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Miguel de Icaza on ODF vs OOXML

Novell’s Miguel de Icaza has an important and unusual perspective on Microsoft technology. Unlike many open source advocates, he is deeply familiar with the Microsoft platform because of his work on Mono, the open source implementation of the .NET Framework. I therefore read with interest his comments on the war against Microsoft Open Office XML now being waged by the sponsors of the rival Open Document Format. 

As de Icaza observes, it is “hard to articulate” the difference between OOXML and ODF. They are XML schemas, inpenetrable to non-technical folk. Both appear to do the same thing, yet in detail they have little in common. Here’s a key comment:

The high-level comparisons so far have focused on tiny details (encoding, model used for the XML). There is nothing fundamentally better or worse in those standards like there is between XML Schema and Relax NG. ODF grew out of OpenOffice.org and is influenced by its internal design. OOXML grew out of Microsoft Office and it is influenced by its internal design. No real surprises there.

I agree. But isn’t the OOXML specification too bulky and verbose, as its opposition claims?

If Microsoft had produced 760 pages (the size of ODF) as the documentation for the “.doc”, “.xls” and “.ppt” that lacked for example the formula specification, wouldn’t people justly complain that the specification was incomplete and was useless?

Quite possibly. And I am unimpressed by the efforts of Rob Weir and others at IBM in taking pot shots at flaws in OOXML rather than being constructive in helping Microsoft transition from proprietary binary document formats to XML formats with a standardised specification.

That said, OOXML and ODF do have different aims, something which Weir does not recognize. He writes in his response to de Icaza:

OOXML, on the other hand, matches to an inane degree the internals of a single vendor’s legacy application, with no concessions to platform-neutrality.

The point Weir misses is that (as I understand it) the rationale behind OOXML is to be able to represent all the world’s immense archive of Microsoft Office documents in an XML format with a published specification and without loss of information. In that sense, its goals are less lofty than those of ODF, which wants to be the one true office document specification for the world.

That means OOXML has a huge legacy burden to carry. It also implies that much of the cruft in OOXML is not there to be used by new applications, but rather to document what has to be done to support old stuff in Office.

My background is in software development, and I’ve explored the intricacies of RTF (Rich Text Format), the non-XML specification for Word documents and pretty much what you had to use prior to OOXML. I found the documentation inadequate, too closely tied to versions of Word, and difficult to work with. OOXML is delightful in comparison. The ability to generate and consume Office documents in XML substantially benefits developer productivity.

Another benefit is in working with Office documents on the server. Ugly solutions like automating Office applications on a server in order to create or process documents are no longer necessary.

I therefore disagree that OOXML has no value.

A single Office XML format for the world would have been nice. If the ODF folk had got Microsoft on board in the early days of the specification that might have been possible, though the scenario was politically implausible. What we have instead is two formats; but at least they are both XML and therefore amenable to programmatic manipulation and conversion. I think that’s progress, though it falls short of the ideal. Furthermore, it likely would not have happened without the existence of Open Office and ODF. They have won the argument for open document formats; no need to spoil it by obstructing the standardisation process for which they fought.

 

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Intel: don’t bother us with bug reports

Intel’s production graphics driver for the 945GM chipset on Windows Vista has some bugs. I thought I should report this to Intel. Trouble is, you can’t. At least, the “Contact support” options here don’t tell you how, not unless you are signed up as an Intel reseller or partner. Nor does the general contact information page give any clues. Intel would like my pre-sales questions, or my website feedback, or any number of non-technical enquiries, but bugs? Forget it.

Can it really be that Intel gives you no way to report a bug? I dialed the support number. Note: I am now paying for this call. I explained to the support person that I wanted to report a bug in the Vista driver for the 945GM chipset. He said he was sorry, but the support line was only for Intel boxed product. Even though I had downloaded the driver from Intel’s site, my bug report should go to Toshiba.

Clearly I could report it to Toshiba – perhaps I will – but will the feedback ever thread its way back to Intel? Who knows.

