Musing #48: Impact of Spectre/Meltdown patch (With Intel's March Microcode Update)

Spectre and Meltdown have been all over the news in the past few days. While the seriousness of the bug cannot be understated, the speculation on the performance impact of the patch, especially on older processors, has been particularly worrisome. Google and Intel have put forth some assurances, but the end result is yet to be seen.

As my desktop is equipped with the generations-old i5-3470, I have to brace for whatever performance degradation comes with the patch. Unfortunately, with ASRock having released the last BIOS update for my motherboard in 2013, one can only hope to receive an official update. For the time being, the only option is to rely on Microsoft's Windows 10 patch which only partially mitigates this issue.

Even then, it offers a first glimpse at the performance that has to be scarified in lieu of security. Intel has stated that the impact will vary based on the task and hence there is no easy way to determine the impact of the patch. I went with Cinebench R15 and CrystalDiskMark to quickly capture the impact on some everyday tasks.

As can be seen in the screenshot below, the performance impact seems to be quite significant with the post-patch score being nearly 7% lower. This is by all means a huge impact and cannot be disregarded.

Musing #53: Cluedo Champ!

Somehow, my childhood never crossed paths with Cluedo amongst the myriad of board games that helped shape it. Ironically, I watched the related movie several years back without having ever rolled the dice within Tudor mansion. I suppose the ignorance of those days, without access to mobiles and the Web, was a bliss in more ways than one. However, the competitive spirit was fostered by other familiar games as well as ones whose obscurity isn't lessened by scouring the Web.

It is never too late to start with something and hence I didn't bat an eyelid in getting the iOS version of Cluedo once I became aware of its existence earlier this week. I immediately felt like a duck in the water and soon found myself at the top of the leader board without much effort. Who knew that all those years of reading and watching whodunnits would make me such a great detective? Now, if only someone were to accept Cluedo as proof of my real-life logical reasoning skills.

For anyone looking to jump in to the app, I would recommend it with a few riders. The good part is that the digital representation is faithful to the physical one and is certainly captivating. On the flip side, the app has more than a few game breaking bugs, the biggest one being that the murder cards are repeated when there are not many players online and bots make up the numbers (looking at you, GreenToucan838). This can prop up the score if you so wish and I encountered it at least half a dozen times; but such instances are frustrating and I wish the developers had done a better job of it.

While I enjoyed partaking in Cluedo with people around the world, I felt it best to leave at the top. I suppose the screenshot below will immortalise my tryst with Cluedo, even though I am sure that the more persistent players would have beaten it by now. Yeah, that's Scarlett you see as me. I hope that a lot of players harrowed by my existence would now breathe a sigh of relief. Just may be, I have a come back in me somewhere down the line.

Musing #52: Art Doppelgängers

This site doesn't feature a picture of me, but that doesn't imply that there can't be ones that look like me. Fortunately, Google Arts & Culture is here to identify the artistic me. Unfortunately, it couldn't do so with high confidence; the match percentage hovering between 55-65%.

It seems that the images are particularly sensitive to eye size as opening the same to varying extents produces the most variances. Perhaps, someone could just reverse engineer these images to identify the real me. However, it seems Google itself wouldn't do a great job of it as its image search failed to identify most of these paintings.

As a bonus, there was even a match of me from the opposing gender. Surprisingly, the match percentage was quite high as well (59%) in the context of things, especially as the image was not of my side face. Going by the results, I really shouldn't have much trouble in being a master of disguise.

Musing #51: The philosophical difference between Formula 1 and Formula E

Compared to last year and the year before, I have decided to change tack and throw Formula E in to the mix this year. While the renders were shared in January, Formula E physically unveiled its Gen2 car at the Geneva Motor Show earlier today. I find it to be an attractive design, specifically as it is something that Formula 1 is unlikely to mimic anytime soon; unless its American owner, Liberty Media, manages to miraculously convince the teams that the show is more important than the performance.

This brings me to the point of why Formula E finds it favourable to adopt such a radically different design compared to Formula 1, marketing reasons aside. I cannot profess to be an aerodynamicist but over two decades of following motorsports has led me to be more appreciative of its technical aspects. Also, it feels satisfying to be able to tap in to my years of studying physics and engineering, and leverage it to satisfy the curiosity of a random commenter on the Internet.

