Monday, November 26, 2018

Anecdote about my digital music players

tl;dr: I'm going through a little nostalgia for (of all things) "MP3 players" (hereafter, digital audio player, or DAP).

As a category of devices, digital audio players only really existed for about 20 years, and they all but ceased to be popular consumer electronics in 2007, when the iPhone launched and popularized the concept of folding jukebox capabilities into phones (though many "feature" phones and PDAs had already been doing so for a few years). It took a little while for the devices to stop appearing on most store shelves, but nowadays the only ones worth using are traded on eBay and similar sites or forum groups.

My first MP3 players included my Palm Zire 71 (which required third-party software and an SD card) and a Craig device (which had 256 MB of internal flash storage, and no card slot); but my first "proper" DAP was a SanDisk Sansa c250 - gifted to me for my birthday in September 2007. I loved it - especially since it had 2 GB of built-in storage and a microSD slot for more, plus the fact that I could save my Zire's battery for other things - but after only three months with it, I found myself frustrated with the deeply-flawed shuffle feature and started seeking a fix for it.

And in December 2007, I found Rockbox.

Rockbox is an open-source firmware replacement for DAPs - including most non-Touch iPods - and it introduced me to a project and community through which I learned a LOT of Linux basics, some development fundamentals (I even wrote a section for the manual in LaTeX), and a few other things; I also made some very good friends.

Oh, and I turned my c250 into a powerhouse. Barring some issues with charging and USB transfers (which would be ironed out over time), installing Rockbox was an improvement in every way. It could play more file formats, it had a built-in file browser, customizable themes, simple utilities (like a calculator or stopwatch), games (like a Tetris clone!!), and way more settings than one could shake a stick at.

And yes, Rockbox's shuffle feature worked much better. I used it on every DAP I could since, and still do on the ones I still have.

Time has flown by since. When I got my first smartphone, eventually I started just using that instead of a dedicated MP3 player to listen to music, since it was more convenient to carry just the phone, more convenient to manage one portable music library, and more convenient to charge fewer devices. My current phone has no microSD slot, so right now I rely heavily on streaming/pre-downloading from Google Play Music, but that has its own share of frustrations - so sometimes, I break out the old phone, or even an old DAP, to listen to music instead.

Although the batteries in the DAPs have aged heavily and most of them no longer hold a significant charge. :(

Anyway, if you read all the way to this point, thanks for sticking with me. Feel free to share some of your memories of using MP3 players you may have!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Wizorb review

Note: the following review was copy-pasted from my Steam review.

You should try Wizorb if you've ever played Breakout/Arkanoid/clones and thought, "Yeah, this is okay, but I'd rather play something else." And if you would PREFER to play those over other games, buy this right now. Even if it's not on sale. I mean, c'mon, it's three bucks!

For me, a lot of Breakout games become frustrating or dull, primarily because of choke points in level designs. This game has some of those, but it also gives you *permanent* tools for dealing with them, instead of forcing you to pray for a power-up. True, you have a usage meter that restricts how much/often you can use them, but refills come often enough (at least early on) that it's not too aggravating. You can shoot out bricks, bring in some wind, make the ball plow through breakable bricks (as opposed to the normal bouncing), and straight-up move the ball to where you want. Each technique consumes more of your magic meter, but you otherwise have total control over when you want to activate them.

Plus, there are shops in some levels (which are often locked, but you can unlock them by touching the door with the ball while you possess a key; or just hit a switch) and bonus areas in others. Each offer potions to refill your magic meter, extra lives, stuff like that. Also, at the starting village, you can donate money to the citizens to help them rebuild from a monster raid, which I'm guessing will result in rewards and shops later on.

The levels sets can drag on a bit, but you're given continues for if you run out of lives (you simply restart the current level if you need to use one), and you can save and quit in the middle of a set. Each set ends with a boss fight, and I like how these play out! The first one, at least, has no bricks - just two basic monsters and one large monster with a simple attack pattern. Although I won with ease, it was an engaging first fight, and it leaves me eager to see what's in store.

