Setting up an RetroPie

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I've failed to blog about one of my more geeky things I've done in the past year – setup a RetroPie. Note that it's not Retro/Pi/ because you can install it on more things than a RasberryPi… though that is exactly what I did.

For the 2016-17 school year, my daughter had a big science fair project, she wanted to do something with programming and her and I talked about different RaspberryPi projects. She picked one and did very well with it on the school and metro levels. All that is besides the point but the fact that we had a Raspberry Pi 3 laying around the house in the fall of 2017. It has a case, and HDMI I started looking at what I could do with it. After some research I figure out a RetroPie system would be a fun thing -for me- for my kids to have.

Setting it up honestly is pretty easy if you do the pre-made images. I tried installing it over a pre-made Raspbian install but kept running out of room… which is important when you start putting ROMs on there. I got the image on an SD card and installation went pretty easy. I won't get into procuring your own ROMs… that exercise is up to the reader. Some of the emulators for the new systems do tax the Pi a bit, but things like Sega Genesis and NES are no problem. Even PS1 is fine, though I never have taken the time to figure out how to do multi-CD games with it.

I found it handy to have a wireless keyboard on my Pi during setup and hanging around in case I need it. I bought a cheap Logitech keyboard with a dongle I just keep in one of the Pi's USB slot. Works nice.. but now that my Pi is setup I rarely use it.

For controllers, I tried a cheaper Bluetooth game controller but I never could get it to work right. Save yourself some trouble and get a use PS3 controller. It worked fine after I paired it. It's also well-supported on the RetroPie platform so kinda makes this a no-brainer. I got mine used, which saved me some money but didn't come with a cord, which is a mini USB cord (not a micro, which works in most Android phones). Also, keep it plugged into your Pi when not playing to keep it charged. I didn't do that and recently couldn't figure out why it didn't charge until I plugged into my Mac. It seems to need data to charge. Apparently an XBox 360 controller works very well too. They may be cheaper.

The RetroPie system itself kinda odd and it's hard to discern what does what. It's not really one thing but a system of pre-existing applications: front-ends, emulators and things that go in-between. These application are already configured to work together in harmony. You can tweak things to your hearts content as well. These things are:

  • EmulationStation is the front-end interface. It's the fancy menu system that use you to choose your game. It also has menus to get into controller settings, etc.
  • RetroArch is the program that knows what emulator to use to run your ROMs and starts the appropriate one. Sometimes there are more than one valid emulator and RetroArch will pick the default one. You can easily change the default, or set the best emulator for that particular game. It also is where you do to save and load stat of the ROM. You know, so you can quickly save your place on that really hard game and so you can go back when you die. I interface with RetroArch by hitting the PS button on my controller.
  • The emulators. I let RetroArch handle all of this. There are a lot of them, but really RetroArch does the work.

When you start a game, EmulationStation calls RetroArch and RetroArch does it's thing. When you quit playing (for me, PS2 button, push B, Quit) then RetroArch will also quit and EmulationStation will appear on the screen. All this is pretty painless but it's important because when you go to the forums if you have problems, you will see them talk about each individual component.

Another interesting thing that RetroPie includes is a Samba share. This makes transferring ROMs from where you, er, get them to the Pi as easy and copy and paste over the share. But, as I said above, knowing a bit about the emulators is a good idea because you have to know what ROM goes in what folder.

Excuse me while I continue to free my kingdom from the hordes of Runefast.

Category: tech

Review "Mastering Emacs"

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I've been trying to improve my emacs-fu for the past while. It was probably 18 months ago I declared bankruptcy on my duct-tape and bailing wire Emacs config and started fresh with Projectile and haven't regretted it for a second. I started reading the Emacs Reddit, which introduced me to Magit and OrgMode. Magit was hard for me to start and now it's become my preferred way to interface with git. OrgMode was even a shorter transition… I'm not running my entire life with OrgMode but I do use it for notes and my personal knowledge base.

