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Generally Recognized As True: 2011

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

My Christmas stamp

I received my first Christmas card from a relative in England today. The stamp on it was most appropriate:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On finally replacing my Windows Media Center PVR with a cable company PVR

I finally threw in the towel on Windows Media Center's PVR and am now using an inferior cable company PVR instead. There was really only one channel that I watched regularly and the cable company was moving it to a digital channel not within reach of the analog cable dual tuner I was using in my Media Center system.

The new box isn't nearly as good as what was provided by Media Center and it's hard to believe some of the problems that exist on the cable company PVR.

Besides having a user interface that looks like it was generated by a Commodore 64, it has some other problems.

It will, for example, duplicate episodes in series recordings when they air multiple times on one day. This is a problem with guide data that doesn't distinguish new from repeat episodes for some stations, no doubt. But Media Center had a solution for it (to set an "around time" so that episodes are only recorded in the vicinity of a certain time each day -- this allows for minor schedule shifts as well as avoiding duplicates).

It will also -- and this is really hard to believe -- not let you customize your TV listings to only show the channels you can actually get. Since I'm on basic cable, I have to scroll through pages of listings for channels that I mostly can't get, with no indication of what I can actually watch. Media Center let you configure the guide by putting a checkmark next to the channels you want to see in the guide.

It will also not turn itself off if it is turned on when a recording starts. If it is turned off when a recording starts, it will turn itself off afterwards. If it's not, it won't.

I was also not looking forward to a few dollars extra on my power bill by adding the power load of a PVR that always keeps its drive spinning whether it's being used or not, but this has been somewhat mitigated by the surprising fact that removing the TV tuner card from my Media Center cut the power consumption of the system by 12 watts (which is worth about $1/month).

I am still using the Media Center for music and videos. I played with a WDTV Live to see if it could fill that gap and allow me to cut the cord between the Media Center and my TV but, while it was very good, it wasn't quite good enough. Most importantly, it lacked a skip back / skip forward feature for videos, which is a feature I use quite often. Users have been requesting it for awhile now, it is not difficult to implement, and I find it very useful... so, even though I am someone who hardly ever returns anything, I did return it to where I bought it from.

Media Center failed to make the transition to digital cable support gracefully, more because lack of industry co-operation than anything to do with Microsoft's own efforts. I have a feeling that the industry will regret their decision not to co-operate because if Microsoft is serious about pursuing this market then they will have to develop a system that bypasses the cable and satellite TV services completely, and I have a feeling that they or someone else will get there eventually.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Reading the Amazon Kindle in the bath

Obviously, reading the Kindle in the bath does not sound like a good idea. Even if you're not worried about splashing it or dropping it in the water, the steam that rises from the water and condenses on whatever's above it (and often makes your book a bit wrinkled) should be a concern.

But, there's a pretty easy way to deal with it and it worked pretty well when I tried it yesterday. Just get a medium-sized Ziploc bag, put the Kindle inside, and seal the bag. It keeps all the moisture off and the plastic adds hardly any impediment to reading the screen if you hold the plastic taut while reading. It's still easy to hold and push the buttons for page turning.

I'm not sure if it'd survive being dropped in the bath, but in theory it should (since the Ziploc seal is
good enough for keeping marinades contained).

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Toronto: less than 1% is protesting the top 1%, but who speaks for me?

Since the Occupy Toronto claims to speak for me as part of the "other 99%", I can't help comment that they don't, in fact, speak for me.

These protestors -- who probably amount to less than 1% of the population themselves -- don't like the top 1% of income earners.

Fair enough.

But why claim to speak for anyone else other than themselves?

