No place does this sort of thing better than Cape Breton

Cape Breton musicians and artists celebrated their hope for photographer Carol Kennedy Wednesday night with wonderful music and just the right words, spoken by just the right people.  Cape Breton University’s Boardmore Playhouse was a roomful of love.

Kennedy, in treatment for cancer, wasn’t up to the drive from in from her North River Bridge home, so she listened and watched on Skype. From time to time, audience members could hear her shouted hellos and thank yous to emcee Maynard Morrison.

“Angels are people who counsel from a place of love,” Kennedy wrote in an email read by Joella Foulds. “I am definitely surrounded by angels.”

The seventh starling

Last November, a series of Contrarian posts depicted the mesmerizing spectacle of starling murmuration: the undulating patterns made by starling flocks in flight (here, here, and here). Beyond their intrinsic beauty, these scenes provoke a sense of wonder: how do they do it? How do the hundreds of individuals who make up a flock of birds (or a school of sardines, or a swarm of midges) know how to execute their particular roles in the collective ballet.

The standard explanation, recounted by a pair of Italian physicists who have studied the question [PDF], runs like this:

[T]his collective behaviour stems from some simple rules of interaction between the individuals: stay close to your neighbours (but not too close!) and align your velocity to theirs. There is neither a central coordination (a leader), nor any “collective intelligence,” but a distributed behaviour from which coordination emerges. This is the essence of self-organisation.

Unfortunately, as Andrea Cavagna and Irene Giardina acknowledge, these purported rules of interaction boil down to, “just an educated guess as opposed to a well-established scientific fact. Moreover, they are generic and vague.” While computer models based on these rules produce, “swirling dots on our computer screen that look roughly like a flock of birds,” this is “hardly satisfactory science.”

Cavagna and Giardina led an EU-funded research project called STARFLAG (Starlings in Flight) that used stereoscopic cameras to produce 3D images of a real starling flock in motion. This gave them empirical data they could use to see how the birds actually interact in flight.

The clearest structural feature is that a bird’s nearest neighbours are typically found at the bird’s sides, rather than ahead or behind the bird, so that the probability that a bird’s nearest neighbour is approximately ahead or behind is very low. The reason for this is either the anisotropic visual apparatus of starlings—with eyes on the side of their heads they see better sideways than fore-and-aft—or a sort of “motorway effect,” by which birds keep a safe frontal distance to avoid collisions.

This “anisotropic” quality — think of it as side-by-sidedness — declines with distance. A bird’s closest neighbor is directly to its side, the second nearest slightly less so, the third nearest even less so.

The results of this measurement were surprising. All existing models and theories of collective animal behaviour have assumed that each animal interacted with all neighbours within a fixed distance. The STARFLAG data showed something quite different: each bird interacts with a fixed number of neighbours, irrespective of their physical distance. This number is approximately equal to seven. The difference with the assumptions of the models is stark: the data show clearly that the distance within which birds interact is not fixed at all, but rather it depends on the density of the flock. In a packed flock, the seven neighbours you are interacting with are close to you, whereas in a loose, sparse flock they are more distant.

Starlings, and perhaps other schooling, swarming, and flocking critters, perform their complicated pirouettes by adjusting their speed, and staying close but not too close, to their seven nearest neighbors. The critical point, Cavagna and Giardina found, is that the birds interact with a fixed number of nearest neighbors—not, as had been previously supposed, with all neighbors within a fixed distance. This turns out to give them the evolutionary advantage of greater protection from marauding hawks.

By interacting within a fixed number of individuals, rather than meters, the aggregation can be either dense or sparse, change shape, fluctuate and even split, yet maintaining the same degree of cohesion. Thus, the topological interaction is functional to keeping the cohesion in the face of the strong perturbations a flock is subject to, typically predation.

HT: The two Daves

Unfortunate juxtaposition watch

Rule 1 for Copy Editors: Pay attention to the photo your slapping in next to that headline, and vice versa. A friend who logged more than a few nights on the rim writes:

It’s hell laying out a tabloid front, eh? Especially when half of it is sent to you from T.O.

