Friday, September 23, 2016

Cubing Tips Part 3 - I'm still talking about practice.

I really wanted to wax philosophical about practice, but I think it's more important to nail down some specific things that will help people practice speedcubing more effectively. This will mostly be aimed at CFOP solvers, but I will try to add comments for Roux.

1) Slow, untimed solves. This is effective regardless of the method used. Work on consistency of steps, looking ahead, not turning the whole cube very much, and turning smoothly. If you wanted to take this idea to the next step, then start solving with a metronome dictating your speed, and then gradually increasing the speed while maintaining smoothness.

2) Work on your first four edges as an automatic reaction to what you see during inspection. Lots of random scrambles done slowly may start to get you familiar with what you have to do to keep your movecount down and cube turns to a minimum. Not everybody is going to start color neutral, so maybe at first you're just going to look at your target center and the four edge pieces that go with it for a lot of scrambles and see what the easiest way there is. However, some of them are not intuitive at first, and you might gain that knowledge by watching some machine solved cases. One of the extra features of the Android app Twisty Timer is that when it generates a scramble for 3x3x3, you can press the "Hint" button and it offers optimal solves for the first four edges for any of the six colors. Once you think that you can formulate a good plan, the next thing to do is to figure out if you can execute the plan without having to look at those pieces, because you need to start looking for what's next - the first corner/edge pair. For Roux solvers, apply this to the first block, and start looking for the second block.

3) As you execute the moves for each corner/edge pair to build the F2L, you need to locate the next pair of pieces for the next corner/edge pair. If you can see farther ahead than that, that's great. If you feel you're not doing something smoothly, look up a couple of different algorithms for that case and see what feels good. While the F2L should be done intuitively much like the first four pieces, it still may be helpful to learn some algorithms for the more difficult cases.  For Roux, the next step is the U layer corners, and is its own very difficult subset of algorithms, nearly as difficult as the last layer algorithms in CFOP, and probably will get accomplished using the main feature of item #4 below.

4)  For the last layer, my suggestion is drill, drill, drill.
Once you learn an algorithm, go on youtube and watch a couple of different people do the moves to look at move groupings and hand positions.
While the OLL is done before the PLL, and it might make sense to learn things in order, it's more important to learn the PLL first.  Early on you will only make use of only three or four of the OLL cases, having to use them in combination and even multiple times in some cases.

Once you feel like you have enough moves put together to finish the last layer, use the qqtimer subset feature to generate scrambles for the last layer.

For Roux, there is a different subset you can use that just scrambles the last six edges - it's labeled "Roux-generator ".

Don't forget, there's always more to practice (and not just at cubing).

Sunday, July 17, 2016

I know what Pokémon Go is short for...

... it's short for "Pokémon Go outside where their main demographic is woefully unfamiliar with the surroundings".

Since my older son has been playing Pokémon for many years, I felt like I should see what Pokémon Go was about. The first night it was available, I loaded it onto my phone, and after a little bit of user information setup, it puts up a map of our neighborhood with locations of a few Pokémon nearby. I took my older son outside with me, we turned the camera part of the game on, and we looked at the screen where it shows what we currently refer to as "augmented reality" or AR. I flicked a representation of a Pokéball at a representation of a Pokémon that somewhat seemed to be out in the neighbor's yard. (I'm sure that he didn't know that he had a Pokémon infestation.)


I know that I'm not really the intended audience for the game, so it's no big loss if I'm not playing it. My son doesn't have a smartphone, so he's not playing it. The game vaguely reminded me of a location-based game that was out a few years ago that one of my other neighbors wanted me try, but I didn't have a smartphone then (and frankly I was a little suspicious about the nature of a game that was GPS tracking you and all of your friends). For all I know, that game was Niantic's previous game - Ingress. It didn't have Pokémon, it just had a map with little lights all over it and it used local landmarks as control points for a team vs. team resource collecting game. While it didn't take off like Pokémon Go has, it was a good showcase for the location-based technology and apparently helped them better map places for Pokémon Go.