I don't want anyone to speak for me, really. I'm not part of the top 1% but I have nothing to complain about and certainly nothing to protest about.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

A grand September: Steven Wilson's "Grace for Drowning", Tori Amos's "Night of Hunters", and Sarah Slean's "Land & Sea"

There were at least three outstanding album releases in September:

"Grace for Drowning" by Steven Wilson
Enough good things can't be said about this album. Released in high resolution surround on Blu-Ray as as well as on CD, this one took some time to grow on me (I went from being iffy about it to very enthusiastic over the space of about a week of repeated listens) but is really worth the effort to get to know. The highlight is a 23-minute track that is so full of interesting sounds and textures that you can miss a good chunk of the content if you don't play it on a good sound system. Unlike many modern CDs, it preserves a good amount of dynamic range and makes good use of it. Unfortunately, it's one of those albums that, despite being the best album of the year, can be difficult to share with others because you really do need to let it sit for awhile, and I only did so because I was confident I'd come through! It doesn't demo well.

"Night of Hunters" by Tori Amos
A 400-year classical song cycle -- original songs based on classical themes over a 400-year period -- this one also took a few listens to grow on me, but will end up amongst my favourite Tori Amos albums, I'm sure. After the previous album, which was a bit over the top, going back to the piano and a light orchestral backing is a very welcome change.

"Land & Sea" by Sarah Slean
This is a two-disc set by one of my favourite Canadian artists (another favourite is her husband, Royal Wood). While the 1st CD has its moments, the 2nd CD is the best of the two, going back to vocals and the piano, with orchestral backing. In a way, the 2nd CD is of a similar nature to "Night of Hunters" but is much more mellow and less adventurous, though that isn't in any way a criticism (why would I want to have two albums that are the same?)

Disabling the Alt-Tab preview behaviour in Windows 7

There are very few things that annoy me about Windows 7, but one thing that consistently does is the Alt-Tab behaviour wherein it will, after a delay of one or two seconds, start showing previews of the windows represented by the icons in the Alt-Tab list of running programs.

The main reason it's annoying is that it seems to start doing the preview just as I am scanning the list to look for the program I want. I don't need to identify it by previewing the window; I just need time to find the icon in the list so that I can hit Alt-Tab enough times to get there. The preview begins in the middle of this effort and distracts me from what I was searching for.

I didn't think there was a way to turn it off without disabling the Aero Peek feature altogether (which would also disable the useful feature of seeing through open windows to the desktop without having to minimize everything).

But, there is a way!

Using the Registry Edit, you have to create this key:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\AltTab

Inside that key, you add a DWORD value named:

LivePreview_ms

...and you set its value to 0.

When you restart Windows Explorer, it should take effect. You can either log off and log back on to kill Explorer, or open Task Manager, end the EXPLORER.EXE process, and then use Task Manager's File -> Run to run EXPLORER.EXE.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mid-August vegetables

The chili plant and a close-up of the same. I started this one from seed (actually, all shown here are from seed), transferred it outside, and then saw it wither and seemingly die. However, after abandoning it for awhile in the pot, I noticed it had come back to life and transplanted it. It kept going. This plant has been through a lot because I also up-ended the pot it's in when the hose caught on it, and it survived being re-planted a second time from that as well:


Finally, I am seeing some female squash flowers. For quite awhile, I was only getting male flowers and that means no fruit! The third photo is a squash forming above a rhododendron bud. The squash plants have exceeded the space I allotted to them.






Basil around the base of a tomato plant. As always, a long time coming.


Mountain ash berries. The birds like them but I don't think there are many human applications.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tomatoes: the joke isn't funny anymore

The tomatoes won't stop coming. Best of all, most of these are Brandywine. The yellow/orange ones are Old German, and the perfect-looking smaller red ones on top of the pile are one type of hybrid or another.

I was hoping to eat them all fresh, but it is getting a bit overwhelming.

It's a shame to can these because you lose the depth of taste. But, that'll probably be what I'll have to do with many of them. The shelf life on these is short compared to the hybrid ones, which will easily last a week unrefrigerated.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Brandywine tomatoes ripening by the day

My Brandywine tomatoes have started to ripen, which is a good thing because I think they're my favourite of the ones I've tried.

I don't really buy into that idea that locally- or self-grown vegetables always taste better than supermarket ones. My own lettuce does not taste much better than a supermarket one, nor do my green beans. The hybrid tomatoes I grow are about on-par with the quality sweet salad tomatoes you get in clamshells (i.e. Campari). Peas? Not much difference. Pumpkins? Not really.

