Thursday, December 27, 2012

Linux Still Sucks

Unfortunately Linux still sucks.

It sucks mostly because the fanboys that run the installers are unable to see things from the user perspectives.  Gnome 3 is an exmaple of this, but two more have to do with MP3 and Java.

Fedora, my usual distro, won't ship with MP3 binaries.  You have to go through a rather convoluted process to get it working.   It does ship with openJDK, but openJDK sucks sick donkey ass.   The 8% or so that's different enough between OpenJDK and Oracle / Sun JDK are enough to cause you hours and hours of troubleshooting problems.  However, it's nearly impossible to install any of the tools you might want to use if you are a java developer without it.

They need to give you at least a script and remove the dependencies on it.

Another example.  So I install Fedora 17 on an old HP laptop.  It seems to recognize the wireless chip/adapter just fine, installing the b43 driver (for Broadcom 43xx series).  I think, all is well and good, but try as I might I can't get the wireless connection to work.  So I start doing some Google searches.  I spend literally 6 hours trying detailed instructions from a variety of websites until I stumble upon a page devoted to Linux Wireless problems.  After a complete re-installation, and careful reading of the instructions here I finally get a working wireless connection.  The issue here is of documentation, and information.  The installation knew it wasn't complete, but never ever did I get a message telling me so, or telling me where to go to fix it.  This was yet another issue caused by the Fedora Fanboys refusing to ship commercial, or non-free license software, but at the same time not helping the user to understand where to go next.  

I would rather pay $10 to have binary licenses to stupid things like the MP3 players and working wireless drivers built in than have a completely free OS that takes me hours to install for a desktop.

I would even love to see an "app store" for these issues.  $5 for Broadcomm wirless, $3 for MP3 support, sure no problem.   $2 to have Oracle Java correctly and permanently installed, crap, I'd pay $20, reimbursement or not.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Emotiva UMC-1 vs. Theta Casanova

This one will be quick.  I've accumulated a lot of gear and have to start deciding what to sell.  I have four preamplifiers, three amplifiers, three pairs of speakers... you get the picture.

Lately I've been having a lot of fun with friends who have been coming over to watch movies or listen to music, mostly jazz.  I have refrained from really doing a lot of critical listening because of my floors.  I live in a converted 19th century brick schoolhouse with the original wooden floors.  You can imagine how flat and even they are.  So I purchased two pairs of outriggers from Soundocity.  It took a little while but they were
very communicative.  The products were perfectly finished, but the bolts included were English size only.

Anyway, between that and a Bosch Laser Level I was able to get my speakers perfectly aligned, so I thought the time had come for some real listening tests.  My friends came over, and we started listening to NPR's Jazz Set with the existing setup which consists of:

  • Logitech Squeezebox Touch
  • Emotiva UMC-1
  • Blue Monster Cables selected for their length, with 90 degree plugs on one end. 
  • Yamaha P2100 professional amplifier (100w/ch, ca. 1980's)
  • Focal Profile 918 (2 1/2 way speakers, aluminum tweeter)
Before I go much further I should say that the Emotiva easily beat an Onkyo receiver/processor which was used only for the processing.  The UMC-1 had much better transparency and mid to high end and was a lot of fun to listen to. 

After listening to Jazz Set for a little while I swapped out the Emotiva for a 1990's vintage Theta Casanova via balanced Vampire cables I had left over.  Unfortunately I was not able to swap cables on the Emotiva easily because of physical logistics, so I put that off. 

Since they began coming over to listen to music, my friends had been noticing that the double bass and drums seemed out of balance with the rest of the system in the past.  The difference after swapping out the UMC-1 in favor of the Casanova was not really subtle.  The biggest and most clearly demonstrable difference was in the mid-range to lower octaves.  The bottom of the double bass and drums really came alive.   More sublte differences were in the way the decay of notes were handled.  Theta preserved them more clearly than the Emotiva, or as Richard called it "less dry" and "wetter" sound.  Another difference related to this is noise level.  You can't really hear the Emotiva's noise at any distance, but by comparison the Theta was simply dead quiet. 

The Profiles' drivers are arranged in a normal array starting with the tweeter at the top and the woofer at the bottom, with a midrange/woofer in the middle.  What was interesting to note was that the swap also seemed to cause the location of the music to drop a few inches towards the middle driver. 

I next tested the Theta using single ended Vampire cables.  The improvements were still there, but noticably reduced.  I found this really interesting becuase the Yammie's are single-terminal amplifiers with a differential amplifier at the inputs.  That is, they are only balanced at the jacks, then convert everything to a "normal" amplifier design, where the positive terminal (+) is connected to the output of an amplifier that goes from positive to negative, and the negative terminal (-) is really just ground.  The single ended cables were still better than the Emotiva's (which only has single ended outputs) but not as full as the alternatives.

While this sounded better on most recordings, on Denise Donatelli's 'When Lights Are Low' some tracks could take on a significant amount of mid-bass bloat.   

