Monthly Archives: August 2007

Passing the envelope

Google has launched a collaboratively-created video to promote its Gmail service. It features dozens of people all handing over a big red M on an envelope. Among them are a couple of Montrealers dancing, which, because it appears at the exact halfpoint of the video, is the preview image YouTube uses for it.

From Alain Wong:

Just a bit of news. Feel free to bash Google, or flatter them for coming up with this collaborative video idea. I think we’ve just become the most viewed Montreal swing dancers, with over a million views in two days.

Montrealers as thumbnail in the official Gmail video by Google.

Google ran a contest last month in order to build a collaborative video through Youtube for Gmail. The idea was to pass the Gmail logo (an M envelope) in a creative way through video. Ann Mony and I (swing dancers from Montreal) submitted a video of us swinging out with the envelope, and we made it onto the final cut!

Selected from over 1,100 clips from fans in more than 65 countries. We’re proud to represent Montreal.

Grownups’ turn to protest at Con U

The labour situation at Concordia just got a lot stickier, with a vote by its support staff union 95% in favour of authorizing a strike. They’ve been without a contract since 2002 and want pay increases.

If the strike occurs, it’ll be the first major test of president Claude Lajeunesse, who has so far presided over a university that has been uncharacteristically out of the headlines.

I’ll keep my Hydro-Quebec nationalized, thanks


The Gazette today has an opinion by two rich-guys (only half of which is online) saying we need to privatize Hydro-Quebec, and that doing so would save our economy, provide better services, make Quebec debt-free, promote environmentalism, protect our children and program our VCRs.

Privatization is always promoted as the silver bullet. Because governments are big, bureaucratic monstrosities who don’t care about efficiency or innovation, replacing parts of it with the private sector is advantageous. Private companies are lean, mean, innovation machines who always make the right decisions, have no corruption and provide the best value to the consumer.

In some cases, it works. When the barrier to entry is low, customers are well-informed and competition is high, the promised benefits tend to present themselves, though never to the extent that is expected by economic theorists.

What’s unique about Hydro-Quebec in this situation is that the main problem these two guys see with the way it’s run is that prices are too low. Higher prices, they argue, would promote conservation and allow us to sell more energy to the U.S. and neighbouring provinces, who pay market rates for it.

This is absolutely true (and as Jay Bryan points out, lower prices help the rich more than the poor), but it’s an argument for a rate increase, not for privatization.

Public utilities are bad examples of industries to privatize because competition is extremely difficult. Creating an infrastucture network encompassing hundreds of thousands of homes (or, in the case of provincial utilities, millions) is a monumental challenge, and so these private companies have to rely on pre-existing networks. That means they have to come to an agreement with the companies that own the networks (e.g. Videotron for cable, Bell for telephones) and essentially become resellers, charging customers more than if they went with the original companies, and allowing the two to point fingers at each other when something goes wrong.

Of course, all this is irrelevant here, because these two economic giants aren’t proposing a competitive market. Instead, they propose to either simply sell Hydro-Quebec (creating a private monopoly, which is just plain stupid) or sell shares to parts of it (which would force them to turn profits over to investors instead of the government).

The other main argument is money: Hydro-Quebec is worth so much that selling it outright would completely erase the province’s debt and then some. We’d save billions of dollars a year on interest payments and be able to reduce taxes and increase services.

That’s a great argument, and particularly seductive, but we’re still selling the furniture to pay the rent. Getting cash now is fine, but if it ends up costing us more in the long run by having to pay through the nose to a private company for our electricity, then it becomes less of a good idea. Bryan agrees, pointing out that such a one-time payment isn’t very meaningful, because they’d lose a giant, profitable asset in the sale.

Finally, I’d like to draw attention to a particular paragraph which speaks to the heart of the privatization debate:

“With representatives of the new shareholders on the board of directors, maximizing the value of shareholders’ equity and selling electricity at the market price would lie at the core of Hydro-Québec’s mission.”

