Sunday, 8 November 2009

In the Glow

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael @ 18:04

I really don’t understand the folks in the audiophile community that claim that tube amplifiers sound better than transistor units. I mean, for some time now, solid-state audio amplifiers have been capable of reproducing the input signal with virtually perfect fidelity.
Maybe I should say ‘didn’t understand’. Let me explain.
In my home system I use a NAD C315BEE and am absolutely pleased with it. When, a few months ago, I went looking for a system, I listened to a number of amps and honestly couldn’t really hear any difference between most of them. I choose the NAD because it was relatively inexpensive and had all of the features I needed. Before then I listened with headphones using a couple of amplifiers I built myself, one with op-amps and another, class-A amp, using discrete transistors. Both sound very good with the class-A amp being, marginally, my favorite.
Anyway, I got to thinking it would be interesting to hear a tube amp and see, er, hear, if there really was something to it. I found a simple headphone amp circuit ( that many have built and given positive comments about. Here is a pic of my result.

(The whole box is 20cm (8″) wide, 30cm (12″) deep and 12cm (4.5″) high. The big tube is just under 13cm (5″) tall. The actual amp is completely built on the lower plate. That’s why the input, volume control and output jack are “on top”. The rest is the power supply. The two switches control the filament and high-voltage separately to let it warm up before applying the real juice.)

Well, I have now listened to the warm (er, hot) glow of tubes and can report that the sound is really quite pleasing. It definately has a different character than with my other semiconductor amps. So, what makes it so? I have some thoughts on that. First, no question that the fidelity of the playback is comprimised. But the odd thing is, in a somehow “good” way. The sound of a violin or soprano, e.g., is softer. And bass sounds such tympani or bassviolin roll in rather than pound in. It really does give an impression of a “rounder” sound. (But I don’t want to imply that the sound from the tubes is more accurate. It’s not. Violins can be hard and tympani really do pound.)
I have an analogy. With my class-A amp, for example, everything in the recording is reproduced with, for all intent, no loss in fidelity. I close my eyes and I am alone in the second row of the auditorium, right behind the conductor (or depending on the mastering, in the orchestra) and I can hear everything in analytic detail. With the tube amp I am in the first balcony with friends around me. I mean there is no longer the analytical precision but the sound of life is around. Or something. It is “verblüffend” (a good German word meaning baffling/intriguing/fascinating all at once).
Now, I have heard only one circuit, one tube type, etc. But I think that this “good” fidelity loss would be somewhat different with other choices. Can this be what the tube-heads are really chasing? I mean the good loss that best satisfies them?
So, will I use it regularly? Probably. It was fun to build and does, in fact, sound really nice. But it comes with some minuses. It’s heavy. No, not that way, I mean really heavy as in weighs a lot. The high-voltage supply has to deliver almost 10 watts at 150V with no ripple. That means lots of transformer, lots of capacitance and a big inductor. And the 6V supply for the heaters is cruising at over 15W. Another big transformer and more capacitors and a voltage regulator that needs a huge heatsink (and it still gets too hot to touch after a couple hours).
But it’s pretty, glowing there in a darkened room. Maybe that is the real draw.

Sunday, 6 September 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael @ 15:38

Well, it has certainly been some time time since the last post. The blog was, in fact, not even available for a while because of a hack attack. It took some time to get it back up and running but here I am again. I really don’t know what is in it for the attackers. In my case it was a bunch of additional invisible admin accounts and lots of crap spam comments. Ho hum.
Anyway, over the next few weeks I will be posting a couple of things about an interest of mine that I have not touched on here and that is amateur astronomy.
And if you haven’t already, check out my Magic Flute site at It’s a rambling collection of posts about my favorite opera, Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”. There’ll be more to come there as well.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Microsoft, again

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael @ 1:15

I just saw a news report about Microsoft at CeBIT and the big thing was their “new” Surface interface. (Well, actually the report began with the decision of the EU to impose an 899 million Euro fine on MS for failing to live up to the decision in 2004 that MS must make their software APIs available to others. Google “eu microsoft”. Check out, e.g., the NY Times article.)
Anyway, here again is MS telling us that they have developed the coolest and the greatest when in fact they must have seen this (from 2006 at TED): Jeff Han: Unveiling the genius of multi-touch interface design.
Now admittedly, this is what TED is all about, i.e., sharing ideas. And maybe MS licensed this technology, all above board. Great if they incorporate this into their OS. Apple has done something similar in their iPhone/iPod Touch devices. But Microsoft again implies that technology such as “Surface” does not exist outside of their world. And that is just not the case. It seems there are very few (if any) really innovative ideas coming out of Redmond. But they sure know how to claim other’s as their own.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Another example of why Microsoft pisses me off