I note that Canada is becoming a world leader in random gruesome crimes. As you know, this is a leading indicator that the Harperite vision of Canada is progressing well.

Note that this is the Winnipeg version of Metro, not the Halifax edition.

If you happen to be near Sydney Wednesday night…

Join friends of Carol Kennedy, the beloved Cape Breton photographer who is grappling with cancer, for a musical and artistic celebration of hope on the Solstice. Some of Cape Breton’s finest artisans and musicians will gather at Cape Breton University’s Boardmore Playhouse for a benefit concert and silent auction. Tickets are $25 at the Bean There Cafe in Baddeck, Capitol Drugs in Sydney Mines, and the Cape Breton Curiosity Shop, Sydney. The auction begins at 6 p.m.

A working class hero is something to be

Scott Milsom, reporter, editor, communist, chain smoker, Red Sox fanatic, wordsmith, author, and one of the nicest guys I ever knew, died this morning from cancer of the lungs.

From 1988 to 1996, Scott edited New Maritimes, an ambitious quarterly journal about the struggles and triumphs of working people in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI. When a policy change at the Canada Council killed the magazine, Scott went on to publish and edit the Coastal Community News, which featured beautifully written profiles of the villages and hamlets that dot our coastline.

Scott was a dedicated leftist. Although he decamped from the Communist Party of Canada 30 years ago, he retained a profoundly radical view of our world. His publications rarely felt radical, however. Instead, they felt authentic. He had a knack for seeking out, finding, and telling stories about real people’s lives. He treated story subjects with respect, and people from all walks of life instinctively trusted him. Their trust was never misplaced.

Here is Scott, describing his visit to a village I’ve never seen, Harbourville, NS, on the Fundy shore of King’s County:

There are few more stirring views in all of Nova Scotia than those offered after coming up from the Annapolis Valley over the North Mountain and down toward the Fundy shore on a sunny day. As you descend, the blue of sky meeting the deeper blue of sea delights the eyes.

There are a number of roads in Kings County alone that climb out of the Valley and then fall seaward to small communities along the Bay of Fundy, places such as Scot’s Bay, Hall’s Harbour, Baxter’s Harbour, Canada Creek, and Morden. But none offer a more stunning panorama than the road leading north from Berwick to Harbourville.

As I coast down the north slope of the mountain on a crystal-clear Friday morning in late November, I see the familiar sky-meets-sea vista, punctuated only by the high brown cliffs of Ile Haute at the mouth of Minas Channel and the far shore of Cumberland County and Cape d’Or.

I’ve come to try to get a sense of what moves this little community of 250 to 300 people, and to that end I’ve agreed to meet local resident Holly MacDonald in the Harbourville Community Hall.

As Costas Halavrezos tweeted this evening, “Scott’s work always reminded us how much better the well-resourced news media should be.” You can read the rest of Scott’s piece about Harbourville here.

Scott was a frequent user of Contrarian’s comment link, sometimes entreating me to more robust pursuit of moneyed malfeasors, other times bemoaning my infidelity to Canadian spelling. His prodding was always gentle, affectionate, and as welcome as an August breeze off the bay.

“He is an absolutely authentically warm person,” said Rev. Gary Burrill, his longtime friend and predecessor as editor of New Maritimes, when we talked about Scott a few weeks ago. “The warm tap is always on.”

Burrill now sits in the Nova Scotia legislature as MLA for Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley. Scott served as his constituency assistant until illness sidelined him a year after Burrill’s surprise victory.

Scott never made a lot of money, and never achieved widespread fame, but he made a lot of friends, and when historians pore over the journalistic record of late 20th Century Nova Scotia, they’ll count themselves lucky to stumble upon the rich vein of true stories, carefully wrought, by Scott Milsom.

A service to celebrate Scott’s life will take place at 2 p.m., Tuesday, June 19 Wednesday, June 20 at the Atlantica Hotel, 1980 Robie Street, Halifax.

Minister Peterson-Rafuse presses pause

Contrary to expectations expressed here Monday, today’s meeting between Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse and the Directors of Talbot House brought the two sides closer together, and may lead to the reopening of Talbot House under the leadership of a vindicated Fr. Paul Abbass.