The last thing we tried was running the Theta through a Conrad Johnson PV-10 through two sets of the single ended Vampire cables. This was probably the least favorite demonstration, as the sound got even thinner than before. 

So, before I completely declare the Theta a winner, I will move everything around so I can swap cables as well as processors.  I am not a huge believer in the sound of cables making such a difference, but I am open to the idea, and for me not to try the experiment would be close minded. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Audi A4 Upgrades, reconsidered

I first bought my A4 in March of 2012.  By August I had added the APR chips to it.  I wrote before that the first thing I would upgrade was the suspension.  I think I was wrong.  One problem few people talk about is how sluggish the A4 is in 70+ degree weather.  It's so bad it basically eliminates any gains felt by the APR upgrades in the first place.   As soon as the outside temps get under 60 you'll think you got a brand new car.

So, now I'm rethinking my strategy again.  It's not that the APR upgrade doesn't work as promised, it's more like the Audi under-performs in summer so much, that I really should have addressed that first.  Possible solutions would be the APR/Carbonio air intake, as well as upgrading the intercooler first.   Then the suspension, and finally the APR chip upgrades.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Verizon: How can your web sites suck so much?

One of my biggest peeve's of using Verizon has been their websites. Buggy and rarely useful. I especially love the fact that your cell phone charges are never complete, or clear nor do they let you change all of your options online.

Up until today my truly favorite part was that the bill payment section never told you what you owed. The would tell you what your bill was, but whether you paid it or not was something you had to do your own research on. This meant that sometimes I would think I made a payment but didn't, and ended up with a $600 charge, and other times I'd have a -$300 bill. Ridiculous. I wouldn't be surprised if I checked carefully I'd probably find I paid them twice and didn't always get credit for it.

Fast forward to July 15. I get an e-mail. It has a link to pay my bill. I end up in web site hell. Rather than explain it, I'll let the conversation I had with the representative speak for itself. Yet more evidence that laws need to be passed to have web designers publicly flogged when they make it impossible to navigate a web site.

Chat Subject: Home Phone Billing Question
Your Question: How can I pay my bill online? The previous website I could never tell how much money I owed. This one keeps sending me to the login and e-mail screen and never allows me to pay my bill.
A Verizon eCenter Representative will be with you shortly. Thank you. (14:03:40)
14:04:55 We apologize for the delay.You are next in the line. A representative will be with you shortly.
Agent Martha has joined. (14:05:10)
Martha : Chat ID for this session is 06666. (14:05:10)
Martha(14:05:20): Hello. Thank you for visiting our chat service. I will be happy to help you today.
Martha(14:05:25): What services do you have with Verizon?
Customer(14:05:33): None of the "pay your bill" links work correctly.
Customer(14:05:35): All of them. :)
Customer(14:05:43): DirecTV, DSL, home and wireless.
Martha(14:06:43): You are able to sign in to your account?
Customer(14:06:55): Yes. I wish I could send you some screen shots.
Customer(14:07:05): I get in and it takes me to a home page with e-mail and other windows.
Martha(14:07:26): At the top of the page does it say "accounts"
Customer(14:07:30): Yes.
Customer(14:07:53): Sorry, no.
Customer(14:07:56): It says Verizon Central
Customer(14:08:10): and it says various things, at the end "My Account | Support |
Martha(14:08:45): You are logged into the web site.
Customer(14:08:47): If I click on "My Account" I get to a new screen
Martha(14:08:52): You will need to log into
Customer(14:08:55): which has a list on the left,
Martha(14:09:01): I will need to reset your password for you.
Customer(14:09:02): and says "Make One Time Payment"
Martha(14:09:07): What is the name of your first pet?
Customer(14:09:21): Wait, do NOT reset my password.
Customer(14:09:28): Why are you resetting my password?
Martha(14:09:38): You do not know the password for
Customer(14:09:46): Yes I do.
Customer(14:10:02): The problem is that I am at a screen that says "My Account" and it says "Make One Time Payment"
Martha(14:10:08): Then sign out of and sign into
Customer(14:10:09): I click on that and it brings me right back here.
Martha(14:10:19): Then you are signing into
Customer(14:10:21): Why should I? WHy doesn't this link work?
Customer(14:10:27): This is where the e-mail took me.
Customer(14:10:37): The e-mail that had a link that said "pay your bill"
Martha(14:10:57): You had to sign into the page that the link took you to correct?
Customer(14:11:02): Yes.
Customer(14:11:28): which goes to
Martha(14:11:38): You signed in with your informatin.
Customer(14:11:46): Yes, and...?
Martha(14:12:01): And you need to go to
Customer(14:12:50): Here, I guess there are two problems. I need to pay my bill, but I am also really frustrated with this bogus web site design that the links don't work.
Customer(14:12:58): If I go to
Customer(14:13:09): and pay can you tell some one that this stinks for the end user?
Martha(14:13:29): The link works fine. You are signing in with your information and the system know to take you to web site.
Customer(14:13:45): Fine, but then when I click on the link to pay my bill, it shoudl do that!
Martha(14:13:50): If you would let me reset your password you could sign into the correct page and pay your bill.
Customer(14:13:54): instead I get taken round and round. That is NOT the system working fine.
Martha(14:14:09): You are on the wrong web site.
Customer(14:14:18): And that's YOUR fault.
Customer(14:14:29): Not mine.
Customer(14:14:38): I log in, and the links don't work. That can't be my fault.
Customer(14:15:35): So, let's do it your way. You can reset the password, but if I click on a link that says pay my bill, it should work. End of story.
Martha(14:16:00): It goes to the page you sign in with.
Martha(14:16:05): You are signing in with your info.
Martha(14:16:20): To get you to you have to sign in with that User Id and password.
Martha(14:16:26): The User Id is the same for both web sites.
Martha(14:16:31): But the password is different.
Martha(14:16:41): Do you want me to reset the password for
Customer(14:16:53): Yes.
Customer(14:17:03): Now, all of these conversations are recorded on your end correct?
Customer(14:17:15): Please reset my password