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael @ 0:53

I just saw a TED talk about the “new” Microsoft World Wide Telescope project ( and it pissed me off. Not because the project is a not a worthy one. In fact it looks like a very cool thing. But it was the usual, from them, implication that this was something “new, never been done before and only Microsoft brings you this kind of thing” that pissed me off when in fact a similar application has been around since 2001. The application is Celestia ( If the WWTelescope sounds interesting, you should check out Celestia, too. It also provides tours of the universe and supports scripting and add-ons and has a huge community of contributors and (this is probably where the folks in Redmond want you to stay ignorant) runs on just about every platform out there (including Windows). Oh, and is also free.
It pisses me off because it is just another example of how “computing” is what Microsoft defines it to be and not what it really is. There are alternatives. Computing (without the quotes) is a wide open playground. “Computing” is what Microsoft says it is and what you must agree to if you want to play.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Where to?

Filed under: Cycling — Michael @ 19:15

Well the time is here to start thinking about the next bicycle tour. Last year we went to southern France and had a great time but this year I am thinking I would like to stay closer to home.
Members of the group live in Munich and Hamburg and I thought maybe something that would be relatively close for all. The Rhein/Mösel maybe? Or the Mozart Radweg in and around Salzburg (well, not so close for those of us in Hamburg)? Or the Elbe to Dresden? Back to the Alsace?
And then there is when as well…

Sunday, 19 August 2007

The Cyclassics Bicycle Race in Hamburg

Filed under: Cycling — Michael @ 20:59

Well, the annual Cyclassics bicycle race was today, Sunday, August 19, in Hamburg. I was registered again for the 100km course. But because of bad weather and not a little laziness and also because my race partner was out of town for the wedding of a friend I didn’t feel I was prepared to do the race this year. But then just yesterday I was able to buy a 55km starting place and also found someone to take my 100km place.
So, today I got up ridiculously early (5:30am!) and made my way to Hamburg to start the 55km race at 8:00. I finished with an acceptable time of 1:49 with an average speed of just over 31kmh. Actually, that is just a bit slower than my best, 33kmh. I have done the race seven times, six on the 55km course and once, last year, the 100. For that I feel good. But right now I feel pretty used up and will have to see if I ride by bike to work tomorrow.
Next year I am going to sign up for the 55 and try to do a bit more riding before the race. The goal is to enjoy but I know I can also do better.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

We did it! (continued)

Filed under: Cycling — Michael @ 21:44

This is the second part of the trip report for our tour in southern France. The cast of characters were three, Andreas, Thomas, and myself. The tour went from Avignon to Nice. Part one is described in the previous post.
I had started this whole thing with the suggestion that we tour to the Gorges du Verdon. This is a deep canyon, the deepest in Europe, formed by the flow of the river Verdon. It is in parts some 700-800 meters from the canyon rim to the river below. So with the promise of spectacular scenery and being situated in the Provence region of France, with good food and good wine, it seemed like a good destination.
Actually the idea came from the owner of the local bike shop. One day while discussing touring he said we had to see the this area. In fact he said it was the duty of every bike tourer to ride here where the French basically invented bicycle touring over a hundred years ago.
It took a couple of years but we finally made the trip. The organization, as I mentioned in part one, will be discussed in a later post. Now on with the rest of the journey…

We ended the first part in Aiguines, just to the east of the Lac de Sainte Croix and at an altitude of 823m. We had discussed earlier in the day whether we would take the route on the north or south rim of the canyon. Andreas asked at the tourist office in Moustier and from the limited information we received there it looked like the south rim would be better. The main northern route does not stay as close to the rim but has an extra loop that, though probably striking in terms of scenery, adds another 23km.
We left Aiguines and almost immediately began climbing. It was quite steep with a grade between 8 and 10 percent. We had only gone about three kilometers when we stopped briefly at a spring. The sign said we were already at 1100 meters. We could now look back at the lake.
Gorges du Verdon - the climb
The climb continued for a couple more kilometers and we had our first view of the canyon.
Gorges du Verdon - the canyon
We were at approximately 1200 meters. It was quite a spectacular view. And what a great feeling to be there as a result of my own efforts.

