Archive for 2008

What to do about gas

Now that prices are dropping again due to decreased demand and the general global economic slowdown, the incentive for automakers to create and consumers to purchase more fuel efficient cars also drop. However in European states, their high gas taxes keep the demand up even in the face of decreasing fuel costs. How does America get there? By adopting a gas tax as well. But you can’t just all of a sudden add a 100% tax. There would be uproar and it would be bad for our staggering economy as well. Instead, adopt a 1¢ tax increase/month for the next several years. And then raise it to 1.5¢/month, 2¢/month, etc. This would help change the American mindset that we will have cheap oil forever. Of course even now we all want to decrease our dependence on foreign oil and do reduce our carbon footprint. But without a strong financial incentive, we will forever be locked in debate instead of taking quick action. This idea did not come from me of course. I heard it on NPR last night but I can’t seem to find the transcript right now. I think this is a great idea. It doesn’t cause drastic immediate change, but it will encourage people and car companies over the long run to reevaluate their situation and change their long-term plans.

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Home Appliances: Front Load Washer and Dryer

Pros

  • less water usage
  • quieter
  • cleaner clothes
  • no center agitator = more gentle on clothes
  • 2-3x spin cycle = less dryer time = lower utility bill

Cons

  • longer cycle time
  • must use HE (high-efficiency) detergent
  • more periodic maintenance (in order to prevent smells and mold growth)

The department of energy says old top loading washers use up to 40 gallons per load, while energy star rated top loaders use 18-25 and the newest HE washers (front and top loading) use 10-14 gallons per load.

Dryers haven’t changed much at all. The latest have a steam cycle option to reduce wrinkles and “refresh” clothes. But their operating concepts haven’t changed in a while. None have energy star ratings. They should probably give one for clotheshangers.

Some tips include running full loads in washers, avoiding hot water cycle, and leaving the door open after use to prevent odors. I leave the detergent tray open as well. It’s also a good idea to wipe down the inside of the door window for hair so that it doesn’t eventually get into the door seals.

Oh, and last tip (which is yet to be has been personally confirmed):

LG Washers: To set a SPIN ONLY cycle, power on, press spin speed button to select speed, and push play to start.

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Voting Machines and why Texas is best

Cause we use optical scanners! Punch cards have hanging chads, electronic machines are too complex and subject to attack at all stages — from bugs in the initial programming to being breached by crackers (hackers if you’re in the mainstream), and having data stolen or manipulated along the way. But the optical scanner technique, which have the voters directly mark on a piece of paper and are then scanned by optical machines, first and foremost have the best paper trail, have very little ambivalence, and have the convenience of machine tablulation. Remember back in school when you took multiple choice tests with Scantron sheets? Same thing. If the computer screws up, the teacher just takes a look at the original paper you turned in and scored you on that. No confusion! We don’t need computers with fancy touch screens and expensive hardware that lobbying companies want to sell to the .gov. Stick with tried and true!

Edit 2008-11-04: Ok, so I’ve found out we don’t use optical scanners for all of the state. So Texas is not best after all. But here’s more foundation to support my arguments:

The solution: Smith advocates an optical scan system where voters fill out a paper ballot that’s subsequently scanned to create a digital vote. That way, ballots can be quickly counted, but if the computerized vote tally comes under suspicion, poll workers can always recount the paper itself.

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Credit Cards and Rewards

In the last two months, I’ve been on a search for a better credit card. Since there are cards now (well, they’ve been around for a quite a while) that reward you for your purchasing dollars, I wanted to “upgrade” from my no reward card to one that at least gives me something back for all those merchant fees that they make from me and the companies I buy stuff from. So I embarked on a journey through the internet in search of all things rewards. They pretty much boiled down to two categories, reward points/miles or cash back. And I didn’t want an annual fee, which I’ll get back to later on.

The rewards category allows one to accrue points/miles for future redemption. After a cursory look at the amount of points I’d need to raise to get something from a limited reward selection, I decided rewards programs weren’t for me. The airline points is interesting, but rarely do you get more than 1 mile/1$ you spend. I wanted to see what the equivalent cash value of a mile was. After investigating further, I found a few sites, one of which was actually quite useful.

Averaging across programs, and assuming that you have the financial wherewithal to choose between spending miles or spending cash, I would consider 2 or more cents per mile to be the target, 1.7 cents per mile to be breakeven, and 1.5 cents the absolute floor.

So it appeared to me that getting only one mile per dollar was not a very good deal at all. (However if you do it just for the promotional 10-25K miles that they give out for signing up, it might be more worth it in the short run. But I didn’t want to keep picking up cards just for the airline miles.)