But the heirloom tomatoes like Brandywine are a different story. They are quite fragile so you don't see them in the supermarkets very much. I did see them at an organic supermarket in Oakville for $5-6/lb, which is obviously pricey and especially so given the weight of them. They are often a bit scabby and have insect holes and folds here and there, but nothing that really gets in the way. The skin is fragile, so it tends to split as the tomato is growing and then heal, causing the scab.

The hybrid tomatoes have much tougher skins and are rarely insect-eaten. They look perfect. They taste fine but aren't all that special.

Anyway, here are the Brandywine tomatoes I picked this morning:


And here is the jungle they came from:


Sunday, June 05, 2011

I am really tired of foodies

Although I like food and highly recommend it, I'm not a foodie.

However, I do try to make a few decisions that might make a difference. For example, I buy free-run eggs. But, being honest, I have never really noticed a qualitative difference between these eggs and the allegedly evil eggs that come from battery cage chickens. I don't think keeping chickens in battery cages is very nice, but it doesn't seem to negatively effect the visceral quality of the egg, in my experience.

Well, that's not completely true -- the shells of the free-run eggs I normally buy seem thinner and more fragile than the eggs from the conventional source. Sometimes almost paper-thin.

For some time, I have been buying Rowe Farms's Green Valley eggs -- the ones with the occasionally flimsy shells -- but the other day I went to a different supermarket and needed eggs, so got some from another source -- Conestoga Farms, which looks like it's a label of the Gray Ridge conglomerate.

I was surprised to see how deeply orange the yolks of these other eggs were. Just like the foodies said, these are great eggs because the yolks are so orange!

These eggs contain 1mg of Lutein, the box said! Wow, I never knew I needed it. But it is a byproduct of their addition of marigold extract, which contains this substance.

They don't mention that marigolds are a deeply orange flower and that an extract would only concentrate this colour further, essentially making it a dye. So, my free-run eggs are deeply orange because the chickens have been fed natural food dye. I am not making this up.

What other foodies am I tired of? Jamie Oliver. I think he's a great presenter and I buy most of his cookbooks, which are always top-quality. But the Food Revolution series he's working on is incredibly dishonest and manipulative. For half of the statements he makes, I find myself turning it around on his own cause and asking another question, which is never answered.

As far as I got into the second series, he had somehow connected the formulation of a fast food burger patty with diabetes and suggested that using a homemade patty would be somehow reduce diabetes risk. Though he is leading in his presentation far more than he is direct, that is his implication. Really? Could he find anyone to back him up on that? I'd be surprised. In one demo where he fills a school bus full of the sugar consumed by some student population in the course of a year in front of horrified parents, I want him to do the same with the olive oil, flour, butter, and cream they'd be using if they followed his often pasta-centric recipes and see what they think of that sight.

And with all his talk of the "obesity epidemic", I'd also like someone to tell us whether Jamie Oliver himself is clinically obese or overweight according to the Body-Mass Index that categorizes us as such.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Inaccurate weather forecasting, and a few comments on car culture/pathology in Georgetown, Ontario

Although I shouldn't have been surprised, I went out for a long errand-running walk -- about 2 hours -- this morning with just shorts and t-shirt, foolishly trusting of The Weather Network's forecast of "isolated showers" this morning. It was "showering" when I left, but if that had been the worst of it then it would have been fine.

But by the time I was about halfway home, those showers had turned into a steady light rain. Three-quarters home and it was steadily raining. Within 5 minutes of home, it was a torrential downpour with significant thunder and lightning. I arrived home with leaking shoes, a see-through wet t-shirt, and a new hairdo.

It is still steadily raining as I type -- 3 hours since I set foot into those showers. Apparently, a severe thunderstorm warning cropped up while I was out, and the TWN forecast still shows a 40% chance of precipitation this afternoon -- the afternoon being about 15 minutes away.