To be clear, what's missing from this log is that Verizon does keep copies of this conversation and makes it clear that these chats can be monitored for "quality control purposes" so there is no expectation of privacy for either party. I'm sure more than one Martha works for Verizon.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

What to Upgrade First on the Audi A4 (B8)

2016 Update: My recommendations still stand, but prices and links may no longer be up to date. 

I had to replace a 12 year old SUV and I went looking for something sporty.  I looked at the Volvo C60 briefly, but the salesperson could not give me the time of day.  The Audi dealership in Burlington, MA however was terribly friendly and willing to show me anything I wanted, and even offered me a great deal on a demo with a few miles on it, which I unfortunately passed up on.  In addition to looks, speed, handling and interior comfort one of the main reasons I went with the Audi was the aftermarket support.  I am an engineer by vocation and profession, and we like to change things.

So soon after purchasing I went looking for a local APR dealer to install a chip upgrade.  Lucky for me when I was ready to buy the upgrades were on sale and I got several programs for the price of one.  It's not like installing a rocket onto the back, but it is nice to play with all of that extra power now and then.  However, there is in fact a distinct downside rarely mentioned in the reviews.

The Audi A4 is actually pretty well balanced, in terms of the performance of the engine, suspension and brakes.  The 211 HP looks small, especially if you are used to Audi's feeling sluggish on the freeway.  The B8 is nothing of the kind from the factory.  It has plenty of torque in the low end and can spin up through the gears fast, especially with the Triptronic transmission in sport mode. 

After driving with the additional 30-40 HP from the APR mod I'm convinced of one thing:  It's the wrong modification to make first.  The reason I say this is that the suspension, which feels firm and sporty at first,  gets boat-like during turns and sudden changes.  With the stock ECU programming the limits of the suspension are just barely noticeable, but adding power gets you into trouble that much faster.  The better first upgrade is going to be a suspension modification, and there's two kits that seem to fit my needs and have been well reviewed in the forums: Stasis Touring and the Eurocode (really 3 kits, sway bars, links and Alu Kreuz) which overall cost about the same.   Obviously these particular kits are not designed to be radical or bring the A4 up to the racetracks.  In my case I need to be able to play chauffeur to clients and guests from time to time and I'm afraid having a sedan (or saloon) for guests and a sports car for me is out of the question.  If it wasn't, I'd be writing about the R8. 

I did a little research, and while Stasis can be installed by some Audi dealers, you don't seem to get any better warranty protection from Audi by doing so.  It voids the Audi warranty on the suspension exactly as if it had been installed by a third party mechanic.  On the other hand, I've owned several Audi's in the past, and I've never had a suspension problem before 70K.  After that, its' $3,000 per 7,000 miles.   My opinion on modifying your car is to do it early and enjoy the mods for the life of your car.  Don't wait until the warranty is gone and you are two years from selling it.  By that time you'll have misspent your car's youth!  Another thing going against the Stasis mods are that they do lower your suspension by about an inch.  Maybe in other climates I would consider it, but here in Massachusettes we have deep snow, slush, heavy rain and potholes to worry about.  Lowering the suspension by about an inch may just be enough to flood something important.

As a result I'll be going with the Eurocode upgrades.  For about the same amount of money you get the Alukrautz under-engine brace, sway bars, and upmarket links without lowering the suspension.  Mind you, it will void my suspension's warranty just as quickly, but given my experience with Audi, I have about 65,000 miles to worry about it.  If I ever move to warmer, more driver friendly climates I can add the lowering springs as well. 

To anyone looking to modify the Audi A4 with the B8 chasis,   no matter who you go with, do the suspension work first.  You'll be safer and feel more confident on the roads.  You may even decide that your Audi has gotten as sporty as you want.