Monthly Archives: July 2007

More overpasses to be afraid of

Following Quebec’s discovery that the inspection system for the province’s bridges and overpasses is in complete chaos, the City of Montreal has created its own list of nine municipally-controlled overpasses that will get special attention (the city is “determined not to take any chances“).

Montreal’s at-risk overpasses

I’ve updated my map on Google Maps to reflect the new additions. Combined with the 135 on the Quebec Transport Department’s list, the number is so high Google Maps will only allow half of them to be displayed at one time.

Of note in this list of nine is one (actually a pair) on Nuns’ Island that was mentioned in a Gazette feature last month which invited a local structural engineer to take a look at some cracked structures. Whether the tiny overpass over a pedestrian walkway would have gotten the city’s attention without the Gazette piece is anyone’s guess.

Mike Boone now has home laptop location freedom

So Mike Boone had his wireless problems solved. (I guess it wasn’t his laptop after all) As you might expect, he got the gold-plated service after news of his problems with Sympatico hit the news stands. A personal call from the vice-president of customer relations (after numerous calls to regular tech support got him nowhere), no-questions-asked delivery of a new modem, and when that didn’t work, same-day on-site tech support.

When was the last time you called Bell and the guy said “Hold on, I’ll be right over”?

Naturally, the guy was clueless about Macs (been there). But the problem was solved.

To Boone’s credit, of course, he freely admits the obvious: that he got special treatment because he’s a newspaper columnist. And he’s going to use the regular-people method next time, to show he’s still Mikey from the Block and hasn’t sold out to The Man.

Fagstein’s First Annual Montreal Fireworks Awards

Montreal’s fireworks season has finally come to an end. The winners were announced on Saturday: Britain, Germany and the United States.

Now that it’s all over, I present to you my awards for the 2007 Montreal fireworks season.

Best musical selection: USA. All Elvis. Bold, original. Putting a 30-minute fireworks display with a single artist’s songs takes quite a bit of work, but it seemed to do the trick. One caveat: Heartbreak Hotel just doesn’t scream “fireworks”. It’s a stretch taken too far.

Worst musical selection: France. Why am I listening to spoken word crap during a fireworks presentation? I want music to move me, not some guy talking.

Most clichéd musical selection: England. U2’s Beautiful Day. Need I say more?

Best musical synchronization: Germany. I hate to use the cliché of German efficiency, but in this case it’s apt. At one point a simple melody was played, and some near-ground fireworks were setup in a line representing the different notes. The fireworks played a piano, and it was done perfectly.

Best shape formation: USA. People always tell me that some fireworks are designed to turn into shapes, and I always have to take their word for it, because all I see is a bunch of dots in no discernable pattern. Though the shapes were obvious (a heart, a deformed cube symbolizing dice for Viva Las Vegas, numerals), at least they worked. But it was the very-well-done multicoloured happy faces that pleased the crowd the most.

Most pointlessly long delay between segments: Canada. For some reason, at points during the show, there was minutes of narration. That’s great if you’re reading to a five-year-old, but to everyone out there it just meant minutes of no fireworks. And to those who didn’t have radios, it was even worse.

Worst technical failure: Canada. A 19-minute delay only a couple of minutes into the show. I realize fireworks are dangerous and you don’t want to rush it, but the fans were getting restless near the end, and started chanting. (UPDATE: I’ve been asked to clarify that the delay wasn’t Canada’s fault — but the long narration segments still are)

Biggest big bang finale: Canada. Wow. It’s one thing to have fireworks so bright that the entire crowd is lit up and you can see their faces. But our country’s finale brought the hand of God to lift the Sun over La Ronde for a minute or two. A well-deserved round of applause followed from the crowd who forgot all about their technical difficulties.

Best (free) vantage point: The parking lot – or whatever it is – on Notre Dame at Parthenais Street. Plenty of space, and it’s just across the river from where the action is.

Most over-rated vantage point: Jacques-Cartier Bridge. When you’re not being anally-probed by the RCMP, you can try and struggle with thousands of others to get a spot along a giant fence. If you’re not so lucky (and don’t have an extra hour to get up there early for a spot), you can stand on the closed roadway, with three fences between you and the fireworks, ensuring you can barely see a thing.

Best logistics: STM traffic control. The Papineau metro station was turned into Grand Central Station twice a week, with yellow tape, multiple ticket-takers and police stationed in such a way to ensure everyone got in and out safely. Extra trains were brought into service after the fireworks to take people home, and a similar operation was setup at Berri-UQAM for all the transfers to the orange line.

Worst logistics: Police traffic control. Whether Sainte-Catherine street was ever closed to traffic is a mystery. Either way, pedestrians didn’t care. During part of the season it was car-free because of a street fair in the Gay Village a few blocks down. But police made no effort to keep either pedestrians or vehicles out of the street, leading to them literally butting heads with each other.

