## My trip into the world of Android Programming (with my first two apps)

July 19, 2013

Update: you can get these apps on Google Play now: Champions Quiz and Easy Metronome

I’m a newbie Android developer, having started about a month ago. I started by picking up a beginners Android book (for dummies!) and seeing how far I could get with it.

My device is a relatively crappy Samsung Galaxy Ace smartphone.

I got the SDK and environment set up and got a “Hello World” running without running into trouble. Then I worked through some example apps from the book, again without too much difficulty.

After that, with a very basic understanding of Activities, Intents, Views, and all that, I deviated from the beaten path, using Google when I needed help (which happened pretty often). I wanted to make something new (not copying someone else’s app idea) but still do things typical apps would do (better chance of Googling for help).

### First App: Champions Quiz

This is an app for League of Legends players. In this game, there are more than 110 champions, each having 5 abilities — each with a unique name. This results in about 600 distinct abilities.

The goal of the quiz is to match the correct champion name, given the ability name.

### Second App: Easy Metronome

This app is a fully functional, animated metronome. Drag the circle up and down to set the tempo like on a real metronome, and press a button and it goes.

The idea is, if you take a look on the Google Play Store for the metronome apps, they tend to have sliders, buttons, many needless customization options, and advertisements, making the interface feel extremely cluttered, given the small screen of the phone.

Instead of dozens of options, the Easy Metronome app brings you a more friendly interface:

### My feelings so far on Android Development

There’s the good and the bad.

The good — Android builds on Java, a language I’m highly familiar with, dampening the learning curve for me. There are lots of tutorials for beginners on the web to get you started. At this stage, if you run into a problem, usually someone else has run into the same problem before; I didn’t have to ask any new Stackoverflow questions.

The bad — From the developer’s perspective, the Android tool chain feels buggy and unstable. Perhaps some of these resulted from me doing something stupid, some are annoyances, some are bugs that ideally the developer should never have to deal with. I’ll list a few of these problems, grouping them by where the problem manifests itself.

Problems showing up on the computer:

• Eclipse can screw up, and when it does, it is not obvious how to fix it. One day, without me changing anything, it suddenly refuses to build the critical R.java file. Fixing it took an hour of painful cleaning, rebuilding, importing, re-importing.
• Emulators are unusable. They take 15-20 minutes to boot up, and when they do their frame rate is 1-2 fps; they are unresponsive and frequently ignore keyboard input.
• Ran into an Eclipse bug where Logcat sometimes shows a blank screen. Restarting Eclipse does not fix it. The solution appears to be  to instead use the commandline tool “adb logcat”.

Problems showing up on the phone:

• I could not get the Face Detection API to work, even when using identical images and code that works for other people. (although I understand face detection is hard, so I’m not too upset)
• Ran into an Android bug where only the first line of text in an Alert Dialog is shown. The solution was confusing (involved switching to a different theme) with no explanation given.
• Ran into an Android bug where the text color was ignored, but only on some devices and not others. I haven’t bothered to find the solution to this.

Overall, Android programming is a mildly frustrating experience, compared to what I normally work with. It would be much better without constant minor annoyances and crashes / bugs.

### What next

I originally wanted to make a bunch of apps and release them for free, but I later realized that Google charges $25 per developer to be able to publish apps. Being very cheap, I didn’t release any of my apps because of this. I could try charging a small price (like$0.99) for the metronome app — I can’t imagine anyone paying for my league quiz app. Or I might make more apps and at some point release them all for free.

## Improving the (physical) Bookmark

June 5, 2013

If you’re an avid reader like me, you might have experienced this frustration with bookmarks.

You open up your book to the bookmarked page, but you aren’t sure where on the page you left off. So you go to the beginning of the page and start reading. But soon you realize that you’ve already read this paragraph, and the next…

A minor annoyance, fair enough. But I’d like to share a trick that neatly solves this problem.

Take any bookmark. (This doesn’t work as well if the bookmark has lots of contrasting colors)

Draw a line through the bookmark at somewhere around the 2/3 or 3/4 mark. Do this only on one side.

We’re done.

Now every time you stop reading, orienting and aligning the bookmark stores enough information that you can start exactly where you left off the next time you start reading. Examples:

I’m not sure whether I’m the first to come up with this or if it’s common knowledge elsewhere, but this trick has saved me a great deal of time and frustration. Hopefully you will find it useful!