But my fu stalled. I had a hump that I couldn't get over. I started to look if there was a current deep-dive book in the wondrous world of Emacs and I found one – Mastering Emacs by Mickey Petersen. It seemed to be the book that I needed but the thoughts on Reddit were mixed. Lots liked it but others pointed out that you could find most of it on the Internet or through the Emacs help. It was good for beginners but not for experienced users. I decided to give it a shot. And I'm glad I did.

I am a self-taught Emacs user. I glossed over things at the beginning of my Emacs venture that I didn't understand and never went back. I didn't know that then, but I know that now. Mastering Emacs is the first tech book in a long time I've read cover-to-cover, taking notes and making bookmarks as I've went. I've referred back to it many times in trying to get more helpful commands in my daily workflow. I gleaned a lot and – ironically – the biggest point Petersen makes is that Emacs is self-documenting. You can search the help with Emacs any time and it will actually be helpful. That, he claims, is the most important thing to mastering Emacs. I have to re-learn and re-orient myself to that idea… but I'm slowly getting there.

That said, there are things the Petersen talked about in depth that I never knew (or understood) before. Things from the book that I now use are:

  • Occur Mode – basically search on steroids. And then edit said lines.
  • killing by s-expression (C-M-k)
  • browsing the kill ring (M-y)
  • The above is made easier/better by Helm (which I thought I was using but was not)

Learning those four things would be enough.. but Petersen also gives a great guide to Eshell (available on his site) as well ad Dired, and other goodies. But, overall, his idea is that you should be able to learn about Emacs through the help documentation. Type C-h and behold what you can find out about.

If you are an Emacs power user that knows about these things, then I don't recommend it. If you are an "normal" Emacs user then I really, really think you should. It's worth every penny.

Category: tech

Confessions of an Online Paranoid

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I spend a lot of my day online. Searching for solutions for projects, restaurants, advice, etc. Online forums, restaurant review sites, and many other places … my browser history is big every day. Sometimes I get a little disturbed by how often my searches show up in ads showing to me – not just in GMail but Facebook, etc.

I know I'm not the only one that is concerned. This post describes all the steps I took. This post is filled with things I have done. The timeframe is about a year and a half.

Rid myself of social media apps

I deleted my Twitter and Facebook app off my mobile devices and only access them via browser. That way I feel I have more control wiht permission on my device.

Multiple (and alternative) browsers

This is something I did before with limited success but doing it now seems to be better. I use Chrome for GMail and social media (Twitter, FB, etc) and do my daily browsing in Opera for everything else. Yes, I'm That Guy That Uses Opera. Actually Opera is basically Chrome with smaller memory and with built-in ad blocking. I find Opera really, really fast. And it can use Chrome extentions with no problem. So, yeah, I use Opera for all my searching and day-to-day work. And it's lovely.

And I do this both on my desktop and mobile. So, yes, I use Opera on my phone as well. Actually their mobile browser is what I used first. Anyway this is not a commercial for Opera – it's just what I use.

I should also point out that Opera owns/is ran by an ad company . But I trust Norway with my data more than I do US Entities. Go figure.

Privacy Badger

Now I felt pretty secure online but I kept reading about online fingerprinting… that even thought you were blocking ads, that advertising and bad people (which not all advertisers are) can finger print your browser characteristics and figure out who you are without sessions or cookies. While it is not full-proof, Privacy Badger does a good job of not only keeping the tracking toxins out of your browser make it look generic enough that you aren't tracked. It learns as you surf. So maybe it's not great on Day 1, but Day 3 gets a lot better.

You can test your own browser at EFF's Panopticlick . I dare ya.

Switching Search Engines

I like Google. It works better than anything else. But is it worth the cost? I decided to do an experiment and set my default search to DuckDuckGo and, if it didn't get an good answer (especially on my particularly thorny technical questions) I would then Google it. And you know – DuckDuckGo wasn't just merely adequate, in many situation I like it better.

DDG is smarter about showing you results. So if you do a search where a video may be the best answer, it automatically takes you to the videos. If you search for a something that has an answer in say, StackOverflow, it will show you the accepted answer on the top, as all as listing other results. Saves you a click. Features, not more results, is an important distinction.