Best critical evaluations: Paul’s Pyrotechnics Page. Detailed reports on every show going back over a decade. Well worth a few minutes to check out. (You can also check out the website of Georges Lamon in French)

Worst critical evaluations: Rhythme FM hosts. “Magnifique!” “Spectaculaire!” “Une des meilleurs!” The same words would follow every single show on the airwaves of the one station that broadcasts the music for the benefit of those outside La Ronde. Yeah, I realize they were all very good, and that you’re not going to put pyrotechnical engineers on, but don’t pretend like you’re evaluating something critically if you have no idea what you’re taking about, have never seen professional fireworks before and are just amused at the idea of bright lights.

Biggest missed opportunity: Rhythme FM. How expensive would it have been to drive a few vans down to the foot of the bridge and turn up the speakers so people could listen to the music? Most people who went down there didn’t have radios (and so only got half the experience). A golden marketing opportunity down the drain.

Most annoying people: Those god-awful glow-thing vendors. What exactly is the purpose of these things, other than to have little children wave them around in front of me while I’m trying to watch the fireworks? And not only are you peddling these wares before and after the show, you’re actually walking in front of everybody while the fireworks are going off, blocking our view! Go back to the Old Port and pick on some tourists.

Just because it’s Facebook doesn’t make it news

Why is “someone expresses opinion about recent events on Facebook” always considered news? Yeah, there are Facebook groups (actually I found only one that has more than a few members) denouncing the rumoured Immigration Canada decision to discourage the traditional Sikh family names Singh and Kaur for new immigrants (a decision which the government clarified later wasn’t actually the case). But there are more members in the group demanding that the Spice Girls do a show in Montreal.

When was the last time a paper petition with 500 signatures got this much attention?

I don’t want Joe Anybody writing my news

So citizen journalism site NowPublic has received over $10 million in financing. Good for them.

I’ve always been a bit hesitant about these user-generated news sites. On one hand, they represent an unlimited potential for news gathering, where everyone and anyone can be a reporter. On the other hand, everyone and anyone is also an editor, which means news judgment is left potentially to the lowest common denominator.

This leads to things like navel-gazing, navel-gazing analysis, political mudslinging and Fark-like crap masquerading as news. Add in a few rewritten press releases and stories about missing white girls and you have everything that’s wrong with mainstream media in a nutshell (at least according to Drew Curtis).

I admit, part of my hesitation is also self-serving. As a freelance journalist, if Joe Anybodies can put together stories for free, there’s not much incentive for budget-conscious newspaper owners to hire professionals.

And these websites are new. It’s a budding concept which needs time to grow before it can be thoroughly evaluated.

But I just don’t see how they’re going to get over the problem that the crap-loving, special-interest public will tend to dominate over real, fair, honest news.

The media is always biased when it doesn’t agree with you

It’s funny how groups on the political fringes make sweeping generalizations about newspapers being biased against them are quick to promote those newspapers’ articles when they are in agreement. (Though, at least some admit they’re “surprised” when a newspaper takes a public stance that is not, you know, evil)
Don’t get me wrong: There are legitimate criticisms of CanWest news coverage, but they are almost always heavily exaggerated in the minds of the grassroots activists out there.

Mark Goldberg: clueless about cluelessness of cluelessness

Patrick points us to a blog post from Alec Saunders refuting another blog post from Mark Goldberg which criticized a Gazette editorial based on an op-ed from Michael Geist on wireless rate plans in Canada. (Phew.)

The argument is over the inflated prices of data rate plans in Canada. The U.S., home to the iPhone, offers crazy-cheap plans for both voice and data, while here we have three wireless providers who offer expensive daytime service and through-the-roof prices for data transfer. (This is why I never surf the Internet from my phone.)

I won’t add comments, since they’re already criticizing each other. Suffice it to say Geist’s point still stands, and the blogs are debating irrelevant minutiae.

The ultimate Transformers geek

Two articles this weekend by yours truly:

This week’s blog is Urban Photo (or should I say “URBANPHOTO”?) by freelance writer Christopher DeWolf. It’s one of the ones that’s been on my list for a while (long before he asked me to write about it). It covers urban life and design with an emphasis on photography. Its contributors include blogosphere familiars like Kate McDonnell and A.J. Kandy.

Also this week is a Justify Your Existence profile of Transformers collector Daniel Arseneault. He has 1,700 of the action figures but still manages to have a normal-sounding life. Yeah, he lives in his parents’ basement (with a staircase that forces you to bend down as you descend lest you hit your head), but he’s an auto mechanic and sport enthusiast with a fiancée. Read up about him here and on his website, or join his Montreal Transformers Fans Facebook group.

And while you’re checking out Montreal Diary this week, you can read Amy Luft’s recounting of last week’s water fight.

Crowdsourcing? I don’t think so

Roberto Rocha’s “interactive series” on customer service has come to an end, a full two articles after it began, with a feature story in today’s Gazette. It quotes readers who have been screwed over by customer service, as well as a few industry experts.

The Gazette claims the series is a breakthrough an innovative, paradigm-breaking exercise in “participatory journalism” and “crowdsourcing”, because it asks for readers to provide their stories, and the reporter blogs about his interviews before writing his articles.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen no evidence of either participatory journalism or crowdsourcing here. Instead, my earlier criticisms seem perfectly justified. There’s nothing new here. Asking readers for their stories has been done since the dawn of time. In fact, columnist Jim Mennie has used the tactic successfully many times. And while blogging about interviews is a good idea, the first anyone saw of the finished product was when it appeared in the paper this morning. No drafts were published online to get the “crowdsourcers” to comment, correct, improve or update it.