Formula 1 is considered to be the epitome of motorsports and rightly so. It is all about harnessing the ultimate performance from the machine and achieving the ultimate lap time, much of which is accomplished by being fast through the turns. Hence, F1 cars are set up to have the highest possible downforce so that the turns can be taken as fast as possible while ensuring that the high drag that comes with it doesn't impact the straightline speed as much.

Unfortunately, most of the downforce in modern F1 cars is generated using aerodynamic structures and appendages which leaves a significant disturbed air flow for the car following behind. A consequence of this approach is the poor racing that we see in F1 these days. The much-maligned Drag Reduction System (DRS) overcomes this specific obstacle for the following car, though it seems the wider cars and even more intricate aerodynamic structures have rendered it less powerful (and thankfully so).

On the contrary, Formula E being a spec chassis series, isn't focused on ultimate performance. The philosophy here is to accelerate quickly out of the corners using the instant torque from the electric motors, reach the top speed as quickly as possible down the straights and then coast for the remainder of the straights, before breaking hard while already cornering to aid the charging of batteries using the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). The power absorbed by drag increases with the cube of speed increase, so less drag results in less energy expense over a lap, while ensuring higher top speeds along the straights. The less disturbed air of a low drag/downforce setup certainly helps the following car but a side benefit of this, coupled with the low-grip, all-weather Michelin tyres, and instant torque is that the cars are incredibly difficult to handle around the corners due to which we see a lot more driver errors in Formula E compared to F1's cornering on rails.

I hope Season 5 of Formula E brings in better uninterrupted racing, made possible by having a single car complete the race. However, I hope that some strategic element of a pit-stop is retained, e.g., allowing for quick, short recharges for additional power at the expense of lost time. Formula 1 and E aside, 2018 is looking to be another cracking year for motorsports with a competitive MotoGP field littered with manufacturers and the the new low-downforce IndyCar.

Musing #50: Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music

Amazon launched its Music service in India earlier this week, so I thought I'd do a quick comparison of it with the other streaming services I have been using, Apple Music and Spotify. Before any one brings it up, I have trialled all the other music streaming services available locally in India (Gaana, Wynk, Saavn, Hungama) at one point or another and found them to disappointing in terms of quality and catalogue. Even Google Music didn't offer much to dislodge Apple when it launched in India, though it hit the mark with its pricing.

I didn't term this article as a review, since it isn't one. Since majority of my listening is done on the iPhone, now with my RHA MA650, Apple Music happens to be my preferred option. It offers the best integration with iOS (e.g. Siri) and has the best quality when streaming over Bluetooth. Spotify complements Apple Music really well with its cross-platform compatibility, track discovery and catalogue. On the other hand, I wouldn't really pay for Amazon Music if it existed as a separate subscription service but as yet another Prime membership perk, it is totally worth it.

I have briefly covered the features of each service in the table below along with the availability of various tracks at the time of writing this article. It should give a good idea of what each platform has to offer.

Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 

Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.

Tutorial #19: Optimally managing photos and videos on iOS

Apple’s anaemic storage options (specifically at the lowest tier) have been a running joke for a majority of the iPhone’s existence. I was at the receiving end of Apple’s largesse with the entry-level iPhone 7 switching to 32 GB which was further enhanced to 64 GB with the iPhone 8. Even with these storage options, one can easily fill it up with content other than captured photos and videos. Also, it is not a sound idea to have all your files stored locally on the device, irrespective of its storage capacity.

Apple provides a few options to mitigate the storage issues resulting from ever larger multimedia content. These are as follows:

1. The default option that most may take recourse to is the iCloud Photo Library. However, Apple provides a meagre 5 GB of storage for starters and as is typical of the company, you are expected to pay more to use this option practically. It only makes sense to go with Apple’s cloud if you live on it through other devices in the Apple ecosystem, like the Mac or iPad. The more important thing to note here is that by default Apple syncs your local photo library with the iCloud one, so you can end up permanently deleting your photos from the device as well as the cloud if you are not paying attention.

