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Canadian researchers to release recommendations for treating youth eating disorders online

Sarah White sets a timer to remind herself to eat. She sets it six times a day so that she eats three meals and three snacks.

White says she’s always been a “picky eater.” But when she started working from home, her routine was interrupted and her already difficult relationship with food became dangerous. It ultimately led to an eating disorder diagnosis during the pandemic. 

“I had all of the time in the world to eat, but I was finding I wasn’t eating nearly as much as I should have been,” White, 33, said during a physically distanced interview at her Halifax apartment. “It started to feel a lot more serious than it had in the past.”

There’s been an alarming spike in the number of people seeking help for eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre says the volume of inquiries to its help line and online chat service has been up 100 per cent during the pandemic.

“There’s been literature coming out across the world really suggesting that the numbers are skyrocketing and we’re trying to understand why that is,” said Dr. Jennifer Couturier, principal investigator for the Canadian Consensus Panel for Eating Disorders. 

Pandemic research effort

In May, the panel, which consists of clinicians, policymakers, parents and youth, received a $ 50,000 federal grant to determine how best to treat eating disorders during a pandemic, particularly in children and young adults under 25. Couturier says she feels this age group hasn’t received a lot of attention when it comes to research generally. 

The operating grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research is part of a larger government program to fund mental health research related to COVID-19. 

The panel’s recommendations, which are about to be published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, are intended to help doctors determine what kinds of treatments they should and should not be delivering virtually.

WATCH |  Sarah White explains on her eating disorder:

Sarah White, 33, was recently diagnosed with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She discusses the role the COVID-19 pandemic played in her illness. 0:56

The guidelines say that while virtual care can be suitable in some circumstances when treating eating disorders, it cannot wholly replace in-person visits, and that special care must be taken to ensure patients have enough privacy to express themselves during online sessions. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Couturier’s clinic was closed. She was not able to see patients in person at all until services slowly opened up for more urgent cases. 

It’s part of what made her realize new guidelines for online treatment were necessary. 

In-person visits still necessary

Couturier, who is also the co-director of the eating disorders program at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., says in-person visits are still necessary in some cases.

“It’s not just talking, therapy, that’s important with eating disorders,” she said. “There’s also checking weights and checking vital signs, which can’t be done virtually.”

But she says some established treatments — such as family-based treatment, which gives parents an active role, and cognitive behavioural therapy — can be conducted virtually with some adjustments.

“We often start off the session saying, ‘Are you in a private space? Are you feeling comfortable?’ Couturier said.


Dr. Jennifer Couturier, principal investigator for the Canadian Consensus Panel for Eating Disorders, says there are benefits to virtual care, but some care must still be provided in-person. (Submitted by Jennifer Couturier)

She noted it’s also important for doctors to ensure no one barges into the room on their end while they’re with patients, especially if they’re working from home.  

Couturier says virtual care can improve access because it eliminates geographic inequities, but it can also create barriers for those who don’t have access to a computer and the Internet. She says her team’s guidelines encourage physicians and hospitals to be mindful of both. 

They’ll also recommend hospitals don’t, “just broadly say, ‘OK, eating disorders can be treated totally virtually,'” as was the case in the early days of the pandemic. 

Benefits to virtual care

Shaleen Jones, executive director of Eating Disorders Nova Scotia, agrees virtual care can increase access for people, particularly patients who live in rural areas. 

Her organization, which provides support, not medical care, planned to help 250 people over the past year. It ended up helping about 1,000 people through online peer support programs. 

Eating disorders thrive in isolation and secrecy– Shaleen Jones, Eating Disorders Nova Scotia

Jones says 85 per cent of the people her organization has helped are from Nova Scotia, with the remainder joining virtual sessions via Zoom from other Canadian provinces, particularly, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

“Across Canada, we’ve really seen a number of folks who are reaching out for support for an eating disorder, just really going through the roof,” she said. “Eating disorders really thrive in isolation and secrecy.” 

Liberating diagnosis

White attended a peer support group offered by Eating Disorders Nova Scotia in the early days of the pandemic. She now works for the organization, a role to which she brings valuable real-life experience.

In September, she was diagnosed with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), an eating disorder that involves selective eating. It’s similar to anorexia in that it involves limiting the amount of food consumed, but different in that it does not involve distress about body shape. 

She says it was the diagnosis she didn’t know she needed because it helped explain what she had been experiencing most of her life.  

“It was kind of liberating,” she said. “It makes sense. It wasn’t just me trying to be difficult or me being a picky eater. It’s a legitimate mental illness.” 

White lives in Nova Scotia, where COVID-19 rates have remained relatively low. She was able to meet her physicians and get a diagnosis in person.

Couturier says she expects virtual care to remain a part of her practice going forward.

“There are so many benefits to it that I think these guidelines will still be quite relevant and applicable even when the pandemic has passed,” Couturier said. 

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CBC | Health News

The pros and cons of online booking portals for COVID-19 vaccines once mass immunization begins

Most provinces and territories will be using online portals to sign Canadians up for COVID-19 vaccinations as they become more widely available next month, according to a survey by CBC News.

Every province that has shared their plans will use some online sign-up, as will Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The option to book by phone will be available across Canada, and Nunavut is scheduling vaccination appointments strictly by phone.

While vaccinations started back in December 2020, what’s soon changing is the pace and distribution list — from targetted high-risk groups like seniors in long-term care, to the general population, starting with the oldest first in many jurisdictions.

“That is absolutely what we need to be doing,” said epidemiologist Kirsten Fiest, the Director of Research & Innovation in Critical Care Medicine and an assistant professor at the University of Calgary. 

