SlimBlade!

Do you remember the Microsoft Trackball Explorer? Ah the memories! It was a trackball Microsoft offered in the mid-to-late 1990s, if memory serves.

The Microsoft Trackball Explorer

The trackballs available at the time were primarily controlled by placing one’s thumb on the ball and using one’s fingers to click. My experience with these trackballs was a disaster. Such thumb pain from all the required thumb motion! The Trackball Explorer reversed this so one used one’s fingers to move the ball, and one’s thumb to click and scroll. I don’t know why, but this was a heck of a lot more comfortable and greatly reduced my discomfort as compared to a mouse or a thumb-trackball. The two extra buttons, where one’s pinkie and ring finder would naturally rest were a programmable bonus.

Coming back to the current day, I’ve been using my computer more in the new year since my work hours have dropped. I have noted some hand and wrist discomfort from more mouse use. The Trackball Explorer has ceased being an option as it’s been discontinued for a few decades. A few jokers still offer mint specimens for $500 to $1000 but let’s be reasonable. So I researched the current crop of trackballs. Happily there were finger-controlled trackballs that were not wireless. Why do you need a controller than never moves to be wireless? Not having batteries or recharging makes the wire the preferred choice.

I decided on the Kensington SlimBlade trackball. Check it out on my desk:

The Kensington SlimBlade trackball.
Yes my keyboard is hella dusty. You don’t have to touch it. Move along…

It’s bigger than I expected. The ball is 5½ damned centimetres (2 inches) across! There are four buttons, one in each quadrant around the ball. You’ll notice there is no sort of scroll wheel. Must I do without scrolling and limit myself to scrollbars? Hell no! One scrolls by twisting the ball in place. Clockwise is down and counterclockwise is up. It’s very clever and easy to get used to. The only downside is horizontal scrolling requires holding the shift key while twisting the ball. It’s easy but not quite as fluid a motion as your other hand is required.

To use it, the most natural portion is to place one’s three middle fingers on the ball. Do this and the thumb naturally rests on the left-click button and the pinkie on the right-click button. It works very well for me and the discomfort in my hand is much reduced.

A bonus of the symmetrical design is it works equally well for right-handed and left-handed users. If the left-handed user reverses the primary and secondary buttons in his or her login profile, the settings don’t have to be switched back and forth.

It has both advantages and disadvantages over a mouse. Which is better is really a matter of preference, except for gaming … the mouse is better. You certainly use different hand motions to manipulate the mouse so if your hand is hurting from mouse use, the SlimBlade is worth your attention.

Amp/volt mnemonic 

 

Isn’t that fantastic?

A reply queried who is responsible for the drawing and Czerski responded that the lab workers told her that the drawing has been taped up on the wall since everyone there can remember.

I first saw Helen Czerski co-hosting the BBC documentary Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey with Kate Humble. I immediately started following Czerski on Twitter. Although she’s a physicist and an oceanographer, her interests range across the sciences. You should follow her too!


†Available on Netflix US, but not Netflix Canada, as of this writing. I highly recommend the documentary.

My iPhone 8

After just a few months short of four years, I’ve retired my iPhone 5s. After such a long time of daily use, it had surprisingly few issues. The only real big one was that sometimes after I’d press the power button to wake the phone, I’d be forced to hold the power down because it didn’t go to sleep, rather it shut down entirely. The odd time, even that wouldn’t bring it back to life and I’d have to hold the home and power buttons until it started the boot sequence. A small and self-inflicted problem was the flash stopped working after I changed the battery. I suspect I didn’t seat the connector properly. I didn’t open it up again to find out.

So I upgraded to the iPhone 8. I stayed up late on September 14 to get my order in as soon as possible and I received it on September 22.

It’s more expensive that I would have liked, but I’m pretty easy on my electronics so I want to get the maximum life out of it before it will no longer take operating system upgrades. The iPhone X was never in contention because although I love the OLED screen, I don’t want to pay for it, and I much prefer fingerprint authentication over authentication via facial recognition.

The most obvious difference is the size. The iPhone 8 is 11 mm longer, 8.7 mm wider, and 0.3 mm thinner, than the 5s. It’s also 36 g heavier. To my great surprise, it fits my hand far more nicely than the 5s did. That may also have to do with the completely rounded edges. The power button was also moved from the top left to the left top, if you follow. Hold the phone in your right hand and the power button falls nicely under your thumb, and in your left hand it sits nicely under your index finger. This change is a good one, but takes some getting used to. Overall, it feels great in my hand, has enough mass to feel solid, and the rounded edges are just right.

