Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Open Source Library for Extracting Schedule Data from Digital TV ATSCgh

I decided to release as open source (MIT license) my collection of Objective-C classes that can parse out the schedule information from ATSC broadcasts. These are just the classes for that narrow purpose and anyone using them will have to make their own TV tuner class to interface with the actual hardware. So, there isn't even an Xcode project included.

If 2 people can actually use this code I will be happily surprised. Regardless, here it is on Github.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Goodbye to a Colleague

Yesterday, my former coworker Alan Gorman died of cancer at 51.

Alan and I were hired a month apart at the then CambridgeSoft to work on ChemDraw. He was the PC guy, and I was the Mac guy. For 7 years, we'd chat over cube walls or sat back to back. I've been in more meetings and exchanged more Emails and had more, cordial, arguments with Alan than any other human being. 

Given the stress of keeping ChemDraw's old codebase moving thus paying the salaries of 150 CambridgeSoft employees, plus my own ego and snippiness, it is remarkable that we got along. He was an amazingly dogged debugger, and would follow the trail of a bug for days. It was to him that new document features were assigned, so if you are a chemist who makes use of the Stoichiometry Grid, or need to do an R-group analysis, or if you are a biologist composing biopolymers, thank him.

He was better suited for management, and much more organized, than I, so to him fell the horrible task of eking out productivity from our outsource developers. I certainly didn't envy him that but he took the burden with characteristic stoicism and, mostly, contained temper.

Being the Mac programmer, I fancied myself an artist of sorts, but it was Alan who shamed me with his constant flow of lovely vectored templates for BioDraw such as this one displaying the organelles of an animal's cell.

While commuting by train, he'd draw these out with ChemDraw's own spline tools, making him the absolute master of using ChemDraw to draw. Who knows into how many PowerPoint presentations Alan's bright and joyous vectors have found themselves. 

If there was anything I learned from Alan, was something he didn't learn while I worked with him. He commuted 3 hours a day with some combination of train, bike, truck or car. He was known to sleep in his cubicle if he missed the last train. Whenever I think of getting one of the many available iOS jobs down in Boston, I remember Alan and say no. 

Being a transplanted Brit, he loved both kinds of football.  The only time he made it to my house was to watch the World Cup when England was playing and he couldn't get it at his home.  He was a Pats fan; I remember telling him the Pats had traded Randy Moss and him looking like those words made no sense in English.

I hadn't talked to him since February of 2014, I was regrettably miffed with him for two, in hindsight, trivial slights and hadn't even known he was fighting for his life this whole time. Alan was a good person, coder and father, and the world is a lesser place without him. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Amazon Vine and The Power to Tax is the Power to Destroy

For many years, I've been a happy member of Amazon Vine, taking frequent deliveries of random consumer items for review and then keeping them. I've reviewed 432 items over the years, and it has been sweet.

But, in today's eMail, came word that Amazon would now be reporting the "Fair Market Value" of my review items to the IRS so I could be taxed for the income. So instead of being free, items would now cost their value multiplied by my marginal tax rate. Since my marginal tax rate is 25%, it would be as if they were offering me a random assortment of stuff, most of which I have no particular need for 75% off. And, I can't sell the stuff, so there is no getting the money back.

Looking through a couple of pages of stuff I reviewed recently, I have to think that few are things I would have purchased for 75% off.

  • 6 Lightning cables (maybe I could have used 2)
  • Mattress. Like this mattress but at the time, I struggled to even justifying it for free, there's no way I would have taken it.
  • Kids bow and arrow set. Maybe.
  • Princess mechanical pencils. We've got plenty of pencils already.
  • Task chair. I didn't really want it when it was free. No way.
  • Skin cream. No.
  • Mango juice. No.
  • USB scanner. No, have too many already.
  • Children's book. Too young for my youngest. No.
  • Decoratable toy. Probably
  • Avenger's movie toy. Cheap looking junk. Nope.
  • Pencil sharpener. Already have some. No.
  • Expensive noise canceling headphones. On the one hand, I have headphones, on the other hand, very nice looking. Maybe.
  • Cheap headset. Nope.
  • Hammer. Probably.
  • Pack of children's scissors. Who needs an entire pack of scissors?
  • Mattress pad. Probably. 
  • Taco shells. Nope.
  • USB wall outlet. Too much trouble. Nope.
  • Air purifier. Already have fans in the house. 
Basically, I won't be able to justify the expense of much more than 1 item in 10 if I have to pay for it. 

