Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Vaccine Dream

News that Pfizer has a vaccine that is 90% effective against COVID-19 cheered people and markets alike this past week (airline and cruise line stocks leapt for joy). But there are so many caveats attached to the discovery that I’m pressing pause on my own jig of joy for moment.

Doubts first began to creep in when I read AFP’s explainer and realized that “the results were distributed in a press release — sending stock markets surging — rather than in a detailed peer reviewed paper in a scientific journal.”

Stock photo of COVID vaccine

Stock photo of COVID vaccine that is obviously not Pfizer’s because it’s not being stored in dry ice.

But they really began to take hold when I read this Foreign Policy article by science reporter Laurie Garrett — I also heard Garrett discuss the article on the November 11 episode of On the Media. She writes:

…let’s be clear about what this Pfizer study shows so far: For 90 percent of the volunteers who got the vaccine (as opposed to a placebo), SARS-CoV-2 infection did not occur for a study period of seven days.

Seven days. Nothing more is known.

That’s the first caveat — we have no idea if the immunity is at all long-lived.

But even if the immunity is as robust as promised, the vaccine itself is not:

The product is unlike any vaccine ever used, for any disease. What is actually injected is messenger RNA (mRNA)—the genetic blueprint for protein production—triggering human cells to manufacture millions of copies of the spike protein that protrudes from the surface of SARS-CoV-2 viruses. As those spike proteins circulate in an immunized person’s body, they hopefully make antibodies and other immune system components to fight it off. Thus, the mRNA triggers production of decoys that train the immune system to “see” the virus if it arrives in the body and destroy it.

But mRNA is very unstable. To prevent breakdown, it must be stored right up until the time of injection at a temperature of at least -103 degrees Fahrenheit—well below anything a standard freezer unit can manage. Few health departments, hospitals, or doctors’ offices currently have stockpiles of dry ice or ultrafreezers that can manage to consistently hold temperatures that low, and none have piles of portable units that can do the job. Dry ice in coolers could do the job, but the world is facing a shortage in pure carbon dioxide, which becomes dry ice when frozen.

Garrett’s other concerns include the current state of the epidemic in the States — as she told On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone, it’s everywhere, urban, suburban and rural, and the numbers of cases and deaths are likely understated. Garrett also worries that many Americans will refuse to be vaccinated and wonders if the Centers for Disease Control can manage a mass immunization program.

So no unalloyed relief just yet, but I can’t help but be encouraged by the news — and I’m fascinated by the science.



After I wrote about the complaints some candidates filed against the CBRM’s returning officer following last month’s municipal elections, I heard from Kim Sheppard, a candidate in District 12 who finished a close second to the winner, Lorne Green. Sheppard said she, too, has filed a complaint with the Ombudsman over the way the October municipal elections were run.

Sheppard’s main concern is with the distribution of PINs, which saw some households receive too many and others receive none at all. Sheppard also wants to know why the running of the election was outsourced to non-Cape Breton companies.

My first reaction to this was, “Well, because no Cape Breton companies specialize in running electronic elections.” But then I thought about it some more and realized that answer was lacking. Although the problem isn’t that we’re entrusting elections to outside tech companies, it’s that we’re entrusting them to tech companies, period.


I’ve exchanged a few emails with Dean Smith, the founder and president of Intelivote, the Dartmouth-based company hired by the CBRM and 38 other NS municipalities to conduct this fall’s elections. He’s been so helpful in answering my questions I feel bad coming down on the side of traditional, paper ballot elections, but I’m afraid that’s where I’m coming down.

Smith explained that problems with the delivery of PINs was due to problems with the provincial Voters’ List provided by Elections Nova Scotia and used by most (possibly all) Nova Scotian municipalities. He says the CBRM uses software by Datafix, an Ontario-based company, to clean up that list:

Typically the list is reviewed to determine the probability of duplicates existing on a list.  If a last name, first name, and date of birth, are the same for two entries on a list, the system identifies them as a possible duplicate.  If the civic address is also identical, the probability is increased to 99% that they are the same person; (allowing for the possibility of twins whose names might have been shortened by parents or who used the George Foreman’s rationale for naming their children; all his 5 sons were named George Foreman).