One thing I should add about Georgetown that it is a car-insane place to live. At almost every opportunity for an altercation with a car (i.e. road entrances/exits), I had one. At some point, it starts to feel like a challenge. The main roads were steadily busy before 9am to the extent that it was difficult to cross without going way out of my way to use a "crosswalk" far off in the distance.

This car addiction really does come across as a mental illness when you spend a lot of time getting around town on foot. There is no excuse for it and I am certain that most of these trips are frivolous and redundant. If there is any politican that wants to hike gas taxes and devise a way to put a flat per-kilometre charge on driving -- period! -- I will to support him or her.

My main point, though, was going to be about weather forecasts. There have always been jokes about weather forecasts. People who aren't scientifically-capable have always joked about their inaccuracy. But these past couple of years have been different, I think. They are almost habitually inaccurate, unless a weather system is so large that it would be impossible not to get it right. I can't count on two hands the number of times I've been told this year of "isolated showers" or "variable cloudiness", only to find myself in the middle of a steady downpour.

Is this related to climate change, I wonder? Do the old models no longer work? We seem to be having problems like that with our economy at the moment -- past experience is no indicator of future experience. We were meant to be well into recovery mode by now.

The Weather Network's long-range forecast has always been a joke and I don't know why they bother publishing it (maybe it's that Web 2.0 tendency to force your customers to test your software for you), but even their short-range forecasts are unreliable lately and I am starting to distrust them. Environment Canada is not much better. On any given day, one or the other might be right, but one isn't consistently the one that gets it right so you can't pick a winner.

But I am only starting to distrust them. My experience today is evidence that I'm not all the way there yet.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Buried (but not valuable) treasure -- Yamaha-S90ES, Roland XV-5050

Cleaning up my hard drive, I found these musical experiments I'd made in the past. I may have posted them when I originally made them, but the links would be long-broken. This may be of interest if you want to hear the very good piano sound on the Yamaha S-90ES.

Piano (mostly Natural S from Yamaha S90ES)
S90-Sat
s90-idea1
s90_rambling
oncall

Piano plus accompaniment (mostly from S90ES, may contain some Roland XV-5050 parts)
mbg-4
mbg-15
mbg-20
mbg-24
mbg-18

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A rainy day; things that thrive in a rainy garden; plus Steven Wilson

It's another rainy day today, and it has been a rather cool spring so far.

Still, some garden life obviously enjoys it immensely, as you can see below.

The sorrel seems to love it:


And so do the chives:



The cedars I planted last year obviously like it and are in need of a prune. I did some top-heavy pruning in early spring so decided to give them a chance to recover from that before doing the rest:



The sage also seems fine. The brown bits are last year's sage. The new growth is already well underway:


And the thyme seems to like its spot nestled under the other cedars:


Yesterday, I bought Steven Wilson's "Insurgentes" CD. He is English, and it is perfect music for this weather that can only be made by someone from that rainy and grey little island:



But I'm not saying he has Morrissey's "Everyday Like Sunday" beat in this regard:



But there's chili in the oven, so it's all tolerable.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Japan's problems with nuclear have strengthened George Monbiot's positive opinion of it

In a Guardian column, environmental/green activist George Monbiot describes how the problems in Japan have strengthened his support for nuclear as a part of a power mix that includes renewables.

It is a balanced column that hits all the right notes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chernobyl wasn't as bad as most of us imagined it was

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island seem to be the benchmarks for measuring how bad the current Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor problem is, with Chernobyl being the worst-case and Three Mile Island being a best-case in popular assessment.

But, since there have been so few nuclear accidents and the meaning of the scale is therefore vague, it's worth asking how bad Chernobyl really was. Real Clear Science attempts an explanation:
It is worth putting even the UN’s low casualty figures in perspective. As the report notes, over 1,000 onsite reactor staff and emergency workers received heavy exposure to high levels of radiation on the first day of the accident, and some 200,000 workers were exposed in recovery operations from 1986-1987. But only 50 had died of cancer 20 years later.


