Monthly Archives: April 2009

Auto-Tune the News

Here’s one that’s been making its way around the viral Internet (especially since a mention on Boing-Boing): Auto-Tune the News. It’s pretty much that: taking stuff from TV and applying Auto-Tune to it to make it sing. Add a bit of remixing and editing and you got yourself some music videos.

Other speeches that sound better with Auto-Tune:

Meet the new guy

There was a major reorganization of office space at work, so I was already a bit disoriented, but I could have sworn I saw a reporter I’d never seen before. Who was this guy? Was he hiding at a corner desk and I just never noticed him for a year and a half? Had he just come back from leave of some sort? Had he just been hired?

I learned later that none of these things are true. He’s an intern, spending a few weeks at the paper writing freelance stories.

His name is Alex Leduc. He’s on Twitter and everything.

His first story, about non-Habs fans in Montreal, came out on Wednesday.

Now he’s working on chasing the Google Street View car. Which leads to the same question you ask of every dog who chases a car: what do you do when you catch it?

UPDATE (May 10): Here’s another story about an anti-capitalist protest. He had a third about hard-core Impact fans, but it’s unfortunately not online.

LaSalle’s tiny platform comes back to life

LaSalle train station building

This tiny platform at the LaSalle commuter train station, which has sat unused in favour of its longer twin on the other side, is coming back to life on Monday because of work being done on the track. That means train users will have to figure out which car to be in (much like they have to do on the Saint-Hilaire line because of the length of its platforms).

Toward Montreal, the platform will line up with the tail of the train. Toward Delson/Candiac, it will line up with the head.

Ile Sans Fil still the king

Roberto Rocha has an article about Ile Sans Fil (and current head Laurent Maisonnave), the volunteer-run free wireless hot spot network, which is still thriving while for-profit commercial systems have either been delayed or quietly cancelled.

I remember having a meeting long ago with a guy who had this idea of starting up a free wifi network. This was before laptops came with wireless built-in and before most people even knew what it was. I thought the guy was crazy, or at least naive, thinking such a network could be setup.

He went and created Ile Sans Fil, which now has about 150 hotspots.

Don’t I feel silly.

My first real website

The Link's website in summer 2002

The Link's website in summer 2002

For some reason that completely eludes me now, I took a trip through the Wayback Machine this week to visit my first big website. It was for The Link, the better of Concordia University’s two student newspapers (at least while I worked there). And sadly, it’s a website that no longer exists except in the form of a few snapshots in the Internet Archive.

Taking us back to 2001

Having been appointed to the position of webmaster for a newspaper that didn’t have a website, it became pretty clear what my first job would be. During the summer of 2001 I embarked on a project to create a server and install a content management system on it that would be suitable for newspaper articles.

The first part wasn’t too complicated: a generic desktop server with Slackware Linux installed on it, a few tweaks, and the server was up.

The CMS was a different story. This was two years before WordPress. Months before the first MovableType. After minutes of searching, I figured my best option would be to use Slashcode, the Perl-based engine behind the popular Slashdot. (Hey, remember Slashdot? Apparently it’s still there.)

In hindsight, it was a horrible mistake. At the time (and I suspect this is still the case) it was an awful, inelegant piece of hacked-together software, built from scratch to support Slashdot and awkwardly patched with new features. That meant changing things very difficult.

Among the annoyances that only grew over time:

  • Accounts had to be created for each author. Every time a new person contributed or even just wrote a letter to the editor, an account had to be created. A few years in, the “author” drop-down menu had over a hundred names in it.
  • No concept of “issues” to tie together articles of a certain date. Instead of showing all the articles for a particular issue, it would be programmed to show the latest X number of articles.
  • An impossible-to-understand caching system that required all sorts of manual resets in order to do something simple like change the background colour on the main page. This is combined with a background daemon that had the habit of turning itself off.
  • A database that tended to get corrupted causing everything to go bad.
  • Hard-coded or semi-hard-coded constants and variables, such as a “security level” that was in the form of an integer instead of a list of capabilities.
  • No built-in way of handling photos or their captions.

But for its faults, the system also had many useful features, some of which were ahead of their time:

  • Threaded comments, comment rating and group moderation (being Concordia at a time of relative political chaos, these got a lot of use)
  • Integrated RSS, including the ability to pull RSS headlines from other sites
  • Form keys to prevent spamming and double comments
  • “Boxes” (what WordPress calls “widgets) that provide for various functions and bonus content in the sidebar

For about five years, the website ran on Slash, frustrating webmaster after webmaster, until a database crash in the summer of 2006 forced them to switch to a new system. By then, thankfully, technology had progressed to the point where more elegant solutions were available.

Still, it’s a shame the archives have disappeared.

You can see what the website looked like a few months after launch in 2001, a few months later after a redesign, and in 2004 before I ended my tenure as an editor.

Hey baby, wanna second my motion?

A friend of mine asked me if this National Assembly romance qualifies as a news story. I think it does, especially because they belong to opposing parties. The opportunities for conflict of interest are simply too large to ignore. It’s not the story of the year or anything (how many of you recognize these people?), but it should be out there for the record.

