Monday, February 18, 2008

HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray

All of the news on this front, since the beginning of the year, have been relentlessly bleak for HD-DVD in this format war. It all started when Blu-Ray managed to tip Warner Bros. from "neutral" to Blu-Ray-Only. HD-DVD began to lose retailer support and it would appear the loss of Wal-Mart -- the same people who got a bunch of people in on HD-DVD just 2 months ago -- over the weekend might be the last straw for HD-DVD.

Like in "regular" war, this outcome was not foreordained. In fact, when this whole thing started, it looked as if HD-DVD's to lose. HD-DVD had a six month head start...an unbelievable advantage. Which they promptly squandered. Rather than go for maximum market penetration, thereby strangling Blu-Ray in the crib, it dicked around trying to squeeze early adopters with $800 players. For which there was no software.

This approach immediately failed to light up the general population.

Blu-Ray followed suit a half year later, and similarly failed to get the population worked up, but the point was that HD-DVD had frittered away its lead. Blu-Ray should have been dead with tire marks upon its carcass and instead it was no worse than even with HD-DVD. The perception was that HD-DVD was losing.

At that point, HD-DVD was on its heels the rest of the way. Given some of the details of the formats, HD-DVD needed to win (and easily could have) with an early knockout. The studios which were noncommittal to either format noticed that Blu-Ray was a lot more studio-friendly (and, it must be said, far less viewer-friendly) in terms of regional coding (HD-DVD has none) and other "protection" schemes which the suits (the same ones who brought us the WGA strike) fetishize so dearly.

By Christmas 2007, somebody with an MBA over at Toshiba (HD-DVD's main hardware proponent) managed to get someone to listen and Toshiba started blowing out HD-DVD players at $99, with free discs thrown in. But as is likely turns out, it was too little. Had Toshiba done something similar for Christmas 2006, or better yet, started off selling an HD-DVD player that topped out at, say, $250 instead of $800 they would be in an infinitely better position, instead of about to write off hundreds of millions of dollars. The "loss" of a few million upfront in saturating the market would have been recouped many times over by January 2009. Microsoft didn't help by not making HD-DVD a standard part of the XBox, like Sony did with the PS3.

It also didn't help that HD-DVD advertising was nonexistent. Those blowout prices on HD-DVD players were strictly conveyed by the grapevine.

Another part of the blame goes to the studios on the HD-DVD side, who could have really committed themselves and tipped the balance. Had the Harry Potter series been released, or had Dreamworks produced a box set (all the Shrek films, say) at the same time as those Christmas blowouts, it could well have made a huge difference. You'll notice that neither side has produced gobs of "must have" content.

You'll note I haven't bothered with the technical specs of one format vs. the other. Frankly, these don't matter and are strictly the province of fanboys. Normal people don't really care. Seeing films available in both formats in an A-B comparison way on my equipment didn't really reveal much of anything. Whatever the specifications the results were not noticeable with even high end-ish gear like mine. In usability, HD-DVD beat Blu-Ray, with features like PIP menus and so forth.

But here's the dirty little secret that neither camp would have wanted you to know: Most movies don't look that much better in HD-DVD or Blu-Ray vs. an upconverted DVD. I compared Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and upconverted DVD and the HD formats looked s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y better. Slightly, with a Capital Slight. It really was nothing to write home about. The only times when the two HD formats looked better than upconverted DVDs were either shot-to-HD stuff (lots of Travel and Nature stuff, mostly) or CGI animated films like Ratatouille or Shrek the Third. Those films have visual qualities worth each and every superlative Roget stuck in his thesaurus.

Music & Lyrics or 300? Not so much.

The inherent limitations of the source (i.e. shot-on-film) really are not transcended by the HD formats. The upconverted DVDs are a tiny bit softer with a trace more artifacts. But that's it. Unless my math is flawed, the number of those CGI films currently out on HD formats is maybe 4 or 5, hardly a clarion call. Seeing how a grand total of two million players (combined!) of both HD-DVD & Blu-Ray have been sold in comparison to eleventy gazillion DVD players, the question is becoming not so much whether the winner will succeed DVD, but rather whether the winner will succeed LaserDisc.

