Room 101

“George Orwell’s 1984 has always been a favorite of mine. Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation is a masterpiece.  So in 1992, with a room full of synthesizers and samplers and a clunky old Atari 1040 computer, I produced this.  It’s pure, early 1990’s techno – really dated by today’s standards – but I still love it.  Some of my old songs are embarrassing to listen to – but not this one.”

Don’t ever pass up the chance to tell someone you love them.

I pretended to be asleep.  He made his breakfast and packed his lunch.  It was November – dark mornings, cold house – so I stayed in bed, listening to the sounds of the dawn: boiling kettle, butter knife scraping toast, ringing spoon stirring cup of tea, turning pages of paperback western.

I heard the back door open; the raspy cough of the car starting and the heater blowing warm air to clear the frost from the windows.  The trunk sprung open and I envisioned his rifle in its soft case stowed carefully away; a sandwich and a thermos of tea packed into his red knapsack, tossed on the passenger seat. The trunk slammed shut, and the backdoor opened once again. More footsteps – this time into my room.

I kept one eye opened just enough to see his silhouette against the dim light coming in from the kitchen.  He stood there for a moment, looking at me, waiting beside my bed, listening for some sign of lucidity.  Finally he put his hand on my head, ran his fingers through my curls, and walked out.

At the time I thought it was a funny trick, lying so still, pretending to be asleep – because everything is funny when you are a nine year old boy.  I was going to tell him when he got home that I had fooled him; that I was really awake the whole time. He’d laugh and rough up my hair with his strong hand and call me a “little scamp” – like he always did – but not this time.  This time, he wasn’t coming home.

You see, I could have hugged him and told him I loved him and that I admired him and wanted to be just like him, but instead I pretended to be asleep for a laugh. Things were never quite as funny after that.

Don’t ever pass up the chance to tell someone you love them.

Murrant’s Rant: Patient Patients

Last week I spent over four hours in the Cape Breton Regional Hospital ER with my son – and finally left without ever having seen a doctor. But we weren’t alone.

There were eight patients waiting to see a doctor when I arrived at 7:30pm that evening. During my 4.5 hour wait, only two patients were actually called from the waiting room to see a doctor – SIX got up and left.

It’s not an official study, just a 4.5 hour observation, but if this is a typical, quiet Thursday evening at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital ER, we have a serious problem.  75% of the patients seeking medical care that night, left the ER without seeing a doctor.  That cannot be allowed to continue.

Are 75% of the people in need of medical care really going without in CBRM?

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that this has anything to do with an over-burdened healthcare system.  This is a management problem (or lack thereof).

Case in point – a well-managed healthcare facility would not have a filthy (frankly, disgusting) ER waiting area.  Between 7:30pm and midnight there were no environmental services staff to be seen.  There were soiled tissues and paper towels strewn around the bathroom.  The floor throughout the entire waiting area was spotted with clumps of mud (or maybe it wasn’t mud?) and debris.  A hospital waiting area is ground zero for infection control, but it’s not even on the hospital’s radar.

And although the security office is within earshot, only once in 4.5 hours did a security person bother to get up and do a walk-through of the waiting area.

Lastly – when you rush out the door of your home with a sick child, you don’t have time to stop and check if you have the correct change for the hospital parking lot.  Why not use a machine that provides a code – like at the car wash.

Murrant’s Rant: Are You Kidding Me?

Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer - The Portland Press Herald (used without permission)
Nova Scotia Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Geoff Maclellan (right). Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer – The Portland Press Herald

If you ever wondered why Nova Scotians are among the highest taxed people in the WORLD, look no further.

The Nova Scotia government spent $73-million to make back $16.5-million – a net loss of more than $56-million.

Over four years our government will have spent $73-million in hard-earned, taxpayer dollars to keep the passenger ferry running between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine. It doesn’t take a genius to see how ludicrous this is.  Just look at the numbers (Google it if you have any doubts):

  • 2014: $28-million (Nova Star)
  • 2015: $13-million (Nova Star)
  • 2016: $23-million (The CAT)
  • 2017: $9-million (The CAT)

You say, “So what if we spent all that cash in Yarmouth?  It’s all about economic development, right?”  Sure. In theory.  Supposedly, the Yarmouth-Maine ferry will bring boatloads of American money into Nova Scotia.