The Nintendo DS/3DS family couldn't play Pokémon Go because although it's fully capable of integrating the camera into AR-type games, it's only able to communicate with the internet via WiFi and doesn't have any sort of mobile data connection. (Honestly, I don't use the mobile data on my phone that often, so that was another strike for me against Pokémon Go.) Also, other than the handful of AR games that come with the DS/3DS systems, most developers have ignored AR gaming in favor of more traditional games. Also, all of the Pokémon games on Nintendo's handhelds have all had much more complicated mechanics (battles, RPG elements, interacting with NPC's) than Pokémon Go does.

I'm a little bit surprised that some adults have taken to Pokémon Go as much as they have, but I can only assume that's because they either haven't played any sort of AR game before, they're nostalgic for Pokémon, or they just needed an excuse to get outside and didn't have one.

I'm not surprised at all that kids (and some adults) have had odd discoveries and mishaps playing Pokémon Go. Most people these days aren't used to being pedestrians for any length of time, and the random distribution of the Pokémon may cause people to walk places that they otherwise might not go. This is made grossly more difficult by the fact that you're staring through your phone screen which effectively narrows your field of vision, and creates much lower situational awareness than you would normally have as a result.

Well, don't worry. Soon enough, we'll have the first mishaps with people playing Occulus Rift outside.

Happy Pokémon hunting to those of you who are, but be safe out there. To the rest of you, just remember that if you think that Pokémon Go is stupid, then you're probably not in the intended demographic.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Cubing Tips, Part 0. It's only pieces.

So while I am trying to work on tips for people getting into cubing, I was reminded that I skipped some fundamental concepts. All of you people that are already under three minutes probably don't need to read this one, so you'll probably have to wait for me to type Part 3.

The standard 3x3x3 Rubik's cube has three distinct types of visible pieces. There are six center pieces of a single color, all of which are attached to the center spindle. These six pieces cannot move relative to each other. There are twelve edge pieces, each with two colors. There are eight corner pieces, with with three colors. Each of the pieces has a unique set of colors that correspond to the final location of the piece.  For example, the green and white edge has a final location that is on the edge between the green and the white center pieces. The corner piece that is orange, green, and white corresponds to the location of corner of the three faces that have the orange, green, and white centers. Since the centers cannot move relative to each other, all that is really happening is that there are twenty pieces moving freely around the center pieces. This is a little bit different from what many people initially see - often the first impression of a Rubik's cube they have is that there are 54 stickers. (They're at least colored tiles now, anyway.)

The next part of conceptual understanding is the idea that any specific set of actions performed on the cube always has the same effect on the cube, and thereby can be used to perform predictable operations on the cube. These operations are usually referred to as algorithms.

We typically describe algorithms as a specific ordered set of face turns, described in relative terms. Instead of using the colors of the faces, which can vary from cube to cube, we use a set of names for the faces that refer to their positions in space. Those names are Up, Down, Left, Right, Front, and Back. In the context of written algorithms you may see something like

R U R' U R U2 R' U2

which cycles the uf piece to the ub position, moves the ub edge piece to the ur position and moves the ur piece to the uf position, and rotates the corner pieces ulb, urb, and urf counterclockwise in place.)

R = Right face 90 degrees clockwise
U = Up face 90 degrees clockwise
R' = Right face 90 degrees counterclockwise (Typically spoken as "R prime".)

After that the only new notation is U2, which means to turn the Up face 180 degrees. You could also write U'2, but unless there's a specific reason to notate a specific direction, this is not commonly encountered. Remember - clockwise is from the perspective of looking at the face.

If you want to undo an operation, you need to do the opposite of each operation, in the reverse order. So, to reverse the move above, you would do the move

U2 R U2 R' U' R U' R'.

To notate a move of one of the middle layers, or slices, of the cube, the letters M, E, and S are used. M moves in the same direction as the L face, S moves in the same direciton as F, and E moves in the same direction as U. You may see other things in move notations, like the small letters x, y, z, and the small letters of the faces. The x, y, and z notations are to rotate the cube around the corresponding spatial axis, and the small letters of the faces refer to double layer turns, so f is a clockwise turn of the F face and the layer behind it. You can get started cubing without all of these small letter moves, but in any event if you want to learn the notation I would suggest bookmarking this page. You won't have to learn all of it at once anyway, so referring to it as needed will eventually give you enough familiarity.

