Category: Technology

Cherry Ferguson Award: Melissa Blake


[Editor’s Note: In a scrum with reporters late in his fourth, scandal-plagued term as Premier of Nova Scotia, John Buchanan famously defended one Cherry Ferguson, a favoured civil servant who’d been discovered to be holding down three senior provincial government jobs. His exact words are lost to history, but they ran along these lines: “She doesn’t have three jobs. She’s Deputy Clerk of the House, Chief Electoral Officer, and a lawyer for the Workers’ Compensation Board. That’s not three jobs.” To honour this great moment in political communication, Contrarian  from time to time presents the Cherry Ferguson Award to an official who can stare an obvious but unpleasant truth in the face, in broad daylight, where all the world can see it, and declare it not to be there.]

Today’s award goes to Melissa Blake, Mayor of the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality, who voiced pique at singer Neil Young’s declaration that Fort McMurray is “a wasteland” that “looks like Hiroshima.”

When people say it’s a wasteland, it really and truly isn’t. When it comes to the community of Fort McMurray, you’re overwhelmed, frankly, by the beauty of it. You’ve got an incredible boreal environment that’s all around you. You proceed further north into the oil sands and inevitably, there’s mining operations that will draw your attention because they take up large chunks of land.

Fort Mac is part of Mayor Blake’s Wood Buffalo municipality. Feast yours eyes on the beauty of its surroundings.

Tar Sands4


Tar Pit #3


And finally, the trailer for Petropolis, a Greenpeace advocacy doc on the Tar Sands:

[Video link]

It’s all content. It’s just story.

Perhaps you have seen this speech Kevin Spacey gave at the Edinburgh Television Festival last month. It’s been making the rounds on tech and entertainment sites, and has more than a million views. But if not, please take four minutes for the pithiest explanation I’ve heard of the disruption that has upended the television and motion picture industries. [Video link]

A few excerpts:

The success of the Netflix model—releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once—proves one thing: The audience wants the control. They want the freedom….

Through this new form of distribution we have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn: Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it….

If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show? The device and length are irrelevant … For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game Of Thrones on their computer. It’s all content. It’s all story….

The audience has spoken They want stories. They’re dying for them.

It’s not just drama. Major League Baseball figured out six years ago that people wanted access to their games on many more platforms than the traditional TV screen or radio receiver. They created, which allows radio and TV broadcasts of every major league game from spring training to the World Series to be played on any computer, tablet, or smartphone, and fans were delighted to pay a reasonable fee for that flexibility.

If Spacey is right, and I think he is, then the Canadian companies that buy the rights to US content, and then insist that US websites carrying that content block Canadian viewers, will pay a big price for robbing viewers of control.

H/T: Leo Laporte and Christine Crawford

Meet the odd couple who nettle the NSA from a dog- and monkey-filled jungle retreat*


Please read journalist Peter Maass’s spellbinding account of how reporter/polemicist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras collaborated in bringing to light NSA leaker Edward J. Snowden’s disclosures about massive illegal spying by the US Government.

Seriously, if you read nothing else this week, do read this richly detailed, 10,000-word account of how Snowden made contact with Poitras, how Poitras roped Greenwald into the project, and how they communicate privately when all three are targeted by the most sophisticated electronic spying in the world.

It reads alternately like a novel, a spy thriller, a quirky travelog, and most importantly, like detailed expose of the American security apparatus run amok. I am not by inclination paranoid, but this article convinced me I need to learn how to encrypt electronic communications. There’s even a Q&A Maass conducted with Snowdon over multiply encrypted links to his Moscow hideout.

Greenwald lives and works in a house surrounded by tropical foliage in a remote area of Rio de Janeiro. He shares the home with his Brazilian partner and their 10 dogs and one cat, and the place has the feel of a low-key fraternity that has been dropped down in the jungle. The kitchen clock is off by hours, but no one notices; dishes tend to pile up in the sink; the living room contains a table and a couch and a large TV, an Xbox console and a box of poker chips and not much else. The refrigerator is not always filled with fresh vegetables. A family of monkeys occasionally raids the banana trees in the backyard and engages in shrieking battles with the dogs.

Greenwald does most of his work on a shaded porch, usually dressed in a T-shirt, surfer shorts and flip-flops. Over the four days I spent there, he was in perpetual motion, speaking on the phone in Portuguese and English, rushing out the door to be interviewed in the city below, answering calls and e-mails from people seeking information about Snowden, tweeting to his 225,000 followers (and conducting intense arguments with a number of them), then sitting down to write more N.S.A. articles for The Guardian, all while pleading with his dogs to stay quiet. During one especially fever-pitched moment, he hollered, “Shut up, everyone,” but they didn’t seem to care.

