When James Brown embarrassed Mick Jagger

Writing in this week’s New Yorker, editor David Remnick calls the new biopic, Get On Up, “the second-best film ever made about James Brown.”

The best? That would be this grainy, 18-minute YouTube clip of Brown’s October, 1964, appearance at the T.A.M.I. (Teenage Awards Music International) show in Santa Monica. Four nervous Rolling Stones were waiting in the wings, and Brown, pissed at being scheduled to play before them, was determined to show them up.

Keith Richards later described the decision to play after Brown the biggest mistake of the band’s career.

There’s lots more rich detail about this amazing concert in Remnick’s piece.

You know you’re in Nova Scotia when…


A Contrarian friend was waiting for a cab to take her to a meeting in Halifax this morning when her cell phone rang.

It was the cab driver, who was being pulled over for running a stop sign. He kept her on the line as the officer approached the window, then held the phone up to the cop.

“Pllleeeeasssse,” yelled my friend. “I’m in a hurry!”

Cabby got off with a warning.

Saving TUBCED: fewer rinks at 2-1/2 times the cost

Forum-North Elevation

A wave of sentimentality swept over Halifax City Hall last night, and when the tide receded, Council had rejected a staff recommendation to build four new hockey rinks for $15.8 million, in favour of a “community” proposal to build just three rinks for $39.0 million—nearly two-and-a-half times as much money for 25 percent less rink.

It was all in the name of saving TUBCED, The Ugliest Building Cobb Ever Designed, also known as the Halifax Forum. It’s not just an eyesore we’re preserving here. The Forum is a repository of Halifax history and culture. Mohammed Ali fought there once. (Well, actually, he “sparred” there. We know for sure he stepped inside the building, anyway.) Reba McIntyre sang there. Think of the impression of our fair capital city she must have come away with.

When revenue from the facility is taken into account, the net cost of the chosen option over 25 years will be nearly three times that of the rejected staff recommendation, while providing 25 percent fewer skating opportunities.

The vote will also save the Forum’s bingo operation. In the rest of the province, residents put on bingo nights to maintain public services like fire halls, that cash-strapped counties can’t afford. In cash-flush HRM, council subsidizes a public building so residents can play bingo.

Don’t bother to think about what taxpayers, or even the municipality, might have done with the $23.2 million council decided to squander on saving the Forum. It’s only money, after all.

Here are the gory details, from page 10 of the staff report:

Forum.jpg  1087×835

Please remember the vote the next time some Halifax scold recoils in horror at the cost of subsidizing a rural pulp mill here, a rural ferry there.

Forum-West Elevation

Coming down

The Roy Building

What did the Book Room, The Coast, The NDP, the Toronto Star, and the law firm McInnes Cooper have in common with tattoo parlours and travel agencies? At one time or another, they all occupied offices in the Roy Building, a storied Halifax edifice that’s meeting the wrecking high hoe this week.

Each office had “its own frosted glass and oak door, like in an old Bogart movie,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s Jane Taber, whose eulogy quoted documentary filmmaker Geoff D’Eon:

Everybody felt like a private dick…. It was a character building full of characters. Each floor had a slightly different vibe.

D’Eon and Valerie Mansour also did a nice interview on Global.

Cancer rates in Pictou County — last word

In two recent posts, here and here, I expressed doubt about a Herald columnist’s contention that Pictou has the highest cancer rates in NS, and the noxious Northern Pulp mill might be responsible. Several readers pointed out that recent figures on cancer rates by county and by district health authority are available at Cancer Care Nova Scotia’s website. The results do not support the claim that Pictou residents suffer from “the highest cancer rates in Nova Scotia.”

Here is the 2010 incidence of all cancers per 100,000 people for Nova Scotia’s 18 counties:

NS Cancer Rates by County

Women in Pictou had the sixth highest overall cancer rate out of 18 counties; Pictou men had the 13th highest.