The next option was cash back. Now I believe Discover had a 5% cash back card a while back and American Express Blue Cash offers 5% back as well. But you really have to look at the nitty gritty details. For the Amex card, you have to spend over $6,500 first in order to get to the 5% back stage, and you only get it from groceries, drugstores, and gas stations. I don’t spend that much on groceries or gas. (Edit 09/22: As you’ll see below in the addendum, I’m wrong about this.) And I rarely get prescriptions filled. So those were no good. And then I saw the Amex True Earnings Costco card. A smaller 3% cash back. But it was for restaurants and gas. A 2% cash back, for all travel related expenses. And 1% on everything else. I figure the bulk of my spending is for eating out and traveling. Which would put me between 2 and 3% cash back. And that starts with the first dollar I spend, not the 6,501st dollar. Taking a further step back, I tried to compare it as best as I could with the airline mileage reward cards. For every dollar I spend, I’m gonna average a guaranteed better than $1/1mile ratio. It’s hopefully going to better than the $1/1.7mile ratio that the site says should be about break even. So I think I’ve found a winner. The downside I’ve found are the following:

  • Only a single annual rebate, in February. Other cash back programs provide up to a rebate every statement
  • You need to be a current Costco member, which means a $50 membership fee every year. That to me is worth it since Costco provides great value for its customers
  • No fancy concierge services that “Platinum” card services provide
  • More limited merchant acceptability due to Amex

To me, those negatives don’t outweigh the positives. Oh, and back to the annual fee cards. I think many of the airline mileage cards charge an annual fee, up to $85/year, and the Amex cards can charge up to $450 (Platinum) or more ($2000 for Centurion). But based on some of the feedback from “7337″ friends who have the card and use the service, it’s quite useful and worth the annual fee. But ya gotta be more balla than me :)

Addendum 09/22:

I looked up some more cash back cards and a lot of them like to advertise that they are 5% or 6% cash back. But they really like to play tricks with you. Some like Discover’s More card rotate the categories on which you get the cash back on a quarterly basis. So for example, you’d only earn cash back on travel done January to March, and cash back at restaurants only in October to December. I guess you’re just supposed to eat out at the end of the year. Others allow you to get cash back on the categories you spend the most money on. But guess what, the categories are like these: gym memberships, toll booths, fast food restaurants, movie theaters, utilities. Seems kinda like a joke to me. These categories are so granular, you’re not gonna to be spending a significant amount of money on any one of em, except for gas, which might be $75 back a year (assuming around 20mpg, 15k, and $3.50/gal, 3% cash back) for this type of card. And then there’s Amex Blue cash, but you have to spend over $6,500 a year on groceries, drugs, and gas (”everyday purchases”). I’ll give you $3k to spend on gas — that’s a lot of driving (even at $4/gal, and 20mpg, that’s 15k a year). Now you spend $3.5k on groceries. That’s $290 a month, which is quite doable. Now try spending another $3k on groceries and gas, which will bring your spending up to $9.5k. The true average money back percentage? 2.3%. Now don’t forget you’ll be spending money on other stuff, let’s say $5k in eating out and clothes, around $415 a month. You only get 1.5% back on that stuff. Which brings your true weighted percentage to..2%. But wait a minute. I think I made an error. The change-over for the rate applies to $6500 in total purchases, not the everyday amount. So let’s turn it around then, shall we? Let’s say you start the year off and for what strange reason, you eat out/travel/buy general merchandise (all of the non-everyday items) and spend $5k first. You get 0.5% cash back on that stuff before the $6500 mark. Then add $1500 of everyday items to get to $6500 total. Then add $8k of everyday spending (so you get the 5% cash back). Let’s do some calculating…3.0%. Pretty good. But look at what you had to do. That’s a lot of work. It seems like blue cash could work well for people with joint accounts, that could have an additional card holder or two that would drive up the amount of money spent to make the $6500 threshold a much smaller threshold. But they would literally have to drive as well, because gas purchases is a big factor. And groceries. And drugstore stuff. Then it might make more sense to use this card.

As always, this is just a little research and what made sense to me when I wrote it so make sure you do your own calculations.

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Blah blah blog

I have a few entries brewing in the old noggin right now, but I wanted to give this blog a bit more direction than the sometimes rambling rant about losing liberties or why I hate this or that. I want to start writing more in depth about some of my experiences, with entries more similar to the previous one about my current state of audio spiel. And with that, I’ll get back to work for now.

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My State of Audio Rant

In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten back into the world of hi-fi audio.