I was wary of the increase in size. My phone lives in my front pocket, and the space available in there is not unlimited! Happily it’s not an issue. In exchange, the screen is 20% larger, which has me reaching for my iPad noticeably less often. It’s not an OLED screen, but it’s certainly the nicest LCD I’ve ever seen.

I must make special mention of the fingerprint reader. I can’t say whether it’s vastly improved or merely takes advantage of the more powerful processor at the heart of the iPhone 8, but it’s ridiculously fast. With the 5s, I would press the home button, and let my thumb linger on it for a second, waiting for my fingerprint to be recognized. With this new model, my fingerprint is usually recognized before I remove my thumb even if I don’t pause at all. Most of the time, fingerprint authentication is entirely invisible.

Misc impressions:

  • I haven’t tried wireless charging but I certainly will be getting a charging pad for my night table.
  • The camera is much improved as far as I see in the little use I’ve made of it. I look forward to trying the 240 FPS slow-motion video.
  • The True Tone feature is great. White is always pleasantly white. The display does not tend toward coolness, even in very warm light.
  • Raise to Wake was the first thing I searched on how to disable.
  • I love the barometer. Not only can I see the number of steps I’ve taken, but the number of floors I’ve climbed.
  • The processor is much faster of course. The whole UI is so responsive.
  • The sound is louder at full volume. That will give my wake-up alarm a boost of effectiveness.
  • I triggered the SOS feature without my glasses on. I didn’t notice the three-second countdown and called 911 by accident. So embarrassing! A great feature though, especially if you stop it before calling 911, as it disables fingerprint authentication the next time you attempt to access the phone.
  • I’m eager to try Apple Pay. Support for it seems sparse on the ground around here, though. Still, the NFC works with any system that allows you to ‘tap to pay’ with your bank or credit card.

So far, I love the damn thing!


Image courtesy of Apple.ca

No snake-oil here.

Earlier this month, in my Synergistic [super-secret!] Research post, I told you that I think it’s beyond daft to spend thousands of dollars on each cable for one’s stereo. I absolutely believe that companies offering these cables for sale are taking advantage of their customers. I wouldn’t normally care as they’re not holding a gun to their customers’ heads, right? But I do care both because their claims about the cables are insultingly ridiculous, and because it gives a bad name to those who care about music reproduction and spend more to get better-sounding music.

Since I have spent more to get better sound, though I’m by no means able to spend a lot, I believe you’re entitled to know what I do believe. So what cables do I use?

Right off, I don’t use the cables that come included in the box with DVD players! Though I will not spend thousands for a single cable, I don’t take the opposite extreme position that any wire is good enough.

My current cable provider, Blue Jeans Cable, has some articles up on their site, and one titled Broadcast Quality — What Does it Mean, and Why is it Good? deals with exactly this issue.

In a nutshell, broadcasters and studios use neither consumer cables, nor esoteric thousand dollar cables. They use cables that easily exceed the required specifications, and are built to withstand far more abuse than your stereo cables will ever experience. So my thinking is that if I can get the same cabling and connectors the studios use to record the music, why wouldn’t I use it if the price were reasonable?

The article goes into detail about what a broadcaster looks for in a cable:

The broadcast world differs from this consumer market in a few critical respects.

First, the “consumer” in the broadcast world is typically an engineer; whether he has that test bench full of gear for testing cable or not, he knows what it is, what it would measure, and how to use it if he has to.

Second, the applications are critical; an engineer patching video from one end of a production or broadcast facility to another doesn’t want to plug it in, see whether it works or not, and then spend a few hours debugging it. He needs cable to be dependable; he needs every foot of it to be as good as every other foot of it, and if the manufacturer says it’ll carry 1080i HD-SDI signals three hundred feet, he needs to be able to rely on that claim when the rubber hits the road.

Third, this is very much a nonsense-free market; our engineer-buyer isn’t likely to be excited by specious performance claims that can’t be measured or documented. He’s likely to know which features of a cable are critical — like impedance tolerance, return loss, attenuation relative to the lengths of cable in use — and which aren’t.

