Archive for October, 2017

Getting it wrong–to your own disadvantage

Monday, October 16th, 2017

I wouldn’t bother to note a bonehead arithmetic error in an ad–even if it’s a full-page ad in Fortune–because there are so many of them. But this one was odd, because the error works to the disadvantage of the advertiser.

The ad is for Charles Schwab’s Total Stock Market Index Fund; I saw it in the August 1, 2017 Fortune (as usual, I’m about to months behind on magazines), but it’s probably appeared elsewhere.

The ad compares Schwab’s Total Stock Market Index Fund, 0.03% cost with $5,000 investment (or any investment), with Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund, 0.15% cost with $5,000 investment.

And under the 0.15% says “Nearly 80% more expensive than Schwab.”

Which is a true statement, but a boneheaded one. 400% is “nearly 80%” with a whole lot left to spare.

The Schwab fund is 80% less expensive than the Vanguard–but percentages are not commutative: 80% more and 80% less are not at all the same thing. If A is 80% less than B is 400% more than A.

I’m not sure where the “nearly” comes from in any case, unless those cost percentages are rounded.

I suspect the error didn’t come from Schwab itself, but from a copywriter or editor who thought “80% more expensive” under Vanguard was more impressive than “80% less expensive” under Schwab.

In either case, it’s wrong. And boneheaded. (Not an attack on Schwab, given that we use them.)

Cites & Insights October 2017 available: Gray OA 2014-2017

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

Gray OA 2014-2017: A Partial Followup, the October 2017 Cites & Insights (17.9), is now available for downloading at https://citesandinsights.info/civ17i9.pdf

The single-essay issue is 42 pages long (38 numbered pages).

It updates article-count and status-code information (but not APC/fee information) for gray OA journals not in DOAJ, adding full-year 2016 article counts and January-June 2017 counts, doubled for ease of comparisons. Journals in Gray OA 2012-2016 that have been added to DOAJ have been removed from the new report.

Audio/music (an OFP)

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

The first OFP has a brief comment on OFPs.

This could also be titled “Hearing/listening,” but I’ll stick with the first title. It’s about a surprising set of recent personal discoveries, and although I’m not flacking for FLAC, it could look that way.

Background

In the old days–let’s say before 1978–I had a big record collection and put together a sound system that was better than I could really afford. I also took extremely good care of the records and the stylus.

(How big? Around 1,300 LPs, most of them baroque or 20th century classical, along with a few hundred folk, country, rock, etc. Specialized in JS Bach–I was buying all the Das Alte Werke cantatas with conductor’s scores included, for example–and Stravinsky: I owned every Stravinsky-or-Craft-conducts-Stravinsky piece except The Flood, which was apparently in print for a day or two. Also lots of 20th century American composers and Russians.)

The final system had at its heart ESS Translinear speaker systems ca. 1973, magnificent tower speakers that were discontinued when ESS introduced the Heil Air Motion Transformer tweeter. I don’t remember the final receiver, but it was a good one.

I never much cared for background music, but at the time I played a lot of “foreground music.” (Can you actually use Bach cantatas or Stravinsky as background?) Then what mattered to me started to change, as did how I spent my time..;

We’ll skip over changes that eventually resulted in getting rid of the too-large stereo system, the too-bulky and too-delicate LPs (and I wasn’t listening to classical that much any more), and switching to CDs–and, eventually, a really good Denon CD/receiver/music system.

Mixtapes, CD-Rs, MP3 and “You Can’t Hear the Difference Anyway.”

For the times when semi-background music was desirable–driving, weekend dinners–I’d prepared a couple dozen cassette mixtapes from the 200-odd non-classical LPs. At some point, I wanted to do the same thing but using CD-Rs instead of increasingly obsolescent cassettes.

Creating a mix CD-R from cuts on 22 different CDs would be really difficult, if even possible.