In other words, private interests would be concerned only with the bottom line, and willing to bend any envelope to get there. Whether it’s outsourcing to China, cutting customer service, using independent contractors with the lowest bids (so you can wash hour hands of the situation when it’s inevitably discovered they’re scamming people), hiking prices or cutting off those who aren’t profitable, the private sector will try to squeeze as much money as possible from customers for less and less service.

It sounds great on paper, but in practice it’s just a waste of time and frustration.

UPDATE: Le Devoir recrunches the numbers, and concludes that selling off Hydro would be a really bad idea.

Montreal’s bus death traps

STM first-generation LFS

Back in 1996, it was seen as the biggest leap in Montreal transportation in decades. The STCUM was replacing the General MotorsMCI … NovaBus Classic series with a new, revolutionary low-floor (LFS) bus being developed by St-Eustache-based NovaBus. The new buses would be more accessible, both for people with low mobility who would now have one step up instead of four, and people on wheelchairs who would have a ramp at the back door and a place to park their wheelchair safely.

NovaBus wasn’t the only low-floor player, nor were they the best. But they were Quebec-based, which meant it was politically favourable to buy from them and have the buses produced locally, and tax incentives made it much more economical to buy from them.

The problems with the bus began rather quickly. First, there was the minor issue of the brake lines freezing in winter, which caused them to accelerate when the brakes were applied. Then there was their propensity to randomly catch fire. And a host of other problems that mechanics are having to deal with: the wheelchair ramps don’t work (the STM still encourages use of their adapted transit network), the back-door sensor doesn’t work reliably, two seats in the front faced a wall behind the driver (causing clients to hit their heads when the bus came to a sudden stop).

But the STM kept buying the buses. 480 of them over three years. After that, the STM stopped buying buses due to budget constraints, and NovaBus revamped their design. The second-generation LFS buses, which the STM started buying in 2001, solved most of those problems, but there aren’t enough of them on the road to take the first batch (or for that matter, 6-7 years worth of Classics) out of service. So we’re stuck with them.

And the problems keep coming. For the past two days, about 60 of them were taken off the street for various problems, cutting service during rush hours by about 1 per cent. (via mtlweblog) It’s gotten so bad that the STM prefers using the older Classic buses longer than the first-generation LFS, since they’re still working fine.


Fake outrage is always fun to look at. Political operatives look at anything done by the opposition, put it through as many filters as possible and seek the flimsiest excuse to call something outrageous.

Then they draw up a press release, send it to the media, and hope it sticks.

Of course, in today’s media, rewriting press releases as news is fast, easy and therefore commonplace. So a lot of them start sticking, even if they don’t pass the smell test.

  • Guy makes political statement with profanity, for the sole purpose of getting noticed by the media? OUTRAGE!
  • Political ad has random letters for half a second spell out “PTORN” over two lines, which looks a bit like “PORN”? OUTRAGE!
  • Police keeping an eye on your protest? OUTRAGE!:

“…helicopters, shining bright lights, flew at a very low altitude, at the level of treetops, where the camp was being held.  This act demonstrates but one strategy to discourage the direct opposition put into place against the SPP summit.”

When they start finding real people who are actually outraged about these things without the cattle-prod prompting of political campaign directors, they can start thinking that it’s newsworthy.

Jack Todd doesn’t like blogs

Jack Todd, bl0g d00d

Jack Todd doesn’t like blogs.

I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that the Monday Morning Quarterback column, which prides itself on using as many consecutive ampersands, question marks and exclamation points as possible (33 exclamation points in a row this week) makes fun of the grammar of some teen blogs. (The fact that Todd’s entire exposure to blogs seems to be reading the grammatically-challenged rantings of immature teens might also be cause for concern.)

I think Mr. Todd just isn’t reading the right blogs. May I suggest this one? I use l33t only in jest.

UPDATE: Totally missed this post from Mike Boone defending bloggers’ honour. The comments attached to it are typical anti-Todd trolling.

Out of the way!

