A Starbucks Rant

Posted on August 31st, 2006 in Vancouver by andrija

I posted this on a blog I often visit – incidentally I often spend more time writing posts for other people’s blogs than my own, and they’re of better quality too.

It was said that Starbucks business model involves people coming to sit on comfy sofas, using wireless internet and getting thirsty, thus buying some overpriced coffee.  To which I replied…

Sitting on comfy couches and enjoying wireless internet at Starbucks? What utopia are you living in? The only Starbucks I know of where you could ever find a FREE comfy sofa was when I was in Luzerne and Zurich, Switzerland, two years ago. And my double espresso (I don’t drink fancy drinks, though I did learn to enjoy the coloured water that north americans call “coffee”) was over $4. Here, Starbucks is ALWAYS crowded, even early in the morning or evening. Well, I DO live on west coast and close to Seattle…

Which actually makes me wish there were OTHER places to get my coffee. Like, REAL coffee houses where you can actually SIT down and drink it, rather than take it to go. Back home in Europe you’d never buy a coffee in a coffee shop and then take it with you – what you’re paying for is not really the coffee but the right to sit down, chat, socialize, look at the human traffic passing by etc. None of which happens in Starbucks, unless you are one of the lucky ones who got a seat (who ARE those people by the way??). So for me – and most people I know – it’s just a place to get your coffee, nothing more. To get it, that is, after waiting in line for 10 minutes to get a drink that takes a push of a button (they got rid of manual machines a few years back and naturally quality of drinks suffered but nobody seems to care) and a 20-second wait, because the same line serves people who want their double-tall extra-hot skim milk caramel latte or worse yet a frappucinno (though in summer so do I sometimes).

Incidentally, I go to Starbucks for the same reason I go to McDonalds (which I do only twice a month or so, unlike Starbucks) – their product is CONSISTENT. It isn’t the best, but it *always* tastes the same, for better or worse. There is better coffee to be found (duh, this is Vancouver) but thanks to Starbucks, it’s not in convenient places.

What does this has to do with Tokyopop and manga? I guess not much, except that I don’t think Starbucks model as you outlined actually works. What they make money on is the volume of people moving through their stores. I do think they’re going to hit the limit pretty soon (today I read that they posted slowest same-store sale increases since 2001) because the lineups are getting unmanageable – even with 4 starbuckses just in the mall near my place. They’ve become too big for their own good and forgot the ways of their fathers (10 years ago flyers in their stores were about the quality approach they were taking; now it’s just tie-in business like starbucks visa etc.). I used to get a free drink coupon every now and then when they’d screw up or take too long; I haven’t gotten one in ages.

iPod Hiss, Alternative Firmware Issues

Posted on August 23rd, 2006 in Audio,Electronics by andrija

Today I was randomly reading Head-Fi, which I do extremely rarely (a few times a year at most) and I ran into some interesting new information. Well, it probably isn’t as much new to others as it’s to me, but this is my webblog after all, so news it is. Anyhow, it seems that a lot of people use or are advocating the use of RockBox firmware for iPods. What I find interesting is not that, but one of the alleged reasons for using RockBox – namely, hiss that can be heard when using iPod original firmware. The other reason – allegedly better sound quality – is another puzzle that is worth exploring.

I had iPod with me when I read it – it’s a 40G 4th generation one. I paused it, set the volume on maximum, listened carefully and then pressed my Sennheiser HD25-1 headphones against my ears… and then I heard it. Indeed it’s there. And it depends on the volume setting – if you lower it, it’s gone.

Let’s put it into perspective though. The hiss is very faint. Perhaps on very low impedance headphones it gets more evident, but it’s unlikely to be of any consequence in just about any listening situation. Furthermore, the question is whether it even matters when actually playing music. The fact that it’s only there when volume is at or near maximum points towards issues in digital domain. So the analog amplifier has low enough noise; perhaps iPod is playing digital zero signal (rather than real mute or DAC off) when paused, in which case one can hear the noise floor of 16-bit signal. I would say this is the most likely possibility. And if that’s true, it’s completely irrelevant to music listening – as long as you do get the full dynamic range that those 16 bits can provide.

So I did a RMAA measurement of my iPod (that’s headphone out, line out measurements are here). The results I got are very decent, though it looks like the noise is a bit higher than it should be and therefore it is not using the entire dynamic range. A 16-bit system is capable of about 98dB – for example my Flute 2 DAC measures like this in 16-bit mode (ignore measurements other than dynamic range and noise – this was before the DAC was further optimized). With iPod we got around 93dB – but I did have to increase input volume on the soundcard by 3dB (4dB for line out) to raise levels to what RMAA requires; this might mean that the noise floor and dynamic range are actually 96dB which would be perfectly in line with WM8971 DAC typical parameters (it is alleged that this one is closest to codec that my iPod is using). Another measurement on the web, of 3G iPod, is in line with my own regarding noise and dynamic range – about 93dB, though. These results are all superb for a portable device though

Note also that this measurement is done with no load on the iPod – it is only driving high impedance recording (line) input of my E-MU 1212m professional soundcard. When driving headphones, an ideal amplifier will still measure the same no matter the load; iPod and most other amplifiers will however change for the worse, and that change will be drastic. It’s not really their fault – there’s only so much you can do with low voltage, especially when you are also not allowed to use a lot of current. Some people – audiophiles, notably – would certainly consider sacrificing significant amount of battery life if it meant significant improvement in audio quality.

