Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Complex systems

Former Nova Scotia health minister Maureen MacDonald took to Facebook this week to express frustration with some of the recent criticism she’s seen leveled at the province’s healthcare system. She took particular issue with a speech given at a healthcare rally in Halifax by Paula Minnikin, a former chief technology officer, who argued the NS system was wildly top heavy with administration. (Full disclosure: I shared that speech on Facebook.)

Maureen MacDonald. (CBC Photo)

MacDonald tackled Minnikin’s assertions head on:

A lot of people inside and outside the system think there is way too much administration. And you know there may be the odd position here or there that could be eliminated but no system runs itself. And this isn’t any old system. This is a $4.5 BILLION system with thousands and thousands of workers, and hundreds of programs and over a million patients (because we serve more than NS) and it operates literally in hundreds of communities. That’s a lot to coordinate, track, manage, plan and account for.

MacDonald also discussed how, when it comes to a system as complex as healthcare, even people within it can’t necessarily see the bigger picture:

I was Minister of Health for a few years. I learned lots about health care and the politics of health care, and I make no claim to having a perfect understanding or knowledge, it’s a big complex every changing arena. But there are some things you do pick up on the job! One of the big insights I got is that health care is sooooo big even those who work in it everyday only know their own area and are largely ignorant of anything outside of their immediate sphere. Many doctors working exclusively in [ER]s for example have no idea how long term care actually works. Orthopaedic surgeons are excellent at knowing their own area but have no idea what dealing with addictions for example is like. Moreover many don’t want to know. I met nurses in small community hospitals who had no clue about how the EHS system worked. They thought if they could look out the hospital window and see an ambulance at the station the area had coverage and if the ambulance was gone coverage was non existent. There can be fierce competition and criticism between health care providers as well as collaboration and coordination. There unfortunately are health care providers who have zero respect for other care providers. And people in administration tasked with planning and keeping the system going are the Rodney Dangerfields of Heath Care ‘they can’t get no respect’.

I found this informative — and oddly reassuring. I don’t have to feel so bad about my poor understanding of the Nova Scotia healthcare system.


Cruise pollution

A number of stories about the cruise industry have caught my eye recently, coinciding neatly with the return of the floating hotels (cities?) to Sydney harbor.

The first was a report (from June 11) that Carnival Corporation had been handed a $20 million fine for dumping plastic waste in the Bahamas. The largest cruise company in the world admitted that its subsidiary, Princess Cruises, had released food and plastic waste into the ocean in the Bahamas. But according to Forbes, environmental groups don’t believe the fine — which represents 0.1% of the Carnival’s $18.88 billion 2018 earnings — will change the cruise company’s behavior.

Carnival pleaded guilty to:

…dumping plastic waste, not accurately recording waste disposals, creating false waste records, and sending crews to temporarily fix environmental violations before they can be inspected.

But this is just the latest in Carnival’s “long history of illegally dumping everything from single-use plastics to oil into the oceans they sail in.”

In 2017, Princess Cruises had to pay a $40 million fine (0.2% of Carnival Corp’s 2017 earnings of $17.51 billion) after the Caribbean Princess — which is due to visit the Port of Sydney nine times this season (a sister ship, Sapphire Princess, will make one visit) — was caught illegally dumping oil into the ocean and trying to cover it up.

The judge in the most recent Carnival case, Patricia Seitz, threatened to “block the entire company’s cruise fleet from docking at U.S. ports if Carnival Corp didn’t rectify its long-standing history of environmental violations.”

Of course, should that ever happen, I’d wager the cruise company would be welcomed with open arms by Canadian ports — like our own.



The other cheery cruise stories I read recently involved cruise ships and air pollution — like this study by a Brussels-based group called Transport & Environment (T&E) that claims Carnival Corporation’s cruise liners:

…emitted nearly 10 times more sulphur oxide (SOX) air pollution around European coasts than all of the continent’s 260 million cars in 2017…

In London, England, a residents group is opposing the construction of a new wharf on the Thames designed to handle 240-meter-long cruise ships on the grounds that pollution from the vessels’ giant diesel engines will worsen the city’s air pollution.

Cruise ship on the IJ lake in Amsterdam. (Photo by Govan001, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

And a German environmental association, Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU), warned in 2017 that passengers on board cruise ships could be inhaling “60 times higher concentrations of harmful air pollutants” than they would in a natural environment.

CLIA, the Cruise Lines International Association, pushed back against the Transport & Environment study, arguing it had been “published without any academic scrutiny or peer review” and that the methodology used has “not been agreed as a scientifically robust process.”

Carnival Corporation was even blunter, refuting the study’s conclusions as “inaccurate, misleading and irrelevant,” and arguing that it failed to take into account that it is:

…well-accepted among regulatory groups such as the International Maritime Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that we have implemented several advanced technologies that remove the vast majority and sometimes all of the sulphur from exhaust, resulting in extremely clean air emissions.

But Faig Abbasov, shipping policy manager at T&E told Euronews that they use an “open methodology, approved by the International Maritime Organisation in its 3rd GHG study (2014) and all our methodological assumption is published in the study.”

Moreover, he said the study took into account the 0.1% sulfur standard in European ports, but noted that 0.1% is “already 100 times worse than the road standard, which partially explains the staggering results.” Said Abbasov:

Luxury cruise ships are floating cities powered by some of the dirtiest fuel possible.