I wanted this to be just a trip report but I have to share an anecdote here. A bit later, we were stopped at a view point when a bus pulled off and a couple of dozen people climbed out. We watched as they snapped pictures, gushed at how beautiful it was and climbed back in the bus. It had been all of four or five minutes. The driver even left the bus running the whole time. After they left, Andreas made a comment about the tour bus being a rather inferior way to see things such as this. I said that that was pretty smug and asked whether we can really be so sure that their impressions of the canyon were somehow inferior to ours because of the way they had experienced it? We looked at each other for a few seconds before bursting out laughing and shouting “yes!”.
Gorges du Verdon - wir drei
Here we are. Left to right, myself, Thomas, and Andreas. And yes we were feeling rather smug.

The weather was perfect. The route was fine with very little traffic and we savored the day, stopping often and just marvelling at the grandeur.
Gorges du Verdon - die strecke
With the canyon behind us we continued for a few more kilometers on a high plain until we arrived in Comps sur Artuby.
Comps is a small village with a single hotel, the Grand Hotel Bain. This hotel has been run by the family Bain since 1737 and it was quite a treat to stay there. We celebrated our journey that evening with a very fine meal (and a couple of bottles of good red wine from the Var region) in the hotel restaurant. Yeah, life can be pretty good.
With the hardest part of the tour now behind us, we set out the next morning in high spirits and had a relatively level ride on a high plain through farm and ranch land. After stopping for lunch we continued east with mountains on our left and plains to the right for some time before noticing that the route markers also had elevations. Without realizing it we had been riding at over 1000 meters and by late afternoon we began to descend.
We decided to stop and look for lodging at a small village named Gréolières. Here, the one hotel in town was closed and I asked at a small artists studio that also had a sign for “chambres”. The old woman there said her place was booked for the night but she called another and he had rooms. So we peddled for half a kilometer or so back the way we had come and had fine rooms for the night. The owner offered dinner as well but we decided to walk back into the village and after watching the paragliders flying from the cliffs that towered above Gréolières we had lamb in one of the two restaurants there. The next day would our last of the tour.
At breakfast we learned from our host that we were about 45km from and 800m. above Nice and that it was literally all downhill from there. We were very happy to hear this and took our time getting underway. And he was right. Except for the occasional short climb out of a shallow valley it was all descent. The high point was the Gorges du Loup. Certainly not as grand as Verdon but impressive nontheless.

Gorges du Loup
We stopped for lunch in Tourettes sur Loup a very well restored medieval city and definately worth a visit.

Underway again, passed near Vence. We turned off our route to take a look at the town. A weekend fair was underway and there was a festive feel to the place. However, our brief detour got us a bit lost and we ended up arriving at the coast at Cagnes sur Mer. The last few kilometers were along the beach and that meant slow going. But we were soon at the Nice Airport, where we had started the journey eight days earlier, and we knew the way to the hotel where we had stayed when we arrived and where we would spend our last night in France.

That was the tour. It was great but, for me, was not easy. But maybe that is what drives me to do these. Well, philosophy can wait for a later post. However, it must be said that I couldn’t have done this alone. It is with the companionship of others that a tour like this comes alive and I want to thank my fellow riders, Andreas and Thomas. We did it!

The next post will detail the route. Stay tuned…

Monday, 7 May 2007

We did it!

Filed under: Cycling — Michael @ 23:31

Over the next few days I will be posting some impressions of our tour in southern France. We experienced a lot in that week. It was a great tour and a great time but there where down sides and I want to discuss them as well. But in the first couple of posts I will try to provide a basic tour report.

Spectacular, demanding, beautiful, exhausting, exhilarating. We began the tour in Avignon and ended in Nice. (We flew to Nice and then took a train to Avignon. From Nice we flew back to Germany. But more later about that part of the tour.)