Fortunately, at some point, PC storage capacity became large enough that it was plausible to rip the growing collection of CDs to MP3 files, at some resolution, then create mix CD-Rs from those files. After some listening, I concluded that even my not-so-great hearing was good enough to distinguish between 196K MP3 and 320K, the maximum MP3 rate–and that I wasn’t sure I heard the difference between 320K MP3 and the original CDs, at least for non-classical music other than solo piano. Or at least that the difference wasn’t important for music played in the background or in a car.

Was I deluding myself? Possibly. On the other hand, it was a worthwhile delusion: the mix CDs worked, and I didn’t have disk space enough for .WAV rips (probably around 100 gigabytes for our 200-odd-CD collection).

We like a quiet household. When I wanted to listen more closely to music (or to use it while weeding), I purchased a 2GB Sansa Express (still available!)–probably in 2005 or 2006–and Sennheiser portable headphones, and prepared a ruthlessly small playlist of 200 or so songs. Later, probably around 2008 or 2009,I got a Sansa Fuze (yes, I like SanDisk products) with 8GB storage; I was able to save my 800 or so favorite cuts. For weekend dinners and driving, I’d prepared a fair number of mix CD-Rs.

[If you’re wondering: the Express–about the size and shape of a thick thumb drive–gave up the ghost in 2016. The Fuze is still going strong. But see below…]

Or Maybe You Can Hear the Difference?

Several things happened in 2015 and beyond, coming to a head this summer:

  • Some of the CD-Rs developed whooshing sounds in later tracks. When I went to rerecord them, I was stupidly still using the last CD-R blanks fro a 50-pack I probably opened six years ago, maybe more. So the new CD-Rs weren’t lasting all that well… (I’ve seen advice that blanks should be recorded within 2-3 years of opening a pack. I should have remembered the advice.)
  • My wife was noting that solo piano didn’t sound quite right on the CD-Rs, and when she had me play the original CDs, she was sure she was right–and I thought I could tell the difference as well. (My ears haven’t gotten any better–indeed, my high-frequency hearing is very much typical of men my age with that ski slope above 1500-2000Hz.. I’m in the process of getting hearing aids now, and probably should have done so years ago.)
  • A year ago, I upgraded from the $50 Sennheisers to Grado SR80e headphones, far more revealing and a great bargain. (I also use and highly recommend Howard Leight Sync hearing protectors/headphones when vacuuming or using a lawnmower or trimmer: they’re inexpensive, do a reasonable job of muffling the damaging power-tool sounds, and the headphones are surprisingly decent for what are basically hearing-protection devices.) I began to notice “edges” in songs that I hadn’t noticed before–and was pretty sure those edges weren’t in the originals.

Oh, along the way, the clever vertical-mounted CD drive in the Denon became useless (the drive-door solenoid stopped working, and would be absurdly expensive to fix), so I picked up a cheap Sony DVD player to use as a CD drive. What the heck, the CD-Rs were only expanded from 320K MP3s anyway…

Summer Solutions

I began to suspect that the only way to assure CD-quality sound on the mix CD-Rs was to store the music in a lossless format; some research suggested that lossless FLAC was my best bet. (Since Windows Media Player is no longer the easy way to rip, organize and burn, I’ve moved to MusicBee; it supports FLAC nicely, and verifies rips.) And my current notebook has enough disk space that I figured I could spare the 50GB to 100GB that might be needed (FLAC compresses when it can do so losslessly; it seems to average about 50% compression.)

I reripped everything–a surprisingly fast process carried out as a secondary task while doing other computer work. But it was clear I couldn’t keep using the Sansa Fuze for my main close-listening device: it didn’t have enough space. Wound up with 58GB of music and overhead, covering 2,770-odd tracks. Of those, I’d identified about 670 that were good candidates for dinner music.

