The Flamekeblog




I recently bought a car. I've never owned a car before.


Up until now I've lived places where walking and the occasional bus have worked for everything. A car was a luxury I neither needed nor could afford. My father has never been able to understand but this may be because he's an alien.

I'm not fussed about driving fast or other bells and whistles. It's not that those things can't be fun but they're not things I associate with motoring in Britain. If I can drive some ramshackle contraption across a desert at high speed that'd be amazing. Doing a few extra miles per hour down the motorway on my way to visit a friend..? Nah.

Instead my criteria for a car were as follows:
  • A few dents
  • Small
Whenever I rent a car I'm constantly stressed about whether I'm treating it correctly. Will it get damaged? Will someone attempt to break into it? How much paperwork will be involved?

I want something that I can park somewhere and know that if something bad happens the paperwork will be the biggest concern. I want it to look old enough and a bit dented so that anyone looking at it will think about the much nicer cars around it.

As it turns out the car we found suited me in several other ways. It's a 2003 Suzuki Ignis.

It's a very strange blend between an SUV and a compact car (I don't know the UK terms for those things). In reality it's pretty tiny but it sits quite high on the road with the visibility of an SUV and I absolutely love that. Also kerbs are a non-issue with how high its chassis sits - another concern allayed.

Given its age the inside is quite simple and that's a blessing in disguise. The reason for that is fairly simple. I don't know about you but growing up my parents' car had various blanking plates and similar. The notion of a car having any bells and whistles wasn't really there. That said they did mod them somewhat - usually to mount a radio antenna on them for falconry:

The equipment for that was never properly integrated into the car though and I always got the impression that cars and electronics were beyond the ken of mere human adults. At least, those not professionally employed in that direction.

One of the things I did the other day was figure out how to take apart my car's central console. I wanted to know what the space was used for (mostly nothing) so that I could potentially install things in there. That's something that I feel would have horrified most adults when I was younger (and I mean, say, 15, not 7!).

The car I have is cheap and has very little resale value. That's basically carte blanche to make strange modifications. The first one has been rather more involved than I intended but has mostly worked out just fine (one unexpected quirk aside).

I'm rather obsessed with MiniDiscs. They're like the ultimate refinement of mixtape technology. They have the quality of a CD with better sturdiness than a cassette tape. They're also black boxes in their own weird way. In principle there's data on the disc but there's no way to use that storage space for anything except music (I can't speak for things like NetMD - I'm talking about the original format). No PC drive was ever released for music MDs. They cannot be ripped in the traditional way.

That's strangely liberating for me and so I have a growing collection of mixes that I absolutely love:

They bring me intense happiness for some reason and so I resolved that the one thing I wanted for myself in a car is a radio that could play MDs. To that end I tracked one down on eBay. It came from a Subaru Impreza Newage WRX 2005. My car is not a Subaru but it's a radio so what the hell.

The thing is that standards exist. My car has standard ISO-compliant connectors for its radio. The Subaru radio does not. In fact it has some weird Subaru-exclusive, era-exclusive connector. Also a different antenna plug!

What it should have.

What it actually has.

Of course things couldn't be easy. That's okay. Unfortunately things were hard. As in finding any sort of documentation has been damn near impossible. Even finding out the names of the ports has been a slog. That square one on the end is apparently a CeNET connector (specific to Clarion, the radio manufacturer) and is for accessories. The white one next to it is utterly unknown (I've had the machine apart trying to find a clue and still - no idea). The chunky black one is the Subaru connector and the round one is the antenna.

Let's start with the antenna as that's the easy bit.

So that's a special antenna plug. Great. Trying to source a replacement for it is difficult and expensive. They're easy to source in the US (about $10) but over here I ended up paying £7 postage to get one shipped from Exeter. Apparently the Royal Mail doesn't trust Exeter or something.

However the cable I bought isn't for a Subaru radio. No. It's for a Nissan radio. It works just fine though!

Now the Subaru connector... that's where things got a bit dicey. Just getting hold of the connector itself was damn near impossible. I'd planned to solder the connections to standard ISO plugs (the Subaru pinout can be found here) but I couldn't find just the connector anywhere. In the end I found something unrelated - a cable for something called a "Parrot handsfree kit".

From what I can tell that kit uses ISO plugs and so wouldn't be compatible with a Subaru radio. The cable that's available has ISO plugs (both male and female) and Subaru plugs (male and female). I think the idea is that the device uses the ISO plugs and passes the connection through:
The wire between the two Subaru connectors is the one wire that ISO plugs don't have (pin 7 if you're interested - it's part of the illumination brightness level, I think).

Well cutting that extra wire and using just half the lead worked first time! I now have a Subaru radio in my crappy little car!

Admittedly I had to make extensive use of a Dremel to modify the DIN slots the radio uses (why have two DIN slots if the enclosure they're in doesn't actually have space for devices that use them both?).

before (mostly)
...and after.

I ended up using the chunk I cut off to reinforce the back plate as I had to make several more holes in it to fit the ports on the radio but I got there in the end!


The only issue is that this radio is imported and, as it turns out, that means it's currently set to the Japanese broadcast band (76MHz - 90MHz). I'm going to see whether that can be changed somehow but if not I'll just live with it. I have an FM transmitter that can be connected to provide Aux-in and the two ranges overlap. Then my phone or even a battery-powered FM radio can be used! Perhaps that'd be a fun way to add DAB functionality to the vehicle, I suppose?

One last thing to mention - the radio stated that it supports a CD changer (the label is gone as it came off with the rather sticky perished coating I cleaned off!). I assumed this mean that one could be connected and its slot was just for individual CDs. Nope. When I opened it up I was shocked to see this:

I'll be honest, the CD functionality was of no interest initially but if it's an in-dash CD changer then perhaps I'll load it up with a few of my old albums. The ones I like every song of (I wrote about them back in 2007). That'd be kind of fun.

Next task - replacing all five wheels. That's going to cost me...

I've been doing some work with some other people of late. For the most part it's going well. Occasionally I do see something that annoys me though. It's a bit of an old cliché but this is my blog and I'll cliché if I want to.


There's a quote in Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett that goes like this:
... it is possible, after a while, to develop certain dangerous habits of thought.  One is that, while all important enterprises need careful organization, it is the organization that needs organizing, rather than the enterprise.  And the other is that tranquility is always a good thing.

I was rather pleased that several of us working together managed to make a sale. Not only that but we sold something that was gathering dust on a shelf. Currently sales are fairly low but that's kind of a good thing given availability of manufacturing capacity (yay, pandemic). Part of this sale was customising the product for the customer - which we decided to charge extra for. The customer also now wants to buy two of our other products. We'll see if he follows through on those but even if he doesn't, it's a win.

The thing being that one of the team who handles lots of the admin discouraged me from offering a custom job. I certainly wouldn't offer custom work on a large scale but the idea that we'd rather turn down a sale during a slow period just because it's marginally more hassle? To me that is really indicative of someone who has spent their career isolated from risk. I'm a bit weird in that I basically haven't had that. I've spent the majority of my working life trying to get people to buy my products. If money doesn't come in, I don't get paid.

I'm also reminded of the flip side of this. A while back a friend of mine didn't feel he'd done enough work for the amount of money he made (I can't recall whether it was reselling models on eBay or commission artwork or what). He'd spent his entire life insulated from the same risk. Show up for work and the result is money in the bank.

Both of these examples are issues with cause and effect. Work hard and pay will follow. It's a common cultural value but as Blackadder would have it:
You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan... ...it was bollocks.

Sometimes hard work is required, sometimes it isn't. Often it's more a matter of timing, or publicity, or any number of other things.

This stuff matters because if the enterprise is to stay afloat this must be central to decision making. It would be nice if we could show up, make things, and know that the end result would be a predictable amount of money. Vast armies of consultants are paid to find ways to bring this closer to reality than it naturally is. Our first example thinks that he will always be paid regardless of the fate of the organisation and the second example feels uncomfortable when faced with the reality that sometimes having the right product at the right time results in money with minimal work.

Personally I'm mostly concerned with figuring out which bits of work tend to result in the biggest sustainable payout and where it's safe to take risks. I've not figured it out yet.

Oh mae stahhrs!

12 January 2020

I didn't grow up in a house that watched sport. I've tried over the years to find enjoyment in it but I've never succeeded and at this point I've given up and made peace with it. Playing sport can be fun but watching it... pass.

However in recent years, in our house, GDQ has become our equivalent of the Olympics. GDQ being "Games Done Quick" - a twice yearly week of videogame speedrunning (Summer Games Done Quick, SGDQ, and Awesome Games Done Quick, AGDQ in winter). Obsessive nerds playing videogames to either an astonishing level of skill or breaking their mechanics to an absurd degree.

I wouldn't personally want to speedrun anything, much like I've no interest in participating in athletics. However watching someone be ridiculously good at a game I've played can be quite entertaining.

Something that's a bigger deal to me is that GDQ isn't one night. It's a week. It's like a festival I can attend without leaving home. There's familiar faces, there's new faces, there's silly in-jokes (HONK!), and there's nail-biting action.

Watching the Super Mario Maker 2 blind relay race, for example. Wow. The premise is fairly easy to understand - various people create Mario levels specially for the event. Teams attempt to make it through these torturous gauntlets. Each time they lose a life, they switch to the next player in the team. The first team to make it through the level gets a point and all teams stop and move onto the next level.


The skill involved in playing these is immense. The teams have to learn as quickly as possible and read the cues the creator has left for them to understand what they should be doing. This time the teams were so evenly matched that one level came down to a difference of half a second. It had us howling at the screen when they almost succeeded, cheering when they did, and generally having a wonderful time.

Other runs were fun too, of course, but that was the apex. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening was rather cosy, Clone Hero was mesmerising, and the Hebereke run was extremely charming, to name just a few.

What gets me is that a certain subset of folks cannot abide GDQ. It's usually for the oddest of reasons. They don't like that runners are requested not to swear on stream, for example, and will argue until they're blue in the face about it. The point of the event is to raise money for a charity - there's loads of ancillary reasons too, but ultimately the event exists for that purpose. In order to do that certain restrictions need to apply. They're advertised up front, it's not like runners arrive at the event and are then given a list of new requirements. A very odd thing to get worked up about but it does speak to the mindset of these, shall we generously say, "critics".

I say "mindset" because each criticism I read from people of this opinion seems to be tied up in their own social issues. People having fun and being silly on stream are described as "cringe" (as with many other things they're not aware of how to use the word properly, much like "so cliché" rather than "so clichéd"). As we say online "Don't @ me". I do not care to hear your opinion about your insecurities.

By that I mean that I have been to parties. I've been to conventions. I've spent time around humans and you know what?

We're not beacons of dignity.

We have fun, we make fools of ourselves, and we enjoy ourselves. Oh, does our dancing make you cringe? Poor you! Would you prefer if we didn't have in-jokes that make us feel part of a friendly and encouraging social group? Too bad!

You're not required to take part, although you're invited to. The fun is open to all, assuming they're not mean-spirited misanthropes who want to make their inferiority complexes everyone else's problem. I phrase it that way because, you know what? I have issues about looking silly and feeling like an arse when dancing! I absolutely do!

However I recognise that those issues are my burden to bear, my baggage to be dealt with. It's not everyone else's fault for having fun in a silly way. Perhaps I wouldn't be brave enough to dance but I'm confident enough to chance my precious dignity on shouting HONK!

Someone contacted me a while ago in order to get access to their old forum account in order to take a trip down memory lane. The forum has been dead for a long time but it's kept private and is mostly there as a digital archive of a different age of the internet. It was founded in 2005 and so at this stage it's going way back.

Today I had a message from them asking to delete the account and so I obliged. I vaguely wonder why but I also understand that everyone has different approaches to their digital past. They also commented that the forum should have been deleted long ago because it's a "ghost town". That's the bit that perplexes me.

It's an archive. Technically it can still be contributed to but I don't expect any further content to be added. I keep it around because it was something we created together and it doesn't feel right to wipe out other people's past without consulting them. Possibly most importantly it's a private archive. Search engines can't index it, new accounts can only be created with admin approval, and so it's just sort of a time capsule.

There's very few forums left online from the time period this one was active in and that's what makes it special to me. The notion that it being inactive is why it should be deleted confuses me. It takes up barely any resources on my webserver, and as it's private even if someone said something as an awkward teenager it's not visible to the wider world.

When these things happen I immediately delete their accounts, as requested. I'm not interested in arguing the toss with them. If they want to delete their content they can. It's theirs after all.

That said if the logic is "it's inactive and therefore should be deleted" then so many things would be lost to the ages. A whole load of podcasts I've enjoyed, webcomics, and other projects would just be gone.

Partly perhaps for me it's because there's something amazing about preserving the mundane. We know the history of great kings from human history but we're scrabbling in the dirt to try to figure out what the lives of the majority of people looked like during those eras. Our forum wasn't big or important to the wider world but it was somewhere many of us visited daily. Relationships were formed (and failed!), joy and sadness was shared, and it all happened during a formative era for the modern internet. The forum predates YouTube. It predates Reddit. It predates modern social media.