“I think the efficiency piece is really the most critical.”

But, while health officials and independent experts agree online appointment booking sites will be essential to managing a mass vaccination campaign, they’ve also raised problematic questions of equity in parts of the U.S.

WATCH | Some say online vaccine portals could shut out most vulnerable:

As vaccinations ramp up in Canada, many provinces are talking about using online portals to help organize and register people for their shots. But some people worry that the Canadians who are most vulnerable and have the greatest need for the vaccine could end up getting lower priority. 2:01

Stories in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post have documented how online booking has prevented senior citizens, racialized individuals and poor people from getting fair access to vaccination. In some cases activists have stepped in to book shots for those who lack tech savviness, struggle with communication or cannot afford the devices, data plans or internet service.     

The problems seen south of the border concern Fiest.

“You have to worry that something similar could happen here.”  


Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Calgary believes online portals to sign up for COVID-19 vaccination will be an essential part of the mass immunization effort, because they’re efficient — but not without problems. (Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary)

 

Cross-country picture for online portals  

While neither Newfoundland and Labrador nor New Brunswick would confirm plans for online booking options, slots for coronavirus immunizations can already be reserved through web sites in PEI, and the Northwest Territories.   

Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta told CBC News they intend to offer web-based sign ups, without providing a timeline.

Quebec, Ontario, and B.C all say they’ll launch online sites for booking vaccination relatively soon.  

Quebec said its site could be online before the end of the month. 

Ontario said it has successfully tested a scheduling site it developed with three American companies in January, but the province’s Ministry of Health would only say it expected to launch it “in the coming weeks.”   

B.C. said its booking site will be launched to the public in March, and has released sample images of the COVID-19 immunization record card citizens will receive.  


British Columbia says it will have an online portal open in March for COVID-19 vaccinations for the general population. People will have the option to receive a paper record of their vaccination, like the one above, and a digital record. (Government of B.C.)

Online booking portals currently running in Yukon and Nova Scotia were built by CANImmunize, the Ottawa based tech firm co-founded by Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an internal medicine physician and senior scientist at Ottawa Hospital.

CANImmunize started out as an app for tracking vaccine records a decade ago, and was supported by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The company has expanded its scope offering more services to help fight the pandemic because “this will be the largest mass healthcare intervention in our lifetime,” said Wilson, “and probably the most important.” 

Wilson says CANImmunize is in talks with other provinces interested in its tech, but declined to name them.


Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an internal medicine physician at Ottawa Hospital is also co-Founder of CANImmunize, the company that created online vaccine sign-up portals for Nova Scotia and Yukon. Wilson says vaccinating people for COVID-19 ‘will be the largest mass healthcare intervention in our lifetime.’ (Kim Barnhadt/CANImmunize)

 

Perpetuating the ‘digital divide’  

With millions of Canadians clamouring for COVID-19 vaccines, using technology to help facilitate booking shots will make the process more convenient for many Canadians and more efficient for health departments.  

“I think that we have a mass vaccination strategy that will work for a lot of people,” said Dr. Kwame McKenzie, a physician and the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a non-profit group in Toronto that works in research and policy issues to improve health equity.  

“The problem is that there are some people who are at highest risk that it won’t work for at all.”


Dr. Kwame McKenzie, a psychiatrist and CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based think-tank that advises on policy for more equitable health care in urban communities. He’s concerned the process to sign-up for vaccines might make existing inequities worse. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

 

McKenzie is concerned the mass vaccination campaigns across Canada built on the power of online booking portals will perpetuate the country’s “digital divide.”  

He says the seniors, racialized groups, low income groups, and people with disabilities who have been at higher risk of getting COVID-19, are exactly the same groups who are less likely to have computers, broadband, and be “digitally savvy.”

Having call centres for phone bookings isn’t a fix-all, he said, if people using pay-as-you-go credits end up on hold for hours.  

“That could be all your credits for a week,” he said, “and the most likely scenario is that you’d use your credits before you got through. And that’s your opportunity gone.”

He also points to Statistics Canada data that shows about 20 per cent of Canadians have a mother tongue other than English or French. 

Bookings in Canada’s official languages, said McKenzie, could present challenges not just for younger  people new to Canada from places like South Asia or Africa, but also for some older Canadians from places like Italy, Portugal or Ukraine, who still function primarily in their first languages. 

Alternatives for access

McKenzie wants to see vaccination slots proactively held back for those who will struggle to book online or by phone. 

He believes community outreach for at-risk groups should be coupled with no-appointment-necessary walk-up vaccination sites in targeted areas.

In Canada, we say diversity is our strength … that means that we need a diverse vaccine roll out strategy to meet the needs of that diverse population.– Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO The Wellesley Institute

He also said on-the-job immunization clinics for essential workers should be part of vaccine access.        

“In Canada, we say diversity is our strength. And that’s something I believe, but that means that we need a diverse vaccine roll out strategy to meet the needs of that diverse population.”  

Several provinces have announced plans for mobile vaccination clinics, “focused immunizations teams” and community clinics set up by local public health units to reach vulnerable groups. 

Fiest believes provinces will have to be careful that “whatever system is going to be rolled out is not making health inequities worse.”  

A long process and public patience running low  

A number of questions have poured into the CBC News COVID@cbc.ca email address in recent days from Canadians anxious for specifics about when and how they can sign up for vaccination. 

Linda O’Neil of Barrie, Ont., is one of them. 


Linda O’Neil of Barrie, Ont., is concerned about when and how she’ll be able to get a COVID-19 vaccination booking for her mother, who is in her late 80s. (Submitted by Linda O’Neil)

 

She’s worried about getting a booking for her mother, who’s in her late 80s. 

