Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winner - Prettiest and Worst Website of 2013

After very little time, thought or deliberation the winner of my personal award for "Prettiest and Worst" website of 2013 goes to danger!awesome

The website is the worst for wasting as much bandwidth as it does saying nothing.  It's essentially a worthless placeholder with a lot of forethought.  Unless you already know who and what danger!awesome is or does, this site is useless.  It's like a very expensive fashion watch that can't actually tell time and as such is to me a great example of the very worst kind of web marketing tripe.

Friday, December 20, 2013

At Long last, an affordable Audio Analyzer from QuantAsylum! Uncork the casks and let the feast begin!

An audio analyzer is a high precision tool used to measure the performance of a variety of components involved in sound recording and reproduction. Pretty much everything except for speakers.   Think of it as a combination precision signal generator and spectrum analyzer that let's you at the very least do noise and distortion tests to a high degree of certainty. 

Despite the proliferation of cheap components which could be used to build audio analyzers in recent years an "affordable" unit was still in the neighbourhood of $5,000 or more.  Easily more.  Keep in mind that the audio analyzer market is not the same as the audiophile gear market.   Audio analyzers are not meant to appeal to those with more money than sense audiophiles or use diamond transistors and tubes recently "appropriated" from the radar of a Mig-23.  I'm comparing prices and performance from real gear from Audio Precision or Hewlett Packard here.  Even the cheap imports were still far too expensive for the 21st century small manufacturer or repair shop, not to mention a hobbyist. 

Some alternatives that have come close have appeared from the PC oscilloscope vendors.  Companies who leverage a PC to use as a test bed, but from my point of view, they were not yet a serious challenge.   While they may have offered wider frequency ranges in the Gigahertz ranges, and a great combination of digital and analog measurements and signal generation their use of bit limited analog to digital converters made them of little use or interest to the likes of me or any audio repair shop either.  I've yet to see one in the range for instance provide distortion measurements directly. 

Within the last week however I became aware of the QuantAsylum QA400 Audio Analyzer.  Finally, a piece of kit in line if not less expensive than a PC oscilloscope with the technical chops to rival the serious offerings from Audio Precision and others.  It's exactly what it should be.  An external 24 bit/192Ksps DAC and ADC with software to use it.   At $199, most audio designers without deep pockets would be ecstatic.   Given that it also throws in serious automation capabilities this device is a steal.  This company from a city in Washington state with an unpronounceable and indecipherable name ( Snoqualmie ) has broken the barriers!

I hope to see them featured in places like PartsExpress and PartsConnexion soon, not to mention a Linux port as well. 

Optical S/PDIF is the only reliable way to get high quality sound from a PC.

If you are using a PC for music or movies, you should avoid taking the audio from an HDMI, USB or coaxial output.  The reason for this is that PC's tend to create ground loops when connected to other pieces of equipment.   This is readily audible with analog connections, but insipid in digital.

The issue with digital is that you'll get a ground loop introduced into the signal which can cause very high amounts of jitter and you'll be listening to just OK sound which you won't notice until you get something better.

There are some exceptions though.  Unfortunately magazines like Stereophile won't test these options.  They deliberately use test in a way that negates the benefits, so you can't tell from a review if your DAC has good isolation or not.

Using an optical connection between your PC and audio system guarantees that you won't be listening to a DAC under the worst possible conditions.

There have been some that argue that coaxial S/PDIF connections are better, but those arguments were made assuming dedicated CD transports and DAC's which have far less ground loop and noise issues than PC's.

So, until something better and reliable comes along, I'd suggest to always use optical. 

The best Linux for your Home Theater system is Xubuntu

For me Xubuntu kicked the pants off of Fedora 19, and Ubuntu.  First, it does everything I need it to do relatively easily.  Secondly it's a relatively lightweight installation compared to the default Ubuntu.  Thirdly, the UI itself is really CPU light, giving you extra horsepower for watching movies and playing games.   Lastly, SteamOS is built on Debian, with official out of the store support for Ubuntu/Xubuntu. 

In case you dont' know, Xubuntu is Ubuntu - (bunch of fat apps and an ugly default UI) + Xfde.  From a binary perspective, Xubuntu IS Ubuntu in a different, leaner packaging.  Anything you can do in Ubuntu you can do in Xubuntu using the native Ubuntu installs.

A lot of people may be wondering why I'm not recommending XBMCubuntu which is in fact a distro specifically designed to give the home theater experience.  The answer is simply that I found XBMC really not ready for the casual user.  If you want something to install, to just work, and not be Windows, Xubuntu is a much better idea in my mind.  Below you will find some examples and installation instructions.

Squeezebox Server

Due to missing and impossible to resolve conflicts in the Perl graphics libraries, Fedora can no longer install squeezebox server.  It has to do with a native image compression library and that there is no way to resolve it without going backwards and some serious hackery.

Xubuntu installed Squeezebox server with no issues at all.

