Category: Commerce

How to lie with graphs

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PC Leader Jamie Baillie’s election promise to hold power rates at current levels came in a position paper that included the following unsourced graph, purporting to show that something called “energy costs to rate payers,” measured in units it did not explain, have increased by 27 percent since 2009:


Wow, that certainly looks shocking!

Contrarian is no statistician, and my graphic skills are tenuous, but I read Darrell Huff‘s classic How to Lie with Statistics shortly after it came out in 1954, and Chapter 5, “The Gee Whiz Graph,” stuck with me. Of the persuasive power of graphs, Huff had this advice for readers deploying them to “win an argument, shock a reader, move him into action, sell him something:”

Chop off the bottom.

Baillie did exactly that with his “energy costs” graph. He chopped off the bottom 64% of the graph. If you start the y-axis at zero, and display the graph in the same horizontal format, it looks like this (with apologies to readers skilled in PhotoShop and Illustrator).


It’s still a significant increase, but not quite so scary or election-worthy as Baillie’s manipulated format. If anyone has the time to parse exactly what’s included in, and excluded from, “energy costs to rate payers,” I suspect we will find that Baillie has selected the fastest rising component of electricity bills to inflate his point.

Bear in mind, too, that the period covered by the graph roughly corresponds to a reduction in Nova Scotia Power’s use of dirty coal from 80 percent to just above 50 percent. That phenomenal drop is a good thing, rarely mentioned by the company’s critics.

Even so, it’s reasonable to ask whether there is some mechanism that could give Nova Scotia access to North American electricity markets and the pricing stability they could bring. Since the first electricity was produced in Nova Scotia early in the 20th Century, we have never had the ability to import or export significant amounts of power.

The reasonable answer is: The Maritime Link, whose principal side benefit, steadfastly ignored by critics, is the robust connection to the North American Grid it would create through Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec to the north, New Brunswick and New England to the west. Aside from a guaranteed 35-year supply of predictably priced power, that is the best argument for building The Maritime Link.

[Disclosure: From time to time, I have consulted for NS Power and Emera on issues related to power rates and the Maritime Link. Reasonable people can and do disagree about Nova Scotia energy issues, but they ought to avoid misleading graphics.]

Fuzzy Bacich and Facebook — compare and contrast

Peter Spurway thinks I’m romanticizing Don “Fuzzy” Bacich’s legendary crankiness about patrons who wanted to slather his delicious French fries with ketchup:

“… and another bastion of quality and tradition falters.”

Tradition, yes. Quality? No.

Not providing something that many of your customers would like to have has nothing to do with quality. It has everything to do with the perspective of the owner. While I certainly grant the owner the right to fashion their product to their own liking, they have to accept that a percentage of their current and potential customers are not going to like it and it will be seen by some as a detraction from the offering.

A lazy choice of words on my part. Still, the eccentricity of refusing to supply ketchup at your chip wagon reflects a certain charming integrity.

Some guy named Silas* in Orangedale writes:

There is a funny contrast between the top two stories on contrarian tonight.  One praises the unfortunately named Fuzzy’s Fries for refusing to bow to their customers’ wishes re condiments.  The other criticizes Facebook for doing refusing to bow to it’s customers’ wishes re locations.  Rooting for the little guy is a bias I share with Contrarian, but I’ll be darned if I can come up with a sensible justification.

How about persnicketiness? Will that do?

* [Disclosure: Orangedale resident Silas Barss Donham is my son.]

Under new management — corrected


This afternoon, in a move sure to flabbergast longtime French fry fans in Sydney, a worker at Fuzzy’s Fries offered a patron a plastic packet of ketchup.

FuzzKetch-closeCivilization, as we know it, may be in peril.

Former owner Don “Fuzzy” Bacich, who founded the landmark chip wagon at The Esplanade and Townsend St. 40 years ago,* offered a selection of salt, pepper, and vinegar, but had no truck with ketchup.

He knew his proud creations owed their universal acclaim to the golden simplicity of their potatoey goodness. A little salt? Certainly. Some vinegar? Sure. But to slather his chips with the garish, tomato-based condiment was to to debase them.

So vehemently did Bacich hove to this creed, legend had him berating customers who dared even inquire as to the availability of the red stuff. Fairly or unfairly, this habit won Bacich a sobriquet based on the fictional owner of a Manhattan soup shop regularly featured on a longrunning New York-based sitcom.

But time marches on, and another bastion of quality and tradition falters.

* [CORRECTION] Contrarian reader Weldon Boone writes to say Bacich acquired the chip stand from a Montrealer named John Landmeyer, who founded the operation in 1959. At the time, Boone worked with the late Jack Colombus at CHER, which aired Fuzzy’s Fries commercials. [Thanks to Contrarian reader John MacNeil for supplying Mr. Landmeyer’s last name.]

