The Idea Dude


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hearing is believing

Logic never comes into the equation when it comes to buying the things we desire the most. Those decadent objects are never bought because you need them but rather because you want them. Think Porsche sports cars, Coach handbags, Apple iPhones, Centrance headphone amplifiers. Wait... did someone say headphone amplifier? Yup, I sure did.

Most people in the world listen to music as if we're driving a car with a muddy windshield. We buy an expensive music player and proceed to use $20 headphones listening to music ripped as MP3s. Like drinking cheap wine, if that's all you drink, you'd be happy for a long time. Until of course one day someone offers you a great Chardonnay or a 10 year old Cabernet. After the first sip, you savor what would seem like liquid heaven... and then you damn the person who offered it to you because life will never be the same again.

The only thing I never loved about my MacBook was the sound. It wasn't bad but it wasn't great either. My Thinkpad of old had Intel High Definition audio. It spoilt me to a point, I never really listened to music on my Mac for long periods of time. The sound was flat, boring and unimaginative. Finally, I relented and purchased a headphone amplifier, the DacPort from Centrance. Computers are not meant to be hi-fi devices so they put components that are generally decent and good enough but not stellar. The DacPort was designed to be a high end audio device that takes raw digital output and converts it to analog signals to drive headphones and preamps.

If you're expecting sound that's immediately a 100x better, you would be disappointed. It's not that immediately obvious. But like a good bottle of wine, take a little time and all the goodness is revealed in its own time. Here's why it shines:

  • You have to pick the right music and performances. The garbage in / garbage out principle applies. Pick a live performance with great voices and acoustic instruments, you'll hear the rasp of a sultry voice, the squeal of fingers on the nylon strings. Details you only thought you could hear if you sat next to a live performance.
  • Audiophiles like to talk about the soundstage. That's another way to say, the music sounds three dimensional, not flat but has depth. Instruments and artists are every distinct from each other giving you the impression that are in different places around you. The DacPort gives you that soundstage.
  • Here's the shocking thing. I have a pair of Shure, Grado and Sony Studio Monitors. In the past, they sounded pretty close to each other, presumably because the audio quality was vague enough to mask their differences. With DacPort giving very clean and distinct sounds, each headphone had an entirely different character. I was aware of the differences before but never to that extent.
  • Unlike many headphone amplifiers, the DacPort works great with in-ear headphones like the Shure. No hiss, no noise, just clean, clean sound.
  • The mark of a good amplifier is how much detail you hear in low volumes. I was able to turn it pretty low (while programming) and still enjoy a lot of detail in the music.

Warning: some of your favorite music you listen to will invariably sound bad, either because they were ripped with too much loss or the recording wasn't great. The DacPort isn't discriminate when it comes to revealing your music to as close to its original form as you can get. It's like watching the beach form a distance. They all look beautiful until you get really close, not everyone is made equal (unfortunately).

I don't normally do product reviews and I paid full price for this baby, so it's not some shameless endorsement here. At close to 400 big ones, you could get a netbook. But as far as audiophile equipment goes, it's a steal. It isn't rational. At the end of the day, as you step into your Porsche and turn the key, or sling that Burberry handbag over your shoulder, the price is irrelevant, it's how it makes you feel. Right now that's the way I feel when I crank up the volume.

BTW: When the CEO takes the time to answer your many emails very patiently, you realize there is a passionate team of people who really care about what they do and the quality of their products. Thank you Michael.

Friday, July 16, 2010

My MacBook is now even cooler!

I finally decided to buy a laptop cooling fan. After upgrading my MacBook to 4GB, adding a higher capacity hard drive and driving a 24 inch external display, things starting to heat up. When I first bought my MacBook, the temperatures were in the 50's and now consistently it is in the 70's and sometimes 80's. (all figures in centigrade)

So I sprung some well-earned dollars and got a Zalman cooling fan. It's not ideal, the two fans are smaller than others and the airflow is towards the bottom 2/3's of the cooling platform. The MacBook gets the hottest at the top where the exhaust vents are and on the top left where the graphics card is.

Your notebook will heat up if:

  • You add more hardware like more memory, bigger / faster harddrive or connect external devices like an external monitor. More hardware means more current. More current means more heat.
  • Running screensavers will keep your CPU's and GPU's hot because there is very little or no disk access. Your CPU's will end up running 30% or more capacity and more importantly (all the time, not just sporadic bursts). This translates to more heat and less battery life.
  • If you leave your browsers open, be aware what is running in the windows. Rotating ads, flash advertisements, animations will drive your CPU and GPU nuts just like screensavers. Your CPU could reach 50-80% depending the page. And all this is happen while you step out to lunch or throughout the night.
  • Keep an eye what what is running in the background and what their CPU consumption is. If it is occasional like a printer manager waking up for a brief period, you're ok. But it all adds up. I've noticed that Google Docs have some bug that occasionally, it gets into a loop and my CPU max's out until I close the browser window. And I wasn't even editing the doc!