I’ve always thought it would be fun to do some sort of street luge on one of Montreal’s steepest streets. Peel, Mountain, St. Jacques, any street in southern Outremont…

This weekend some people fulfilled that fantasy on Camilien Houde. Though the speeds they reached weren’t exactly super-sonic, the view from inches above the ground is a lot different at 100 kph. It’s all part of Top Challenge, an annual Bud Light-sponsored (Bud Light? Ick!) gravity-powered street race. (The video of last year’s race gives a good idea what’s going on)

The results are here, and photos on Flickr.

If the popularity of this increases, we’ll probably be seeing more videos like this of people doing this on their own.

Water Fight Part 2: Sunday at 1

Back by popular demand, the second edition of Montreal’s Largest Water Fight is tomorrow (Sunday) at 1 p.m. at Angrignon Park (by the lake just outside the metro station).

Facebook lists 150 confirmed guests, which probably means it’ll get about 75 or so. The weather tomorrow is supposed to be cooler and dryer than today, but still warm and humid.

If you didn’t make it to the last one, check out the pictures on Flickr or Facebook to see what’s in store.

Me at Montreal’s Largest Water Fight

If I can look this sexy after being bombarded by water, chances are you can look better.

A few tips from someone who didn’t think before the first one:

  1. Bring a small watertight sandwich bag to put your wallet and cellphone in so they don’t get soaked. Keep anything you don’t really need at home.
  2. Consider bringing a spare pair of shoes (or do it in sandals), as well as dry clothes in a watertight plastic bag unless you want to go home soaking (which isn’t necessarily a bad idea)
  3. Test your weapons before heading down
  4. Remember that this is dirty lake water being shot at you, not clean tap water. Act accordingly, and don’t drink it.
  5. If you’re buying a gun last-minute, Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart (both are a short bus trip away from the Angrignon Metro on the 106) have cheap Chinese Super-Soaker knockoffs for about $20.

GoJIT: “There was a loss”

This Week in Me features an interview with Serge Duchaine of GoJIT, the Dorval-based transportation company which lost a lawsuit last month and was ordered to pay over $118,000 to a St. Tite company for $90,000 of lost cowboy boots.

Doing the interview, I learned something interesting about standard practices in the industry (emphasis mine):

Gazette: Why did you offer only $6,000 in compensation for $90,000 of lost merchandise?

Duchaine: When you don’t insure goods, you’re automatically insured for $2 per pound. All the rates are based on the value you’re carrying. So the guy says: “It’s not enough, I’d like to protect all our merchandise.” There’s an insurance fee that every transport company has in the industry. More than 95 per cent of clients take a calculated risk. It doesn’t happen enough for them to buy this coverage. If someone says they want more protection, they have to buy it from an insurance company.

Ironically, it’s GoJIT which had insurance in this case: liability insurance. So the insurance company, which would have to foot the bill, is appealing the decision.

Still, it would be nice to know how 88 boxes on six palettes, over 100 square feet of warehouse floor space, just disappeared without a trace.

TQS needs to learn web programming

I just tried to subscribe to the one blog on TQS’s website, that of Jean-Michel Vanasse. Unfortunately, I can’t, because the RSS feed for his blog is malformed.

It looks like the problem is with their advertising system. They’re adding ads as items within the feed (bound to annoy some people, but something we could live with). Unfortunately, they’re not escaping the ampersands (&), which is causing problems for any feed reader expecting valid XML.

Odd that they would not have noticed this. Anyone want to take bets on how long it’ll take them to fix it?

UPDATE: If you guessed “four days”, give yourself a cookie.

All blog but no bite

Some local bloggers are flogging what’s called “Blog Action Day“, where on one day (Oct. 15), every blog around the world features a post on a particular subject (in this case, the environment).

This may shock and amaze you, but I’m taking a somewhat cynical view of this.

First of all, it’s not like the environment needs to have awareness raised about it. It’s the cause célèbre du jour, for crying out loud. It’s like trying to raise awareness of Facebook.

Secondly, it’s kind of gimmicky. Like that Live Earth concert that was more about music than the environment. I have a feeling this will be more about bloggers than the environment.

It’s well-intentioned, and I wish them well, but I just don’t see it doing anything concrete to help the environment.