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The StarPhoenix

The Revenge of the Nerdist

The StarPhoenix talks about one of my favourite podcasts, Nerdist.

Nerdist – which itself has expanded from its humble origins to include a premium content YouTube channel, podcast offshoots and a cross-platform newsletter, Nerdist News – is a logical extension of a not-so-radical concept: A talk show about nerd culture hosted by and featuring people who actually know what they’re talking about.

Nerdist podcast topics draw on everything and everyone from MythBusters star Adam Savage to Clerks and Silent Bob filmmaker, Comic Book Men TV impresario and unapologetic fan-boy Kevin Smith.

Nerdist Podcast ranked No. 3 in a recent Rolling Stone list of the 10 best comedy podcasts of the moment. Guests over the years – Nerdist Podcast bowed in February 2010 – have ranged from comics maestro Stan Lee and TV actors Jeri Ryan and Drew Carey to rocker Ozzy Osbourne and cast members from Doctor Who, Community and Star Trek: The Next Generation, among other similarly styled shows.

Hardwick considers himself a Doctor Who evangelist, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Nerdist’s TV debut coincides with the return of Doctor Who’s seventh season in the U.S. and Canada later this month.

Hardwick fell into Nerdist Podcast almost by accident. He was a struggling standup comic at the time. He had a hard time finding bookings and filing comedy clubs. No one knew who he was, or what his comedy involved. Podcasting seemed a natural way to spread the word.

“Podcasting is a survival mechanism,” Hardwick explained, earlier this year in Los Angeles. “As starting comedians, we need a way to express ourselves in public in a way that tells them this is who we are, this is what we’re about, these are the things we want to talk about. Podcasts have become the comedy albums of today.

“When I was a kid, you’d listen to the same comedy album 20, 30, 50 times. Today, we’re spoiled as consumers. We’re like, ‘More! More!’ Podcasts provide that for people. They’re like a nonstop comedy album.”

What have we done?

From The StarPhoenix’s blog.  A note from the giant icicle before it was torn down.  Luckily Jeremy Warren was there to get the story.

You must know a few things before they hack me apart and I melt into your memories. First, stop calling me an icicle. I’m more of an ice wall, no? You’ve seen the photos by now. My elegant curves run from the top of the apartment to the ground. I hang for no one.

Second, WHY? Why must you destroy me? There are more perilous icicles hovering above Saskatoon sidewalks and apartments, and yet it’s my ice on the firing line. I blame the media spotlight. Its hot glare is not good for my kind.

One afternoon I’m at home — in my case it’s just a wall but it’s still home — and a reporter comes around, lets neighbours talk garbage about me and then publishes a story accusing me of threatening innocent citizens. Did I get an interview? I was not asked for my side of the story. I got the cold shoulder.
But that’s how we are treated, my frozen friends and I. How many of you have snapped an icicle hanging from your windows and trucks? Those are our children cut down in their prime. This is ice-ism.

I am not an old soul, but my young ice age has provided some insight into this world. Stuck to the same spot for months, I can’t help but notice the best and worst of you. I watched a young couple fight on the street, a blizzard of pent up resentment blowing between them. I watched two teens rush to the aid of an old man who slipped on the icy sidewalk. A microcosm of humanity has passed before me and I came to love you. Now you’re all left cold to my pleas of mercy.

I will likely die today. Think of me when you slip on your skates. Think of me when you drop a few ice cubes in your warm cola. I did nothing wrong and I am being punished. Justice is blind and maybe that’s why she moves at a such a glacial pace.

Column: Health Privacy Needs to Be a Priority

My column in Tuesday’s The StarPhoenix

Two seemingly unrelated stories that came out recently are more connected than we realize.

Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign hit full speed last week. The campaign is designed to raise awareness about mental health in Canada, and Feb. 12 brought a full-court press of media to raise awareness across the country.

And in a week when we were supposed to be more open than ever about mental illness, we also had the story about employees at the Regina Qu’Appelle Regional Health Authority (RQRHA) snooping into people’s confidential health records and in one case, altering information.

The reason Bell is trying to raise awareness about mental health is the stigma that’s still attached to it. Despite advocates such as the late journalist Mike Wallace and TSN host Michael Landsberg talking openly about their battles with depression, mental health conditions are something that many fear and others are reluctant to get treatment for.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada talks about stigma existing even among doctors – the same health professionals to whom sufferers are referred initially when they have problems. Progress is being made on removing the stigma, but there’s a long way to go. For those seeking treatment, it can be a daunting task and one that many people choose to do privately.

This is why the news out of Regina about health region staff and the privacy commissioner’s report about the medical record breaches are so discouraging.

In Saskatchewan, our health records are protected by the Health Information Privacy Act. HIPA’s stated goal is to improve the privacy of people’s health information while ensuring that enough is accessible to provide health services.

Yet at the RQRHA, there appeared to be a culture in some departments of looking at anyone’s health records.

As one staff member said during the investigation, “Everyone is doing it.”

Privacy commissioner Gary Dickson’s report calls out the Regina health authority but mentions other privacy breaches in health districts across the province. He refers to a “culture of entitlement” among employees of health regions who feel that they are allowed to look at anyone’s files.

So back to Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign. It encourages Canadians to speak out about mental illness, but then we learn that if we do seek help, it could be read and shared by those who have no right to see that information.

No wonder that Diane Aldridge, director of compliance for the privacy commission, told the CBC: “It’s about patient confidence, not only in the electronic health record but in the system itself.”

This isn’t just about mental health. It’s also about the loss of the confidence we all have when we go for treatment that our treatment will remain confidential.

The HIPA violations and Dickson’s report are serious enough that something needs to be done. Yet the report notes over and over that recommendations aren’t being followed. Over the decade that HIPA has been in place, not a single charge has been laid over a violation of it.