The game has keyboard controls, but the paddle moves too slowly to catch the ball once it speeds up enough (the ball gets faster the longer it's in play). I strongly recommend a mouse - or a TrackPoint (pointing stick), if you have a laptop with one. (Touchpad players need not apply.)

I really like the visual design. The sprites are fluidly animated, yet the color pallete is reminiscent of 8-bit game machines (I think of the NES, but YMMV). The frame rate is pretty smooth on my 2009 ThinkPad, never stuttering in my 45-minute first play. However, I don't care much for the music (part of that is surely just my tastes, but there are plenty of 8-bittish chiptunes that I've enjoyed over the years; this game's just aren't among them), so I guess this is a good game to utilize Steam's music player with if you find yourself agreeing with me. (You can adjust the game's music and sound effect volumes separately.)

Also, cross-platform support (especially for Linux!) is a big plus in my book. And like I said, the game's cheap. Give it a shot!

Wizorb on Steam

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Upgrade Paths

I need to ponder some upgrades that I've been wanting to make. But first, some Things™:

Upgrades are sometimes frightening. Things can go wrong, sometimes in ways you fail to predict. It's easy to say, "Why fix what isn't broken," even if the new thing is vastly superior to the current thing, because of how easy it is to be intimidated by change. We're all wired that way, or so I've read.

So it is as I spend many a night glancing at the CompTIA A+ Certification study book on my shelf, which often sits there instead of getting read. I want to prepare for the exam, honest; but too often I tell myself that I'll just be wasting my time (and someone's money - a couple of people have offered to pay the exam fee if I just set up a test date, but ...). I haven't even set up a test date; that would require me to admit that I am going to take the test and I am going to study for a deadline, propelling myself toward big, scary change. The intent, after all, is to use certification to help me get a job somewhere doing tech support (for example, at Best Buy's Geek Squad), and once I am certified, the pressure will be on from friends and relatives to put in job applications and eventually respond to them. Maybe even get hired? after which I'd likely have to put in my two weeks' at Wendy's and say goodbye to (most of) the crew. After ten months of working there, the job feels like my safety net; I don't want it to disappear.

But I have to move on at some point. I have no intent or interest in pursuing a managerial position at Wendy's, and the routine I work gets dull, repetitive. I don't use any skills I feel good at, and there are many days where I return home feeling stressed. It just drains me on most days, and I have to struggle to find time (especially when trying to get together with friends, thanks to our varying schedules) to do things that recharge myself. That part's not as bad as it could be, but still.

Money is an issue, too. I've been struggling on that front for a while, barely scraping by with my funds in the black. If the owner of the property I live in were to pass away any time soon, I would be unable to handle all of the mandatory bills they've been managing, even if I cut back virtually every nonessential (much as I loathe to say it: yes, that would include Internet service for the house). In other words, I have to increase my income rate soon, or else give up any semblance of having a "lifestyle", which would be reduced to "barely existing". The clock's ticking, and I have no idea when it will run out.

So, yeah. That's where I am.

Let's lighten it up a bit. Want to help me make a decision on some computer upgrades?

So I have three machines that I want to make changes to. One is a laptop; two are desktops. The newer, more powerful desktop is named "saanaito", and is basically a donation from a friend who was getting rid of it anyway. The older desktop, "tsubotsubo", has been mine since 2009. The laptop is "eefi", a ThinkPad I bought used on eBay in 2015. You can view detailed specifications here, but below is a quick rundown of the important details so you can get a rough idea of the machines' capabilities:


  • Core i3 (Sandy Bridge)
  • 8 GB of RAM
  • integrated graphics
  • 128 GB SSD (OS) + 1 TB HDD (games and stuff) + two external HDDs
  • Debian testing
  • Core 2 Duo
  • 4 GB of RAM
  • old Nvidia GPU (GeForce 9500 GS)
  • 250 GB HDD (OS) + 500 GB HDD (games)
  • Windows 10 Pro
  • Core i5 (Westmere)
  • 4 GB of RAM
  • integrated graphics
  • 120 GB SSD + 64 GB microSD (extra storage) + 250 GB HDD (not installed)
  • Debian testing (SSD)/ Windows 10 Pro (HDD)

So. The plan and goals.