Exposed children are more at risk from thyroid cancer, but the recovery rate – even in the Soviet Ukraine – was 99 percent. The health experts could find no evidence of increased rates of leukemia or other cancers among the affected residents.
A deficient reactor design, clear breach of operational protocol, possibly drunken operators... and this is the worst we have ever seen from nuclear.

Meanwhile, how many coal mining accidents do we have every year? How many people die protecting sources of oil? How many die from issues related to the fumes produced when we burn these things? How much carbon dioxide do we produce getting agitated and talking about carbon dioxide emissions?

That's why Seth Godin's graph that I posted yesterday has some merit.

Why can't the same people who criticize the imaginary fear of terrorist threat levels organize in the same way around the limp threat of nuclear energy? These fears come from the same place -- something that you can't see and don't understand that could attack you in ways you least expect.

And the people who say that the structural safety models of these plants are flawed and that the risks of failure are unknowable would also have to accept that the threat models that predict the consequences of such a failure are also flawed and vastly over-state the danger.

Glad for a lack of "meaningful" Canada Pension Plan reform

Although, like most people, I don't understand why we need another federal election in Canada, I am glad that the Minister of Finance didn't give in to certain demands from the NDP -- their only realistic source of saving grace in this cycle -- such as an overly-unrealistic increase in Canada Pension Plan benefits.

I'm not opposed to restructuring the Canada Pension Plan, but I am opposed to increasing payouts from the plan in a way that pays out to a person that isn't commensurate with the amount that that person paid in.

In other words, if they want to say that you have to contribute an extra X dollars to the plan every year and that, as a result, you'll receive Y more dollars in benefit when you are retired, then I am OK with that. But I'm not OK with saying that you've paid in X dollars all your life and were told you'd be getting Y dollars when you retire, but now that you're close to retirement and haven't put enough money aside, we're going to give you more than Y dollars without requiring you to make any significant additional contribution to the CPP, seeing as you don't have many working years left. The missing part of this story, of course, is that people like me would be footing the bill for it.

As I understand it, if you're an immigrant to this country who arrives in mid-life, you are allowed to participate in the pension plan to the extent that you've contributed. You wouldn't, for example, receive the same pension upon retirement as someone who had been contributing for their entire working life.

Why should it be any different for a non-immigrant?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nuclear energy: not only clean, but safe, too.

No doubt inspired by Japan's recent problems with their Fukushima nuclear plant, Seth Godin presents this interesting graph and accompanying post:


This type of thing is so difficult to measure, and he is a marketer, but having a bit of a think about it should lead you to believe that it's probably at least accurate in abstract and/or proportion.

Wind turbine propellers already kill a lot of birds. I doubt they kill many people (if any at all), but if one flying wind turbine propeller decapitated someone some day as a result of an earthquake, it'd be one more death than this Japanese issue has caused so far (but note that the wind energy installation in Japan survived the earthquake without any problems).

Visual proof that grains make you fat; grains make you unhealthy

Actually, it's not. It should make you question this idea that is a part of low-carb and Paleo diet thinking (although it's not really "thinking" if you don't ask these questions, is it?).


The picture is taken from the book "Hungry Planet", which is a coffee table book about the typical family diets in countries around the world.

I don't have any problem with the idea of reducing carbohydrates in your diet, but as always the wonks go over the top in an attempt to be as pure as an Islamist suicide bomber in their belief.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Low-carb scrambled eggs that won't make you miss the toast

I'm not really on a low carb diet or anything like that, but I have noticed a generally-better feeling since reducing the amount of carbs I eat -- particularly the bloated feeling after eating a meal. A plateful of cabbage and spinach leaves a far better feeling than a plateful of cabbage and carrots, for example. And making a chili where I keep the diced tomatoes but substitute a can of crushed tomatoes with beef broth makes a big difference, too, while having virtually no negative effect on the taste or texture.

But two things I have made a special effort to reduce are grains and sugar, so have been eating far less bread and bread-like baked things. The message of "starch with every meal" came from somewhere -- not sure where -- and I have been shouting it down to good effect. It does not seem necessary, so I'm not sure where the idea came from.

