Sunday, 29 March 2009

Ableton Live 8 audio comparison

Ableton Live is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) that can be used for music production. I've been using it for a couple of years to create DJ mixes and remix other artists songs (also using another DAW called Reason). I got into Ableton when version 5 was released, as this added lots of features useful for DJs. The most significant feature introduced was 'warping', otherwise known as time stretching, which allows you to change the tempo of a piece of audio without changing the pitch. This is something of a departure from DJing on turntables, where you explicitly have a "pitch" control that true to form changes both the tempo and pitch of the record. Ableton's warping feature gives you creative freedom to modify both tempo and pitch, meaning that you can make use of songs that would be impossible on turntables because they're either too fast/slow and also create in key mixes. For DJs, Ableton also makes looping, restructuring songs and adding a whole wealth of effects very quick and easy, and also removes the hardware limit of turntables meaning that you can play as many songs as you can imagine all at the same time. Ableton is in fact so good, that when version 7 was released, I bought the full Suite edition and came to own my first ever piece of boxed, retail software.

The warping algorithm used in Live since version 5 has been Elastique Audio Efficient, and although this is an amazing piece of software that gives high quality audio results, one of the complaints about upgrades to Live is that they haven't included the Elastique Audio Pro algorithm. Ableton have obviously listened to their critics as one of the key features of the upcoming version 8 release is that they've included the Pro algorithm. The main difference in the Pro algorithm is that it preserves formants, I'd love to tell you why that's a good thing, but that Wikipedia article confused me.

I've been playing around with the Beta a little bit, and I thought I'd do a comparison between the old "Complex" (Efficient) warp mode and the new "Complex Pro" (Pro) warp mode. To do this I've used a snippet of Scott Matthew's Elusive played at normal speed, double speed, and half speed. This is a fairly extreme scenario, so the results are hopefully interesting. Below you'll find three audio files rendered from the same arrangement, one using Complex, one using Complex Pro and for the nerds one with Complex on the left channel and Complex Pro on the right channel.



LR Split

The results aren't quite as marked as I was perhaps expecting, but the difference is certainly there and Pro appears yeilds better audio with less artifacts when altering pitch wildly. I had thought it would be worth the upgrade price alone, but having experimented, I'm not so sure. We'll see once the pricing is announced.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The best potato recipe ever

This recipe is amazing and is taken from Nigel Slater's Real Cooking which you can buy here.

Pan-fried potatoes with browned onions and garam masala
For 2 as an accompaniment
  • 4 medium sized potatoes
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (groundnut works well)
  • a small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
"Bring the potatoes to the boil in enough cold water to cover them. Turn them down to an enthusiastic bubble and leave to cook until tender to the point of a knife - about fifteen minutes depending on their size. Drain and peel off their skin.

Heat the oil in a pan (you might as well use the same one), then add the sliced onion. Cook over a moderate heat until a rich brown, perhaps darker than you might normally take. Its flavour will be deeper and more aromatic. Add the garam masala and salt and warm gently in the pan for a few seconds until fragrant. Brown onions and garam masala is a most magical combination.

Break the potatoes up into chunks (you can slice them, but you will lose the lovely rough, crumbly texture of the dish), then stir them briefly with the spiced onion. Cook for a minute or two and serve hot."

For extra WIN, I cook the potatoes and onions in parallel using an extra pan. Once I've drained the potatoes, I pop them back in the pan and give them a vigourous shake to roughen the edges. Any which remain intact I then attack with my wooden spatula until they're down to bitesize chunks.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Test drive: Volvo S40 1.6 DRIVe SE

At the moment, I have a Ford Focus 2.0TDi Titanium as my company car and as I'm nearing the end of my 2 year contract, I'm currently test driving potential replacements. The way my company car scheme works is that I'm given a fixed amount each month that I can either take as cash (meaning I provide my own car + pay tax on the amount) or use to pay for a car from Leaseplan. In theory I can choose any car I'd like, but in practice doing so affordably is complicated by two factors: 1) Company car taxation is tricksy, involving the on the road price of the car (P11D), a percentage based on CO2 emissons and your highest tax bracket and 2) The leasing costs vary wildly between manufacturers, two cars with the same P11D can have wildly different lease prices. Needless to say, I won't be getting an Audi A5 3.2 Quattro for an eye watering total cost of ownership of £620 a month.

