Friday, June 15, 2018

Do You Need a DAC?

Do you need a digital to analog converter (DAC) for your system?

If you can hear the flaws in your digital audio, then yes, get a DAC.

If you can't hear the flaws in your audio, or you are otherwise happy, then you are unlikely to appreciate the gains from a DAC. If you feel like buying something, improve your speakers/headphones first and your source second. These give you the best bang for your buck. If you still can't hear the flaws or you're still happy, then enjoy your happiness. Yay, happiness.

In trying to understand DACs better, I found that most places that explain DACs on the internet lean in the audiophile or sales direction. They present arguments on why you should want an external DAC, along with testimonials. Keep that in mind when reading the articles. They are sales driven.

Tom's Hardware did a piece on external DACs, and they were unable to hear a difference between a $2 chipset and a $2,000 chipset using a blind test. While a better DAC may help, it's not necessarily the panacea that the sellers make it out to be.

I use a headphone amp at work, not for its sound quality, but because it has a convenient volume knob for when I'm listening. I like the physical volume knob for making find adjustments to sound. I find that far more intuitive.

Some headphones do work better with stronger amps, so matching them up with an external amp makes sense, and external DACs usually have amps, so that's a win.

The one thing to not expect is MAGIC. Don't set yourself up for "totally awesome, completely changed the sound." That's hyperbole. You don't need more than that.

Improving sound always begin with the speakers/headphones, moves onto the source, and then to the amp. If DACs can provide an improved experience, it's more in the area of refinement than gross improvement. Generally, by the time that you start using a DAC, you're in the area of diminishing returns.

Cheap DACs are likely to use the same sorts of chipsets that you find in PCs and other consumer electronics. In practice, you'll likely get the same level of quality that you started with.

In addition to external DACs, PCs can take internal sound cards. One of those might be a better choice than an external unit, depending on your considerations.

So, as with all things audio, buyer beware, and shop to make yourself happy.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Fires of Azeroth (1979)

The Fires of Azeroth (1979) by C. J. Cherryh picks up where the previous book left off, bringing us to a new world all the trouble hitting the fan in the last book, with Morgaine and Vayne slogging through it once again.

Functionally, the book is about on par with the previous title, coming in at the same level of quality, tone, and readability, making it quite the competent third work. The parts that flow well work, and the ones that don't, or feel confusing, still feel confusing. Battles especially feel confusing. The fantasy feels archaic compared to today's writing, still mostly sword and sorcery, but also taking slow steps away from the genre while dwelling in it, towards a something else, but what that something else might be is not yet apparent.

While Cherryh's world building has not improved, her situation building has, with the situation here increasing in complexity over the other two books. Villains get a little less villainish while heroes grow a little less heroic. Perspective means that heroism and villainy depend on who you talk to. The very fact that Morgaine carries Changeling places her firmly into the indeterminate category, with allies and enemies created filtered entirely through her own agenda.

If you liked her previous work, this is worth a read. If you are new to the series, this book is a poor place to begin. While some back story gets explained, there's not enough there to give the situation any weight.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Room: Old Sins (2018)

The Room: Old Sins (2018) continues the excellent series, as the developers push their puzzle solving game even further in the direction of the traditional adventure game. You explore one house, with interconnected parts, meaning interconnected puzzles, using all the mechanics that you've come to know.

I played on an aging iPad. The tablet heated up, eating up battery life quickly, but I had no performance issues or stuttering.

Some puzzles are hard, others obscure, but few are truly curse worthy or utterly random. The rooms are filled with hints and clues, logical associations, and predictable mechanism. In much of this games, you can see what needs to be done and predict what will be needed. The connections are there, and I think that's what helps the puzzles in this game flow so smoothly. There's enough simple puzzles, existing all that the same time, that keeping track of them created complexity.

The puzzles are all entirely contained in a doll house, a nice way of creating an overview, preventing any sense of deus ex machina. The puzzle is all there for you to see, from the beginning, giving you an idea of how much there is, and how much there is left to go.