Ranked by health district, Pictou women were the fifth highest out of nine, and just slightly above the provincial average; Pictou men were eighth out of nine, and well below the provincial average:

NS Cancer Rates by Health District

Cancer stats need to be interpreted with care. There is a rich trove of  information in the 2014 edition of Canadian Cancer Statistics, a 132-page report by Canadian Cancer Statistics Advisory Committee, an arm of the Canadian Cancer Society. The report also offers important cautions about how to interpret the data:

Geographic variations in incidence rates may be due to differences in modifiable risk factors, such as unhealthy diet, smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Differences in incidence rates may also be related to different provincial or territorial programs or procedures for the diagnosis and early detection of cancer, such as approved screening programs and the availability of diagnostic services. Other factors may impact the interpretation of variations in projected rates among the provinces, including the following:

  • Cancer frequency – When a cancer is rare or the population is small, the estimated number of new cases of a cancer type may be subject to greater statistical variation.
  • Cancer registration method – While the registration of new cancer cases is generally very good across the country, there are exceptions. Incomplete registration is mainly linked to the unavailability and inaccuracy of death certificate data and specific diagnostic information in some provinces.
  • Method of projection – The selected method of projection (Nordpred Power5 regression model or five-year average) for provincial data can vary across provinces and across cancer types (see Tables A12 and A13 in Appendix II: Data sources and methods).
  • Availability of in situ cases – The large variation seen in bladder cancer incidence rates among the provinces is likely due to differences in reporting of in situ cases, especially in Ontario, where such cases were not collected until recently and were not available for this publication.

Or put another way, best not to sling around anecdotal claims about a widely feared disease when trying to build a case against an environmental scourge, however nasty.

Disclaimer:  The Northern Pulp plant is, was, and always has been an environmental scourge, and a shameful example of racism and politics at its worst. But there’s no evidence it’s causing cancer in Pictou County.

Does Pictou have higher cancer rates?

On Saturday, I questioned Herald columnist Gail Lethbridge’s contention that Pictou County has some of Canada’s highest cancer rates, and these may be attributable to noisome emissions from the Northern Pulp mill. Among other things, I faulted Lethbridge for not citing a source for her claims about cancer rates in Pictou, for not indicating which of the 200+ cancers are higher there, and for drawing conclusions about public health based on anecdotal evidence.

A Contrarian reader who worked at the “Cancer Lodge in Halifax” (which I take to mean the Canadian Cancer Society’s Daffodil Place) takes up the cause:

Many patients staying at the Lodge discussed how the number of cancer patients from the Pictou/Trenton area were higher than any other area in Nova Scotia. Out of sheer curiosity, I checked this out in the data files which I had access to, and lo and behold they were absolutely right. That area was far and away higher than any other area of Nova Scotia as far as cancer rates were concerned.

Well, maybe. Here are some factors I would want to consider before concluding that cancer rates are higher in Pictou County, let alone attributing those cancers to the Northern Pulp mill, obnoxious as it is:

Daffodil Place 250Does the Daffodil Lodge reflect the whole province? It provides “home-away-from-home” support for patients who travel to Halifax for cancer treatment. That eliminates patients from Metro, and those patients from surrounding counties who stay in their own homes during treatment. It eliminates most patients from Cape Breton, which has a cancer treatment centre of its own. Taken together, that’s well over half the province absent from the sample.

Does a confirmation bias kick in when “many patients discuss” the disproportionate number of Pictou-area residents at the lodge? Confirmations bias is our natural tendency to notice data that confirms a theory we’re considering, while overlooking conflicting data.

What demographic factors might be at play in Pictou County cancer rates? The Canadian Cancer Society cites Nova Scotia’s aging population as a “key factor” in cancer rates here.

Which of the 200+ types of cancer are patients at the Lodge being treated for? During the late 20th century, Industrial Cape Breton experienced high rates of cervical cancer. Some people tried to blame this on the Sydney Steel Plant, the Coke Ovens, or the Tar Ponds. But cervical cancer is a sexually transmitted disease, caused by human papilloma viruses (HPVs), with no indication of an environmental component, so the alleged industrial link didn’t stand up.

What confounding factors might contribute to high cancer rates in Pictou County? What are the rates of poverty and unemployment, both strongly correlated with ill health? What are smoking rates in the county? What other industries operate there?

What proportion of Pictou’s cancer patients work at the Northern Pulp mill? If noxious emissions are implicated in the cancer rates, plant workers would be the most susceptible, because their exposure to the fumes would be orders of magnitude higher than residents of the county in general.

The Northern Pulp mill has a disgusting history, and it continues to spread environmental blight in the air, water, and land around the plant. The province has been, by times, a co-conspirator in this blight and a feckless regulator. I would be happy to see the mill close, and the mess it created cleaned up.

