uJam – lots of fun creating music

If you like music and have time on your hands, check out www.ujam.com

It’s a web app which lets you sing or whistle a tune, then add accompaniment to it.  This is similar in concept to Microsoft’s old Songsmith product, except it produces much better results.  If you look on YouTube, you’ll find all sorts of examples where people took popular songs, isolated the lead singer, dumped the vocals into Songsmith, then uploaded the hilarious ultra-cheesy results.

I expected similar from uJam but was pleasantly surprised.

It’s pretty easy to get interesting and fairly quick results from uJam. Sing a song into it, and it will come up with accompaniment which doesn’t sound too horrible right out of the box. Musicians will wince at some of the chord choices, and it doesn’t always figure out the song structure properly, but it’s reasonably quick gratification.

For my first attempt, I “rejammed” one of their sample pieces.  That eliminated me having to sing or play anything, I was basically remixing and tweaking.  That was interesting and served as a quick way to get to know the program and styles and sort of how it works.

I then decided to try something more ambitious, and all mine.  I whistled a tune I wrote many years ago, converted that to notes, tweaked note recognition and timing errors (that took ages, what a pain!), then cranked out 8 different versions (styles) of the song. It was fun.  All in all I spent over 20hrs getting that thing right.

I had done a version of my song with a custom “style”, which means I specified exactly which instruments are to be used to accompany my lead instrument (for which I chose Lead Guitar).  Last night, I isolated each of the instrument tracks for this version, downloading each as a separate mp3 file. I loaded all these files into MixCraft, re-balanced the mix the way I wanted (which is not necessarily the way uJam likes it). I then took things out to un-busy the thing a bit. For example, with MixCraft, I was able to eliminate things like excessive Tympani rolls – uJam just goes nuts with drum rolls all over the place and it makes the whole thing very muddy. I did other stuff too, eliminating a couple of instruments I originally had in the “style”, and finally came up with this mix. Enjoy!

http://www.reverbnation.com/play_now/song_11923629

In summary, it’s a great program, especially if you want to crank out a “demo” song or just have fun with it.  Being a perfectionist is very time consuming so perhaps it’s actually easier to just play the various instruments yourself in the long run – LOL

uJam tech support did tell me about some of the improvements they have on the slate, and I think this product has some really great potential.  Give it a try!

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Webcam gadget for windows sidebar – TWIV (Timed Web Image Viewer)

For the last few years, I have been doing my annual pilgrimage to the gadgets gallery looking for a gadget that will take a URL of a webcam generated image, and will display it on my desktop, refreshing it on some schedule.  You wouldn’t think this would be a difficult thing, would you?  Every single one of these I have downloaded and tested seems to work, after a fashion, but has issues.

My goal is this: As you know, I live in the mountains.  In the winter, this means snow.  So, I want to keep a couple of the local road condition webcams in little windows on my desk so I can watch conditions, and if they are deteriorating fast then maybe I’d leave work early before things get bad and congested.

Finally, I found one that seems decent!  Click here

This is called “Twiv” (Timed Web Image Viewer).  You give it the URL for an image out on the web, and it displays it for you in a 320×240 window – a good size.  You can set the refresh time in seconds, and that’s it.  Very simple, no goofy features, and who knows, maybe this one will actually run without causing horrible system performance problems like the others I have tried.  I now have 3 webcams on my desktop, which is ideal.  I set them to refresh every 5 minutes which should keep my system load at a minimal level, and that’s more than frequent enough for road conditions.

Update: Cyber-D has released a new version so now you can have multiple webcams and they will persist through a reboot – Thanks, Dario!

Winter will soon be here. Time to think about snow!

Well ok, not everybody in sunny Southern CA needs to think about snow.  I happen to live in the mountains, and so it is a factor for me.  I thought I’d share my recent thoughts & discoveries in this area as ski season approaches.  Every year, we get “flatlanders” who drive up the hill woefully unprepared to deal with snow.  They drive rear-wheel cars with low clearance, and don’t bring chains or anything!  Needless to say, the roads are a mess with people stuck and blocking the road for no good reason other than their own lack of preparedness.

