Monday, December 11, 2006

XBOX - What's missing

Why oh why oh why do large corporations like Microsoft think that they can corner every generation of consumer into buying more and more unnecessary stuff from them. Take the XBOX 360; a great device IMHO, ahead of it's time and good value for money. However, in the adverts it says "stream pictures, music and video from your PC to your XBOX 360", at last I thought, convergence, or in other words I don't need a mountain of black boxes under my telly to watch and/or listen to hetrogeneous media-content. What isn't so clear in the ads is that this is only really possible if your PC has Windows Media Edition OS, Media player software and the videos that you want to see are encoded in WMV format, all proprietary Microsoft things.

Now this is all very predictable and I'm sure forces people to look at alternative solutions to do this same job more flexibly. I think my requirement is simple and obvious, i.e. I want a device that can have *any* content streamed to it (given appropriate codec's etc.) regardless of which particular "flavour" of operating system I have or what gizmo's I happen to have installed on it. If XBOX 360 did this then I feel sure that they would sell even more bucket loads to people like me who want "real world" flexibility and don't have the time to sit and encode all their video into WMV format!

Then there is the WEB; sure the XBOX has a network socket and connectivity to the internet; but surprise, surprise you can only access Microsoft sites (XBOX Live service); no browser. Now if they were *really* smart and *really* wanted to dominate the market then they would be selling to kids who want to watch YouTube directly on their TV's via their XBOX, record things, download things, play games, in short, face up to it Microsoft the XBOX is a PC in a shiny box, why not just go with it, people want convergence and if this device doesn't deliver that then they will go out and buy something else that does, like Apple iTV (although I'm sure that is just another piece of proprietary nonsense as well).

You have to believe that this is all just some cunning marketing ploy to flog us some new XBOX "Advanced" later on that has these silly limitations removed (probably via software) and I know I'm being commercially naive to some degree but how many times have we been here before and how many consumers have to be frustrated before the penny drops - if you don't supply products that do what clients want, then your competitors will, let's be honest it's not as if the kit is not capable enough.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Clos du marquis; 2nd wine of LLC

Had a nice Sunday lunch yesterday; roast beef, Yorkshire pudding & all the trimmings etc. with it I opened a bottle of this 2nd wine of the famous Leoville las Case (LLC) estate. The vintage was 1996, by all accounts a good one for this region of Bordeaux (St. Julien).

I thought the wine was very fine, dark ruby colour, plums, oak, ink and vanilla on the nose, very clean, well balanced with an appropriate finish, to score it I'd say 91-92/100 (using a Parker 50 point scale). I am a big fan of LLC wines, and tried the 96 CDM a couple of years ago; it has certainly improved and I feel has many more years of improvement ahead of it, fortunately I have a case (well 11 bottles now), so I'll be interested to re-visit this one in a year or two (if I can resist that long!).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Apple Pie

I can't help thinking that the latest spat over Apple iPod's being manufactured with (handy) onboard windows viruses is a great example of a "marketing" lead company not really "getting it".

The first reaction of this company on finding out that it was shipping viruses to it's customers... blame Microsoft; sterling effort Apple, IMO that's a bit like putting a blindfold on and driving into a brick wall, then blaming Ford because their car can't predict your stupidity.

I believe Apple's biggest headache is not viruses or their manufacturing processes but that their market is becoming too smart to believe this kind of intelligence insulting crap anymore as witnessed by the general outcry in the Blogosphere about this. Come on Apple, no one expects perfection (marketing <> realworld) so fess up, take the pie in the face, fix the problem and move on.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mass Observation

There is a campaign going on here at the moment to get people to contribute a "blog" entry to; the idea is that as many people as possible describe a "day in the life" for the 17th October and the individual entries will be saved for prosperity at the British Library archive for future generations to paw over. I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a sucker for these kinds of things, I find social history very interesting. In a case of history recording history making, here is my entry,

Went to the doctors today, had a bad back over the weekend and wanted to get some NSAID drugs for the pain. Drove to the surgery and waited for about 30 minutes for the doctor, there was an eastern European family waiting too, listening to them speaking in their native tongue (Polish I think?) made me think about history and change, here we all were sitting in a (real) Tudor house (oak beams etc.) in a small market town in Berkshire traffic thundering by, reading magazines on digital photography and country life while we waited, what would those ruffled Tudor ghosts think of it all. When I returned to my car I discovered I had a puncture (argh!), called the tyre repairers but will have to wait until tomorrow for them to get the right tyre; got home OK but I’m a bit stuck now, decided to work from home today thank goodness for broadband internet; my wife made a nice shepherd’s pie dinner for the kids and I; bed by 11pm.