Perhaps the best source of legal anime on the web, AnimeCrave uses some Windows specific codecs which are hard to reliably implement in Fedora.  On the other hand on Xubuntu they are installable reliably from the Software Center.   Search for "totem."  Click on "Videos."  Scroll down to the list of "Optional add-ons".  Select them all.   Click on the "Install" button near the top when it's done updating.

[Update January 6, 2014]  There is an issue with the default gstreamer settings which causes repeated audio stuttering.  It has an easy fix.  Type the following in a command line terminal:

     gsettings set org.gnome.totem network-buffer-threshold 4.0

Someday Linux will just work.  Until then we are faced with these silly quirks. 

Congratulations, you can now watch everything on AnimeCrave in high quality.


Installs directly from the Ubuntu Software Center though you will need an UbuntuOne and Steam account. 

Netflix and Amazon


 Video and Network Drivers

This part is really easy but it takes a little patience, because the application takes a while to update itself.   In the system menu select "Settings Manager" then under "Hardware" select "Additional Drivers".  Click on Ubuntu Software tab.  Turn on all of the checkboxes.  Click "Other Software" tab.  Turn on "Canonical Partners" but you can leave off "Canonical Partners (source code)" unless you want to do some compiling on your own.

Now comes the patient part.  I'm not sure if this is related to other software updates, so you may want to go to your command line and try:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

After that, restart the "Software Updates" app, and click "Additional Drivers" where you will see cool things like proprietry nVidia and Broadcom (Wi-Fi) drivers show up if they are compatible with your hardware.  You may need to wait 1-2 minutes for this screen to correctly populate, or even try it a couple of times.

Audio Devices

This is the one place where Xubuntu sucks.  The audio device management should be integrated into it's otherwise great Settings Manager application but it's not.    If, like me, you are using S/PDIF outputs to feed your home theatre processor, it won't be on by default.  Now, you'd think you'd go into "Settings Manger" scroll down to "Hardware" and find a "Sound" app.  But noooooooo.  << sigh >>

Fortunately, it's relatively easy to find.   From the main system menu, or from the Application finder (the magnifying glass icon in the bottom of your screen) select "PulseAudio Volume Control. "  This is where you will need to enable your fancy digital audio outputs, whether it's via HDMI or an S/PDIF connector on the back of your motherboard.   You may have to dig around a little bit. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Flatware Cleanliness Test

Have you ever gone to a "high end" restaurant only to be served with dirty flatware?  Isn't it a huge disappointment?  I have.  Last time it was a high-end Chinese-like chain restaurant.   The chopsticks I received had particles of food on them you could scratch off with a fingernail.    Ugh!!

I've also been to places where several sets of flatware looked clean but were still dirty.  Maybe I was pickier than most, but I could feel the greasiness on my fingers.  How could others not notice?

So, here's a test, and if you are a kitchen manager I highly encourage you to try it.  Take two identical pieces of flatware.  Take a paper towel to one of them and rub it as clean as you can.  With clean, dry hands feel both of them.  If the one you did not clean off feels slick, but the one you cleaned feels tacky you still have plenty of oil and grease left on the flatware.   Clean flatware should not feel slick.

I should add of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for adhering to industry  best practices and regulations, or biochemical analysis and regular inspections.   It is meant to help diners, washers and kitchen pro's see something they might have missed otherwise.

The Truth about Dish Washers

The Myth of Dishwashers

A lot of people think of dish washers as being a type of sterilizing system.  The heat, water and detergent will kill all bacteria and leave all surfaces surgically clean and are always better than hand washing.  Unfortunately heat sterilization - killing of bacteria by applying near boiling temperature or steam above boiling - is not part of the dish washing process.   The temperatures inside the dishwasher never achieve the high temperatures needed to achieve this.

Chemical sterilization also does not take place.  The soaps used in a dishwasher are no more caustic than your counter top dish soap.

Making Dishes Clean

There are two things that must be done to make a dish clean:

  • Food substances to be completely removed.  This especially means any oils, greases or sugars.
  • Surfaces must be dried and kept that way for storage.

If you leave food, or worse, food + moisture on an eating utensil it will be ripe for bacterial growth, no matter how good your dishwasher or detergent brand may be.

The Three Pillars of Dish Cleaning

Abrasion - Removal of food and other particles by physical means (a sponge, scouring pad or jets of water all count).  This process assists and is assisted by dilution.

Dilution - Removal of grease, oil and any remaining food particulates by dissolving them into the water/soap mix which is then flushed and rinsed away.  This is the main reason for using very hot water.  The detergent's main job is also here.  The soapy bubbles we associate with soaps also demonstrate emulsification, that is, trapping oils in bubbles so they stay dissolved into the water instead of being redeposited on the dishes.. 

Desiccation - Drying the dishes completely.  All life needs moisture.  Removing this moisture quickly after washing will prevent disease.   If a dish is not dry, it's not really clean.

At home, if you achieve all three of these steps routinely then you will have clean and safe dishes.

While institutions like hospitals and restaurants take things further they still have to build upon these three basic steps, as opposed to replace them with others.