I quite like scrambled eggs on toast, but have tried a few different things over the past few months or so and, with this one, I don't really miss the toast at all -- and I'm not just saying that.

You need:
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 knob of butter
  • 1 knob of goat's cheese
  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped spring onions
  • big handful of salad greens
  • 1 avocado
  • lemon juice
  • ground black pepper to taste
Scrambled eggs are easily, obviously. People probably have their own ways of doing it, but mine is to melt the butter in a small non-stick saucepan* on medium heat, add the eggs and scramble in the pan with a spatula, then reduce the heat slightly and stir periodically until they start to congeal a bit. Then, crumble the goat's cheese in and mix it in. Continue to cook and stir until they are nearly the consistency you want, and then add the onions and black pepper. Remove from the heat.

On a plate, make a bed of salad greens. Peel and roughly chop the avocado and put it on the side. Drizzle the greens and avocado wiith lemon juice. Mound the scrambled eggs on top of the salad greens.

That's about it. It is what I am starting to consider a healthy meal: low in carbs, low in processed contents, high in fat, and a good amount of protein.

* I don't use non-stick much, but I do keep a non-stick saucepan and skillet especially for eggs. The reason is that I like to undercook eggs a bit. Some people prefer them firm -- McDonalds style, as I think of them. If I liked them firm, a cast iron pan would be fine. But undercooked eggs in a cast iron frying pan makes a sticky mess, in my experience. I have only seen eggs in cast iron work when they are fully cooked and form a firm patina that won't stick to the pan.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Slow-cooked dutch oven beef chili



This beef chili of mine is really good if you are willing to slow-cook it for about 2.5 hours, with a total cooking time of about 3 hours.

The ingredients are:
  • 1 cup dried kidney beans: the most economical, but you could use about 3 cups of drained canned beans
  • 700-800g stew beef
  • 1 L jar of tomatoes (I used my home-canned tomatoes; a similarly-sized can of diced tomatoes would work)
  • 1 L beef stock/broth
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 3 small or 2 medium onions
  • 2 heaped tsp. cumin
  • 2 semi-heaped tsp. smoked paprika (sweet)
  • 1 semi-heaped tsp. ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 heaped tsp. ground chipotle pepper
  • 1 heaped tsp. cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. oregano (or some other Italian-like seasoning)
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • salt
  • pepper
  • malt vinegar
About 12 hours before you plan to start (i.e. the night before), rinse the dried kidney beans and soak them in a covered bowl in about 3 cups of cold water.

When you are ready to start cooking, pre-heat the oven to 300F and get a dutch oven ready (the pot I used above was a 4.2 qt. Emile Henry Flame Top).

First, season the flour with a bit of salt and pepper and put it in a bowl, cut up the beef so that the pieces aren't more than about 1-inch cubes, rolling the pieces of beef in the seasoned flour as you go.

Then, dice the onions and chop the garlic. Heat the olive oil in the dutch oven over medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes.

While that's doing, mix the spices (including cocoa powder) into a small bowl. After the 5 minutes is up, add the spices to the onions and garlic, combine well, and cook for about 1 minute.

Then, add the jar of tomatoes. Stir to combine, and then add the beef stock and the tomato paste. Combine well, add the meat and stir briefly. Then, raise the heat, and wait for everything to come to a simmer.

When it reaches a simmer, put the lid on the dutch oven and transfer it to the oven.

The total oven-cooking time will be 2 hours 30 minutes. But, after 1 hour of the oven-cooking time has passed, and only if you are using dried rather than canned beans, drain and add the pre-soaked kidney beans to the pot. Stir to combine, and return it to the oven for the remaining 1 hour 30 minutes.

If you're using canned beans, you can add them at the end of the cooking time (i.e. after 2 hours 30 minutes in the oven). But, definitely do not do this if you are using dried beans because kidney beans are poisonous if not cooked properly (canned beans are pre-cooked).