Amid the chaos, Poitras, an intense-looking woman of 49, sat in a spare bedroom or at the table in the living room, working in concentrated silence in front of her multiple computers. Once in a while she would walk over to the porch to talk with Greenwald about the article he was working on, or he would sometimes stop what he was doing to look at the latest version of a new video she was editing about Snowden. They would talk intensely — Greenwald far louder and more rapid-fire than Poitras — and occasionally break out laughing at some shared joke or absurd memory. The Snowden story, they both said, was a battle they were waging together, a fight against powers of surveillance that they both believe are a threat to fundamental American liberties.

It’s a wonderful piece of reporting about a courageous pair of reporters picking up the slack left by the supine mainstream news giants.

If Maass’s 10,000 words don’t exhausted you, please also check out a much shorter piece, The NSA Is Commandeering the Internet on The Atlantic’s website. Security expert Bruce Schneier (he coined the phrase, “security theatre”) pleads with executives of giant technology company’s to fight back against US government spying.

Most of the largest Internet companies provide information to the NSA, betraying their users. Some, as we’ve learned, fight and lose. Others cooperate, either out of patriotism or because they believe it’s easier that way.

I have one message to the executives of those companies: fight.

Lastly, The Takeaway podcast has a good interview with Maass about his piece.

[*Yes, I know, Greenwald and Poitras are not a couple in the usual sense, and only Greenwald resides in Rio. Poitras, a Massachusetts native, lives in New York City when she is not in precautionary exile, as she is now. In this 2012 Salon story, Greenwald details the harassment Poitras faces in her home country.]

Another day, another newspaper sold for 5¢ on the dollar


The tagline at the top of this blog, which many readers will recognize as a phrase from the 1967 Beatles song, A Day in the Life, was also the name of a column I wrote for the Boston Globe, where I worked from 1968 to 1970.

It was my first job in journalism. The Globe was the most progressive big city daily in the United States, the only one to favour unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam.  It was also a great place to work. In an era of political and cultural tumult, the paper’s managers reached out to rebellious young readers in a concerted way. I was 23 when I started there. The paper’s senior editors indulged me with generosity I still marvel at 45 years later.

One weekend in 1970, the Nixon White House called reporters in on short notice. The Globe’s regular White House crew was unavailable, so Tom Oliphant, who would go on to cover 10 presidential campaigns and share in a Pulitzer Prize, got his first White House assignment on 10 minutes notice.

Oliphant, in his early 20s, arrived in the sneakers and casual clothes he’d been wearing when summoned. He found Press Secretary Ron Ziegler and introduced himself as a Globe staffer. Ziegler looked the young reporter up and down with evident disdain and said, “Figures.”

Tom Winship, the Globe’s editor-in-chief at the time, recounted the incident to me with a satisfied chuckle.

The Globe consistently ranks among the top 10 U.S. newspapers. Over the last half century, it has won 22 Pulitzer Prizes, often for exposing wrongdoing in high places. It won for “massive and balanced coverage of the Boston school desegregation crisis” (during which bullets flew through windows in the paper’s newsroom),”courageous, comprehensive coverage in its disclosures of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church,” and a series on racism that included self-criticism.

All the while, circulation plummeted. In 1993, when the New York Times Company bought the Globe from the family that had piloted it for a century, it had a weekday circulation of 506,996. Today, Monday to Friday circulation stands at 245,572, a 52 percent drop. With plunging newspaper sales, ad revenue hemorrhaged, and the rise of the internet vaporized lucrative classified sales.

Last week, the New York Times Company sold the Globe to the owner of the Boston Red Sox, thefolklorically named John Henry. The sale price was $70 million, a figure the Times story called “a staggering drop in value.” For a sense of perspective, consider that six years ago, the Red Sox paid the same amount, $70 million, for the services of outfielder J.D. Drew. Given that the Times will retain the Globe’s estimated $110 million pension liabilities, you could say the price was negative $40 million.

Included in the sale were another Massachusetts daily, the Worcester Telegram; Gazette; the websites,, and; the direct-mail marketing company Globe Direct; and the Times’s 49 percent interest in Metro Boston, a free daily akin to Halifax Metro. The Times paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993, and six years later spent another $295 million to acquire the Telegram & Gazette—a total investment of nearly $1.4 billion. Twenty years later it sold them for 1/20th of that amount.