AudioEngine 2 Powered Speakers:

I was browsing online for NHT speakers and came to the owners blog (http://nowhearthisblog.blogspot.com/) and found a link to the Audiophiliac (http://news.cnet.com/audiophiliac/) who raved about these set of diminuitive speakers. I decided on a whim, and heavily based on the low cost of $199/pr to get these for the girlfriend’s upcoming birthday present. About the size of a multi-set DVD box, they had great midrange — which I consider a must in any loudspeaker or headphone, and surprisingly deep base extension and output for such small enclosure volume. Compared to my NHT SuperZero’s which have a 4 inch driver (the AudioEngine has 2.75″ bass drivers) and probably 50% more enclosure volume (but lacks any porting), the differences in the bass were night and day. What a great bargain I think these are. And since they’re powered, you just plug in the power, your analog source, and bam, you got a really decent sound setup. No extra cables, or amplifier/receiver boxes. Highly recommended to anyone who’s still stuck with crappy computer speakers or is using a TV’s built-in speakers. They’re magnetically shielded so you don’t have to worry about it distorting CRT electron or erasing iPod hard drives.

As a side note, Kevlar is the same woofer material used in B&W 800 series speakers. Except theirs is yellow, and those speakers start at about $2500/pr, up to over $10K/pr. Of course this does not necessarily determine sonic fidelity. Just thought it might be interesting that kevlar can’t possibly be that expensive.

Benchmark DAC1/USB/Pre digital to analog converter/pre-amp:

It’s good to read about professional audio equipment. They actually want to hear the truth in audio, vs blackhat magic which give you mumbo jumbo. The DAC1 arguably has the best measuring DAC on the market right now. Combine that with a well designed headphone amplifier circuit and a USB input that has the ability to retrieve bit-perfect output from the computer. Add an analog input and you have the DAC1Pre, which I think is a little over-priced at $1575, but the DAC1 at $975 is still a good value when compared to $10,000 “audiophile-grade” DAC’s that have worse measurements. A lot of the price went into the innovative engineering and clever designs.

Grado SR-125 open back headphones:

I’ve always thought that Grado’s were well reviewed. But my ears have now told my eyes they were deceived. Very bright mid-range, way too forward. The bass on these headphones suck. At first I thought it was due to the low (32ohm) input impedance, and my iPhone’s relatively high output impedence not being able to properly dampen and drive the low frequencies, but after getting the RSA amp (next item on the list) which has a Stereophile measure output impedance of <1 ohm, they still sucked. I played a variety of music and also used Stereophile’s Test CD to play a chromatic sweep of the bass frequencies. They rolled off very quickly. Perhaps it’s the shape of my ears, but I’m very unimpressed. I thought I was going to get better sound then my trusty old Koss Portapros, but boy was I wrong. The bass in the PortaPro’s is a bit generous, but even compared to my sony MDR-EX71 in-ear headphones and the AudioEngine 2’s, the balance and output of the bass was just wrong. I feel like these headphone would be very fatiguing because of the overly bright mid-range and physically very uncomfortable foam earpieces. I returned them the very next day.

Ray Samuel Adams portable headphone amplifier:

For $375, I thought I’d be getting something more substantial. Unfortunately that’s not the case. I think I would’ve kept this amplifier had it been $150, but it’s nothing more than a large 15,000uf capacitor and some (in relative terms) in-expensive opamps and other electronic components. It doesn’t matter if the circuit board is mil-spec and contains high ratios of copper if it’s only a 1/2″ by 1/2″ board, it’s still not gonna cost that much to manufacture. So in terms of parts cost, I think this item is highly over-priced. Now of course, there is a lot of time spent in engineering and designing an amplifier. But in this case, it’s just an op-amp and a 9V rechargeable battery as a power supply. I doubt there was that much time spend in designing the circuit. The wall-wart charger is off the shelf and made in china (as far as I can tell from the “made in china” sticker). Now I’m not trying to bad-mouth RSA. It’s a clean sounding amp - which I attribute to good design and good test measurements. I’m merely pointing out that like much of hi-end audio, many products are way overpriced and easily overhyped by print magazines, and online forums that spread the hype like wildfire.

The Audio Critic:

Now when I saw this site, it was like a breath of fresh air. A site that calls out publications like Stereophile for their ridiculous praise of $20k and $30K electronics and speakers that measure far worse than well designed $1k-$3k products. I think he may go a little too far in the bashing of Stereophile, which still have some good qualities, such as their measurement sections. Few other publications will actually measure the equipment they are reviewing.