## How to Write your own Minesweeper AI

December 23, 2012

A while ago, I wrote a minesweeper AI. I intended to publish a writeup, but due to university and life and exams, I never got around to writing it. But having just finished my Fall term, I have some time to write a decent overview of what I did.

Short 30 second video of the AI in action here:

### How to Play Minesweeper

If you’re an experienced minesweeper player, you can probably skip this section. Otherwise, I’ll just give a quick overview of some basic strategies that we can use to solve an easy minesweeper game.

We start with a 10×10 Beginner’s grid, and click on a square in the middle:

We can quickly identify some of the mines. When the number 1 has exactly one empty square around it, then we know there’s a mine there.

Let’s go ahead and mark the mines:

Now the next strategy: if a 1 has a mine around it, then we know that all the other squares around the 1 cannot be mines.

So let’s go ahead and click on the squares that we know are not mines:

Keep doing this. In this case, it turns out that these two simple strategies are enough to solve the Beginner’s grid:

All this seems easy enough. Here’s what we’ll need to do:

1. Read the board. If we use a screenshot function, we can get a bitmap of all the pixels on the board. We just need to ‘read’ the numbers on the screen. Luckily for us, the numbers tend to have different colors: 1 is blue, 2 is green, 3 is red, and so on.
2. Compute.  Run the calculations, figure out where the mines are. Enough said.
3. Click the board. This step is easy. In Java, we can use the Robot class in the standard library to send mouse clicks to the screen.

There’s not a whole lot to this step, so I’m going to skim over it quickly.

At the beginning of the run, while we have a completely empty grid, we invoke a calibration routine – which takes a screenshot and looks for something that looks like a Minesweeper grid. Using heuristics, it determines the location of the grid, the size of a grid square, the dimensions of the board, and things like that.

Now that we know where the squares are, if we want to read a square, we crop a small section of the screenshot and pass it to a detection routine, which looks at a few pixels and figures out what’s in the square.

A few complications came up in the detection routine:

• The color for the number 1 is very close to the color of an unopened square: both are a dark-blue color. To separate them apart, I compared the ‘variance’ of the patch from the average color for the patch.
• The color for 3 is identical to that for 7. Here, I used a simple edge-detection heuristic.

### Straightforward Algorithm

The trivially straightforward algorithm is actually good enough to solve the beginner and intermediate versions of the game a good percent of the time. Occasionally, if we’re lucky, it even manages to solve an advanced grid!

When humans play minesweeper, we compete for the fastest possible time to solve a grid of minesweeper. So it doesn’t matter if we lose 20 games for every game we win: only the wins count.

This is clearly a silly metric when we’re a robot that can click as fast as we want to. Instead, we’ll challenge ourselves with a more interesting metric:

Win as many games as possible.

Consider the following scenario:

Using the straightforward method, we seem to be stuck.

Up until now, whenever we mark a square as having a mine or safe, we’ve only had to look at a single 3×3 chunk at a time. This strategy fails us here: the trick is to employ a multisquare algorithm – look at multiple different squares at once.

From the lower 2, we know that one of the two circled squares has a mine, while the other doesn’t. We just don’t know which one has the mine:

Although this doesn’t tell us anything right now, we can combine this information with the next 2: we can deduce that the two yellowed squares are empty:

Let’s click them to be sure.

And voilà. They’re empty. The rest of the puzzle can be solved easily, after we’ve made the deduction that those two squares were empty.

### The Tank Solver Algorithm

It’s difficult to make the computer think deductively like we just did. But there is a way to achieve the same results, without deductive thinking.

The idea for the Tank algorithm is to enumerate all possible configurations of mines for a position, and see what’s in common between these configurations.

In the example, there are two possible configurations:

You can check for yourself that no other configuration could work here. We’ve deduced that the one square with a cross must contain a mine, and the three squares shaded white below must not contain a mine:

This works even better than human deduction!

We always try to apply the simple algorithm first, and only if that gets us stuck, then we bring in the Tank algorithm.

To implement the Tank algorithm, we first make a list of border tiles: all the tiles we aren’t sure about but have some partial information.

Now we have a list of $T$  border tiles. If we’re considering every possible configuration, there are $2^T$ of them. With backtracking, this number is cut down enough for this algorithm to be practical, but we can make one important optimization.

The optimization is segregating the border tiles into several disjoint regions:

If you look carefully, whatever happens in the green area has no effect on what happens in the pink area – we can effectively consider them separately.