Peterson-Rafuse, persistently criticized here over the last two months, took a crucial step back from the brink. For now at least, she has cancelled her department’s plan to issue a tender for the addiction recovery services formerly provided by Talbot House. The two sides will negotiate terms for Talbot’s reopening with government funding. The Cape Breton Post’s Julie Collins has the optimistic details.

Full credit to Peterson-Rafuse for directing the department’s about-face.

The meeting was closed to the media, and I don’t know what happened there. It seems reasonable to speculate that when the minister finally got in a room with someone other than her department’s senior officials, she discovered there was much she had not been told, and much of what she had been told was less than forthright. This likely extended beyond the complicated facts of the case to the calibre and heft of the Talbot directors her officials had treated with such disdain.

It’s not the first time. A year ago, the minister cancelled the department’s plans to implement a series of devastating cuts to medical benefits for Nova Scotians with disabilities. DCS officials planned to impose the cuts on the Friday before Canada Day weekend, without having consulted caregivers, operators of special needs homes, or the disabled residents themselves.

A media call alerted Peterson-Rafuse, who halted the cuts 24 hours before they were to take place. She later apologized to stakeholders and ordered two months of consultations before implementing a revised set of guidelines.

The Talbot affair could be a teaching moment for the NDP Government. Why was the minister not accurately briefed on both these operations? What does this say about the culture of the Department of Community Services? About its relationship to the clients it is ultimately supposed to serve, a group of Nova Scotians the NDP has long championed? What does it say about this department’s exercise of the deference civil servants are supposed to show ministers of government?



A brazenly self-serving exercise of bureaucratic power

Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse will finally sit down with the Talbot House board of directors Tuesday, but only after her department’s shrewd mandarins have pre-empted any actual purpose the meeting might serve.

The Talbot board asked for the session months ago, seeking a peaceful resolution to her department’s reckless assaults on the half-century-old, community-built addiction recovery center. Peterson-Rafuse readily agreed to the meeting in principle, then bobbed, weaved, and stalled until her officials rendered it meaningless.

First she couldn’t meet because the legislature was sitting. Then she postponed again, just long enough for the department to announce the RFP* it hopes will kill any chance of Talbot House reopening.

DCS announced the RFP to replace the services Talbot provided on the very day its bureaucrats gave the legislature’s Community Services Committee a selective and distorted account of events leading to Talbot’s closure, an account that depicted department functionaries as blameless for and even shocked at the sordid sequence of events.

When George Savoury, Executive Director of Family and Community Supports, emerged from that hearing, a reporter asked whether DCS had any mea culpa to offer.

“No,” he replied.

Another reporter asked what lessons the department had learned from the Talbot imbroglio.

“We will be, as a result of this experience, doing more frequent reviews,” Savoury said.

It was a brazenly self-serving conclusion. The DCS review of Talbot House is hardly a template anyone would want to replicate.

  • It led to the closure of a valued community institution that had served some of Nova Scotia’s most tormented citizens.
  • It promoted false allegations of sexual impropriety against an innocent man, the organization’s executive director, Fr. Paul Abbass.
  • It based these allegations on vague hearsay from anonymous third parties—allegations for which police could find no basis in fact.

Even after an eight-week police review cleared Abbass, DCS saw fit to publish a report that repeated the sinister-sounding innuendo—still anonymous, and described in a manner so vague it would be impossible to refute, no matter how innocent the target.

Compounding the slander directed at Abbass, the DCS report contained additional inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and outright falsehoods. To cite but a few:

  • It said the recovery house had no budget, when in fact, a budget was attached to its annual application for funding.
  • It said the annual financial statements submitted by Talbot’s accounting firm were unsigned; in fact, they were signed.
  • It criticized aspects of Talbot’s financial management in a manner so uncomprehending as to betray broad ignorance of not-for-profit accounting practices
  • It complained that Talbot House had no formal orientation for new staff, when Talbot had not hired a new employee for six years.

Stripped of bias and errors, the report boiled down to a complaint that Talbot had been slow to implement personnel procedures such as job descriptions and performance reviews.