But I think public health decisions should be based on evidence, not speculation.

A bad plant gets a dubious knock

Boat Harbour

A Gail Lethbridge column in today’s Herald claims the noxious Northern Pulp plant on the south side of Pictou Harbour is harming the health of Pictou County residents. Specifically, causing cancer.

Pictou County has the highest cancer rates in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia has some of the highest cancer rates in Canada. Studies have not established consistent and conclusive links between mill emissions and cancer, but chemicals in mill production and pollution are identified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Cancer Research.

And anecdotal evidence of respiratory problems, skin conditions, cardiovascular disease and cancers suffered by residents near the mill have led local doctors to identify mill emissions as a likely culprit.

The history of government and industry chicanery in the establishment of the former Scott Paper mill, and its record of environmental degradation, are scandalous, but Lethbridge’s health claims fall somewhere between tenuous and spurious.

I recognize her piece was not a peer-reviewed scientific journal article, but a newspaper column produced on deadline. Nevertheless, she provides no citations for startling claims about cancer rates in Pictou and Nova Scotia, nor does she indicate which of the 200+ cancers she is referring to. Lots of chemicals in everyday use are “identified as carcinogenic,” or toxic, but without knowing the dose, this information is meaningless. Dose is always crucial in evaluating such claims.

Lethbridge acknowledges that “[unidentified] studies have not established… links between mill emissions and cancer,” but goes on to cite “anecdotal evidence” of a hodgepodge of maladies that, she says, “[unnamed] local doctors” attribute to the plant. To state the obvious, studies that fail to establish something are not evidence of that thing. Anecdotes are notoriously misleading sources of medical conclusions, because they are prone to observer bias, cherry-picking, and inadequate sample size. When you hear, “anecdotal evidence” in connection with medical scares, best to think, “meaningless and probably misleading evidence.”

The Northern Pulp plant is a blight. Aside from the grotesque environmental damage it has visited on Pictou County, it is an iconic symbol of how the white race has mistreated, and continues to mistreat, Native Canadians. I will raise a lusty cheer when it finally closes. But is it causing cancer, heart attacks, or plantar warts?

Show us the evidence.

Fear of flying over the Ukraine

James Fallows has a couple of great pieces, here and here, on why the world should not blame Malaysia Airlines for flying over the eastern Ukraine while hostilities were underway 33,000 feet below. The nub of his argument is that restrictions on flight routes are rightly and necessarily the province of governments not airlines, and Flight 17 rigorously observed the limited restrictions governments had laid down—the equivalent of driving 63 mph in a 65 mph zone.

Equally important, “[A]ir transportation, like most other modern systems, could not operate if it fortified itself against every conceivable peril.” This is a lesson we forgot in the wake of 9/11, which is why a single attempted shoe bombing led to a decade of shoes-off orders.

The failure understand this essential fact of life—that we cannot achieve zero risk in any aspect of our existence—is one of the major problems facing contemporary society. Among many other things, it’s why young women and  men arrive at university having never made an autonomous decision about their personal safety. It’s why we’re outraged to discover that the second worst hurricane to strike Nova Scotia in 100 years produced power and telephone outages that lasted more than a few hours. It’s why the CBC and other broadcasters debase their journalistic standards with exaggerated warnings about trivial weather events, urging us to stay in our beds with the covers drawn up at the first sign of flurries. It’s why we suddenly  have 10-20 snow days a year in a province where children had previously made their way to school in snowstorms for 100 uneventful years.

Fallows includes this useful chart from Spiegel showing the number of flights by various airlines in the week before Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down:


Malaysia Airlines was in the middle of the pack.

Further evidence of Canada’s subpar marine protection

Yesterday I published two maps showing impressive efforts by nations large and small to establish massive marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A third map revealed Canada’s contrastingly anemic effort. Because this is not my field, I added this caution:

This is a complicated topic. It’s possible the comparisons above, in terms of the level and type of protection, do not present a fair picture. I don’t have the knowledge or background to evaluate that. But plenty of people in Halifax do, and I’d love to hear from them.