Within days, news of the Globe sale was eclipsed by the Graham family’s sale of the once mighty Washington Post to Amazon founder and internet visionary Jeff Bezos for $250 million. In public statements, Bezos spoke respectfully of the paper’s role as a public trust, but speculation abounds as to his reasons for the purchase. Is it a billionaire’s act of philanthropy, to ensure an important institution’s survival? A Washington lobbying tool, as Amazon comes under increasing legislative and regulatory scrutiny? Or does Bezos believe his proven insights into consumer dynamics in the internet age can restore elusive value to journalistic enterprises?

You have to hope it’s door number three. We are surely in the final decade or two of the printed newspaper. Bezos, who developed the Kindle, is as well placed as anyone to figure out what will replace dead tree editions.  As Nova Scotians watch the Chronicle-Herald struggle through the same disruptions that humbled the Globe and the Post, let’s hope he finds a model that works.

You know the Internet is catching on when…

…Billy Joe MacLean, 75, Mayor of Port Hawkesbury, invites you to join his LinkedIn network.


Can Jim Nunn be far behind?

Tar Ponds transition nears completion

2013-07-17 Tar Ponds View to Northwest copy

Capping and containment of the last sections of the former Sydney Tar Ponds nears completion. Looking northwest from the top of the old Sysco slag heap, this image, taken Wednesday evening, shows the mouth of the newly restored Muggah Creek. What appears to be black soil at the side of the stream is actually plastic sheeting, part of the engineered containment system for the stabilized and solidified coal byproducts below.

2013-07-17 Tar Ponds Southwest view copy

From the same vantage point, the view to the southwest shows the Ferry Street bridge in the distance. Containment and capping of solidified wastes in the north Tar Pond, on the far side of the bridge, is largely complete except for sodding, planting, and site enhancements.

The monkey will soon be off Sydney’s back.

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.]

Some perspective on the Asiana crash

Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot blog adds an astounding data point to the accident, which killed at least two people and injured many more, some very seriously.

[T]his was the first multiple-fatality crash involving a major airline in North America since November, 2001. The streak has ended, but it lasted nearly twelve years, with some 20,000 commercial jetliners taking off and landing safely in this country every single day — an astonishing run. Is it perverse to suggest that Saturday’s accident, awful as it was, serves to underscore just how safe commercial flying has become? [Emphasis added]

20,000 x 365 days x 12 years = 87.6 million major airline flights, a jaw-dropping safety achievement.

Smith’s blog and that of James Fallows offer fascinating analysis of the crash, pitched mainly to lay readers. Another takeaway: That initial media and “aviation expert” speculation about the causes of a crash almost always proves to be wide of the mark.

Real world vs. Facebook’s world vs. Google’s world — Updated

Black Island Kempt Head

Facebook continually pesters me to entrer the “city” where I live, but rejects Kempt Head, Ross Ferry, Boularderie, and Cape Breton all of which are more-or-less accurate. It will allow me to enter Halifax, Sydney, or Baddeck, none of which is accurate.

Contrast this with Google, which embraces locations with admirable granularity. Google effortlessly adopts islands, villages, hamlets—even micro-locations like Frankie’s Pond and Parker’s Beach—as long as it sees real people using them.

This may seem a small thing, but it strikes me as a profound difference in the cultures of the two organizations. One constantly cajoles you into ill-fitting pigeonholes. The other looks at what you and those around you are actually doing, and continually updates and adjusts to this new information.

(Photos: Above: Black Island (in Gaelic, Island Dhu), Kempt Head, in the real world. Below: Black Island, Kempt Head, on Google Maps.)

Black Island


Marla Cranston points out the Purcell’s Cove dies not exist in Facebook World.

If Calvert, NL, native Jenn Power were so inclined, she could list Ferryland as her home town, but this would be like asking her to accept Big 8 in place of Diet Coke. Far worse, actually.

Newly minted Margaree Centre resident Stephen Mills cannot list that village as his current residence, but Facebook World does allow “Margaree,” a community that, as Mills points out, does not actually exist.

There is no plain “Margaree” —— just the directional or topographic variations: North East Margaree, Margaree Valley, etc.

Interestingly, Mills contends that

[A]ll the Margarees were a bureucratic decision at some point. Names like Frizzelton and Fordview described the locations at one point.

A different kind of mining

Hard rock, not coal: 160 feet under New York City, workers are building seven miles of tunnels to connect Grand Central Station with the Long Island Railway, on the other side of the East River.

[Video link]

Photos and a fuller account of the project from Wired here.

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