Oh and their ideas about privacy are great too.

Therein lies my journey and my current status. Pardon me while I get a new tinfoil hat – I've worn this for over 2 hours.

Category: misc

Notes During a Fast from Facebook

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As I write this I'm in the middle of a break from Facebook. At this point, there is little reason for me to ever get back.

First – I'm not sure it's public knowledge that there is a way to simply disable your account on FB. You sorta disappear…. people can't tag you, find your profile, see your photos, etc. but if you log back in everything will be back. At one point it was only for two weeks but now (as I read it) the account is disabled until you want it enabled again.

My wife, Gina, has done this a few times and I've tried to simply stay off of it. But I felt like I was failing since sometime this fall. I didn't interact with people, nor post much but I was always looking. Gina has just finished one of her Facebook breaks when I listened to this episode of Note to Self which talked about FB (and social media in general) and how it effects your mind. Once you free it up, you can get more done. And, honestly, I'm all for it.

I had more or less given up on all social media but Facebook. I do Instagram a bit (I might check once a day) and post to Twitter (but rarely read it). But Facebook … it was easy to get sucked in. It was kinda, "Well I have a few minutes so I'll see what's happening" and 15-20 minutes go by. Or I spend a lot of time on it while sitting on the couch in the evening (with no real posts happening). This was ridiculous. So I disabled my account just to see what happens.

And, honestly, it's been pretty great. My original two weeks got extended to April (after Easter) but now I'm thinking…. well, a whole lot longer. I'm trying hard to not saw "never" so I won't. But I want to.

The biggest change is that I've dived into things I've thought about being "nice to haves" but never did it until lately. For example:

  • Using macOS's virtual desktop (which used to be called Spaces but now is called Desktops and it's integrated in Mission Control, which is something I've always ignored)
  • When I loaded up a project in Emacs via Projectile it was sometimes really slow. After a little searching I found that I'm not the only one with that problem.
  • wrote another blog post for the company blog.
  • actually played some board games

Here are things I discovered or re-discovered:

  • Blogs are still a thing. Feedly is my new best friend. I feel more informed.
  • Tweaked some keyboard shortcuts via BetterTouchTool. Now I can put a window in another desktop via Control-Option-<arrow>. There is much to be done with BetterTouchTool
  • actually using the before-mentioned Projectile in a better way.
  • Email newsletters are still a thing… perhaps a growing thing in a niche way. I've been enjoying The Hustle and Noticing. (Yes the former is an affiliate link but I get no money from).
  • Reading a lot more.. a lot more. Not just blogs but books too. Brandon Sanderson has become one of my new favorite authors.

The funny thing is – I've been so busy exploring that I haven't finished this blog post. Three weeks have went by since I first wrote this… and I've never looked at Facebook.

Category: misc

May 2017 Media Diet

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I think it's cool when Jason Kottke does it so why not do it too?

  • Guardians of the Galaxy (the first one) – My daughter was recently sick on a Sunday and we watched this together. It was my third time and her first. It really holds up well. Still my favorite Marvel movie (A+)
  • Watership Down – a friend recommended this book to me in eighth grade. I read it at least twice before I graduated high school, once more in college, and I think one more time just after college. It has been about (cough) 20 years since the last time, so I picked it up and read it again. Still one of my favorite books. (A+)
  • As Wild As We Came Here by The Steel Wheels – I'm a big Steel Wheels fan and I was excited for new music. This albums is very different – less harmonies, less roots music… I'd even argue that there is a rock song on it. But it's growing on me. (B)
  • Dungeons of Chaos – an old-school type RPG for Android/iOS that reminds me of the Ultima-days. If you obsess about building a party, leveling up characters, different weapons, and killing monsters in a dungeon, then this is for you. I played the heck out of this and finally have a party close to the end, and I'm already thinking about making another party and starting over. (A+)
  • Everybody's Fool – I wanted to read Nobody's Fool again but then I noted that Richard Russo came out with a sequel last year so I had to get it. The further adventures of Sully and events in North Bath. Not sure it was as good as the previous book but not many are (A-)
  • The Office – my wife and I are re-watching the US version of The Office (which we also watched on Netflix). One of the things we sorta missed last time was how amazingly funny and creepy Creed is. I mean, we knew it but this time we notice it more. And Jim and Pam are the best TV couple ever. (A)
  • Five Man Accoustical Jam by Tesla – another blast from my high school days. These guys are amazing musicians and the album holds up well. If released today, it would have a Parental Warning on it. There is a rumor that this album and it's success lead to MTV Unplugged. (A)
  • The Giver and Gathering Blue – the first half of The Giver Quartet from Lois Lowery. The former is quite good at showing a utopian world that is really dystopian. The second… not sure about. It's a good show of a total dystopian society but it feels like a first chapter. And the latter seemingly has nothing to with the first book but apparently they are tied together in the next book. Also, the pages seem to end when the story finally gets warmed up (A and B-).
  • Jaipur – toward the end of the month, one of the board games I've always want to play came out with an app. I can't compare it to the normal game, but the app is very well done (as most of Asmodee's apps are). I really like the campaign mode even though it hands my butt to me. (A)
Category: media