“It’s just really frustrating, because my feeling is they’ve had quite a few weeks to be able to prepare this plan,” said O’Neil. 

“So I’m just looking to have it publicized now that the vaccine is starting to come in.”

While O’Neil and millions more wait for details from their provinces, Wilson sees a silver lining in COVID-19 accelerating what he sees as overdue technological change in Canada’s medical system. He acknowledges that older Canadians and others may need help figuring out how online registration works.

“In my mind for immunization, an individual, the health care provider, and the government would have the same immunization information in real time,” he said “that’s probably true for immunization, but also for all of our health care.” 

 

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CBC | Health News

Tam takes aim at COVID-19 ‘infodemic,’ urges vigilance over misleading online content

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, on Sunday warned Canadians to maintain vigilance about the pandemic information they consume online as misleading content widens its reach.

“Throughout the pandemic we have relied on technology and information-sharing platforms to keep us safe, informed and connected,” Tam wrote in her Sunday COVID-19 update.

“At the same time, these platforms have contributed to an overabundance of information — an infodemic — that worsens the current pandemic by allowing false information to circulate more easily, hampering public health responses, creating confusion and distrust, and ultimately making it more difficult for people to make vital decisions about their health and safety.”

Sunday’s statement — which normally dives into a topic related to COVID-19 — was largely focused on battling misinformation and disinformation that has arisen over the course of the pandemic.

The public health crisis has sparked a torrent of misleading information and conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, how it is transmitted and the efficacy of vaccines.


Tam said false information has attempted to erode social cohesion and trust during the COVID-19 crisis and makes ‘it more difficult for Canadians to determine fact from fiction and make informed decisions.’ (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In early February, Statistics Canada published a report that found that almost all Canadians who used online resources to research the novel coronavirus believed they spotted misinformation online.

One-fifth of Canadians always checked the accuracy of COVID-19 information found on online platforms, while half of Canadians shared information they were unsure was accurate.

False information used to erode trust

“I am increasingly concerned about the number of false and misleading claims related to COVID-19 that make it more difficult for Canadians to determine fact from fiction and make informed decisions,” Tam warned.

Canada’s top doctor acknowledged the frustrations of Canadians struggling to keep up with constantly evolving public health advice and noted that pandemic restrictions mean people are spending more time on social media than usual.

“It is also important that we distinguish between misinformation — false information that is not created with the intention of hurting others — and disinformation, an extreme type of misinformation created with the intention of causing harm,” Tam said. 

“During this pandemic, disinformation has been used to try to erode social cohesion, our trust in each other, our communities and even our public health institutions.”

Tackling misinformation

Canada’s threatened information landscape has led some people to take matters into their own hands.

Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is one of the founders of an online campaign launched last month aimed at combating misinformation about COVID-19.

“It’s not going to fix everything, and we’re talking about moving the needle. But when you’re talking about something as problematic and as important as the spread of misinformation, moving the needle matters,” Caulfield told CBC’s Radio Active.

Radio Active7:35#Science Up First

Misinformation and conspiracy theories continue to be an issue that dogs online discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic. We speak to Timothy Caulfield one of the cofounders of a new digital media campaign that wants to combat that misinformation. 7:35

Others, including First Nation leaders and regional public health officials, have moved to tackle vaccine hesitancy and misleading information in their own communities.

In her statement, Tam advised Canadians to check where information comes from, even if it appears to come from a legitimate source. 

“Try checking to see if the information can be validated by other legitimate sources, like the Government of Canada’s or the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 websites, from provincial and territorial health ministry sites, or from local public health units or other trusted institutions like universities or health organizations. Finally, consider what the majority of experts are saying over what one or two individuals may have to say.”

She also recommended fully reading articles rather than only headlines, reporting false information on social media platforms and speaking with friends and family when something untrue is shared.

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CBC | Health News

Twitter ban on Trump signals escalating debate on online speech that will be one for the ages

One historical legacy of the earth-shaking political week in Washington, D.C., is that it immediately thrust us into a fork-in-the-road moment for the dissemination of online information.

Moves to regulate social media are swiftly taking shape in what could produce a generation-defining policy debate with consequences extending beyond the United States.

The obvious catalyzing force for this intensified discussion is the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday that illustrated how unfiltered conspiracy theories might threaten even the oldest of democracies.

At pro-Donald Trump rallies this week in Washington, a common thread among participants was universal distrust in mainstream news and a desire to find information elsewhere.

What some people are finding is scary.

One rally-goer fumed that she had to seek out her own information when news organizations failed to cover stories about Democratic president-elect Joe Biden’s son’s laptop during the campaign — and, in her view, they’re still ignoring, along with most politicians, allegations of election fraud.


Donald Trump supporters protest inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. In the wake of that historic incident, there are swift calls to curb inflammatory online speech. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

“They’re asking for a civil war. Why? It all started with the media,” Tina Hewitt said in an interview.

“[They say], ‘There’s nothing to see here,’ ‘Don’t look,’ ‘Don’t ask,’ ‘Shut up,’ ‘Look away,’ ‘Sit down.'”

One Ohio woman predicted that Biden would never become president. Carol Byler, who came to Washington by bus with a group of friends to attend a pro-Trump rally, said: “He won’t make it. There will be upheaval.” 

Layers of conspiracies

Members of the Ohio group cited unfounded theories about impossible 140 per cent voter turnout rates or ballot-stuffing caught on video, and when it was mentioned that these claims had been debunked even by Republican officials who control swing states, one scoffed: “Traitors.”

Mainstream news reports hardly do justice to how unmoored some of the chatter was, and the idea that a half-dozen states conspired to pilfer the presidential election was but the most visible layer of a matryoshka doll of conspiracies.


Rally-goers such as Tina Hewitt, interviewed in Washington this week, universally declared their distrust of regular media. (CBC News)

Within it lay subsets of more deeply far-fetched ideas: that a Chinese communist-FBI-CIA plot decided the election or that Trump’s Republican betrayers were secretly part of a Satan-worshipping pedophile ring, or that Vice-President Mike Pence would be executed for treason.

It goes beyond politics. A speaker at one pro-Trump rally this week called the coronavirus scare a hoax and demanded that members of the almost entirely unmasked crowd hug each other in order to prove it.

As they left the downtown area in a subway car, another group of people shared links from their phones to obscure websites carrying stories about Pence similar in tenor to the QAnon conspiracy that tend to get pulled off bigger sites such as Facebook.

WATCH | What is the QAnon conspiracy theory:

CBC News looks at its origins and how QAnon supporters could impact U.S. politics in the months ahead. 2:12

This was on Wednesday, right after the Capitol riot had cost the life of one of the people involved. Ashli Babbitt, a San Diego veteran, was shot and killed by police while charging into the building with other rioters. She left behind a social media trail laden with QAnon-themed conspiracies.

The immediate fallout has already triggered consequential debates — about corporate liability, free speech and regulation in the Wild West of online communication. 

Consider the fallout on Friday alone.

A policy debate that will ripple outside the U.S. 

Twitter suspended the personal account of the president of the United States; the platform where Donald Trump launched 1,000 controversies now says it’s worried about some violent chatter it’s seeing on the upcoming presidential transition and fears Trump will stoke it.

Meanwhile, a rival social media company, Parler, that prides itself on being a free-speech alternative and is awash in calls for violence, has been deleted or threatened with deletion by Google and Apple, the dominant phone-app stores.

That has prompted a free-speech outcry. Republicans say these companies should be stripped of legal immunity that helped them flourish and be treated like traditional publishers, such as a newspaper, which can be sued for an editorial decision.

One such threat came from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.


Earlier in the day, Graham had personally weathered a torrent of verbal abuse from Trump fans. They surrounded him in an airport on Friday morning, berating him for voting to certify Biden’s win. 

The online insults against him included the spread of a doctored photo purported to show him palling around with terrorist Osama bin Laden; that was on the Parler site, which Friday afternoon had about 1,500 messages under just one hashtag about executing politicians for treason.

But make no mistake: Graham has company in his call for regulation, and it goes beyond his party. Democrats are also keen on reform, though we’ll soon see what shape the debate takes and whether the parties will agree on specifics.

It’s Democrats who now have the most power, which was consolidated this week with the win of two Georgia seats that gave them control of the Senate.

WATCH | Twitter permanently bans Donald Trump from site:

Thirteen people are charged in Wednesday’s mob attack on the U.S. Capitol as new articles of impeachment are drawn up — including one accusing Donald Trump of inciting insurrection. Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account, citing the risk of “further incitement of violence.” 3:03

The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, issued a warning on the website Politico that social media companies need to prepare for consequences after Wednesday’s events: “This is going to come back and bite ’em because Congress, in a bipartisan way, is going to come back with a vengeance.”

A few hours after that story appeared online, Twitter banned Trump, while Parler was being threatened by smartphone companies.

All of these debates will have cross-national implications, including on the U.S.’s neighbours, because policy decisions in the biggest jurisdiction tend to trickle down.

Take the new North American trade agreement, for example. The 2018 deal has language modelled on the old U.S. law that created the liability shield, Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act.


U.S. policies have international consequences. Old American rules shielding online platforms from legal liability inspired provisions in the new North American trade pact, signed in 2018. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

A real-life practical impact of this old protection finds itself in the post-election aftermath: Voting-machine companies that have been accused of rigging the election have, for example, begun suing people and warning Fox News and other outlets, but it cannot sue the tech platforms.

On the eve of the Washington riot, Savannah Boylan said in an interview that she was worried online conspiracies were taking their toll on democracies.

“It’s like we’re talking past each other. It’s really hard to have common facts,” said Boylan, an expert on Canada-U.S. relations who now runs an Atlanta-based pro-democracy NGO and has written about news polarization.

“It’s really starting to erode the democracy of the United States.”


Perhaps not fearing consequences, people who broke into the Capitol posed for pictures, gave reporters their names or even admitted to taking objects. That includes this man. Richard Barnett was later arrested for allegedly breaking into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Reform ideas, and challenges

Boylan cited the collapse of local news and the rise of online algorithms that lead people to read more and more extreme, sensational things.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has tweeted his ideas for countering what he sees as three separate problems of collapsing local news, hyper-partisan cable news and algorithms that reward click-happy sensationalism.

Policing the online world risks having a whack-a-mole quality, where one crackdown effort leads to a resurfacing elsewhere

Take the case of pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood, whose social media feeds are cesspools of slander. He was kicked off Twitter after accusing Pence of being part of a child-abusing pro-China cabal and suggesting he be executed.


Right-wing social media app Parler is awash in tweets spouting far-fetched conspiracies such as these — and worse — from a pro-Trump lawyer. Now tech companies are threatening to prohibit the app. (Parler)

Yet his message was reimported to Twitter by others.

People cross-pollinating Wood’s slander even include politicians, such as Angela Stanton, a former Republican congressional candidate once pardoned by Trump for a past crime. 

Another politician, a Republican lawmaker from West Virginia, was arrested Friday for allegedly invading the Capitol. A former Pennsylvania state politician who narrowly lost a U.S. congressional race and now traffics in online conspiracies was forced to resign his teaching position after posting on Facebook about storming the Capitol.