My primary vehicle is a Toyota Prius.  This is a great car, but not well suited for snow.  The biggest problem with it is low ground clearance.  I can put chains on it and it does well, but since it’s so low, the front spoiler/bumper gets torn up plowing the snow in between the wheel ruts.  My solution was to buy a cheap 4WD vehicle and put snow tires on it.  That’s really nice because 99% of the time you aren’t required (and don’t need) chains, you just drive on through the checkpoints and don’t have to sweat it.  Still, I keep chains in the Prius just in case I end up needing them.

When we first moved up the hill, I wanted chains I could very quickly put on and take off, as I’d be doing that twice daily.  After some research, I found Spikes Spiders.  These are really great:Spikes-Spider SportYou install “hub rings” on your wheels.  When you want to put the chains on, you shove the plastic thing (above) over the tire, and the black disc with the red handle in the center locks them in place with a twist.  I can install these on both wheels, without moving the car or laying out chains, get back in and drive off in literally less than a minute.  Other folks with chains and cables are still untangling them and laying them out – it’s quite amusing to see their faces.  Removal is just as quick.  Unlock the hub, pull them off the wheels, then back the car up a couple of feet and they fall off.

The big drawback with these is price.  They are expensive (for the sport model I need, about $550 per set – ouch).  Traction isn’t as good as chains, admittedly, but it’s good enough for my needs.  I never had traction problems with these installed.  They’ve been through several seasons and the links are wearing very thin, so I was thinking about what to do about that.  Their website offers parts, but these parts aren’t cheap either.  So, that makes me look around to see what else is out there.

I came across two products which seem easy and fast to install and remove, and also have the additional feature that you can use them on multiple cars with different tire sizes!

Jeko, an Italian company has some neat products.  Their “Put & Go” tire straps look really easy to use.  Also, on the same website, they have a really neat RV leveling device.

newputgoputcm

I also like their claims of low vibration.  Spikes Spiders rattle the car (and your teeth) a LOT when you are driving on anything but deep snow.

This appears to be an Italian company also, and they don’t have distribution in the US, but they are willing to ship.  They quoted me € 180,00 per set, and € 95,00 FedEx shipping to the USA. (roughly $374 – dirt cheap compared to a new set of Spiders)

Lytro light field camera is now available

I wrote a bit on the Lytro “light field” camera back in July.  The first version of their nifty new camera technology is now available for purchaseHere is a neat article from ArsTechnica which describes a bit about how this technology works.

 

At the moment, you’ll need a Macintosh computer to work with it, but they are working on a windows version of the software too.  I was very surprised at the price point too, starting at $399.  That’s actually affordable for mere mortals.

The big feature Lytro touts is the lack of focusing needed when taking a picture.  The camera actually only has a shutter button and an optical zoom control.  You focus later, touching the part of the image which you want to be sharp.  They are also talking about having the ability to lose depth of field entirely and make everything in focus, regardless of distance.  That would be great for your average casual photo-snapper.  For the more serious “artsy” photographer, depth of field is a great tool.  I’m hoping that you’ll be able to adjust the depth of field, as sometimes you want it very narrow to get a particular effect, and sometimes you want to widen it a bit without necessarily losing it entirely.

The odd thing to me is that it seems like this is all they talk about with this product.  On the beta discussion list it was mentioned that the camera is inherently 3D and they showed a couple of examples of pictures rendered in a couple of different 3D systems.  I’d have thought this was a pretty key feature to crow about.

Also, the camera has no flash as they claim it does fine in low light situations.  I’m skeptical of course, but if true, that would be very nice.

They say that future versions of these cameras will be available with interchangeable lenses and other more “pro” features.  Personally, I think it’s a good move to hit the mass market hard first, and try to get a foothold and establish a standard for “light field” images and processing software.  It will be interesting to see where this goes in a few years.

 

 

Pop-Chips bags

What is this incredible material being used, for all things, to package potato chip-like crunchy snacks called “Pop Chips”?

This is a flexible, but incredibly sturdy material.  If you try to open a bag with your bare hands, you’ll likely as not be met with frustration, and if you do succeed, a bag full of crushed chips.

NASA ought to investigate this – it seems like it’d be a great protective covering for space shuttles and other vehicles!  Perhaps police departments could use it to make thinner/lighter bulletproof vests (so much for Kevlar).

The new $10 bill

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like the new $10 bill.  It’s orange-ish, and somewhat pink-ish, but not in an “intentional” looking way. No, this to me looks like a bill that went through the wash with some red shirts.  It’s not a good design – it’s an accident.  Ring up no sale on this one.