A collection of algorithms that work together to solve the cube is referred to as a method. Instead of talking about what types of algorithms a method contains, methods usually refer to the overall style of the solution (layer-by-layer, corners-first, CFOP) or the inventor(s) of a specific solution (Roux, Petrus, Thistlewaite, Guimond, Waterman, ZZ.) Discussing any specific method may be outside the scope of what I intended, but in general there can be any number of methods. If you're just trying to get the cube back to the solved state, there is more than one way to get there. What algorithms are required depend on the steps we decide to take. Still speaking generally, the steps of a solution boil down to solving some of the pieces and then another group of the pieces, and then another, until all groups of pieces are in the correct locations and correctly oriented. Each subsequent group of pieces typically takes longer algorithms, knowing that we have to not upset the pieces put in place from previous steps. That's not to say that the previously solved pieces never move during the algorithms, you just have to pick algorithms that put the things that are already solved back into place by the end of each algorithm.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

My first official cube competition.

You would think that someone that's been cubing for 30 or so years would have been to a cubing competition by now, but I hadn't. Part of me had realized that the world had largely passed me by, and my usual standby, the ancient corners first solution that hasn't been viable since 1986 or so isn't going to win me any awards. So, when events started popping up here and there in my home state, it was easy to say that having kids at home and bigger stuff to worry about was a good reason not to go. But, as more time went on, I realized that it wasn't about winning, but maybe about learning things, and also about meeting other cubers. Under normal circumstances, I only run into new people that I haven't met before that can solve a cube once every couple of years or so. So, I decided to go to an event last weekend (Central Florida Summer 2016) and just see how I did, and meet some of the other people cubing in Florida.

The drive was a couple of hours, and thankfully uneventful. I actually didn't practice 3x3x3 in the car at all. I started with 4x4x4, went up to 5x5x5, and did a 6x6x6, and then I hoped that I would have a chance to finish a 7x7x7 solve in the car. Since I'm still using old solution methods, I'm well over 20 minutes on the 7x7x7 still. My first attempt at 7x7x7 got interrupted by the location of a rest stop on the highway, and the second attempt got interrupted by having to navigate once we got off of the interstate. So, I never did manage to finish one that day. Once we were there, I thought it best to just take my 2x2x2 and 3x3x3 with me since those were the only events I was competing in, and my notebook that I use just for cubing. I took my stickerless DaYan 2x2x2, which is sort of important later. The 3x3x3 I brought is a Yulong stickerless which I got fairly cheap on Amazon and it's pretty fast.

Since my wife wanted to explore a nearby nature area with our younger child, I got dropped off. Getting dropped off in a parking lot of an unfamiliar school was just like going to a high school math tournament. I waited in line, realizing that there were a lot of fairly young kids practicing 2x2x2 in line. I got to registration, filled out a piece of paper with my name and the events I was participating in, paid my $20, and tried to relax. The big upside to this whole operation was that I was meeting the guitarist from the band that I play in and his son (who had just recently gotten into cubing) at the event. It gave me something else to fill my brain with instead of just filling it with nervousness about the event and not knowing anybody there. 

Once I sat down, I practiced a little bit of 2x2x2 with my guitarist's son and a friend of his that he met at a previous tournament. I was able to finish easily before either of them, but I had to focus pretty hard on turning slowly so I could make sure I wasn't making mistakes. Eventually I got called for my heat in 2x2x2.

What happens at this point is that the person running that heat puts down a bunch of slips of paper with a competitor's name and space for times to be written in. Each competitor puts their own cube down on their piece of paper, and then the official grabs up all the cubes for that heat and takes them to the main table to be inspected and scrambled. Once your cube is scrambled, the piece of paper with your name on it and your cube go into a paper bucket and is taken to a table where there's a Stackmat timer and a judge. The paper goes to the judge, and the bucket is turned over on to the table, covering your cube. What's supposed to happen at that point is that the judge asks you if you're ready, and you have 15 seconds to inspect your cube and then arm the timer and start. The judge will let you know when 8 seconds have transpired, and then 12. At that point you really need to start arming the timer by putting your fingertips on the two contacts and waiting for the green light, because it takes a second or two.