Side note: I did not know this about George Foreman.

Smith also notes that the provincial Voters’ List is provided to the CBRM in July and the elections are in October and “a lot of people move out of an area, or into an area, through the summer months and can become eligible to vote in an election, and would have to be added, or removed if they relocated out of the municipality.” Datafix uses Canada Post’s National Change of Address Register to try and capture these changes, but everyone who moves into the CBRM or out of the CBRM or within the CBRM doesn’t inform Canada Post about it.

The municipality also “reviews obituaries” to remove the names of deceased individuals from the list.

Smith says once the CBRM completes the “arduous job” of cleaning up the Voters’ List, it sends it to Intelivote, which compares it to the lists provided by other municipalities using its service, and if someone shows up on multiple lists, tries to determine which address is the most recent. (This, he admits, can only be done if the individual has “interacted with some government agency that would update their records.”)

Once the list has been finalized, Intelivote uses Ottawa-based Gilmore-Doculink, to print and mail voter letters (over 650,000 of them to 39 NS municipalities in the recent municipal elections).

Doculink, says Smith, is “a NATO security level printing organization.”

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again — the problems with the Voters’ List are likely to persist, given Elections Nova Scotia, which is only sending out voter information, errs on the side of inclusion. No matter how secure the printing and mailing process, if people are receiving multiple PINs, it’s a problem.

Women learn to vote at NCR in Dayton on Oct. 27, 1920. NCR ARCHIVES AT DAYTON HISTORY

Women learn to vote at NCR in Dayton on Oct. 27, 1920. NCR ARCHIVES AT DAYTON HISTORY

But the real difficulty with online elections, as Sheppard, who lost by under 100 votes would know, is that there is no way to verify the results. In a 2016 report for the Centre for e-Democracy advising against the use of internet voting in federal elections, Western University computer science prof Aleksander Essex explained:

The technical challenge of electronic voting comes from requiring security and secrecy at the same time. How do you prove my vote counted, when you don’t know what my vote even was? This can be accomplished in a suitably reliable fashion with paper ballots and in-person polling through a combination of physical and procedural security measures, along with the immediately observable nature of the physical word. There is, however, no direct software analogue to the physical guarantee that paper ballots going into an empty box are the same as what comes out at the end of the day.

Elections Canada has undertaken a number of studies examining the role of technology in elections, including a 2013 study called Establishing a Legal Framework for E-voting in Canada. The report is a detailed consideration of e-voting frameworks in other jurisdictions, which ends in a number of recommendations, the very first of which is:

E-voting should be treated as the functional equivalent to special or postal ballots and non-electronic alternatives should always be accessible.

I haven’t actually seen a cost breakdown comparing e-voting versus traditional paper ballot-voting in CBRM; however, the municipality’s enthusiasm for e-voting leads me to suspect there is money to be saved. It’s possible e-voting helped drive the impressive increase in voter participation in this year’s elections and there’s no question it’s helpful for people who find traveling to polls difficult (provided these people have access to phones or internet, which isn’t always the case.)

But I was talking about this with a friend — a paper ballot enthusiast — who said that in moving to e-voting we lose community ownership of the voting process. The kind of ownership pro-democracy organizations travel the world trying to instill in voters in new democracies. The kind that has been built up over decades in this province and is embodied in the poll workers and scrutineers who know elections law inside out and provide their own version of “NATO level security” at the ballot boxes. (She says her favorite thing of all is “when the scrutineers from opposed parties share their partisan lunches.”) She added:

The other thing we lose with e-voting is the sacred security of the voting station. In person, that is one space where nobody can bully you—they can have lied and tricked and even threatened you, and done all kinds of damage, but when you’re alone with that little pencil , behind that cardboard screen, you are in a small and precious and limited way, free.

All by way of saying there are pros and cons to e-voting and we should debate them before opting to go all-electronic permanently. COVID pre-empted such debate this year, but there’s nothing to stop us from having it now.


Heddle’s 15 minutes

I’ve recently discovered The Boys  a “fun and irreverent take on what happens when superheroes abuse their superpowers rather than use them for good.” I’m late to this party, the Amazon Prime show having completed two seasons already, and I’m only three episodes in, but I’m liking it.