What’s the point of bringing in a privacy act if no one is going to enforce it or care? If we want to get serious about treatment of mental health or other illnesses that carry a stigma, then we need to get serious about protecting the records of people who need help.

It will take money to upgrade legacy computer networks and build the systems that are common among organizations that actually do protect our personal information. It will also take the political will to strongly punish those who break confidentiality agreements.

Dickson pointed out that the risk of job loss wasn’t enough to deter staff from snooping in and altering personal health records.

If firing or suspension isn’t working, perhaps it will take the year-long jail sentence for offenders that’s allowed in HIPA provisions.

It’s also going to take someone asking some really tough questions about why people who have no reason to access files are allowed to do it. Confidentiality is more than an agreement staff sign – and apparently ignore. It is protecting the information so that it can’t be viewed in the first place.

If the “trustees” of the system in our health regions can’t get this right, we need someone else to take leadership and ensure our personal information is safe.

Bell suggests Let’s Talk, but let’s also make sure that for those who want it to be, it’s a private conversation.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix 

Column: Think Small For the Growing City

From today’s column in The StarPhoenix

As the city prepares to develop the north downtown and aspires to make significant progress toward Mayor Don Atchison’s plan of having 15,000 people live downtown, it also has the opportunity to deal with another problem: Making Saskatoon a lot more affordable place to live.

A recent StarPhoenix story quoted lobbyist Wendell Cox of Demographia saying Saskatoon is among the least affordable cities in Canada.

This might be an expensive place to live, but I am not sure that I agree with Cox’s idea that we can sprawl until we hit mountains. Unlike Cox, I don’t lobby for the auto industry, or oppose the expansion of public transit.

His point is valid that densification of cities drives up property values and home prices. There come to be more amenities as more people move in, and people pay more to be close to the things they love. If you doubt me, check out the housing prices in Nutana near the Broadway business area. You pay more to live on or near a great street or urban village.

With a north downtown plan that will bring more people and more companies to the area, the same thing will happen to housing prices there. People will pay more to live close to work and play, and it’s already being reflected in rising prices in City Park, Caswell Hill and, more recently, Riversdale. This will only intensify when there are more people downtown. We all expect better transit, more restaurants and maybe even food trucks.

In many cities, the market dictates the most expensive kind of housing or condos that are created.

The result is that high-end condos win out, which is great for developers and owners. The wealth in the city centre also adds to the downtown street life and culture.

Where the market fails is in producing the lower-end rental suites that make a city affordable to live, and to a degree puts some downward pressure on the market. As a city grows more prosperous, these kind of bachelor and single-bedroom suites become more scarce.

The economic result is that it hurts a city’s creative and startup culture. It also hurts the very businesses that move into a downtown core because it’s hard to retain staff who can’t afford the commute. I see that when I find myself in an unaffordable city centre where there are a surprising number of “help wanted” signs, even in a poor job market.

When staff can’t easily get to their jobs, they quit when they find something closer to home. We see that happening even in Saskatoon. Why commute downtown when you can find work within walking distance?

There are ways to deal with this.

Mississauga, Ont., just built a massive and ugly affordable housing project that has created such an outcry that the city is looking at how to fix what it has done. One councillor called the project an “industrial prison.”

It’s spacious housing, but no one is ever going to want to call it a home. Like most such large-scale projects, this one won’t age well and will be part of the problem within a couple of decades.

The other approach being taken in some other cities with a dearth of affordable apartments is to start building micro apartments which cost less but are still of good quality. These are 270-to 350-square-foot suites at an affordable price. Having seen videos of a 78-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, the 270-squarefoot ones look like an expansive ranch house and are the size of many bachelor suites in Saskatoon.

While such a micro suite would be cramped to hold a decent Super Bowl party this weekend, it could provide the essentials of life at an affordable price. Half of Saskatchewan’s residents say they spend less on groceries in order to make the rent payment. This changes that.

By going small instead of low quality, micro suites provide affordable housing without competing against other types of housing, and are targeted at single people who often are overlooked.

Such housing allows artists, fledgling entrepreneurs and low-income earners a chance to live and get ahead.

If we don’t have this kind of creative housing, we risk missing out on the next wave – whether that be the arts or the birth of a new industry. Other cities have made this mistake and have paid for it.

Developing the north downtown could be as big for Saskatoon as River Landing. We all know there will be some amazing spaces built there, but let’s also hope there are some amazing and affordable spaces being built as well, even if they are on the small side.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Best StarPhoenix photos of 2012

As chosen by their photographer Gord Waldner.  My favourite from his favourites is this one.  It just seemed to sum up 2012 around Saskatoon.

Sink hole

Column: Double Bunking Doesn’t Work

This week’s column in The StarPhoenix

Last week the Internet news site iPolitics reported that Iwan Zinger, the executive director of the Office of Correctional Investigations, raised a series of concerns about the double bunking of federal offenders in federal penitentiaries.

Since June 2010, inmates being held in segregation in Manitoba’s Stoney Mountain Penitentiary have been double bunked despite being confined to their cells for 23 hours a day.

In a related story, iPolitics reported that in Prince Albert inmates are being double bunked in a prison cell that is less than five-square metres.

It’s been a long-standing practice with Correctional Services to avoid double bunking. Zinger pointed out in a memo he wrote to correctional officials that Canada has long endorsed the United National Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which calls for one inmate per prison cell.

Correctional Service responded to the letter with concern, but double bunking has been on the increase for the last couple of years anyway. As far back as August 2010, CSC has posted policy notes on its website that loosen the rules for double bunking.

For the foreseeable future, however, the policy seems to be here to stay. There is an increasing number of inmates being double bunked in cells designed for a single person. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has indicated he is content with double bunking in spite of the 1,700 new cells being added to the system.

