Sunday, June 07, 2009

PuzzleTwist is now available!

My latest creation is now up on the iTunes App Store. It's called PuzzleTwist, and it's a puzzle game where you unscramble a picture by rotating the pieces.  As each piece is rotated into place, others will rotate as well - some in the same direction, some in the opposite direction. The key to solving the puzzle is to figure out what order to move the pieces in.

One unique feature is that the rules for each puzzle are different - some are simple, some are more complex. A few are so difficult that I can't solve them without looking at the solution.

Once you've solved a puzzle, you can save the resulting picture in the Photo Library on your iPhone, and then use it as the wallpaper image for the phone, or assign it to one of your contacts.

PuzzleTwist also keeps track of the best reported scores, so you can compare your scores versus the rest of the world.

If you're a puzzle fan, you should check it out. Here's the iTunes store link.

On a side note, this application was approved much faster than the previous applications I submitted. Perhaps the App Store review team is coming out from under their backlog.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The eyes have it - a tale of 3 vision problems

I'm recovering from a head cold today, so rather than try to do heavy programming work, I decided to write up a personal story that I've been thinking about lately, for a variety of reasons. 

As anyone who knows me personally can probably attest, I wear glasses and have pretty bad eyesight.  Not many of my friends, and probably not even all of my family, know that I have three distinct vision problems, only one of which is actually addressed by my glasses. I'm going to tell y'all about all three, more or less in the order that I found out about them, and the ways in which they've been treated.

Disclaimer: I'm not an eye doctor, nor an expert in human vision. This is all about what my experience has been. It's entirely likely that I'll make at least one glaring error in my use of some technical term. Feel free to correct me.

Chapter 1: Nearsightedness and Astigmatism
Okay, that probably looks like two different problems, but they're both refractive issues, and they're caused by misshapen eyeballs, and so are corrected easily with eyeglasses. If I remember correctly, I got my first pair of glasses in the 5th grade, when I was 10 years old or so. 

I was pretty astounded at the difference when I put them on - for the first time, I could see the leaves on trees as individual objects. I asked my eye doctor how bad my vision was compared to the 20/20 that's considered "normal" and got the unsatisfying response that the 20/x scale wasn't really a useful measure for people with strong nearsightedness. Since I can barely find the eyechart on the wall at 20 feet without my glasses, I can now understand where he was coming from.

There was some consternation amongst the various parties involved about how it is that I could have gone without glasses as long as I had without anybody noticing that I was blind as a bat. For whatever reason, there wasn't any mandatory screening for vision problems in my elementary school. I got screened for a number of other potential issues, amusingly including colorblindness, but nobody ever stuck an eye chart up on the wall and had me read it.

The biggest issue was probably a simple (dare I say child-like?) assumption on my part that everybody else saw things more or less the same way that I did. So, since I couldn't see the blackboard if I was sitting in the back row, I assumed that nobody else could, either. And if it was critical to the learning process for us to be able to read what the teacher was writing, the school would have arranged the classroom such that it was possible, right?

It probably didn't help that I was also a bit of a daydreamer and a slacker. I think that when I said I didn't know that we had homework due, my teachers and my Mom assumed that I just wasn't paying attention, when in reality, I might have simply not seen the homework assignment written on the board.

As I get older, and more and more of my friends have children, it's occurring to me that there might actually be something useful for other people to learn from my experiences. I think the lesson here is actually a pretty simple one. Parents, talk to your kids about what their sensory experiences are. If someone had at any point between age 2 and age 10 simply asked me whether or not I could see some distant object, or count the number of birds on a telephone wire, or even tacked up an eye chart on the wall and tested me, I might have gotten into glasses sooner.

Alright, so I got glasses at age 10, which helped a lot with being able to see what was written on the blackboard, probably made it a lot safer for me to ride my bicycle around, and generally greatly improved my quality of life. Problem solved, right? Not so much. It turns out that I had another problem, which went unnoticed for several more years, despite going to the eye doctor regularly.

Chapter 2: Strabismus, or the "turned" eye
My right eye has a tendency to turn outwards and upwards, away from whatever it is that I'm looking at. When I was younger, this happened involuntarily, and fairly frequently. These days, I can do it "at will" which is a pretty great way to weird people out if they haven't seen it before. It still tends to happen spontaneously when I'm tired, or when I'm drunk.

Since my left eye is (evidently) my dominant eye, the turning out of my right eye didn't cause me much difficulty, except in one critical visual skill - depth perception. As best as I can remember, I was hit in the face by a baseball or softball while trying to catch it at least a dozen times during my youth. I was also considered pretty "clumsy" in general by most of my friends. 