I'm trying to make it easier to play my game library, mainly. Some games I have are Windows-only, and I can only get so many of them to behave in Wine. There is at least one game (Tangledeep) that completely refuses to run on my laptop in Linux (in this case, due to Unity requiring a minimum of OpenGL 3.0 support, and eefi only supporting 2.1) despite having Linux support; yet it works perfectly on the same hardware in Windows (due to DirectX needs being met and utilized).

I'm also trying to learn to use Windows 10. Until around September, I didn't have a usable license to any Windows release beyond Vista; now I have legal licenses to 10 on tsubotsubo and eefi (eefi's being an OEM-descended license - it took the Win7 product key from eefi's sticker!), and I intend to make myself use them so that I can help people who come to me with Windows questions. Windows 10 has been out for a couple of years now, and many people have either upgraded their systems to it, or bought new systems with 10 preinstalled. I can't sit on my knowledge of Vista/7 forever, if I'm going to get into tech support for a living (and considering Linux's market share, that will only ever truly be practical if I become a sysadmin somewhere; otherwise it's all been me learning about it for fun, for myself).

The trouble is as follows: my 10 installs are on inferior hardware. tsubotsubo's installation would benefit greatly from being migrated to an SSD and being moved to saanaito. eefi's installation just needs an SSD and an extra disk bay to sit in (or to move the Debian SSD into). I am ... cautiously optimistic that I might receive an SSD for Christmas this year. One.

As for my Debian installations, I am contemplating keeping them on their existing SSDs as a secondary OS; I would boot to them with the BIOS disk picker. Windows needs to be the primary disk because 10 likes to wake up the computer on its own to check for updates/do auto reboots, and I'd rather it be able to get back into 10 automatically if I'm away/asleep. But I don't want to get rid of Linux as a host OS, nor do I want to dual boot off one disk (I tried that before, but partitioning headaches are not fun). I'm actually contemplating switching to Ubuntu LTS as a host Linux OS; if I do so, I'd probably run XFCE (so Xubuntu) and mostly run Steam with those installs, while migrating (most of) my Debian installation to a VM ...

... or just to tsubotsubo. Between the desktops, I could set up saanaito as a gaming-focused machine - especially if I can give it a dedicated graphics card - and tsubotsubo as a server, attached to the household router via Ethernet, and with the external HDDs attached to it. This possibility is important for me to consider, because I've based a few of my other devices' setups around the idea that saanaito, when up, is always accessible via ssh and sftp, with the 4 TB HDD permanently mounted thanks to my edited /etc/fstab. Said HDD is already formatted as ext4; it's full and I have nowhere to move the data to to reformat it in a Windows-friendly filesystem; and I'm not taking chances with beta-quality drivers/programs for Windows that would grant it ext2/3/4 R/W access but has a heightened risk of corrupting the entire partition. Therefore I must have Linux running somewhere in order to access the data, which is basically my entire media (books/movies/music/games) collection, assorted backups of Android devices, and such.

I'm sure I've left something out (EDIT: like the option of donating tsubotsubo's hardware to a friend who could use it for - you guessed it - gaming, after I've moved everything to saanaito). If you feel a headache coming on, that's probably normal.

All of these options won't work out very well unless I replace at least one Windows disk with an SSD and transfer Windows to it. I'd like to have two SSDs in saanaito (one per OS; plus an HDD for games), one in tsubotsubo (plus the external HDDs), and two in eefi (one per OS again, plus a big SD card for game storage; one of the disks would have to go in the UltraBase dock, and for that I need a HDD sled). But I can't really count on getting any, so let's just say that maybe I'll end up with a little Christmas money after the holidays are over and I'll spend it on a 240 GB SSD.

Which machine would be better to put it in? Which OS? Should I hold off until I get another SSD? (And maybe a GPU for saanaito?) I know it's mostly a "it all depends on your use case and setup", but I did just try to describe it above ... If you have any suggestions, or even just questions for me to think about, I'm sure they would help.

And maybe, when I stop obsessing over assembling a better gaming machine, I'll pull the A+ book back out and get to work on my life upgrades.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Man, Fire Emblem is hard

Full disclosure: I mostly wanted to get my previous post ("Frustrated with the world") off the top of my blog without deleting it. But I have been trying to play Fire Emblem games since then, so hey.