What this format war reminds me of is two men fighting to the death for the love of a woman who, when all is said and done, decides she doesn't like men after all. Soon to follow will be HD downloads or some combination of PPV/record thing in HD. And, with the number of hackers running around, just wait until someone figures out a way to convert Blu-Ray or HD-DVD to a HD-WMV file for easy downloading/uploading.

-J.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hearts and Flowers

Today, of course, is St. Valentine's Day. All else being equal, of course, this is a C-Level Gift day. Now, for those of you who are new here might not be aware of how I categorize -- authoritatively, mind you -- these things.

A-Level Gift days are the BIG Birthdays and Anniversaries. Those divisible by 5, 10, or 25; the latter being the most A-Levelish of all. After all, you don't see many people making a huge fuss over their 42nd birthday.

The B-Level Gift days are "regular" Birthdays and Anniversaries, and Christmas (or, for the Jewish kids, Chanukah) and the C-Level Gift days are as above.

One buys one's beloved a lovely bauble, and ideally a lovely meal is shared and affection and sunshine and lollipops and blooming and Cupid slinging his arrows. Tra-la-la.

Naturally, this means that one must dance attendance. Since we have drained the bottle of babysitting privilege to its lees, this precludes our going out for an overpriced dine-and-dash on the most crowded night of the year. In lieu of that, I'm going all out on the dinner fixin's at home. This is a good and wise thing since TFBIM is still working brutal hours and she is having a Day Two kind of day. Ahem.

So I'm going with lobstah and champagne and chocolate (not together, relax).

Normally, by the way, I suggest Japanese food for St. Valentine's Day as it's clean and light and it doesn't weigh you down should the evening proceed into more, er, strenuous pursuits.

Anyway, here's the plan:

Seared Scallops with Beurre Blanc*
Steamed Florida Lobstah with Saffron Aioli**
Amaretto Chocolate Mousse***

-J.

*4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons dry white wine
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
Salt and white pepper, to taste
1 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into TINY pieces

In a saucepan combine vinegar, wine, shallots, salt and white pepper and bring to a simmer.
Gently simmer liquid until reduced to syrup. Off-heat whisk in 1 tsp. of chilled butter. As the butter is incorporated into the liquid add another piece and continue to swirl or whisk. Put the pan back over the lowest heat and -- don't stop whisking! -- add the bits of butter one at a time.


When all of the butter has been added remove from heat. Sauce will be thick and creamy. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve immediately. (You can hold it in a Thermos for a while, but you're running a chance.)

** 5 cloves garlic (what?) MAKE SURE it's fresh and firm.
Salt
White pepper
1 pinch saffron threads
1 egg yolk, room temperature (if you are even remotely worried about salmonella, etc., skip this recipe)
1 cup EVOO
1/2 lemon, juiced
Pinch ground red pepper

In food processor or blender (I prefer blender), puree garlic. add salt and pepper and then the saffron and egg yolks. With blades running, S-L-O-W-L-Y add the olive oil in a thin steady stream. Add the lemon juice and red pepper and taste for seasoning.

*** 3.5oz dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) ideally in "chips"
10oz heavy ("double") cream
2 tbsp Amaretto (or espresso)
1 egg white
3-4 tbsp. sugar
handful of amaretti cookies or chocolate shavings, to garnish

In a small saucepan, heat half the cream until it starts to bubble around the edges. Take it off heat, add the chocolate and stir until the chocolate has melted smoothly. Pour into a bowl resting over ice. Add the rest of the cream and Amaretto. Whisk to soft peaks.

Meanwhile, whisk (clean the whisk, OK?) the egg white until the soft peak stage. Add the sugar in a stream and continue whisking until you have peaks that are firm and glossy. Fold the meringue and the chocolate/cream CAREFULLY (you don't want to pop all the bubbles). Serve in chilled martini or margarita glasses.

