Saturday, May 2, 2009

Golden Oldies Radio

John and James interviewed me at the crack of dawn today. The caffeine was slow to take hold, but I was somewhat coherent.

Things we discussed: the lucky breaks that led me to Apple, the story behind the Trudeau/Newton easter egg, and working at Microsoft where the pen computing group knew more about Newton than I did.

Download it (and check out the others) and listen while you're on the treadmill (or during a root canal, debugging your code, or any other time you need some aural diversion)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Alice Has Unique And Perhaps Strange Legs

This reviewer likes Alice's legs: "I can see this game staying on my iPhone for quite some time" and says you will like it if you like "something unique and strange."

Alice is unique but I've never thought of her as strange. Lewis Carroll himself, now that's another matter.

Sales Risk (a.k.a. come on, Greenland!)

In the second week, I filled in a few missing pieces in Europe and Asia. Japan is still very strong; I wonder if this typical or because Japanese market is more nostalgic?

¿Porqué no hay nadie de España qui compra?

I should build the map with the countries where the iPhone is available, that might be interesting. Maybe Greenlanders just can't buy one.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dali Dali In Come Free

A friend from waaaay back, Scott Warren, just released an iPhone App that's super-loosely based on an idea I programmed back in the 70s (boy I feel old) on the Xerox Alto. The Alto from PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) was the first "personal" computer that paved the way for many products that followed.

The basic gag of the Dali Clock is morphing numbers as the seconds tick off. This is nothing by today's CGI standards, but back then I had to write the inner loop in microcode for the 74481 chip (All you script kiddies are going to have to look that one up).

When I joined Apple, I realized the 68K processor could manage the problem in assembly language (a step up) so I coded it soon after joining. It was included on the Through the Looking Glass disk (the predecessor of AliceX). Over the years people have ported the idea to unix, Palm, etc. and it has a quite a bit of history out there.

After Scott told me about his program today, I searched iTunes and discovered Scott has the second program based on this golden oldie. Burt Sloane, a guy who worked @ Apple in 1985, has also written one. Burt was famous for writing a Mac version of MazeWars (another Alto original and the first networked Mac game), and a "bug INIT", which littered your screen with crawling bugs.

Scott is famous for implementing SmallTalk outside of Xerox and for writing major portions of Visi-on, an early GUI for DOS machines. Both were technical tour-de-forces, but way ahead of their time in terms of market viability and technical feasibility. Scott also was ahead of the pack and registered his domain,, back in 1987, one of the first 100 domains ever registered. At that time, most people inside the industry had never used nor heard of email, much less DNS, or HTTP or all the things we now use daily.

Scott's is a more artistic take on the idea whereas Burt's sticks closer to the original script. Both are available on iTunes if you click their names above.

BTW, the 3rd part of the original disk can be found here -- have patience, it's building a big image file.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Top Round II

People on the boards have asked about hidden features or easter eggs in AliceX. Nothing super cool, but as the instructions say, "The Eyes Have It".

The top mentioned in the previous post had a vanity easter egg hidden in it. We thought nobody would ever discover it because in order to trigger it, you had to repeat this 5 times: spin the top, but immediately stop it after the music starts. Then on the 6th time, BY NOISE TOYS (our toy design company) would appear as the message.

On the final week before production, after extensive testing by our licensee (Hasbro), I received an ominous phone call from the project manager. It turns out, he was idly playing with the top and he happened across the egg. I thought: "F**k, we screwed up," but I immediately explained how to reveal the egg, assured him it wouldn't normally happen, and swore there was nothing else hidden in the code. (It was a 4 bit micro with an incredibly small ROM so hiding one egg was a feat to begin with). Somehow, I persuaded him and he released the code to the factory.

I've found I rarely put good eggs in 1.0 releases because it's such a slog to get it done that little energy is left for having fun. In 2.0 Newton we had a lot of time and a lot of ROM so there were dozens hidden, most famously an original Doonesbury cartoon by Trudeau. The trick there was hiding it from the team who had access to the source. Only one engineer figured it out and I swore him to secrecy to maximize the impact of revealing it. (I should do a future post on that story, it's a good one)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Speaking of Patents

That recent patent that was granted reminded of a little Patent Office hacking we did a few years ago.

Ray DuFlon and I filed a patent for a toy top we invented. The top was a "Magic Eight Ball" in that it revealed a yes/no answer when you spun it. It's hard to capture in a photo, but at 1/16th of a second, you get a legible shot -- this says SEND NO REPLY.

Late one night as we finished the patent application, we mentioned to our good friend, patent attorney, and all around great person, Robin Goldstein, that we should add a claim for an additional sensor to tell which direction the top was rotating. With that, we could reveal a different message depending on the spin direction. Of course we immediately started riffing on what hidden, satanic messages could appear when spun backwards.

Robin and I looked at each other and said why not? So there in patent #5791966 you'll find an extra claim:

16. The toy top, as claimed in claim 10, wherein said second predefined group comprises the characters "PAUL IS DEAD".

If you're too young to understand why this is funny, check wikipedia.