Western Canada sees the highest rate of double bunking, at about one in five inmates. As can be expected, the increased crowding leads to other problems.

In prison, it leads to a higher rate of violence and public-health problems such as the spread of infectious diseases. It also makes rehabilitation more difficult as we are housing inmates in unsafe prisons that are not designed to hold that many people.

While it may be physically possible to hold a higher number of prisoners they eventually get released, and that’s when the real problems start.

The American practice of building supermax prisons generated a lot of attention when they were opened. They were super secure for the system’s most dangerous criminals. As the reinvention of places like Alcatraz, they held prisoners such as the notorious mob boss John Gotti.

They did an amazing job of segregating inmates and stopping violence. Their failure was that some who were housed there were not given life sentences and like most offenders in Canada, they were eventually released. Authorities found that many were worse off when they were released, however, than when they were convicted.

I am all in favour of tougher prison sentences for some crimes. It takes a long time to change behaviours and be taught the new skills that can break the crime cycle. It’s staff intensive and costs money but at the same time not doing it costs a lot more in both crime and more incarceration.

Many who return to California’s famous San Quentin are arrested before they have the chance to spend the $100 bill that they are given when they are released. Released in the morning and returned later that day. Each of those crimes has a victim and of course the cost of even more incarceration. It’s in all of our best interests to get this right.

That isn’t happening now. The Conservatives have totally forgotten the “corrections” part of their crime bill in a haste of locking everyone up. While they may be correct that we need longer sentences and have more people incarcerated, locking people up without the cells to safely house them and the space to turn their lives around is a recipe for more crime and even longer sentences.

Studies have shown that for most criminals, prison isn’t a deterrent. The evidence would suggest that in most western countries, it’s not the jail time that stops people from committing crimes – most are very aware of the consequences before they do the crime.

Many can’t get by in the world without breaking the law and that is why they do it. Some are violent people who must be locked up for a long time, but most need to be taught the skills to live without crime. Treating our prisons as warehouses for criminals doesn’t do that.

While it may feel good to be tough on crime, we must break the crime cycle and that doesn’t happen in over-crowded and violent prisons.

It’s hard to care for criminals but for many, prison must be where they can change their lives. Warehousing them in small cells isn’t going to accomplish that. Best practices have to win out over Conservative ideology and politics.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Ignoring mental health costly

My column this week

Over the last couple of weeks I have received a nonstop series of death threats against me in a variety of forms.

I have been told that I was going to be kicked through a window, my head cut off, and I was going to be killed as I went out to my car or when I went home. They all came from the same person and outside of being heckled when walking home one night, it was all empty threats.

The cause of the threats is complex but there are a lot of mental-health issues there. Our ideas of reality can be somewhat different, but when someone sees their life calling as Batman, you know it’s going to be a long day.

Working at an organization that is a social housing provider, we have an obligation to keep the facility safe for everyone inside it and the community around it. The easiest thing in the world would be to evict troubled clients, who would find themselves on the streets without any supports or help.

Eventually they end up back in jail. By then, however, you have more victims of crimes committed by those who don’t really realize what is happening around them.

Over the years I have repeatedly heard the plea, "he needs help," but mentalhealth help is really hard to get – even in extreme situations. A couple of months ago a client I was working with attempted suicide and was rushed to the hospital.

He was showing signs of obvious mental-health problems but instead of treating it as a suicide attempt, the doctor treated it as a drug overdose.

He was released in a couple of hours in even worse shape than when he went to the hospital.

The next day I called the health region’s mentalhealth intake line and was told that it was quite common for attempted suicides to be treated that way and there wasn’t much they could do other than recommending he see a family doctor and then get referred to a psychiatrist.

I got off the phone and shook my head; if going to the emergency room doesn’t work and if calling the Saskatoon Health Region’s mental-health intake line does nothing, how does anyone get any mental-health help in this city?

Dr. Anna Reid was recently named the head of the Canadian Medical Association. She talked quite openly about the need for quality housing as making a difference in people’s health. On the flip side, easy access to mental-health care for low income patients would make a big difference in keeping people housed.

The mental-health disorders get people evicted from housing and banned from shelters.

For women it leads them to working the streets and for men it often leads to drug abuse and other crime. The issue isn’t the crime, it’s a lack of treatment options, and no one seems to want to do anything about it. We wouldn’t tolerate this level of care anywhere else in the system.

One issue is a shortage of psychiatrists, available beds, nursing home beds, and a lack of spaces for really hard-to-care-for individuals. It strains everyone across Canada.

Another issue is voter apathy. As voters we care passionately about surgical and emergency room wait times and so they get improved. On a recent trip to RUH’s emergency room, they had signs up telling people that they may be timing your wait in an effort to speed things up. It works. My experience was excellent but the pain from a partially torn rotator cuff is a lot easier to deal with than someone who is struggling with schizophrenia or is trapped in a delusional world of fear.

Saskatchewan Health does a lot of benchmarking. Twenty-one different factors are tracked as part of the 2004 Comparable Health Indicators Report but almost nothing is said about mental health. If it’s not bench-marked, how can we expect change?

Across the country we have seen what happens when we underfund mental-health programs. It leads to an increase of people on the streets, it forces police into becoming mental-health workers, and in some situations it leads to deaths. Mental health is a complicated field but until we start to publicly address how we doing, how is it going to get better?

The bar to get help is too high, takes too long, and people end up too close to the edge. We deal a lot with the symptoms in our society – why not tackle the problem directly?