An interesting aside is that your brain actually uses a lot of other cues besides the convergence of your eyes to judge depth, so it's not exactly true that I didn't have any depth perception. It is true that I had really bad depth perception up close, which is where convergence counts the most - hence my spectacularly-bad performance in the whole "get the glove up in front of the ball before it hits you" task.

This particular quirk in my vision went for quite a while before being discovered. In fact, I think it wasn't noticed until I was examined by a new eye doctor for the first time. The doctor who examined me actually had an intern working with him at the time. When he discovered the eye turn, he called the intern in so he could see how it worked.

Having established that I had this eye problem, the question then became what to do about it. The treatment for this problem varies depending on the ultimate cause, but can include everything from eye exercises, to wearing an eye patch, to surgery. At the time, it was widely believed that any treatment for this condition was essentially useless after about age 10 or so. 

The only recommendation from the eye doctor was that they could put a "prism" correction in my eyeglass lenses, which would help reduce any eyestrain I felt from the misaligned eye. As it turned out, the prism correction didn't do very much, either positive or negative, for me, though it did help my eye appear to other people to be pointing in the right direction.

In the years since, I've met several people who've had the Strabismus surgery, mostly as young children, and overall the success rate doesn't seem to be particularly high. I opted not to have the surgery, and it's worked out pretty well for me. I'd say that if you (or your child) have Strabismus, and someone suggests surgery, you'd do well to get a second opinion, and/or try some of the other treatments, before going forward with the surgery.

Chapter 3: Amblyopia, or "lazy" eye
 It turns out that if you have Strabismus from an early age, and/or if your eyes have significant differences in their refractive power (which mine do), then you've got an excellent chance of developing Amblyopia, which is where your brain adapts to ignore the input from the defective eye.

I had always known that the vision in my right eye was considerably worse than in my left eye, even when I wore my glasses. I had assumed (there's that word again) that the difference had something to do with the difference in astigmatism and nearsightedness between the two eyes. While that was probably part of the cause, it wasn't the whole story.

It turns out that my brain had mostly adapted to not use my right eye, though I still had some amount of vision from it. My right eye provided some peripheral vision on that side, and was essentially ignored for everything else. 

An interesting consequence of this that I discovered sometime in my twenties, was that I actually couldn't read if I covered up my left eye. This was a very strange experience. I could see through my right eye fairly well, and there was an image with shapes on it that I knew I ought to be able to recognize, but I wasn't able to make sense of them, at all.

Chapter 4: What I did about it
It bugged me that my eye was pointing out into space like that, and it really freaked me out that I had one eye that really didn't work at all, so I decided to try to "fix" it. You'll recall that the eye doctor told me that there really wasn't much to be done about this since I was "too old". I figured that if it wasn't going to work, it wasn't likely to hurt to try some things.

And I also figured that you hear about people who suffer traumatic brain injuries of one sort or another, and need to spend years in therapy, while their brain works around the damage. By comparison, working around a mental block on my right eye should be easy, right?

I started working on getting my right eye to point in the right direction. Since I did this on my own, I wasn't following anybody else's accepted eye training program, I just did the things that made sense to me. 

I strengthened my eye muscles and stretched them by repeatedly moving my eyes back and forth to the very limits of their motion. Sometimes I'd go left to right, sometimes top to bottom, sometimes in circles one way or another. I did this for a few minutes at a time, working up to about 1/2 an hour or so. 

I did these self-invented exercises nearly every night for probably a year or so, before I started noticing an improvement. When I first started, it was relatively easy for me to over-strain my right eye by trying to force it to the limit of its motion. Let me tell you, a cramp in your eye muscles is no fun at all. I still have a couple of positions that my right eye really doesn't like to go into, but the range of motion is much improved.

Concurrent with the work on the eye muscles, I tried closing my left eye when I was performing various everyday tasks - watching TV, shopping, driving (not in heavy traffic!), or just walking around. Doing that was always very tiring, and a bit stressful. I tended to get headaches if I tried to do it for very long.

Sometime after I moved to California, I had a breakthrough - occasionally, I'd briefly get my eyes to align properly as I was going about my everyday business, and the whole world would suddenly snap into 3-D perspective. It was really disorienting the first couple of times it happened, but I soon enough got used to it. 

It's a little like those "magic eye" random-dot stereograms. At first, it takes a while to get the knack of getting your eyes to cross by the right amount. Then suddenly, you get it right, and the image jumps out at you. After that, it gets easier to do. Over the course of several more years, I gradually trained myself to keep my eyes pointed in the same place, such that it's now second-nature.