We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now, as Jean Charest is doing. But you know something’s going to happen. Either one of them (probably him) is going to switch parties, one (or both) will leave politics, or they’re going to break up.

And if they do decide that the National Assembly isn’t for them, Nathalie Normandeau and François Bonnardel could become odd-couple political commentators.

I mean, if James Carville and Mary Matalin could find a way to tolerate each other, anything’s possible with love.

The seething of Mackay

Mackay St. during frosh week in 2002.

Mackay St. during frosh week in 2002.

UPDATE (May 1): The project has been put on hold.

The “Greening of Mackay” has been a project of the Concordia Student Union and other Concordia student groups for over a decade now. The idea is that the street, from Sherbrooke St. to de Maisonneuve Blvd., would be closed off to traffic and parking and turned into a pedestrian area.

Unfortunately, the city and its residents like cars, and they’re not crazy about a street and its parking spots being permanently removed from them. So efforts to close the street off permanently have always failed. Instead, they settle for partial closures, such as the one pictured above, for a week or two, slap the familiar “greening of Mackay” label on them, and declare victory.

That’s what they did last week when the university announced that “the ‘greening of Mackay’ will finally become a reality this summer!” In reality, the street isn’t being closed off but merely reduced to one lane. And it’s only for the summer.

Getting consent of property owners wasn’t so much of a problem – the entire southern half of the block belongs to the university, with the Hall Building on the east side and university annexes on the west. And the borough, which is all about closing streets lately, was easily convinced to forego a few hundred thousand dollars of parking revenue. (The fact that Karim Boulos, the VP of external affairs for the John Molson School of Business, is also a Vision Montreal city councillor, might have helped a bit too.)

But not everyone is happy. Robert Landau of Landau Fine Art (which is actually on Sherbrooke St., not Mackay) has organized a petition against the borough, signed by lots of people who don’t live on Mackay but want people to be able to park there.

It’s amazing the lengths people will go to in order to protect on-street parking.

UPDATE: CBC Daybreak has an interview (MP3) with Landay and Concordia’s Chris Mota, which gets a bit testy.

And bring back Ste. Anne’s Market!

War criminals!

War criminals!

It’s springtime. The snow has all melted away, we’re about to get our first 20+ degree days, the Habs are out of the playoffs and the Société Saint-Jean Baptiste has found something to complain about in the Gazette.

Last year it was that whole Bouchard-Taylor scoop, which the Quebec Press Council ruled was correct though sensationalized.

This year, the group is going into the archives and asking the paper to apologize for encouraging protests against the Rebellion Losses Bill that led to the burning down of Parliament … in 1849.

I believe they’re also calling for the immediate resignation of editor-in-chief James Moir Ferres.

The Gazette hasn’t commented about the demand yet because, as everyone knows, nobody there speaks French. Staff at the paper are desperately seeking a fourth-grader to translate the release into angloese. (UPDATE: Editor-in-chief Andrew Phillips says the SSJB “should get a life“)

Incidentally, to the people at the SSJB, “entièrement décimé” doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you should go to your dictionary and look up what “décimer” means.

More coverage from Presse Canadienne and Canoe.

Lying by stock photo

The Internet is making it a lot easier to spot stock photography being used for marketing purposes. Most of the time it’s not a big issue, unless you’re pretending that it’s something it’s not. Pretending that a beach in England is actually one in Alberta is a good example.

Their explnation:

“There’s no attempt to make people think that this is Alberta,” says Tom Olsen, the premier’s director of media relations. “There’s no attempt to mislead. That picture just fit the mood and tone of what we were trying to do.”

I mean, it’s part of a tourism marketing campaign for Alberta. And it has the word “Alberta” on it. But it would be silly to suggest that this was a picture of Alberta.

Just like it would be silly to suggest that a picture on the homepage of a Montreal radio station was of a Montrealer.

Rogers dodgers

The cuts keep coming. Today, about 40 employees at Rogers Publishing (Maclean’s, Actualité, Châtelaine, LouLou, Canadian Business, etc.) were given their pink slips. No indication yet how that breaks down per publication.

In the U.S., the Chicago Tribune has cut 53, including the guy who was writing about the recession (they deleted his blog post saying he’d been a victim of it) (via Romenesko)

Montreal’s got talent for taking money from naive kids

A business operating under the name Talent Search America (auto-play video warning) has been fined $11,260 by the Office de la protection du consommateur for failing to register with them.

Talent Search America (an odd name since it’s based in Montreal), formed by former CJAD loud-mouth Ricky Cyr, has a somewhat dubious reputation of asking people for hundreds of dollars and offering little in return (do you recognize any of these people?). Talent agencies that ask for money up front have been accused of acting nefariously and investigated by consumer protection offices.

But this fine was for an essentially bureaucratic error. The office is not saying that TSA has swindled any of its clients, though it has received complaints.

The OPC requires companies doing business like this to get a permit which also requires a deposit. The deposit is used to pay clients in case the company goes bankrupt or otherwise swindles customers out of their hard-earned cash.