But even the most optimistic projected returns fall short.  The Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership (the Nova Star folks) estimated that a season with 100,000 passengers would pump $16.3 million into the province’s economy. That’s a projected influx of $65-million for the Nova Scotia economy over four years.  Let me clarify:  somebody in the Nova Scotia provincial government authorized a $73-million expenditure on the expectation that it would generate $65-million for the Nova Scotia economy.  I don’t want to be harsh, but that’s just plain stupid – and it’s about time that somebody stood up and said so.

But wait! It gets stupider … The ACTUAL number of passengers is only 30% of the projected 100,000 per year. The 2014 season saw only 29,438 passengers, while 2015 had 31,150. And there is no reason to expect those numbers to change in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.  So, with only 30% of the projected passengers, only 30% of the projected $65-million will materialize.  I’ll save you the trouble … $19.5-million.  So, in actuality, our government authorized a $73-million expenditure to generate $19.5-million in economic benefit.

And if that’s not bad enough, it gets even stupider-er …  Not only are we seeing fewer American tourists than expected, but more Nova Scotians are now sailing to Maine to spend their money.  According to Nova Star’s numbers from the 2014 and 2015 seasons, 17,649 Nova Scotians sailed to Maine – taking with them almost $3-million OUT of the Nova Scotia economy.  Considering this, it looks like our government spent $73-million to make back $16.5-million – a net loss of more than $56-million.

I don’t know about you, but to me this ferry deal smells like a load of … carp.  Rotting carp.

Because Facebook isn’t News

newspaper-changes2016 will go down in history as a turning point in Canada’s newspaper industry.  In January alone, three completely separate Canadian media companies began cutting – the numbers tell the story.

Torstar, the Toronto Star’s parent company, outsourced it’s printing to TC Media and laid off 300 workers in Ontario.

Post Media, parent company of numerous Canadian newspapers, including the National Post, merged newsrooms in three provinces and laid off 90 editorial staff.

The Guelph Mercury printed its last newspaper and laid off 26 employees.

Staff at the Chronicle Herald, Canada’s largest independent newspaper, are on strike – opposing proposed changes that management has deemed necessary.

We only hear about these examples because they are the major players.  Closures and lay-offs are par for the course among smaller daily and weekly newspapers across Canada – and around the world.

The reason for this decline couldn’t be any simpler – low demand.

Why would anybody pay for news, especially printed news, when they can get it for free on the internet?  News is ubiquitous on the world wide web.  There are millions of websites, blogs, newsfeeds, and Facebook and Twitter pages that deliver news.  Users don’t have to wait until the newspaper is printed.  News is available on demand, around the clock.

But is it really “free”?  And even more importantly, is it really “news”?

Facebook is a perfect example.  People flock to Facebook for instant updates on current events.  They read, they leave comments, they share, and they re-write and re-post their version of events – complete with opinions and bias.  This is not news.

Only a very small fraction of a percentage of the information available on Facebook can be considered as news.  The vast majority is rumour, hearsay, conjecture, opinion, and misinformation.  The only content on Facebook that can be considered as “news” is the content provided by news organizations.

News organizations employ journalists – professionally bound to be truthful, factual, thorough, and unbiased.  We can trust journalists.  Humanity has journalists to thank for keeping the world in check.  The world relies on vetted journalism.  Governments, corporations, and individuals take extraordinary measures to hide their transgressions from the masses.  When they act unscrupulously, it is most often a journalist that exposes the story.  The world would be a very different place if journalism were to disappear.

The problem with journalism is that it’s very expensive.  Journalists themselves don’t earn an excessive income, but the resources needed to do their job can be costly.  To produce and deliver a verifiable news story takes considerable time and involves the efforts of a team of individuals.

Who pays for this?  Not Facebook.  Not Twitter.  Not the consumer of “free” news.

News organizations, like newspapers, employ the journalists that entertain us, inform us, enlighten us, and yes – I will even go out on limb here and say – keep our world safer.

Aside from the cost of solid journalism, news organizations have tremendous production costs.  Publications have to look good, read well, and be delivered on time.  Producing a newspaper, whether in print or on-line, is incredibly expensive – but also incredibly important.

