The Apps That Apple Killed

Gone, and mostly forgotten.

Today is the day that Apple went 64bit only on both iOS and macOS (well, OK – that’s in a few days), meaning all those 32bit only apps that haven’t been updated are dead to you should you decide to upgrade your operating system.

Thankfully, in a way, I won’t be moving to iOS 11 any time soon. Not because of this, but because I have a large number of devices and cables that iOS 10.3.3 have rendered “unsupported” because Apple didn’t licence them or something. I’m not ditching all them, so 10.3.2 is where I’m staying for the foreseeable future. Unless iOS 11 is more accepting? I doubt it.

I was interested, however, to see what apps I have on my phone that would no longer be available to me.

To be honest, very few of these ever get used. Some, such as WiFinder and Distant Suns stopped working properly ages ago anyway so I should probably have deleted them already. Bookworm crashes when I try to load it.

Flight Control and Harbour Master were some of the first games I ever got for my iPhone, way back when I purchased a shiny new 3GS all them years ago, so I’ve some nostalgic attachment to them even if I haven’t played them in almost as many years.

Touch Mouse was useful when I used to connect my laptop to my telly to play PC games, but I do that via Steam Link now. Various media players and connectors are no longer of use to me.

In fact, the only apps there I regularly use are Night Clock, Adobe Ideas (although I forget which of the two with that name is the good one) and Recordium. I can imagine I can easily replace those. Oh, and Peggle Classic (actually, my daughter rather than me), which can’t be replicated.

It’s a shame they’re going, although as I said – it won’t really affect me. Yet at least.

Will we ever see the ZXVega+?

Or MBison+ as we know him over here.

The sorry story of delays, legal wranglings, complaints and more delays regarding the ZXVega+ has begun to appear in mainstream media in the last couple of weeks. No longer just nerds arguing in forums and people shouting into the black hole of Twitter, even the BBC have reported on it (even if they did have to remove the article due to legal threats).

So what happened?

I came into the story quite late. Almost as late as the ZXVega+ devs, it seems (ho ho!). I heard about the ZXVega+, a handheld computer reimagining of the ZX Spectrum home computer from the 80s, when it was first announced as an Indiegogo campaign. It followed the ZXVega, a “computer in a controller”, which was also crowdfunded and successfully released. This original device was not without its problems, and I never wanted one despite my love for the Speccy because of them. Mainly, no keyboard.

The ZXVega+, initially at least, looked more interesting. A sleek handheld with a screen this time, and the ability to plug a keyboard in. Still, £100 was a lot for something my Nintendo DS already did, but it was nice.

ZXVega+ render
See? Looks good, yes?

That was over a year ago, and… things have not gone well since. I won’t begin to understand all the details, who was lying, who was telling the truth and what was and wasn’t promised, but the situation now is a shambles.

RCL, who are responsible for the device and the campaign, keep announcing delay after delay. Partners in the company have changed. There have been production issues. The rights to some of the 1000 games lined up for the ZXVega+ have been denied.

Their campaign promises refunds if backers are not happy, and boy are some backers not happy. Very few people who have requested refunds appear to have received them too. Why are people wanting refunds? Because RCL have very little to show for over half a million pounds worth of funding, and because they’ve not been successfully updating backers with progress.

In the last couple of weeks, they’ve finally managed to take some photos of the devices, and even edit together a couple of videos of them supposedly in action. I say supposedly, because as some people have pointed out, the videos appear to be just showing videos running – not the actual games or user interface. Key presses don’t correspond with on-screen action, and both videos show the same content albeit edited differently. Make your own mind up:

Then there’s the fact at no point, ever it would seem, have they managed to show more than three devices working at the same time. Some comments on the Indiegogo page suggest that they’ve only got three working prototypes.

Now there’s suggestions that the “group shot” published a little while back shows cardboard boxes that are actually hand-modified versions of the original ZXVega box.

ZXVega+ Group Shot
Look at the rough cuttings, making the”hole” in the insert larger.

What RCL need is transparency. They have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by just telling everyone what’s actually going on. Stop threatening everyone with legal action. Actually show pictures of what you have. If there are delays, that can be tangibly explained away, most people will accept that.

“We don’t have any boxes so we mocked some up” – this is fine.
Boxes shoddily modified – this is not.

“We only have three working prototypes” – this is fine.
“Look at all these ZXVega+s! Oh but only three are ever turned on” – this is not.

“Everything is delayed. It might be months. We’re working hard. It’s harder than we thought. Here’s what we’ve done so far and here’s what we’re doing to make it happen” – this is fine.
“Stop complaining about us. We’ll get our lawyers onto you!” – this is not.

