Sunday, March 26, 2017

Thoughts about a $1000 USB Cable

I have enough background in electrical engineering to be able to say with certainty that there are several absolutely objective criteria that can be used to gauge the overall performance of an audio playback system. Criteria such as distortion and frequency response can be measured and compared with high precision. I can also say with certainty that the build quality of a USB cable in a purely digital signal path has no impact on these objective criteria once the cable meets the minimum standard to ensure that the digital signal is transmitted in the first place. Yet experts who have spent years enhancing their knowledge of audio systems are adamant that they can hear the difference when they use $1000 USB cables: http://www.hifiplus.com/articles/first-listen-audioquest-diamond-usb-cable/?page=2

Frederic Brochet's famous 2001 study showed that expert wine tasters cannot even distinguish between red and white wine in a blind taste test. http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2014/08/the_most_infamous_study_on_wine_tasting.html Yet we have a multi billion dollar industry based on perceived subtle variations in flavour between various wines. 

What is happening here. Are we humans just gullible idiots who fall for any old hype? I have in the past when felling in a less contemplative mood than today concluded as much and I have even revelled in the fact that those of us smart enough to see through the ruse can benefit from cross subsidisation by those who willingly pay extra for no tangible benefit. http://mindbendingpuzzles.blogspot.ie/2011/04/how-i-learned-to-love-expensive-cables.html

Today however I am feeling contemplative and I am prepared to admit that there is more going on than meets the eye (or ear or tongue as the case may be). That RealClearScience article about Frederic Brochet hints at the bigger picture when it points out that there is a huge link between what we taste and smell and what we see. I think it is even broader than that. We humans are complex creatures and the overall experience that we think of as tasting a glass of wine is a combination of many tangible and intangible factors.The chemical composition of the liquid features of course but so does its visual appearance in the glass, so does the shape of the bottle it comes in and the label on that bottle. The shop you bought it in, the company you are sharing it with, even the voice in your head of the expert you heard on the radio recommending this vintage: all of these factors and many more contribute to the taste experience that is a glass of wine. 

I am pretty sure that Hi Fi audio appreciation has become a similar phenomenon. The perception of hearing is such an intangible and subjective thing that many tangible and intangible factors contribute to the overall audio appreciation experience. Faithful reproduction of the sound is one aspect of course but the intangibles also contribute strongly. For those who are into such things the the warm feeling they get from seeing the build quality of a $1000 USB cable actually does influence their perception of the sound. 

In case you are still inclined to dismiss these intangible issues as hype and bullshit consider another much older industry that has long understood the value of the intangible: perfume. The size and shape of the bottle and the package it comes in are all unashamedly part of the perfume experience. Do you imagine you would be thanked for delivering to your loved one a best value gallon can of their favourite Chanel scent? 

Aside: Several decade ago when I was a youth the basic technical issues of audio reproduction had not yet been solved for the mass market so it was easier to distinguish between Hi Fidelity and mass market audio on purely objective technical grounds. Mass market equipment had measurably bad distortion that even an untrained ear could detect and Mike Oldfield's tongue in check admonition on the album cover of Tubular Bells that "This stereo record cannot be played on old tin boxes" was not all that far from the truth. Over the intervening decades however the quality of mass market equipment has improved enormously and even relatively modest systems are now capable of un-distorted  audio reproduction over a wide bandwidth at reasonable volume levels. This is one reason I suspect why  intangibles have become a large part of what distinguishes high end from low end. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Total War Warhammer is probably the best Total War Ever

I have put over sixty hours into Warhmmer Total war at this stage and despite my earlier love/hate post  I haven't gotten bored yet. Here is a quick summary of reasons why I think this is probably the best Total War game ever:

1. Streamlining: Total War has been getting more streamlined for the last few iterations but Warhammer has brought a new ruthlessness to this process and has not been afraid to sacrifice once loved aspects of the game-play to deliver a slicker faster paced game. I miss the old epic city assaults for example but have to agree that the simplified versions in Warhammer speeds things up a lot.

2. Polish: Total War games have always looked and sounded great but they were often let down by niggles underneath the hood. Thankfully Warhammer seems to have overcome this and the game is very polished. Everything seems to work pretty much as it is supposed to and for the most part it works as you would expect it to.