In light of the recent turmoil among Canadian newspapers, countless comments and replies have been made in social media; many of which imply that newspapers are an antiquated, outmoded throwback to the previous century.

It is an undeniable truth that fewer people are reading printed newspapers.  The days of paper are numbered, but the days of news are not.  Vetted journalism and timely delivery of news are more important today than ever before.

The news industry is going through a tumultuous period as it transitions from the daily paper to real-time on-line delivery.  Every so often in the course of human history we encounter a technological shift which ushers in a new social paradigm.  Early on, these shifts were few and far between – the mastery of fire, the first farms, the development of written language, metal tools, Gutenberg’s press, and now, the internet.  News organizations are breaking new ground every day as they come up with new ways to produce and deliver relevant content to a fragmented audience.

The average consumer, who relies on Twitter and Facebook for their news, likely doesn’t care who is paying for the content they consume.

The newspaper, who incurs the expense of producing and delivering vetted content, struggles to find new sources of revenue.

The journalist, who holds themselves to a noble and uncompromising standard, is caught in the middle.

Today, there is no clear path.  This is uncharted territory. We will encounter many changes, trials, and failures, before the transition away from printed paper is complete.

The issue at hand is far bigger than the economics of the news industry.  If news organizations fail to adapt and journalism suffers, the real cost won’t be measured in dollars. The real price will be truth and accountability.

Effort to save Stone Church more to do with history and community than with religion

Originally Published in the Cape Breton Star on October 22, 2015

Stone Church, Victoria Mines - photo by Rob RomardMariners have been using the Stone Church to navigate the mouth of Sydney Harbour since 1916. Perched high on a Victoria Mines hillside, the church is one of the first landmarks to greet cruise ship visitors as they arrive. It was also one of the last images of home seen by soldiers sailing for Europe in the two world wars.

In fact, one of St. Alphonsus’ spires was paid for by the Atlantic Pilotage Authority of Sydney. The other spire, as the story goes, is dedicated to a lady who agreed to match all of the community’s donations for the construction of the church, so long as it was not made of wood — since the wooden church before it had burned to the ground.

Melanie Sampson, spokesperson for the Stone Church Restoration Society, explains that though it wasn’t made of wood, it wasn’t made of stone either.

“It’s actually constructed of concrete. Architects are amazed that it was done in one complete, continuous pour. A remarkable thing back in 1916.”

Formed in 2014 with the original goal of halting the demolition of the church, the society’s offer to purchase the church for $40,000 was recently accepted by the current owner, the Diocese of Antigonish. Once the terms of the sale are met, the church and the land it sits on will be handed over to the society. The adjacent cemeteries will remain in the care of the diocese.

So why would a community group want to save a 99-year-old building which, according to the National Trust of Canada, needs $300,000 in repairs.

“You can’t put a price tag on history, said Sampson. “We want to make sure it’s there for generations to come.

“It’s in relatively good shape. The majority of the work that needs to be done is on the two spires. We’re confident we will be able to get grants after talking to different levels of government, and different heritage grants as well. But the key thing for us is to have ownership. We need that deed. We won’t quality for any grants without it.”

Sampson said the Stone Church is listed by the National Trust as one of the top 10 endangered buildings in Canada.

“As soon as we get ownership of the building, we plan on making it into a designated national heritage property, so that we can apply to receive funding.

“We want to tie it into tourism. It’s one of the first things cruise ship passengers see when they’re coming into the port of Sydney, and one of the last things they see when they’re going back out … we really want to keep it open for the tourist season, from the spring to the late fall.”

To purchase the church, and to get the proper designation so they can apply for grants and funding, Sampson said the society is required to have a business plan.

“We are in the process of revamping the business plan, now that we know the price tag. We never knew before what the diocese was going to charge us.”

The society has provided the diocese with a $7,500 non-refundable deposit, which is being held in trust by their lawyer until the final agreement is drawn up and signed. The society will then have until July, 2016, to pay the balance.

Samspon said the society has raised roughly $13,000 so far.

“That includes the money for the down payment. Each weekend we’re raising more. We’re really hoping for a good turnout to our dances and other events so that we can get it paid off as quickly as possible.