Managing a Mountain of Music

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A few months ago I was going through various backups and online file storage places I have (and they seem legion) and noted that I had music files everywhere. Some dated back to my late days of college (just before Napster was a thing) up to much more recent downloads from Noisetrade, which has become my usual source of music. In between was some iTunes and Amazon music as well. Of course, not all of it was unique – lots of my newer stuff was backed-up in several places. A few years ago, I once had this idea that I would put a bunch of music on a server and then sftp down what I wanted to listen to, when I wanted to listen to it. That never happened but it seemed at least half of my collection was there. But I wasn't sure that all of it was repeated. To top this off – I really wanted this music in a usable form. I have never really joined the Spotify/Pandora bandwagon (one of my favorite artists talked about this a few years ago and colored my opinion on streaming services).

Organizing

I did a bit of web searching and I found some software named Beets. It's command line and nerdy but it seemed to do exactly what I wanted to do. Beets works better if you have a known music repository but I didn't have that, so I started with a blank directory on an external drive I had laying around. And then I started the long import process.

It took a long time… when I first started, I mounted my remote systems via Fuse but Beets import process was extremely slow this way. So I started downloading bits and pieces of my collection locally and ran beet import each time. And, yes, I did it interactively – having it ask about duplicates and album names and so on. At this time, I was fortunate be working at home at least half the time, so I did this work during scrums and other pointless meetings that were going on (and there were many). I added more files overnight, and then fired up beet import just before the meeting started, and then tag away. I got more confident with Beet finding duplicates. This took about a week of work but worth doing.

At the end, I had 31GB of music in over 6,000 files. Did Beets find all the duplicates? No, but it found most of them. I think the ones I had left were from my confusion to the interface or (more probably) my unwillingness to lose any files so I always chose the Keep Both option. Did Beets tag all my files? No, but some of my stuff isn't in MusicBrainz so that isn't a big deal. Overall, Beets gave me at least 80% of what I needed. And that was plenty for me.

Actually Listening To It

Now that I have it – how can I listen to it? I did some thinking and digging and suddenly remembered what that little slot on my MacBook Pro is. A bit of shopping helped me realize how cheap MicroSDs have gotten. So I got a 128GB MicroSD card and it came with an SD adapter. Perfect! I had plenty of room on it for my music (even if it grew a lot) and also room for my rather large ebook collection. I can pop the SD card into my MBP and then once a week make sure it's backed up via rsync to drive at home. I also got another MicroSD card to put all my ebooks and music on my Android tablet. Now I have everything with me.

So how am I going to listen to it? On my tablet I use PowerAmp and on my MBP I use Nightingale. Nope, iTunes does not cut it for me. Here is an old LifeHacker article on SmartLists that more or less works in Nightingale. Storage is so cheap that got a thumb drive that I copied all my music to and put it in the USB slot in the car to listen to on car trips.