A major reason that I chose the Focus was that it represents something of a magic quadrant in cheap lease price, reasonable list price and low CO2 but combined with good fuel efficiency and nice performance. I thought I'd try out the Volvo S40 as it has a better cabin and includes more gadgets important for those of us approaching 30, such as a driver memory seat. It's not quite a strong on the magic quadrant though, as despite have a P11D £400 cheaper than the Focus, the S40 2.0D SE would cost me an extra £50 a month. Because of this I test drove the ecological 1.6 DRIVe SE variant (more expensive lease, but £1200 less P11D and lower CO2 so would cost £20/m less than the Focus).

So after driving the Volvo S40 1.6 DRIVe for a weekend, here are my pros and cons vs the Ford Focus 2.0TDi Titanium:

  • Car felt more solid overall, pleasing door clunk, noticeably quieter and more refined cabin.
  • "Floating console", looks good and provides neat storage.
  • Better positioning of 3.5mm jack input (In center storage compartment vs in the glove box in the Focus)
  • Surprisingly easy to manouver, good visibility and position plus park assist.
  • More seat adjustability and driver memory option available.

  • Big car outside, small car inside. Lacking headroom in the front and legroom in the rear.
  • Unlocking the boot with the key doesn't release the catch. Focus does this meaning you can then open the boot from any position with one hand.
  • Boot is hard to shut fully, I had the "Boot lid open" message on the dash 3 times.
  • Sound system lacklustre.
  • Lacking seat headrest adjustment.
  • Driver memory option disappointing, it's a manual button on the seat and didn't seem to be tied to the key. Also doesn't adjust mirrors.

Given the above, the real deal breaker was the lacking headroom. The uneccessary final nail in the coffin was that despite a stated combined mpg of 62.8, my demonstrator returned 51.5mpg while I had it. Given that my Focus returns around 46mpg and comes with 2 litre rapidity, the Volvo won't be taking the Focus' crown this time. So much for big ideas hey?

Next up is Golf 1.4TSi SE.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Malmaison Oxford

This week, I went to May's graduation ceremony from her postgraduate diploma in Software Engineering at Oxford University. To mark the occasion we stayed in the Malmaison hotel in the centre of Oxford. We'd stayed there once before back in 2006, just after it opened, but I'd forgotten just how jaw-droppingly incredible it is. Set within the grounds of Oxford Castle, the building is Victorian and was one of Her Majesty's prisons up until 1996. The Malmaison overhaul of the prison was part of the overall redevelopment of the Oxford Castle site that was funded by a lottery grant in 2006.

The conversion of the hotel is truly amazing, as my pictures below hopefully attest:

The main hall, hotel rooms are within the converted cells.

The ex-visitors hall champagne bar (panorama made with the excellent autostitch)

Wandering around, I just kept thinking how happy the architect must have been with landing the project. Perhaps even more so when the regeneration of Oxford Castle won the 2007 Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Project of the Year award.

On our visit in 2006, we stayed in a room in what used to be the prison warden's quarters. It was very nice, but this time we thought we'd go all out and get the deluxe room in the prison hall itself. Our room was originally 3 cells (holding a total of 9-12 inmates!) with 2 cells used to create the bedroom and 1 for the ensuite bathroom which included a rolltop bath and 2 person shower. The "cell" doors are original, as are the tiny, high up windows. The room was very comfortable, if not bordering on luxurious and thankfully the terrible mobile phone signal resulting from being boxed in was compensated by free wi-fi. We ate in the brasserie on the 2009 offer and as they were quite full and we were a party of 5, they put us into one of the private dining rooms.

