Monday, August 28, 2006

Uninstall U3 And Free Your USB Drive

My partner recently bought a USB drive to go with her nice shiny laptop. We decided on the cheapest Busbi 1GB unit at the local Argos. Unfortunately, on inserting this drive several strange things happened to my computer. It appeared that some strange software app had installed without permission and was dictating how I should or shouldn't use the drive.

On inspection it was evident that the drive had automatically installed itself as two different partitions. The first contains a read-only software package called U3, and the second has the executable application component plus a documents folder. U3 apparently makes it easy for you to do things like copy files... not that anyone should need help with that! You can also install various applications so that they will run off the USB drive and not touch the Windows system.

Fair enough I suppose, some might like that. But maybe people should know that this facility is already available for software like FireFox and, without needing anything like U3.

Most people object to having automatic processes clogging up their computer's memory. Not only that, but how professional would it look to have this pop up on your bosses computer, simply because you wanted to copy a file? It seems to me that might violate all sorts of work codes.

I set about repartitioning and reformatting the drives to remove U3. No can do. Even if the data drive is reformatted, it is restored when the stick is activated, being reloaded from the read-only partition. And that partition appears like a CD-ROM drive and hence cannot be formatted.

But help is on its way, courtesy of the fine folk at Ars Technica who made solutions available in this thread. The upshot is that, due to public pressure, an uninstall utility is now available at the official U3 site.

And for those with Win98 SE, here is a generic driver that will work with storage-type devices (cameras, flash drives) so you don't need to use possibly bloated manufacturer's installations. I have not tested this because I do not use Win 98 anymore (thank goodness!).

Will companies ever stop their patronising attitudes and allow us to opt-in to software instead of making us jump through hoops to opt-out?
Thursday, August 24, 2006

Audio Kontrol 1 Pre-Release Evaluation

Want to get into DJing from your computer? Interested in a simply USB audio interface with some innovative features? If so, take a look at the Audio Kontrol 1, just announced by Native Instruments.

Available in October at prices starting at € 279, this hardware interface looks like it might hit a sweet spot. It's got two inputs, one switchable for line level or instruments, the other for line or microphone. There's standard 48V phantom power, so you can use professional condenser mics.

The conversion goes up to 192 KHz at 24 bits, though I imagine most users should stick to 44.1 KHz to keep the file size down.

The outputs are on 4 balanced quarter-inch connections. This gives you enough for two stereo feeds: house monitor and cue. You can send these out to an external mixer but there's no real need. Instead, use the headphone jack (with level control) on the front panel. A pushbutton selects between outputs 1/2 or 3/4 so you can switch between house and cue mixes. Or, keep is set to one position and use your software to do the monitor selection. This provides a lot of flexibility.

Do note, however, that the stereo headphone feed is not in addition to the four outputs, instead it selects between them.

While inferior to the throughput and lower contention of FireWire, the USB connection has the advantage of being bus-powered (no separate power supply needed). Plus, it's usually easier to find USB ports on your computer. The ASIO drivers supposedly deliver latency down to 4ms. If that's not fast enough there's direct monitoring with a mono switch and mix control, right on the front of the unit.

Additionally there's integrated MIDI I/O and activity LEDs for all functions on top of the unit, so it's easy to see what the device is doing.

But cooler yet is a big controller knob with 3 buttons. You can assign the knob to different functions based on which button is held down. For example, without buttons it could be your master volume, left button could be deck one volume, right button could be deck two volume, and middle button... pitch shift? Monitor level? Lots of possibilities here, and everything will look pretty cool with the red on black colour scheme.

The software bundle includes three packages that are also available from NI individually. I list their usual retail price parenthetically. Note that some are currently on sale from NI. For example, Traktor DJ Studio 3 is only €99, an enormous savings.

Xpress Keyboards (€99) is a package of three virtual instruments, the B4 (B3 drawbar organ emulation), PRO-53 (Prophet 5), and FM7 (Yamaha DX-7). In their full versions these have rightly received rave reviews. These "xpress" versions have limited presets and sound manipulation possibilities. A review at Traxmusic goes into great detail.

Guitar Combos is a set of three amp emulations taken from the full Guitar Rig package. This is over-priced at €179.

Traktor 3 LE is a two-deck version of the full Traktor DJ Studio 3 (€249). It has everything you would need to DJ from the computer, resembling the previous version of the full software.