I did go through an irritating period where the convergence of my vision wasn't 100% correct, but I was starting to pick out more detail with my right eye. That caused some double vision and headaches, from time to time. These days, I only have double vision sometimes at night.

Chapter 5: Closing Thoughts
Well, this is already ridiculously long, so I guess I'll save some of the amusing anecdotes I was originally going to include in here for a follow-up post. Mostly I wanted to get the story down so the folks that have heard me wise-cracking about "now" being able to see in 3-D know what I've been talking about. 

I also hope that if someone with relatively mild Strabismus and/or  Amblyopia comes across this article, they'll be somewhat encouraged by my success in overcoming them, even after having a late start. Everybody's case is going to be different, but personally, I'm glad that I made the effort.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Release early, release often...

Six Apps In Six Months - or, Why Mark Can't Schedule
That was the plan, anyway - but I haven't been able to keep myself on track. It's really difficult to release something when you're the only engineer working on it. It's hard to resist the temptation to just keep polishing the thing, or try out some new ideas, until you're well and truly past your milestone. Ah, well.

Beta Test Now Open
In the interest of trying to keep the pipeline flowing, I've just released "The Picture Puzzle Game Without an Interesting Name" to a select group of Beta testers. Since I don't want anyone to miss out on the fun of seeing what you get when I'm forced to release something that I don't think is ready, I'll put a link here to Starchy Tuber's Secret Beta page, where you can sign up to Beta test my latest creation.

If you like puzzle games, or if you're just interested in seeing how the sausage is made, the Starchy Tuber Secret Beta program is the place to be!

I reserve the right to limit Beta signups to the first 100 applicants (ha! as if...).

Grr. I just found a typo on the Beta Sign Up instructions. I'll go fix that...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Easter Pictems - a marketing experiment

I'm trying an experiment. There's a free version of Pictems up on the App Store now, loaded with just the subset of items appropriate for Easter.

This version is called "Easter Pictems", appropriately enough, and you can get it here, if you're curious about Pictems, but didn't feel like ponying up the $2.99 to find out whether you liked it.

I'm hoping that folks will download the free version and like it enough to upgrade to the full version. This seems to be a common tactic among developers on the App Store. Of course, people have to find out about your free app if it's to be of any value as a marketing tool. I'll update this post if anything dramatic happens with sales.

In related news, product #2 is coming along nicely. It's a puzzle game, along the lines of the sliding-squares puzzles you might be familiar with, but with a twist (literally, in this case). For this game, the idea of Free and Pay versions makes a lot of sense, so I'm going to release both at the same time. Here's a preview of the (as yet unnamed) puzzle game:

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Obsolescence is a pain in the neck...

I'm trying to clean out some of the unused/unloved technology around the house. An interesting case that I'm currently working on is Yvette's old laptop. She used this thing back in her college days, and it'd be nice to be able to get the data off it (for nostalgic purposes), then send it to the great computer graveyard.

It's an approximately 20-year old NEC DOS-based laptop, with a black-and-white LCD screen, and a massive 20 MB hard drive. It boots and seems to run just fine, a bit of a miracle in itself, but I haven't yet figured out how to get the data off of it.

You'd think that it'd be relatively easy to copy the data off this thing, but:

1. Accessing the floppy drive causes the computer to reboot.

2. Neither the serial port nor the modem are recognized by the communications software installed on the thing, so I can't transfer data that way.

3. This computer is old enough that those (and the printer port) are only external I/O ports - there's no USB, no network port, and no wireless network ability.

I took the thing apart, and discovered that the hard drive in it is actually an IDE drive. Wow - that's almost a current-generation drive technology. I figured I could just get an adapter, and connect the old hard drive directly to a new system. Piece of cake, right? I've already got a Firewire-to-IDE external drive case, so it ought to be just a matter of hooking things up.

Not so fast. They do make a 44-pin to 40 pin adaptor just for connecting laptop 40-pin drives to an IDE connector, and I can connect that adapter to my Firewire-to-IDE external drive enclosure, and the drive spins up on power-up and everything. However, it isn't recognized properly. Apparently the firewire-IDE adapter doesn't work correctly with this drive. If I had to take a guess, I'd guess that the adapter doesn't support IDE drives which don't do DMA transfers.

