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.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Initial Pokkénalysis

So yesterday, Pokkén Tournament was released for the WiiU. We picked up our copy around dinnertime. My older son and I played a couple of matches before either of us knew what we were doing, and then my older son went through a bunch of the single player material to get an understanding of the battle system. Here's the character roster, with a few comments here and there where applicable.

  • Blaziken - Blaziken is a tall, powerful fire/fighting type Pokemon. He reminds me of a big furry rooster. He is able to break through an opponent's defenses with normal moves, but he has a few moves that cause recoil damage (damage to your own character) if they miss.
  • Braixen - Braixen is a fire type who looks like a fox carrying around a flaming cotton swab. Braixen has a lot of projectiles, but not as many as the next character.
  • Chandelure - Chandelure is a ghost/fire type that looks like a chandelier, and a lot of people's early choice in this game because of its ridiculous ability to churn out projectile after projectile. (My older son says he's "spammy".) Tekken games didn't involve projectiles very often, and some of the ones that did were very slow startup. It should prove confusing at first for most opponents in Pokkén to deal with all of these projectiles until more of the metagame is developed.
  • Charizard - A lot of people probably know Charizard because of his inclusion in Smash Bros. While he looks like a big orange dragon, so far his strength in Pokken has more to do with shutting down his opponent's attacks than being directly aggressive.
  • Garchomp - Garchomp is literally a land shark.
  • Gardevoir - We haven't played as this fairy/psychic character yet, but we can say that the computer is not that good at living up to the name. It wasn't guarding nearly enough of our attacks in the single player mode.
  • Gengar - Gengar has some creepy attacks. What do you expect? He's a ghost type.
  • Lucario - Another fan favorite from the Smash games series, Lucario seems well-balanced, but I only used him once.
  • Machamp - Machamp is a large four-armed fighting type. He only has a few ranged attacks, but is able to power through his opponent's ranged attacks easily to get in close where he can do more damage.
  • Mewtwo - Mewtwo needs unlocking first.
  • Pikachu - Pikachu is another popular choice in this game, both because of pure popularity and because he seems to genuinely be a solid character with a balanced moveset.
  • Pikachu Libre - At first I though this was a pretty silly choice, but my Pokémon knowledge is not quite as deep as my older son's. There are hundreds of Pokémon, and while Pikachu is rather popular, I wasn't sure why they had to build a second character variation, when it seemed like they could just have additional costumes for the characters to pick from. I mean, wasn't there Pikachu cosplay in Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire? Then, when you go and look it up, it turns out that Cosplay Pikachu is a different subspecies, and is only female.  The tip of the tail is black and heart-shaped, unlike a male Pikachu's pointy yellow-only tail, and a female Pikachu's yellow heart-shaped tail. My older son also reminded me that if they specifically wanted a luchador, in keeping with Tekken's inclusion of King, they could have picked the somewhat less popular Hawlucha. Pikachu Libre has a very strong (cheap?) "Double Team" move that makes it temporarily unhittable.
  • Sceptile - Sceptile is a grass type that looks like a tall lizard with a plant for a tail. We haven't quite figured out exactly what he's good at.
  • Shadow Mewtwo - Shadow Mewtwo is the character that you can unlock early with the amiibo card, but is also unlockable normally if you complete all of the Ferrum League. He's the boss of the game.
  • Suicune -Suicune, a dog-like creature with two tails, seems to have a lot of ranged moves which may prove difficult to get past.
  • Weavile - A dark/ice character, Weavile is fast and grumpy looking. Don't get clawed!

  • We haven't played everybody yet, but a few things seem pretty clear. The Tekken system of the buttons corresponding to limbs does not apply at all here. The only thing that seems to be the same as Tekken is the round fixed size arena and the sidestep and throw commands.

    We were worried that two-player was going to be somewhat choppy, because of the system having to render two instances of the game but we didn't really feel it.

    There are still a lot of other Pokémon in the game as support characters, but we don't have all of them unlocked yet, so maybe we will have to save that for another time. I'm sure that we will discover even more about the game after playing it for a while.

    Also - there's a Splatoon Splatfest today, so if you're not busy playing Pokkén, get out there and ink some stuff! (Don't let my older son catch you standing around at the spawn AFK, either!)

    Friday, March 18, 2016

    It's Pokkén Day! (But still too early.)

    My older kid is pretty excited for Pokkén Tournament, which comes out today for the WiiU. It's a fighting game, much in the style of Namco's Tekken, but using various Pokémon instead of Tekken's usual cast of martial artists. Unlike Street Fighter, which is played in a 2-D plane with a mostly fixed camera perspective, Tekken and Pokkén are usually played in a round arena and the camera swings around perpendicular to the characters, and sidestepping moves is an important defensive technique.