I think the character limit is 4000 and you need to get your entry in by the end of the month.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


So, Google buys YouTube for 900 million quid; WTF!

I'd love to know what kind of multiple on earnings that represents; if indeed YouTube actually made any money after paying for their bandwidth bill!

I can only speculate what the strategy behind this move is, clearly there is one and it must be something special for this kind of dosh. I wonder if the idea is to create a kind of "alternative" to television; or like MTV did in the 80s invent a new kind of channel? I often look at YouTube, it can be very amusing, but most of it is puerile teenage stuff and people trying to "make it" in media, but hey there are millions of teenagers out there who probably think this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and would happily contribute and watch it all day long. The prospect of targeting this audience with relevant product plugs would certainly be an advertisers wet dream and then some. I do wonder though, much like MySpace and Rupert Murdoch, would trying to exploit such a community in the old fashioned corporate happy-talk manner somehow destroy it or change it in a kind of Heisenbergian way, i.e. to observe it is to change it, or are Google the only company who can pull this kind of thing off?

I have recently been following an interesting blog by Ben Hammersley he is a photographer, blogger and technical author, he comments on all things Blog/WEB2.0; Ben is in the process of writing a new book entitled "The Eight Big Ideas You Need to Understand in the 21st Century", one of the "ideas" is "Mass amateurisation - how everyone can publish their work. DIY capitalism such as car-boot sales", I can see how this prophecy could certainly ring (as in kerching!) true for the boys at YouTube (lucky chaps).

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Happy birthday to me!

It was my birthday yesterday, I think that beyond a certain age birthdays are best navigated in stealth mode, although, among other goodies, I did get some much needed underwear (you can't go wrong with pants!).

For a special birthday treat my wife & I went to a local restaurant, l'Ortolan see , it's certainly the poshest gaff around these parts (one Michelin star) and I've been there 5 or 6 times over a period of at least 10 or so years, the previous time being about a year ago. It's interesting to compare and contrast the experiences I've had over this period as the chef has changed, the food and wine changed and probably more importantly my own expectation and experience has changed.

I found the restaurant was great at first, back in the early nineties food in the UK generally wasn't that great (unless you lived in London) but having a gourmet restaurant out here in the "burbs" was a great novelty, like a taste of a glamorous lifestyle up until then only available in London, Paris, New York etc. Like all novelties I guess it wore off after a while, the popularity grew as did the prices and the value fell; I didn't visit for a few years and when I did I found the VFM to be "average" at best. Our visit last year though suggested that the cycle seemed to be back up again , the meal we had was very good indeed (8.5/10). Our food last night was good also (but not quite as good as last time) a couple of small things could have been improved, and overall I would say that 8.5 of last year dropped to a 7, I wonder if l'Ortolan has peaked?

A couple of factors worked against them last night, namely they just switched from summer to winter menu that morning (so I guess the dishes were new); also the place was pretty quiet (Tuesday night), so the atmosphere wasn't as good as say a Friday or Saturday etc. Also I found the food, although tasty, superbly presented and original simply wasn't hot enough - seems like a strange mistake to make for an establishment like this? My other gripe, although I must admit l'Ortolan isn't too different from most restaurants these days, was the wine list. Most of the classic regions were represented on the list, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Italy, Oz, USA, Spain etc. but the choice in each was limited and the mark-ups punishing.

