Below are the five most recent posts in my weblog. You can also see a chronological list of all posts, dating back to 1999.
I wanted to write a more in-depth post about RetroPie the Retro Gaming Appliance OS for Raspberry Pis, either technically or more positively, but unfortunately I don't have much positive to write.
What I hoped for was a nice appliance that I could use to play old games from the comfort of my sofa. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, I had a malfunctioning Linux machine and the time I'd set aside for jumping on goombas was being spent trying to figure out why bluetooth wasn't working. I have enough opportunities for that already, both at work and at home.
I feel a little bad complaining about an open source, volunteer project: in its defence I can say that it is iterating fast and the two versions I tried in a relatively short time span were rapidly different. So hopefully a lot of my woes will eventually be fixed. I've also read a lot of other people get on with it just fine.
Instead, I decided the Nintendo Classic NES Mini was the plug-and-play appliance for me. Alas, it became the "must have" Christmas toy for 2016 and impossible to obtain for the recommended retail price. I did succeed in finding one in stock at Toys R Us online at one point, only to have the checkout process break and my order not go through. Checking Stock Informer afterwards, that particular window of opportunity was only 5 minutes wide. So no NES classic for me!
My adventures in RetroPie weren't entirely fruitless, thankfully: I discovered two really nice pieces of hardware.
The first is Lenovo's ThinkPad Compact Bluetooth Keyboard with TrackPoint, a very compact but pleasant to use Bluetooth keyboard including a trackpoint. I miss the trackpoint from my days as a Thinkpad laptop user. Having a keyboard and mouse combo in such a small package is excellent. My only two complaints would be the price (I was lucky to get one cheaper on eBay) and the fact it's bluetooth only: there's a micro-USB port for charging, but it would be nice if it could be used as a USB keyboard too. There's a separate, cheaper USB model.
The second neat device is a clone of the SNES gamepad by HK company 8bitdo called the SFC30. This looks and feels very much like the classic Nintendo SNES controller, albeit slightly thicker from front to back. It can be used in a whole range of different modes, including attached USB; Bluetooth pretending to be a keyboard; Bluetooth pretending to be a controller; and a bunch of other special modes designed to work with iOS or Android devices in various configurations. The manufacturer seem to be actively working on firmware updates to further enhance the controller. The firmware is presently closed source, but it would not be impossible to write an open source firmware for it (some people have figured out the basis for the official firmware).
I like the SFC30 enough that I spent some time trying to get it working for various versions of Doom. There are just enough buttons to control a 2.5D game like Doom, whereas something like Quake or a more modern shooter would not work so well. I added support for several 8bitdo controllers directly into Chocolate Doom (available from 2.3.0 onwards) and into SDL2, a popular library for game development, which I think is used by Steam, so Steam games may all gain SFC30 support in the future too.
This morning I gave a guest lecture to students at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Cloud Computing for Big Data. The subject was a gentle introduction to Docker.
This was the first guest lecture I've given for a couple of years so I thought I was a little rusty but I had a good time giving it and hopefully it went across OK.
I mentioned a couple of things worth linking to here
- I referenced the architecture diagrams at https://www.docker.com/what-docker
- the Docker Hub, https://hub.docker.com/
- most of my demos used the wildfly image https://hub.docker.com/r/jboss/wildfly/
- github issue describing the Steam "delete all your files" bug
- Research paper A Framework for Scientific Workflow Reproducibility in the Cloud (PDF available)
- my work-in-progress Ikiwiki-in-a-box Docker image
There was some discussion about alternatives to Docker, things which were briefly mentioned include
I started buying vinyl records about 16 years ago, but recently I've become a bit uncomfortable being identified as a "vinyl lover". The market is ascendant, with vinyl album sales growing for 8 consecutive years, at least in the UK. So why am I uncomfortable about it?
A quick word about audio fidelity/quality here. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that audio on vinyl is inherently better than digital audio, far from it. I'm aware of its limitations. For recordings that I love, I try to seek out the best quality version available, which is almost always digital. Some believe that vinyl is immune to the "loudness war" brickwall mastering plaguing some modern releases, but for some of the worst offenders (Depeche Mode's Playing The Angel; Red Hot Chili Pepper's Californication) I haven't found the vinyl masterings to sound any different.
16 years ago
Let's go back to why I started buying vinyl. Back when I started, the world was a very different place to what it is today. You could not buy most music in a digital form: it was 3 more years before the iTunes Store was opened, and it was Mac-only at first, and the music it sold was DRM-crippled for the first 5 or so years afterwards. The iPod had not been invented yet and there was no real market for personal music players. Minidiscs were still around, but Net-MD (the only sanctioned way to get digital music onto them from a computer) was terrible.
Buying vinyl 16 years ago was a way to access music that was otherwise much harder to reach. There were still plenty of albums, originally recorded and released before CDs, which either had not been re-issued digitally at all, or had been done so early, and badly. Since vinyl was not fashionable, the second hand market was pretty cheap. I bought quite a lot of stuff for pennies at markets and car boot sales.
Some music—such as b-sides and 12" mixes and other mixes prepared especially for the format—remains unavailable and uncollected on CD. (I'm a big fan of the B-side culture that existed prior to CDs. I might write more about that one day.)
