Tales from the gig economy – Part I

A potential employer writes:

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

I reply:

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

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

Your pal,

Alec Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

The new space race – Nova Scotia style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s this?” I will ask.

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

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Spooky action at a distance

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

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

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

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

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

I had a weather app, for God’s sake.

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

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

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

So, all of this is accurate, yes?

“No,” he sighed. “Well, sometimes.”

That, I declared, “is not fair.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, weather app.

Unless it snows.

Then, curse you weather app.

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

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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)

A place in time

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Down from the lake, the bay becomes the horizon

We stood at the tree line, exhausted from our short, brutal climb through the forest primeval, transfixed by the view of MacPherson Lake.

I hadn’t been up here in almost 30 years, and the younger members of our party had never seen this part of the family property.

“Wooo-hooo!” hooted my grandson from behind his father’s leg, “We finally made it. I’m all wet.”

It had been an idyllic weekend in Port Shoreham, Guysborough County, on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, where several generations of Bruces, Thompsons and Towses had gathered, and it occurred to me that some of us might want to take a gander at what I’d always called “the north 40”, the plot that lay above the highway, which bisects the roughly 90 acres of land that has been in my family since the late 18th century.

“Who’s up for a good walk?” I had crowed gamely.

In the mid 1980s, my father wrote these words to begin his book, Down Home: Notes of a Maritime Son: “I am writing this in longhand in the house where my father was born, and where, if he’d had had a choice, he’d have died. . .Port Shoreham is not a port, nor a town, nor a village. It is a shore. It is a handful of old farms scattered over the low hills as loosely as their own sheep. Some maps pretend there’s no such spot, and even its name is variable, like the wind. At time, the postal address of Port Shoreham has been Clam Harbour, Ragged Head, and Rural Route 1, Mulgrave.”

Undoubtedly, there are lovelier places in the world to behold. But memories tend to make besotted admirers of those of us who can remember what this place was like in the early 1970s.

I was there, down by the ocean, preparing to skinny dip in the frigid Atlantic as my father checked on the work crew that was building him a cottage with an ocean view.

I was there, on the shore, as a total eclipse of the sun (the one Carly Simon made famous in her ditty, “You’re so Vain”) blackened the sky at noon.

And I was there, huddling with some local 13-year-old buddies around a fire on the beach as one of them gazed toward the far shore of the bay, about five miles yonder, and said, “You know, my girlfriend lives over in Queensport.. I could swim now and make it there by morning.”

When we were younger, my wife and I would spend long, happy nights at the cottage and, later, the main homestead, plotting and scheming about our own building plans, our own ambitions for living and working in what was one of the more remote backwaters the Maritimes had to offer.

Still, Port Shoreham had then, and does today, a sort of sturdy resilience. Over the decades, legions of young folk have left and never returned. The 2016 census reports that Guysborough County recorded a population of 7,625 people living in 3,549 private dwellings, down 6.4 per cent from 2011.

But the area doesn’t quit. Up and down the main street of the county seat banners fly, a coffee shop shakes hands with a bakery, and locals and tourists mix at pretty cafes. Elsewhere, a boat launch and marina cater to those whose arteries are made for saltwater, while the DesBarres Manor Inn provides a year-round destination for romantic foodies of every inclination.

Then, of course, there are my young kin – standing at the tree line exhausted and wet – transfixed by the view of the lake.

“Maybe, we should head back,” I say.

“Sure,” my grandson replies. “But not yet.”

I know exactly what he means.

(Recently published in The Guysborough Journal)

Some kind of wonderful

Given the torrent of nonsense that masquerades as rational debate these days, it’s a miracle that anything useful ever gets done.

After all, when some random troll requires only a Twitter account to convince an alarming number of otherwise reasonable people that a certain U.S. president, who habitually equates lying with statecraft, is a breath of fresh air in a “post-truth” world, it’s tempting to flee the public square and hunker down for the coming dark age.

Still, despite evidence to the contrary, all is not lost: Not everyone is either running for cover or gorging on low-hanging fruit from the tree of absurdity. Consider a couple of recent and nearby examples.

Decades ago, Moncton’s burgermeisters decided, in their wisdom, to approve the construction of a causeway to join their city with communities on the other side of the Petitcodiac River. It seemed like a good idea at the time: Commuters would love the faster traffic; businesses would appreciate the more reliable and timely delivery of goods for sale. What could go wrong?

Within scant years, the answer was plain to see. The river – once home to dozens of aquatic species, and a recreational fishery worth, according to estimates, as much as $75 million a year – had become a muddy, silt-choked parody of its former self.

Following a quick stop with her family in the 1980s to observe the Petitcodiac’s world-famous tidal bore – historically, a meter-high wall of surf that ran twice a day – American humorist Erma Bombeck stood on the river’s banks and watched a meagre ripple wend its way toward the head pond. “What the heck?” she quipped. “I retain more water than that.”