After the cooking time is up (you can verify doneness by confirming that the meat is very tender and flakes well when put under pressure), give it a stir, and stir in malt vinegar, salt, and pepper to bring the seasoning up to your own taste preference (balsamic vinegar might substitute for malt -- but it is a bit sweeter). The vinegar just adds a tanginess that I normally find missing.

Then, let it sit covered in the pot for about 30 minutes to let it cool and the flavours combine.

Not browning the meat in this recipe is intentional, even though most braising books tell you to do it. If you want to be all French, I suppose there's no harm, but it doesn't add anything in my opinion.

This isn't as thick as some chilis, but it probably has fewer carbs than those and won't leave you feeling over-stuffed after eating a bowl. It will thicken a little bit as it cools.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Where does Microsoft want to go today?

It is very hard to figure out where Microsoft is going as a company.

One day, it seems like they're going to abandon consumer electronics and focus on business (their tablet-related moves) and the next, they are pushing or pulling Media Center-related living room technologies or putting out consumer hits like the Kinect.

Their relative abandonment of Windows Phone 7 is very confusing. I just don't understand why they don't get it that they need to rapidly improve this thing to keep people interested, especially seeing as it started from behind in the first place. They should have been talking about WP7-based tablets and media players by now, too. There are a whole lot of Microsoft technologies out there that offer tremendous promise but sit on the table like a piece of half-eaten fruit. But, this is not new for them.

I really want to buy an iPod-like device that will do more than just play music and behave in a Windows-friendly way. Every time I consider an iPod, I think of iTunes and remember why I haven't bought an iPod yet. That situation will never be fixed because this is Apple we're talking about. The last time I saw iTunes on Windows 7, it didn't even behave properly when pinned to the taskbar (clicking the pinned icon spawned a second icon on the taskbar), and that is the least of its problems.

Zune HD wasn't released in Canada. Android is too chaotic and too unpredictable for me, so my choices are quite limited. A Microsoft media player with WiFi but without mobile data, and based on the Windows Phone 7 OS would be ideal. It's hard to imagine how they will ever get there with their current rate of progress.
The exodus of executives at Microsoft is confusing, too.

And so is the fact that Windows Phone 7 is much more a consumer-oriented phone than a business-oriented phone, despite the fact that Microsoft provides the backend for a whole lot of Blackberry clients out there (via Exchange). If they can't get WP7 onto media players and tablets, what is the hope they'll get this angle sorted out?

The strange thing is that, as a business and as a revenue and profit generator, they seem outstanding. But so much of it still comes from legacy products and so little from the new things they've tried over the last decade or so. Where they really seem to have a problem is in convincing investors that they are capable of doing anything else and, therefore, of generating significat earnings growth in future.

But, even though Apple gets a lot more attention and the market seems to consider it a much better growth prospect, I think Apple is far more susceptible to attack than is Microsoft. People can get tired of brands and company attitudes quite quickly (where is Sony and their Walkman today?), and the cost of replacing most people's relationship with Apple is not very high. Apple's attitude toward openness both retains customers by making things easy, but can also repel because of their oppressive control. You also have to wonder how well the company can withstand the ultimate exit of Steve Jobs. On the other hand, maybe Microsoft's disorientation is a consequence of Bill Gates's exit.

Maybe the company really is just too big with too much bureaucracy to get itself on a straight path. We have been hearing it for years, but maybe this is the public evidence.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The media-driven world vs. WWF wrestling

I'm not sure if it's an accurate perception, but the media-driven world seems to be becoming a lot like WWF wrestling -- fabricated and multi-layered conflict in order to garner and hold attention. I'm not talking about the old-fashioned "if it bleeds, it leads" maxim, but about fabricated inter-personal conflict between people in the media themselves to create news where it doesn't exist.

It seems that, more and more these days, someone in media is upset with someone else or even just raised their voice at them, and this becomes a story that lasts for at least a few days.