Before I start, I want to link to Easy Mode Players Are the Real Gamers, because it's a fascinating train of thought and I really like it; I will allude to it later.

When a friend gifted me a copy of Fire Emblem: Echoes, I dove into it on Hard mode, figuring that I was seasoned enough that the "Normal" would no longer be a challenge. I've gotten comfortable enough with Awakening to zip through it on Normal with little resistance, right? At least, that's how I remembered it.

I think I remembered wrong.

I was able to manage Acts 1 and 2 of Echoes without feeling frustrated, but even with Casual Mode enabled (i.e., no units actually die), I still had several Game Overs on the ship maps in Act 2 and generally had to learn many, many times from my mistakes, even with a reasonably firm hand on the mechanics, stats (and what they're for), and basic strategies. I had to struggle with Act 3, a lot, but I persisted, because I was still able to achieve victory by adjusting my strategy; I never went out of my way to level grind and raise either army's stats.

Act 4 put a swift end to that. No more than three maps in for either army, I've hit a roadblock so insurmountable that even several hours of grinding has not enabled me to clear it. My units drop like flies as soon as the enemy is upon them, and all I can do is squirm until they finish off the leader. Occasionally I'll have the presence of mind to retreat before an actual Game Over, but by then I've wasted over an hour and most of my team has accrued hardly any experience for their trouble.

That's a lot of Necrodragons.

It's at this point that I'd like to just drop the difficulty to Normal-Casual and get on with it, because I want to see the rest of the story and try out some different maps. But I can't - not without starting a new save file and repeating all three Acts, which would take me about 30 hours of playing time.

(I've looked around in some places online, and found that many Fire Emblem fans claimed that Echoes was "easy", even on Hard-Classic mode. It's salt in the wound, I have to say.)

As I type, I'm level grinding again (thank goodness for the auto-battle feature), but I'm debating restarting anyway; I haven't made any progress in the game's story in several months. Guess we'll see.

(Other Fire Emblem titles that I started, got stuck on, and quit playing: The Sacred Stones (can't even clear the first map without a death), Radiant Dawn (somewhere in part 2, I think).)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Frustrated with the world

I spent a lot of time following the news on the events in Charlottesville, and things connected to it, and it sucks. White supremacists/Nazis are bad and I want them gone as much as anyone else. (Plus there's the tensions between this country and North Korea. Eeek.)

Right now I feel exhausted with it and I want to withdraw from the world for a while. Play video games and not have a care about the world, like I could do when I was very young.

I can't really enjoy myself, though. When I finally get some downtime, all I do is poke around on the Internet some more. Read more on peoples' reactions to all that's happened.

Also, a relative is being passive aggressive with me trying to get me to do self-improvement things. Even as I type this she's doing it, in the next room. Just makes me feel worse, and does nothing to help me want to do it.

Sorry. I know a lot of what I wrote up there is selfish. It's just a fraction of what's on my mind anyway. I'm not sure who to talk to about it.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

BNAA Case 3 is DONE

It took me six years, but I finished Case 3! You can read it here ( or here (Google Docs)!

Just one more case to write to truly finish the story ...

If you missed it, a year and a half before this post, I posted about this very story and linked the previous two cases here.

Hope you enjoy!

Friday, February 10, 2017

My ideal mobile phone

It doesn't happen often, but once in a while, I'll get into a discussion with someone else about things about our phones that suck, and what we'd look for in our next one. On a whim (and noticing I haven't written much lately), I figured I'd just list all the specs/features I'd want for my next phone, and why; hopefully this sparks some discussion!