Keeping your passwords safe, but accessible – LastPass

I have been using a freeware product called “password safe”, and it was OK, but using it at work and at home meant I had to keep two databases up to date, which was a pain.

However, thanks to a tip from my friend Jeff, I just switched all my stuff (home and work) to LastPass (www.lastpass.com)

Why did I do that, and why would I tell the world where all my passwords are?  Well, it’s a really great system, and ULTRA secure.

In a nutshell, it stores your stuff in the cloud, but in encrypted form. Encryption happens on your computer, so they never have your unencrypted information, and have no way of getting it either! They also never store your personal information, or userid, or password in unencrypted form. So their system only contains encrypted blobs which are useless to anybody without the decryption key (your userID and password). So, they can cooperate fully with the FBI or foreign governments, and give them all the data they want. It’s still useless. There isn’t even any way of knowing who owns which blobs of encrypted data. How cool is that!  Well OK, so it’s probably only really cool to security geeks like me.

Anyway, you can store passwords & sites, and it will auto-fill for you when you go to log in with your browser (if you want – you can decide on a site by site basis). In addition, you can store personal info and credit card info on there and it can form-fill for you when you are at a checkout form on a website. You can also store notes of arbitrary text data, for any purpose you want. It generates passwords for you.

What! Put my credit card data out there? Are you nuts?  Well possibly, yes, but that’s another subject.  But yes, it’s secure enough to do that.  Once you "get” the security model, it’s clear that anything you store in this “vault” is accessible only by you, and so go ahead and use it for any bits of information, not just websites and passwords!

I mentioned that the system can generate passwords for you.  Here’s why that’s useful:  Most people tend to use 1 or 2 passwords for everything they do.  That means that if somebody learns, or guesses your password, they have access to a TON of stuff.  This is what we in the security business call “bad”.  If you use the system to generate a password for you when you sign up to access a website, it generates a nice secure password that is really hard to hack, and you would never remember it; but you don’t have to!  The password is stored with the site information, and when you go to that website, it automatically logs you in.  You never really even have to SEE that password.  You can view it if you want, but it’s not necessary. 

If you do this, not only are you creating logins for websites with a GOOD password (instead of the lame ones most of us use because they are easy to remember), but each site is different.  So in the unlikely event that somebody manages to get one of your passwords (no idea how that would be possible, but maybe a key logger on a public coffee-shop computer or something – work with me on this), then they only have access to one website because all the other websites you access have different passwords.

Another distinction is that since your information is stored “in the cloud”, you can access it from anywhere.  So, even if your computer dies in a fire, your important information is still out there.  If you use multiple computers, like I do, then this is really convenient because you don’t have to worry about keeping multiple databases of passwords up to date.  Any bit of information you store on one computer is available to you on any other computer.  Handy!

In addition to just storing stuff, you can share your passwords or notes selectively with other people. For instance, if I have a website with my personal login, and I want to give you access to it, I can either share the whole entry with you, allowing you to see the password, or I can share however much of it I want. This lets you use it by double-clicking (it then launches a browser, goes to that webpage, and logs in for you), but doesn’t let you see my password. Also, I can revoke the share any time I want.  This would be great for an employer to give an employee access to some business site (the company bank account, for instance), but without giving the employee the password.  They can do their job, but if they leave the company, there are no worries about having to run around and change the password – you simply revoke the share to that person!

They have a “premium” mode which is $12/yr which allows you to access all this from a mobile device too, and from a browser without installing their plugin, and also allows you to sync shares. So, if I’ve shared a login with you, and I change the password on my side, yours gets automatically updated.

If you want even MORE security, you can go for “two-factor authentication”. http://www.yubico.com/yubikey is inexpensive ($25 each, quantity 1), and works like an RSA token, but is actually a bit more secure because there is no LCD readout, and you never see the digits. If you buy a yubikey, they have a bundle where you can get a key and a year’s premium lastpass subscription for $30 (I wish I’d seen that before I sent my $12 in – LOL)

Anyhow, its very cool technology, and I have yet to read anything about this that’s negative.

 

Samsung Galaxy Tab – KIES PC Sync

I’m playing with an evaluation unit of the Samsung Galaxy Tablet from T-Mobile, so I thought I’d post my observations & any useful info I dig up. 