I found the ending a bit lackluster, but I also approved. They declined the temptation to give us one last, super-hard, super-challenging puzzle as a finale, instead trusting that the game itself would provide that satisfaction. They were right. The ending focused more on concluding the story than challenging the player, improving the feeling of resolution.

Once again, I enjoyed my stay in The Room and look forward to more. My daughter noticed that a house at the end looked more modern, and I hope that this is a glimpse of games to come. Moving out of the faux Edwardian period opens many interesting design possibilities.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Would the Real Audiophiles Please Stand Up?

What is an audiophile? That question may seem pretty easy to answer, but like all definitions, the answer depends on who you talk to. lists the following definition:
Audiophile: a person who is especially interested in high-fidelity sound reproduction.
Useful, but that lacks all cultural context.

Translated from Latin, audiophile means 'a lover of sound.' In a more practical sense, an audiophile is someone whose interest lies in sound reproduction and equipment that's involved in sound reproduction. Audiophilia appears to be one part hobby and one part avocation. Many people love good music, and they love having equipment that plays their music, but that love of music and music reproduction isn't enough to admit them into the highest end of music reproduction, who are the audiophiles.

Who gets to call themselves an audiophile? Certainly the people who go out and buy thousands of dollars worth of equipment are audiophiles, and they have the receipts to prove it. If we assume that purchase price is the determinant of a true audiophile, then where is that price point? And does merely buying something at that price point make the purchaser an audiophile, or is something more needed?

Some of the confusion can be removed by looking at another word.
Hobby: an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.
As has been pointed out by almost every expert audiophile giving lecturing that I've seen, their opinion is that audiophilia is a hobby and is best treated as such. The ultimate goal of the hobby is the enjoyment of an experience. The important point about hobbies is that hobbies are self-declared interests. They are pursuits of individuals. There are no true gate keepers to hobbies, only other hobbyists.

Because hobbies are self-declared, a hobby is always pursued to the interest and degree of the hobbyist. There's no such thing as a "real" hobbyist. A hobby is a hobby. Specifically, a hobbyist pursues their hobby:
  • To their means
  • To their interest
  • To their situation
  • To their ability
  • To their pleasure
We cannot use money to define an audiophile. Few audiophiles have the means to have the best equipment, but that lack of the best doesn't mean a lack of love. If anything, using money as a metric creates a gatekeeper which shuts out newcomers to the hobby. Here, the hobby has it wrong. Rather than embrace the new and eager participants, who are participating as they can, the hobby looks down its well curated noses at the bratty kids or the ill informed newbie. In their expertise, they write off the newcomer without hesitation because the newcomer does it wrong.

Audiophiles have varied musical interests. Each form of music responds interacts with equipment differently. You might not like the booming bass coming from the car behind you, but for the owner of that car, that multi-thousand dollar sound system is his audiophile baby. That boom is on purpose. What to you is bad music may be good music to them. However, their love of sound is the same. Their musical interests inform the expression of their hobby.

In the same vein, audiophiles live in varied situation. Some have houses with dedicated listening rooms, but most don't. Some live in dorm rooms, or with roommates. Some listen in the car, while others listen in shared environments. Their equipment choices are not the same because their equipment choices cannot be the same as someone who listens at home. Enforcing only one type of listening as true audiophilia is a conceit that keeps others out.

At the present time, and in every presentation that I listen to on the audiophile hobby, the presenters are well aware that their hobby appears to be shrinking and growing grayer. Audiophiles aren't getting new blood into the hobby. I think that view is blinded by the past, by looking at the whole hobby through the lens of their own interest. I think that the audiophile hobby is a vibrant as ever, but that the focus of the newest hobbyists has changed.

Much of older audiophilia derives from the 60's through the 80's, where having a good stereo got you social cred among your peers. You had a great sound system that won you social validation. On the flip side, the general quality of consumer level equipment back then was flat out terrible, so any improvement in equipment yielded fantastic results. Just as important, technology was moving fast, and a year of development could deliver quality improvements to the listening experience. Paying top dollar was the only way to get a great experience.