And then there are books. Non-children's books take time to read. As an experienced iOS developer, my short term contract rate is around $110/hr. It might take literally thousands of dollars worth of my time to read a book. Even when they were free, I rarely reviewed real books. The fair market value for a book for me is a large negative number. I can't imagine ever reviewing a real book again for Amazon Vine.

I understand that somebody from the outside might see that I get a printer priced at $100 so I've made $100 worth of income. But that printer is worth much less than $100 to me, otherwise I would have gone out and bought one already. As it is, I have a bunch of perfectly good printers in the house waiting to be hauled to the electronics recycling center because they are out of ink. If Amazon were to offer me another free one, I might not take it. Now that the IRS will be charging me $25 for it, there is no way.  Fair market value has no meaning to me when I can't resell the item, and it's a random assortment of stuff that I'm not in the market for in the first place.

[Update: Well this has settled down and the situation is better than the initial reports. "Fair Market Value" ranges from 0% to over 100% of Amazon's price. Unfortunately you don't know it before you agree to the deal. Food, cosmetics and other disposables are generally 0%. And I guess you can now sell your items after 6 months. Sometimes I can't help myself, so yesterday I took in an expensive Android tablet with its 101% Fair Market Value, oops.

I've definitely scaled back my reviewing, and will not take items I perceive as low quality. Thus my average review rating has gone up and is now over 4. In the past, I'd have taken a try for something iffy and would give out my share of 2 and 3 star reviews.]

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Apple Needs to Thin Out The PNGs

Had a pleasant time at WWDC. As is my habit, I spent most of my time in the labs going over every issue I had that had vexed me. One of the highlights were some soon to be released improvements to my SVGgh rendering library to allow live updating in Interface Builder via support for the IB_DESIGNABLE switch. It took effort, but I finally beat my project into shape, got rid of the old fashioned static library, and was magically playing with showing SVGs inside of IB, and playing with my various button themes. Seeing that first image for the first time was sweet. Also got an assist with some long term problems with rotated gradients, and some pointers about text on a path.

But it also reminded me of how obnoxious Apple's reliance on fixed size PNG bitmap assets has become. The iPhone 6+ brought a need for a 3rd image resolutions, and the possibility of responsive design brings a preference for even more. I spent a couple hours slicing together the 30 PNGs I needed for use with a UISegmented control last week. I have better things to do. Apple added support for dropping a PDF into assets last year, but that just automates the process of making a bunch of bitmaps. And bitmaps are bulky, to the point that Apple will be automatically culling unnecessary ones out before installing them on user's devices

I find my own workflow of generating SVG artwork to be much more satisfying. They match up well with the simple, clean themes encouraged since iOS 7. They are less bulky and I typically only need one image per button. I can even use the 'currentColor' property to manipulate pressed and unpressed states from Interface Builder. I can use SVG's 'non-scaling-stroke' vector-effect to keep outline strokes to be 1 pixel wide regardless of scale. And with responsive design, I can use auto-layout to make my view elements whatever size I need without having to worry about scaling issues.

I would not be surprised if Apple were to support either an existing vector format, or perhaps a new one with size hinting in some future version of UIKit. It's past time.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The 5 Rating Minimum and Releasing to the App Store

Here is a screen capture of my app TV Towers USA as it looked in the iOS App Store on May 2, 2015:
May 2, 2015 (or so)
And here is what it looks like today (May 30, 2015):
May 30, 2015
Notice that the current version has no stars. Why, because on May 3rd I released a much overdue update which included bug fixes and updates to the database. Which means the new version has only one review, which means that potential customers can't tell at a glance that it's a decent product (lifetime rating average 4.58). Which means sales drop. April sales were $7.79/day, whereas since the update, they have been $4.70/day. (Obviously, I'm not quitting my day job for this product, either way.) 

The app gets a review every month or so, so it will be Autumn before I accumulate the 5 ratings needed to get my rating display back, and then it will be time for another update.

I don't understand how some apps accumulate thousands of reviews. It's true that I've avoided fame and fortune, but my niche apps are almost always well liked by the folks who purchase them. The problem is that only one person in a hundred will write a review, and small apps that are responsibly updated suffer for it, or allow people who post phony reviews to benefit. 

I was interviewing for a job last year, down in Cambridge, and one of the engineers looked over at me and asked suspiciously how I'd managed to get a perfect 5 for 5 for 5 users rating on the then current TV Towers.  The hard way, apparently. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

SVG Paths Tutorial

About a year and a half ago, I left myself a Reminder on my iPhone to make an educational video about creating path elements in SVG documents. I finally fired up ScreenFlow and did so. 27 minutes about me talking about the path element. It's more interesting than it sounds—how could it not be?

So hopefully, one or two of you will be out hand crafting your own SVG shapes like this one: