One of the best things about growing up in the “Hood” is that it feels really good when you leave. I grew up in a neighborhood called Downsview in Toronto whose claim to fame used to be it was the home to the DeHavilland Aircraft company but today is more associated with ongoing issues of crime, poverty, and many other urban illnesses. So every time I hear that someone from the Hood did something great, I take notice and I take special pride. This is the story about arguably the best programmer ever to escape from the Hood: Chris Zamara. Yesterday, I learned that his iPhone app called Bungee Ball 2 had entered the top 10 of all free iPhone apps.
When I was in high school back in the late 1970’s (Downsview Secondary School), there was a small group of us exploring this new thing called the “computer”. Somehow, our school was blessed with four of the original Commodore PET computers complete with 4 KB of RAM (yes, that’s a K in front of the B) and a cassette tape drive. We were also blessed with a borderline insane teacher named Keith MacLean who introduced us to a more progressive, self-directed mode of learning – i.e. he had no idea what was going on ;-) Actually he did and he was the first to illustrate how effective the assumption of the student knowing more than the teacher can be in an educational setting and to this day, he remains a friend of mine. Within the group of about a dozen of us who were actually both intrigued and motivated by the computer, we split cleanly into two groups: those who understood and programmed in machine code or assembler and those who programmed in BASIC. Several of the machine code guys became true digital heros. The BASIC guys became engineers, marketers, and at least one fortune teller.
I was a BASIC programmer and my modus operandi was programming goofy animated cartoons using simple characters and basically printing and reprinting these characters at specified screen locations. Chris, as you may have guessed, was the other type of programmer. He, using surplus parts, built programmable controllers for his Christmas lights. Unfortunately, he also had the habit of biting the light bulbs off with his teeth. He was, however, a member of the most exclusive group of protonerds that eventually helped define the computing landscape of the 20th century. No, he wasn’t a Gates or a Wozniak but he did become the de facto guru of the Commodore platform which climaxed with the legendary Amiga – a computer so innovative and respected that there is still a global user community decades following the demise of the company. From there he worked on a range of famous software products with a heavy emphasis on graphics and gaming.
His recent iPhone activity is actually a hobby project for him and not a job. Like me, he loves gadgets, but unlike me, he can make gadgets behave differently from their intended design. And let’s face it: the iPhone 4 and iPad remain the ultimate gadgets these days. I had heard that he was working on a game but I presumed that it would be some silly thing that only his family would pretend to enjoy. When I saw screens of what he created and read the reviews, I was stunned. It was so clever, got such good reviews, and so in tune with the times I felt compelled to write about it. And coincidentally there is some relevance to my Maplesoft activities as part of the cleverness is the way he wraps engineering/scientific concepts into an addictive gaming framework.
Spoiler Alert: Before I proceed, I must make a confession. I do not have an iPhone nor iPad, and I have never tried Bungee Ball 1 or 2. I live in Waterloo, the home of Research in Motion (RIM) and the world HQ of the Blackberry empire. Non-Blackberry devices in this city are comparable to New York Yankee baseball caps in Boston. So my comments are a bit of hearsay from reviews that I’ve read and just how impressed I am about the concept. I’m hoping to sneak a couple of iPhone cycles from friends and actually try the game soon …
The official description of the game is as follows: “In this part puzzle, part action, realistic physics-based game, you get to swing a massive ball at the end of a super-stretchy bungee cord and complete up to 100 levels of tricks, puzzles and action.” I guess it would be akin to designing totally bizarre pinball machines with really devious, seemingly impossible mechanisms.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this context is that I had never considered Chris much of a physics guy … he was much too digital. So here I am immersed in physics and models for decades struggling to help our company deliver products to help engineers and scientist do their physics better, and Chris waltzes in uninvited and writes a product that essentially produces a kinematic and visual simulation of a complex physical system which will probably motivate more people on topics of basic physics and mechanics than I ever will. This is why I constantly hurl insults at him through the magic of Facebook.
The point of this post was not to brazenly promote this new game. I don’t think Chris really needs my help and my connections into the physical modeling community to help him peddle a few extra downloads. My goal was to acknowledge and celebrate a true achievement of a good friend and also remark on a creation that embodies a whole bunch of qualities and technology that is common with what we do at Maplesoft but with a completely different twist and intent. No, I’m not jealous in any sense (although I’ve always envied the stuffed armadillo that he had in his basement). The world needs more Maplesoft-type simulation and the world needs more Bungee Ball 2-type simulation … but I’ll never forgive him for not calling me the last time he was up in Waterloo.
Coming Soon: Boyz from the eHood 2 – The Revenge of Durko, the evil genius from the Hood who made a fortune programming diabolical software weapons for Wall Street …
Official Bungee Ball 2 download
Early Chris in one of his more typical moments.