The latest example was the Ricky Gervais thing at the Golden Globes. The whole thing was fabricated, I have no doubt. Yes, people acted as if offended at what Ricky Gervais said. But have we forgotten that these people are professional actors being awarded for their ability to act? Ricky Gervais himself repeatedly delivers his performances as if everything is just occurring to him off the top of his head, and this is done night after night at his standup shows, and repeated for TV audiences on the night-time talk show circuit.

It's the mainstreaming of WWF wrestling. Here's a WWF promo from the 1990s:



And this isn't all that related, but who cares if Oprah has found out that she has a half-sister? Why should anyone care about this? Even if you like Oprah -- why?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fast-forwarding DivX in Windows Media Center (you can't -- but there's an alternative that's better than nothing)

Although you can finally play video files based on codecs like DivX in Windows 7's Media Center, without using alternative plug-ins* and possibly introducing codec hell with extra codec packs, you can't fast forward these videos in Windows Media Center. This is a stupid oversight but it is typical of Microsoft -- half-implement a feature and call it a day, thinking that people will be happy to have something rather than nothing. This kind of thing works for Apple because they update frequently, but when you take 3 years to deliver an operating system update and don't implement new features in between, the initial excitement over the feature is replaced with a feeling of tedium after a few months.

If my $50 DVD player can play and fast forward DivX files, why can't my much more expensive Media Center with its much more flexible software and much more powerful hardware? This value equation has repeatedly been ignored by Microsoft with Media Center.

Anyway, I recently learned about a way of jumping around within these non-Microsoft video files in Windows 7 Media Center without installing anything extra.

While playing a video, you can enter a time in minutes using the remote control and press the Play button to jump to that point in the video. Typing 10 and then Play will jump to the 10 minute mark in the file, for example. Also, it looks like you can multiply existing functions. So, if you type 10 and then push the skip button (which skips forward 30 seconds in the file and does work with these video files in Media Center), it will have the effect of skipping forward 30 seconds, 10 times -- 300 seconds, or 5 minutes.

So, it's not ideal, but it's better than nothing. Or, rather, it's better than trying to go back to that point 1 hour into your video by pressing the skip button 120 times.

* the alternative plug-in is Media Control, used in conjunction with the FFDShow codec pack.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Beef stew in the Emile Henry Flametop dutch oven

I got a very nice dutch oven for Christmas -- the rather new Emile Henry Flame.

This is a round, glazed, clay dutch oven that has additives to the clay that make it tolerant of temperature shocks -- so much so that you can start a dish on the stovetop and transfer it to the oven, which is not typical for clay pots. My other clay pot -- the Schlemmertopf -- is so intolerant of heat shocks that you always start cooking it from a cold oven without pre-heating. This isn't anything against the Schlemmertopf because it's a very nice pot and a different way of cooking, but it's nice to have other options.

Here's a picture of the pot:


To give the pot a try, I started with a beef stew. I used the recipe from Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Dinners book, which is his best book, I think. I made a few changes -- a whole squash instead of half, and added extra carrots in lieu of parsnips because I couldn't find any. I also left out the sage and rosemary because they're expensive to buy fresh at this time of year, and substituted a bay leaf, thyme, and coriander seed. I also added a green bell pepper. It's still intact enough to say I took it from his book, though -- I did, after all, retain the half-bottle of wine he calls for.

I didn't brown the meat, but I did coat it in seasoned flour.

This is how it looked before it went in:


...and after it had been cooked for 2 hours and 30 minutes at 300F:


And what a great beef stew it was! The main feature was that the meat was perfectly tender and fell apart into flakes when you ate it.

This is the first stew I've cooked this winter, so it's a very good start to the season!

Bread differences with minor ingredient changes

This one seems worth a blog post.

The following picture shows baking results for two loaves of bread. The preparation procedure was identical, and the ingredients were almost identical.


The ingredient difference between the left and right-hand loaves amounted to a couple of tablespoons more water, 1/4 tsp. more yeast, and 1/4 tsp. less salt. Flour and yeast were both from the same batch.

So you can see why people who prefer to just throw everything in a pot and let it boil would be turned off by baking.