The tour stats:

where: Avignon to Nice
when: April 23 to April 29, 2007 (7 days)
total distance: 371km (average 53km/day)
Saint Michel l’Observatoire
Comps sur Artuby
From Avignon we rode to Cavaillon. The first twenty-or-so kilometers were along a heavily-trafficked main road. It was loud and dusty, and the poor air made these first few kilometers a less than pleasent start. We were finally able to turn off the main road and for the last four kilometers to Cavaillon the road was peaceful and wound through green fields. Ah, this was more like it. By the time we reached Cavaillon it was midday and time for lunch. The local outdoor market was just closing down for the day so we quickly bought local sausages (pepper and herb), bread and cheese and of course melons. After eating in a small park off the market, we were again underway.

At Cavaillon begins the “Tour du Luberon” (click here for a PDF broshure showing the route). This is an established biking tour, well marked, on good roads through really beautiful countryside. We took the north route and from Cavaillon the route quickly begins to climb. In little time we were riding along quiet mountain roads with views to the green valleys below.
We ended the first day in Lacoste.


The distance covered was 56km and already it was looking like this was going to be a more demanding tour than I had thought. And it had been hot, over 30°C. No problem getting rooms at the hotel there. After showering we met up and took a short walk through the village before having dinner on the restuarant terrace overlooking the valley below. A fine first day.

The next day, Tuesday, we continued on the Luberon route and made it to Saint Michel l’Observatoire. We had riden 70km with a long climb at Reillanne and I was beat. It was another hot day and, as would prove to be a constant, the route was definately not flat. But the landscape is beautiful and the tour route runs through many small villages where we could stop for a cold drink.

In St. Michel we stayed at the very nice Hôtel l’Observatoire. The restaurant there served up some fine food too. After dinner the hotel owners suggested we take a stroll up to the old church set above the village center. They told their dog to show us the way and the dog, a big old Shepherd, gladly led us on our walk.

On Wednesday we followed the Luberon tour as far as Villeneuve and then we headed east finishing the day in Valensole. Another 56km day and gratefully not quite as much climbing as the day before. It was about 5:40 when we got to the “center ville” and of course the tourist office closed at 5:30. Andreas asked at the hairdresser just down the street if there were any hôtels and though there were none, the woman did have a list of “chambres de hôtes” (literally “hosted rooms”, sort of like bed & breakfast places) we could try. One was named Mas les Marronniers and since Thomas and I had once stayed in Belgium in a B&B with the name Au Vieux Marronnier we decided to start with that one. After a delicious bit of raspberry tart from the bakery next door to the hairdresser we were off to find a bed for the night.

We rode for a couple of kilometers down a small road and finally saw the sign for Mas les Marronniers. We got to the house and it first appeared that no one was around but a few minutes later a woman came from somewhere and we asked if she had rooms for us. With little overlap in languages, it took a while to determine that no, she didn’t have any guest rooms available but we could sleep in the main house in the rooms that used to be her children’s. We thought “why not” and when she said we could join in with her other guests for dinner (roast lamb!) we readily agreed.

Dinner was indeed an experience. The home-cooked meal was delicious. The guests were from a number of different places (a couple from Italy and another couple from New Caledonia!) and even with the language difficulties it was great fun.

The next morning we thanked Christiane for her wonderful hospitality and continued on our way toward the Grand Canyon du Verdon. A high point along the way (literally!) was the village of Moustiers Sainte Marie.

Moustiers Sainte Marie
Here we had lunch and strolled a bit through the narrow streets before setting off again. Not long now and we would be at Lac de Sainte Croix. This artificial lake is at the mouth of the gorge formed by the river Verdon and meant, for us, the beginning of the Grand Canyon. It was quite a sight when the lake came into view.

Lac de Sainte Croix

Soon we were crossing the bridge over the Verdon and with one last climb we arrived in Aiguines.


Here we stayed at the appropriately named “Altitude 823” hotel. It had taken us four days to get here and we were really tired but excited that tomorrow we would be riding through the Gorges du Verdon.