By the way, I get the same bug with the slightly older driver on offer on Toshiba’s site for this laptop. Further, the same hardware is stable in Windows XP, which suggests that the problem lies with Intel’s driver, or conceivably in Vista, rather than than in the hardware.

Bottom line: there is no way for an end user to report a bug to Intel. I think that’s silly.

Update

Toshiba won’t accept the bug report either. Reason: the driver was downloaded from Intel’s site. Nor will they accept the bug report on the older driver downloaded from Toshiba. Reason: it is a US site and my machine is UK. Maybe if I would care to wait until I can download the same driver from the UK site, it might take some interest. Frustrating.

Further update

Ah, there is a way (sort-of). You go to this page, and complete the form. The only link I can find to the form is via the form for website feedback. So you complete the form, and the bot emails you a bunch of links to articles. At the bottom of the email is an “escalate” button which claims to “escalate your question to a technical support representative.” I’ll keep you posted…

 

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New Order’s fantastic 12″ singles

If you have the tiniest shred of affection for old-fashioned vinyl records, you have to love the 12″ singles created by New Order in the 80s. They have Peter Saville’s beautiful, minimalist designs, they sound superb, and the songs themselves still pack a punch. Yesterday I played Blue Monday followed by both versions of Ceremony … stunning. I don’t believe that vinyl has any magic properties; yet I have never heard CDs that sound as good.

 

System impact of Outlook 2007

Back in November I blogged about the slow performance of Outlook 2007 (the comments are worth reading too), following up with another post about how it seemed to slow down the whole system.

I’ve now got more evidence of this:

Note that this is on Vista, which has proved substantially better for Outlook 2007 than XP. You might think there is nothing very exceptional about Outlook.exe grabbing nearly 40% of the CPU time, but consider the context:

I took this screenshot while troubleshooting another problem. Interesting point: I had not opened Outlook since the last reboot. Msconfig does not show it as a startup app either. Maybe this is some Office pre-loading trickery; or more likely it has been started by Vista’s desktop search engine. Yet this is meant not to interfere with your work.

RSS sync in Outlook is turned off.

Outlook isn’t grabbing this CPU all the time, but in regular brief bursts.

I’d like to know what it is doing.

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XNA up and running

My install of XNA on Vista is up and running; here is the demo game I did for PCW Hands On:

In this exciting game, the magazine logo swings back and forth. Your task is to hammer the space bar at exactly the moment the logo is over the up arrow. Your score varies from 0 to 20 depending on how close the logo is to the up arrow.

Before you laugh uncontrollably at this hopelessly crude example, listen to my apologia. I set out to write a short printed article that showed how to create a working game in XNA. The XNA install comes with an example game called Spacewar, but even spacewar is too long and complex for a short article. My example has all the code in one file, the Game1.cs which is created by the project wizard. It is a real game, with a moving sprite, keyboard handler and scoring mechanism. The idea is that once you grasp how Stop the Logo works, you can easily move on to greater things.

The simplicity was a little spoilt by a silly problem: displaying the help text and score. There is no easy way in XNA to write text to the screen; at least, there wasn’t in the beta, and on a quick look there isn’t in the final release either. I used Gary Kacmarcik’s BitmapFont class; I notice he has posted some more resources since the beta so check out his blog.

 

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Why CDs sound bad

Andrew Turnbull has done a nicely illustrated post on why today’s CDs often sound worse than those from 15 years ago. The problem is that most pop/rock CDs are engineered to sound loud at the expense of the natural dynamics of the music.

The hi-fi industry has wasted an enormous amount of effort on DVDA and SACD instead of fixing this more fundamental problem which spoils our enjoyment of music.

There is some discussion of the problem here as well as in other posts on Steve Hoffman’s forum, including this thread which I started.

Depressing.

The Rickie Lee Jones MP3 store

I’ve just come across the Rickie Lee Jones MP3 store. Rickie Lee Jones is the singer/songwriter who brought us the sexy, sublime Chuck E’s in Love back in 1979. Now she’s the biggest artist on sale at Great Big Island, where you can buy both CDs and MP3s. The percentages are not stated, but it seems that the musicians get a much larger slice of the profits that they would from iTunes or other legal download sites.

I like the idea, especially as there is no troublesome DRM to contend with. However I would much prefer files without the lossy compression of MP3, especially since these are a barely adequate 128K. Robert Fripp’s download store can do it; why not Great Big Island?

 

Songs that are just about perfect

I feel another list coming on. This is for songs that have a quality of completeness, such that it is hard to imagine how they could be improved.

  1. The Cranberries – Linger. Best in the studio version as Dolores O’Riordan can’t resist getting the audience to sing along in concert.
  2. Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone. Perhaps the definitive Dylan song. I like it because he appears to be singing about someone else, yet you cannot shake off the suspicion that he is singing about himself.
  3. Patti Smith – Because the night. Some songs you only need to hear once; you know immediately it is for the ages.
  4. Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding. A very sad song, sung in a very sad voice. A parallel to Because the Night in a way, because it was a song borrowed from another singer/songwriter.
  5. David Bowie – Heroes. A build-up song, that ends with Bowie screaming. Seems to capture something about hope in despair.
  6. Jimi Hendrix – All along the Watchtower. Another borrowed song, that so much caught the essence of the song that Dylan started singing it almost the same way. I love the non-ending: “Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.” And then what?
  7. Joan Baez – Diamonds and Rust. Presumed to be about Dylan. “My poetry was lousy you said,” who else could it be? Wrecked by Joan in concert in later years, when she ends with “I’ll take the diamonds.”
  8. New Order – Blue Monday. A disappointing band that never lived up to its promise; yet came out with some superlative singles of which this is the best.
  9. Richard Thompson – 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. A song about death. 
  10. Stephen Sondheim – Send in the clowns. How do you write about perfection?

The top ten albums, ever. Period.

Everyone loves lists, apparently. So here goes. By the way, I don’t believe in top ten lists. Subjective, subjective, subjective, plus dependent on which way the wind is blowing. And yes, they are of a certain era. Feel free to ignore this post.

Quadrophenia by The Who
There’s something about going down to Brighton and railing at the sea; I can’t get enough.

Late for the sky by Jackson Browne
I used to play this in the car and cry my eyes out. Still a sad and beautiful work.

Station to Station by David Bowie
Pure paranoid beauty, swirling Slick guitar and electronic noises, from Bowie’s Golden Years.

Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan
At the time, everyone said that Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands was no match for Desolation Row; yet I find it intoxicating. Another favourite is Visions of Johanna; and not forgetting Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.

This Year’s Model by Elvis Costello
My introduction to EC was when John Peel made Less than Zero his big single of the week. A couple of years later I had the privilege of seeing EC and the Attractions in full flow on the This Year’s Model tour: it really was “Pump it up, until you can feel it”. Sublime combination of primal energy and cerebral wit.

Layla by Derek and the Dominoes
It’s the guitar, and the emotion, and the fine songs; the tradition and the moment; sweet and sour; immaculate.

Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention
I’m struggling here, as two of my self-imposed rules for this list are first, no compilations, and second, no more than one for each artist. So I’m looking for a Fairport album with Meet on the Ledge, Who knows where the time goes, and Matty Groves. There are several live albums that would fit; but it’s the early studio albums I go back to most often, so I’m picking Liege and Lief; after all, how could I omit Crazy Man Michael?

The Four Seasons by Vivaldi; Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
I gather this is a remarkably non-authentic rendition of Vivaldi’s played-to-death masterpiece; yet it has a certain magic and drama that I rarely find elsewhere.

Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon
According to the All Music Guide that this was a “commercial disaster”; I don’t know why because it’s my favourite of Simon’s works, maybe a bit twee in places, but it resonates with me because I think too much and agree with him about cars.

On the Beach by Neil Young
I started on the beach and that’s where I’ll finish.

Is that it? What a dull list. How conventional. How introspective. Why nothing by John Lennon, or King Crimson, or R.E.M., or Talking Heads, or The Cure, or Tom Waits, or Velvet Underground? Can’t answer that; but perhaps I’ll do another list tomorrow.