Category: That’s life

Big fan

On the outskirts of River John, Nova Scotia, my grandson Josh spotted one of his favourite things in the world:

HRM Planning Dept. riddle

Q: When is a candy store no different from a surf shop?

A: When HRM’s planning department wants to avoid enforcing accessibility standards.

Just over two years ago, Halifax developer Mickey MacDonald caused a scandal by opening a Chicken Burger restaurant in a completely inaccessible building on Queen St. in downtown Halifax. HRM’s Planning Department gave MacDonald an occupancy permit despite his flagrant disregard for the Canada Building Code.

As a result of this negligence, no disabled person could patronize Chicken Burger, let alone work there. It was as if Mickey MacDonald, Mayor Mike Savage Peter Kelly*, and all the members of HRM Council had slapped a sign on the building reading, “Wheelchair users not welcome.”

Only after disability rights activist Gus Reed kicked up a fuss did the city begrudgingly enforce its own rules requiring any building that undergoes a change of use to meet Building Code requirements for accessibility. MacDonald put up a ramp, and the city received a rash of negative publicity.

Two years have passed, and less than two blocks down Queen Street, HRM’s Planning Department has once again issued an occupancy permit allowing a new business to open in a completely inaccessible building. This time, Sweet Jane’s candy store has taken over space previously used by a surf shop.

Here is the former Ifonly surf shop at Queen and Morris. Three concrete steps barred access to anyone in a wheelchair.

Sweet Jane Before

Here’s the new Sweet Jane’s candy store. Three concrete steps bar access to anyone in a wheelchair.


How could this happen?

I put the question to HRM planning staff. The answer: “It is a continuing use as long as it’s ‘mercantile.’”

A candy store, it seems, is no different from a surf shop, at least as far as keeping out people in wheelchairs.

If Mayor Mike Savage and District 7 Councillor Waye Mason put a sign on Sweet Jane’s reading, “No Jews allowed,” they’d be run out of office. Same if they put up a sign saying “Men only” or “No Negroes need apply.” But they can preside over an administration that lets new businesses bar entry to an entire class of citizens—users of wheelchairs—without a moment’s hesitation. The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, so quick to complain if a newspaper cartoon offends anyone, sits idly by.

Mike Savage is the son of the most celebrated humanitarian to enter public life in Nova Scotia in the last half century. Waye Mason is feted on social media as the very paragon of a progressive municipal politician. They and Mason’s fellow councillors are responsible for making and enforcing building standards in HRM.

It is beyond disgraceful that they allow this situation to continue.

There is one thing surf shops and candy stores have in common: Both should be fully wheelchair accessible. Let people decide their own limits. Don’t let negligent storekeepers and bureaucrats impose limits on them.

* Correction: Shaune MacKinlay, policy advisor to Mayor Savage, points out that he was not yet mayor at the time of the Chicken Burger ramp controversy, as I implied.


A few months ago, an email from the Atlantic science blogger Alexis Madrigal introduced me to the word lagniappe, pronounced LAN-yap. It means a small bonus a merchant bestows on a customer, “something given over and above what is purchased” (Oxford English Dictionary). It’s akin to the 13th donut in a baker’s dozen, or those promotional mini bottles the Liquor Commission sometimes attaches to the necks of 40-ouncers, except it’s proffered only after the sale has been completed and paid for.

Hand with mini bagIn current use, it’s mainly confined to the New Orleans area, where such petit gratuities were once a local tradition, albeit one resented by shopkeepers, who considered lagniappe a curse and collaborated to stamp it out.

Mark Twain liked the word, and wrote about it in Life on the Mississippi:

We picked up one excellent word—a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word—’lagniappe.’ They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish—so they said.

We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth.

It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. …If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says ‘For lagniappe, sah,’ and gets you another cup without extra charge.

I assumed it might be a Cajun word, perhaps of Acadian origin, but today, on Slate’s linguistics podcast, Lexicon Valley, Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, explained it comes from Quechua, a native South American language spoken mainly in the Andes.

Joseph E. Gillet, a Belgian-born professor of Spanish at Bryn Mawr, traced its passage from the Andes to New Orleans in the April 1939 issue of the journal, American Speech. From Peru, it spread across South and Central America to the eastern shore of Panama, thence throughout the Caribbean, until it reached Puerto Rico and the eastern end of Cuba. In the late 1700s, when New Orleans was briefly part of New Spain, many people from Puerto Rico and Cuba came to the city, bringing lagniappe with them.