If you're in the area, I'd highly recommend at least a visit to look around, if not an overnight stay. If you do go, be sure to head for the basement where there are 2 original cells to peruse. To give you an idea of price, we paid £119 for our room.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Hertz are idiots

Last September, May and I went to the Connect music festival on the banks of Loch Fyne in Scotland (see my Flickr set). We hired a car with Hertz (IBM discount) which we picked up in Glasgow, and then dropped off in Edinburgh. Everything with the hire went very smoothly, or so we thought until last December.

When we received this:

(click for big)

As you can see, the letter is with respect to a penalty charge notice from the 31st of August, issued at Queens Gate. Now, we didn't remember getting a parking ticket so after racking our brains a bit and consulting May's diary to see where we'd been on the 31st, I called Hertz to request a copy of the original PCN and also called my credit card company to dispute the payment. This was on the 9th of December and they promised to send me a copy within 10 days.

Here's what they sent me on the 23rd - see if you can spot the problem:

(click for big)

Did you spot it? If not check this one and compare it with the PCN above:

(click for big)

For extra LOLs, remember that I said I rented the car in Glasgow, and dropped it off in Edinburgh, then take a look at the issuing council for the PCN. Commando lol!

With this evidence in hand I called Hertz back on the 23rd December and spoke to a nice chap called David and offered him the opportunity to provide me with a full refund before I instructed my credit card company to reclaim the unlawful charge. After he'd spent a few minutes with the documents, he came to the same conclusion that I had and exclaimed "that's absolutely ridiculous" before proceeding to issue a full refund. Good man. 

Monday, 9 March 2009

The myth of cross country skiing

I recently enjoyed a winter holiday in Austria. Before I went, I was surprised to find that most people who asked what I was going to be doing reacted with mild horror when I told them I would be cross country skiing. "Cross country? Isn't that incredibly tiring? Doesn't sound like much of a holiday" etc. I was doing classic style cross country, where you ski in cut tracks as opposed to the skating style which is more like what you see in the Olympics. As you're skiing in tracks, you only have to concentrate on forward movement which is a handy benefit given that your skis are about 2" wide and for anyone with downhill skiing experience a little tricky to find an edge on. To go with the super light, 2" wide skis, you also get very comfortable boots that clip into the skis only at the front. This is awesome because the gear is very manageable, but it also means that you can fall over in pretty much any direction you can imagine.

The myth I want to dispel is that you have to be incredibly fit to cross country ski. It's no different from anything else really, you perform it to your level, wherever that level may be. I can go for a run, you can go for a run, Gordon Brown can go for a run and Usain Bolt can go for a run; we're all running - just each to our own level of fitness. For me, that means when I cross country ski I enjoy nice little breaks where I can take in the scenery. This is a great benefit of cross country skiing over downhill, as you move a lot slower (we averaged around 6km/h) and can really appreciate your surroundings. The motion required for classic cross country is similar to ice skating/rollerblading; you have to transfer your weight from foot to foot, first propelling yourself with the weighted foot and then gliding on it as you transfer your weight. Because this requires quite a lot of co-ordination, another benefit is that it's atually quite hard to think about anything other than propelling yourself, listening to the swish of the skis and enjoying the scenery. Any worries or stresses quickly evaporate leaving you with a rare, and pleasurably clear mind.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's easy, but it's certainly not as hard as you might think. The max we skied in a day was about 15km, which took about 2.5 hours, and the last 2km of that were pretty painful. Another observation is that I seem to have got into cross country about 20 years earlier than most people; it seems to be a sport for 40-60 year olds. This is pretty inspiring because by the time I reach that age, I should be an amazing cross country skier, but it's a bit irritating when you're brutally over taken by a lycra clad, silver haired blur.

You can watch my holiday video below, perhaps it will inspire you to give cross country a go the next time you get the opportunity. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The continental European approach to nakedness

I've just got back from a holiday in Seefeld in Austria, where we stayed at the Alpenpark hotel. One of the reasons we chose the Alpenpark, apart from being the #1 TripAdvisor hotel in Seefeld, was for its spa facilities, including the recently-built adult spa. The adult spa contains an excellently hot sauna, water beds, a steam room and a brine pool, and as in many other mainland European countries, swimwear is verboten and the facility is mixed male and female.