Fast forward to today, and young folks are experiencing their music on headphones attached to smartphones. Where and when these listeners experience their music is different than how the older generation listened. Given their plethora of headphone choices, from cheap to expensive, we must conclude that there is some degree of audiophilia at work. This next generation does care, but their focus has moved away from pure reproduction in static space. In many ways, they live in an amazing time because the quality of today's consumer level equipment is considerably better than consumer equipment in decades past. The consumer gear of today is more likely to satisfy the ear of many music fans. When the best equipment nears perfection, the worse equipment gets better.

That brings us to music. Since the nature of music has changed over the decades, the nature of the audiophile hobby must also have changed over the decades. You can't divide the two.

Portable music playing devices, the boombox, and the car stereo each present a different avenues of listening, and thus represent a different ideal to the audiophile. The solutions to these listening environments cannot and should not look the same, and these solutions should not mark whether one is a "real" audiophile or not. Audiophilia lies in the heart, not in the listening solution.

Over the decades, the nature of popular music has changed, veering strongly in the direction of engineered sound rather than in the capturing a performance. Many branches of music have embraced purposeful distortions and audio mayhem. Other branches have gone lo-fi, embracing the hiss and other engineering flaws. The mistake here is that thinking that the goals of one branch of audiophilia must be the goals of all branches of audiophilia. What does it mean to listen to a lo-fi recording at the highest possible resolution? How can a modern pop song, with all its independently recorded track, have a purest performance?

Beyond music, there's an entire branch of audiphilia dedicated to the film experience: to the creation of the best theatrical experience possible. In many way, these two focuses share common ground, yet in many other ways, they diverge, seeking two different goals. Some audiophiles seem to include cinephiles as audiophiles, while others don't. In truth, the love of sound is there coupled with the love of video.

That brings us to the question above, the main question of this essay: who are the real audiophiles? Can we let stand the claim by those with money and opportunity that they represent the true face audiophiles, and that the way to pursue audiophilia is to pursue it as they do? I assert 'no.' Many others are with me on this opinion. We have voted with both our money and our enthusiasm, taking both elsewhere. While other avenues of audio enjoyment have opened, and we've eagerly taken them to our own enjoyment, the traditional audiophiles asks, in a bid to keep their hobby alive, "How do we get people into our  hobby?" Repeatedly, their own experts point to themselves as the culprits. The traditional audiophiles all too frequently have forgotten that this passion is a hobby, and that hobbies exist for fun for everyone in that hobby, and not just the people bragging on the forums.

I didn't write this piece to shit on today's graying audiophiles, or any audiophiles at all. I wrote this for you, who loves music, who would love to claim the name of audiophile for yourself, but on seeing what the audiophile communities are like, you have backed away. You deserve this essay. You deserve to call yourself an audiophile because you love music and your love good sound. The person who decides your love is you, and if you want to share that, then share it. Shout it to the world. You are what  makes the music world go around. You are the future. You are an audiophile because you said so. That is your love.

If you are a more traditional audiophile, if you are the person who knows all the little details of wires, cables, amplifies, and speakers, don't think for a second that I'm here to insult you. I'm not. I'm here to liberate you. Do you see all those other folks out there? They love the same things that you do. They love to share their enthusiasm, and so you do. You have things to teach them, and I bet that they have things to teach you, but only if you make the effort. Simply because they are making different trade-offs doesn't mean that they aren't worth embracing and bringing into the audiophile fold. Your hobby is big. That's worth celebrating.

Audiophilia is more than enjoying the best sound, it's about the enjoying the sound that works for you. It's about the process, the exploration, and the jubilation encountered along the way. It's not about what can go wrong in reproduction, it's about what can go right. If you get it right, then you will make yourself happy.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Can a Power Supply Upgrade Improve Your PC Sound

Can a power supply upgrade improve your PC sound? For some in the audiophile community, they seem to think that improving your power supply increases CPU speed, decreases noise, decreases data corruptions, and therefore results in better sound. Is that true? How can we confirm it?