Opening a new 50-pack of CD-Rs (actually not new, but unopened), I made new versions of a couple of the “Dinner CD-Rs,” and we were both satisfied that they did indeed sound as good as the original tracks–and yes, I could tell the difference. But my wife also noted, correctly, that with only a dozen or so dinner mixes, they could be predictable…

Separately, I concluded that a new personal music player with better audio specifications and more storage space was in order–and decided on a Cowon Plenue D (36GB and 50-hour battery life playing FLACs, with remarkably good audio specs), plus a 64GB SDHC card, since it made sense to just copy the whole music library to the player (or, actually, “drive G,” the SDHC card). Amazon had/has it at an excellent price: $188 (and $24 for the SDHC card).

The Cowon doesn’t have a separate line-level audio output, but the headphone output peaks at roughly CD-player output levels. I suspected that it could do as a server of sorts…

Yes, indeed. Bumping the volume up to 95 or so (as compared to 30-35 for the Grados) and connecting the Denon via a headphone-to-RCA adapter resulted in excellent sound, making the Cowon a very small, very inexpensive music server. Took me about 2-3 hours to build a favorites set of all 670-odd items that appear to be good dinner candidates. Plug in the Cowon, flip to Shuffle on the favorites list, and…

The first time we tried this, we were both happy: my wife was hearing songs that I seemed not to have included on mix CD-Rs and we both felt that the sound was at least as good* as the original CDs. I’ve stopped rerecording dinner CDs for now (but will still do some car CDs, since our 12-year-old new car doesn’t have an audio input jack).

Weeknights, I’m slowly working my way through the whole 2,770-song library with the Grados, in alphabetic order. It sounds great: quieter and more “liquid” than the MP3s, and I’m hearing stuff I forgot we had. The convincer: I would never listen to more than five or so songs an evening, tiring of it after that. Now, I listen to 10-15 or more, as time permits: a song might be tiring, but the sound never is. It should take about a year for the scan.

Weekends, the Cowon becomes a server for the smaller set of pieces, served up randomly. (If we hit a piece we agree shouldn’t be in the dinner list, it takes 5 seconds or so to remove it from the Favorites list but not the player. Skipping a piece, of course, takes no time to speak of. Adding more pieces to the Favorites list takes 2-4 seconds per piece…)

Conclusion: I believe the difference between high-resolution MP3 and lossless digital audio is audible, even on pop/folk/country/rock, even for half-deaf oldsters like me, or at least some of us, although largely at a nearly subliminal level. (With solo piano and orchestral pieces, it’s more audible.) Would I be able to tell the difference in a blind A/B test? Quite possibly not–I grumble about high-end reviewers a lot, but they’re correct in saying that blind A/B tests are artificial and can obscure as much as they reveal. My wife has excellent hearing, and she knows what she’s hearing: I’m 100% certain she’s right.

Oh, and a music server doesn’t have to be big or expensive…the Cowon measures about 2″ x 3″ x 0.5″ and certainly wasn’t expensive.

No, I’m not going back to vinyl; I still suspect elements of euphonic distortion in claims that vinyl actually offers better sound, although anybody who finds it more musical or more enjoyable is probably right, at least for them.

(More accurate and more musical aren’t necessarily the same thing. We could talk about Bose… Incidentally, for those who know Cowon, no, I’m not using Jet Effects or equalization, at least not for this pass or for dinner music, at least not yet.)


*”at least as good”: There are two semi-plausible scientifically-arguable reasons that the music from the Cowon could sound better than CDs from the Sony, even though the Cowon files were ripped from those CDs:

  1. Jitter and error correction, theoretically problems for mass-produced CDs and CD players, shouldn’t be issues for solid-state players with high-quality digital/analog converters.
  2. Signal-to-noise ratio: the Cowon has extremely good audio specifications; the Sony doesn’t even mention signal-to-noise ratio, but it’s a cheap player mostly intended to play DVDs. So, yes, the Cowon is probably quieter, although that shouldn’t be audible at dinner-music levels. Or should it?

What I know is that my wife immediately felt the music–all music–sounded better, “fuller,” and that the close-listening headphone sound is clearly better to me on most pieces, even if my high-frequency hearing is fairly crappy.

And so endeth this absurdly discursive OFP. I’m gonna listen to some music…