The story comes with a navel-gazing meta-sidebar about how the series worked and how (real) participatory journalism can change the way businesses operate. There’s also a version published on Roberto’s blog. The two contain an important difference: The blog version talks about where the series failed and what areas need improvement. One was unavoidable: Roberto left for a week to cover the Governor-General’s visit to Brazil. The other is a problem with the Gazette in general: It wasn’t publicized enough and too few people got involved (more on that below). A conspiracy theorist might question why these important paragraphs were removed from the paper version, but I’m sure it was just edited out for space.

The story is also supplemented with an online video (like all CanWest videos, there’s no built-in way to easily link to them, so I have to use my computer-science skillz to hack a link together). The video is another example of newspapers misunderstanding the Internet. It’s nothing more than a talking head (Roberto) supplemented with B-roll of him walking down a hallway and using his computer. There’s nothing here (besides knowing what Roberto’s voice sounds like) that needs video and couldn’t be simply read in text form.

Roberto’s claim that the project wasn’t publicized enough was, I think, misguided. Sure, there was only the single article written about it, but it’s been hyped on the website and on Page A2 of the paper almost every day since. The problem is with the Gazette’s website in general.

  • I put the Gazette’s homepage through an analyzer. It contains an astonishing 188 objects, including 171 images and 8 CSS files, accounting for about 690KB. With the Flash-based ads now popular, it’s gotten to be such a memory hog that I have to be careful how many web pages I have open at (To contrast, this blog’s homepage has only four objects totalling 140KB, and most of that is one complex image I used to illustrate a post.)
  • Besides being a pain for the browser, the page is also far too busy visually. To see the top story in the paper that morning (which, one would think, would be a common activity for people going to a newspaper’s website) requires hitting PageDown three times (meaning it’s on the fourth page down) on my 1024×768 screen. This isn’t just the Gazette’s problem. It’s a rampant issue across media websites who think people would rather spend 20 minutes reading everything on a “portal” homepage to maybe find what they want instead of clicking on category links to refine their search.
  • The blog’s homepage is at Nobody actually types that into their address bar. Individual post URLs are too long to even fit on my screen. Compare that with the Gazette’s crazy-successful Habs Inside/Out blog at A banner ad, small Gazette logo and a few links at the top. The rest is simple, unbusy and uncomplicated, and doesn’t include links to every single other CanWest property at the bottom.
  • The blog itself has layout issues. Paragraph spacing is inconsistent, the text is in a sans-serif font instead of the easier-to-read serif you see here, text (and especially meta-text) is too small to read (some parts — including the link to post comments — go as low as 8pt!)

As for my opinion on the state of customer service, I think it’s horrible, and it’s not going to get better. Roberto and the companies talk a great talk about how they’ve “owned up” to the problems and are “correcting” their mistakes. But talk is cheap. It costs nothing to apologize.

The reality is that large companies couldn’t care less about you. If you have an unusual situation that requires more than a few minutes of their time, you’re costing them money. The old threats of “I’ll never do business with you again” and “I’ll go to the press” are meaningless now. They don’t care if a few bad apples (who would otherwise bother their expensive customer service centres) end their service and go to a competitor. There’s plenty of other fish in the sea. And going to the media, which is a horrible nightmare for small businesses, doesn’t bother the big companies because they know their competitors have reputations that are just as bad.

Besides, nobody checks out customer service before signing up. They check prices. That’s why the small fries, who have great customer service but slightly higher prices, soon find themselves going out of business.

From a strict cost-benefit analysis, it’s better to provide crappy customer service (but have your PR guys talk about how you’re improving to the media) and lower prices than to raise prices and have qualified, local people answer the phone.

And that’s not going to change until more people start demanding better.

Are you my ticket to media stardom?

Let’s give a round of applause to Montrealer Allan Wills. He’s managed to exploit two vulnerabilities of the media: their desperation for stories in the summer and their cluelessness about the Internet, to grab his 15 minutes by the gonads. A long package on yesterday’s CTV News, and a Page A3 article in this morning’s Gazette.

His story, basically, is that he put up a website (actually a blog) asking for a wife, and this not-unattractive British girl answered him. Now they’re dating.

Yeah, stop the presses.

Now, if I were a cynic, I might point out that they’re not married, and the focus of the blog has changed from finding a wife to finding an “ultimate date”, and that finding dates online is nothing new (in fact, there’s an entire bloody industry for it), and that quitting your job to go searching for dates is kind of a boneheaded thing to do.

But instead, I will applaud Mr. Wills’s media savvy, wringing his 15 minutes from an uninteresting story about a waste of his time.

(I will also applaud him for his babe of a girlfriend. And with an accent to boot!)

UPDATE July 31: A spot on Canada AM, just in case there were doubts about the non-newsiness. And check out the Daily Mail article on him for more, including pictures of his other hot dates (a redhead!).