RCL are spending their time getting riled up about what people are saying and not getting on with it. If they want people back on side, they need to be open. Come clean. Explain who at the company actually does what and – much as I hate to single him out – explain exactly what Lee Fogarty’s role is. For someone who supposedly “just does their website”, he seems to know an awful lot more than that position would suggest. Show the people some proper proof – not shakey-hand iPhone videos (that were delayed so they could be “Hollywood quality” – they’re clearly not), or explain why you can’t. Be humble, be clear, be open.

And maybe file their finance report? That’d help.

On the other side, the angry backers (who have every right to be angry, sure) need to simmer down a bit. There have been some very nasty, personal and slanderous things from that corner and it’s not helping. All you’re doing, guys, is giving RCL more excuses to delay things and spend your money.

As for my question at the start: Will we ever see the ZXVega+? I hope so. I really do. I don’t think I’d buy one, but I want the project to succeed because of what it represents and what it may inspire in the future. Unfortunately at this point, even if they’re not (and I’d like to think they’re just naïve), they’re coming across as shysters.

My gut feeling at this point is, perhaps a year from now, a device called the ZXVega+ which resembles what we’re expecting but isn’t quite there, finally comes out. Not as polished. Not as slick. Missing features or altered specs. But something. And I don’t think anyone will be pleased.

Making audio work on a Steam Link and a Mac

I could just turn the volume up really high and listen through the ceiling.

Yes, it’s another Steam Link post. You see, having had some success with streaming Windows to the Steam Link, I thought I’d have a proper go and making Mac streaming work. And I’ve managed it! Eventually. Apple: “It just works!”. Pff.

Firstly, and not related to the audio issue mentioned in title of this post, I found a small utility to stop my iMac from deciding to go to sleep while playing. As it did. And that was annoying. It’s called Owly, and is free. It sits in the menu bar, and you can click it to disable all sleeping, and click again to enable sleeping. There’s options to prevent sleeping for a certain number of hours or minutes too, in case you’re likely to forget to turn it back on.

Anyway, that was an aside. To the matter at hand!

After setting the Steam Link up to talk to my Mac, and configured for my controller, TV, and so on, I discovered that sound wasn’t being streamed. It’d play in the Steam Link menus and startup screen, but not in Steam itself. Only it was – on the Mac.

I trawled the Steam forums, where the issue comes up a lot, but the solution is always the same: use the Steam Beta and it’ll force some drivers to install on the Mac. Thing is, that was the issue back in 2015 and I’ve done that already.

Turns out, after much fiddling, very easy to fix. If the Steam Link itself is set to use 5.1 audio, or “auto detect”, then sound plays through the Mac. Set it to stereo, and it works. OK, in stereo, but at least that’s something. Mini Metro doesn’t need surround sound anyway.

Still, it means I don’t need to boot into Windows quite so much to play Steam games now.

Windows 10 on an iMac and Steam Link Woes

Weakest Link

No technical help here, I’m afraid, just a rant.

Here is how using a Steam Link, connected to Steam on Windows 10 in Boot Camp on an iMac works: Badly.

In the past, a frequent occurrence is for the Steam Link on my TV downstairs to just disconnect from my iMac upstairs. I’ll go up to find out why. “Installing Windows Updates, 33% Completed”. And that’ll be it for the evening.

Also, random popups from Cortana (now disabled), the virus killer (now disabled), Windows itself (sadly not disabled) and so on draw focus from Steam Big Picture but of course, don’t show on the TV. I’ll go upstairs and find “Would you like to check out One Drive?” or something equally annoying has pulled me out of the game.

But last night’s episode took the biscuit. In fact, it took the entire box of biscuits then complained online about Just Eat not accepting orders for more biscuits.

I loaded Dangerous Golf (which, as an aside, is Excellent). After a few levels, the first scenario above took place. Even though I’d manually checked for Windows Updates before triggering Steam Link because I thought that might happen. After the updates, I logged into Windows again, fired up the Link, and played Dangerous Golf a bit more.

After some more levels, the screen froze. I pressed the Home button on my pad (a Xbox 360 wired one, if that matters) and nothing happened. As I sighed and stood up to investigate upstairs, a massive, screen-filling message appeared on the TV: “An error occurred [OK]”. Of course, I couldn’t click OK until I was at the computer.

In the time it took to get upstairs, another message had appeared over the top explaining the graphics driver had crashed, and Windows was now hilariously set to 640×480. I clicked OK, and the desktop flicked to another resolution and before the screen had a chance to redraw, the computer rebooted.

And rebooted.

And rebooted.

And rebooted.

Each time, it tried to install updates. Each time, it got to 87% complete before restarting. Each time, I got more and more annoyed.

Eventually, I had to repair Windows completely, which kept my settings but removed everything else. Or rather, moved it into a folder from which I could recover Steam games but the rest needed to be reinstalled. All this has taken a day.

I don’t know where the problem is – Steam, Steam Link, Windows, iMac hardware, or what and frankly I don’t care: It Should Just Work (And Not Break The Entire OS).

And why don’t I just use the Steam Link directly with OS X? Because:

  1. 80% of my Steam games are PC only
  2. Oh god have you even tried?

Experiments with POKE

Utterly pointless.

While noodling about with PICO-8, I thought I’d have a go at POKEing random and semi-random values into the screen memory. As you do.

A long time ago, I used to do this sort of thing with the Spectrum, writing very simple assembly routines (and compiling by hand!) that made fancy screen wipes and transferred images from memory to the screen and stuff. So fancy were they, that I lost the comp.sys.sinclair Crap Games Competition one year for being too clever.

In case you’re wondering, POKE is a command that lets you store a value directly into memory without using variables or pointers or other things. On the Spectrum, it was pretty much the quickest way of outputting pixels to the screen outside of actual machine code, and was also used for modifying code. In fact, POKEing became the way of cheating. POKE a bigger number into the Lives counter, or POKE zero into the part of RAM that holds “how much should I decrease energy by?”. Devices like the Romantic Robot Multiface existed mainly for the purpose of enabling this functionality with ease – press a button, POKE, done. You filthy, filthy cheat.

No cheating here though, just a load of sort of pleasing GIFs of the output I’ve been producing. There’s something ethereal about them, if you can get past the pointlessness and eyebleed they suggest.

There’s also the command PEEK, which lets you see the contents of a memory location – useful to check if something is there already.

For these silly experiments, I was POKEing values into the memory range 0x6000 to 0x7FFF – 8K of RAM that make up the PICO-8 screen. Each 8 bit value is two adjacent pixels, reversed. The left 4 bits are the pixel on the right, and the 4 bits on the right are the pixel on the left. It’s a little confusing, but if you saw how the Spectrum arranged its screen you’d cry.

This means each pixel can have a value from 0 to 15, or 0000 to 1111 in binary. 16 colours to match the 16 colours of the PICO-8 palette. All very interesting, but all I was going to do was bung random stuff in there.

And this is what I made:

poke

Continue reading “Experiments with POKE”

Configuring Spotify to use less disk space

Download ALL the things. But nobody knows why.

When my PC hard drive reached critical capacity last week, and I was figuring out where all the space had gone, I found one of the major bit-thieves was Spotify. This folder (in Windows 7 at least):

had grown to be over 12GB. 12GB! For a streaming service where everything is online? That can’t be right. Even more odd is how this folder isn’t even the Spotify cache folder, which by default is here:

and for me was only a gig in size. The user interface for Spotify does let you reconfigure the location of this Storage folder, so you can move it to another drive to make a bit of space, but this doesn’t help with the larger issue of the Data folder – which can’t be configured like this.

Luckily, there is still a solution. Firstly, close Spotify completely (making sure it’s not still running in the system tray), then go to this folder:

Note that’s the Roaming folder, not the Local folder where the Data and Storage folders are. In here, there’s a file called “prefs”. Open this in a text editor – Wordpad is better than Notepad because the file contains UNIX style carriage returns and Notepad doesn’t cope well with them.

At the end of the file (although it doesn’t seem to matter where, so long as it’s on a line by itself, add this:

1024 is the maximum size, in megabytes, you want to give over to this cache. So for 1GB, use 1024. For half a gig, 512, and so on. I’m sure you can figure that bit out for yourself!

Save the file, making sure your text editor doesn’t add a rogue file extension when you do so, and then go back to the Data folder mentioned earlier and delete the contents. No, really. It’s fine. Or move them somewhere if you’re scared.

Open up Spotify again, and if it’s all working, you’re set! It isn’t clear why this folder fills up when there’s a perfectly good folder already there for caching purposes, but at least there’s a way of stopping it growing out of control.

Google AMP: A Rant

The day Google did what that large bottomed lady failed to do.

Google AMP, or rather, the Google AMP Cache, is rolling out to users right now. It’s been in use for Google News searches for a little while, but now general Google searches are becoming infected by it, and there’s no way to turn it off.