Pricing on this gadget varies widely.  T-Mobile has it for about $250.  If you want to pay more, you can get it from AT&T for $520.  Does that markup seem a little excessive to you?  Good, it did seem that way to me.

The model I have is SGH-T849 (no, not on the box or paperwork anywhere, you have to dig into the phone settings.  Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: If you plug this unit into your computer with the non-standard USB cable (looks like an iPod cable, but isn’t), the computer sees it, but it doesn’t charge it!  You have to plug that cable into the little wall-wart (which is admittedly very slick).

I asked “Irene” (complete with thick Indian accent) how to transfer memos from the tablet to my PC.  I was told this was not possible.  I took another tact and told her that the memo program has the ability to email memos, so I did that.  I ended up with a “.vnt” file as an attachment.  This is not text, html, xml, or anything else useful – it’s some proprietary file format.  I asked what reader I might employ to view said file.  After being put on hold for an extended period of time, “Irene” suggested that I download “Universal Viewer Portable 5.4.4” from the net (just google it, she said).  Cnet has it, if you are interested: http://download.cnet.com/Universal-Viewer-Portable/3000-2248_4-75157196.html?tag=api

According to net.wisdom, the sync program you need to use to transfer files and media to and from the tablet and your PC is called “Kies” (apparently pronounced “keys”, according to tech support).  Try finding this on Samsung’s twisty dead-link littered website, and you’ll be pulling your hair out.  I have less hair now, but victory was mine and I was able to find a link which did allow me to download Kies PC Sync software.  Here it is: http://www.samsung.com/ae/consumer/mobile-phones/mobile-phones/infotainment/GT-I9000HKDXSG/index.idx?pagetype=prd_detail&tab=support

It doesn’t matter what model of phone the website thinks you have, as they only have one sync program for all of them.  When I connect the tablet, I get “This device is not supported by Kies 2.0”.  Not very useful.  However, Windows 7 does see the device as a mass storage device, and can browse it.  I can manually copy pictures/videos back and forth, but I was looking for something more elegant.  Browsing the various folders didn’t yield anything “memo”-looking.

In the root directory is an executable named “Multimedia Sync by doubleTwist.exe” – intriguing!  When I ran it, I got a progress bar which stalled 2/3 of the way through with “Unknown error trying to download Multimedia Sync”.  I tried copying the file to my hard disk and running it from there – same result.

If you go to http://www.doubletwist.com/, you get a download page for an app which apparently does over-the-air sync.  Interesting, but overkill for what I’m trying to do at the moment.  T-Mobile does have a link (after more digging) where you can download this app: http://apps.t-mobile.com/doubletwist/ (it’s curious that tech support didn’t mention this).  After a painfully slow download, I was able to install it.  My initial impression is an iTunes type program for android devices.  Not bad, really!

However, it doesn’t have any ability to access memos.  So… the memo application on the tablet appears to be much like a piece of paper.  You can write on it, and look at it, but that’s it – don’t think you can transfer it somewhere else and use it.  To me, that’s fairly worthless.

*UPDATE* I reviewed the Samsung Galaxy SII cellphone.  Samsung has recently released Kies 2.0 and a wireless version also.

 

Powermat – a cool accessory for your phone

Here’s a cool phone accessory I ran across:  Powermat USA

Powermat with devices charging

There are two classes of devices that can be used with this charger.  Supported devices (iPhone, iPod, BlackBerry, etc) are provided with a replacement back cover which contains the wireless interface.  All other devices have to use a small square interface with a mini-usb connector attached.

How does it work?  There is a pad which is connected to a wall-wart charger which you plug into the wall.  To charge your phone (with the replacement back cover installed), you don’t plug anything in, you just lay the phone on the pad.  This is really nice because in addition to being futuristic and geeky, you shouldn’t have problems with the phone not charging overnight because you didn’t get the plug inserted “just right”.  I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who has had their cell phone die part way through the next day because of this.

So, while I think this is a great product, and just might have to get one, I do have to wonder about the second category of devices.  They give you a square box with a cable sticking out of it, and you put the box on the charging pad, and plug the cable into your phone.

Um… I just can’t see how this is any better than just plugging the original charger cord into the phone.  In fact, I’d call it worse because now there’s another item in the “charging chain”, and any link in that chain which fails causes your device not to charge.  As a result, I don’t think I’d have any use for the charging adapter, and would only want to use this with “supported” devices which have all the cleverness built into the replacement back cover for the phone.