If there’s one thing suggested by these past few weeks, it’s that online hoaxes are as much as a demand-side problem as a supply-side one. 

Meaning, if people want it, they’ll find it. 

For example, Fox News has come in for verbal tongue-lashings at Trump events for not backing his false fraud claims enthusiastically enough.

People heckled a Fox reporter at a Trump speech in Georgia last month and lined up to pose for pictures with the rising stars of a new right-wing information ecosystem.

The emerging celebrities at that rally were people with hundreds of thousands of social media followers who accept donations on their personal websites and who are activist-commentators.


At a Trump rally in Georgia in December, the president’s fans jeered Fox News for not being loyal enough and lined up for photos with new celebrities of the right who have more vocally pushed election conspiracy theories. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

They have been aggressively pushing false stolen-election narratives and threatening to end the career of Republican politicians not fighting on Trump’s behalf.

One of the sought-out figures drawing kudos that night was a man who went on to organize this week’s “Stop the Steal” rallies in Washington.

After this week’s events ultimately degenerated into a deadly debacle, the organizer, Ali Alexander, said he did not support the invasion of the U.S. Capitol.

But he made a defiant prediction that click-generating, pro-Trump activists like him will continue to exist in an inexhaustible supply.

“If you hurt me, 1,000 more will rise up,” Alexander said in an online video statement.

“I am not the king of the movement. I am simply the avatar for the spirit of 1776.”

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CBC | World News

Ontario extends online learning for elementary students until Jan. 25 as COVID-19 cases rise

The provincial government says it is extending online learning for elementary students in southern Ontario until Jan. 25.

That aligns with the date secondary students signed up for in-person learning in those regions are scheduled to return to class.

Elementary students and secondary students in the seven northern Ontario public health unit regions will proceed with returning to in-person learning on Jan. 11, the province said in a news release.

Many students were set to head back to class earlier in the month amid record-high COVID-19 numbers. Premier Doug Ford said Thursday that one in five kids under the age of 13 in Ontario who are being tested are now positive for COVID-19.

“That’s not mentioning all the other kids that haven’t been tested that might have a runny nose or a cough,” Ford said.

“The number one priority is not to put our kids in jeopardy, and I will never do that. Especially at the rates we’re seeing.”

Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams at 3 p.m. ET, which CBC News is carrying live in this story.

The premier also said that before the holidays, Ontario was seeing positivity rates of around three per cent.

“Now, the information I received as of late yesterday afternoon, that has jumped [by] 116 per cent,” he said. Data shared by the province Thursday shows that from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2, the positivity rate increase in the age 4 to 11 age bracket was 116.7 per cent. 

That was the largest jump of any age bracket, followed by age 12 to 13 at a 97.9 per cent increase and age 14 to 17 with a 75.9 per cent increase.

Ontario’s current test positivity rate is 6.1 per cent.

Some regions already announced schools will close, before the government said anything about the entire province.

Windsor-Essex’s top doctor says he plans to keep schools closed for a couple more weeks, even if the province doesn’t. Officials also say schools in Guelph and area will be closed for in-person learning until at least Jan. 24.

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CBC | Health News

Canada Post’s business model was in trouble. Then online shopping exploded

The global pandemic posed major challenges to Canada Post — and pointed the way to a new business model for the Crown corporation — as limits on in-person shopping drove consumers online.

Canada Post spokesman Jon Hamilton said that while the pandemic-fuelled explosion in home parcel deliveries was not enough to offset revenue losses caused by a drop in regular mail and extra operational safety costs, it did give the corporation a glimpse of its likely future.

“The growth in parcels is giving the postal service its north star,” he said.

Hamilton said the surge in package volumes began early with the onset of the pandemic, when people were stocking up on essential items and had limited access to stores. For many, online shopping became a habit that continued through the year, even as lockdowns lifted.

Since the pandemic began, Hamilton said, Canadians have been shopping online more frequently and for a broader range of goods — including big-ticket items like barbecues, televisions and summer patio sets.

While the trend toward online shopping was already in motion when COVID-19 hit, the pandemic delivered a “steroid shot” that put shipping volumes three years ahead of Canada Post’s forecasts, Hamilton said. Small and medium-sized businesses have adapted their sales and marketing strategies to serve a “deliver it to me” society, he added.

Hamilton said Canada Post has an advantage over many of its competitors because it already delivers to 16.5 million addresses across Canada, including northern, rural and remote locations. He said he expects the competition to grow in number as Canadians continue to shift their shopping habits.

“What we’ve been seeing through COVID is the projections have leapfrogged, and now you’re going to see as many people get into the game as possible,” he said.

Despite the surge in parcel deliveries, the pandemic brought with it new challenges for Canada Post. The volume of traditional mail, such as bills and marketing materials, has declined as companies have scaled back promotional campaigns.

The corporation also has incurred significant costs associated with ensuring security and safety for staff and customers, such as providing protective equipment and reconfiguring work spaces.

Loss of $ 265M in third quarter

Canada Post reported a loss of $ 265 million before taxes in the third quarter, and $ 709 million in total for the first three quarters.

Sherena Hussain, an instructor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, said it’s hard to say whether the business opportunities afforded by the pandemic will be a boon to Canada Post over the longer term.

Its field of competitors — which range from global transport firms and retail giants like Amazon to small-scale bike courier outfits — is growing, she said, and most have lower overhead and labour costs.

“We’re seeing a lot of different types of players emerge. Some of them are tied more to the retailers versus just being an upshoot that has a very nimble operation to get packages to the customer sooner,” she said.