Cities are rightly banning dirty diesel cars but they’re giving a free pass to cruise companies that spew out toxic fumes that do immeasurable harm both to those on board and on nearby shores. This is unacceptable.

That picture is supposed to improve in January 2020, reports the New York Times, “if a decision by the United Nations International Maritime Organization to strictly limit the amount of sulfur in maritime fuel is fully carried out.” (The new rules would lower the allowable sulfur content of maritime fuels from 3.5% to 0.5%.)

The new regulation will not have a significant impact on carbon emissions, but public health experts say a reduction of sulfur gas emissions will reduce smog and avert millions of cases of childhood asthma. One big container ship can emit as much sulfur in a year as millions of vehicles.

But the paper notes that that is a big “if” because:

[S]hippers [including cruise lines] have been slow either to make the switch to higher-quality fuels or install expensive equipment known as scrubbers to clean exhaust from what is known in the industry as “bunker fuel.” Oil companies are also watching and waiting, as few have upgraded their refineries to adapt to new regulations.

And why should they worry? Methods of enforcement, says the NYT, are “an open question.”

Some of the articles I’ve been reading touch on the question of shore-side power as a way of lowering cruise ship emissions while they’re in port — the residents of Greenwich London raised this possibility (specifying that the power source had to be clean), but noted that no such requirement had been imposed on the London wharf project.

CLIA, for its part, argues:

We must keep in mind that in order to effectively cut emissions, shore-side power must come from clean, efficient sources and for instance be an effective option versus running the ship on LNG or with EGCS. Moreover, at the moment there is not one connecting standard system used everywhere which makes it even more difficult for our members to invest in this technology. To date 55 cruise ships, over 27% of total capacity, are fitted with shore-side electricity systems and thus are able to use shore power where available.

What strikes me as I read all this is that questions about air pollution have never been discussed in relation to our own second berth project, nor do we seem concerned about Carnival’s dreadful environmental record.

That’s going to end well.


Axe Throwing for Fun & Profit

So, according to the CBC, this is happening:

A company setting up axe-throwing entertainment venues across the United States is opening a small call centre in Sydney, N.S.

FlannelJax‘s has its head office in Canada and currently has one location open in St. Paul, Minn., with two other U.S. spots in development. The licensed venue is geared toward corporate and social groups, including families.

“We think it’s difficult to run a location where the people that are trying to service the customers … are also having to answer the phone and talk to people about future bookings and handling details of events and that sort of thing,” said CEO Stephen Schober.

“Therefore, we want to make sure that we have high-quality specialists dealing with the phone aspects of the business.”

I totally get why the person monitoring the axe throwing should probably not be the same person answering the phones — axe throwing is a dangerous activity, as is made clear by the waiver customers must sign before attempting it.

But why not hire someone to answer your phones? Like a hostess in a restaurant? (S/he could also play the invaluable secondary role of sizing people up in person to decide whether they should really be given axes.)

Of course, the answer is that the call center operators won’t just be handling all the mad booking traffic — they’ll be drumming up business:

Schober said the call centre will take incoming calls to field questions and take bookings. Staff will also make outgoing calls, mainly to solicit corporate business.

I wonder how those calls will go?

Hello CEO of [enter name of corporation here]!

Is morale a little low at work these days? Are your employees upset about their stagnant wages, irregular hours, non-existent pensions and/or unsafe working conditions? Have they been complaining about you earning 400 times their salaries?

Why not get them drunk and give them axes?

I’m thinking working at the call center on the contract for the axe-throwing venue is the definition of “precarious” employment.


Bluenose ghosts

I laughed so much during CBC Information Morning Steve Sutherland’s interview with a real-life Ghostbuster I had to put my coffee down for fear of spilling it all over the front of my shirt. (Oh, who am I kidding, my pajama top.)

The best part was Sutherland not laughing — I don’t know how he managed it.

The subject of the interview was a ghost-hunting event planned for the Fortress Louisbourg on the July 13 weekend and the interviewees were Kyle Allen, operations manager of the Fortress of Louisbourg Association, who didn’t seem to be taking the whole thing too seriously (but who did cop to once hearing footsteps from the locked, empty attic of a house in the Fortress) and Earl Lattie, lead investigator and founder of Truro-based Paranormal Investigations Nova Scotia, who takes this stuff very seriously, indeed.

Lattie explained that his group investigates paranormal phenomenon with the aid of “gear” like infrared cameras and audio recording equipment and claimed they’d visited the Fortress on four previous occasions and had always found evidence of ghosts.

Fortress of Louisbourg. (Photo courtesy Paranormal Investigations Nova Scotia)

I went to the group’s website to read some of the accounts of their investigations and they are full of paranormal happenings that you might, if you were an unsophisticated rube like me, write off as perfectly normal happenings (a camera set on a tripod mysteriously tilts “almost as if something was pushing it down;” a basement makes people feel “uneasy”).

My favorite bit is billed as an audio recording of a Louisbourg soldier named Baptiste who lies buried under the Chapel floor and who, when asked if he’d been shot, replied:

“I don’t think so.”

Seriously, Baptiste? How could you not know whether or not you’ve been shot? You’ve had over two centuries to size up the situation.

My second favorite bit is when an investigator in Dayle’s Grand Market, Amherst asks if there are any spirits in the building who wish to talk and a voice is “captured” saying:

“I don’t.”

That’s what I’m going to be like as a ghost — a total jerk.

I think these investigators are having a grand time and are harming no one in the process so I’m just going to step aside and let them get on with it.