If You Build It, They Will Come

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

Years ago I was in Bahamas and had a chance to go swimming with sharks. A company took us in the middle of the Caribbean, tossed down a box of chum into the ocean and then tossed a line off the back of the boat to hold onto. There was no dive cage. You jumped into the water and prayed that the reef sharks that you were about to swim with know that they are bottom feeders and aren’t not in the mood to try something fattier.

Before we went on this ridiculously stupid expedition, we had to sign a waiver that said that if I was attacked by sharks, no attempt of rescue would be made. If in the unlikely chance I made it back to the boat, no first aid would be administrated and if I made to the shore without bleeding out, there would be no assistance given to me there either. I did what anyone would do that was going through an early stage midlife crisis would do, I signed it and got on the boat.

People do reckless things here in Saskatoon. Rather than have us sign waivers that stops us from doing stupid things like swimming with sharks, we have by-laws that prohibit things like swimming in the South Saskatchewan River. Even though we know the river has an undertow and a fast current, people do it all of the time. Whether it at the beach at the bottom of Ravine Drive or heading up to swim at Cranberry Flats, the lure of the water and the beach is a strong one for many people on hot summer days. While it may give people a break from the heat, it does pose some inherent risk. It risks those that are caught in the river’s undercurrent and it puts people at risk who are called on to save them; whether that be onlookers or the Saskatoon Fire Department. Too often by the time people are able to respond, it’s too late.

While this explains the by-laws designed to keep us out of the river in the city, it also means there aren’t a lot of places for people to escape the Saskatoon summer (if it ever gets here). Saskatoon does make an effort in trying to give people a place to go. There has been the significant upgrade to Mayfair Pool, changes and improvements to the spray parks, and even the transformation of River Landing all give us options than swimming in the river, yet people still flock to the beach on Ravine Drive where there is no parking, limited access, no life guards and during much of the summer, dangerous river conditions.

Calgary was faced with the same dilemma in the late 1970s and in 1978, they opened Sikome Lake in Fish Creek Provincial Park. The lake isn’t that much larger than the “lake” in Lakeview but it’s designed to be swam in. It features a hard sand bottom, a circulating spray fountain, change rooms, concession stands, and the same washed out orange sun shades that were installed when it opened. The best part of it is that it is surrounded by a wide sandy beach. Further back from the beach are picnic and barbecue areas. While it’s not that impressive to look at compared to many of Saskatchewan’s amazing lakes, it invited you into it to swim and cool down and enjoy the summer. Being in the city, it was easy to get to by car or bicycle. It also gave people another option than wading into the Bow River. While it used to be open year round, the lake is drained every winter and filled again (it takes three weeks) in the spring.

The results are that on many hot summer weekends, over 20,000 people flock there each day. The picnic spots are all taken and there is barely any spot on the beach at all. While it may not be my idea of a perfect day, it is for a lot of people, especially people who don’t have the time or the means to get away to the lake. With the average home price in Saskatoon over $300,000 and cabin prices at many northern lakes going for that much, heading away to the lake is an option for fewer and fewer people. There is Pike Lake but any lake that has to build a swimming pool right beside the lake, doesn’t seem to be a great option and so we default back to debating access to a lousy sandbar. Instead of having the same old debate about the same old sandbar that is right beside a dangerous undertow, let’s build something else. While the sandbar along the river may not be safe, it does prove one thing, if you build it, we will come.

Column: The need for open data in our city

While the Federation of Canadian Municipalities were in town, I helped give a series of tours of an affordable housing project. There were mayors, city councillors, and city administrators who came though, looked around and asked a lot of questions. Most had to do with funding streams but on the last tour the questions were focused around problems of homelessness in Saskatoon. I was going to give my thoughts but I asked them, “do any of your jurisdictions study root issues of social issues?” None of them did.

Despite the excellent work that City has done going back 36 years with the publication of our Neighbourhood Profiles, we have a limited understanding of many problems in Saskatoon because we don’t collect or have access of the data we need to really understand the issues. We aren’t alone. Government’s around the world make all sorts of decisions without fully understanding the consequences of their decision because of a lack of data. One example is the United Kingdom’s attempt to regulate fishing in the English Channel. According to political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book “The Ingenuity Gap”, scientists in England are unable to list all of the species of fish in the channel but are expected to manage the fishery. How can you solve a problem if you don’t understand it?

There is a movement growing around the world called Open Data. It is the idea that a lot of government data should be made available to the public so we can not only hold the government accountable but also so we can make better commercial and societal decisions. The idea has been around for a long time but picked up with the adoption of the internet. One of the launching off points was in 2004 when the Ministers of Science of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development signed a declaration calling for all publicly funded archive data to be made publicly available. It’s based on the idea that there is a lot of information out there but we don’t have access to it.

Perhaps the biggest implementation of Open Data is the U.S. government project called It’s purpose is to make available U.S. government data to anyone in a format that can be used. Some department contribute more data than others. As you would expect, departments like the Environmental Protection Agency submit a lot of high quality data sets while the Department of Defense offers up very little. Even the Railroad Retirement Board is submitting data to the project. The wide range of data is fascinating. There is real time data on airline departure and arrival time, lists of failed banks, lists of closed government data centers, marriage rates in the Armed Forces and even the data behind a tire rating system.

Canada is getting on the Open Data bandwagon as well. Tony Clement started us down the path towards being more open and transparent with which already has over 12,000 datasets including over 8,000 from StatsCan and another 3200 from Agriculture Canada. Despite the progress, it’s an uphill battle as witnessed by Canada Post’s recent lawsuit saying that a collection of postal codes violates it’s copyright.

Locally municipalities started opening up their data as well. Several municipalities have online crime maps, the Edmonton Police Service one of the best implementations of the idea. It allows you to see a crime breakdown on a map of a neighbourhood for time periods up to the last 60 days. The stated reason is accountability and it achieves that but that data also puts valuable information in the hands of citizens. If I know that cars are being stolen on my block, I am going to be much more aware of the people I see acting suspiciously. If I know there are assaults happening on a route I walk, I can avoid the area.