3. A combination of streamlining and polish means that this is probably the most accessible Total War game ever for newcomers. Creative Assembly have produced some horribly bad tutorials in the past but in Warhammer the tutorial process has been streamlined and semalessly tied into the campaign. the ingame help files are still somewhat lacking (no search facility?) but active tooltips make up for a lot of that and for some reason the active tooltips give more detailed information than the help file.

4. Despite the streamlining and simplification this game still has great depth and variety to enthrall old timers. Moving to a fantasy setting has freed Creative Assembly from the shackles of history and brings new elements such as monsters and magic to the table. The various factions look and play completely differently and they have completely different objectives and motivations. This leads to a huge variety of strategic and tactical gameplay options. I started playing Empire a fairly traditional human race with a mix of units but even then I had to adjust tactics to deal with the monsters I was fighting. For variety I also started campaigns with the Dwarves, with the Greenskins and with Brettonia. Each has a completely different play style and objectives. Even playing a different human faction is completely different. The chivalric Bretonnians for example have a feudal society which treats peasants as disposable but they are shackled by the often bizarre constraints of their own chivalric code.This code frowns upon many standard Total War activities such as ambushig or looting.

5. Total War Warhammer knocks it out of the park in terms of ambience, setting and attention to lore. Total War games have always been good at this but it is great to see that nothing has been lost in the move to a fantasy universe. This was actually one of my biggest concerns before I stated playing the game. My enjoyment of previous titles has always been strongly linked ot how much I liked the era. It is no coincidence that I have spent most time in Rome I and also Rome II of any of the previous games becaus eI am just fascinated by that historical setting. I was never a Warhammer buff so most of the Warhammer lore is new to me but Creative Assembly's evocative realisation of the rich Warhammer universe has sucked me in.

So for all these reasons I am willing to concede that Warhammer is probably the best Total War  game ever an honor that many observers had previously given to Shogun 2.

Aside: Even though I give the crown to Warhammer on objective grounds Rome is and probably always will be my own most played and most fondly remembered Total War game. I have always loved the period and Rome was the first Total War game I really got stuck into. Rome was wildly over ambitious and deeply flawed yet totally wonderful all at the same time.

A few examples:
Cities in those days were sprawling metropolises with narrow street and you could actually see a city map from the campaign world before going to fight in those very streets. Assaulting a city was a long drawn out affair as you first picked the locations to assault and then employed artillery or sappers to break down the walls before streaming in to engage in close quarters fighting on the walls or in the narrow streets.

Town management was far harder than in later games and demanded a lot of micromanagement. You could try to automate things but that invariably led to problems for example Unfettered growth led to squalor which in turn often led to unrest. Rebellions were a constant nuisance and you had to garrison every town with an army of troops.

Troop recruitment and replenishment became particularly challenging in long campaigns because troops could only be replenished at their own recruiting centres and it drew from the local population to recruit.  If you were fighting at the outskirts of the empire there was no way to replace losses of your elite troops so you had to guard them carefully while padding your ranks with the limited offerings that were locally available.

Mercenaries were a thing. With enough cash you could hire mercenary troops from other races. Often these were just needed to make up the numbers but sometimes you could get specialists that were better than your own troops in a particular role (Balearic Slingers ftw).

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Ryzen Hopes Fallen

I am posting this here rather than on something like Reddit because I don't want to get involved in the usual internet fanboy wars but the plain fact is I find myself somewhat disappointed by the release of AMD's Ryzen 7 CPUs.

Brief background: My current gaming rig is long overdue an upgrade (currently running a 2009 era Xeon 3470). In 2014 I was due to replace this system completely but put it off in favour of an overhaul initially to wait for Windows 10 and then later to wait for AMD Ryzen. Well here we are in 2017. Windows 10 is old news and Ryzen 7 has finally been released. I have run out of excuses.

I am old enough not to have completely gotten lost in the hype about AMD Ryzen but I was very much looking forward to a new competitive CPU market that might bring bring high end CPU power down into my mid market price range.

I guess my hopes were that Ryzen would bring i7 level performance at i5 level prices. Realistically I was expecting half way between i5 and i7 performance at slightly better than i5 pricing. Instead the release of Ryzen 7 appears to be offering i5 level of performance in gaming at i7 prices.

