Tag Archives: microsoft

Bing: now in a can!

Too good for just my Facebook friends to know about, this is one of the lesser known perks of working at Microsoft:

Why use Google when the soda locker down the hall is full of these things? Does it quench your thirst? Hell no it doesn’t. But this will.

Bing in a can!

Bing in a can!

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WMP12: Don’t Bother

I like Windows 7. It’s got all the things I liked about Vista (Aero Glass, cleaner-looking user directory structure, better support for multiple network interfaces, more text labels and fewer incomprehensible icons, to start) and it’s got the Dock from Mac OS X. ;) So it stood to reason that the Media Player that comes with Windows 7, namely, Windows Media Player 12, might be worth another look.

I’ve tried to use Windows Media Player a few times before. I think the last time was when WMP10 came out, back when I was still running XP.  It was ugly, glitchy, and liked to freeze for long periods of time for no reason, especially when network shares were involved or the library was much above 20 GB. Once in a while, it would eat its own database and refuse to show anything until I nuked the library database files on disk and reimported everything. Not so good.

Normally, I’d use iTunes, but over the past couple of releases it’s been hard not to notice that Apple is a lot worse at writing Windows software than Microsoft is at writing Mac software. I’ve experienced redraw glitches, funky-looking (i.e. not ClearType) text rendering, general sluggishness, and an inability to turn off annoying things like those go-to-the-iTunes-store arrows which can be taken care of with a preferences editor on the Mac. Also, my iPod 4G finally died. RIP Inductive Satanograph 2004-2009. You’re syncing and charging over FireWire with the angels now… *sniff*

A lot of people use WinAmp, but the UI is like a cheesegrater being rubbed across my corneas. It’s one step above a Taiwanese OEM’s overclocking utility. There are things with command-line interfaces that are prettier and more usable than WinAmp. It’s skinnable, so theoretically there could be a skin out there that fixes this problem, but so far every 3rd-party skin I’ve seen has been worse than the default.

So. WMP12. Been using it for a few weeks now. Turns out it has problems. Big ones.

Tag Support

Surprisingly, WMP12 supports MPEG-4 tags better than MP3 tags. I’m not aware of any published standard for MPEG-4 tags. Tools like AtomicParsley and Mutagen appear to have been built based on inspection of iTunes-tagged files. WMP12 had no problem reading my collection of MPEG-4 AAC music, album art and all (except for the problems it has with all album art, which I discuss below.)

However, it doesn’t support ID3 v2.4 tags on MP3s at all. The word from the WMP team at work is that this is intended behavior, because v2.4 isn’t widely supported. Umm… The standard’s been out for nine years, guys. You should at least be able to read them even if you don’t write them. Why not ask the Xbox 360 team for some code? The 360’s media player can read them. I don’t know if it supports fancy features like replay gain frames (RVA2) but at least it gets title, album. and artist right.

This is not an insurmountable obstacle; downgrading from v2.4 to v2.3 doesn’t cause any problems in my music library. I ended up writing my own Python utility for reading and writing v2.3 tags, because Mutagen won’t write anything except v2.4, and after downgrading (and cleaning up a few screwed-up files with a hex editor), metadata started appearing in WMP12.

Metadata

Unfortunately, WMP12 doesn’t seem to support the ID3 TPOS frame or whatever the MPEG-4 equivalent is. This is the disc number field in iTunes, the one that lets you specify where a track belongs in a multi-disc set. It’s listed as known by the Windows Media Format SDK, but there’s no way to display it in WMP12, and it doesn’t affect sort ordering, so it might as well not exist. Without it, all the tracks on a multi-disc set get zippered together, sorted by track number and then alphabetically:

multidisc_set

On top of that, the Advanced Tag Editor is gone, and the Edit context menu option seems to be broken for some data types: I can’t clear a wrong release year, for example. On hitting Return, it snaps back to the previous value.

Album art

I have nice high-quality album art from Amazon, Discogs, iTMS, or the web embedded in almost all of my music files. WMP12 finds it, creates a tiny little downscaled copy, and uses that for album art display instead of the full-resolution stuff in the music file. Then it poops invisible JPEG versions all over the library folder structure (Folder.jpg, AlbumArtSmall.jpg, and friends.) There was a workaround for earlier versions, but it’s gone now. Look at this Now Playing window. Doesn’t the artwork look lonely? And blurry?

tiny_album_art

Glitches

Every so often, I’ll start WMP12 on my home machine and it’ll go through the entire library and make two entries for each track. They’re pointing to the same file location, so nothing’s being copied, but everything is listed twice. This is infuriating. Sometimes it goes away if I relaunch WMP12. Sometimes it doesn’t. It goes away if I delete the library databases in %LOCALAPPDATA%\Microsoft\Media Player, but it can come back just as easily. Possibly related is that Last.fm’s scrobbler has stopped scrobbling tracks played in WMP12.

Neither of these glitches happen on my computer at work, and the only difference I’ve noted so far is that the Music library at home includes a folder on an external hard drive (which is always plugged in), while the Music library at work only includes the My Music folder. Don’t know what’s going on here.

Conclusions

Man, they’re not even trying any more. Time to reinstall iTunes.

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I’m not dead, I got a job

When I was working at JPL for the summer a few years ago, we were doing some very cool stuff that I still think will be crucial to the eventual rise of the machines, but our efforts were greatly impeded by the nature of government operations. For example, most of the lab’s computers were on three-year rental contracts from a subsidiary of some defense contractor. We weren’t allowed to replace or even upgrade them. I was lucky enough to have my own workstation, and unlucky in that it was a real dark ages UltraSPARC running Solaris, frequently got tapped to run processor-intensive SPICE jobs for other researchers, and on top of that, was the lab’s web server. The other summer researchers weren’t as lucky. There were two or three modern computers which had to be shared among them, and the only reason the lab were able to get them at all is that some bright fellow worked out that he could get around the computer supply contract if he billed computer purchases as “miscellaneous electronic equipment”.

So, screw academia. I’m now living in Seattle and working for Microsoft on Office SharePoint Designer 2010. I’ve been working on improvements to SharePoint workflows, which are long-running, event-driven background processes. The canonical example is approval of an expense report: an approval workflow can automatically trigger when someone uploads an Excel spreadsheet to a SharePoint document library for expense reports, fish around inside for the total, and process it and mark it as approved in the document library if the total is less than $500, or hand it off to the uploader’s manager for manual approval if the total is $500 or more, and send them a reminder email. The workflow authoring component of SharePoint Designer (aka SPD) is aimed at nontechnical users and is actually strongly reminiscent of the trigger editor from StarEdit, so if you’ve ever made a scripted Starcraft map, you’ll be able to fire up a copy of SPD and snap together your first workflow in about ten minutes. (Actions for recharging your shields or setting your department’s mineral count are not yet included.)

I did an internship with the SharePoint Designer team last summer, when I was trying to decide whether to stay in academia and start planning for grad school, or get out and give industry a try, and I liked it so much that when the team offered me a job at the end of the summer, I jumped on it. My development machines are powered by electricity instead of whale oil, there’s free soda down the hall, and people actually use our product. Exciting times, these.

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