I'd like to start, however, with what I already have: two Motorola phones. My daily driver is a Droid Turbo, and my previous DD was a Droid RAZR M, which I still have. (I have a handful other older and budget phones, but those were never DDs, so I'm ignoring them for now.) Respectively released at the end of 2014 and 2012, the Turbo is still going pretty strong and recently got an upgrade to Android 6.0.1; the RAZR M's final official OS is Android 4.4.2, and while I ran custom ROMs on it for a while (mainly CyanogenMod 12), I ultimately dropped back to the official 4.4.2 (with a patched kernel to address an audio bug) for stability's sake. Nonetheless, the RAZR M is showing its age, as the Google apps and services grow ever larger; free RAM is obviously scarce, and the older NAND flash just can't keep up with things like it was once expected to with a similar app loadout. But I still use the phone almost daily, for one reason: playing music. The RAZR M has a microSD slot, while the Turbo does not; consequently, I've loaded most of a card with music and have pushed almost all other duties exclusively to the Turbo.

Oh. My crystal ball tells me that you're thinking "too long, not reading". All right, fine, I'll move along.

So! My ideal phone.

  • Compared to the Turbo, I think shrinking the height and width slightly, while increasing thickness a tad, would allow for more effective one-handed operation (at least for my hands, obviously) while still potentially allowing for a 3500+ mAh battery.
  • A 720x1280 or 1080x1920 screen would be my ideal resolution. Anything greater than 1080p is just extra pixels that I'm not going to discern (there's barely any video content over 1080p and I'm not going to run games at their max graphical settings because that chugs battery power!) - plus it increases power consumption for little gain in daily use - and lower than 720p starts to enter "you can see the pixels without trying" territory - not that I mind seeing pixels, but it can be very distracting with various colors if the display is PenTile (see: the RAZR M) and makes small text harder to read. I'm not sure if I'd have the display tech be good ol' LCD, or OLED. OLED displays may have prettier colors and true blacks, but they degrade noticeably early on.
  • I'm torn between physical (or "physical") buttons over on-screen buttons - especially if the display would be OLED, since on-screen is just an extra spot for the burn-in effect to be noticed. I like the "physical" buttons on my Turbo overall, but it drives me a little nuts that they're forever stuck with the KitKat design and can't support adapting to context. On the other hand, they never vanish for Immersive Mode.
  • Direct OS support from Google, a la Nexus/Pixel. I'm sick to tears of the official firmware being years behind on my Verizon Moto phones, and Moto was pretty good about updates for a while! (I hate that I never got to use a Moto X or G before the company was absorbed by Lenovo.) I'd also like to see official support last for around five years - this is the one trait of Apple's devices that I envy iPhone users for (timely updates AND long-lasting OS support - at least, long by smartphone standards).
  • Android 7.0 or newer as the starting OS. A clean build with zero bloatware or carrier apps. Pure Google plus AOSP plus the necessary firmware/drivers.
  • A 3.5 mm analog headphone jack. No sale otherwise.
  • I know USB C is the future, but I kind of want to hang on to microUSB for just a little longer. I still have absolutely nothing that uses USB C, or even USB 3.0 (save for a couple of flash drives whose full potential I cannot use)! Plus I'd have to get an adapter for my dual-mode flash drives, and new OTG adapters, and ... ugh, I'll switch once USB C has proliferated a lot more, okay?
  • A microSD slot. I know it's a performance bottleneck, but I want to use one, mounted as a separate volume (i.e., as opposed to the new mode introduced in Android 6), filled with all of my music, some movies, and other content that's almost exclusively read, sequentially. The United States' mobile broadband has a long way to go before I'll even consider streaming as my primary means of consuming content. I will keep software on the internal storage, though - and with the increasing size of both the Google apps and many games, I think I'd want 64 GB as the minimum for internal NAND. Even 32 GB is just too cramped for me now.
  • Speaking of broadband, I'd really like full compatibility with all US carriers (and many carriers in other countries). Also, a pony, as long as I'm wishing. The current standard for LTE seems good enough that (on Verizon at least) I can make VoLTE calls almost anywhere I'd want to go.
  • 801.11 n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 or newer, though I imagine this hardly merits mentioning. Throw in NFC even though I never use it.
  • A freely-unlockable bootloader, or an official service that makes it fairly easy to unlock. (I guess it goes without saying that it won't be sold through Verizon.) This plus direct OS support would likely make custom ROMs well-supported by homebrew devs/enthusiasts.