To be fair Ryzen is a terrific step forward for AMD and is genuinely competitive with Intel in many applications that require multiple cores. Ryzen gives you far more cores for your money than i7 and excels in tasks such as video editing. Unfortunately gaming relies heavily on single threaded performance and Intel's CPUs still shine here because they have faster clock speeds and they do slightly more per clock cycle.

Bottom line is that for gamers AMD still has no CPU to compete with Intel's i7-7700k and because Ryzen 7 is priced to compete with i7 they dont even have a CPU to compete with the i5-7600k yet.

Having allowed my initial hopes to dash upon the harsh rocks of reality I will allow a bit of optimism to climb back into the boat.  Ryzen is a brand new product and there are indications that BIOSes and Windows itself have yet to be properly optimised for it. I wouldn't be surprised if Ryzen performance numbers get better as experience with the part grows and systems are patched. Even more significant from a gamer's perspective is that the next Ryzen parts to be released (Ryzen 5) will have fewer cores and cheaper prices. It is quite likely that these will be just as good for gaming as Ryzen 7 so these could finally be the i5 killers I am really hoping for.

There are other benefits attached to the launch of Ryzen: Competition is likely to bring down the price of Intel parts. Also AMD based motherboards have generally offered more options and more flexibility than Intel based motherboards for a cheaper price.

So I still don't know whether to upgrade with another Intel or switch to AMD but I have decided to wait a bit longer. Ah well My 7 year old CPU is still coping with modern games like Total War Warhammer but it won't win any benchmark contests.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Total Warhammered

Thanks to Humble Monthly I am playing Total War Warhammer. Now a few days in I am once again reminded of why I absolutely love Total War games and also why I absolutely hate Total War games.

I love them because of the ridiculous ambition. Every total war game allows you to play grand strategy with empires and kingdoms and then zoom in to fight individual battles with thousands of soldiers on each side. 

I love them because of the incredible scene setting and ambience. Every single total War game really knocks it out of the park in terms of sound, music and graphics when it comes to portraying their chosen world. 

I hate them because of the many things that just don't work as well as they should. I am not even talking about many bugs that each new iteration of the game launches with because I always wait a couple of months until they are patched out. I am talking about the basic structural flaws that never get patched out. The AI which struggles with pathfinding in battle mode and struggles with just about everything in campaign mode. Confusing tutorials that are never quite clear on when they start and end. An in game manual without a search function (really?). 

Most of all though I hate Total War because when it boils down to it the single player campaigns can be very boring. Once you get over the initial heady rush of commanding real armies on the battlefield it doesn't take too much longer to figure out how to overcome your neighbours, hampered as they are by the games lacklustre AI. Then starts the long slow grind as you tackle army after army and capture province after province on your way to dominance. I have done this too many times in too many Total War games and I find it very tedious. Creative Assembly themselves are obviously aware of this because almost every long campaign has a special "Triggered Event" in mid to late game which usually results in you losing about half of what you have accumulated to date and all your erstwhile friends becoming enemies. Does this suddenly make the grind more exciting? No it does not. It simply sets you back about fifty moves and forces you to recapture all those territories all over again. Read the final part of my blog series on a full campaign of Rome Total war if you want to know exactly what it feels like to complete a Total War Campaign: http://mindbendingpuzzles.blogspot.ie/2010/06/rome-scipii-campaign-update-bitter.html

So what do I think of Warhammer so far? I am playing the default Empire campaign and still in the very early stages but so far I am impressed. The interface remains familiar but streamlined and the new features of magic and heroes seems to be handled well. One unusual change for a Total War game is that you can no longer conquer all the territory. Playing as a human I can destroy an Orc faction and I can raze all their towns but I cannot occupy their settlements and I believe the opposite is also true. I have yet to see what impact this has on overall game strategy because there are still plenty of human territories for me to conquer / annex.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was seeing how well the Total War formula translates  to a fantasy setting. I have always loved Creative Assembly's dedication to capturing the ambience of whatever historical setting they choose and I am happy to report  that Warhammer does not disappoint in this respect. The game drips with lore and ambience and even though I am far from expert on Warhammer the devs seem to have done their usual meticulous homework on this one. Of particular note is the map. I don't know if there were any existing Warhammer maps before this but freed from the constrains of real world geography CA have gone to town with the map and produced a wonderful playground of fields, forests, treacherous mountain passes and deadly marshes.