So, how does Audio Kontrol 1 compare in a crowded market? If you want to record a band it is a poor choice. No multi-track software comes with the bundle and you have only two inputs. Despite this the software provides soft synths and amp sims useful only for music production. There is poor synergy between software and hardware.

But for DJing the combination of Traktor, two stereo outputs, a good complement of actual knobs and switches, good visual feedback, and the killer controller knob adds up to a very capable package. Had they made room for a cross-fade controller it would be perfectly suited to this task.

Next version perhaps?
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

New Blogger Beta

Blogger Buzz has announced that there will finally be an update to Blogger. Features have long been lagging behind other systems; hopefully this will remedy the deficiencies.

Here are the announced enhancements.

New feeds will be available for blog comments whether aggregated or individual. Atom feeds have been updated to the 1.0 standard plus support has been added for RSS 2.0.

An updated Dashboard allows you to edit and view each blog directly.

Changes to article are updated immediately. No more waiting for the silly spinny animation! This is because all pages are now generated dynamically on viewing.

Additional templates have been provided for those getting started.

Accounts will be integrated with Google accounts, meaning that we will have one less password to remember. (Also meaning that Google will convert a number of Blogger users into full service users.)

One can create private blogs and limit readers by email address. Unfortunately this feature is only fully-featured if these addresses correspond to a registered user. Otherwise they will get a temporary guest account.

Drag and drop page design facilities segment templates into different elements. This will make it easier to create a custom style and even add JavaScript, feeds from other sites, and other enhancements. This looks very nice!

However, this new Blogger Layouts system is incompatible with existing templates. An upgrade function has been provided, but it remains to be seen how this handles templates that are as extensively modified as, say, the blog you are reading at this moment.

In a feature everyone will love, posts can now be labeled with a list of tags. Summaries of these can then easily be listed in your blog template, sorted by number of posts or alphabetically. Note however that this only works in the new Blogger Layouts mode.

A certain number of existing Blogger users are being invited to try out the system. If you are not one of these, you can access the new beta by signing up for a new account.

Bloggers using FTP publishing, a Plus upgrade, team blogging, or mobile devices will not be able to upgrade -- yet. Furthermore, the new system is in English only and requires IE or FireFox.

What about other features that we'd like to see?

I am frustrated at the lack of control over uploading images. It is impossible to change how the image will be represented, and I rarely want the default "small image with a mouse click to larger" style. There is support only for JPG so other formats get converted and reduced in quality. Furthermore, the image upload features often don't work, though I suspect this has been fixed.

Having a separate page for comments, and furthermore one which does not comply with a custom look'n'feel, has always been a weakness.

Let's hope the roll-out is quick, the feature robust, and that future upgrades will not be so long in coming.
Friday, August 11, 2006

Bristol in Two Days: Part One

In this article I will give you a visual guide to Bristol, illustrated by some of the photos I took. Bristol is well worth a weekend, especially if you are in any way interested in Victorian engineering. This being the 200th anniversary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's birth, there are special events laid on, though none happened to coincide with our visit.

Our flight, via Ryanair, the cheapo airline everyone loves to hate, was uneventful. Cutting corners wherever they can, Ryanair have a brand new policy which charges you for every piece of luggage you check in. Your carry-on is still limited to a single item of under 10kg in weight, so unless you are a very light traveler indeed you should expect to pay extra.

It is impossible to parody this company. If someone jokes that next month passengers will be expected to share driving duties, then sure enough flying lessons become an optional part of the ticket price.

Bristol airport is a small place. Grabbing a coach gets you to either the train station (20 minutes) or the bus depot. Which is better for you depends of course on where you are staying. The ride into town offers a mostly occluded view of the city from an elevated vantage point, viewed from the south. What you can see of the streets themselves is hardly promising. We tried to be kind and ended up describing the cityscape as "motley".

At the Temple Meads train station is the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum [map], which we skipped in favour of lunch. It was about a 15 minute walk to our hotel, the Premier Travel Inn located on the spectacularly Welsh sounding Llandoger Trow [map]. The location couldn't be better: right in the old city with a view of the river. For a discount hotel the rooms were great and service friendly -- nothing to complain about for £59 a night (double room).