I had used a Stackmat timer before, as I had one for a few years before it lost its mind. I use TwistyTimer to practice with on my phone now, but I think I need to get another Stackmat at some point if I'm going to do more of these events.

Event 1 - 2x2x2

14.65/DNF/12.64/14.49/13.89 (14.34 avg)  52nd out of 73

That's around 6 times as slow as the winners who averaged between 2-1/2 and 3 seconds , and not nearly as good as my usual average of closer to 12 seconds.

My first solve of my first heat almost got me a DNF because the timer hadn't been reset by the judge beforehand. I couldn't remember if the new Stackmats reset on their own if it's been long enough since a previous solve or not, so it didn't occur to me to ask. The judge realized the mistake and took my cube up to be rescrambled and I got to solve again, but I was more than a little rattled. It didn't help that I was at a table at the front where all the cube moms were spectating. My second attempt was a DNF, because I opted to use that DaYan 2x2x2 that was a little bit looser and had a preferable color scheme. When a puzzle pops, you're allowed to put the pieces back in and finish the solve, but the DaYan 2x2x2 has three or four little mini edge pieces that pop out when a corner piece pops out, and it didn't seem realistic that I could just put it back together quick enough. The last time I put it back together took me a couple of minutes, and all I wanted to do at that second is take a second by myself and reassemble it away from the spectators. Had I used my Cyclone Boys 2x2x2, I might have finished all five solves, but probably a little slower. The first time I ever popped a piece on the DaYan 2x2x2, it was at a stoplight on the way to picking up my wife from work. I had to wait until I got home to try and get it back together. I think that it only tends to pop when it's comedically inconvenient. My guitarist's son had me spooked thinking I had made the cut for the second round, but it turns out it was just an anomaly of how the solves were displayed on where he was looking at the scores.

Event 2 - 3x3x3

31.69/36.56/32.26/32.84/37.35 (33.89 avg) 40th out of 71

That's a little less than four times as slow as the winner, on average, and maybe only a second slower than my average when practicing. I was a little less rattled, but not enough for me to pull out any solves under 30 seconds. The last judge that I had was amused by my ancient solving technique since they mostly only see CFOP. Oddly, some of the younger cubers think that Corners First is RedKB's method (an early Youtube cuber) instead of Minh Thai's (the method I use) or Jeff Varasano's.

While I was waiting between solves, I asked a couple of the 10-year olds standing around to show me how they do the Z permutation (M2 U M2 U M' U2 M2 U2 M' U2) and it was just frightening how fast they could whip through the move, and it was also very interesting to watch each of them watch the other do the move, because their execution varied a little bit. One of them was more crisp and staccato, the other one was just as fast but smoother. All of the M slice moves were done with the ring or middle finger of their left hand from behind the cube, where the U layer moves were done with their index and middle fingers of their right hand. It reminded me of drum rudiments.

Best single time in both of those events and everything else went to Daniel Wannamaker, currently ranked 31st in the world in regular 3x3x3 as of the other day and in the top 100 on all the events from 2x2x2 through 7x7x7. I actually talked to him briefly about something I saw other people doing on 4x4x4, and he walked me through the algorithm that he uses for doing an edge pair flip during the last layer. (Lw2 B2 U2 Rw' U2 Lw U2 Lw' U2 F2 Lw' F2 Rw B2 Lw2) As it turns out, he didn't win 2x2x2 and Pyraminx because his average wasn't as low. Daniel better watch out for Katie Hull, though. She won Pyraminx and was close behind on a lot of the other events. Dawson Wellman won 2x2x2 by putting up some great times in the last round.

I only ended up talking to a few of the cubers. I talked to Jeff Stinson briefly, as I surmised early on that we were the oldest two people competing, and we had a good laugh about being the only old men there. I also talked to someone that had only been cubing for a few months that was almost as fast as I was already, a programmer fond of making rather tall towers of cubes, and hard luck case that had a few too many DNF's. I also got to see a Mixup Cube in person for the first time, and my guitarist looked very oddly at a Mirror Cube which he had not seen before.