How much of a speedup do we get? In this case, the green region has 10 tiles, the pink has 7. Taken together, we need to search through $2^{17}$ combinations. With segregation, we only have $2^{10} + 2^7$: about a 100x speedup.

Practically, the optimization brought the algorithm from stopping for several seconds (sometimes minutes) to think, to giving the solution instantly.

### Probability: Making the Best Guess

Are we done now? Can our AI dutifully solve any minesweeper grid we throw at it, with 100% accuracy?

Unsurprisingly, no:

One of the two squares has a mine. It could be in either, with equal probability. No matter how cleverly we program our AI, we can’t do better than a 50-50 guess. Sorry.

The Tank solver fails here, no surprise. Under exactly what circumstances does the Tank algorithm fail?

If it failed, it means that for every border tile, there exists some configuration that this tile has a mine, and some configuration that this tile is empty. Otherwise the Tank solver would have ‘solved’ this particular tile.

In other words, if it failed, we are forced to guess. But before we put in a random guess, we can do some more analysis, just to make sure that we’re making the best guess we could make.

Try this. What do we do here:

From the 3 in the middle, we know that three of them are mines, as marked. But marking mines doesn’t give us any new information about the grid: in order to gain information, we have to uncover some square. Out of the 13 possible squares to uncover, it’s not at all clear which one is the best.

The Tank solver finds 11 possible configurations. Here they are:

Each of these 11 configurations should be equally likely to be the actual position – so we can assign each square a probability that it contains a mine, by counting how many (of the 11) configurations does it contain a mine:

Our best guess would be to click on any of the squares marked ‘2’: in all these cases, we stand an 82% chance of being correct!

### Two Endgame Tactics

Up until now, we haven’t utilized this guy:

The mine counter. Normally, this information isn’t of too much use for us, but in many endgame cases it saves us from guessing.

For example:

Here, we would have a 50-50 guess, where two possibilities are equally likely.

But what if the mine counter reads 1? The 2-mine configuration is eliminated, leaving just one possibility left. We can safely open the three tiles on the perimeter.

Now on to our final tactic.

So far we have assumed that we only have information on a tile if there’s a number next to it. For the most part, that’s true. If you pick a tile in some distant unexplored corner, who knows if there’s a mine there?

Exceptions can arise in the endgame:

The mine counter reads 2. Each of the two circled regions gives us a 50-50 chance – and the Tank algorithm stops here.

Of course, the middle square is safe!

To modify the algorithm to solve these cases, when there aren’t that many tiles left, do the recursion on all the remaining tiles, not just the border tiles.

The two tricks here have the shared property that they rely on the mine counter. Reading the mine counter, however, is a non-trivial task that I won’t attempt; instead, the program is coded in with the total number of mines in the grid, and keeps track of the mines left internally.

### Conclusion, Results, and Source Code

At this point, I’m convinced that there isn’t much more we could do to improve the win rate. The algorithm uses every last piece of information available, and only fails when it’s provably certain that guessing is needed.

How well does it work? We’ll use the success rate for the advanced grid as a benchmark.

• The naïve algorithm could not solve it, unless we get very lucky.
• Tank Solver with probabilistic guessing solves it about 20% of the time.
• Adding the two endgame tricks bumps it up to a 50% success rate.

Here’s proof:

I’m done for now; the source code for the project is available on Github if anyone is inclined to look at it / tinker with it:

https://github.com/luckytoilet/MSolver

## Notes on the partial fraction decomposition: why it always works

June 13, 2012

If you’ve taken any intro to Calculus class, you’re probably familiar with partial fraction decomposition.

In case you’re not, the idea is that you’re given some rational function with an awful denominator that you want to integrate, like:

$\frac{4x-2}{(x-2)(x+4)}$

And you break it up into smaller, simpler fractions:

$\frac{1}{x-2} +\frac{3}{x+4}$

This is the idea. If we get into the details, it gets fairly ugly — in a typical calculus textbook, you’ll find a plethora of rules regarding what to do in all sorts of cases: what to do when there are repeated linear factors, quadratic factors, repeated quadratic factors, and so on.