In the UK, we don't generally seem to cope very well with the concept of communal nudity, and although I don't personally have a problem with it, spotting other Brits on holiday was easy by their innate awkwardness. I think that the rest of Europe have the right idea here, as in the UK there seems to be a tendency to be shy of and unhappy with our bodies. I’ve seen other Brits abroad confronted with the prospect of a naked sauna flatly refuse to enter, seemingly having hot flushes of shame just contemplating being nude in company. I've saunaed in Germany, Austria, Italy and Finland where swimwear is typically forbidden and because that is the norm, people just get on with it. It’s not like everyone sits there, legs akimbo, with everything on display as it were, or even that people stare at you. I can't be certain, but I suspect that the net result of this social acceptance of nudity is that continental Europeans have a healthier body image than us Brits do, which I think is both enviable and desirable.

The one part that I did struggle with a little was chatting to people that you've met outside of the sauna, at dinner perhaps, in the sauna when you're both nude. That still seemed a bit weird and there's an interesting challenge of where you can look without being too rude. Also, I think because as a Brit it's not a common situation you find yourself in, there's still a bit of a voyeuristic thrill at seeing so many naked bodies, but I appreciate that could just be me.

So to summarise, next time you get the opportunity to swim or sauna in the nude, don’t be bashful and give it a go. Once you overcome the initial weirdness, it’s quite freeing to be naked in company and realise that no one really cares. Who knows, it might do wonders for your body image.

Status: February

1 February
22:29 Tim is packing for London.
20:42 Tim hopes the snow which just started won't pwn his early morning rail transport too much.
16:00 Tim just booked holiday to Seefeld in Austria for 21st Feb!
14:07 Tim is wondering what his φλουρι will bring him today.

2 February
22:11 Tim has booked his morning taxi to have another go at getting to London.
08:02 Tim is not going anywhere just yet. Heaviest snow in the South of England for 18 years.

03 February
16:34 Tim is at Winchester station. It's pretty broken today. First London train due in about 40 mins.
18:00 Tim has successfully ignored the SW Trains "do not travel" guidance. Train is warm, has snacks and the sunlit countryside is beautiful.
07:19 Tim is settling down in the Marriott. Trousers are pressed and hung in the technological wardrobe and I've fought my way through the millions of pillows on the bed.

04 February
17:07 Tim is wondering if he has diction problems.
07:13 Tim is back in the Marriott after an evening with the Telford School crew. Bit shocked by Ashwin's Thai restaurant noteriety.

05 February
17:09 Tim is still in London. It's wet. My E71 is arriving today, but in Winchester :(.
00:10 Tim is eating a sherbet Dip Dap and trying to shake off the information overload.
03:38 Tim is going to Pilates in a new age centre in Belgravia.
05:23 Tim is glad to have found a good, and more importantly, very small surrogate Pilates class.
07:35 Tim is seriously pissed off with O2's patchy data coverage in Swiss Cottage tonight.

06 February
17:03 Tim is in the office till lunchtime in London, then coming back to Winchester.
01:41 Tim is back from Physio. Had acupuncture and a minor freak out. Got O2, sugary tea and a biscuit.

07 February
18:31 Tim is sorting out tunes for Ed's birthday.
22:38 Tim is setting off for Leam. Anyone with Google Latitude is welcome to track my progress.

08 February
09:37 Tim is at Ed's 30th, big love to the Lowe tune selection.
23:16 Tim thinks Morcs is pretty pwned because he's uncontactable.
00:44 Tim is on the M40 South in wintery showers. 2 degrees thankfully.
04:27 Tim could really do without going to LDN in the morning.