Place the amaretti into a bowl and lightly crush with the tip of a rolling pin. Sprinkle over the chocolate mousse and garnish. Serve immediately or chill for up to two days.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bubbly and Sparkly and St. Valentine-ish

Just in time for St. Valentine's Day, the good folk at Vinapedia.net have posted my review of assorted Champagnes (and derivatives).

Go ovah theah and click thereon. (The more clickage the more excellent wines I get for free.)

Thanks.

-The Management

Monday, February 11, 2008

Coming to the rescue.

Our pal Mattis hath posted on the matter of a gentleman's shave. Setting aside the fact that his latest public purchase is essentially a half-scale model of the most lethal vibrator yet devised, it seems the lad -- I freely call him "lad" on the strength of my being a few months older -- ought be schooled in the fine art of getting stubble the Hell off your face. He'll be pleased to know that I won't be running off on a tangent related to my usage of the straight razor, since he is in California and someone residing where "the Richter scale" is everyday terminology shouldn't consider such a thing unless the risk of winding up with your head on your lap adds a certain frisson to your life.

If you cruise the more gentlemanly blogs, you are bound to find one or two that offer good suggestions for proper gentleman's shavery, including a suggested shavekit. Aye, 'tis a good kit, too. So, in the interest of variety and all that, here's my everyday rig, although you new kids would do better to stick to bigger name's suggestion, since he is a Professional. Anyway, here's mine:

Gillette Adjustable DE safety razor. Contrary to popular opinion, I far prefer the slim handle, with the year codes I through N. The loss of heft is more than compensated by the added maneuverability. You should also find what setting works with your choice of blades and quit futzing with it. With the blades listed below, I am at #6. Special bonus? You can pick up new-in-box examples at eBay for chump change.

Israeli Personna “Super+” (aka “no-name”) DE razor blades. These truly kick arse, at a ridiculous price. You can also score them on eBay for a (yes!) slightly better price.

Vulfix #2234 badger shaving brush I even got it to match my scuttle. I can get my geek on just as impressively as anyone else, sue me.

Proraso shaving cream The fact it's insanely cheap and readily available at Target stores (although this may be slowly disappearing) is merely a fringe benefit. This cream shaves as good as anything else out there AND the mentholated cooling thing when you rinse is so-o-o-o-o-o go-o-o-o-o-o-od. All this goodness for $6. S-I-X. It also gets my Italophile side squirming with pleasure. Almost as good are Musgo Real and Bigelow's #168.

The Moss Scuttle While not strictly necessary--you can get a lather going on the palm of your hand if you had to--I sure as Hell wouldn't wanna shave without it ever again

Alum block Because you will start out by nicking yourself. Just live with it and use the alum. Pinaud's styptic pencil is also pretty good.

Now, I'm pretty metro-neutral on the moisturizing aftershave. My skin manages to issue so much in the way of lipids that it's never been an issue so far. Those who opine on these things are probably right in liking Trumper, so go with that, or Truefitt & Hill's Ultimate Comfort, if you want something unscented.

Okay. Now go knock that 5 o'clock shadow off.

-J.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Steal this wine.

If you inflict yourself with superfluous wine publications, you will be (at least dimly) aware the 2005 Bordeaux has been touted as the "Vintage of the Century!" Setting aside such logic gyrations needed to say this only 5 years into the century, and also setting aside the fact we normally hear "Vintage of the Century!" twice a decade, this chant -- which has reached even our ears at the penthouse of Vinapedia Tower -- can be decoded as meaning "these wines are probably pretty good."

But, let's look at things a bit more carefully. What do we mean when we say "Vintage of the Century!"? My interpretation is that during said vintages, even the vintners who normally make pretty good wines stand an excellent chance of making spectacular, epoch-shattering stuff. The guys who are just a furlong down the road from the Big Names and have keen, sharp winemakers who mightn't have the resources, year-in and year-out to make monumental wines.
For these guys, who have to maximize whatever opportunity they get to make the world sit up and take notice, 2005 was such a year. The weather cooperated, the wine makers were in a benevolent mood, the harvesters were pleased with their daily rations of Gitanes and Gauloises and all went well. Thus, 2005 wins Vinapedia's award for Vintage of the Century of the Year.