Since the textbooks generously cover this for us, we’ll assume that we know what to do with a rational polynomial with some polynomial as the numerator, and some number of linear or quadratic factors in the denominator. We can do partial fraction decomposition on this. If we like, we could integrate it too. I’m talking about anything of this form:

$\frac{P(x)}{((ax+b)(cx+d) \cdots)((ex^2+fx+g)(hx^2+ix+j) \cdots)}$

Although we won’t prove this, this seems fairly believable. We’ll assume that once we get a fraction into this form, we’re done and we can let existing partial fraction methods take care of the rest.

### Can Partial Fractions Fail?

What if we have a polynomial greater than a quadratic in the denominator? So let’s say:

$\frac{1}{x^3+1}$

Fortunately, here the denominator can be factored, giving us a form we can deal with:

$\frac{1}{(x+1)(x^2-x+1)}$

But we were lucky that time. After all, not all polynomials can be factored, right? What if we have this:

$\frac{1}{x^3+5}$

We can’t factor this. What can we do?

It turns out that this isn’t a huge problem. We never required the coefficients of the factors to be integers! Although the factorization is awkward, it can still be factored:

$\frac{1}{(x + 5^{1/3})(x^2-5^{1/3}x+5^{2/3})}$

Other than making the next step somewhat algebraically tedious, this decomposition is perfectly valid. The coefficients need not be integers, or even be expressed with radicals. As long as every coefficient is real, partial fraction decomposition will work fine.

### Universality of Partial Fractions

The logical next question would be, can all radical functions be written in the previous partial fraction decomposition-suitable form? Looking through my calculus textbooks, none seemed to provide a proof of this — and failing to find a proof on the internet, I’ll give the proof here.

We need to prove that any polynomial that might appear in the denominator of a rational function, say $Q(x)$, can be broken down into linear or quadratic factors with real coefficients.

In order to prove this, we’ll need the following two theorems:

• Fundamental Theorem of Algebra — any polynomial of degree n can be written as a product of n linear complex factors: $Q(x) = (x-z_1) (x-z_2) \cdots (x-z_n)$
• Complex Conjugate Root Theorem — if some complex number $a + bi$ is a root of some polynomial with real coefficients, then its conjugate $a-bi$ is also a root.

Starting with the denominator polynomial $Q(x)$, we break it down using the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra into complex factors. Of these factors, some will be real, while others will be complex.

Consider the complex factors of $Q(x)$. By the complex conjugate root theorem, for every complex factor we have, its conjugate is also a factor. Hence we can take all of the complex factors and pair them up with their conjugates. Why? If we multiply a complex root by its complex conjugate root: $(x-z)(x-\bar{z})$ — we always end up with a quadratic with real coefficients. (you can check this for yourself if you want)

Before, we were left with real linear factors and pairs of complex factors. The pairs of complex factors multiply to form quadratic polynomials with real coefficients, so we are done.

At least in theory — partial fraction decomposition always works. The problem is just that we relied on the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra to hand us the roots of our polynomial. Often, these roots aren’t simple integers or radicals — often they can’t really be expressed exactly at all. So we should say — partial fraction decomposition always works, if you’re fine with having infinitely long decimals in the decomposed product.

## Minimum quadrilateral inscribed in a square

May 6, 2012

A problem that I’ve seen lately reduces to the following problem:

We have a square, and we put a point on each side of the square. Then we connect the four points to create a quadrilateral. How can we make this quadrilateral have the smallest possible perimeter?

Intuitively, you may believe that this natural, obvious configuration should produce the least perimeter:

### Attempt with Calculus

How can we prove that this indeed gives us the smallest possible perimeter?

A first attempt might be to give variables to the side lengths, and somehow find the minimum perimeter using algebra and calculus tools. So there are four independent points — let’s parameterize them with four variables, and assume the side length of the square is 1:

Then we want to minimize this expression:

$\sqrt{a^2+(1-d)^2} + \sqrt{b^2+(1-a)^2}+ \sqrt{c^2+(1-b)^2}+ \sqrt{d^2+(1-c)^2}$

At this point, it isn’t clear how to proceed — there doesn’t seem to be any way to minimize this expression of four variables.

### Proof by Net

We’ll have to try something different. It’s hard to make sense of anything when there are four independent variables. Instead, if we expand things out a bit, things start to become more manageable:

What we did was reflect the square three times, and each time the square is reflected, the inscribed quadrilateral goes with it. By taking only the relevant parts of the quadrilateral, we get the green path.

Now we might have a solution. If we had a different green path, can we reverse the steps and get the original quadrilateral back? Basically, the following requirements have to be met:

• The path has to cross all three of the internal lines BC, BA, and DA.
• The path’s position on the bottom-most line, DC must be the same when reflected onto the top-most line DC.