10 years ago
Fast forward to around 10 years ago. Ephemeral digital music is now much more common, the iPod and PMPs are well established. High-street music stores start to close down, including large chains like MOS, Our Price, and Virgin. Streaming hasn't particularly taken off yet, attempts to set up digital radio stations are fought by the large copyright owners. Vinyl is still not particularly fashionable, but it is still being produced, in particular for singles for up-and-coming bands in 7" format. You can buy a 7" single for between £1 and £4, getting the b-side with it. The b-side is often exclusive to the 7" release as an incentive to collectors. I was very prepared to punt £1-2 on a single from a group I was not particularly familiar with just to see what they were like. I discovered quite a lot of artists this way. One of the songs we played at our wedding was such an exclusive: a recording of the Zutons' covering Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher", originally broadcast once on Colin Murray's Evening Session radio show.
So, where are we now?
Vinyl album sales are a huge growth market. They are very fashionable. Many purchasers are younger people who are new to the format; it's believed many don't have the means to play the music on the discs. Many (most?) albums are now issued as 12" vinyl in parallel with digital releases. These are usually exactly the same product (track listing, mixes, etc.) and usually priced at exactly twice that of the CD (with digital prices normally a fraction under that).
The second hand market for 12" albums has inflated enormously. Gone are the bargains that could be had, a typical second hand LP is now priced quite close to the digital price for a popular/common album in most places.
The popularity of vinyl has caused a huge inflation in the price of most 7" singles, which average somewhere between £8-£10 each, often without any b-side whatsoever. The good news is—from my observations—the 2nd hand market for 7" singles hasn't been affected quite as much. I guess they are not as desirable to buyers.
The less said about Record Store Day, the better.
So, that's all quite frustrating. But most of the reasons I used to buy vinyl have gone away anyway. Many of the rushed-to-market CD masterings have been reworked and reissued, correcting the earlier problems. B-side compilations are much more common so there are far fewer obscure tracks or mixes, and when the transfer has been done right, you're getting those previously-obscure tracks in a much higher quality. Several businesses exist to sell 2nd hand CDs for rock bottom prices, so it's still possible to get popular music very cheaply.
The next thing to worry about is probably streaming services.
For the last four years or so, I've had my Hi-Fi and the vast majority of my vinyl collection stored in a self-contained, mildly-customized Ikea unit. Since moving house this has been in my dining room—which we have always referred to as the "play room", since we have a second dining room in which we actually dine.
The intention for the play room was for it to be the room within which all our future children would have their toys kept, in an attempt to keep the living room from being overrun with plastic. The time has thus come for my Hi-Fi to come out of there, so we've moved it to our living room. Unfortunately, there's not enough room in the living room for the Ikea unit: I need something narrower for the space available.
In the spirit of my original hack, I started looking at what others might have achieved with Ikea components. There are some great examples of open-style units built out of the (extremely cheap) Lack coffee tables, such as this ikeahackers article, but I'd prefer something more enclosed. One problem I've had with the Expedit unit was my cat trying to scratch the records. I ended up putting framed records at the front to cover the spines of the records within. If I were keeping the unit, I'd look at fitting hinges (another ikeahackers article)
Asides from hacked Ikea stuff, there are a few companies offering traditional enclosed Hi Fi cabinets. I'm going to struggle to fit both the equipment and a subset of records into these, so I might have to look at storing them separately. In some ways that makes life easier: the records could go into a 1x4 Ikea KALLAX unit, leaving the amp and deck to home somewhere. Perhaps I could look at a bigger unit for under the TV.
My parents have a nice Hi-Fi unit that pretends to be a chest of drawers. I'm fairly sure my Dad custom-built it, as it has a hinged top to provide access to the turntable and I haven't seen anything like that on the market.
That brings me onto thinking about other AV things I'd like to achieve in the living room. I've always been interested in exploring surround sound, but my initial attempt in my prior flat did not go well, either because the room was not terribly suited accoustically, or because the Pioneer unit I bought was rubbish, or both. It seems that there aren't really AV receivers which are designed to satisfy both people wanting to use them in a Hi-Fi and a home cinema setting. I could stick to stereo and run the TV into my existing (or a new) amplifier, subject to some logistics around wiring. A previous house owner ran some phono cables under the hard-wood flooring from the TV alcove to the opposite side of the fire place, which might give me some options.
There's also the world of wireless audio, Sonos etcetera. Realistically the majority of my music is digital nowadays, and it would be good to be able to listen to it conveniently in the house. I've heard good reports on the entry level Sonos stuff, but they seem to be Mono, and even the more high-end ones with lots of drivers have very small separation. I did buy a Chromecast Audio on a whim recently, but I haven't looked at it much yet: perhaps that's part of the solution.
So, lots of stuff in the melting pot to figure out here!
Today I released version 2.1 of Wad Compiler, a lazy functional programming language and IDE for the construction of Doom maps.
This comes about a year after version 2.0. The most significant change is an adjustment to the line splitting algorithm to fix a long-standing issue when you try to draw a new linedef over the top of an existing one, but in the opposite direction. Now that this bug is fixed, it's much easier to overdraw vertical or horizontal lines without needing an awareness of the direction of the original lines.
The other big changes are in the GUI, which has been cleaned up a fair bit, now had undo/redo support, the initial window size is twice as large, and it now supports internationalisation, with a partial French translation included.
Older posts are available on the all posts page.