Wallboard to go (some assembly required)


The 226-metre, 24,535-tonne, self-unloading Canadian bulk carrier Algoma Mariner, presumably laden with Little Narrows gypsum, passed Ross Ferry at 7 p.m., Saturday, working its way out the Great Bras d’Or Channel against an incoming tide. Built on the Yangtze River, near Jiangyin, China, in 2011, at a cost of more than $50 million, it is powered by an unusual low-speed, two-stroke, six-cylinder engine. The Mariner is owned by the Algoma Central Corp. of Ste. Catherine’s, Ontario, and registered in Port Colbourne.

‘Force Canadians to pay us,’ free-market Sun News asks CRTC

There is something deliciously ironic about free-market ideologues asking a government commission to force consumers to buy their product.

Kory Teneycke, former Harper flak and SunNews VP turned government handout seeker

Kory Teneycke, former Harper flak and SunNews VP turned government handout seeker

That’s what SunNews, the right-wing Canadian cable news channel, is asking the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.

SunNews has been a dud in the market. Canadians have chosen not to watch what’s often called Fox News North. So the tax-and-spend hypocrits at Sun want to force-feed us by getting the CRTC to require cable companies to put them in the basic cable package, a notion called mandatory carriage.

If the CRTC agrees, the Fox North flop would get a piece of every Canadian cable subscriber’s basic fee—like it or not. In an Orwellian twist, Sun calls this government enforced revenue grab, “choice.”

The CRTC should make short work of this nonsense, but in the age of Harper, who can say what it will do?

The deadline for sending the CRTC a comment on the FoxNews application has passed, but there’s still time to sign an online petition by Avaaz, a left-leaning citizen advocacy organization. In six months of TV pitches, SunNews gathered 53,000 signatures on a petition of support. Avaaz wants to “blow that number out of the water” in six days.

You can sign here.

[Disclosure: I do a some work for Seaside High Speed, whose sister company, Seaside Communications, runs a small cable system in New Waterford and Glace Bay. I have no idea whether Seaside carries SunNews, or what its views on the SunNew application might be.]

A thumb on the weather scale — reaction

Most of the listeners who responded to my debate with CBC manager Andrew Cochran about the network’s (in my view) inflated coverage of weather are just fine with the CBC’s weather treatment.

Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening.

Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening: Pavement dry; precipitation nil.

This doesn’t surprise me. Some people like being frightened about weather, just as others like being frightened about crime. Lurid coverage of crime by some media has led to a sharp increase in the public perception of personal risk from crime even as crime rates have plummeted. I see a parallel with public perception of weather risk.

Two listeners added interesting points to the debate.

Geoffrey May of Margaree said forecasts have become more extreme because weather has become more extreme—a result of climate change. Maybe Geoff can supply confirming data, but my subjective impression supports his view. Let me be clear, however: It’s not detailed reporting of occasional serious storms that I object to; It’s inflated reporting of routine storms, as if they were serious. What Oran sports reporter Bill Dunphy deliciously termed, “radio storms.”

Rosemary Algar of Cape North, a listener who shares my annoyance at weather hyperbole, pointed out a subtle result of our current timorous approach. We are teaching our children, she said, that at the first sign of inconvenience, it’s OK to stay home and disregard our responsibilities to work and school.

Worse still, it’s school officials who are delivering that message.

Putting the ‘home’ in Homeland Security

I thought I’d witnessed an impressive milestone in the annals of retail marketing Sunday when I came upon a BestBuy vending machine in Halifax’s Stanfield Airport that dispenses iPads.

Two hours later, in the Icelandair departure lounge at Boston’s Logan Airport, Brookstone trumped BestBuy with its display of personal helicopter drones. For US$299, you can have your own Parrot AR Drone Quadricopter, equipped with two HD video cameras (one facing front and the other pointing earthward), all controlled by an app on your iPhone or iPad.

Steve from the Brookstone store gave Balgovind Pande and me a demo:

[Video link]

Parrot claims battery life sufficient for a 45-minute flight. at a controllable distance of up to three football fields.

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has pondered a future in which everyone has a drone, and the possibly counterintuitive impact on personal privacy.

Hard-pressed parents beget lavish tooth fairies

Visa has released a new iPhone app that uses survey data to help parents calculate the going rate for tooth fairy emoluments, based on a parents’ gender, age, income, location, and educational attainment. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal played with the app for a while and came up with in interesting discovery that doesn’t really surprise me much:

The smaller the amount I put in for household income, the greater the size of the average tooth fairy’s gift. In fact, I was only able to get calculator to output $5 by setting my household income to $20k per year and selecting that my highest level of educational attainment was high school. Grad school degree holders making more than $150,000 per year gave their kids an average of $1 per tooth.