Along the way, use by local speakers of Spanish and French caused the word to morph from yapay (Quechua) to la ñapa (Spanish) to lagniappe (Creole).

As a lagniappe to this blog post, here’s a list of English words derived from Quechua: coca, coke, and cocaine (all from the coca plant); condor; guano; jerky; lagniappe; lima; llama; maté; poncho, puma; quinine and quinoa (which share the same Quechuan root); and vicuña.

Out of balance

Data journalism doesn’t have to be complicated. The front page of this morning’s St. Louis Post Dispatch compares the percentage of African Americans in 31 Missouri municipalities with the percentage in their respective police forces:


Not just another silly ALS bucket challenge video

Employees of Seaside Communications,* the Cape Breton company that built what is thought to be the world’s largest fixed wireless Internet system,** took the bucket challenge yesterday in support of fellow employee Darryl Bach, an IT systems administrator who has been living with ALS since 2011.

Seaside videographer Jason LeFrense, whose videos about the late Ryan Gillis and the Weird Bread Troupe have won wide praise, put together this account of Bach’s life with the illness, and the friends and co-workers who gathered to cheer him on yesterday.

It’s Darryl who makes the video so compelling, avoiding slogans but instead giving a matter-of-fact account of what the disease is like, how it came into his life, and the steps he has taken to remain in charge of his affairs while ALS takes charge of his body.

* Disclosure: I have done consulting work for Seaside since 2008.

** Seaside’s fixed wireless Internet service, built under the Broadband for Rural Nova Scotia project, provides Internet access across more than 30,000 square kilometres of highly varied Nova Scotia landscape. The territory comprises rural portions of 10 counties (HRM, Cumberland, Colchester, Pictou, Antigonish, Guysborough, Inverness, Victoria, Richmond, and CBRM). Many fixed wireless networks have more customers, but we know of none that spans such a large geographical area.

Jane Kansas looks back 50 years, and forward to eternity

Halifax filmmaker Andrea Dorfman made Lost and Found, the short movie below about Halifax artist and writer Jane Kansas, in 2008. I somehow missed it until this morning, when someone posted it on Facebook.

That’s timely, because Kansas’s one-woman exhibit, “Kansas: Fifty Year Retrospective,” opens tonight (Aug. 23) at (((Parentheses))) Gallery, 2168 Gottingen St. The exhibit is sure to be head-shakingly funny, arresting, insightful, and touching. Kansas is one of the most original and talented artists in Nova Scotia. When I featured excerpts from the travel blog of her solo walk across the continental US on (here and here), I wrote:

What Nova Scotia journalist writes this well? Harry Thurston, maybe? Silver Donald Cameron on his best daysHarry Bruce? None of these have Jane’s knack for quirky insights combined with raw self-exposure.

Tonight’s opening, 7-9 pm, features a rare public appearance by artist, who is not fond of crowds or spotlights. The exhibit will stay up until September 14.

Kansas’s play, “My Funeral: the dry run,” featuring Jane along with mourners Jackie Torrens, Hugo Dann, Tara Thorne, Jane Wright, and Lis van Berkel, opens Aug. 29 at (((Parentheses))), and runs through Sept. 6.

Lost and Found (2008) from Andrea Dorfman on Vimeo. Dorfman may be best known for her viral video, How to be Alone, 6.8 million views.



Is it last call for newspapers?

Clay Shirky thinks so. He cites this graph:


Journalists have been infantilized throughout the last decade, kept in a state of relative ignorance about the firms that employ them. A friend tells a story of reporters being asked the paid print circulation of their own publication. Their guesses ranged from 150,000 to 300,000; the actual figure was 35,000. If a reporter was that uninformed about a business he was covering, he’d be taken off the story….

Contrary to the contrived ignorance of media reporters, the future of the daily newspaper is one of the few certainties in the current landscape: Most of them are going away, in this decade. (If you work at a paper and you don’t know what’s happened to your own circulation or revenue in the last few years, now might be a good time to ask.) We’re late enough in the process that we can even predict the likely circumstance of its demise.

I have no reason to think he’s wrong. The odd thing is that, even as newspapers slip into free-fall, the ordinary citizen’s access to top quality reporting and commentary has never been better. This unprecedented cornucopia of information has masked the decline of newspapers, even as reporting by men and women still employed by newspapers has fuelled so much of it.