There are so many threads about notebooks mysteriously draining power overnight or overheating when not in use. Because you're not using it doesn't mean the notebook is being used!

So on to cooling pads, here are some tips:

  • If noise is important to you. Get the cooler with the larger fans. They range from 70mm to 230mm. Large fans don't have to run as fast to generate the same airflow. Fan speed is the biggest source of noise. Small fans have to run faster and generate more noise. I would have love to get the ones with 230mm fans, unfortunately, their design means the whole notebook is raised by an inch which is not acceptable to me. I type pretty much 8-12 hours a day.
  • Most of the cheap products don't tell you what the airflow is (usually this is measure in cubic feet per minute (CFM). You can usually guess by looking at fan size and fan speed when comparing different products.
  • Before buying a fan, look at where the hotspots really are on you notebook. Sometimes it is on the side furthest from you (MacBooks) or on the side (ThinkPads). Remember, the fan is there to move hot air away from the hotspot.
  • Running a cooling pad will not necessarily reduce your normal operating temperature of the CPU as much as you think. Here's why. The CPU gets hot, the heatsink draws the heat away from the CPU, the fan blows the air away through the vents or towards the body of the notebook. Under normal conditions if you can remove the hot air from the notebook body and the vents, the internal fan detects the internal temperatures are down and slows down or stops. The CPU stays relatively hot. So extra cooling on the outside at some point doesn't translate to lower CPU temperatures. You're reached steady state and the temperature gradient from inside to outside doesn't change. To reduce the CPU temperature, you have to make the internal fan run even if it thinks it doesn't have to so the air from the CPU can be moved away.
  • External cooling fans do their best work in the extreme cases. That's when the CPU's hot, the internal fan is blowing and you need to move hot air fast. Since getting the notebook cooling pad, the temperature seems to be fairly constant between 66-75 deg C while running the internal fan at around 3000rpm. This is true even when watching a YouTube video or the SlingBox TV channel. Before the cooling pad I would see temperatures rise over 80 deg C and the fan blowing over 4000-5000rpm.
  • Don't forget that your ambient temperature impacts your steady state. My office is good 5-6 degrees cooler than my loft at home. My MacBook sensors show the notebook body is correspondingly 3-4 deg lower at work than at home. Ambient affects what your steady state temperature flow.

So my conclusion, notepad coolers are great. Don't expect them to do much at normal loads (but then you would be buying one anyway). But they help keep heavy load conditions close to normal operating temperatures. High temperatures shorten the life of your components and increase the risk of failure.

Right now, my MacBook is even cooler in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

iPad goodness

I managed to read a 197 page pdf document on the iPad. There's a neat feature that allows you to save the pdf to your iBook library. Best part it remembers your last page. But it's an exercise I have rarely attempted on a notebook or desktop.

The iPad format feels like a book that you can sit back, hold in your hand and pause to reflect on the content when you want to. Maybe I'm just old school.

I've been reading Marvel comics on the iPad too. The graphics are stunning but somehow it just doesn't feel the same as having a comic in your hand. I'm thinking it is because when we read comics, we don't just focus on a frame but our peripheral vision allows us to see the other frames that adds to the viewing experience.

BTW: The worst thing you can do on the iPad is browse car sites. Just about every major manufacturer requires a flash plugin and many just don't work at since the menu is flash-based. Must be a niche for some savvy developer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bridges of Madison County

I finally got around to watching Bridges of Madison County. Meryl Streep was nominated for an Oscar, she should have won.

There was one moment that stuck with me. Clint Eastwood's character Robert Kincaid reflected on their relationship,

"This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime."

A great powerful comment. I thought about pivotal moments in my life, the crossroads where I made some important decision. How many of them were that certain. I'm not sure.

But often, in the face of risk, our gut will say something, maybe something like what Robert said. At that point in the time, we know what we should do, anything less we would live with a lifetime of regret.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The train has left the station

I was watching Polar Express with my daughter over the weekend. Yes it was kinda weird watching a snowy Christmas movie when we're in a heat wave. But we're Tom Hanks fans.