Over the years, attitudes about the river cleaved and hardened. For one camp – notably, those who had purchased property along the waterway and who, therefore, had skin in the real estate game – the status quo was just fine. For another more progressively minded cohort, the Petitcodiac’s sorry condition was economically embarrassing and environmentally shameful. Tear down the fixed link, this group insisted, and let the water flow the way nature intended.

By the mid-2000s, you could illuminate the dark side of the moon with the degree of daylight that shone between these two factions – thanks, in part, to the use of social media (what else?) as handy platforms for off-the-cuff fulminations.

Then, something happened – something extraordinary.

People actually started talking to one another. In coffee shops and council rooms, they exchanged ideas – real, considered (gasp!) ideas. Eventually, a consensus began to take shape.

What if members of the community compromised? Environmental and economic assessments were clear. Replace a portion of the causeway with a partial bridge that would allow the river to recover. Bank-side properties wouldn’t be negatively affected. If anything, their values would increase.

That was two years ago. Today, with the provincial and federal governments contributing about half, each, to the cost of the $62 million project, the renewal is underway. As for the fish, they’re back, and so is the tidal bore. Since 2013, surfers have come from as far away as California to ride the wave. Thousands gather along the banks to cheer. As for motor traffic, it, too, still flows.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is not as rare as many might lament.

Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library, which opened in 2014, have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

In fact, according to the library’s website, the effort involved “five large public meetings (while) staff and architects met with a number of special focus groups to ensure that (they) heard the voices of a wide cross-section of customers and citizens: African Nova Scotians, cultural organizations, persons with disabilities, First Nations, new Canadians, the literacy and learning community, parents and young children, and teens.”

Of course, the new library never was, and is not now, everyone’s cup of tea. But as a product of rational debate, collaboration and cooperation, it is pretty convincing proof that, despite the nonsense regularly issuing from the meme merchants among us, useful things actually do get done.

Call that wondrous in this fractious age. On the other hand, the finest miracles are still the ones we work together.

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An Atlantic Canadian field guide to surviving recessions

The one thing Atlantic Canadians manage better than almost anything else is recession.

When the economic wind blows cold, we throw another log into the wood stove and cinch our collars.

When our spending money runs short, we whip out a tin of beans and tighten our belts.

When others across the country tremble at the mere thought of stock markets circling the drain, we cast a rueful eye to the storm clouds gathering on the near horizon and mutter, “Yeah, what else you got?”

Of course, we’ve had plenty of practice. Recessions – or weathering them – are kind of our thing. After all, two consecutive quarters of what experts call “negative growth” is, relatively speaking, a permanent way of life along the East Coast. It’s certainly no reason to panic.

But just tell that to the chattering class.

In times of yore, when the mighty wanted to know the shape of things to come, they would instruct an augur to read the entrails of a small animal. Today, they’re more likely to consult an economist.

Are we, in the western world, barrelling toward another recession?

Yup, says Martin Feldstein, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and a professor at Harvard University. “Ten years after the Great Recession’s onset, another long, deep downturn may soon roil the U.S. economy,” he wrote in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Maybe or maybe not, thinks The Toronto Star’s David Olive, who wrote this fall, “The Canadian financial system is among the world’s most stable. . .

But that is small comfort for Canadians. The global financial system is intimately interconnected. . .At all times, the world’s 300 or so biggest banks, including Canada’s Big Six, have enormous short-term loans outstanding to each other. Which means that the failure of just one giant financial institution could bring them all down.”

Anyone ready for a second helping of entrails?

Never mind. Here are some hard-won – if not exactly failsafe – tips for surviving the next recession in Atlantic Canada:

Avoid obvious and precarious flights of fancy. I once worked for a guy in the United States who truly believed that starting a magazine in the middle of a downturn was a grand idea. After all, there’d be no competition. Advertisers would surely flock to his venture, begging to spend their marketing budgets. The lesson learned? Don’t start a magazine in the middle of a downturn.

Still, don’t be afraid to embrace the big, wide world. If we have jobs, we should do everything we can to keep them. But if we don’t, because, well, we just don’t roll that way, we ought to double-down on our enterprising instincts. Is there a promising, new revenue stream just waiting for our particular talents and experiences? Are there two or three or even four? Indeed, when the world finally comes up for air again, our bank accounts will thank us.

Be pennywise, but not essentially miserly. It’s important to know the difference, which is sound advice even when good times roll. Ask ourselves whether the dollar we’re planning to spend will vanish like rain on a sun-caked riverbed, or germinate the seeds of new growth. We might take a course that will upgrade our suite of professional skills. But, unless the world’s supply of wicker suddenly dries up, we should ensure that course is not applied basket weaving.

Finally, float like a boat. If history teaches anything about Atlantic Canada it’s that periodic highs and lows in the regional economy are like Fundy tides: They come, they go, and there’s nothing we can do about them.

So, we throw another log on the fire. We crack open a tin of beans. We wait for the light.