Managing all this

Now that I have my music nice and organized, I can't just download my next find from Noisetrade and put it on my SD card. I put a Beet config.yml on the SD Card that points to the music folder on that card. Now when I download music, I do the following:

  1. Unzip to it's own folder
  2. Run beet -c /Volumes/sdcard/beet/config/config.yaml import ~/Downloads/music_folder
  3. Answer Beets questions (chances are they aren't tagged correctly)
  4. Profit

Nightingale will automatically find the new files (even if it's still running) and I can find it using the built-in "Recently Added" SmartList. Then the files are put on my backup drive the next time I run the script.

Todos

  • Better way to get music from my card/backup to my tablet.
  • Make the backup of the card run automatically.
  • Share playlists between Poweramp and Nightingale.
Category: misc

Reading on Android

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I teased that I've been reading more on my Android tablet than playing board game apps, to my absolute surprise. I'm here to talk about my setup and maybe it will help someone out.

I'm using Moon+ Reader Pro. Yes the commercial version. It's worth it for the PDF files alone but these devs needs to be supported for their efforts. With a few tweaks, I don't miss my Kindle E-Reader at all. But it does take some tweaks.

I used this Reddit post to make the text look better. I like this setup – it suites me just fine. Syncing is also easy – you just use Dropbox. I'd like to have an open for WebDAV but for this, I'll take Dropbox. Once you set this up, it just works. If you scroll up a bit there, it will tell how to get books from your Calibre install, which is what I use to manage my ebook collection (using Calibre is worth at least a post in itself). And it has a built-in dictionary, similar to what a Kindle has. You have to set it up, but once you try to look up a word via long-press, it will step you through the process.

Of course, Moon+ Reader doesn't do DRM books like from Amazon, which is fine because most of my books come from Humble Bundle anyway. DRM free for the win!

What I really like about Moon+ Reader:

  • reads PDF(pro), Mobi, EPub, cbz, cbr files
  • displays battery life and time without getting in the way
  • tells you how many pages until the end of the current chapter (again, without getting in the way)
  • All my books look the same – have the same font type and size, margins, paragraph indents, etc. This always bugged me on Kindle.

In my two and a half months with my tablet, I've read three books on Moon+ Reader and I'm just completely happy with it.

Category: Android

New Printer

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We had to get a new printer this week. I was able to get it to talk and print from not one, not two, but three different devices in my house on the first try. Either printing is getting better or easier, or the anti-printing coalition forces aren't working against me as they usually are.

Category: quickie

My New Android Tablet

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Over the years I've had a lot of cheap Android tablets. I started with a Hisense Sero Pro 7, which was actually a good tablet until it decided to stop charging. I then started using my daughter's old (and no longer used by her Nexus 7), which also stopped charging not long after I started using it. And then I got a 2nd gen Kindle Fire. Which actually is still working but it's old hardware and it doesn't even run the latest Fire OS. If you can get a modern app on it, the tablet has to work so hard that the battery drains very quickly.

So for Christmas I bought my wife an iPad and myself a more top-of-the-line Android tablet – a Samsung Galaxy Tab S2. It has a seemingly square screen but that doesn't bug me like I thought it would. The screen is very clear, and the colors are crisp. The tablet is understandably snappy. The battery life is amazing (and as of yet hasn't caught fire. ☺). And it has a lack of cruft on it – Microsoft Office apps and a news app. That's about it.

As an experiment, I haven't put anything work-related on it. I have one Google Account, but not my work one and have not configure my personal email account on there either. And no Slack, no social media apps. Not even a streaming app. It's mainly for "consuming" – lots of board game apps and reading (Feedly, Instapaper, etc). Surprisingly I've been doing the most is reading books, thanks to the excellent Moon+ Reader Pro app. That deserves it's own blog post.

It's been nice having a device that does what you want and it not always trying to get your attention with notifications.

Category: Android

Changes

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I wanted to do some changes around here and then got caught. I wanted to blog more but I didn't want to support any of the old blog. So i ripped the band-aid off, grabbed very few recent posts and then left 12 years of blog posts over there.

So I'll change some things around here but this is will help me blog more often. I hope.

Category: misc

© Mike Hostetler 2016

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