With these requirements in mind, the shortest green path that satisfies these requirements is a straight line connecting a point on the bottom left to its reflected point on the top right:

Our intuition at the start was well-founded.

Now notice that this isn’t the only possible shortest path. If we move the entire green line to the left or right, we get a different path of the same length!

For instance, the degenerate ‘quadrilateral’ formed by connecting two opposite corners has the same perimeter as the one we get by connecting the midpoints. Neat, huh?

## A CMOQR Problem and why not to Trust Brute Force

March 6, 2012

Recently I was invited to compete in the CMOQR – a qualifier contest for the Canadian Math Olympiad. The contest consisted of eight problems, and contestants were allowed about a week’s time to submit written solutions via email.

After a few days, I was able to solve all of the problems except one — the second part of the seventh problem:

Seven people participate in a tournament, in which each pair of players play one game, and one player is declared the winner and the other the loser. A triplet ABC is considered cyclic if A beats B, B beats C, and C beats A.

Can you always separate the seven players into two rooms, so that neither room contains a cyclic triplet?

(Note: the first half of the problem asked the same question for six people — and it’s not too difficult to prove that no matter what, we can put them into two rooms so that neither the first nor the second room contains a cyclic triplet.)

But what happens when we add another person? Can we still put four people in one room, and three people in the other, so that neither rooms contain a cyclic triplet?

There are two possibilities here:

• One, it’s always possible. No matter what combinations of wins and losses have occurred, we can always separate them into two rooms in such a way. To prove this, we’ll need to systematically consider all possible combinations, and one by one, verify that the statement is possible for each of the cases.
• Two, it’s not always possible. Then there is some counterexample — some combination of wins and losses so that no matter how we separate them, one of the rooms has a cyclic triplet. This is easier to prove: provided that we have the counterexample, we just have to verify that indeed, this case is a counterexample to the statement.

But there’s a problem. Which of the cases does the solution fall into? That is, should we look for a quick solution by counterexample, or look for some mathematical invariant that no counterexample can exist?

### Brute Force?

It would be really helpful if we knew the counterexample, or knew for sure what the counterexample was. What if we wrote a computer program to check all the cases? After all, there are only 7 people in the problem, and 7 choose 2 or 21 games played. Then since each game is either won by one player or the other, there are only 2^21 combinations overall (although that does count some duplicates). And 2^21 is slightly over two million cases to check — completely within the bounds of brute force.

So I coded up a possibility-checker. Generate all 2^21 possible arrangements, then for each one, check all possible ways to separate them into two rooms. If it turns out that no matter how we arrange them, a cyclic triplet persists, then display the counterexample. Simple.

I ran the program. It quickly cycled through every possible arrangement, three seconds later exiting without producing a counterexample.

Alright. So there’s no counterexample. I would have to find some nice mathematical invariant, showing that no matter what, there is always some way to group the players so that neither room has a cyclic triplet.

But no such invariant came. I tried several things, but in each attempt couldn’t quite show that the statement held for every case. I knew that there was no counterexample, but I couldn’t prove it. But why? There must be some tricky way to show that no counterexample existed; whatever it was, I couldn’t find it.

### Brute Force poorly implemented

Reluctantly, as the deadline came and passed, I submitted my set of solutions without solving the problem. When the solutions came out a week later, the solution to this problem did not contain any tricky way to disprove the counterexample. Instead, what I found was this:

Let $A_0 \ldots A_6$ be seven players. Let $A_i$ beat $A_j$ when the difference $i-j \equiv 1,2,4 \mod 7$.

Huh? A counterexample, really? Let’s look at it.

Everything is symmetric — we can ‘cycle’ the players around without changing anything. Also, if we take four players, two of them are consecutive. Let them be $A_0$ and $A_1$.

At this point everything falls into place: in any subset of four players, three of them are cyclic.

But wait … my program had not found any counterexamples! And right here is a counterexample! The culprit was obvious (the reader may have foreseen this by now) — of course, there had to be a problem with my program.

Running my code through a debugger, I found a logic error in the routine converting binary numbers to array configurations, meaning that not all possible configurations were tried. As a result, the counterexample slipped through the hole.

After fixing the code, the program found not one, but a total of 7520 (although not necessarily distinct) counterexamples. Most of them had no elegant structure, but the solution’s configuration was among them.