It's a bit frustrating to have a drive that I know is readable, and have no way to get the data off of it. I'll probably try another IDE bridge and see if it works with this drive, but if that's a bust, I may be in the market for an OLD PC that I can connect the drive to, copy the data off of it, and then recycle.

There may be a trip to Weird Stuff Warehouse in my near future...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Grr. Blogger hates me.

It won't even scale images correctly if I use the "upload image" tool. Oh, well. click the image to see the full comic...

A New Kind of Science meets XKCD

400 pages down, 450 to go. Here's my impression so far, with a little help from xkcd:

Conspiracy Theories

String Theory

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A New Kind Of Science

I'm currently struggling my way through Stephen Wolfram's book A New Kind Of Science. So far, I've made it to about page 200 or so (of 850, not including almost 350 pages of end-notes). I'm not going to review it until (unless?) I've gotten to the end, but so far, I'm not very impressed. This book is really frustrating to read.

For starters, the title of the book ends up getting repeated over and over in the text. It's fairly common when writing about new phenomena or new ideas to assign names to them, for purposes of shorthand if nothing else. But no - phrases like "a new kind of science", or "the new kind of science I've discovered", or "the new kind of science described in this book" appear over and over in the first few chapters. This is really hard to read, and gives the impression of really trying to "sell" the idea that there's some kind of radical new idea here, which, 1/4 of the way in, there is so far no sign of.

It's also really hard to read a book where the author seems to be taking personal credit for well-known results in computer science, without so much as a reference to the work other people have done in the area. There are some references in the end-notes, but the main text doesn't seem to make any kind of distinction between what's new, and what's well-known or borrowed. For someone who isn't familiar with the field, it'd be easy to get the impression that Wolfram invented everything here.

I expected that this book would be fascinating. I've been interested in Cellular Automata since the 80's, and some of the things people have been able to do with the Game Of Life, or the Wireworld CA are pretty amazing. So far, though, there's been a lot of build up for the "big discovery", and some fairly rough-shod introduction to CA theory, but I feel like I'm not making much progress towards any kind of goal.

Yesterday, in an attempt to see whether it's just me that's having a problem with this book, I did a search for reviews of the book. The results were not encouraging.

I'd really like to hear from anybody who has made it all the way through this book. In particular, I'd like to know if I should just skip ahead to the grand conclusion, or slog through the rest of the text.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Well, I'm getting better...

I updated my Blogger layout to the "new and improved" form of the old layout. I'm not sure how "improved" it is, but I ended up with a hierarchical archive, which makes it really easy to see how many blog posts I've had in any given month or year, over the history of the blog.

As I start my 4th year of blogging, I can see that the trend looks like this:
2005: 3 posts
2006: 12 posts
2007: 14 posts
2008: 25 posts

Last year was the first year that I managed to post at least one blog post a month. That's nowhere near where I thought I wanted to be, but at least I'm getting better at consistently writing. I think the writing has gotten easier for me, as well. I suspect that the quality hasn't gone up much (if at all), but I've effectively trained myself not to edit my posts to death, and I'm no longer taking months to get one paragraph just right for publishing.

So it's a qualified success. Onward and upward!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

This week's iPhone SDK sob story

I have ranted about this before, I know, but I'm a little irritated. Every single time I update the iPhone tools, I run into some crazy issue building code that worked just fine on a previous version.

This week, after digging my office out from under all the mess from moving to a new house, I revisited one of my older projects (yes, Pictems is finally getting an update!). And I ran into not one, but two of these issues. That's not counting the usual Code Signing errors, which I don't even pay attention to - I just click randomly on the Code Signing options until they go away.

(For my friends on the XCode team: Yes, I will file bugs on these issues, once I figure out what's going on. This is not a bug report)

Issue #1: During some early experimentation, I had set the "Navigation Bar Hidden" property on one of my Nib files. It didn't seem to do what I wanted, but I didn't bother to change it back. At some point, a change was made such that it now works. Great, but apparently the change was actually made in one of the iPhone tools, so even if I build my old project, with the SDK set to 2.0, I still get the new behavior. Easy to fix, but it's weird to have to change my "archived" version of my source so it builds correctly with the current version of XCode. If I build my old project against the old SDK, I'd expect to get the old behavior.

Issue #2: One of my resource files has a $ character in the name. One of the XCode copy scripts apparently changed such that it's not escaping the filename correctly, so now the resource doesn't get copied. Amusingly, no error message results - the file just ain't there. Yes, it's dubious to name a file with a $ in the name. But, again, it used to work just fine.

Oh, well. In the bigger scheme of things, I still prefer XCode/iPhone to Eclipse/Android...