When I first went to this restaurant I knew nothing about wine, like a lot of people I simply picked something "reasonable" with a regional name or grape I recognised, i.e. Chablis or Merlot etc., back then red with meat and white with fish was about as discerning as it got. As I have learnt more about wine my choices and expectations have grown accordingly, I now look for producers I like, in good vintages, with wine characteristics that might complement the food, most people would think this increased insight would be a good thing, however there is a serious down-side to it, I know how much the wine actually costs.

Let me illustrate my point with some examples I noticed from last nights list, Beaucastel 1999, this is a Southern Rhone wine, great with things like duck and venison (strong meats), now, 1999 was an OK vintage not great, and many would say that the 1999 is only just reaching it's drinking window (the period of time when the wine shows it's best character). The price on the list for this wine was £90, I know for a fact this wine can be bought from a wine merchant for roughly £25, even at the cheaper end of the spectrum £10.99 Chilean wines (available in nation-wide merchants like Majestic - so by no means rare) were on the list for £35-40. At the upper end of the scale, some of the "trophy" Bordeaux wines hit mark-ups of 5 or 6 times the price you could expect to pay for the same product directly from a shop or merchant.

So, is this exploitation of the "majority" of clients who know no better or is it a justifiable component of the whole "Michelin star" experience, who knows I have never seen the P&L of a restaurant like this, what I can say though is that I eat at home a lot more these days!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Writing code or writing specs?

The eternal dilemma; anyone who's ever written software faces this dilemma all the time, that is,

Do you write down (on paper) what you (or someone else) are going to do and how it will work or do you just write it (in code)?

There are tons of development methologies, approaches, styles out there in groovy world of software development, but none I have ever read or used is very clear about this important point, to spec or not to spec, that is the question. To be honest I don't subscribe to any formal approach, I tend to use my experience and "gut" to guide me these days, however one thing is for sure, I try not to do too much of either. I find that if I write too much specification then I end up taking too long and get things wrong (aka analysis paralysis), its hard to get the big picture from a 1000 pages of spec. Also if I write down every microscopic detail of how I want something to work then what's left for someone else to do, IMO creativity in software development is an important part of enjoying it. If I don't write enough specification then I end up taking too long often with an experimental mess that's expensive to maintain at the end of it. Detail is needed to explain the why and the how, especially when it's not the designer themselves writing the code.

Well, my latest masterpiece has reached that point (again), the point where I think I have written enough spec. to start writing some code, the approach I take is to write specific and targeted fragments of code (usually the hardest or the least clear parts of the design) This process is always time consuming because its difficult to write something that actually works to the point of being useful, without a lot of supporting stuff around it; so quite often I end up spending more time writing things to create data and meta-data so that I can actually write and test the thing I wanted to in the first place. However expensive though, I find this a critical process; I often *need* to write code in order to establish how I'm going to design something, there is just no other way (without unlimited time that is) Having written code to the point where I am clear in my thinking (this usually involves showing other people!) I will often then revert back to the specification and change and/or complete it.

A trendy word for this process is "prototyping" or iterative development (sometimes called RAD) On the surface it seems like an obvious way to tackle complexity, however a lot of "day-coders" I have known never really "got" the point of the prototype, they mostly thought it was a waste of time, why prototype surely you are clever enough to get the spec right first time? well, no, actually I'm not, neither were they. In my view the point of a prototype is to prove a design feature (either logical or physical), nothing more, nothing less. It is however skill based, i.e. you have to know what you are doing to use it successfully; in my time as a programmer and manager I've seen some hideous products emerge from aimless prototypes or more commonly, chronically disfunctional components that emerge from hopelessly simplistic screen "mock-ups" that were supposed to tell the coders what a system is logically supposed to do. Prototyping and iterative development are things that unfortunately have a bad rep in some quarters, usually because of good old fashioned arrogance (we don't need no stinking prototypes), done right though I believe it's the best approach.

Although powerful, I find this iterative approach requires a lot of discipline; the desire is often strong to simply push on with the code and forget about the spec altogether; this is usually a bad thing in my experience. It's good to write down your design; often it's not until you do this that you see the holes (at least before a coded version is complete, by which time it's too late!), in any case, you should be able to write it down, if you can't then something is wrong. The other good thing about doing things this way is that you actually end up with something that you can show other people; it's often hard to articulate what something will do to either technical or non-technical colleagues, the prototype is a vehicle to do that, but beware, make sure it doesn't become the rod that these same people beat you with when V1 is completed.

My "golden rules" of prototyping

1. A prototype should have some specific "point"; otherwise its just an excuse to cut code too early; a prototype of the *whole* system is pointless

2. Prototype logical or physical things, what or how, don't confuse the two, make sure you know what it is you are testing and that you capture the answer (ideally back in the design documentation)

3. Prototypes are not a substitute for design docs (specs) - unless the prototype is so broad and deep that the spec is not needed (rare, see point one)

4. Prototypes are not excuses for not testing things properly; just because your design held water with 5 transactions doesn't mean it works for 5 million.

5. Sometimes prototyping is harder than just cutting code, clearly if you always get things right first time then you don't need to bother.

6. Make sure the people you show your prototypes to understand what they are looking at and what you expect them to do/say - prototype is not equal to a finished product minus some smoothing of rough edges.

7. Prototypes must have secretive and alluring code-names; dagger, bart, helix, google etc.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Corporate "happy talk"

The following observations aren't mine (wish I could articulate as well as this!) - but have been harvested from somewhere in the gapingvoid site ( I've reproduced (and slightly tweaked) them here because they sum up how I feel about most VC funded American Software Corporations that I've had experience of - not that I think these are specifically American or indeed software corporation traits, but in my experience that particular combination seem to bring these characteristics out oh so well.

  • Most companies ignore their ability to deliver genuine knowledge and value, opting instead to crank out sterile happytalk that insults the intelligence of markets that are becoming literally too smart to buy it.

  • Most corporations only know how to talk in the soothing, humourless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as candidly as they do.

  • Companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.

  • Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves.

  • Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what's really going on inside the company.

Over the years I have worked for several such organisations and all have had all of these annoyances (and many more), interestingly most have been really financially successful (what does that say about their markets?) These days I'm very glad to be out of "sterile happy talk" hell, I do however feel slightly hypocritical, the money I made from these essentially "stupid" companies has enabled me to recently create and fund my own software company, so, I get the chance to do it "my way"; let's hope I don't end up eating my own words, we shall see.

Should all teachers be computer literate?

I'm not sure what "computer literate" really means, I guess it could be anything from being able to use Windows, compose email, build spreadsheets to being able to understand basic programming. However I do know that many people out there (including teachers) don't make it to the first rung of the ladder when it comes to using and deriving value from the 20th centuries most prolific invention. Clearly people can be good teachers and not know a thing about computers, but it got me thinking; should all teachers be required to learn how to operate and interact with computers or, if their primary subject/specialization is not technology, then is it OK not to bother?

Whether you are "into" technology (like me) or not, its fairly obvious that in this country (i.e. UK/Europe) its almost inconceivable that someone would live their lives without interacting with a computer at some point (probably every day!); therefore, love them or loath them they have become an integral component of everyday life as much as cars, trains, books, houses, food, TV, working or football etc. It would be inconceivable to me that the topics in this list would not be discussed at school, how then can a teacher discuss/teach computers and their use if he or she is not at least computer literate to some basic level?

I know several people who are computer illiterate, there’s nothing wrong with them, they are intelligent people but I often wonder why? Is it that they don't care, don't understand, or don’t want to learn? Maybe the information technology revolution has happened so quickly that some people simply can't adapt that fast, or perhaps that some people are simply so disinterested in technology generally that the idea there is something of value there doesn't even cross their minds? I find these explanations a little hard to swallow, I just need to look at mobile phone adoption; in the space of 5 years practically everyone from 6 to 60 now has one and from a cursory glance around any public place it would seem that these complex little devices (i.e. computers) are now as essential as shoes, what's the difference?