That’s not all, with open data and the right tools, you can start to layer on other data bits and see what factors like unemployment, elementary classroom sizes, types of businesses, or even the impact of different kinds of street lighting do to make the problem better or worse. It’s not the first data set that gives the answers, it’s multiple layers of data that start to make the picture clearer. Once we start to understand the problem, we can start to identify the solutions.

Open Data is a lot easier to believe in than implement. Not only do you have to have the right data but you need it in a format that is machine readable and portable. That’s a significant technological hurdle in organizations that use custom written software. The payoff however of better decisions by policy makers and business leaders and a more engaged and educated populace could be well worth the cost.

PotashCorp and The United Way Day of Caring

PotashCorp and the United Way came by The Lighthouse’s Emergency Women’s Shelter today and did and Extreme Makeover today where they completely remade the women’s shelter.  They painted, decorated, hung a mural, and made the place feel a lot more like home.  The StarPhoenix has more on the day here.

A big thank to the United Way and PotashCorp for partnering with us to ensure that women have a warm and comfortable place to call home, even during the most difficult of times.  It was inspiring to see.

My life is complete

Screen shot of National Newswatch

I was finally linked to by National Newswatch.

Life in the cloud

As SaskTel winds down CDMA coverage in Saskatchewan, I need to upgrade Mark’s cell phone (a LG Rumor 2) that he loves.  He is on a cheap pre-paid plan with Virgin that I don’t want to upgrade or add data so I will keep with a feature phone, probably a LG Rumor Plus or a Samsung Gravity 3.  It’s talk, text, and email which is really all Mark needs right now.

I have been thinking about what I need ever since RIM’s network when down last summer.  This is how I am thinking.  I had a Blackberry Curve 8530 and like a lot of smartphone users, I have everything flowing through that phone.

  • Two email accounts
  • Blackberry Messenger
  • Text
  • Twitter
  • Flickr (which never worked on the phone)
  • Dropbox so I could send and receive files
  • The Score Mobile App (I have a problem okay)
  • MySask411 which replaced my phone book

I got a fair amount of work done and even wrote a couple of columns with it.  It worked really well for me until that outage.  When Blackberry went down, so did my phone.  I couldn’t get calls, I couldn’t even connect to a Wifi network.  My phone was essentially a brick that I carried around and hoped would return.  While it wasn’t the reason I switched a Samsung Galaxy Ace over Christmas (the cost of the new Curve’s were high on Koodo and didn’t seem to offer a lot more capability as well as my general lack of faith in the Blackberry platform) I essentially swapped out RIM for being totally dependent on Google and this week I had an uncomfortable realization about how totally dependent I am on Google.

I was one of the first bunch of Gmail users way back in 2004, back in the days where invites were limited to five per person and where actually being sold for money.  I got one, used my five invites on Wendy and some friends.  Gmail was so new and fresh it had that new email smell to it.  It served me well until this year when I got a notice that my email had been accessed by someone using an IP address from  Serbia.  It was really unsettling because as I had a decent password and changed it periodically.  Having not travelled to Serbia recently (or ever) the idea that I had been hacked was a horrible one.

As for my ID, you have your drivers license, your passport, your Saskatchewan Health Card, your Social Insurance Number but my email is just as big of a part of my ID as anything.  I have used it to sign up for Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, PayPal, even my bank and credit card uses it to communicate with me.  While I am careful, having everything exposed was not that pleasant and it resulted in new credit cards being issues, new passwords, and really all new everything.

Shortly after that I had a huge problem with email.  Emails were missing and there was about a 1500 email hole from about a year before that I discovered.  I wasn’t the only one that has had this happen to me.  The Gmail help forums are full of users that have lost thousands of emails and no one really knows why.

Since then there is someone that I will email periodically at The StarPhoenix that occasionally doesn’t acknowledge the email.  I am the same way so I never thought of it until Friday when I got a call from my editor to see why I never filed my column except I did on Wednesday.  I resent the column and it appeared.  It’s the second time it happened but I have long had these sneaking suspicions that it was a problem with the domain.  I checked the Gmail help forum and it tells me that I need to check with the domain name that wasn’t getting my email as they are of course faultless.  Of course the email was never received.

This isn’t the first time this happened.  A friend used to work at USA Today.  An email I sent him took a full year one time to show up.  I was working somewhere else and using their email (which was served up on Dreamhost) was the only server they ever had a problem with and then only sometimes.  It has happened to me before from SaskTel where an email just hung out for month before being delivered.  It happens but how do you know it happens.  I never got a bounce message in any of those situations so I assumed (incorrectly) that it had gone through.  Maybe we need to downgrade to Eudora 3 and start sending read receipts again.

So on Friday, my email was down, my cell phone was acting erratic (I think the problem was Koodo) and I realize that when things go down, they really go down.   What can you do about it?


Leaving Gmail is really hard because I think we underestimate how much spam and email that we get and I really don’t want that to make it to my phone.  I know SaskTel has web access but so many friends of mine have had their email account become totally full after a couple of days that it is pointless if you are a heavy email user.   I can set up a 500mb account for myself on Dreamhost but I get thousands of spam a day and Gmail handles it better than anyone else.  I am in the process of putting coop AT to rest which will cut back on some of the spam but it’s a big problem when you are have old email accounts.  There are a lot of things that still use it, including some that I am sure I don’t remember but will need someday.

As Wired Magazine published yesterday, Gmail has a pretty big security hole in it.

But since Gmail added OAuth support in March 2010, an increasing number of startups are asking for a perpetual, silent window into your inbox.