  • A low-energy chip that helps the phone always listen for hotwords, screen on or not, without doing more than barely sipping battery power. The Moto X had this; and I've had the equivalent feature enabled for a while on my Droid Turbo, which I believe has no such chip, and I love it. I can bark commands at my phone while it's charging before bed, which is super handy when I'm asked to remember (to get) something for tomorrow. (My memory sucks.) 
  • An easily-removable battery - and I'd be okay with making the phone a little chunky to accommodate a biggish one (say, 3000 mAh or a bit more). I think one of the biggest problems with smartphone batteries in general right now is that they're all different - if phone manufacturers and battery makers could collaborate in the name of improving the customer experience, I bet they could come up with "universal gumstick"-shaped rechargeables and multiple phones that would accept these, in a manner not unlike what we have/had for devices that accept AA and AAA alkaline batteries and their rechargeable replacements. (I imagine doing this could, potentially, improve overall quality control and reduce costs for manufacturers and customers, since there wouldn't be so damn many battery models to juggle!) All of this would make it possible to make removable batteries much more practical for all parties, since customers would stand a chance of finding replacement batteries for their device in good condition without resorting to sketchy "el cheapo" third party equivalents, which often become the only option for older phones as parts stop being made by the OEMs. Phones could therefore be made to last longer, especially since the year-to-year power increase has flattened for now and makes buying a new phone every year or two hardly worthwhile beyond having a fresh battery inside.
  • ... man, I went off on a tangent there, didn't I. Oh well. Probably a pipe dream anyway, considering how much phones and many standard PCs are clearly designed to be disposable these days ...
  • Specs! To start, I'd really like to see 4 GB of RAM, maybe even 6. It's a lot for a phone now, but give it a few years. Devs are going to keep targeting "MOAR POWER", just as devs for the PC market did and do. And in the meantime, it'd let me shuffle through multiple programs ("multitask") like a champ.
  • A recent SoC, but not the latest-and-greatest. ARM CPUs and GPUs for phones seem to have gotten to the point where they're plenty fast even if you want to push some serious computing and/or gaming. The problem is that they all get too hot too fast to do that at top speed for any meaningful length of time, and thus the quest for more speed is wasted. Instead, I'd want a SoC that's about a year old for the phone's time (say, the Snapdragon 820), but tweaked and revised to consume less battery power and stay cooler at the higher clock speeds - plus, put some heat pipes in the phone to dissipate the heat even further. Avoid thermal throttling for as long as possible - that's what I'd love to have seen with even an older SoC, like the Snapdragon 805 in my Turbo. SO MUCH potential is lost because we (or SoC makers, at least) are too damn busy chasing faster theoretical performance instead of trying to squeeze out more speed - and better efficiency - in real-world usage.
  • A really good rear camera. (I'm not picky about the front camera other than that (a) there is one and (b) it's good enough for video calls.) I'm real fuzzy on technical specs for these, but I heard the Nexus 6P's camera was pretty good, so something like that I guess? Optical Image Stabilization would be very appreciated, and I wouldn't mind a camera bump if it meant good focal range, focus accuracy, and a high quality sensor. (12 MP would easily be fine, 15+ seems insane to me unless you're using a DSLR.) RAW support in the stock photo app would be nice, too; I like the camera app on my Turbo for the most part, just wish it gave me more manual controls. Also, I wonder if anyone is working on cramming in an optical zoom ...?
  • I really don't like how my Turbo's SIM tray is behind the volume buttons; IMO it makes them feel flimsier, plus I can't press both volume buttons simultaneously which limits what combinations you can do. I think the SIM+microSD tray that a lot of phones use nowadays is pretty cool. You know, the one with the pinhole that has a button inside? Seems better overall; at least it's less stressful than the push-push spring-loaded slots in my RAZR M. One slip of the finger and my SIM or microSD would go flying out of that.
  • Whatever microphone setup my Turbo is using, I'd want to replicate that. Voice recordings with a good recording program (I like Sony's) at lossless quality sound superb.
  • GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, lux, all the usual sensors.

I think that about covers it. If I forgot something, let me know and I'll add it in. If you made it this far (and didn't rapidly scroll down from the top to get here), thanks for sticking with me. Which details do you agree with? Which would you change? Sound off in the comments!