I do, however, also have an oscilloscope (or two). So I turned it on and measured the iPod, or rather just watched how the signal looks like on its output when it’s paused and at max volume. I got about 15mV peak to peak of what looked like broadband noise. At some point I thought I could isolate a 1MHz signal somewhere in there, but I could not reproduce it, so I will assume it’s mostly a broadband noise. If I capture a real-time “spectrum analyzer” (RMAA running in calibration mode, 24-bit!) screenshot, I get this. When iPod is turned off, I get this. There’s about 20dB difference between those two graphs across the board. If I play with the volume, with iPod still paused, I can easily see that the amount of this noise changes in sync with it. If you reduce volume to zero, you get below oscilloscope’s noise floor except for some high frequency spikes that seem to be around 150kHz.

I then turned on my IRiver iHP-120 which is incidentally running RockBox firmware. This player also produces hiss when paused – but the hiss is much less noticeable and does not seem dependant on the volume setting (however, when iPod’s volume is reduced, its hiss is lower than iRiver’s or even disappears). Therefore iRiver’s hiss is most likely due to analog amplifier’s noise. On oscilloscope, this player shows 10mV peak-to-peak, but there is a very strong presence of approximately 1.5MHz signal this time around, so a lot of the noise is way beyond audible range. I wonder why I was even able to hear any hiss – so I plugged headphones into my Flute 2. Even this amplifier seemed to create some hiss but at this point I was really wondering if it was audible or just my imagination; it cannot be measured by the oscilloscope’s as it is below its noise floor which is about 2mV peak to peak (at least with probes that I have which aren’t original so they pick up a bit of noise even when grounded). It could have also been the EMI from my room inducing noise in the long headphone cable – there’s plenty of EMI in this room full of cables and electronics.

In the end, I would say that iPod’s pause noise does not seem to present any kind of concern in terms of influencing the sound quality. Were it present with any volume setting, it could’ve been the reason of iPod not being able to reach limits of 16-bit sound (assuming my soundcard did not lose dynamic range for 16-bit due to having to increase its gain). However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I am not sure about the other claim – RockBox firmware somehow increasing audio quality. I will need to read up more about it – someone might have already found an explanation for it (I sure would hope so, this doesn’t look like very fresh news).

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The Unfriendly Vancouver, congested and slow

Posted on August 19th, 2006 in Vancouver by andrija

Well, today was a nice, sunny day so I thought I might go out for a walk around False Creek. Actually, I figured I could take SkyTrain downtown and go to The Bay store for lunch, then take SkyTrain back to Main Street station and walk around.

What a mistake that was. First, it took me close to half an hour just to get to Broadway station – 10 minutes of waiting for the train, and then the train was moving so slowly it was sickening. And it was of course crowded, even though it had extra cars. Well duh, if you reduce frequency you should at least keep the trains moving at the same speed as usual. Otherwise extra cars aren’t going to help.

So I decided to go to lunch somewhere else. I got off at Broadway station (by this time I should’ve already been in the Bay’s restaurant) and took 99 bus. Of course, I had to wait another 10 minutes (probably a bit more) – God forbid they increase frequency of buses to compensate for crawling SkyTrains. And then – in addition to usual slow moving traffic on Broadway – yet another 10 minutes delay at the Kingsway intersection due to the roadwork they’re doing there (come to think of it, they were doing it last weekend already). I finally got off at Cambie – more construction there though luckily not obstructing the traffic – and went to nearby Cactus Club to get lunch. After that I figured I could go to Visions store to see if they got new Sony XBR2 TVs. Well, I found out the store is not at that location any more (and it’s been barely 5-6 years since it was opened there too) – it’s a Royal Bank branch now. The same branch whose original building was torn down in that construction near Cactus Club I mentioned earlier. Oh well, I went to Best Buy to see if there’s anything new there. Of course, there isn’t. And of course, they keep dumping the old stuff on us – Westinghouse 47″ LCD actually looked great but it was only W1 revision, which people complain about on AVS forums. I suppose Canada is BestBuy’s dumping ground for outdated models. At least the price was somewhat reasonable, though I’m sure it costs far less than that in the States.

Anyhow, I decided against taking a walk because I really didn’t feel like dealing with the SkyTrain again – I figured if I walked to Granville Island, I would have to take the bus to downtown and then SkyTrain again to get home. So I decided to hop on the bus south to get to 41st Ave, then take bus 41 to get home, avoiding SkyTrain.

That was another mistake, of course. I forgot about – you guessed it – more construction. The entire area is under blockade for the rapid transit line construction. At least the traffic wasn’t as slow as in other places – people already got accustomed to construction there and are simply not taking the street in large numbers.