While the volume of traditional mail is declining, Hussain said, many Canadians still have a “sentimental” connection to those deliveries — demonstrated by the national uproar over the corporation’s plan to replace door-to-door delivery with community mailboxes in some communities five years ago.

“If we see parcels becoming a staple moving forward, the question of course is, will that be the saviour for Canada Post?” she said.

“Do they make a lot of hard decisions in order to remain competitive but also keep their self-funding model so they’re at least able to remain, if not profitable, break-even while still carrying that sentimental attachment people have to the traditional model that Canada Post is known for?”

Home delivery comes full circle

Business adviser and analyst Jenifer Bartman said it all looks like retail moving forward to the past. Once, Canadians could have everything from milk to department store catalogue purchases delivered to their homes. Now, they have groceries, meal kits and boutique shop items dropped on their doorsteps.

Bartman said the challenge for Canada Post is to ensure it can compete efficiently on logistics and cost at a time when technology and tracking systems are advancing fast. 

“Canada Post is going to have to pay good attention to that to ensure the offering they have on the parcel delivery side is competitive with what is otherwise available,” she said.

Bartman also predicted the appeal of home delivery might subside over time as more people are vaccinated and life begins to get back to normal.

“I think people are going to want to go back to the mall. They’re going to want to do some of these normal things that we haven’t been able to do for a little while,” she said.

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Italy’s oldest bell-making shop turns to online overseas sales to keep ancient craft alive

It’s difficult to imagine an Italian town or city without a skyline of turreted church towers or an hourly clamour of bells peeling and chiming in the air.

With the Vatican nestled in the heart of the country, the large bronze instruments have made Christianity literally resonate throughout Italy for centuries

But just as the multitudes called to daily mass by the belfry tolling have all but dried up, the ancient knowledge used to produce the giant bronzes is at risk of vanishing.

And that makes the survival of Italy’s oldest bell foundry — located in the small town of Agnone in the country’s hilly, desolate southern region of Molise — a near miracle.

“This is a complex trade that involves precise understanding of mathematics, physics, geometry and music,” said master bell maker Antonio Delli Quadri, 83, whose customers include the United Nations in New York and the Vatican.

“From the rigour of numbers to the harmony of sound.”

No machines, no mass-produced moulds

Delli Quadri began helping forge bells when he was just 15, starting with “the most humble tasks” inside the light-dappled bustling workshop run by the Marinelli family since at least 1339. Up until the 1950s, some two dozen bell foundries, all family-run, were operating throughout Italy.

Today, the Marinelli foundry is among five survivors and is the official provider of bells for the Vatican.

“You could say by sticking to these centuries-old ways, we’re now avant-garde,” said Pasquale, 50, the younger of the two Marinelli brothers now running the foundry.

“We haven’t introduced machines. We’ve stayed in the same traditional workshop instead of moving into a bigger factory. We refuse to work with soulless, mass-produced moulds.”


Artisan Ettore Marinelli, 28, is a member of the latest generation of Marinellis to keep his family’s ancient bell foundry. Marinelli Pontifical Foundry is the oldest bell foundry in Italy and one of only a handful remaining in the country. (Chris Ward-Jones)

Indeed, the materials scattered throughout the workshop — clay, wood, wax, bricks and bronze — are the very same as those the medieval artisans used. The Marinellis also employ the same techniques to design and forge the bells, including a geometric formula involving the height, diameter of the base and distance from the base to the top of the bell, with the thickest part of the bell always a 14th of the diameter.

While bells are an integral part of Catholic churches in Italy and elsewhere, the bronze instruments have played an essential role in community life that pre-dates the time in the Middle Ages when they gradually stopped being hung above town doors and began ringing on church towers.

World’s ‘first mass media’

Paola Patriarca, a foundry artisan who curates the small bell museum above the Marinelli workshop, where more than 1,000 bells are on display, calls bells the world’s “first mass media.”

“The sound of bells are now seen as nostalgic, but remember, just 50 years ago, not everyone had a watch,” said Patriarca. “Bells served [as] essential services, like warning when it was going to rain, or one hour to sunset, which had a particular importance for workers far afield or in the woods under heavy canopy cover.

“Even for those out fishing, when the sky was clouded over, the sound was a message to head back to shore. Bells kept people safe.”


Intricate decorations for the bells are carved in wax. (Chris Warde-Jones)

Bells are booming online

While the world’s original mass medium may be fading in Italy, the advent of new, digital means of communication have kept the Marinelli foundry going.

Online orders from expanding churches in Africa, Asia and South America, not to mention from Buddhist temples and musicians, have helped offset the drop in orders from Catholic churches in Italy and Europe.

Still, the Catholic influence is as deeply embedded in the bells as the gold rings believers once tossed into the boiling bronze – both in their nomenclature and production.

Bells blessed by priest

The Marinellis refer to bells as “sacred bronzes” and describe them not as formed but “born,” with the initial wooden and brick structure that gives shape to the inside called the “anima,” or soul. To this day, a priest is called to the foundry to bless the bell, emitting a flurry of Hail Marys at the moment of fusion, when the bronze liquid is poured into the mould.


‘I saw that bell born,’ Delli Quadri says of the Jubilee Bell at the Vatican. (Chris Warde-Jones)

“Bells contained parts of the community they tolled above,” said older Marinelli brother Armando. “As an act of faith, people would throw their gold bands or necklaces into the bronze as it began setting. So, in a very material way, many bells contain bits of our past. And when bells ring, people hear the older generations ringing in them.”

Producing the desired ring remains a challenge. One small mistake can result in having to go back to the beginning of a process that can take up to three months. With large bells, some weighing up to 600 kilograms and costing in the tens of thousands of dollars, precision is imperative.