Hear from them I did. Chris Miller of Halifax, National Conservation Biologist with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, passed along this chart showing the protection effort of the 10 nations with the largest ocean estates. Canada placed dead last:

Marine Protected Ares Compared

These numbers predate President Obama’s recent pledge to significantly increase the already substantial MPA around Hawaii. Here is the outlook in map format, rounded to the nearest percent:

Percentage of Ocean Estate Protected

Both charts appear in a detailed assessment CPAWS published last month [PDF], beautifully illustrated and definitely worth a look.

Miller added this useful comment:

As with any assessment of this nature, there are intrinsic challenges with comparing very different jurisdictions… such as Canada, which has very few MPAs, but those we do are well enforced…versus countries that may have substantial MPAs, but ineffective enforcement (paper parks).

The trend toward really big MPAs being established is quite exciting…and definitely the direction the world needs to be moving.  Canada is lagging behind by doing one site at a time, and not clearing the path toward more effective and speedy implementation.

Susanna Fuller, longtime ocean activist with the Ecology Action Centre (and longtime friend of Contrarian) offers this snapshot of ocean protection in Canada:

  • Less than two percent protected in official marine protected areas
  • Commitment to the target of 10 percent by 2020 set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, but we don’t expect Canada to meet it
  • It takes about eight years to get a new MPA
  • Some new funding in the National Conservation Plan, which may get us a few new area closures
  • Lots of opposition from fishing industry, and I don’t think an overall respect for the fact that, just as we need terrestrial wilderness areas, we also need marine ones.
  • Needless to say, this government is not very proactive on marine protection, and has focused on economic exploitation
  • Australia has set up a plan for a huge marine reserve system; US has made good efforts as well, although the conservation community questions (rightly so) the efficacy of the marine sanctuary and national monument programs.
  • Always problems with enforcement, but those are getting easier with technology.
  • In Canada, we have a piecemeal system of closures from various activities (fishing mostly, and some shipping) but for the most part no comprehensive system or planning.
  • Efforts to do this are undermined by industry and in some cases provinces who are most interested in off shore energy.

An anonymous reader objected to my citing the United Kingdom’s establishment of an MPA around the Chagos Archipelago as an example of enlightened marine area stewardship. He linked to an opinion piece by Guardian writer Fred Pearce decrying the reserve as a case of environmental colonialism:

How do you greenwash a large airforce base? A base that is responsible for bombing nearby countries, and which was built on an island you confiscated from residents who are now living in exile on the other side of the world?

Easy. You announce the creation of a giant nature reserve which will be off-limits to its former inhabitants. Not to the military, of course. That might create complications. But the people-free zone will cover the islands and oceans all around. Then, if you’re really clever, you get the world’s premier network of conservation scientists to endorse your plan.

An activist involved in the Chagos protection responded, also anonymously:

Well, this is a very old story, and totally one-sided. It comes from the notion that you can’t have a marine reserve until you resolve all outstanding issues. [Opponents] did everything to undermine the process, despite the fact that a fair number of Chagossians supported the idea. Our line was whoever currently has it must properly protect it, and in the meantime, if governments resolve these issues then that is their concern.

Regardless of the colonial politics muddying that situation, it is beyond reasonable argument that Canada’s ocean stewardship has been dreadful. We fished out the Northern Cod, a resource of biblical proportions, while government cheered on the industrial fishery, an event that ranks with the extinction of the bison and the passenger pigeon in the annals of environmental crime. Yet it seems we are still putting the shortsighted interests of the fishing industry head of the national interest in protecting our ocean treasures.

Gannets, gannets, gannets—St. Peter’s Bay Division

Back in April, when most of the ground was still deep in snow, and migrating birds had to concentrate their foraging on the few open patches, an enormous swarm of dark-eyed juncos stormed through Boularderie Island. Driving between Kempt Head and Ross Ferry, I estimate I saw more than 1,000 in separate flocks of 20-50.

A similar nature spectacular unfolded this week along harbours and inlets where northern gannets gathered in great numbers to feed on schooling mackerel, and perhaps the smaller fish the mackerel themselves were chasing.

Marty MacDougall captured the spectacle and posted it to YouTube:

St. Peter's Bay



Because gannets spend most of their lives at sea, or in hard-to-reach cliffside nesting colonies, we don’t encounter them that often. When we do, from a distance, non-birders may overlook them as “just another gull.” In fact, they are among our most beautiful birds.


H/T: Laurie M-T

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