    He's certainly a lot more excited about this than about St. Patrick's day, which from his perspective seems to be about wardrobe infractions and green beer. By comparison, Pi Day seemed to have a lot more import, since we gathered around a computer, ate Key Lime Pie, and played quizzes on Sporcle.

    Sadly, he will have to wait until I get out of work today to play Pokkén, since I'm picking it up from my local Gamestop on the way home.  Preorder customers get an amiibo card that gets you the Shadow Mewtwo character available for use right away. (Presumably there's a complicated method to unlock him otherwise.)

    He's got the day off, so he may spend some of it playing The Legend of Zelda:Twilight Princess HD in the meantime.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2016

    Street Fighter V, Initial Impressions

    I picked up my Street Fighter V preorder for my Playstation 4 on Tuesday to little fanfare from my local Gamestop. It's not like they opened early, or did a midnight release - it's not like it's Call of Duty or Madden. The employee on duty had to try to work me real hard on the protection program and SFV's season pass to no avail. Thankfully, my kids know better than to use game discs as drink coasters thanks to other people's bad example. Also, why do I need a season pass for a game that swears you can earn enough in-game points to unlock all future characters? Do I look like a guy that cares about costumes? The employee didn't even notice that I was wearing my15th Anniversary Edtion Street Fighter T-shirt from 2004. (Or, maybe he did notice, and that's why he asked me about the season pass.)

    What do you get for preordering the non-premium version of the game? You get an alternate costume for Ryu, the game's main character. On reddit, in the /r/streetfighter subreddit, they've been referring to this costume as "Sexy Ryu".

    Unfortunately, the Gamestop employee had to ruin this for me by referring to this as the Chuck Norris version of Ryu.

    Once you load up the game, you can start right away in offline mode, but you can't earn any of the game's in-game points. Meanwhile, you have a 6 Gigabyte download in the background for the 1.01 patch. I don't care who you are, that's going to take a while. After that installs, you can connect the the online mode. If you don't have Playstation Plus, you can't fight against other people online, but even if you don't have plus you still need to be logged in and connected to earn the in-game currency that you can spend on the characters as they release.

    It's still Street Fighter, but it might feel unfamiliar. The animation is nice, although sometimes the characters have odd crosshatched textures to them like they're trying to crawl out of the pages of a comic book. The dynamic camera moves smoothly from showing the character entrances to the match. With the subtle changes made to input buffering, combo execution is much more consistent. However, all of the characters have had significant changes to their combos and some have had changes made to their specials. Chun-Li had the input for her Hyakuretsukyaku changed to a quarter circle motion plus a kick. (You used to just mash the kick button repeatedly until it started, but Capcom has been trying to remove special move inputs that could be adversely affected by network latency.) Personally, I like how they changed it because that move can also now be performed mid-air when it couldn't be before. Vega had all of his special move inputs changed. You can check all of the moves here. There's no Arcade mode right now. There's no Story Mode until after you download the patch. (Well, Street Fighter never had Story Mode at all before, so maybe that's something in and of itself.) The Survival Mode seems to have inconsistent computer AI difficulty. PC users are upset about a lack of controller compatibility and no button mapping utility. The one thing that's supposed to be working really well right now is online multiplayer, but since that's not a concern for me just yet, I haven't tried it.

    Here's my list of suggestions:

    • If you're going to play Street Fighter V against other people, don't wait. Hit the books now, learn the new moves and mechanics. If you need anything in the way of controllers I would suggest looking at what Hori has to offer. This goes double if you play with a pad instead of a stick - the Hori FC4 is fantastic compared to the MadCatz SFIV pads and works with PS3 and PS4. If you're playing on PC and have controllers that worked on XBox 360, those probably still work now.
    • If you're not going to play Street Fighter V against other people but you do really want to play it, give it a month. Alex, the first of the DLC characters, is supposed to be released in March, along with more single player content.
    • If you're going to play Street Fighter V against other people for money, go get in a time machine and go back to June 2015 and play the beta version more.
    • If you listen to a lot of Carly Simon, you might think that this bullet list is about you. Don't you? Don't you?
    My older son and I have played it quite a bit both yesterday evening and this evening, and while he used to main T. Hawk, he is now in the process of picking someone else since T. Hawk isn't currently in the lineup. I thought he was going to go to another grappler, but flashy (fleshy?) female wrestler R. Mika didn't really work for him at first. He did have some success with Necali (sort of a grappler?) and Rashid (totally not a grappler), though. If those guys don't work for him he might just wait for Namco to release Pokken next month. My younger son played it a little bit yesterday, and he didn't last long because Vega didn't work the way he expected but he may be switching to Zangief. I am getting the hang of Ken, who didn't really change that much, and I'm really digging Karin Kanzuki but I am probably going to rotate through all of the characters for a while so I can learn what each character's capabilities are.