"What about the AI?" you ask.   I haven't experienced any disasters on the battle map yet but a couple of experiences on the campaign map have convinced me that normal Total War standards apply:

First off is sieges. In previous Total War games I have used the tactic of laying siege to a superior army that is garrisoned in a city because I know that eventually they will be forced to leave the city to try and dislodge me. This robs them of fortification advantages and allows me to  fight from a position of defensive strength. In previous games the defenders would wait till they were nearly out of time and then sortie to try and dislodge me. I tried this twice in Warhammer and both times the defenders never sortied. Despite having superior numbers the defenders waited behind their walls until starvation had devastated their numbers (a new mechanic I think) allowing me to walk into the city and mop up their miserable remnants. This is surely broken because it makes sieges an "I win" button.

A second observation relates to diplomacy (always a sore point for Total War AI). In the relatively short time I have been playing I found myself becoming friendly with a dwarven faction. Initially this arose from a shared mutual enemy as we worked together to annihilate a goblin faction and from this we established a non aggression pact and a mutually profitable trading relationship. Green smiley face and a positive friendly attitude all round. Unfortunately these particular dwarves were also at war with the powerful Wood Elves. This required some deft diplomatic manoeuvring from me because the Wood Elves were the strongest faction on the map and maintaining my trading relationship with the dwarves while not attracting the ire of the Elves was  stressful. I thought I was managing it until suddenly the dwarves declared war on me out of the blue marching on one of my towns. What? So much for friendly relations.  I marched my own army down and sent them packing. For good measure I followed them back and looted their capital city. Now they want to be friends again declaring peace and offering new treaties! The only good thing about this idiocy is that it has improved my standing with the Wood Elves quite a bit. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Too much stuff. How can we choose what to watch / play / read in an era of over abundance.

This morning  I signed up for Amazon's Kindle first service. It is a kind of book club where you pay a monthly sub and get to pick one of six pre release books on Kindle every month. At only £0.99 per month it is a very low risk commitment and it can be cancelled any time. My reason for joining has nothing to do with hoping to read the next blockbuster at a bargain price before it goes on general release. It is simply my latest attempt to solve the ever growing problem of what piece of media (book, film, game) to consume next. There are too many new books out there just as there are too many news game, too many new TV series and too many new movies. I am willing to give Amazon's editorial staff a go at suggesting what I should read next.

 There is simply too much stuff out there. How on earth does one choose which stuff to spend the time and effort consuming? Mega corporations like Netflix, Google and Amazon have spent millions trying to answer this question with algorithms that analyse your profile and your past behaviour to predict what you would like to read, watch, play or buy next. Facebook and its ilk try to leverage the power of social connection to answer this question on the premise that if your friends like something then maybe you will like it too. None of these services answer the question to my satisfaction however. Their recommendations are wrong as often as they are right and the very mechanical nature of their algorithms puts me off.

Trusted reviewers are another obvious approach but in today's world of instant access to everyone's opinion that is simply swapping one problem of overabundance for another. On YouTube for example there are thousands of video game reviewers and the more popular ones often have widely differing opinions. Which reviewers should I follow? Can someone start reviewing the reviewers please? Aggregate review sites can sometimes be useful for highlighting the all time classics that everyone really should sample but the mechanical nature of their algorithms obscures as much as it reveals. A quick look at the top rated video games on the last 90 days on Metacritic will quickly convince you that that approach is fraught with hazard. While there are likely to be some gems on the list I defy anyone to play and enjoy all of the eclectic assortment of titles that pop up.

Over the last year I have had great success with Humble Monthly's curated bundle of video games. Of the six or seven games in each month's bundle I have always found one or two that have held my attention long enough to more than justify the bundle price. More often than not it is one of the lesser known indie titles that grabs me rather than the headline game. Last month I spend a lot of time playing Neon Chrome. I am currently enjoying Steamworld Heist from the February bundle although I do intend to sample XCOM 2 later. Teh key word for me here is "curated". I really do get the impression that each of these games are chosen by someone for a reason. Some of the choice are more "experimental" that others but with very rare exceptions I don't think any of the games are just thrown in to meet a price target.