Sigfried Linkwitz:

His site was linked to me from the Audio Critic for the Orion dipole speakers with active electronic crossovers. Now I was happy to see someone with a strong engineering background design a new speaker setup. This guy was already well praised for his role in Audio Artistry’s speaker line. But unfortunately, I was disappointed when he said the Sony MDR-EX71’s were some of the flattest response measuring and most accurate sounding earphones. (http://www.linkwitzlab.com/reference_earphones.htm) In my subjective opinion, because I don’t have access to test equipment nor knowledge to test it, I really don’t think they are very good headphones. The bass is somewhat muddy and the mid-range sounds colored to me. But I will add that this was right after listening to the Grado SR-125’s. I will go back again today to listen to them. Perhaps I will have a different opinion. I guess we audiophiles really want to buy into a “perfect” or “next-greatest” product that will blow all others out of the water.

HD-Radio, Satellite radio:

Is a farce. Current bitrates stand at 96kbps. A joke of a bitrate. On par with the joke of sound from satellite radio. XM and Sirius both have similar bitrates. You can hear how bad the compression artifacts are after a short listen. It’s most easily discerned in complex passages and when you hear cymbals or other metal percussion instruments. All these “new” technologies have sound quality lower than a strong analog FM signal, which already has rolled off bass below 35Hz and above 15kHz. What does give it a silver lining is that HD-Radio can have up to 300kbps if there are no analog simulcasts and no side channels. But we all know that won’t be the case. Stations and promoters would rather have more channels than one good sounding channel. Thumbs down.

Discovery:

I’m now more a believer of measurements over perceived improvements. As one poster on head-fi.com said, “this is a tunnel where I just don’t see the light at the end of.” There’s so much noise and subjective opinion out there without proper A/B comparisons. Our brains are highly adaptable and easily succumbs to psychological coercion. Just because a reviewer said he could hear the difference between 99.999 and 99.9999% pure copper wire doesn’t mean it’s the truth.

Findings:

I now look at consumer hi-fi equipment with way more scrutiny and weariness. In my opinion:

- Amplifiers should measure as such:
high input impedance <20Kohm
very low output impedance <0.01 ohm
flat frequency response
low distortion at rated output <1%
low crosstalk > 50db channel separation

If it meets these criteria, I don’t think people really can hear the difference in a level matched double blind A/B test.

- Speakers
have the greatest impact in how things sound. they are the devices that turn electrical signals into mechanical movement that translate into audible sound
therefore, they:

should have a relatively flat measurement as well, with no upward or downward trends in their frequency response.
low distortion.

Hi-end audio is just like any other male hobby. Which unfortunately means that it’s more about the equipment and discussion of said equipment’s virtues rather than enjoying the hobby. Hi-fi is supposed to be about musical enjoyment. In reality, it’s about nit-picking perceived minute audio differences and deficiencies. Just like my camera forums which nit-pick about sharpness, contrast and bokeh instead of taking a step back, looking at the printed output and enjoying the overall picture. Or my knife forums which nit-pick the sharpness or edge holding ability of one alloy over another while forgetting about the actual ergonomics and daily use factors of the knife as a whole.

For now, I’m going to stick to my iphone and portapros. Maybe in the future when my FLAC collection is bigger, I’ll get a DAC1Pre, and a set of Sennheiser HD-600 or 650’s. Hopefully those won’t disappoint.

Bonus:

Sendstation has a product called the PocketDock. It’s a dock connector that has a 3.5mm line level output and a USB Type B connector so you can output higher quality audio into a stereo or easily charge/sync your iphone/ipod. I will be using it mostly for the line-out connector.

(This post was originally written on 2008.08.14.)

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Travel rambles

When booking a flight to LA for a friend’s wedding on AA.com, I tried to use a discount code. It didn’t work. Brought me to an error page. So I called customer service as was directed on that error page. They told me that the code would work online, but only for LAX. The discount is applicable to all neighboring airports, which I was trying to book the flight for, but it needed to be manually entered in by the service rep and wouldn’t work online. But with the new fees they’re charging for booking over the phone, I would lose out over the meager 5% discount. Sigh.

On the other hand, I’ve found a new travel research site, kayak.com. It’s a meta-airline/hotel/rental pricing site that searches most all of the popular sites out there for cheap flights and serves them up in an easy to digest presentation. Unfortunately, Southwest Airlines is still not a happy player when it comes to allowing third party sites to traverse their rates. So aside from SW, all other major carriers should be there (I haven’t verified that in any detail though).  They say that their revenue comes from advertising and clicks so it’s not a travel agency like orbitz or hotwire.

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