I stopped at Oakridge center mall and got some much needed coffee, then visited local EB store and found Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones for GBA costing $32 which I promptly bought. Then I walked around a bit before taking the bus home. As usual, this bus was overcrowded and extremely slow, stopping at each and every of the insanely numerous stops this line has – even though it’s a very frequent bus, passengers are yet more frequent than that.

In the end I wasted most of my afternoon. I should’ve just stayed at home and watched or played something.

And now, to wash the foul taste off, comes the Patlabor

Posted on August 18th, 2006 in Uncategorized by andrija

In order to wash away the foul taste of the Kiddy Grade, I started watching Patlabor TV series.  Three episodes, so far nothing stinks.  Nothing stands out either, though.

The most screwed-up anime I’ve yet seen – Kiddy Grade

Posted on August 16th, 2006 in Video Games by andrija

Wow… I don’t even know how to describe Kiddy Grade. It’s like some psychotic, screwed-up person without any sense of morals or logic – and with only basic intelligence – would create something like this. Do yourself a favour and don’t watch this series. It will make you sick. I hope whoever was involved in making this has gotten their psychiatric care since.

All I will say about this is, if this is how the world is going to be in the future or, more to the point, how people are going to be in the future, I’d hope aliens show up to put us out of our misery.  But no, a world like this will never happen, not because people are nice but because there is no sense and logic in what’s going on.  As the show seems to have had a pretty good budget – animation is good, the only thing that is – I have to wonder, which sick executive mind had given them money to do it?  Why not spend it on Boys Be?  Sickos.  All of them.

Honey and Clover 2 Ep. 6 – Hagu grows up?

Posted on August 8th, 2006 in Anime & Manga by andrija

Well, here’s one for those who thought Hagu looked too small and childish for her age (back then 18, but currently, around 20?). My theory was always that her looks reflected her maturity level (or rather, its societal – or maybe emotional! – components because her level of maturity in art is way beyond her age). While I can’t claim that’s true, I think that this week’s episode is an argument in its favour. I hereby present you a new, emotionally grown up Hagu-chan. Or, well, at the very least she has gone up a level in this episode, and not just emotionally.

Hagu level up

Playstation 2 slimline is the real deal

Posted on August 3rd, 2006 in Hardware & Software,Video Games by andrija

I just bought a slimline PS2, even though my 3 years old PS2 is still working fine. The rationale was that reduced noise levels will help me immerse more into games, and prevent getting distracted by the fan noise.

Well, in that it surely succeds. As soon as you turn it on, without a DVD inserted, and you get to listen to the sounds of ocean on the appropriately named splash screen, you’ll notice the lack of noise. If you’re accustomed to old PS2, the difference is stunning. The new console cannot be heard from more than a few feet even in the very quiet environment.

But is this enough to justify spending $140 Canadian of your moderately difficultly earned money? Depending on your needs, more than enough. I’ll elaborate.

If you’re a casual player, a person with average entertainment needs looking for a one-stop solution, a PC zealot who never had a console and has decided to get one now, or you need to get something for the purpose of gaming as a present for a kid or a cottage – in other words, if you need a gaming appliance – this slim PS2 is for you.

Let’s be realistic – ignore the buzz and hype, ignore company loyalty. This console is the smallest, the lightest and the quietest of all that are currently available, and has the most numerous library of games available. You can stuff it anywhere in the living room or bedroom or kids room or dorm room. You can easily take it with you on a trip – even in carry on baggage if you must. It will play DVDs (and CDs but that is a rare need these days, in that format at least) in a pinch. Majority of games are already out and as a consequence are cheap compared to ones for latest console(s), being available in “greatest hits” edition. Even the latest brand new games come at lower prices than before. And the console itself it’s cheap. It does cost a bit more than a GameCube, but the difference is about the cost of one budget game. Yet it plays vastly more games.

For an average Joe – and I mean it in a “guy or girl with average needs” way – this is a no-brainer. Unless they have specialized requirements such as ultraportability, there is nothing else that provides better value for money. This is what a gaming console should be – it’s small, light, easy to hide in your entertainment system, plays huge number of varied games and it’s cheap. Oh, and it’s quiet.

No, I won’t stop mentioning how quiet it is. Because that’s what a gaming console should be. I care not how technologically advanced it is, if it’s noisy, it’s cheating.

And, because if you’re a hardcore gamer, who already has a PS2 and had it for a long time – you can justify buying another one for two reasons: it’s quiet so you can enjoy your RPGs more. And two, it’s small enough that you can carry it when you travel. Given that there are at least 4 more big titles coming for PS2 – Xenosaga 3,Valkyrie Profile 2, Final Fantasy 12 and God of War 2 – and that (the way I figure) you need only 2 AAA titles to justify buying any console that is reasonably priced, you can see that a purchase would be justified.  I won’t add anything “funny” such as “good luck persuading your wife with this ‘two games is reason enough’ logic” because I don’t know how that works.   A hardcore gamer would not have a partner that isn’t one him/herself.