“We’re on track, but we can use more volunteers. More hands make less work. No task is too small. Even if people can only donate an hour or two per month, that’s fine. The more people we can get, the better. We really want to make this a community effort, not just a small group effort. We’re open to anyone’s suggestions and ideas. We could use people’s areas of expertise, especially business people. And even people who wouldn’t mind sitting in the flea market or the mall to sell tickets or our merchandise. No one is too old or too young.”

Sampson would like to see more youth getting involved.

“This is something we are trying to save for future generations. Young people could help us put on concerts, especially college students— where they might need volunteer hours. We would be willing to sign off to help them.

St. Alphonsus was always a Roman Catholic church, but as Sampson pointed out, this effort has more to do with history and community than with religion. “We’re getting help from people that aren’t even catholic. They feel that the building just needs to be saved — it’s a piece of their heritage.”

Presently, churches enjoy certain tax exemptions. Once the sale of St. Alphonsus goes through, however, the church will lose its tax exempt status. The Stone Church Restoration Society will have to factor property taxes into their business plan, “Unless,” Sampson adds with a laugh, “maybe the municipality will be kind enough to waive that.”

Overall, Sampson said the operating costs are modest.

“The cost for the last three years of operation, 2004 to 2006, was only 6,000 per year. There’s no running water in the church, so you don’t have to heat it when it’s not in use. We anticipate our costs will be about $10,000 per year, including property taxes. We will only open it in the winter for special events and weddings so we won’t have to be heating it on a regular basis.

“One of the ways to provide some regular revenue for the church will be to use it as nondenominational wedding chapel — one-stop-shopping for your wedding. We also plan to host a lot of community events, concerts and such since there is no other community hall in this area.”

The society will be working hard over the next few months to raise funds before their July deadline. One idea that Samson is very excited about is Stone Aid.

“We’re looking for musicians who will volunteer their time and talent for a Stone Aid concert early in the new year. Anyone who interested in performing should give me a call.”

Musicians interested in performing at the Stone Aid benefit can reach Melanie Sampson at (902) 539-8347.

Murrant’s Rant: No cure for greed

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald – Cape Breton Star, October 7, 2015

We are taught the difference between right and wrong from the earliest possible age.  The Sesame Street ethics of cooperation, sharing, and honesty are indelibly etched into our collective consciousness.  It’s not a new concept.  Long before Mr. Rogers was teaching us about being neighbourly, the Golden Rule was the guiding principle of civilized conduct. Society grew and thrived because our ancestors realized than community mindedness was essential to our survival.  We need each other.

So how did it come to be that our laws were written in such a way as to reward greed?  Just a few weeks ago Turing Pharmaceutical CEO Martin Schkreli jacked up the price of the sixty year old anti-parasitic drug, Daraprim, by 5000% because he felt that it was good opportunity to “turn a profit.”  Daraprim was developed in the 1940’s and the research has long since been paid off, but Schkreli didn’t see a problem with price-gouging sick people.  The public outcry was fierce and Schkreli has since announced that he would revise the increase to allow for only a small profit.

Although Schkreli’s actions were reprehensible by most standards, they were legal.  Our laws make it perfectly permissible to turn a hefty profit from people at their most vulnerable.  Who better to profit from than the sick and dying?  They have no choice.  They either pay the market price for treatment or they face the consequences.   From our government’s point of view, it is normal and acceptable when people can’t afford their medication and die as a result.  For a drug company to demand a high price for a life-saving treatment, even when it costs pennies to produce, is sound business practice and keeps the shareholders happy.

Imagine you are inside your home, safe and warm, on a bitter cold winter day.  There is a knock on the door.  A child is on your step, freezing, and asks to come in from the cold. You ask for a fee; after all, it costs quite a bit to heat your home in the winter.  The child has no cash, so you turn her away, back out into the cold.  If she freezes to death, you are criminally responsible.  You had an ethical obligation to provide a necessity of life to a fellow human being. How is this any different than a drug company denying treatment to a dying patient?  To them, the drug they can’t afford is a necessity of life.

On the bright side, there are some commendable drug companies that will provide their medicines at a reduced cost for individuals that cannot afford their treatments.  This, unfortunately, is not the norm, and companies are not legally obligated to show this sort of kindness.  It might be worth studying the past television viewing habits of law makers and pharmaceutical CEO’s; to see if they watched Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers like the rest of us.