There's a very poignant moment at the end of the movie where the conductor says to the boy, "It doesn't matter as much where the train is going, it is more important whether you choose to get on the train."

The older we get the harder it is to commit to new adventures. Perhaps we are all too aware of the cost and risk. Children never count the cost or see the risk. They definitely seize the moment whereas as adults we simply seize up like old machine parts.

There is a happy medium in between but often we forget to see the world through the eyes of children. If we forget, we may never know what we could have achieved.

Monday, July 05, 2010

What's in your knapsack

Two elderly people were out walking this morning. Wrapped around their waists where sweaters... just in case. With the kind of weather we were getting, hand towels are probably better ideas, but instead they had sweaters. Just in case.

I wondered how much of our lives are cluttered with unnecessary articles, habits, thoughts, feelings, regrets, hate. Things we choose to carry around us because we are afraid by letting go, we would lose them. But what if we do? Would it be the end?

We do it all the time. I'm notorious for keeping boxes after taking out the items. Just in case I need to return them, I tell myself. 10 years, after the items have been thrown out, the boxes are still there. Just in case. My parents do the same, in their case, I'm sure it is because they know what it is like not to have things. For them, it is a habit of being frugal. And mostly it is a habit.

We are all hoarders in some way. Whether it is physical or emotional, we keep things around. Many of them are unnecessary. Maybe it is our primeval gathering instinct but I suspect it is just our insecurities.

George Clooney gives his knapsack lecture in his movie Up in the Air. One can read so much in that metaphor, e.g. empty knapsack means empty soul. It does make me wonder how often do we check what we have in our lives. How much is redundant? How much of it has no value or use anymore?

To have an empty knapsack would be a tragedy. There must be things, memories, feeling, people who help define us and build our world around us. I guess the problem is we seldom look inside to figure out what we should leave behind, to make space for the new. If we don't, our knapsacks will eventually drag us down and we remain the same.

They say if we continue to the do same things, we will get what we always gotten. It is always time to change. Not necessarily monumental change. Just tweaks here and there and before we know it, we become new "me's"/

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Having room to breathe

Once again, I slipped into the blogging abyss. I don't believe in frivolities, I'd rather not blog than fill this space for the sake of putting some content up. I make a poor candidate for Twitter and Facebook. I honestly don't know why people would care that I had a great day at the beach yesterday. I don't deny the value of the social network. I just don't believe in digital pollution.

To be honest, I have been criticized in the past for not initiating or speaking up because I was told that my voice does matter and the content always has merit. Unfortunately, I am an introvert and it's a gene or DNA thing. Like a sword, my voice is never used in jest but used when needed to. In truth, I am a thinker. I get lost in my thoughts, really.

The past month has been a hectic whirlpool of activities as we help a client with some much need features that would make their big marketing push. 14-16 days don't give one room to think of other things. Nor does it help with the morning quiet time I religiously set out for myself.

It did prove one thing. If you have no room to breathe, or have no time to reflect, you will stop growing as an individual. When you're in a jungle slashing away furiously around you, beating a path, you're not above the treetops looking at where you should be going.

We love our client to bits. They have given us the financial freedom to make them successful and so far I think we have done just that. At the back of mind, there's a nagging sense that it is like a pair of golden handcuffs, because we're not building our own futures beyond being terrific consultants. I am truly grateful for once again having our heads above water but I embarked on this journey exactly 4 years ago to beat to our own drum, not someone else's.

Tealeaf is away for 3 weeks and I'm holding the fort. A lot of things have changed in the last 4 years. I've learnt a lot on all fronts. Most of all you learn a lot about yourself. You faced with your own frailties, shortcomings and learn to build on your strengths. Most importantly, you learn to survive. They can't teach that, you must learn it on your own. After 4 years, I feel like I've just started, it was my apprenticeship, to build a set of tools for the next 4 years.

Where will the next 4 years take me? I'd be a fool to predict. Some things don't change. I love to empower people, build great products, offer superb user experiences. Basically make my stay in the digital space a memorable one to those we touch.

I always ended each of my journeys with the Toy Story phrase, "To Infinity and Beyond". Unfortunately, reality is around the corner and is much more tangible than infinity. Nevertheless, I'm always a digital dreamer. Microsoft used to have the tagline, "Where would you want to go today?" I need to start asking myself that question again...

Winston Churchill said it best, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning".

We've drunk the Apple Kool-aid the past 18 months. So it is only fitting I tell myself, Steve's 4 famous words...

"Stay hungry, stay foolish"...