Maybe gamers know something that the audiophiles don't. Let's look at what they have to say about upgrading your power supply. If anyone knows how to max out their PCs for faster speed, it's gamers.

While the article contains a great deal of info, they make no mention at all about the power supply causing noise degrading their speed computer's speed or ruining their audio. Why? Because power supplies that corrupt data are broken. They're defective. They're an RMA waiting to happen. The entire purpose of a PC power supply is to create certainty. The power supply's job is to supply clean, well regulated electricity so that the computer can perform flawlessly.

Do you still doubt me? Go hit the gaming forums. Find me a reputable place that says upgrading your power supply will speed up your computer. If that was true, all the gaming forums would list upgrading your power supply that as your #1 way to overclock your computer. Myself, I've never seen an article like that. (You may need to upgrade you power supply to increase your voltage as part of overclocking, but that has nothing to do with noise and everything to do with basic electricity.)

Just to be sure, I reviewed articles on how to speed up a computer. None of them listed replacing your power supply as a way of increasing speed.

That brings us to computer noise, which all audiophiles seem to know about. "All that noise." Which specific noise do you mean? Noise is a vague term.

There's RF frequency noise, which doesn't affect computer circuits, but could affect AM and FM signals, or other analog communication devices. RF noise doesn't affect data. If computers were effected by their own electrical noise, they'd be useless. Instead, computers must perform billions of operation without flaw on a reliable basis. They could not do that if their own power supplies caused the problem.

Power supplies can cause audible physical noise from using fans. Cheap power supplies often have loud fans. Replacing those fans will reduce physical noise, which is good for your listening pleasure. This is why many audiophiles prefer fanless PCs. No fans, no noise.

The tl;dr is as follows:
  • Power supply fans can cause physical noise, so replace the power supply if the fan noise annoys you.
  • Power supplies don't corrupt data. Power supplies that cause data corruption are broken.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Microsoft Buying Github

Microsoft is buying Github, and that leads to questions. Will they or won't they destroy that goose that lays golden eggs? Will they use their position to destroy FOSS? Will they exploit it? Will they prove untrustworthy?

Why did Microsoft buy Github? In my eyes, they bought Github to secure a vital part of their ecosystem. If you haven't noticed, PC sales are down. That means that everything associated with PC sales is down. If they don't want the PC to become irrelevant, they need a healthy application ecosystem, one that can fill their own PC app store with useful and quality apps. Some of the best applications are FOSS, such as VLC. Thus, it is in Microsoft's financial interest that Github remain a stable and reliable platform for the development of FOSS software so that their own software ecosystem can remain viable.

Don't underestimate Microsoft's need for a reliable software platform, free of malware and trusted by IT. Microsoft is no longer a company that can destroy $7 billion dollars in value to win. They lost the mobile wars. They haven't been able to make strong headway into the table market. Github must be part of a greater strategy, one that strengthens their brand and their ecosystem.

Where has Microsoft been making its money? More in service than in hardware. It's Azure cloud service has been profitable. It's online Office service has been profitable. Its' developer platforms have been profitable, but they don't have much cloud service there. Rebuilding Github using its worldwide cloud architecture and matching that up with developers, that's a good match on paper.

What could Microsoft do with Github? They could integrate Github into their cloud offering. Github can become the default online repository for all of Microsoft application development tools. Rather than create a repository from scratch, and building a relationship with the developer community, it was more efficient for them to adopt an existing platform and use its strengths. A stronger developer community means more developers delivering more apps. Github can then have automation added to so that software there can be more easily added to the Windows apps store, strengthening the Windows ecosystem. If they rebuild Github's architecture on their cloud platform, they could greatly improve its reliability and worldwide reach.

Github means that Microsoft can turn their developer tools into a cloud service. They can better support academics and learning by providing Universities ways of letting students cooperate in the development of software. Businesses can buy licenses for their own developers, develop on the cloud, and better manage access to their repositories. Their developers can always guarantee that they'll be developing against the most recent and bug-free versions of the MS libraries.