(end of part one — to be continued)

Friday, 30 March 2007

Tinker Bell and electrons

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael @ 22:47

A recent round of correspondence reminded me of an old theory of mine. So, this post is part autobiography, part philosophy and part speculative fiction. Here goes…
I grew up in San Jose, California. This was in the sixties, before this once small town became part of what is now known as Silicon Valley. The area south of San Francisco acquired that appellation because the first tech-industry there was the fabrication of semiconductors (made from silicon) and not so much the computer and software companies that so dominate the landscape now. Anyway, when I graduated from high-school (in 1971) I didn’t know what I wanted to do and started studying math at the local college. I had an interest in electronics and had even built a couple of pieces of amateur radio gear and some audio stuff. So, to help pay the bills, I started, in 1974, to work for a chip company as a technician. These were pretty rough and tumble times with rapid growth and it was definitely an employees market. I was clever enough to pick up enough knowledge on the job so that within a couple of years I was doing some pretty cool engineering and getting paid for it. Bye to school and into the tech-world.
I mention all this in order to indicate that I am pretty well grounded in semiconductor physics, logic and design. Of course, the circuits I worked with then were fabricated with geometries considerably larger than today but the concepts have changed little. (In fact, I sometimes think that the progress should have been even faster than it has been since what exists today is, for the most part, just a refinement of what I was playing with then. Ho hum.)
But at some point I realized that what we were building was impossible. I mean, a semiconductor device is built on a size-scale that is really mind-bogglingly small. Today, the state change of a transistor in a typical IC is the result of the movement of only a few dozen electrons. And electrons are really, really small. Possibly not even “real”. Maybe it was the experience of watching and single-step clocking ICs under power in a scanning electron microscope (while stoned, and quite an experience it was, too) that first lead me to this theory of mine.
I call it the “Tinker Bell Theory”.
You surely remember watching Mary Martin as Peter Pan when you were small. For those who have a serious gap in their cultural training, Peter Pan is a play where a young boy refuses to grow up (I can identify) and he has a “sidekick” fairy named Tinker Bell. At a point in the play where Tinker Bell drinks some poison (that was meant for Peter) and is dying, Peter turns to the audience for help and pleads that they believe in fairies to save “Tink”. He says to clap your hands if you believe and of course no one can kill a fairy and so everyone claps and all is well once again.
The point is to believe. It occurred to me that semiconductors work because from Shockley on, engineers believe that they do. And when things go wrong and your PC eats that file you’ve been working on for the last few hours and there’s no backup it is because, just for a moment perhaps, a semiconductor engineer somewhere (probably Intel) doubted.
Of course disk drives are impossible, too. Apply my theory and it easy to see that if someone at Fujitsu, Seagate, Toshiba, Western Digital or where ever thinks “damn, that’s impossible!” then poof, heads contact platter and adios baby.
Well, that’s my theory. I think it is at least as good as Intelligent Design.
“I’ll never grow up, never grow up…”

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Our Bicycle Tour in France

Filed under: Cycling — Michael @ 16:24

Well, the plans have been made and we’re going to southern France for our bike tour 2007. The date is the last week in April and the route is Avignon to Nice. It was a bit complicated organizing how we would get there. There will be three of us making the the tour, two from Hamburg and one from München. At first I was looking at taking the train. It is easy to take our bikes with us and there are good connections. But the trip from Hamburg to Avignon is over 20 hours and even as much as I enjoy train travel I had to admit that is a rather long time. So, the next idea was to fly. There are flights to Avignon but they require a couple of changes and are rather expensive. But from Hamburg (and München) there are many inexpensive flights to Nice. So, I thought, how about flying to Nice, taking a train to Avignon, bicycling back to Nice and flying home. And that is what we will do.
The only thing was to make sure that we could take our bicycles with us on the plane. I ended up going to the Lufthansa ticket office at the Hamburg airport and the woman I spoke with there was very helpful in getting us inexpensive flights on planes that had the baggage capacity for also carrying bicycles. (The bargain airlines generally fly small planes and were unsure if they could even take a single bike. And when you add up the landing fees, taxes, service fees, etc. they are only a few Euros cheaper than with a major carrier anyway.)
The happy result was that now I have tickets in hand for the three of us and we’ll soon be biking through Provence. The main goal for this trip (aside from the wine and cheese) is the the Grand Canyon du Verdon. Except for the Gorges du Verdon and a few other points of interest, the exact route we’ll take has not been decided and probably won’t be until we’ve done it. And since we’ll have seven days for cycling we should be able to take a pretty indirect route and see a fair amount of the region.