09 February
16:32 Tim is on the 0818 from Winchester. Bank card declined this morning, d'oh.
20:24 Tim discovered why his card was declined. I thought I wrote a cheque off my savings account (rate hunting), but actually wrote it from my current account.
04:25 Tim is holed up in the Hilton Metropole. Not as much Gold VIP as I was expecting. Good Thai with my Bro near Old Street.
06:30 Tim has been updating his blog with time travelling posts and listening to Backdoor Boogie on Just caught the hotel pool too.

10 February
19:59 Tim has booked into the Electric Brasserie and cinema for May's London birthday.
02:42 Tim is using a scattergun approach to try and find a massage therapist in London.

11 February
01:52 Tim is off to meet May at Waterloo shortly.

12 February
02:23 Tim just made the 1805 home from London. Hotel du Vin tonight for May's birthday.
06:21 Tim enjoyed Hotel du Vin a lot, nice to be at home too. Dreading morning commute though. :(.

13 February
03:39 Tim is going to the Royal Oak for May's birthday drinks.

14 February
00:26 Tim is going to see Ant & Helen, Mango and Finbot, and BABY SEB.
02:51 Tim is actually staying at home tonight now.

15 February
19:55 Tim had forgotten how small newborns are. Baby Seb is nice though.
03:49 Tim went to work to get his Barclays calculator, it was rabbittastic.

16 February
16:21 Tim would have bought a super cheap 7 day Travelcard, but it turns out you need a photo card for one of them.

17 February
20:57 Tim is working in London again.
06:18 Tim had very tasty pork belly at Roast above Borough Market and shared the dining room with Louis Hamilton.

18 February
02:13 Tim is en route to massage in London,then having another go at getting into Heston's Little Chef.
07:51 Tim is back from Heston's Little Chef. Food was good, and cheaper than expected but less overtly brilliant than I'd hoped.

19 February
03:42 Tim is coming home to Winchester tonight to try and do a bit of pre-holiday packing, and then back to London in the AM.

20 February
03:49 Tim would like a recommendation for travel insurance.
05:35 Tim is packing for holiday to Seefeld. 24-105 L is awesome, but I don't have a 77mm filter ring. Boo.

21 February
19:19 Tim is on OE-LNQ at Bournemouth airport. Boarding chaos thanks to computer failure now resolved. Tolerance levels very low.

22 February
08:43 Tim just woke up in Seefeld, Austria. Light snow and overcast. Breakfast now, and then pick up cross country skis.
16:50 Tim did a gentle 3k cross country skiing today and saw the Tirol mask festival (think Morris dancing but much better).

23 February
11:02 Tim is on the bus to Wildmoos. Going to get my first stamp for my cross country medal. 40km required for bronze.
17:01 Tim has sore legs from cross country. snow all day. Off to ski instructors show, then potentially lolarious fancy dress hotel dinner.
17:03 Tim has sore legs from cross country. Off to ski instructors show, then potentially lolarious fancy dress dinner at hotel.

24 February
08:10 Tim has been watching the snow in Seefeld for over 24 hours. Thick and heavy this morning.
14:43 Tim is amazed by the constant, very heavy snowfall in Seefeld. Way more snow than the UK snowpocalypse, and yet the buses still totally punctual.
20:43 Tim did about 7.5k cross country today in heavy snow. Got my skis waxed tonight as it was they were pretty sticky today. Topped out at 11.3k/h.

25 February
10:14 Tim is doing downhill today at the Rosshutte, ah ski boots how I've missed you.
17:43 Tim had a beautiful day on the slopes today. Bright sunshine all day and lovely piste. GPS says I hit 43km/h.
21:47 Tim got 2nd place in the Crystal/Inghams quiz, aided by a selection of retired British XC skiers.

26 February
14:38 Tim just finished 15k of XC skiing. Knackered now, naked sauna me up. Impressed myself by hitting 32k/h.

27 February
09:43 Tim is sad to be on last day of holiday. Boo hiss.

28 February
04:43 Tim is waiting for the Crystal rep's pick up to get to Innsbruck airport. It's a bit too early.
08:55 Tim just landed at Bournemouth airport.
21:13 Tim is unpacked, and all caught up with Lost, Skins and House.