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Generally Recognized As True: January 2011

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.