It was a little odd that the guitarist from my band and I both opted for superhero shirts. I almost wore a cube shirt, but since we were at a cubing competition I saw absolutely no need to identify myself to others as a cuber. So, if you can't be yourself, be Batman. (My guitarist wore a Spiderman shirt that I think is the somewhat obscure Spiderman 2099 logo.)

I think that I achieved all of my intended objectives - I got to participate in a real competition, I got to be in a room where my cubing was not any sort of an oddity, I got to hang out with my guitarist and his son outside of a music venue, and I made an effort to talk to some of the other cubers - both experienced and new.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Cubing Tips, Part 2 - Look Ahead, move efficiently.

One of the things that some new cubers get caught up in early is trying to turn as fast as they can.  It's one of the first things that getting a better cube is going to do for you, because the better mechanism will allow for faster turning. While turning faster is important, it's equally important to know when it will be the most effective.

When you're nearly done with a solve, there are fewer remaining positions to consider, and as you get more experienced you're going to know what those positions are probably going to be. However, at the beginning of the solve, there are a lot more possible positions that the pieces you're looking for can be in. That's why looking for pieces while you're doing other moves is important. Sometimes you will spot a piece you need later right as you're about to do a move, but it's something that's going to get moved by what you do. Do you know where that piece will end up at the end of the algorithm that you're doing? Alternately, you may intentionally look at a piece in a location that's not going to be affected by what you do, and think about where that goes and what you're going to need to do next.

If you're using the Beginner's method, look-ahead may not seem important yet because after the first four edges (which hopefully you mostly covered during inspection) you're going to look for the first layer corner pieces one at a time to finish the first layer. However, if you have time to look for the second corner while you're doing the first one, there will be less pausing between moves. The same would go for the middle layer edges. As you put each middle layer edge in, since the algorithm should be muscle memory, you should be looking around the cube to find where the next piece you need is and where it should go.

If you're using F2L as part of the CFOP* method, where the middle layer edges go in at the same time as the first layer corners, look-ahead is the most important. If you just went "What's CFOP?" here's a quick refresher.

*In the CFOP method, we have 4 stages.
We have the first four edges, commonly called the Cross (That's the "C" part.)
We have the first layer corners going in with the middle layer edges, which completes the First 2 Layers (which is the F of CFOP, referred to as F2L.)
Next we Orient the Last Layer(OLL) which is where we turn all the last layer pieces the correct way, and then Permute the Last Layer(PLL) which is where we move around all of the correctly oriented last layer pieces to their correct locations.

While the OLL and PLL moves primarily require quick recognition and fast execution, the recognition is relatively easy because you're only looking at the last eight pieces, and execution speed will just come from practicing the moves over and over. The speed of the F2L totally depends on your ability to look for two matching pieces at a time without having to stop, and represents the slowest part of the solve because you're having to react to a pair at a time. You can automatically ignore any edge that has the last layer color on it (easier to say than to do), but you still have to mate up a corner piece with its adjacent middle edge and then put those pieces into their slot. The corner can be oriented in three different ways, in eight different places, and the edge can be in one of eight places. So, as you're inserting a corner-edge pair, you need to look for the next pieces to put into place. As you get more advanced with F2L, you may opt to place your first pair in one of the back slots so that you can better survey the open slots in the front and the unplaced pieces in the last layer.

F2L represents a serious improvement over the beginner's method once mastered, because placing a corner usually takes 3-4 moves, but could take up to 6, and placing a middle layer edge afterwards takes 8 moves. Placing the corner and the edge together in the worst of circumstances maybe takes 11 moves, but usually takes 7-9. On average you're going to save around 20 moves by switching to F2L, but that's only going to save you time if you're accomplishing that at speed, and that's only going to happen if...

Anyone? Let's not always see the same hands.

That's only going to happen if you're looking ahead.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

It's important to have a plan - or Cubing Tips Part One.