For the interested, here is the fixed code.

### When to Start Over?

It is true that the program could have been better written, better debugged. But how could you know whether a counterexample existed and your program didn’t find it, or if no counterexample existed at all?

In hindsight, it seems that writing the brute force program made me worse off than if I hadn’t written it at all. After the program ran without finding a single counterexample, I was confident that no counterexample existed, and set out about proving that, instead of looking for counterexamples or symmetry.

When you are stuck on such a math problem — that is, after making a bit of progress you get stuck — it might be profitable to start over. More often than I would like, I prove a series of neat things, without being able to prove the desired result. Then a look at the solutions manual reveals that a very short solution — one or two steps — lay in the opposite direction.

I’ll put an end to my philosophical musings of the day. Fortunately, the cutoff for the CMOQR was low enough that even without solving every single problem, I was still able to meet the cutoff.

## A trivial inequality, and how to express its solution in the most cryptic way imaginable

February 19, 2012

Solutions to olympiad problems are seldom written with clarity in mind — just look at forum posts in the Art of Problem Solving. The author makes jumps and skips a bunch of steps, expecting the reader to fill in the gaps.

Usually this is not much of a problem — the missing steps become obvious when you sit down and think about what’s going on with a pencil and some paper. But sometimes, this is not the case.

### The problem

One of the worst examples I’ve seen comes in the book Inequalities, A Mathematical Olympiad Approach. By all means, this is an excellent book. Anyways, here’s one of its easier problems — and you’re expected to solve it using the triangle inequality:

Prove that for all real numbers a and b,

$||a|-|b|| \leq |a-b|$

### Attempt 1: Intuitive solution

It isn’t clear how the triangle inequality fits. If I weren’t required to use the triangle inequality, I might be tempted to do an intuitive, case-by-case argument.

Let’s visualize the absolute value of $a-b$ as the difference between the two numbers on a number line. Now we compare this distance $|a-b|$ with the distance after you take the absolute value of both of them, $||a|-|b||$. If one of the numbers is positive and the other negative, we clearly have a smaller distance if we ‘reflect’ the negative one over. Of course, if they’re both positive, or they’re both negative, then nothing happens and the distances remain equal.

There, a simple, fairly clear argument. Now let’s see what the book says.

### The book’s solution

Flip to the end of the book, and find

Consider $|a|=|a-b+b|$ and $|b|=|b-a+a|$, and apply the triangle inequality.

Huh. Perhaps if you are better versed than I am in the art of solving inequalities, you’ll understand what this solution is saying. But I, of course, had no idea.

Maybe try the substitution they suggest. I only see one place to possibly substitute $|a|$ for anything — and substituting gives $||a-b+b|-|b-a+a||$. Now what? I don’t think I did it right — this doesn’t make any sense.

To be fair, I cheated a little bit in the first attempt: I didn’t use the triangle inequality. Fair enough — let’s solve it with the triangle inequality then and come back to see if the solution makes any sense now.

### Attempt 2: Triangle inequality solution

A standard corollary to the triangle inequality of two variables is the following:

$|a|-|b| \leq |a-b|$

Combine this with the two variables switched around:

$|b|-|a| \leq |b-a| = |a-b|$

Combine the two inequalities and we get the desired

$||a|-|b|| \leq |a-b|$

Now let’s look at the solution again. Does it make sense? No, at no point here  did we do any $|a-b+b|$ substitution. Clearly the authors were thinking of a different solution that happened to also use the triangle inequality. Whatever it was, I had no idea what the solution meant.

### The book’s solution, decrypted

Out of ideas and hardly apt to let the issue rest, I consulted help online at a math forum. And look — it turns out that my solution was without a doubt the same solution as the book’s intended solution!

What the author meant was this: considering that $|a| = |a-b+b|$, we have $|a| \leq |a-b|+|b|$ from the triangle inequality. Then, moving the $|b|$ over we get $|a|-|b| \leq |a-b|$.

After that, the steps I took above are left to the reader.

Perhaps I’m a bit thick-headed, but your solution can’t possibly be very clear if a reader has the exact same solution yet can’t even recognize your solution as the same solution. Come to think of it, if I couldn’t even recognize the solution, what chance is there of anybody being able to follow the solution — especially if they’re new to inequalities?

Almost every one of the one-sentence phrasings of this solution I could think of would be clearer and less puzzling than the solution the book gives me.