What evil could Microsoft prevent with Github? By acquiring Github, Microsoft gain control of an asset that gives them nuclear level retaliatory status. As all other ecosystems have some FOSS software dependencies. Should any competitor grow too bold, Microsoft could threaten to weaponize the Github (whether they could or couldn't is debatable, but the threat is still useful), thus enforcing some balance of power between the mega-companies.

What evil could Microsoft do with Github? Even if Microsoft intends that this acquisition be good and honest, there's no guarantee that a future CEO won't be horrible. They could use Github to extract value out of the FOSS community by declaring software too successful, thus forcing FOSS to pay for hosting. They could add terms of service that compromise FOSS licenses. They could add terms of service that confuse or muddy ownership of FOSS projects. The possibilities of shady dealings and other shenanigans are myriad.

What will be the fallout? Some projects will leave Github. That's certain and inevitable. A new repository will be created, and hopefully, many more repositories will be created. Hopefully Universities or some other non-profit will get their asses in gear to create a far more independent series of repositories, ones that can't be bought out or compromised. Some will go up fast, while others will take time to set up, the creators thinking harder about how to create safeguards and ensure their stability in perpetuity.

Hopefully, Microsoft will do the most obvious thing with Github and use it to create a trusted repository that strengthens their own Windows ecosystem, delivering safe content and bolstering their developers, which includes all FOSS projects that Microsoft's users now value and depend on. What's also certain is that Microsoft will eventually change leadership, and what that future leadership will do must always be suspect.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Snow Queen (1980)

1980 brought us Joan Vinge's Hugo award winning novel, The Snow Queen. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale, it keeps the overall plot arc of the story while taking narrative into an SF world capable of standing on its own. To say that it's merely an adaptation would be short-selling the work. The setting is the far future, on a world called Tiamat, where a new empire has emerged after the collapse of the old, and a long isolated world wrestles with its relationship to technology and modernity, environmentalism, and how its women wrestle with feminism and their place.

Being 1980, feminism, and a woman's place is very much in mind of the author. This is a time in history where the Equal Rights Amendment is still a debate topic, and the novel itself would have been complete before Reagan was elected. It would have been published in a the time of Jimmy Carter, and not yet in the time of the Moral Majority, AIDS, or the crack epidemic. Given the focus of feminism today, I think that it still holds up pretty well, speaking to the greater conflicts inside society. Women are major characters in the novel, but they don't get the luxury of being superior simply by being women, but they do get to be freely and openly sexual, within reason. The work doesn't depict any sort of feminist utopia, which is one reason why the work stands up well to today's feminism.

One small bit of praise that I do enjoy, nowhere in the book does Vinge work to justify the place of her lead character, Moon, in this adventure. She wants to do what she's doing, and so she does it. It's this utter lack of justification which puts this work on par with any male-centric space adventure. As long as any work spends time justifying why the lead character should be able to do something, it's still bound by the rules of its society. Only when presented as the norm can a feminist story truly achieve equal status with any masculine story.

I appreciated bits of archaic religion in the story. While the religion is kept simple, its also kept sincere, and in its most sincere expression, it's scary. At the end of every cycle, the Queen and her consort are thrown into the ocean as human sacrifices, so when the more technological worlds describe Tiamat as barbaric, their opinion is not entirely unwarranted. The people support this, because this is the important religious time of the world, and in this, Vinge shows that she's done her reading on how societies act and behave in such time, including how and why human sacrifices were historically performed. That's what gives this moment in time gravitas.

I didn't find the novel all good. For the first half, I had to slog through the setup. For me, that first half took work, but once I met the middle, the balance of energy shifted towards the end as all the characters introduced moved together, creating energy rather than requiring it. The back half passed by for me far more quickly than the front half.

Despite its thickness, I found that the end came a little too fast and felt a little too sparse. I would have happily traded some of the beginning for a more developed end.

Is this book still worth your time? I think so. Because Vinge only vaguely examines the technology of the future, little to none of it seems archaic, which helps the work remain fresh. Given how the world looks today, with sea levels rising and global warming pending, a book about the coming of summer brings with it great relevance.