There have been way too many games that came out recently, and I couldn't possibly talk about everything that I've been playing all at once. I have also picked up a couple of new cubes, and got another as a late Christmas gift. On top of that, I recently found out that I missed a cube competition less than an hour from my house - I didn't find out about it until the Monday after.

So, what do you do when everything is crazy? The same thing you do with a scrambled cube - have a plan. However, we're going to talk about planning only in the context of cubing here - I will just have to work on my plan to type more blog posts behind the scenes.

Clearly a plan is not enough by itself, because there are other parts to be considered during the actual execution. Practice is important, and so is a good handle on theory, and so is learning to deal with mistakes, setbacks, and things that just plain don't go your way. But, we have to start somewhere, and that usually starts with a plan.

In speed cubing, you get 15 seconds of inspection time. That's time you basically get for free that doesn't count as part of your solve time unless you're doing a blindfold event. That's the time to make a plan. For a fast solver it could make the difference of a second or two, which could make the difference between making the cut or not. For me, as a relatively slow solver, a good inspection makes the difference between a 30 second solve and a 40 second solve.  Even if you're just starting and you're averaging around a minute or two, a good inspection could still make a ten to fifteen second difference in your time. What are you looking for in the inspection?

For Beginner's Method solvers, you're looking for the first four edges, and a corner or two. For CFOP (Cross, First two layers, Orientation, Permutation) solvers, you're looking for the first four edges, and one or two corner-edge pairs for F2L. For Roux, you're looking for the first five pieces on the L face. For me, as a corners first solver, I'm looking for the first four corners and trying to figure out where the fifth corner is going to fit into the other layer, or if the first four corners go really easy then I'm looking for an edge piece or two in the first layer.

Statistically, most of you are using something that's like either the Beginner's Method or CFOP, so let's talk more about those. During inspection, you should have those first four edges of the first layer figured out either way. Have you figured out something that's around eight turns and leaves the cube in the right location for the next part? Do some practice scrambles and see if you can consistently work out a 7-8 move solution to the first four edges. Ultimately, you should be working towards having the first four edges on the D layer when you're done, allowing you to work on the next part with the best visibility of the remaining edges.

That's enough for now,  so go practice making a plan. (Or is that planning to practice?)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Big Cubes, and small setbacks.

I had been getting better at big cubes of late - not like actual better, just better for me. For 4x4x4, I'm under 2 minutes once in a while, and for 5x5x5 I'm under 5 minutes nearly half the time now. I finally felt like I could take another swing at my 7x7x7, because of those improvements. For 2x2 to 5x5 it takes me somewhere in the ballpark of 6 times whatever the WR is. (Here's a new WR on the 5x5x5 by Feliks Zemdegs.)

By that logic, I should be able to get my 7x7x7 time down to around 15-16 minutes - my best previous time is 37 minutes and change. Here's another one from Feliks, this time on the 7x7x7.

It's not even like I was sure that it was going to happen, but I just feel like I need to be in the right frame of mind to make progress and do well. The bigger the cube gets, it reduces the number of times you can practice it in a session, and I have to say that I haven't practiced 7x7x7 that often at all. Part of it is that I get nervous about pushing those little stickers around with my hands when I'm turning the cube, so maybe I'm going to have to think about finding a stickerless 7x7x7 at some point. I don't think I want one of the pink ones though, the colors aren't high contrast enough for me.  I'm sure that the other part of it is that my 7x7x7 is a V-Cube and some of the newer cubes have a better mechanism than the V-Cube does.

But, this morning, I was really ready to do it, and got 1:47 in AND POPPED OUT A CENTER PIECE! Frankly, I'm a little bit amazed that I was able to get it back into place without major disassembly.

I started typing this once, and thought that it was going to be about failure, but decided that I had to do it again. I just re-scrambled from the partial solve for several minutes, took a deep breath, and started the 7x7x7 again. It was 27:12.21. Certainly it wasn't 15 minutes, and I'm sure I burned a few minutes making sure layers were correctly aligned so that I didn't pop a center piece again like last time. Hey, it's 10 minutes better than my previous, so I'll take it.