I’m concerned OAuth, while hugely convenient for both developers and users, may be paving the way for an inevitable privacy meltdown.

For most of the last decade, alpha geeks railed against “the password anti-pattern,” the common practice for web apps to prompt for your password to a third-party, usually to scrape your e-mail address book to find friends on a social network. It was insecure and dangerous, effectively training users how to be phished.

The solution was OAuth, an open standard that lets you grant permission for one service to connect to another without ever exposing your username or password. Instead of passwords getting passed around, services are issued a token they can use to connect on your behalf.

If you’ve ever granted permission for a service to use your Twitter, Facebook, or Google account, you’ve used OAuth.

This was a radical improvement. It’s easier for users, taking a couple of clicks to authorize accounts, and passwords are never sent insecurely or stored by services who shouldn’t have them. And developers never have to worry about storing or transmitting private passwords.

But this convenience creates a new risk. It’s training people not to care.

It’s so simple and pervasive that even savvy users have no issue letting dozens of new services access their various accounts.

I’m as guilty as anyone, with 49 apps connected to my Google account, 80 to Twitter, and over 120 connected to Facebook. Others are more extreme. Samuel Cole, a developer at Kickstarter, authorized 148 apps to use his Twitter account. NYC entrepreneur Anil Dash counted 88 apps using his Google account, with nine granted access to Gmail.

This is where it gets nerve wracking.

You may trust Google to keep your email safe, but do you trust a three-month-old Y Combinator-funded startup created by three college kids? Or a side project from an engineer working in his 20 percent time? How about a disgruntled or curious employee of one of these third-party services?

Any of these services becomes the weakest link to access the e-mail for thousands of users. If one’s hacked or the list of tokens leaked, everyone who ever used that service risks exposing his complete Gmail archive.

The scariest thing? If the third-party service doesn’t discover the hack or chooses not to invalidate its tokens, you may never know you’re exposed.

The reliability isn’t just a Gmail issue but most of us switched to Gmail because it was run by Google and we never thought that we would have these issues. 

The other issue with Google is that even though they post an Apps Dashboard to let you know how things are going, this is a multi-billion dollar company with no way to contact them unless you are a large customer.  I have had Gmail down and nothing shows up on the Dashboard so it has to be a big outage to report it.  That’s fine if you are affected with others but if you are not part of a giant collective of frustrated Gmail users losing control on Twitter, what recourse do you have.  Google tells you to that they look at help forums but there are thousands of unresolved issues, some that go on for a long time.  This isn’t unique to Google, a friend had a nightmare in getting locked out of his Twitter account because of a Twitter database error.  It look a couple of months to resolve and that was even after it’s CEO got involved.  At least you can contact Dick Costello, who do you contact anymore at Google?

Google Contacts

I download and backup periodically my contacts for a couple of reasons, I need to keep them sync’d across my two accounts (one for work, the other one is personal).  They are also sync’d on my iPod Touch, iPad, and Android phone.  Of course I just read on Kottke this week that stealing your address book among iPhone developers is quite common.

It’s not really a secret, per se, but there’s a quiet understanding among many iOS app developers that it is acceptable to send a user’s entire address book, without their permission, to remote servers and then store it for future reference. It’s common practice, and many companies likely have your address book stored in their database. Obviously, there are lots of awesome things apps can do with this data to vastly improve user experience. But it is also a breach of trust and an invasion of privacy.

I did a quick survey of 15 developers of popular iOS apps, and 13 of them told me they have a contacts database with millons of records. One company’s database has Mark Zuckerberg’s cell phone number, Larry Ellison’s home phone number and Bill Gates’ cell phone number. This data is not meant to be public, and people have an expectation of privacy with respect to their contacts.

So while I am giving all of my contact information to Google intentionally, I (and so are most of you) am un-intentionally  giving up your contact information to developers (sorry about that) which is one of the reasons why there is so much spam in this world.  Thanks Apple.  So even if Google is protecting our private information, as soon as we sync it with our iPhone or iPad, it is compromised.

This brings up my next issue, which phone vendor can we trust? Apple allows people to download your most private of personal information, Google controls and ties it all together in an Android phone, with Blackberry you just have a crappy phone experience and does anyone expect Windows 7 Phone to be any better.  RIM has better security but isn’t able to deliver on their phones.

I was talking to a businessman who has been tied to his phone since AGT came out with the Aurora (such old technology, Google doesn’t even know about it) and he said to me the other day that he was willing to ditch his smart phone and go back to a flip phone (or a feature phone so he could text his kids).  His company email server was down and he couldn’t do “anything” and was frustrated in the same way we all get frustrated.  He said with a regular cell phone, when it went down, all it did was affect his phone calls.  Now when his smartphone isn’t working, it affects everything.  He was actually in the process of heading to Midtown Mall and purchase a cheap phone so as he put it, at “least I can call someone”.  In some ways as I looked at a Nokia C1 by Fido today I wondered if this may be what I really want, an update to the Nokia 1100 which is still the world’s most popular phone.


Koodo’s cellular service is okay here in Saskatoon.  They use Telus’ network and do a not bad job of staying active.  I find that when SaskTel is having problems, so is Telus/Koodo which makes me feel somewhat better but not a lot.  In other words when I get no service at my house, neither does anyone else using SaskTel, Telus, or Virgin.  When Koodo’s network is acting up, I can tell by looking at my phone when something is wrong.  My Foursquare check-in options revolve around Carlton University’s campus, my network says Telus or even SaskTel instead of Koodo, and my calls drop more than they should.  Wireless is defined by it’s Ready, Shoot, Aim background and we shouldn’t be surprised with it’s technical difficulties considering the rate that technology is changing but more and more I keep wondering if a step back may be order and evaluate if I want all of my personal information being in a platform that is so easily exploited. 