Having our antennae now keenly attuned to the added excellentness Ma Nature chose to heap upon wines of that time and place, we waited for the opportunity to cadge some freebie tastings. Sure enough, Aloha Tom, flush with glee at his new Reyn Spooner shirts and Panama hat to cover his greying bald spot and focus attention to his greying beard and ponytail instead gave the signal: Aloha Tom's Wine Hut would be having a tasting of selected 2005s. These wines have begun to arrive and/or will be arriving shortly. I didn't ask which were which, because a man who goes around wearing shirts emblazoned with flourescent tropical produce is clearly fearless and therefore capable of anything when riled.

I must say that when you taste wines that are supposed to be Big Important Reds when they are young, you must use your imagination. These wines are not, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, ready to drink. They need rest. Repose. Lots of it. So you must think of what it'd be like to taste this wine after it has had time to calm down and take a shower and learn some manners. Like in the case of goverment statistics based on "seasonally adjusted data" there is some very educated guesswork at play. The better the wine, the less "guessy" the opinions.

Anyway. The tasting. I must admit that Aloha Tom, resplendent in his shirt adorned with stylized kiwi and passion fruit, selected his wines very well. Either that or he put out what he was sent and got very, very lucky. I went around and purposefully avoided looking at labels or prices. I avoided the edibles. All of the wines were wines I could see being spectacular with cellaring, and I was eager to find something for me to latch on.

(When I was but a mere lad of 18 -- those being the days when the drinking age coincided with the age at which one could bear arms for one's country or help elect its representatives -- I managed to score some 1982 Ch. Pontet Canet. It took my little all, but I bought a case, and the wisdom of that youthful choice beams back at me as I stand on the threshhold of respectable middle age.)

So I know what I'm after and I'm pleased to report I have found it.

Most of those wines start in at $75 per bottle and shoot skyward from there. Which is a pity, really. At the end of the night I reviewed my notes and I saw that my favorite wine, which I preferred by only the very slimmest, most translucent of margins to my second favorite, cost $270 per bottle. (Ch. Leoville Las Cases, in case you're stumped for gifts) Most of my other favorites frolicked and gamboled merrily in the $200-$350 per bottle range. But...what about that second favorite?

That, friends, is but a piddly $30. Three-zero. Thirty. Roll it over in your mind and let it fall trippingly off your tongue. Three Hamiltons. You simply MUST steal this wine and, while you're at it, steal a cubic truckload of it. It's the 2005 Clos l'Eglise Cotes de Castillon. Normally I'd hush it up, but I already got mine.

At some places you can get it for the "futures" price and even if you can't, you're only staring at $30/bottle, which is closer to "free" than its real worth. I have no higher praise for a wine than this: I bought, with my very own cash, two cases of it. None of this "Charge it to Vinapedia, Tom! and aloha to you and Mrs. Tom!" stuff. Out of my own pocket.

This wine, even it it remains a relative bargain to the other 2005s, will only go up in price. (The other 2005 Bordeaux's prices will certainly hit nosebleed altitudes pretty soon.) So get it now. As in, pause from your daily grind and order a case now.

Also, make sure you get the right one which is not the one in Pomerol (that one has a price tag to make your eyes water freely).

Here are my notes, verbatim: Pure ruby [color]. Complex and lively aroma. Cherry, raspberry and a little anise. Hint [of] minerals. Has a ripe sweetness, with a fruity sort of lushness. Elegant acidity and strong tannic presence for amazing balance. That earthy-mineral thing is pleasantly noticeable. Long finish. Very suave, subtle and long on the finish. I'd say this can only improve in the cellar, and I'd even say it can handle 15-25 years, though I might be tempted in 10 to check its progress.

Now, at this point the less attentive in the audience might start to whoop and holler about my previous railings against Big Red Wines. Which is wrong. I rail against wines that seek fame and fortune based on fat scores, not from hewing close to the varietal and geographical characteristics of a given wine, but borne of imitating other giga-point wines. This wine is very true to the Bodeaux character, not the Bordeaux caricatute. It is sublime and I'd give it 6 spades if Vinapedia.net would allow me.

-J.