In short, DCS carried out a review and released a report that was slanderous, error-filled, and biased, yet the man in charge offered no apology, and proclaimed the only take-home to be that more frequent reviews are needed.

Meanwhile the minister responsible dithered and stonewalled long enough for her officials to render today’s meeting meaningless.

What a disgrace.

– – –

* An RFP is a request for proposals, the first step in a tendering process. DCS will request proposals to provide recovery center services in Cape Breton. The RFP will set forth the criteria the winning bidder must meet.  The department  will evaluate submissions and select a winner, who will then get government money to provide the very services Talbot House pioneered in Cape Breton on a volunteer basis 53 years ago. DCS has said Talbot House is free to compete for this tender, but I will be surprised if the criteria do not include features tacitly intended to exclude Talbot—such as a willingness to accept clients on Methadone, use of which is contrary to Talbot’s philosophy. If effect, the Talbot House Society is being forced to compete for the right to supply the service it pioneered.

Union membership and income distribution

In Who Killed American Unions, on the Atlantic’s website, Derek Thompson speculates about a connection between technological change and the rise and fall of union membership, which has shrunk to just 12 percent of the US workforce. I was struck by this graph, comparing the rate of union membership with the middle class share of aggregare income:

Writes Thompson:

The apogee of the unions was also the apogee of the middle class, when it commanded more than half of total income. As the union membership rate dropped, middle class share of income fell, too.

Lapointe saw all that he had recommended, and it was very good

I’ve been trying to figure out why Jacque LaPointe sets my teeth on edge. I’d normally expect to like an aggressive Auditor General, but lately, Lapointe has become too much of a showboat. His demeanor changed after the MLAs’ expense scandal, when he seemed to transmogrify from reasoned second opiner to God’s Gift of Good Governance.

Lapointe’s latest report to the legislature included a summary of how the 481 recommendations he made between 2005 and 2009 have fared:

The overall implementation rate of our performance audit recommendations is inadequate. Only 63% of the recommendations in our 2005 to 2009 reports were implemented…. Government’s failure to implement these recommendations constitutes poor management practices and poor accountability to the House.

Notice the unspoken assumption? One hundred percent is a perfect score; Anything less is “poor management” and “poor accountability.” Apparently, the wisdom of each and every JL recommendation is indisputable.

Auditor General Jacques Lapointe (not exactly as illustrated)

The media and the public share this view. They look upon any Auditor General as invariably right, and always beyond reproach. In fact, Lapointe’s recommendations are just that: recommendations. Talk to any longtime civil servant or candid politician, and you’ll hear examples of AG recommendations that were impractical, ill-considered, or flat-out wrong.

Try explaining this in public. Officials who attempt to will lose the argument. So they suck it up and move on—and perhaps employ a bit of passive aggression in the form of sluggish or incomplete implementation.

Lapointe exemplifies a trend that bothers me throughout government: process run amok. This man loves process, but appears by times indifferent to outcomes.

He gave the Department of Community Services, another hotbed of process lovers, the best score of any department: 85 percent “compliance.” DCS used Lapointe’s recommendations on services to people with disabilities to impose unilateral changes that made life harder and poorer for Nova Scotia’s most disadvantaged citizens. It used his recommendations on income support to claw back benefits, then promoted the changes with a repulsive PR campaign that crowed about eliminating hot tubs and gym memberships for welfare bums. Beautiful process. Crappy outcome.

So here’s an invitation to any politician, civil servant, or departmental stakeholder, current or moved on: send me examples of Lapointe recommendations whose wisdom or outcome you found less than God-like, with details and an emphasis on outcomes, actual or averted. Anonymity guaranteed.

Sushi Baran Koan

The master and his pupil picked up some Sushi at Sobey’s, and sat in the park to eat it.

“Why does supermarket sushi always come with this green spiky sheet?” the pupil asked.

Baran is the leaf of the aspidistra plant,” replied the master. “It separates the eel from the avocado, and exudes phytoncides to preserve freshness.”

“But it’s plastic,” protested the student.

“Yes,” said the master. “Just as your iPod Nano is no longer vinyl.”