2. With the release of iOS 11, Apple introduced the high-efficiency formats, HEVC for videos and HEIF for images, that significantly reduce the file size on modern iDevices. The down side to this is that compatibility for this format is still not standard across platforms and devices. Most notably, the HEIF format is not yet natively supported by Windows. Even within Apple’s ecosystem, sharing the images or videos with older devices necessitates a conversion which takes up time as well as processing power on the mobile device.

3. Lastly, iOS also provides an ‘Optimize Storage’ option that keeps a lower quality version of the image on the phone for immediate viewing purpose while retrieving the full quality image from iCloud. This helps in dealing with storage issues but yet again results in the usage of additional time and data.

Luckily for iOS users, there are several third-party options available that allow one to back-up and retrieve photos and videos without having to pay or worry about running out of storage. After using quite a few options, I have shortlisted two well-known ones that together offer an unbeatable 1-2 combination. They are Flickr and Google Photos.

Before starting out, I would recommend that you go to Camera > Formats and select the ‘Most Compatible’ option which uses JPEG/H.264 instead of HEIF/HEVC. This ensures that the images are available for use without any conversion and accessible on all platforms. It will, of course, take up additional space but since we are offloading most of the stuff on to the cloud anyway, storage isn’t a constraint. On the other hand, data usage can be a constraint if you are limited to a cellular network, but the solution here ensures that even that eventuality is covered. As for the ‘Optimize Storage’ option, you can leave it enabled as iOS always provides the full quality image to any other app that requests it.

Our primary solution to the image storage problem is Flickr. One can argue that Flickr has seen better days and the Yahoo hacks might have left a few people dishevelled. Many photographers might have a preference for 500px as well, but that doesn’t take anything away from Flickr as far as our use case is concerned. Assuming that Oath (Verizon) wouldn’t bring about any drastic storage policy changes, Flickr offers the best value proposition for free users. The 1000 GB of storage space is unprecedented and the photography focus of the site is much better for image/photo management compared to a paid, storage-only option like OneDrive.

While Flickr has moved some of its tools like the desktop ‘Uploadr’ under the Pro banner, the iOS app is unaffected. It is capable of syncing with the iOS Photo Library and more importantly, uploading the original image to the cloud. It does not however support the HEIF format as is evident when you try to upload these images over the website. On iOS however, the images in the Photo Library are still uploaded after conversion to JPEG. Hence, I have previously recommended the usage of the ‘Most Compatible’ option to prevent unnecessary conversions. Unfortunately, Flickr doesn’t allow the segregation between photos and videos when uploading over a cellular connection and hence I would recommend syncing only over WiFi, unless you have an uncapped cellular connection.

The sidekick to our protagonist Flickr is Google Photos. On its own, Google Photos is an awesome product. However, ‘original quality’ images and videos are limited to the storage available on Google Drive for non-Pixel users, which in most cases is 15 GB. Luckily, Google offers an unlimited ‘High Quality’ option, which one should note, significantly compresses the image. However, thanks to clever use of algorithms and machine learning, the effects are not visible on most devices unless the image is blown up significantly.

As a secondary backup solution, Google Photos offers some distinct advantages. Firstly, it caches lower quality variants of all the images so that the entire library is accessible even when you are offline. Secondly, it offers smaller-sized files on account of the compression and resolution limitations of 16 MP/1080p, which is useful when accessing or sharing something over a cellular connection on social media. Thirdly, it allows photos and videos to be synced separately over WiFi and cellular connections, so that images can be synced immediately while larger videos can be uploaded later over WiFi. Fourthly, once images are backed up, they can be easily deleted from the device (and iCloud) using the ‘Free up space’ option. However, for this, you should ensure that the original images are first uploaded to Flickr. Lastly, the machine-learning powered search is really useful in unearthing hidden images and recreating past memories.

Thus, the combination of Flickr and Google Photos ensures that you have all your images and videos backed up regularly with redundancy and available on demand. While Flickr provides the long-term, original quality storage; Google Photos complements it with smaller-sized, optimized content for on-the-go consumption. It completely cuts off iCloud from the picture and ensures that you more storage available on your device for things that you need and use far more regularly.