Anyway, back to lunch. Starved we were and went to the first place we saw. Pictured here later in the evening, Obento proved to be one of the highlights of the stay. My partner is a new convert to Japanese food, so in order to experience the range of the kitchen we decided on their most extensive set meal. After some edamame (warm soybeans one pops out of the pod directly to the mouth) and miso soup we received a generous portion of sashimi: four thick slices each of maguro (tuna) and sake (salmon). I was glad to see the restaurant stuck with what they could get fresh, even if this meant a fairly standard assortment of fish.

Then arrived a selection of ebi and vegetable tempura, followed by gyoza (fried dumplings) and then tonkatsu (pork cutlet), each with their own distinctive sauce of course. Each was a full-sized serving, deliciously prepared and presented.

By this time we were feeling more than a little full. But the meal was not over yet. Yakinasu (grilled aubergine) made its way over to us, piled high on the plate and topped with dancing bonito flakes. A full serving of yaki-udon joined the steaming table and, finally, a steak in a sticky teriyaki sauce. This was the only mis-step, as the meat was cooked completely through instead of being rare inside as is customary. Perhaps this was in deference to local preferences, but I would have rather been asked.

I was also surprised to see that green tea was not freely included with all meals, though our set dinner had it indicated. I find it unwelcoming not to have tea on tap throughout the whole meal.

This feast defeated us entirely, and we were forced to take home two of the dishes for breakfast. I heartily recommend Obento to anyone wanting value for money, though I recommend you invite a third person to your dinner for two!

For more on Japanese food, you will want to visit The Tokyo Food Page, one of my favourite sites.

While I am talking food, I should mention that we were discouraged that on several occasions we missed kitchens entirely. One pub stopped serving at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, an almost incomprehensible move. On other nights menus stopped being available at about 8pm, which I would consider to be early. On another day we showed up at one of the city's best Indian restaurants for lunch, only to be told they would not be opening. Strange practices indeed!
Tuesday, August 08, 2006

British Art Show 6

Last weekend in Bristol my partner and I had a look through some of the venues participating in British Art Show 6. This exhibition, occurring only every five years, has previously visited three other cities. This is the last stop, so if you want to see what's up with contemporary British art, you have until September 17 to get to Bristol.

A few works stood out in particular. Richard Hughes has sculpted a life-sized Match, which hardly seems a worthy contribution to contemporary artistic practise... until you actually see it. This tiny simulacra of a dying moment said more to me than long documentary-style videos, collections of shoes, towers of blocks, galleries of sand, or most of the rest of the show.

Two Hew Locke pieces from the House of Windsors series are popular favourites. A profile of the Queen has been rendered in plastic lizards, guns, insects and other replica detritus, setting up a dramatic dialogue between part and whole, reproduction and mere recreation. The replica brooch available in the gallery store misses the point by reducing the piece to a detail-free plane.

We had previously stumbled upon the Phil Collins' DVD el mundo no escuchar√° in a gallery in London. In it, residents of Bogota perform karaoke versions of songs from The Smiths' The World Won't Listen album. While this is undoubtedly a statement about globalisation, it also exists on a level of pure exuberance. Similarly, the Palestinian dancers in They Shoot Horses are exhausting themselves in a marathon event, a useful political metaphor, but are also simply having a good time. Laughing out loud is not something you may be used to doing at a contemporary art show, but Phil Collins may change all of that.

Finally, Tonico Lemos Auad presented a carpet with bits of fluff scraped off and sculpted (with some skill) into various animal parts. A fox with missing head melted into the fuzzy surface while elsewhere rows of ears emerged. Large expanses contained abstract trails, remnants of insect passages or other messengers of decay.

A few words about the venues. The Arnolfini is a well-situated building with an excellent bookstore and an equally impressive resource centre.

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, located on the Clifton triangle, has some excellent dinosaurs and other museum displays, as well as some not-so-contemporary art.

Nearby is the Royal West of England Academy. If you visit, don't forget to check out the New Gallery for a show by Nicky Knowles. We enjoyed her lovely black and white images, nearly abstract renderings of the Cambridge Fens. Her works in colour we did not find nearly so effective. For some odd reason the website is out of date on that show, but you can view images from the Cube Gallery and 9 The Gallery.

The images above are abstracts from photos taken in Bristol, and not associated with this art show in any way. Pity!