Even if you can trust them now, can you trust them in the future.  Google’s recent privacy changes spooked millions and may have launched a competitor in Duck, Duck, Go.  These aren’t new concerns as I remember AKMA struggling with how much he should trust Flickr years ago.

I could come off the cloud but that is a lot easier said than done.  I could use Thunderbird for email and contacts and Lightning as a calendar.  I could use Dreamhost’s IMAP server, keep my email off my phone, and ditch my iPad, or at least not sync up information with it.  It can be done but it is a very different 1998 era web that I don’t think I want to go back to either.

When you think of the information you have in your Gmail account, address book, calendar, and other apps (think of Mint and your bank app on your phone), why aren’t we either demanding more security or at least taking steps to protect ourselves.  I know RIM’s the most secure but their phones are terrible right now.  I wonder if the next thing in wireless will not just be the cool apps but the cool apps that protect your data because right now my data isn’t feeling all that safe.

Column: NDP Conspiracy Idea Baseless

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

In the column, Political moves on Saskatoon council (SP, Jan. 27) John Gormley suggested an NDP takeover of Saskatoon city council.

In addition to the "Gang of Five," he saw additional threats in Sean Shaw, Pat Atkinson and Frank Quennell as contenders in an organized attempt by the NDP to take over the city. In the coming "Leftaggeddon" there could be as many as seven left-of-centre councillors and a New Democratic mayor haunting Gormley’s dreams, with the apparent intention of tormenting the Saskatchewan Party from their stronghold in council.

As fun as it is to imagine a vast left-wing conspiracy, it’s not why Saskatoon’s city council is the way it is.

After last fall’s provincial election campaign, I am not confident that Saskatchewan’s NDP is able to organize a slo-pitch team, let alone a takeover of city council. Even if there was a nefarious effort to elect leftwing councillors in some wards, some did run against a well-financed and organized effort from the right. There are NDP supporters who run and campaign in civic elections, but the battle goes both ways, with Saskatchewan Party supporters getting involved, as well.

It’s been a part of civic politics in Saskatoon for many years. Even then most civic campaigns are still won and lost by a small team of people working hard for a friend or candidate in whom they believe.

With limited budgets and no city-wide campaigns for councillors, it often comes down to who gets out door knocking the earliest and stays out the latest.

While Gormley is likely to disagree, the left-right comparison doesn’t work in civic politics as it does at other levels of government. There isn’t a lot of room for political ideology when councillors are discussing and voting on a karate studio in Westview, or the lack of access to dog parks.

During the couple of town hall meetings I sat in on this fall, there weren’t a lot of wedge issues brought up. Even on bigger topics, such as what to do with the Traffic Bridge, or voting on the south bridge, the "Gang of Four" was replaced many times by the Gang of 11 as council voted together.

Watching council you notice that differences exist, but not as much on a rightleft divide but on questions of how one builds a city and what kind of city one wants.

Will it be a neighbourhood-centric city such as New York, or an endless sprawling suburb such as Mississauga in Ontario? Do we want a car-driven infrastructure like Los Angeles, or a public transit-driven one like San Francisco?

Do we lay out rigorous architectural standards like Chicago or even Winnipeg, or toothless standards that lead to bland architecture, as we now have in Saskatoon?

The kind of council we have reflects the kind of city we have. Parts of Saskatoon have done far better than others during the economic boom, and will have much different perspectives on what the next steps should be and what priorities we should have. The average income in the city in 2006 was $65,487, with 5.9 per cent of households living below $15,000 a year.

In Saskatoon’s five core neighbourhoods, the average income is $35,003, with a staggering 13.3 per cent of families living on less than $15,000 a year. Eleven per cent of Saskatoon needs day-care help, but the number is double in the core. Only six per cent of Saskatoon adults have less than a Grade 9 education, but when you look at the core, that number more than doubles to 13 per cent.

How many areas of Saskatoon have their own economic development corporation? None. We have city councillors that see the world differently from each other because we have a very divided city, and see the challenges and opportunities in different ways.

A council that reflects our city’s perspectives is what we want. We need market friendly councillors as well as those who can advocate for other aspects of city life. Saskatoon has suffered through councils that were both too business-driven and anti-business.

A diverse council is good for the city. We benefit from both the right and left because, as a city, that is who we are. As long as councillors keep doing that, I am pretty happy.

Grandstanding over an international trade deal when the city doesn’t even have a local procurement policy? Let’s leave those stunts up to other levels of government and go back to micromanaging the transit department. It’s at least something both sides can agree upon.

Column: MDs aiding prescription abuse

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

A well-known drug addict went to four doctors last summer and got four prescriptions for morphine on the same day. He had the prescriptions filled at different pharmacies, which gave him more than enough morphine to abuse, sell or trade.

That’s exactly the kind of abuse that the province tried to prevent in 1995 when it introduced the Pharmaceutical Information Program (PIP). It’s a computer network designed to help doctors and pharmacists keep on top of what is being prescribed, to make sure there are not any drug incompatibilities and, as PIP’s goals state: "Provide information needed to minimize drug abuse, diversion and misuse."

That didn’t happen in this case.

Usually the system works well. I am a Type 2 diabetic who keeps it under control by taking two medications – Metformin and Glyburide. I get my prescription from my doctor, who gives me some refills. When the refills are done, I need to return to see him. After talking and checking me over, he enters a new prescription into the computer which I can then take to the pharmacy.

This is for two drugs that have absolutely no street value and aren’t narcotics, but they are still tracked by PIP. It’s the same for most of us prescribed medicine, if the doctor is doing his or her job.

However, for some a prescription is a gateway to other drugs. Ritalin is a good example. One woman I know sells her Ritalin so that she can buy another guy’s morphine to shoot up. Obviously her ADHD was under control enough that she could complete a drug deal and still be focused enough to get high.

