The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…



iOS App: Pool Break pool simulator

I recently got back into playing pool, joining a local 8-ball and 9-ball league. It’s been many (many) years since I played pool, and I can’t really put a table in our home (unless I want to take over the living room or the master bedroom, probably a no go on either one). So I went looking for an iOS pool simulation that would help me visualize angles and cue ball spin (English).

I tried quite a few, and in the end, found Pool Break to be the best for my needs. Here’s a very brief snippet of the gameplay…

You can turn the guidelines off; I use them to help understand the cue ball’s movements after contact. Pool Break supports 8-ball, 9-ball, straight pool, snooker, and a couple things I’ve never heard of (Carrom and Crokinole). You can play against the computer, or against others on the Internet. The physics appear to be very good, plus you can change some of the friction values if you wish.

I’ve only been playing against the computer opponents; if you choose their highest skill level, you probably won’t win, even with the aim lines on—they make some absurd shots! The only mode that’s lacking is a straight practice mode where I could position the balls as I like to try various shots. But that’s a minor nit; Pool Break is a very nice pool simulation…whether it will help my real-world ability to see various angles or not, only time will tell!

iOS App: Jollyturns tracks your day on the mountain

I spent yesterday at Mt. Bachelor, enjoying a bunch of fresh snow and surprisingly light crowds. To track my tracks, I’ve been using an app called Jollyturns Ski & Snowboarding. The app is free and includes one ski area; you can buy five more for $3.99, or $9.99 gets you “every ski area in the world.”

For each area, you can see a summary page with current conditions and info on lifts, runs, and restaurants, as well as a zoomable scan of the official trail map. (For Mt. Bachelor, that means four maps, as they have quite a bit of terrain.)

You can drill down into run type to find a specific run; it’ll be highlighted on the map. (Though if your area has more than one map, you may need to switch views to see the run on the proper map.) Click on a lift name, and it will be similarly highlighted on the map. Ditto for restaurants.

Jollyturns can also find and map your friends on the mountain, assuming they’re using the app, of course. I haven’t yet tested this social aspect of the app.

The one thing Jollyturns doesn’t do is track your runs on a mp—there’s no way to see exactly what you skied in a given day. What you can see, though, is how much you skied (vertical feet), how far you skied (miles), and your peak speed. I’d love it if it would map my day (I assume there are other apps that do this, but I haven’t gone looking…recommendations?), but what it does do, it does well.

Jollyturns also includes an Apple Watch app—it provides a quick view of your vertical feet, distance, and peak speed. I much prefer a glance at my watch versus digging out the iPhone from multiple layers of clothing.

The one caveat I will add is that running Jollyturns can suck your battery down, as it’s updating location info via GPS, and doing so quite often. Yesterday, after 4.5 hours of continuous skiing, my phone was down to about 25% battery. So if you want to make sure you get all-day phone battery life while skiing, Jollyturns is probably not the app for you.

See the actual strength of the iPhone’s cellular connection

This is a very old tip, but I’d never seen it before, so I figure it might be new to some others, too. My home has a relatively weak cell signal, varying between one and three dots on the iPhone’s display. But sometimes, even when I have three dots, the quality of my calls seems spotty.

While looking for some tool to try to analyze the cell signal’s actual strength in my home, I stumbled on this useful tip at Lifehacker: It’s possible to make your phone display its actual signal strength in decibel-milliwatts, or dBm. Here’s my phone, showing the stock display on the left, and the dBm value on the right:

And this explains a lot: While two dots of five seems like a decent connection, the actual value of -116dBm is bad. (Signal strength goes from a best of 0 to a worst of -140 or so.) How bad? According to this site, it’s an unusable signal. So, yea, don’t try to call my cell phone when I’m at home!

If you’d like to set your phone to display the actual signal strength (you can tap the indicator to flip between values and dots), read the above-linked article (or any of the thousands of other sites that have the same tip), or just read the rest of this post, where I’ve recreated the simple steps.


iOS App: OSnap! Pro for time lapse and animation movies

A while back, I created a time lapse movie of a lava lamp warming up. I’d wanted to use my iPhone for this, as time lapse is a built-in feature, but the iPhone implements it in an odd way: The iPhone will vary the time intervals between pictures as your recording time increases. This keeps all time lapse movies to a similar duration (20 to 40 seconds), but it means you can’t shoot a constant-rate time lapse movie.

I solved the problem for the lava lamp movie by using OSnap! Pro, a $3.99 iOS app (for both iPhone and iPad). I’ve wanted to write more about this app for a while (I’ll be calling it OSnap from here on out), and a recent snowstorm in central Oregon gave me the perfect chance to test the app again before writing about it…

Ah, if only it went so quickly in reality! Making this movie was a breeze with OSnap! Pro; read on to see what makes OSnap so good (and to see a lame-but-short stop-motion animation movie, too).


Useful site: iTunes Artwork Finder finds more than artwork

Ever want to grab the cover art for some album? Or have you ever wanted the full-size icon from an iOS app? Or the cover image from a movie or TV show? A podcast’s icon? Ben Dodson hosts an excellent web-based tool that lets you do all that and more: The iTunes Artwork Finder.

Usage is about as simple as it gets: Pick a category, enter your search term, set the geographical region, and click Get the artwork.

Note that this only works for things available from the iTunes Store in the specified region, so you can’t use it to find cover art for that digitized copy of some obscure record you found at an underground music store in New York City back in 1973.

Also note that if you have your own web site, you can host your own artwork finder, as Ben has made the code available for all. I wouldn’t recommend making it publicly available, though, unless you have bandwidth to spare—a single search for “Friends,” for instance, returned about 25 high-resolution images.

Here’s how I set it up on our family’s web site; it’s really easy to do, and it works great:

  1. Download the zipped archive from GitHub.
  2. Create a new folder on your server. I called mine getart.
  3. Upload the two files (php, js) from the archive into the folder.
  4. Add basic HTML tags (html, head, body) to the stub of HTML shown on the GitHub page, and save it as index.html in the same folder. If you like fancy and have time to spend, go ahead and pretty it up with CSS and layout. I just left it bare.

That’s all there is to it; you can now look up artwork by loading http://yourdomain/getart (or whatever you called it) in your fave browser.

Useful site: iStockNow finds Apple products

During today’s recording of our The Committed podcast, Ian mentioned a site he uses to check for sometimes hard-to-acquire Apple products. The site, iStockNow, is very nicely designed and makes it really simple to check availability not only at your local stores, but also globally.

Start by clicking the left-side filters section for the products you’d like to check on, then view the map on the right to see where they’re in stock. For example, a search for the 15″ MacBook Pro Touch Bar in Space Gray shows that it’s available throughout North America, except in Mexico City:

But if you search for a 42mm Apple Watch in Stainless Steel in retail stores, you’ll see that most of North America is a sea of red. Zoom in on the map, though, and there are some stores with stock:

When you find a store with inventory—the green pushpin—click on it to get the details of that store’s inventory:

If you’re looking for something particularly hard to find—cough AirPods cough—iStockNow may just help you secure your item. According to Ian, at least, that’s exactly how he got his AirPods!

The ridiculous economics of Real Racing 3

I used to play a lot of Real Racing 3 (RR3), an iOS auto racing game. Like, quite a lot. At one point, I owned all 132 cars available at that time, and had completed all the events.

To reach that point, I spent about $60 on in-app purchases—RR3’s in-app purchases were really expensive. And yes, that’s a lot, but I didn’t own a console at the time, and I judged the app worth the cost of a console racing game. (I also took advantage of some programming glitches that enabled occasional free in-app purchase items; without these glitches, I doubt I would have made it as far as I did.)

Once I’d spent $60 and could go no further without spending more, I stopped playing; $60 was my limit. I did keep my iCloud save game file in case I wanted to revisit it someday. That someday was yesterday.

Since I left, the game has grown a lot: There are now 171 cars available, or 39 more than when I stopped playing. To finish the game again, I’d need to acquire (and upgrade) all of those cars (and race a huge number of new races). I thought “maybe it’s OK to spend another $60 or so; it’s been a few years.”

But as I looked into what it might cost to finish the game, I found that the economics are still absolutely ridiculous. How ridiculous? About $3,665 ridiculous. Yes, I estimate it would cost me $3,665 to finish RR3. At that spending level, though, there are some other purchases I could consider…

Instead of finishing RR3, I could purchase a commercial-grade 48″ gas range. Or I could buy a loaded Touch Bar Retina MacBook Pro with a 2.9GHz Core i7 CPU, 1TB SSD, and upgraded graphics.

The third option, though, is the best comparison: For $129 less than what I think it would cost me to finish RR3, I could purchase all of the following:

That’s a full console-based driving setup, including a 65″ 4K TV, for less than what I’d probably have to pay to finish (temporarily, until the next expansion) Real Racing 3. Yes, I’d say that’s ridiculous.

But where do my numbers come from, and how could I possibly think it’d cost that much to finish the game?! Read the rest if you’d like the nitty-gritty on my $3,665 estimate.


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