The right to wheel energy: sacred for Alberta; nonexistent for NFLD

It would be an exaggeration to say the right wing voices who dominate Canadian media commentary have risen in unison to condemn BC’s pitch for a share of Northern Gateway pipeline spoils, but the clamor has certainly been one-sided.

BC Premier Christy Clark’s “attitude,” wrote Kelly McParland, “is disastrous for Canada.” John Ibbitson called Clark’s demands “dangerous,” and urged Prime Minister Harper to step in. Rex Murphy bemoaned the premiers’ declining “intellectual and emotional connection to the national understanding.” Andrew Coyne called it “extortion.” Rob Russo told CBC Radio the fabric of the nation was at stake. A Globe and Mail editorial declared, “there is little precedent for the sort of compensation Ms. Clark is calling for.”

Really? No precedent? Contrarian reader Ivan Smith recalls a precedent:

There is a glaring omission in all news reports I’ve seen — not a whisper of a hint of the striking similarity between BC’s attitude toward Alberta in this energy dispute and the attitude of Quebec toward Newfoundland in 1969.

The 1969 power contract between Hydro-Quebec and the Churchill Falls Labrador Corporation has been a matter of enduring resentment in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Actually, BC’s attitude is far less confrontational than was Quebec’s in 1969. All BC is asking is a share of the oil royalty. If BC followed the example of Quebec in 1969, it would be demanding that the oil coming through the pipeline be sold to BC as it crossed the border. Then BC could do with that oil exactly as it pleases, with no interference from Alberta.

Compared to this 1969 example of how to handle energy sent from one province to another, BC’s demand for a share of the royalties is moderate indeed. But the media has failed to mention this.

As Yul Brynner once said, it’s a puzzlement.

It’s a measure of just how fully Rex Murphy has lost his bearings that he could declaim his way through an entire column on this subject without once recalling his home province’s egregious fate as a would-be exporter of hydroelectricity.

One neocon commentator who did not overlook this sorry chapter in the annals of Canadian disunity was Brian Lee Crowley of the Mcdonald-Laurier Institute:

Occasionally we regrettably fail to uphold this standard, like when, in the 1960s, Ottawa allowed Quebec to rake off all the economic benefit of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Churchill Falls hydroelectric project. That was to abet an injustice for which Newfoundland is still paying dearly. All because Ottawa shamefully preferred politics to its nation-building responsibilities.

Forty-three years into the Hydro Quebec-Churchill Falls contract, Newfoundland has been forced to build two undersea cables in order to export and sell Muskrat Falls power generated in its own territory. Scarcely any of our Albertaphilic pundits even seem to notice.

Meaningful WTCC consultation? Or PR frippery?

Spoken word artist and social advocate Ardath Whynacht won’t be taking part in the public consultations  MT&L and Myrgan Inc. are conducting to smooth the way for Joe Ramia’s controversy-plagued Nova Centre in downtown Halifax. Her post at the Halifax Media Co-op website didn’t mince words:

To engage a single demographic in an orchestrated PR stunt, letting them believe that Joe Ramia and his development cronies will actually entertain the idea of having an after-school drop in centre in their luxury hotel is a crime against democracy. It is a lie. Consultation without a commitment to listen to the citizens is a PR stunt. And I believe too many Haligonians are being fooled into thinking that this process is legitimate.

Our food bank is broke. Youth programs are cut. Addictions services are being shut down. So to be honest, for all the facilitators who are turning a pretty buck off this consultation, you can take your Nova Centre and shove it up your “it’s gonna happen anyway, so let’s make it beautiful” bourgeoisie ass.

I get the sentiment. The cute, hand-drawn consultation flow chart on the chain link fence surrounding the Argyle Street construction demolition site seems too slick by half. Nevertheless, the public has responded with surprisingly insightful if epigrammatic suggestions in the tiny cards the PR campaigners provided.

I can’t make up my mind about the Nova Centre. The city and the province need spaces capable of housing top-notch conferences and conventions, but with tens of millions in subsidies, government has put its thumb on the scale of office and hotel construction in the city for a generation to come. Future property developers will face a market in which Ramia has been given an artificial leg up, while they must play by the rules of supply and demand.

I don’t worry so much about the view from Citadel Hill as about what this massive building will do to one of the most successful commercial streets in Atlantic Canada. The wonderful collection of bars, bistros, and restaurants along Argyle St. will benefit from visitors, workers, and residents drawn to the street, but do they really need a 210-foot wall blocking the sun, the moon, and the sky? Will an unfriendly first storey replicate the calamitous Granville Street MetroPark that Kate Carmichael fought with her dying breath? Or the Nova Scotia Government’s more recent architectural vandalism in the form of the empty Barrington Street facade of the Johnston Building?

It would be nice to believe a genuine public consultation could head off such monstrosities. Time will tell.

H/T: SP.

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