In a couple of weeks she’ll get her refill and the cycle will continue, probably until a dirty needle ends it for her.

How common is this? A 2007 report by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse notes there is "minimum" research in the area of prescription medication abuse. The few studies that do exist state that about 10 per cent of patients at rehab centres are getting help for prescription drug abuse.

A study of seven Canadian urban centres showed that about 30 per cent to 40 per cent of drug users are abusing at least one prescription narcotic, with drugs such as Percodan being the favourites. A 2006 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that morphine and OxyContin are replacing heroin as the drug of choice for many Canadians.

How do they get these drugs? Double-doctoring is a big part of the problem. You get a prescription from one doctor, and you go to another and present the same symptoms. If the first (second, third or fourth) prescription doesn’t get entered into PIP, you get your drug supply.

PIP does try to take care of privacy concerns and allows people to "opt out," which I have been told by addicts makes it easier to get their prescription. While many doctors won’t prescribe narcotics if someone has opted out of the program, some others do.

More disturbingly, some doctors will prescribe what you ask for. Someone I knew proved that three years ago by walking into a doctor’s office and saying his back was sore.

He came out with a prescription (and refill) for morphine. This doctor had a reputation for "giving you what you wanted," which, as you can guess, often is narcotics.

Why is it a big deal? There’s the moral aspect, but there’s an economic side, as well. You and I pay for these drugs prescribed to people on the provincial supplementary health program.

Depending on how you look at it, the provincial government is either the biggest drug dealer in Saskatchewan or the biggest enabler, with our backing.

You can’t tell me it’s impossible to stop or curtail this problem. Saskatchewan has centralized drug purchasing, centralized medical billing, and the centralized PIP in place, and yet the abuse continues. I know that physicians are independent contractors, but if a doctor writes an abnormal amount of prescriptions for OxyContin, morphine or other narcotics over an extended period, why isn’t that investigated? Why aren’t red flags raised at pharmacies when multiple prescriptions for the same drug are being filled? Finally, why isn’t the Health Ministry getting involved when these cases slip through?

I know that our society puts doctors on a pedestal. Believe me, when I am sick, I want to be treated by a good one. However, if because of profit, incompetence or laziness, doctors are hurting the people they took an oath to help, we need to get them out of the system. Saskatchewan won’t ever need doctors that badly.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Managed Alcohol Problems Help

In today’s The StarPhoenix

Over the years I have received a lot of phone calls about a couple of people who are well-known on the streets of Saskatoon.

Others see them on the streets during the winter months and want "someone" to help them – that someone always being emergency shelter providers. The problem is that while these individuals want a place to live, they both are slaves to their addictions.

If you ask either one what they want to do, it’s to drink. Nothing else. There is no life separate from their next drink. Their desire for alcohol overwhelms even the ability to maintain personal hygiene or go to the washroom.

In the summer, my compassion for either one isn’t that high. A poor lifestyle decision means sometimes sleeping along the riverbank, but as the weather cools, that decision can lead to death. I have made many emergency calls over the years because of their alcohol or drug use. The cost of ambulance rides alone is significant, not to mention the repeated health-care costs.

But these two aren’t unique. Countless people with whom I have talked needed help, but would rather live on the streets than give up alcohol or drugs. The addiction has a bigger hold on them than their need for survival.

Life becomes a day-to-day existence.

Historically, we have simply waited for such people to hit rock bottom. The problem is, when life is so bad to begin with, there isn’t a big gap between doing great and reaching rock bottom. For many, the best life has been is time spent in prison or in a halfway house.

While to you and me the idea of spending the night outside might seem horrendous, for them it’s been such a part of their lives that it doesn’t even register as unusual.

Toronto has taken a different approach to dealing with such people. Seaton House, one of Canada’s largest homeless shelters, opened a "wet shelter" in 1997 where alcohol could be managed. In the past, shelters such as Seaton House forced people to be dry and sober before they came in.

While some did sober up, others found their addiction was too strong and went off in all sorts of weather to get their next fix. A relapse wasn’t just one beer but many, and often they would use a variety of substances such as mouth wash, rubbing alcohol, glue, gas, or even cleaners.

The chemical dependency makes it impossible for hard-core alcoholics to dry out, so the idea is to try to take them off it slowly. At Seaton House a drink is given every 90 minutes (five ounces of wine or three oz. of sherry) until the person can’t go on, or until he falls asleep. They are weaned off the alcohol over time. When the physical dependence is broken, more traditional approaches to treating the addiction can be undertaken.

A 2006 study reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that a managed alcohol program reduces consumption.

Participants went to having eight drinks a day from 48 drinks. Police and hospital usage dropped, as well. The study figures it saved the system about $450 a month for each person.

While such numbers are difficult to quantify, it is important because it means more police available to fight crime and more hospital beds available for other patients. When you factor in the extremes of Saskatchewan weather, the savings could be potentially more.

Drug and alcohol abuse is not rational. No one wakes up hoping to drink a dangerous amount of moonshine or cleaner, yet it happens too often. They end up in emergency rooms or the police cells night after night.

On nights where there isn’t anyone around or something goes wrong, we hear about it the next morning and wait to see if the family releases the name.

Managed alcohol programs, such as Seaton House’s, provide a safe way to deal with chronic alcoholism and start the process toward allowing residents to finally deal with the issues that have dominated their lives. But critics have called similar programs "bunks for drunks" and see them as enabling alcoholism.

However, alcohol doesn’t need an enabler. When you are at the point where your desire for alcohol overwhelms your ability even to take basic care of yourself, a different approach is needed. It may not be one that we are comfortable with, but it’s better than having someone freeze to death.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix