Hedders' Ramblings

Gaming, home tech, politics, music, whatever really

The Next is here!

My Spectrum Next arrived a couple of Fridays ago and since then I have spent most of my time not devoted to work or child-wrangling fiddling with the thing. These are my initial thoughts on it.

The hardware

It’s a well-made, solid and stylish machine

The machine is surprisingly small, about the same size as the original Spectrum+, and surprisingly heavy. The case is very solid and has a premium feel to it.

The keyboard is, honestly, witchcraft; somehow the Next team have contrived to create a keyboard that feels like a Spectrum keyboard would feel if Spectrum keyboards weren’t dreadful. Which seems like an odd thing to say. What I mean is that it retains that “Speccy” feel, but is actually pleasant to type on.

A few nits – and they really are minor. The SD card slot doesn’t have a push-to-eject mechanism, and the cutaway which allows you to get your fingers onto the card to pull it out is too small, at least for my sausage fingers, to get a decent purchase on it. Half the time I end up pulling the microSD card out of the SD adapter, leaving the adapter in the Next. An SD reader with a push-to-eject mechanism would be a good improvement for a revision 2.

Secondly, I would have liked a power switch, although this is just personal preference and I do acknowledge that not having one is more authentically Sinclair. Again, perhaps for a revision 2 the team could include an in-line power switch in the box with the PSU, which people can use or not as they choose. For now, you can easily get one for a few quid here.

The manual

Yes, it comes with a full ring-bound printed manual running to hundreds of pages and explaining in complete detail pretty much everything about the machine, from how to turn it on through to memory maps, interrupts, system calls … you name it.

The manual is largely the work of one man, Phoebus Dokos, and its creation must have been a Herculean task. Actually using the paper version is rather difficult because there is no index, but there is also a PDF which is of course fully searchable, and so the paper manual is really more of a nice artefact to have rather than a day-to-day reference.

Speaking of paper, I did notice that the manual is printed on very thin paper, which together with the ring binding makes it feel fragile. This isn’t a massive issue for me as I use the PDF for looking things up, and anyway I understand that there will be an option at some point to buy a premium, full-colour manual.

Finally, Sinclair manuals have a fine tradition of gorgeous sci-fi cover art and the Next manual carries on that tradition. For those who haven’t yet seen it I won’t spoil it, but it is beautiful and very much in keeping.

Software

Pulling it all together is the software side of things. NextZXOS feels snappy and lets you get to what you want quickly and without fuss.

The distribution comes with an absolute ton of demos, example programs and even a few full games, both classic Speccy titles and new titles taking advantage of all the extra things the Next can do. There is already a small software library for the Next, including games from the likes of Rusty Pixels (this site is a useful index of what’s out there and what’s coming) and even a full music production suite. Obviously the user base is still fairly small, but it’s growing as the Next team get more machines out the door, will grow more with the planned second Kickstarter, and there is very much a small but vibrant scene growing up around the machine.

I for one can’t wait to see what’s, er, next for the Next.

Pratdog

I love my little dog very, very much. He’s friendly and fluffy and he likes nothing better than cuddling up on the sofa.

But then there’s stuff like this:

Basically he’s a rescue, we got him as an adult, and he’s not at all food-motivated, so training recall into him is almost a complete non-starter. Spot the moment when we ran into the herd of deer.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

My daft old country is leaving the EU in just over an hour’s time. Nobody really seems to be able to explain why, or what doing so is supposed to achieve.

I’m furious, obviously. Being European is my birthright, and that of my children, and it has been taken away by a bunch of grotty little spivs with a few slogans, a lot of Jingoism and not much else.

History will judge the cretins who voted for this. They have done enormous, and possibly irreparable, harm.

We’re supposed to “get over it”, apparently. I will not. Every single person who campaigned for Brexit, and every single person who voted for Brexit, is culpable. They have harmed me and mine, and they take pride in it. I see no reason why they should be forgiven.

Running my own email server in 2019

When I get drunk, I have a habit of doing very silly or ill-advised things. So it was that I came home from my office party half-cut, and decided to get my own email server.

Now, I’m not starting from zero here. Before I was a lawyer I was an IT guy. I know how email works. But I’ve not actually run a mail server for the thick end of 15 years. I suspected things might have changed a bit.

Boy, have they changed. In my day, you pretty much set up the MX and PTR records, spun up your MTA, opened up port 25 and went about your day.

These days? It’s all about getting receiving servers to trust your domain and your box. I’ve had to learn about SPF, DKIM and DMARC. I’ve had to set special DNS records so that GMail will accept my messages. I’ve had to carefully and deliberately get my IP and domains off blacklists, and keep them that way. It’s been a real adventure.

Fortunately, the actual business of installing a mail server has got wildly easier over the intervening decades, thanks to the miracle of docker and a wonderful project called Mailcow. Once I had my DNS set up right, installing Mailcow was literally about 4 commands. For that, I get mail, calendar, contacts, easy domain routing, activesync, rspamd, clamav … the works.

I’m not using a residential IP, of course. I’ve spun up a Digital Ocean droplet to run all this. And slowly, I’m getting trusted by other servers.

It’s interesting to be learning again.

Shenmue 3

Shenmue 3 – image from official website, belongs to YS Net

Know what this game reminds me of? “Second Coming” by The Stone Roses. You wait ages for it to drop, and then … it’s good, it really is, but it also sort of struggles under its own weight.

For one thing, Yu Suzuki has almost wilfully ignored everything that has happened in the last 20 years of game development. Shenmue 3 is a Shenmue game, which means that it is completely a noughties game. The controls are deeply weird, the pacing is slow, the dialog stilted. It’s … Shenmue, basically. It’s like GTA, The Witcher and Red Dead never happened.

Visually, it is very very lovely. What Yu Suzuki and team have captured, magnificently, is a sort of idealised pastoral of rural China in the 80s, with saturated colours and glow turned up to max. It has a sort of dream-like quality. Combine that with the music, which is as sweeping and beautiful as ever, and you have a game which – while painfully slow at times – is never less than epic.

Does it still stand up as a game in 2019? Hmm. Not really, if I’m honest. I mean, I’m a total Sega fanboy, and I played and loved the first two Shenmue games on the Dreamcast. But you can’t pretend that the last two decades haven’t happened, and Shenmue 3 just doesn’t have the “wow” factor that it had back in 1999, and which made us overlook so much of the clunkiness in the game mechanics.

Still, for all that, it’s undeniably good to hang out with Ryo Hazuki again. Now, does anyone know where I can find sailors?

Ghosteen

Some time towards 11pm, I was the last one awake in the house and more than several beers down, and it seemed a good idea to sit down and properly listen to “Ghosteen”, the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record.

In terms of my appreciation of one of my very favourite recording artists and songwriters, it was an excellent idea. In terms of my own emotional equilibrium, it was an appalling one.

See, Ghosteen is the first thing Nick Cave has written since he lost his son. And, well, it’s a grieving record. And a healing record. And … I don’t know … there’s something about it which has just got under my skin in a way that nothing has since … well, since I don’t know when.

Maybe it’s the ethereal production, or the sparse arrangements, or the way the mix shoves Old Nick’s voice right up front and centre, or the fact that the words that he’s singing are simultaneously both marvellously crafted and precise and just heartbreaking beyond measure. I don’t know. But this is a record that stays with you.

Go buy it. Just, y’know, clear some headspace first. You’re going to need it.

Recording PC audio to MiniDisc – digitally

Having acquired not one but two MiniDisc players (the first one I bought turned out not to be a recorder – probably why it was so cheap) and a bunch of MiniDiscs, the next job was to work out how to actually get some music onto the ruddy things.

I had assumed that my HiFi would have a S/PDIF optical out, and that I would be able to record MiniDiscs from there like one did back in the day. I assumed wrong. They’re both optical ins; it can’t output digitally.

Bugger.

I could record from an analogue signal, but I really wanted to keep it digital rather than lose quality by going through multiple conversions.

So I turned to my PC. Now, normally I get audio out of my PC using this glorious little USB DAC, which sounds wonderful and which I highly recommend for a real upgrade over built-in PC audio, but – by its very nature – it outputs analogue audio. No dice.

After a bit of research, I happened upon the Behringer UCA222 USB audio interface, which (amongst quite a few other things) can output direct to S/PDIF via toslink.

I’ve had to muck about with the recording levels on my MiniDisc recorder a fair bit (digital distortion is not a nice sound) but this seems to be a good solution: I can play a CD or a FLAC playlist on my PC, tell the playback software to output to the Behringer, and then hook the Behringer up to the optical in on my MiniDisc recorder. Hit record, hit play, wait a while. The Behringer allows you to use headphones to monitor, and you can switch between monitoring input and output so you can check levels etc.

So, yeah. I can now listen to music on a thoroughly obsolete technology. Because reasons.

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