Kim Davis should have been a Caterer

Kim-Davis-mugshot-410x220

When faced with a religious quandary, Davis could have quit her job.  We all have the option of quitting if our job conflicts with our conscious.

In case you missed the headlines, Kim Davis, a United States county clerk in Kentucky was jailed on the charge of “contempt” for refusing to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. She claimed that issuing the license would conflict with her Christian religious beliefs.  Immediately, powerful Christian supporters began voicing their support for Davis. Mike Huckabee, US presidential candidate and former governor of Arkansas, is arguably the most influential of her supporters.

Huckabee tweeted the question, “Who’s next? Pastors? Photogs? Caterers? Florists?”, referencing the rights of citizens under the “God-given constitution”.

For starters, I’m not a theologian, but I don’t recall the chapter in the Bible where God gave the Constitution to the Americans.  I thought it was written “by the people, for the people”.

Secondly, Huckabee is a smart guy who has an exceptional understanding of US constitutional law, but he also has his own agenda.  He is playing to the wants of the majority Christian base.  As a presidential candidate, he needs these votes.

Kim Davis was a government official with a clear directive to issue marriage licenses to any couple who qualifies under the US constitution.  Davis had the right to deny the same-sex couple their marriage license, just as any any employee has the right to refuse any employer’s demands.  Likewise, employers have the right to fire any employee who refuses to perform their duties.

As a civil servant, employed by the tax payers to uphold all parts of the US constitution, Davis refused to perform one of the duties required by her employer.  A judge wisely sided with her employer, the tax-paying citizens, and ordered her to issue the marriage license.  She refused.  Refusing a court order is called “Contempt of Court”, and carries the penalty of jail time.

When faced with a religious quandary, Davis could have quit her job.  We all have the option of quitting if our job conflicts with our conscious.

As for Huckabee’s comment, “Who’s next? Pastors? Photogs? Caterers? Florists?”, Huckabee is ignoring the fact that civil servants like Davis are sworn in and “promise to uphold” the rights and freedoms of individuals as stated in the constitution.  I don’t think Florists and Caterers are required to take such an oath.  If Davis wanted to exercise her brand of “Religious Freedom”, then should have become a Caterer.

The loss of the letter

Thanks for the cat videos. Thank you for all the pictures of your protein smoothies and for letting me know that you worked out this morning. Thank you especially for inviting me to play Candy Crush Saga. And thank you, really, for your latest selfie — I almost forgot what you looked like.

Facebook, like the Internet itself, has a lot of promise. It has the potential to allow people to reconnect and share aspects of their lives with loved ones across great distances. It allows for a cultural exchange of ideas, art and information.

It provides a network through which millions of strangers can unite as one to accomplish what they cannot do alone.

Just like the Internet, however, Facebook is a cultural mirror. It shows us exactly who we are — what we like, what we desire and what we believe. For those willing to look beyond the trees to see the whole forest, Facebook is an unflatteringly accurate reflection of modern society — narcissistic, self-centric, superficial. There can be no other explanation for the volume and nature of the content we share. To look at Facebook is to see the world as the backdrop to somebody else’s selfie. Intelligent expression has been reduced to little more than an endless barrage of witty and sarcastic captions typed across photos of famous faces.

I recently came across a news story about a collection of letters that had been written by Albert Einstein to his friends and colleagues over the course of his career. I read some of them. Combined, they are the portrait of a man — fiercely intelligent, romantic, humorous, compassionate. In the age of Facebook, we have stopped writing letters, and in doing so, we have lost a gift of immeasurable value.

In this Facebook-ized society, we are having fewer and fewer meaningful conversations. As a result, we are not only depriving ourselves of the opportunity to interact on a deeper level with others, but we are also depriving future generations of something that our generation takes for granted — letters. Thanks to ink and paper, we presently enjoy a rich, historical record of insightful dialogue and the exchange of original ideas. It is highly doubtful that scholars in the next century will have the patience or inclination to sift through trillions of Facebook posts. And if they do, what will they find?

I have long believed that the greatest strength of the human species is our ability to communicate, to share complex and meaningful ideas so our accomplishments can be reproduced by others for the betterment of all.

By design, Facebook is the ideal tool for us to do just that — to express our creativity and share our intelligence. So, to that end, I’ll refrain from sharing a pictures of my breakfast and quotes from my cat.