The show is set in New York, but a New York that seemed a little…weird to me. My first clue that all was not what it seemed in the Big Apple occurred at the 24:01 mark of Episode 2, in a waterfront scene that featured the wall pictured below (minus the gentlemen in hard hats):

Heddle Marine Services
I recognized Heddle Marine as the company that once shared a wharf with McKeil Marine in the Port of Sydney (it may still do so, I haven’t checked lately) so for one dazzling moment I thought The Boys was filmed in Sydport. Then I looked it up and realized much of the filming is done in and around Toronto (Heddle Marine Service is in Hamilton).  Which explains why the superheroes’ headquarters seemed familiar — it’s a digitally altered Roy Thomson Hall:


Roy Thomson Hall/Vought Tower/The Boys

Top: Roy Thomson Hall, Bottom: Vought Tower (Source: YouTube)

There are a bunch more Toronto references still to come — everything from restaurants to what are, apparently, distinctively Torontonian garbage cans — and I find I’m looking forward to trying to spot them. I don’t how the producers would feel about that, I’m guessing they’d prefer I simply accepted that the show was set in New York, but that’s a lot to ask of a Canadian.



You know how it goes: one minute you’re browsing your social media feeds, minding your own business, and the next you’re swapping fun facts about André the Giant and looking up old episodes of ’70s TV shows.

It all started with this tweet about the 7-foot-tall French pro-wrestler’s memorable, two-episode arc as Bigfoot/Sasquatch on The Six Million Dollar Man, the appointment television of my childhood:

The tweet reminded me of my favorite André the Giant (born André René Roussimoff) factoid: as a child in France, young André was sometimes driven to school by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. I just verified this story via Snopes and it’s true — although it has apparently been embellished over the years:

What’s True

When he lived in the French town of Ussy-sur-Marne in the 1950s, Beckett was one of several adults who sometimes drove local children to school, including André and his siblings.

What’s False

Beckett did not exclusively give rides to André, private rides were not necessary for André because he had grown too big for the local school bus, and Beckett did not form a special bond with André.

It would make for a fabulous full-circle moment if I could now tell you that Beckett wrote the Bigfoot episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, but alas, I cannot.

I remember some elements of those Bigfoot episodes really clearly, like the “rotating ice tunnel” through which Steve Austin (the Six Million Dollar Man of the title) chases the Sasquatch (my brother claimed the hallway of the Quebec City apartment he occupied in the early ’90s was modeled on it), although I didn’t know the tunnel was:

…a brand new addition to the Universal Studios Tour called The Glacier Avalanche and was inspired by the Clint Eastwood picture The Eiger Sanction (1975).

Apparently the tunnel went on to appear on the A-Team, Knight Rider and in the 1985 movie Misfits of Science.

What I had totally forgotten about the episodes was that Bigfoot was a robot built by aliens. How I could have forgotten this baffles me (and makes me wonder what else I’ve forgotten) but figuring it out led me to a Six Million Dollar Man Fan Wiki where I found this list of the scientific terms (along with their possible meanings) used by the aliens and honestly, it made my day:

  • Eunasic – a diagnostic test.
  • Cellical Attachment – unknown meaning. The aliens are impressed that Austin’s bionic eye has no sign of cellical attachment.
  • Intramuscular Caladentic Response – this was a test of the crushing strength of Austin’s bionic hand.  For the test, Austin was made to squeeze an iron bar. The pressure was measured in Latts. Austin’s limit was 68.4 Latts.
  • Visual Macrodamics – an advanced eye exam.
  • Opticon Scolometer – one of the instruments used during the eunasic.
  • Ventricular Probe – unknown.
  • Neuroeunasic Scan – a process by which the aliens can read the memories of a subject and translate them to images on a viewing screen

Mind you, 10 years of monitoring Nova Scotia healthcare discussions has me picturing them complaining about wait lists for ventricular probes and the dangerous shortage of opticon scolometers in rural hospitals.

See? I told you I was fascinated by science — I just forgot to mention that I’m particularly fascinated by the fictional, alien kind.