Teletext was a mundane part of everyday life in the '90s. These days we've got projects gathering old VHS tapes to try to salvage teletext data from them to try to preserve a small part of what was. Our forum has become part of that sort of thing and I think that's kinda magical.

I probably have a database backup somewhere should it one day be required but it mostly just irks me that people want to carve chunks out of it. It wasn't a hotbed of extremism or something like that - it was mostly chat about the pop culture of the day.

Then again lots of people don't preserve their photos long term. Once they get a new phone they abandon the old stuff. I don't understand that at all but it seems to be fairly normal. I love that I have photos of myself as an awkward teenager with too much neck!

I've ranted about how overrated I think Super Mario 64 is before but today I was watching a video and I think it finally clicked what it is that gets me about it.

The year was 1997, I suspect, and by this point I'd played plenty of games. They'd all been cheaper than the cartridge-based SM64. This game was seriously pricey and I was fortunate enough to have it bought for me (although I did buy the console myself).

There's 120 objectives in the game split across 15 worlds, 16 if we count the overworld and its small secret areas that contain some of them. Effectively there's seven per level.

Remember that famous adage - "Always leave them wanting more"?

SM64 gives no fucks about that. It will have you trekking around those levels until you know them so well that there's absolutely no mystique left. Every time I see pictures or footage of most of the levels my brain instinctively recoils from the boredom.

That isn't to say the levels are terrible - not at all. They're pretty good. Unfortunately they massively outstay their novelty. Many of them change slightly between objectives but they're generally small changes that don't really impact things that much.

By comparison Super Mario Galaxy mixes its worlds up frequently. Areas are sometimes reused but mostly things are shuffled around so that the areas feel fresh and novel.

This may also speak to my utter hatred of backtracking. If I'm going to endure boredom it'd better be for work or someone else's benefit. It has no place in my entertainment choices. If I have to see the same area of a game repeatedly the designers need to:

  1. Have a really good reason
  2. Work very, very hard to keep it interesting
I don't recall ever getting bored of the hub world of SMG. Over time things in it would change and the distances between things were short. The hub world of SMG2 wasn't as good but it was even smaller and so didn't involve an extended stay.

SM64 on the other had has the player traipsing back and forth to get to other levels. It's a slog. As a result I'd rather get the current level polished off and be done with it.

Does that sound like a desirable attitude for players?

A huge, desolate hub world and levels that are used so thoroughly that the question "I wonder what's around the next corner?" is easily answerable as "That thing I've seen three times on this star alone".

All that said I wonder if part of this is my particular wiring. I have an excellent spatial memory, rarely lose things, and can map things very easily (however I can't remember what it is we're doing next week despite being told ten minutes ago). Perhaps the way I experience these levels is unusual and so colours my thoughts on the matter.

Huh.

We all have those half-remembered things from childhood. TV shows we saw a snippet of, perhaps a book we remember reading, or some game that we played.

I was born in December 1986 and missed out on the British microcomputer boom. That's not a lament, just a statement. Oddly enough I did play some Spectrum games growing up. Long before I knew what an emulator was someone installed one on a PC in my parents' office. I've no idea where they got a speccy emulator or the ROMs, especially as this was pre-internet. Maybe it was on the computer when they got it, maybe it was on a floppy. It's a complete mystery to me.

Regardless there were a variety of games on there. It was tricky knowing what was what. This was in the days of DOS and filenames were limited to 8.3 characters which generally would look like this:

filename.txt -> filena~1.txt

As a result filenames were short and this made the titles of the games rather cryptic until they were booted up. I didn't make notes on what was what either because, well, I was a young child.

Anyway, two games that stood out in my memory were Flunky and another one. Both were open world adventure games with fairly nice pixel art for the time. We'll get to that other one in a moment. It's worth noting that "flunky" is six characters, so that's probably why I remember it!


The second game was not so easy to locate. The problem is that I remember vague things about it but not much else. There were multiple characters to play as and it was set in a British town. Beyond that... Erm... There was a pub called The Red Lion?

Bear in mind that I didn't grow up in the 1980s, I was three years old in 1990. I wasn't aware of the culture of Spectrum games, the weird things that received computer game adaptations, and so on. I've learnt about it in recent years and it was... weird.

I found the game though. It turns out that over on the Spectrum Computing forum there's a thread on Pubs in ZX Spectrum games. Yes, really. It's quite a new thread, as it happens, and three months ago someone posted about The Red Lion!

It turns out that the game was "Everyone's A Wally" and it looks like it was quite highly rated. When it was released on tape the B-side was a song by Mike Berry which is rather catchy, as it happens. Something strange that stood out about the game though - the use of "the". Objects the characters picked up had "the" in the name. "The good insulator", "The empty bottle", and similar. Considering the limited screen real estate (256*192) it's surprising that they did things that way but charming in its own way.

You can see the game being played through here:

Way back in the heyday of forums people on forums I'd frequent would create their own and tell us about them. Sometimes they took off but mostly they didn't.

In response to one of these I created a lengthy post with bits of advice derived from my observations about what worked along with a bit of guesswork. Annoyingly there's no reasonable way to find that post - it'll probably have been on the EU PSP forums and those are long gone. There's probably some record on Archive.org but realistically it's not worth the trouble.

Perhaps a bit of context is appropriate at this juncture. Forums as a medium are, for the most part, dead. There's a few kicking about but I know my favourite one, YakTribe, updated its forum software and the user experience is now truly horrendous. I'm trying to get over it to continue to contribute but it's like the site actually wants me to leave.

Something that doesn't fulfil the same role but is inexplicably popular is Discord. It seems that any given community has multiple Discord servers. The system works reasonably well and it's certainly a step up from IRC, but its linear nature doesn't lend itself to ongoing discussions. In an attempt to support this admins create countless channels. For bigger servers this is workable, although any time a discussion veers into a different area there's always someone saying "best take this over to #specificChannel". Usually when that happens I just give up. It kills the flow. If there was a WhatsApp-style quote system then the channel switch could be handled somewhat organically but at the time of writing nothing like that exists.

Now, here's where that old forum advice thing comes in. When Dave decides he wants to setup a Discord server for his thing he imagines that he'll hundreds of users. They'll want to spend lots of time there talking about countless subjects. Better get the work done now and create specific channels for each subject!

People starting their own forums would do exactly the same thing. They'd create loads of subforums. Do you know who mostly starts lots of topics in a silent forum? Extroverts and idiots. The former are like gold dust and the latter aren't good at stimulating discussion.

The end result is 1 - 5 topics in each forum and a constant feeling of emptiness. That doesn't foster a community spirit and as a result they'd usually die on their arses.

Anyone wondering about approaches I know to work:
Create 2 - 4 sections. One off topic and the others related to broad areas of the subject materials.

If a subject comes up multiple times then it's time to start thinking about creating a new area for that - otherwise the existing area will become the de facto right place for that, often at the expense of other discussions.

The other thing to bear in mind is which tool is right for the prospective audience.

I'm not a fan of Facebook. I never have been. I was a late adopter and I don't use it to share many of the traditional things. In fact I mostly use it for hobby communities and work. Like the medium or not there has never been a more active Gorkamorka community anywhere. At the time of writing there are more than 2300 members and it's rare for a day to go by without someone posting something.

Multiple forums have existed over the years, there's several Discord servers with Gorkamorka channels, there's a subreddit, and probably other things too. None of them see more than a few words exchanged per month. Some don't see that per year.

A fresh-faced young nerd of 17 asked me:

"have you ever considered making a gorkamorka specific discord?" 
...the other day and that's what got me started on this train of thought. At the time I asked him what that would accomplish and he didn't have an answer for me. I wasn't trying to be harsh, I was basing it on the fact that I run the Gorkamorka channel on the /r/Warhammer Discord server. There are over 3000 members on there. I've probably had less than ten proper conversations about Gorkamorka on there ever. I'm also on an Ork-specific Discord server. Fewer than five Gorkamorka conversations in its channel.

Each time one creates a new space for a subject there's some filtering. Uptake isn't perfect. Any time there's an opportunity for something to be a bit too much faff then a certain percentage of users will vanish.

As a result the hypothetical best tool for the job might be much better but unless the existing userbase is crying out for a move then it's rarely worth it. Even if it is then care must be taken in rolling out the new setup so as to encourage a bit of esprit de corps.

Incidentally my favourite use of Discord has been for programming assistance related to my Twine projects. It's a medium that works well for that sort of thing as its features are richer than IRC and the persistence of conversation means one doesn't need a client running the whole time to get some context.