Facilities such as these have proven to breed economic development globally.”

Added the firm’s other co-founder, American tech entrepreneur Hunter Newby: “Fibre Centre is a neutral meet point for networks of al kinds. We are not a carrier, or network operator, ourselves but rather (we) own the building, known as a ‘carrier hotel’, and provide the managed real estate environment, known as a ‘meet me room‘, as well as data centre space, where all networks can colocate and openly interconnect with each other.”

Four years in the making, the deal’s the official launch podium featured Ben Champoux,, CEO of Greater Moncton’s economic development organization, 3+ Corporation; James Lockyer, chair of 3+; Gaetan Thomas, CEO of NB Power; George LeBlanc, Mayor of Moncton; Newby; and, of course, Brian Gallant, premier of New Brunswick.

Said Gallant: “This is a phenomenal opportunity. . .We should all be very proud of this firm’s decision to choose Moncton. Arthur C. Clarke (the late science fiction writer) once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I can tell you that Fibre Centre has a lot of magic.”

For his part, Mayor LeBlanc noted that the news burnishes Moncton’s reputation as one of the continent’s truly smart cities. “All digital roads lead here. . .or, rather, almost all,” he quipped. We, at the city, are happy to be Fibre Centre’s first customer.”

So, then, is this a game-changer for a community that has been switching up the rules for itself ever since the railway left and the nation’s retail behemoths took a powder?

Consider that nowhere in eastern North America is there as comprehensive and technologically sophisticated hub of fibre optic cable than here.

Also consider that nowhere in eastern Canada would an announcement like this draw hundreds of people to a spare auditorium, providing no parking, in sub-zero temperatures, surrounded by mountains of frigid white.

Game-changer, indeed.

I’d call it a game-opener.

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Has the webbed world finally killed civility?

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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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The Internet of Things’ nosy, new tech

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It is an indisputable fact of modern life that even the fiercest defender of personal privacy will trade the juiciest morsel of intel on himself for the latest item of cool consumer tech – as long as said tech is connected to the vast, remorseless Internet.

This is, in a nutshell, the essential dialectic of our human nature in the 21st century: our contradictory urges and impulses that find nearly perfect expression in the exquisitely instrumented age of greed.

In this context, I sometimes wonder who Ann Cavoukian thinks she’s reaching when she complains about the shadowy doings at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), where spies toll the electronic highways and byways for tidbits about their fellow citizens.

“Technology allows our every move to be tracked, collected and catalogued by our governments,” Mr. Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner writes in a commentary published yesterday in the Globe and Mail. “Yet, while our U.S. neighbours are debating the future of phone and Internet surveillance programs, our government is maintaining a wall of silence around the activities of (CSEC). This silence is putting our freedoms at risk.”

She is, of course, utterly correct, and I applaud her determination to tear back the veil that hides the snoops, creeps, plotters, conspirators, crooks, crackpots and incipient blackmailers from plain view.

Then again, what else would I say? I’m a hopeless paranoid who believes that former National Security Agency analyst, and latent whistleblower, Edward Snowdon is actually a red herring and that the truth – whilst still out there – is worse than you can possibly imagine.

Most people are more sanguine than I about the nakedness with which they comport themselves while the world tunes in and out, variously following the motions and transactions that comprise their quotidian existence. Indeed, members of my own family couldn’t care lees who’s been peeking at them through the drapes.

Says one: “My life is an open book – and a pretty boring one, at that.”

Says another: “Dude, sacrifices must be made. Ever think what you’d do without the Internet?”

To which I respond, “Don’t call me dude.”

In fact, I have often pondered what I’d do without the web. And, if I’m honest with myself, the story never ends well. Still, I wonder just how much Kool-Aid the so-called “Internet of Things” requires its true believers to quaff?

“With never-before seen tech breakthroughs and thousands of new products launched, innovation took center stage at the 2014 International CES (Consumer Electronics Association conference) in Las Vegas, Nevada.”

That was from the press release following the event – during which “3,200 exhibitors showcased their latest technologies and major tech breakthroughs, launching some 20,000 new products to capture the world’s attention” – earlier this month. Here’s what Karen Chupka, senior vice president of International CES and corporate business strategy, had to say:

“Technology of the future was widespread  at the 2014 CES where executives from every major industry came to see, touch, interact and do business at the world’s intersection for innovation. Amazing new products emerged in the areas of wireless, apps, automotive, digital health and fitness, 3D printing, startup tech and so much more. It was an incredible event that brought the global tech community together and successfully celebrated and showcased the amazing innovation that is a hallmark of our industry.”

Welcome, indeed, brave new world.

Common – nay, fundamentally crucial – to all such gadgets is their Internet connectivity. Everyday household appliances – once inert and dumb; now active and smart – will keep tabs on your habits, schedules and coming an goings in both real and digital worlds.

Leading the charge, naturally, is Google. The giant announced earlier this month that it would buy Nest Labs Inc. for a cool $3.2 billion in cash. Nest manufactures  thermostats and smoke alarms. But not just any thermostats and smoke alarms. In their effort to make you a more intelligent energy consumer, these ones talk to you through your Internet-enabled computer, and this, of course, raises the specter of spying.

For its part, the new venture has insisted that it would never tabuse its position by mishandling personal information that might come its way via its new “nests”.

But, really, if the choice is between privacy and cool, new tech for the vast, greedy marketplace, are Google’s assurances even necessary these days?

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