Delli Quadri said any bell maker who boasts they have never erred is lying. He said his own missteps were thankfully on smaller, less important bells.

Hope for the tradition to continue

Delli Quadri, who has spent a lifetime inside the foundry and perilously perched on belfries to mount the giant bronzes, prefers recalling his triumphs — his biggest, he says, being the Jubilee Bell for the Vatican in 2000.

“I saw that bell born,” he recalled with pride, “and followed it through to completion. From the first brick here in the workshop to mounting the bronze on a structure that I built myself in the Vatican gardens.”

He said he’s hopeful that with the next generation of Marinellis committed to keeping the foundry going, the centuries-old secrets will stay alive, at least for the near future.

“These are intergenerational businesses,” said Delli Quadri. “And if you don’t have a next generation willing to take on bell making, that’s the end.”

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NASA Puts Its Space Rock Collection Online

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NASA has a wealth of space rocks, known more properly as astromaterials. Some of them came directly from the surface of the moon during the Apollo era, and others were discovered after falling to Earth in Antarctica. Now, you can check out NASA’s collection in extreme detail using the new Astromaterials 3D Explorer site. Not only do you get high-resolution photos of the surface, but you can also peer inside the rocks using X-ray computed tomography. 

Getting these precious samples ready for their online debut wasn’t as simple as snapping a few photos and slapping some HTML together. First, photographer Erika Blumenfeld captured images of each rock from at least 240 different angles — that’s enough to produce what NASA calls a “research-grade 3D model.” Because the samples are so rare, the entire photoshoot takes place with the sample inside a sealed nitrogen cabinet, which is itself inside a cleanroom. NASA even includes data on the camera, which was a Hasselblad H4D-60, a $ 30,000 camera with a 60MP resolution. The HC 120 II lens Blumenfeld used costs about $ 2,500 all by itself. The visual data is measured in tens of gigabytes for each rock. 

Following the photoshoot, each of the two-dozen astromaterial samples was scanned using X-ray computed tomography (CT). This allows researchers (and now you) to examine the internal structure of the rocks without damaging them. The Explorer site integrates the 360-degree 3D mesh from the photos with the internal data to produce a virtual representation you can examine from any angle. 

On the site, you can choose between the Apollo moon rocks and the Antarctic collection. The Apollo rocks were collected by hand on the surface of the moon and returned to Earth in the cargo hold of the Apollo command module. The Antarctic objects plummeted through the atmosphere and impacted the frozen wasteland. These dark rocks are easy to spot against the white backdrop, making them easier to find than asteroids in other regions. The asteroid samples are organized by their origin — there are typical C, K, and M-type asteroids, as well as some that came from Mars, Vesta, and the moon. 

Transdisciplinary artist Erika Blumenfeld photographed each rock at NASA’s cleanroom laboratory inside nitrogen cabinets, imaging the rock’s surface at 240 angles using a high-resolution camera to achieve the detailed surface texture seen in Astromaterials 3D’s exterior 3D models.

The Explorer interface includes a 3D model you can observe from all sides with different lighting and measurement tools — there’s even a 3D anaglyph mode. The CT scan data lets you isolate slices from the interior for closer examination. You can even view a high-resolution image of each individual X-ray slice. The Astromaterials 3D Explorer also links to the uncompressed TIFF images for each rock, clocking in at a few gigabytes per rock. 

NASA says this is just the start of an ongoing project. It wants to get as many of its samples as possible digitized so everyone from students to researchers will be able to examine these space treasures in detail. The agency says more samples will be live by summer 2021.

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The PlayStation 5 Will Only Be Available Online for Launch Day

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If you were hoping to line up outside a big box store on November 12th or 19th to buy a PlayStation 5, you’re out of luck this year. Sony has announced that PlayStation 5 systems will only be available online.

The company writes:

No units will be available in-store for purchase on launch day (November 12 or November 19, depending on your region) – please don’t plan on camping out or lining up at your local retailer on launch day in hopes of finding a PS5 console for purchase. Be safe, stay home, and place your order online.

Gamers who have pre-ordered for pick-up at their local retailer should still be able to do so at their designated appointment time, under the retailer’s safety protocols. Please confirm the details with your local retailer.

Objectively, this is probably the right call, as far as tamping down on the spread of the pandemic. Standing long hours in close quarters isn’t the best way to socially distance and in the United States, at least, COVID-19 cases and deaths are both heading upwards once again, with over 100,000 Americans diagnosed in a single day and deaths per day once again clearing 1K. Sony is clearly taking a cautious route to market here, emphasizing safety globally rather than attempting to maximize in-store sales. It’s the right call, from a public health perspective — but it is going to make it harder to buy a PlayStation 5.

The problem of bots has begun to get some attention in recent months after flying under the radar for years, but it’s not realistic to expect Sony’s worldwide distributor network to have implemented anti-bot protections in a matter of a few weeks. Even if some major sites have stepped up to the plate that quickly, the issue hasn’t received enough attention. There have also been rumors of low PlayStation 5 production for months, though in this case, “low” is relative — Sony’s supposed targets for PS5 production were still higher than any previous six-month ramp, and any adjustments the company has made may be strictly nominal.

It’s also difficult to forecast what demand for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will look like because they’re launching under such unusual circumstances. The pandemic has driven people indoors, which increases the chance that they’ll want to buy a gaming system of some sort. But COVID-19 has played hell with manufacturer shipping dates all year, and that’s before we talk about any yield or manufacturing issues that Microsoft and Sony might be encountering. That’s not to imply that either company has a specific problem, but every issue is going to be under a magnifying glass given the overall state of things.