Meanwhile, we manage.

We always do.

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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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A bridge too far?

0044_Bridge-WalkThese days, when I cross the water between Halifax and Dartmouth, I sometimes find myself denying the existence of bridges, especially during rush hour. This is despite the fact that I am evidently travelling on one and, from my perch in the passenger’s seat, I can see boats in the harbour and buildings on the near horizon – that is, if I care to look.

Naturally, I don’t care to look because my eyes are otherwise occupied by my smart phone, that tiny blinking box about the size of an old-timey dime-store novel from which the “real” news of the world, the “true” nature of reality, froths forth by the microsecond thanks to so-called social media.

“Apparently, some guy has proof that climate change is a hoax,” I mutter.

“Is that so?” my driving companion inquires absently.

“Yup,” I reply. “He also rejects claims that the Earth is spherical, that NASA ever sent men to the moon and that ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.”

“Okay,” my friend says, “I’ll bite. Who did build the pyramids?”
“Aliens. . .I suppose you’ll want to know why.”

“Do tell.”

“Interstellar travel lounges.”

Why not? Who are we to begrudge weary Alpha Centaurians en route to Betelgeuse for the biannual lotus festival taking a well-deserved load off their tired dogs in north-Saharan Africa? Not everyone flies first class, you know.

I kid, of course. But there is a point.

In a world where fantasies increasingly supplant facts and rank opinions replace measured judgements, how long before we imagine that the state of things as they actually exist is far less absorbing (and, therefore, less legitimate) than the mechanics of our own tortured hallucinations?

Worse, perhaps, for the health of our public institutions, economy and the democratic rule of law, how long before this type of infantilizing meme-merchandising infects the body politic at the most basic level and in everyday ways?

How long? How does right about now sound?

In a 2016 piece, “Why are people so incredibly gullible?”, David Robson, a feature writer for the web magazine BBC Future, wrote, “Cast your mind back to the attack of the flesh-eating banana. In January 2000, a series of chain emails began reporting that imported bananas were infecting people with ‘necrotizing fasciitis’ – a rare disease in which the skin erupts into livid purple boils before disintegrating and peeling away from muscle and bone.”

The scare was completely. . . well. . .bananas, but that didn’t stop scores of people from rejecting an official report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control debunking the bizarre story. Or, as Robson reported, “Within weeks, the CDC was hearing from so many distressed callers it had to set up a hotline. The facts became so distorted that people eventually started to quote the (Centers) as the source of the rumour.”

Still, you don’t have to be a flesh-eating banana to know how easily and far we are prone to slip. Here in the Canadian Maritimes, we regularly replenish our various silos of stupidity with the cloyingly sweet elixir of self-righteous certitude.

Somebody writing on the Internet declares that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas will kill us all – as will, indeed, fossil fuels in general. Somebody else, scribbling in the ethersphere, rejoins that environmentalists are nuts and that there’s nothing wrong with cracking slate to get at the good stuff to power our industrial lifestyle.

They’re both right and wrong – something they would know if they actually chose to talk to one another, rather than bury themselves in the popular “literature” of half-truths.

Fact: The science of climate change says we must reduce our consumption of petroleum products. Another fact: The science of engineering says we still need the junk to intelligently transition to a cleaner, more renewable future. The only question that should remains is: Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?

Fortunately, in many other ways many can and do here.

Consider the enormous amount of consultation, collaboration, tolerance and good will that was required to begin transforming the Petitcodiac River in Moncton, N.B., into a vibrant waterway that is quickly becoming the envy of nature lovers, commercial enterprises and local governments, alike.

While we’re at it, ask the question: Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

Think about the non-stop talking and sometimes-disputatious mediations that paved the way for Moncton’s freshly minted downtown event and cultural centre or the new marine sciences initiative on the Dartmouth waterfront.

These were not bridges too far to cross. And I can only assume that in the rooms where their construction began, all the smart phones were, for once, mercifully silent.

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It’s in the air

Today, the snow flies for the first time as fall quickly heralds an early winter in the old port town of Halifax, N.S., where hale and hearty cruise ship passengers scramble down their respective gangplanks in skivvies and shorts. One – and only one – question burns fevered urgency into their one-track minds.

“Where. . .uh. . .can I get a smoke if. . .uh. . .you know what I mean?”

To which the helpful Haligonian – her tote bag of cannabis well and duly tucked away from the inquisitive eyes of the good town’s constabulary (which is already overworked policing the first day of legal, recreational pot in only the second nation on earth to entertain such a thing) – replies:

“Where?” she arches a knowing eyebrow. “Why anywhere you like. After all, we’re all pirates and privateers in these parts. As to where you can smoke it without earning a parting gift, a.k.a. a fine, from these fair shores, try one of our pillars and posts conveniently located at random and for no particular reason along the waterfront, across the suburbs and in the vicinity of some of the finer bus stops we can offer. . .Party on, dude.”

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