So, why are PCs so difficult for some people to get to grips with; on reflection I think it's a problem of abstraction. Of all the people I know that do or don't work or play with technology those that seem to have the biggest problem are those that find it most difficult to work with metaphors, i.e. not "actual" things but representations of actual things; a fundamental element of "understanding" computers (or the software that people interact with) is to realize that they offer up a "dumb" virtual representation of the real world and not the real world itself - armed with this insight it is a short hop to understanding that the metaphors used are themselves limited or constrained by the creator of the software, i.e. they don't work 100% the same way as the real world. People who have trouble with metaphors generally seem to "expect" the computer to obey all the rules of the real world, i.e. "understand" and are a lost when this does not happen. Also, in my limited experience, I often find that the lack of ability to grasp abstraction often goes with a lack of attention span “I’m far too busy to fiddle around with computers”. Clearly, to understand the constraints of the metaphors used by a particular piece of software (i.e. Windows, Excel, Linux or whatever), a certain amount of engagement and learning investment is necessary, a lot of people aren't prepared to make that investment and just pick up their mobile phone and ask someone instead. I guess that's the thing with phones - no metaphor to learn (apart from the menu system maybe!), just dial and speak; instant gratification.

Now, getting back to teachers, I would assume that one of the key abilities that teachers *should* be giving to kids is the ability to think in the abstract (surely that's the basis of maths and English?), couple this with an ability to work with metaphors and you should IMO have a strong basis for using computers successfully - are teachers that claim *not* to be computer literate simply running away from their lack of ability to deal with abstraction?. Interestingly most kids I know don't have a problem with this stuff anyway, I think it’s because their understanding of the "real world" and its rules is limited by their experience to the extent that they don't have a problem with metaphors and simply "accept" new rules of interaction willingly without question. Anyway, my conclusion is that I still think any teacher should be able to address this basic need.

I wonder if some people had the same problems as this when writing was first invented or the internal combustion engine or even indoor toilets; were some teachers then still relieving themselves in the woods whilst the children learnt to flush?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

School Dinners - Tasting Notes

These notes are from a wine tasting held at my son's school on Friday 24th September 2006 (see how not to sell wine) - the vendor who hosted the tasting was selling all of the wines tasted and his prices are noted along with my thoughts and comments on the wines (scores using the "Parker" 50-100 point scale).

Vergelegen, Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, 2005, RSA £8.50 - Typical gooseberries, cut-grass kind of aromas, some cream; very dry in the mouth with some tropical fruits, reasonable finish. Reminded me of a well made NZ SB; good value for money but not something to go out of your way for. I noticed that this can be bought in Majestic for slightly less (86).

Domaine Fichet, Macon Villages, Terroir de Bergy, 2005 £7.50 - No appreciable nose to speak of, in the mouth I got resin and oak, clearly seen a lot of oak, not too bad some chardonnay fruit in there if you persist - average (84).

Errazuriz, Wild fermented Chardonnay, Chile, 2005 £9.95 - More to my taste, more Burgundian IMO, minerals with some oak, slight nose of burn rubber but not in a bad way, slightly sweet on the finish with good balance, would be happy to slurp this with the right food etc. (88)

Anekena, Ona White, Rapel Valley, Chile 2005 £8.95 - Nice chardonnay, not a huge nose some apple/melon, well balanced nice mouthfeel, some quince and slightly tropical fruits on the finish - not outstanding but a good everyday glugger (87)

Jean-Luc Mader, Gewurztraminer, 2004 £8.95 - Nice to see this in such a line up; typical GWZ, rose petals, turkish delight, good weight not too sweet nice balance and a nice finish, made a nice change to Chardonnay but I fear not liked that much by most people. Punching above it's weight I thought - but then I may have been influenced by the contrast more than the actual wine? (89)

Chofflet-Valdenaire, Givry, 1er Cru, Clos de Choue, 2003 £14.50 - Nice PN nose, cherry, animal, earth, quite high acidity but not overly intrusive, fairly light and short but pleasent enough, would be nice with food IMO (88)

Chateau les Graviers de la Brandille, Bordeaux Superior, 2003 £6.75 - Cheap Bordeaux from the incredibly hot 2003 vintage, light weight nose but got some fruit, reasonable for the price I suppose but nothing special - needs food (84)

Vicien, Malbec Reserve, Catamarca, Argentina, 2004 £6.95 - I quite like this varietal when done well, this one was reasonable, mulberry, dark fruits, earthy, quite tannic but not a strong finish, I would think this is made to be drunk straight away (86)