The strangest thing about this generation of consoles is how it’s debuting without any next-generation games to really speak of. I’ve only had a week to spend with the Xbox Series X, but the games you can currently play on it are current-generation titles that don’t tap features like ray tracing. This, again, is thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it does make it a little odd to review a brand-new system in 2020.

If you want a PlayStation 5 this year, spamming refresh on your browser and keeping a constant eye on sites like NowInStock.net may be the best you can do. With no retail availability at all, it seems likely that bots will capture a higher percentage of the launch volume.

The other major piece of PlayStation-related news today is that the console’s M.2 slot won’t function at launch. This isn’t necessarily a surprise, since PS5 guru and hardware architect Mark Cerny had implied storage might not be available until after launch, but if you’re budgeting for purchases, there’s little point to immediately buying an SSD. The Verge investigated the issue but found no evidence that Sony’s compatibility program has even started yet. In order to serve as expanded storage for the PlayStation 5, drives will need to hit specific performance levels and can’t have a heatsink too large to fit into the case. It is not clear how many current commercial drives will meet the PS5 standard, and we’ll obviously have to wait for the post-launch period to find out.

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Chromebooks Gain Market Share as Education Goes Online

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For nearly a decade, Chromebooks have existed on the outer rim of the PC market. While they accounted for an appreciable number of yearly sales, they weren’t exactly lighting the enthusiast market on fire with their value proposition. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged the need for laptop deployments across the United States, and Chromebooks have been flying off shelves as manufacturers try to meet demand.

When we covered the PC market’s growth in Q3 2020, we noted that Chromebook shipments had spiked particularly high. IDC now reports 90 percent growth in Chromebook shipments year-on-year, compared with a 15 percent growth rate in all PCs. Volume-wise, Chromebooks accounted for 11 percent of total PC shipments last quarter.

The threat of market loss to Chromebooks, in my opinion, is at least part of what’s driving Microsoft’s push to move Minecraft players over to Microsoft accounts. For 25 years or more, Microsoft has been able to count on the fact that most users would be exposed to Windows as children and grow up in the Windows ecosystem. Even the explosive growth of mobile and Microsoft’s failure to gain market share didn’t threaten that, because the majority of people still had a computer, and that computer ran Windows.

Chromebooks represent a particular threat to Microsoft because Chromebook introduction starts when children are young. If Microsoft can’t count on the education system to effectively serve as a familiarization and training routine for most of its eventual customers, it has to build support and brand inclusion in other places. By making Microsoft accounts a requirement for gaming or Office 365 and expanding the ways in which you can use them, the company is trying to build brand presence around a future that isn’t necessarily Windows-centric.

Microsoft has had a service called “Windows Virtual Desktop” for several years that runs an OS instance on Azure and gives you a virtual desktop in the cloud to work with. Windows is still critical to Microsoft’s finances and business model, but the company is moving away from the idea that Windows is something you have to run on local hardware as the primary operating system.

What About x86 vs. ARM?

I couldn’t find any recent information on whether x86 or ARM has the larger share of the Chromebook market, but a survey of Dell, HP, and Lenovo shows far more x86 devices than ARM products. If I had to guess, I’d guess that x86 Chromebooks are more popular in the United States, while Asia-Pacific companies are likely to be more focused on systems with MediaTek chips.

Lenovo 10e Chromebook Tablet. Image by Lenovo

Pricing is all over the place, in more than one sense. First, Chromebook prices start around $ 250 and range as high as $ 800-$ 1,000. Second, it’s important to pay attention to specs to make sure you’re getting a decent deal. Lenovo, for example, has the 10e Chromebook tablet at $ 269, with a recent eight-core MediaTek MT8183 (4x Cortex-A73, 4x Cortex-A53) CPU, 10.1-inch screen at 1920×1200, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of eMMC (ouch!), and a Mali G72 G3. Cost, if it was in stock? $ 269.

Alternately, you could buy a Lenovo 300e Chromebook laptop based on a five-year-old CPU with half the cores and built on 28nm HPM as opposed to TSMC’s 12nm process. The MediaTek MT8173C is, on average, 77 percent as fast as the MediaTek MT8183 mentioned above based on data from Notebookcheck.net. (Note: Some of the Notebookcheck.net results claim that the MT8173 and MT8183 literally performed identically, which is unusual for a benchmark run. This data is suspect, but where actual numbers exist, they show a consistent advantage for the MT8183. Its newer process node, with 2x the core count of the MT8173, make this a realistic possibility.

Lenovo 300e Chromebook laptop. Image by Lenovo.

The MT8173 falls particularly short in the graphics department, where the MT8183 is sometimes twice as fast as its predecessor. Now it’s true that on the laptop you get an actual keyboard and a slightly larger screen (11.4 inches, 1366×768), but you’re stuck with a significantly slower CPU, slower RAM (LPDDR4X-1866 instead of 3200), and the exact same storage and RAM restrictions (4GB soldered / 32GB eMMC). The tablet supports Bluetooth 4.2 while the laptop uses 4.1. What you’re paying for, basically, is the hinge. Price? $ 429. The $ 269 tablet supports a laptop connection via pogo pin.

I’m not throwing shade on Lenovo for throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks, but you have to be careful about these kinds of issues when shopping for them. If what you care about is buying a PC to last the longest time possible, the $ 269 tablet with a supported keyboard is going to blow the $ 429 laptop out of the water, especially when there are $ 499 Chromebook laptops with much better CPUs.

Chromebooks don’t necessarily put pressure on AMD or Intel, so long as either company is capable of building chips to compete in the space with the latest ARM designs. Microsoft, on the other hand, could be in some trouble if this trend continues.

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