Shirky is clear-eyed about what their loss will mean:

The death of newspapers is sad, but the threatened loss of journalistic talent is catastrophic. If that’s you, it’s time to learn something outside the production routine of your current job. It will be difficult and annoying, your employer won’t be much help, and it may not even work, but we’re nearing the next great contraction. If you want to get through it, doing almost anything will be better than doing almost nothing.

H/T: Steve Manley


Lost and found

Four days ago, burglars broke into LaHave folksinger Darren Arsenault‘s house and made off with a clutch of treasured vintage instruments: an early 1960s gibson long neck banjo; a handmade Gilles acoustic guitar with a redwood top, butternut back and sides; a black Baritone guitar, and some recording gear.

Arsenault posted this message on his Facebook page:


As of today, when Arsenault posted the update below, 561 Facebook members had shared the message on their Facebook pages.


Whatever else you might say about social networks, they seem to be pretty effective at inspiring the return of stolen musical instruments.

Great art in ugly rooms

If you’ve ever wondered what Alexander Calder‘s work might look like in a strip club, check out the Great Art in Ugly Rooms Tumblr Blog:

Calder in a strip club

H/T: Sorry, can’t recall who or what led me to this gem.

New Glasgow has one, too — Updated


Yesterday I wondered why small town police forces in the US thought they needed mine-resistant armoured vehicles. This morning I marvelled that Keene NH, pop. 23,409, had asked for and received a Lenco Bearcat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck) to protect its annual pumpkin festival from potential terrorist attacks. In an update this afternoon, I discovered that Ottawa Police have a Lenco Bearcat of their own.

Now thanks to an alert Contrarian reader with Pictou County roots, I know New Glasgow Regional Police have obtained a Canadian Forces surplus Cougar Light Armoured Vehicle. That’s it pictured above, with Emergency Response Team members from New Glasgow, Stellarton and Westville.

(The guy in the wool trench coat on the right is not a tact squad member, much as he might like to be. Peter MacKay, MP for Central Nova, was Minister of National Defence when the surplus unit was donated.) *

When the acquisition became public in March, 2013, police spokesman Const. Ken MacDonald admitted he couldn’t “recall an incident where we’ve needed a vehicle like this in the past,” but he was pretty sure it would come in handy in the future, “as a defensive tool, in case we need to go into a hostile situation to rescue fellow officers or victims.”

When local residents derided the acquisition on social media, MacDonald defended its utility to the New Glasgow Evening News:

There is a slew of situations [it would be used in], but overall, it would be used to evacuate or rescue citizens, transport officers to a dangerous situation that they may need to get into, transporting them from a dangerous situation that they may be in, for example different types of gun calls, different types of situations that endanger not only the public, but the officers as well. This is added protection for officers that happen to go into a dangerous situation or from a dangerous situation and also added cover and safety for rescuing members of the general public….

We live in a very safe community. Our community is safe, but the reason why we have an emergency response team, the reason we have an Armoured Vehicle General Purpose is solely due to the fact that it is resources that we have at our disposal. We have them there in case we need them.

You get the sense there’s some equipment envy going on in Canada, as police here look across the border and see their US counterparts acquiring vast stores of military weaponry. MacDonald again:

It’s not a new thing. Police Forces across North America have them at their disposal. When the time comes when we require it, it is going to be a very, very valuable benefit.

Windsor, Ontario, also snagged a Canadian Forces surplus Cougar, and MacKay told the Evening News Cape Breton Regional Police had also requested one.

[UPDATE] Police spokesperson Desiree Vassallo said CBRM never obtained a Cougar. “There were some discussions,” she told Contrarian, “but nothing came of it.” The CBRM website says its Emergency Response Team, “uses Chevrolet Suburban vehicles, as well as an an armoured vehicle that can be used to rescue injured civilians or officers,” but Vassallo said this unit has been with the force since before amalgamation in 1995. She did not know if it was military surplus.

Just by the way, the website also lists, “MP5A3 9 mm Submachine Guns, Remington 700 bolt-action Sniper Rifles, Remington 870 Shotguns, Diemaco C8 Carbines, X26 Tasers, Pepper spray (OC Spray) and Tear Gas (CS Gas), Rubber Bullets and Bean Bag Rounds.”

C’est la guerre.


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* [Update] From Contrarian reader Bill Turpin:

Even the dog knows it’s a stupid idea. It clearly doesn’t want to be in the photo. The good news: New Glasgow is armed and ready to fend off amalgamation.

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