Fourth, he buys a lot of cable to wire just one production or broadcast facility, and he will not return to a manufacturer who lets him down where quality is concerned.

Fifth — and significantly, for our discussion — broadcast applications demand more of cable than any consumer application. Analog 1080i component video, commonly in use on high-definition consumer devices, requires about 37 Megahertz of bandwidth — plus, to be safe, a few harmonics, which gets us up into the 150 MHz region or so. Serial Digital Video, SDI — commonly run in production and broadcast facilities — requires twenty times that bandwidth, and will break down catastrophically if the cable doesn’t conform to tight manufacturing tolerances. And the technical requirements of the cable aren’t all; cables are handled, plugged in, unplugged, flexed, coiled, uncoiled, and generally subjected to wear and tear to an extent seldom seen in home environments, and both the cables and the connectors used in professional applications need to have durability, flex-life, and resistance to damage from handling and pulling. As much as a broadcast engineer appreciates the technical capabilities of well-made cable, he also appreciates the difference between delicate cable that fails while in use and robust cable that lasts.

These exacting needs are filled by a handful of companies that produce the best wire, cable and connectors available for professional applications; these are companies whose names are virtually unknown in the consumer audio/video world, but who are on every engineer’s rolodex: Belden, ADC, Canare, et cetera. Conspicuously absent from that list are the companies that contract to Chinese manufacturers to make the cables one sees in big-box consumer audio/video retail stores, the companies that make the esoteric “high-end” cables for which a handful of people with more money than sense pay big bucks, and the multitude of Chinese wire and cable manufacturers and assembly houses that produce low-cost, but low-quality, cable for the consumer market.

Blue Jeans Cable LC-1 Low Capacitance Audio Cable.
As with most things, moderation is best. There’s a middle-ground between 50¢ cables and $7500 cables. I bought Blue Jeans Cable’s LC-1 analogue audio cable. How much does it cost? For a three foot length, a stereo pair costs $31.25. It’s not cheap, nor is it ridiculous. Given that I have separates, and a four channel set-up, I bought about eight pairs, plus a subwoofer cable.

You’ll also recall that I complained about Synergistic Research’s lack of measurements and details. Blue Jeans Cable is far more open about their wares. This is their brief overview of the LC-1:

The most important attributes of a line-level unbalanced audio cable are (1) shielding, and (2) capacitance. Heavy shielding protects audio signals from interference from outside sources. LC-1 Audio Cable uses a heavy double-braid shield, with one bare copper braid laid directly over another for extreme high coverage and high conductivity to ground; this is the identical shield configuration to Canare LV-77S, which tested best in our review of audio cable hum rejection characteristics (LC-1 hadn’t been designed yet so wasn’t tested at that time). By shrinking the center conductor to 25 AWG and foaming the polyethylene dielectric, we were able to get capacitance down to an extremely low 12.2 pF/ft, much better than LV-77S at 21 pF/ft. Capacitance can be important, particularly in long cable runs, because it contributes to rolloff of higher frequencies. The softer dielectric material and smaller center conductor, meanwhile, make the cable highly flexible and easy to route. LC-1 is built exclusively for Blue Jeans Cable by Belden, the leader in American communications cable, and is rated CM for in-wall installation in residential and commercial environments. For more information and specs on LC-1, read our “LC-1 Design Notes” article.

As the last sentence says, if you want more detail, follow the link and you get more than 1300 words about the components, construction, and specifications of the LC-1 cable.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a Blue Jeans Cable ad, but when I find what I believe is a good product, I’m not shy about saying so. They use industry-quality components to make their cables, and sell them at reasonable prices. They’re also very open about the specs of their cables and how they are manufactured. All of this is exactly the way I think audio components and accessories should be sold, so I’m a happy customer. In case you’re wondering, I have no other involvement or relation with Blue Jeans Cable beyond being a customer.

Make no mistake, none of the cables I’ve purchased from Blue Jeans Cable are what I would call sexy. The packaging was as spartan as it gets with my orders arriving in plain FedEx boxes. This is okay with me as the cables are behind my equipment, well out of sight, and the packaging is long gone. What I have are well made cables with high-quality components that are built to last and meet specifications far beyond what I need. As I mentioned earlier, if the cables are good enough for recording studios and broadcasters to create video and audio, the same cables are certainly good enough for me to watch and listen to their work.


Cable photo from the Blue Jean Cable web site.