Domaine du Meteore, Faugeres, Les Orionides, 2005 £7.75 - Non-descript nose, got some fruit but hard to pin down, easier to pick out the Syrah and Mouvedre in the mouth, fairly typical of the L&R reds being produced now, nice, crowd pleasing and good value compared with some of the more pricey versions of this made in the S. Rhone, CNDP etc. would be nice with spagboll; (86)

Matetic, Corralillo Merlot-Malbec, San Antonio, Chile, 2003 £9.75 - Expensive for a Chilean red but fairly evident why on the nose, blockbuster hit of cassis, smoke, wood, black fruits very appealing, not so big in the mouth though quite tannic (probably improve with a few years on it), Merlot very dominant; seemed to be the most popular choice for dinner among the punters which was understandable it was certainly the most memorable wine from an "impact" point of view (88)

Kloovenburg, Shiraz, RSA, 2004 £10.75 - Again, expensive for an RSA red, not really tried many Rhone varietals from South Africa, some good ones about by all accounts but I didn't feel this was one of them, some spice on the nose but uninspiring in the mouth, quite restrained, balanced but not much on the finish, may improve but probably some better wines to be had at this price point from the N. Rhone (85)

For dinner I bought a bottle of the Vergelegen SB as we had a Thai chicken with rice - reasonable match, the wine held it's own against the spices of the dish (not that spicy). I'm tempted to make a joke about school dinners at this point, but (plastic seating aside) it was actually OK.

How not to sell wine

I attended a wine tasting organized by a local merchant on Friday (24th) unusually the venue was my sons school, apparently this is done a few times a year, this one was our first. I guess it made sense, if you can afford the school fees they figure that you'll probably be a wine drinker and probably have disposable income to blow on a case or two of vino, however I think if most of the attendees were honest they turned up to chat to other parents and teachers and to neck as much free plonk as possible (nothing wrong with that I suppose).

Being a bit of a wine-geek, I've been to a fair few commercial tastings before and whilst I wasn't expecting a "proper" tasting event per se but I think this hit a new low for me in terms of "commercial indifference" in what I would have said was a "target rich" environment. Nothing wrong with the wines, a reasonable selection 5-15 quid, clearly pitched at the casual/weekend drinker who leans towards the more "international" fruit-driven styles (supermarket stuff); and a wide selection (20 or so) were on offer, representing most of the main varietals you would find most people familiar with.

My main frustration was simply the lack of effort applied, the vendor simply pitched up put the bottles out on a long table and shouted "help yourself"; predictably most punters simply made a b-line for something familiar and filled up their glasses. Most people I spoke to were at a loss to describe or identify what it was they were drinking and only tried 3 or 4 out of the 20 on offer. I did try and speak to the guy running the event but he wasn't really up for a chat, however he did point out the empty table with a pile of order forms on it should I "find" something I liked - I didn't feel inclined to buy anything.

Another annoyance was the lack of thought that had gone into the wine placement, it was all laid out on one single table (20 bottles) even though there were plenty of other empty tables available, this lead to an almost impenetrable wall of punters just standing there right in front of the table drinking and not moving, I reckon that prevented me from tasting at least 4 or 5 of the wines as we ran out of time (daft!). The vendor did arrive late and there didn't seem to be a lot of helpers there so I can kind of understand the arrangement but even so, splitting them between red and white would have doubled throughput (and potential sales) IMO.

Clearly people do what they want to do and there's nothing wrong with that, but you would have thought that if this vendor actually wanted to flog some wine a better approach would have been to "talk" about each wine, guide people through the selection, point out the varietals, point out the producers, talk them up etc. I don't think much was sold, however you had to buy a bottle for dinner, I guess that's where they recouped some of their outlay although, with travel, time and probably a small skim from the school, I can't see how money could be made on the deal?

Anyway, not a bad evening from a social point of view, didn't win anything in the raffle but did speak to my son's new teacher for the first time and that conversation provoked a few thoughts (more on that later), mostly I drank more wine than I paid for (which is always a bonus!) - tasting notes to follow.