Congrats to the writers of BSG

I'd like to say, "congrats" to the writers of BSG for actually using an explanation which is scientifically correct. In episode 15, Anders says that the Final 5 traveled to Kobol by "relativistic but sub-luminal speeds". Thereby allowing them to age much less than those in stationary frames around them. Yay special relativity!

Dear Microsoft

Dear Microsoft Xbox 360 Team,

Previously I could only play MP3 and WMA format audio files on my XBox 360. This was very frustrating to me since I switched several years ago to encoding new tracks in AAC format (it gives better quality at lower bitrates than MP3). The end result was that I preferred to listen to music while sitting at my computer instead of while sitting on my couch.

Then you released the "new xbox experience" and provided an "optional media update" which added support for a host of additional audio and video formats (including AAC!). I was pleased. You didn't yet allow me to play DRM'd songs from the iTunes Music Store, but that was understandable because Apple was refusing to license Fairplay to anyone. Still, I was content.

Then Apple starting selling songs without DRM. Now, I could play these songs with your own Windows Media Player, but my Xbox would not play them. I was no longer content. It was pointed out that this may because Apple writes the headers a little differently for purchased vs. non-purchased songs. But the fact that the Xbox cannot handle this small difference is rather remarkable.

I am sure you all know how to fix this. So, please... just do it already.

Thanks,
Blake Johnson

BSG: No Exit

This last episode of BSG was a huge story dump. It didn't have the same action or tension as the last two episodes, but it answered a lot of questions about the origin of the final five and their role in the creation of the other cylons.

Something I found interesting was that Ellen says that she gave the skin jobs "free will". This is loaded with all kinds of philosophical issues about the meaning of "free will" and whether it is possible for machines to have it (since machines are deterministic). If you like thinking about this question, I would highly recommend Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. Pinker has a chapter in which he describes a modern model of the brain. The image that cognitive scientists are putting together looks a lot like interdependent machines. Choice and free will fit into this framework through one center whose function is to adjust the relative weights of competing desires/interests (presumably the inputs to this machine include a person's memory as well as his ability to predict the outcome of various choices). In essence, this is a mechanistic model which function a lot like "free will".

So, maybe Ellen's statement is sensible after all.

BSG: Blood on the Scales

Before Friday rolls around and another episode appears without me having said anything...

With 3 solid episodes in a row, it seems like BSG has found its stride again. In fact, this last episode, in particular, was more than solid. It was spectacular. Tense situations, fast-paced action, emotional development... Resolving some issues while opening up new ones. I was getting a touch annoyed that the writers were destroying Gaeta's character. However, they were sufficiently careful with these episodes to ensure that it did not appear that Gaeta simply jumped off the deep end. His flaws simply rose all the way to the surface. The last two minutes of the episode were beautiful in their stark simplicity: the connection between Gaeta's conflicted state of mind and the itch of his missing leg, and then it was over.

Perhaps the viewer, in the end, was able to fulfill Gaeta's wish to be understood.

Choosing speakers

For my birthday, I embarked on a new project to build a home theater speaker system. I did a substantial amount of research before purchasing, so I thought I would share what I found out.

The first option that just about everyone is familiar with is these "home theater in a box" (HTIB) solutions that you can find at your typical electronics box store. These systems are very affordable, but you get what you pay for. The sound is okay (sometimes a substantial improvement over built-in speakers on TVs), but HTIBes don't come close to producing the kind of sound available from even similarly priced solutions available elsewhere. By spending the same money, or perhaps a little more, you can get a more neutral frequency response with a broader, deeper soundstage, resulting in a clearer and more detailed sound.

In the sub-$1000 bookshelf speaker market, there are a lot of products. Some standouts include (ordered by price):

  • SVS SBS-01 ($250/pr)
  • KEF iQ3 (a discontinued product replaced by the iQ30, but still available for $250 from Amazon.com)
  • Ascend Acoustics CBM-170SE ($350/pr)
  • Jamo C603 ($400/pr)
  • Axiom Audio M22 ($470/pr)
  • Usher S-520 ($480/pr)
  • B&W 685 ($650/pr)
  • NHT Classic 3 ($650/pr)
  • Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 ($900/pr)

I am listing MSRP. Expect most dealers to offer 10-15% off of these prices. Your mileage will very depending on the store and your negotiating skills.

So, I have not actually heard all of these. SVS, Ascend Accoustics, and Axiom Audio are all internet direct stores. Each allows for a 30+ day at home "audition", where you might only have to pay the shipping charges if you want to send them back. SVS and Ascend get talked about a lot on the audiophile forums. SVS apparently makes awesome subwoofers that can only be matched by spending 3x as much, and they just started producing a complete 5.1 system for $1000. I considered this package for a while, but eventually decided that I really wanted to focus on getting a nice pair of fronts for now. The SVS SBS-01s seem to be best when paired with a sub.

The Ascend Acoustics CBM-170SE supposedly sound as good or better than many $1000/pr speakers. Unfortunately, they aren't much to look at: simple, almost plastic-y looking boxes. If you don't care about such things, this might be the best bang for your buck. Ascend's Sierra-1, on the other hand, looks fantastic, and are causing just about every reviewer to glow with praise. Apparently these bad boys are as good as many $2k or $3k speakers. If I were willing to spend $900 on two speakers (I am not), this is where I would have put my money.

The Axiom speakers also get mentioned a lot on the forums. They are compared frequently to Paradigm's Studio 20 speakers. I happen to not particularly like the sound of the Studio 20s, especially with classical music (they are great for rock). So, I decided that these were not for me.

The Jamo's, Usher's, and NHT's have a lot of fans, but there are no dealers particularly close to me, so I could not hear them. Without a similar 30-day at-home audition policy on these guys, I was unwilling to seriously consider them. Still, apparently these are great values (and the NHT Classic 3s used to be considered the best value under $1000 before some of these other contenders came on the scene).

I listened to some KEF iQ30s and liked what I heard. Like the B&W speakers I eventually chose, these have a very neutral sound and produce a large soundstage. They did not seem to have as much low-end, though (not an issue when paired with a subwoofer, but I wanted speakers that could stand on their own) and they have a very unique aesthetic which you will either really like or really dislike. I think they look cool, but Phyllis is not such a fan. Ultimately, the Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF) does count, so I moved on.

To my ear, the B&W 685s are substantially better than the Paradigm Studio 20s (while also costing less!). They reveal an amazing amount of detail and create a huge soundstage. In auditioning these, I heard several things in recordings which were completely hidden from me before. So, these are what I purchased. You can see my new setup in the image at the top of the post!

Everyone has a different taste in speaker sound, so there is no way to say that "these speakers are best speakers available under X dollars!" You really just need to go out and listen to some systems (preferably in similar listening conditions and with the same source material) to find what you like. I hope that my comments here will simply help you create your own audition list if you are ever in the market for some speakers.

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