The intention of the AMP project is noble enough: Make mobile pages work faster. On the webmaster side of the project, some work needs to be done in order to make mobile versions of their pages AMP compliant. For many folk, this is little more than triggering a plugin for their CMS, but for those who code sites a little closer to the metal, there are specific AMP HTML pages to create and check. You know how HTML5 and the likes of Bootstrap helped unify devices, so they only need a single page regardless of screen type or viewport size? Well, it seems AMP reverses that.

I don’t pretend to understand it all. But I don’t need to in order to find faults with Google AMP Cache. What this does, is (as the name implies) cache AMP pages. It rolls them up and spits them out quickly to your phone when you access them.

The Google AMP Cache is a proxy-based content delivery network for delivering all valid AMP documents. It fetches AMP HTML pages, caches them, and improves page performance automatically. When using the Google AMP Cache, the document, all JS files and all images load from the same origin that is using HTTP 2.0 for maximum efficiency.

(That’s from here)

Which would be good, only it isn’t. When you use Google on your mobile device to search now, AMP pages are preferred in the results list so generally appear at the top – even if the content is “better” on a non-AMP page. When you tap the link, you get Google’s cache of the page, and herein lie most of the issues.

It’s cached, so inherently isn’t necessarily the newest content. You also don’t get the correct link from the page – the URL bar shows a Google URL. For example, instead of:

https://pokemondb.net/pokedex/umbreon

you get

https://www.google.co.uk/amp/pokemondb.net/amp/pokedex/umbreon

If you then decide to pass this link on to someone not on a mobile device, then you end up passing on the AMP’d link instead, only it doesn’t work. Just copy and paste that second link into your desktop web browser URL bar and see. Not only do you not get taken to the page, you get sent to a page of search results for which the top match isn’t even the correct site 1:

google amp
In fact, at the time of writing for this example, NONE of the sites in ANY of the results are the correct one.

It’s even worse than that. Without hacking apart the AMP Cache URL, you can’t even find a link to the correct “real” page to pass on or save. The cached pages also tend to strip out certain content, such as adverts or input forms. This may be a bonus, or may be because of the ineptitude of the webmaster, but it doesn’t matter either way: Content is not served up correctly and that is a problem.

But things are worse still. Because the Google AMP Cache is, by their own definition, “a proxy-based content delivery network” it can be used to bypass web filters and restrictions. Page blocked by your school? Just access the AMP Cache version of it on your mobile device. In fact, you’ll bypass the filter automatically and inadvertently, potentially breaching an acceptable use policy.

The worst bit of all? You can’t turn it off. There’s no switch in your browser or your Google account settings. You can block access to google.com/amp (or .co.uk/amp, or other country specific variations), but that stops search from working properly. You can ask webmasters to disable AMP support, but there are so many using it now that isn’t going to happen. I do wonder if many webmasters were hoodwinked into this: They saw the benefits of AMP, so embraced it, and now Google have screwed them over by forcing the cache and breaking their content. How does advert revenue work now for those people, if the adverts are cached? Clickthroughs and hits? Did webmasters realise this was the endgame, because when I looked into AMP a while back for WordPress I certainly didn’t. Is there a legal issue with Google AMP Cache essentially cloning your content and serving it up from their server? It’s a mess.

And what if you do manage to convince a webmaster to turn it off? What happens then? This: 404s everywhere. That’s Google’s answer.

The situation now is that mobile search, via Google, is effectively broken just so we can get a page on the screen a few milliseconds faster. This is not progress.

Notes:

  1. Note that it’s Google who redirected to this search – I didn’t stupidly just put the URL in the search box!

Let’s Play! Advanced Lawnmower Simul8or

Mow grass mow money

Like many Your Sinclair readers, I have a strange attraction to one of the Spectrum’s most creative games: Advanced Lawnmower Simulator. In the past, I’ve written versions of it for the Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Amstrad NC100, the Codebug, the BBC Microbit, a Casio calculator, and various other things.

Today I bring to you my latest port: a version for the PICO-8 virtual console. It’s called “Advanced Lawnmower Simul8or” because of the 8, you see.

als

The PICO-8 doesn’t actually exist. It’s a fabricated retro console with 8bit style limitations intentionally imposed, and a built-in development environment complete with sound tracker, sprite and map editors, and a “compiler” of sorts which uses Dark Magic to somehow squeeze your program into a PNG file for distribution. Like this one:

advanced lawnmower simul8or
No, it’s not just a picture – is a cartridge too.

I’ve posted a few games on here before, like Hug Arena and Duck Duck on the Loose, but this is the first I’ve created myself. The code is horrible. The game barely registers as one. Play it now!

Continue reading “Let’s Play! Advanced Lawnmower Simul8or”