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.