Monday, June 15, 2015

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Beach Cubing, Bro edition.

I bring a 3x3x3 Rubik's cube with me to the beach - I have to presume that nobody that would be reading this is surprised by that. Most of the time, I just have it in my hands to fidget with. Lately when we go to the beach, we've been taking the world's cutest dog with us, so nobody notices the cube much anyway. I used to take a standard cube from eight or so years ago to the beach, knowing that it was always the same cube that went to the beach, but I was a little disappointed in the ratty-looking stickers as they wore down. This year, I started taking  a new Hasbro cube since I already knew that I couldn't hurt the plastic tiles much, and I recently gave it a good silicone spray bath and have improved its turn-ability a lot. I don't know if the silicone spray takes the logo off since I already accidentally removed it with sunscreen.

When they do notice that I have a cube, I never know what to expect, and I really try to tailor the experience to the audience. If it's a audience of one or two, I try to let them lead with their specific questions, and then explain the best I can from there. What's funny to me about the audience of one is that it's rarely an actual one-on-one experience, it's just that the one person is one person out of whoever is present.

If it's an audience of several people, I try to figure out the dynamic of the group and try to figure out if I have to lead with comedy or showmanship. With a group of serious young men, I seem to have to lead with showmanship, and usually that entails a good first solve. I have such low expectations for the Hasbro cube and I tell people it's going to take me 40-45 seconds and I often surprise myself and knock it out in much less, but never less than 30 seconds. After that, the funniest part of the dynamic is the serious young men saying to each other "Can't you do that? I thought you could do that."

If the group of people is a little bit older or has had a few adult beverages, usually I can lead with comedy. At very least I can lead with the explanation at a leisurely pace, unless there's a clamoring for the showoff part. In the explanation, I usually show a routine or two, to demonstrate the idea of a number of moves that represent moving a certain number of pieces in a certain way (like R2 U R U R' U' R' U' R' U R' moving three edges around in the U layer, or R' D' R D' R' D2 R D2 to twist three corners in the D layer while moving some edges aroud). Once they have the idea, then I can show them something a little sillier. I do the move F2 R2 F2 R2 F2 R2 on a solved cube and then turn the cube towards them, showing them the df and the dr edges that have been moved to the U layer, and then turn the cube the other way to show them the uf and ur edges that have been moved to the D layer. Once I show them that, I hold the cube with my middle finger and thumb on one pair of edges, and my other middle finger and other thumb on the other pair. You can get it back to the solved state without having to remove your fingers.

I guess it's only funny if you've been drinking.

The other night the group I was performing for were UK tourists, having a bit of fun paddleboarding and throwing a rugby ball around. When it was time to do the "prove it" solve, the person I handed it to seemed fairly careful with the scrambling, and it was only once I started turning the cube at speed that it occurred to me why.

"Feels like you got quite a bit of sunscreen on the cube here."

"Actually it's sausage fat."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Do you even cube, bro?

So after I had a chance to acclimate myself to a 7x7x7 V-Cube, I quickly realized that my large Rubik's cube skills needed some work, and so I decided to work on picking out a new 4x4x4. I immediately ruled out a V-cube, since the one thing that drives me a little bit nuts about it is how the blue and the green stickers are too close to the same value (see picture below), so I can't always tell them apart in some lighting conditions.

My first choice based on my familiarity with the mechanism would be a DaYan, but for whatever reason I couldn't find one on Amazon at the time. Since I like stickerless cubes, I got a Cyclone Boys 4x4 FeiYue.

On the off chance I didn't like the mechanism, I got the well-recommended and inexpensive Shengshou.

Both of them turn nice, although considering the only thing I have to compare it to is my original Ideal 4x4x4 from 1982 it's possible that anything might seem better.

I also picked up a Shengshou Megaminx.

As it turns out, I didn't enjoy the physical sensation of turning the Megaminx as much as I thought that I would. Since the part that you turn is just one of the pentagonal sides that represents only a small portion of the puzzle, you don't have the same feeling of manipulating the object that you do with a cube. I was able to solve the Megaminx on my own, just by re-purposing a few standard cube operators like LU'R'UL'U'RU that moves three corners around without moving edges, and variations on RUR'URU2R'.

I was already able to solve the 4x4x4, but I was using a corners-first solution similar to my usual 3x3x3 solution. You solve all of the U and D center pieces, solve the eight corners, solve all of the U and D edges, solve the eight edges in the middle layer, and then solve the remaining center pieces in the middle layer. Now that I have better turning cubes, I have learned most of the edge matching method, where you solve all of the centers, match up all of the edge pairs, and then solve the cube as if it was a 3x3x3. However, there is one problem with the edge matching method - it is prone to parity errors. You can get to the end of solving the cube and have an edge pair flipped around the wrong way, or you can have two sets of edge pairs swapped with each other, or even both of those things at once. Since these are things that can't happen on a 3x3x3 Rubik's Cube, they seem a little disconcerting at first. These can happen because with all of the additional center pieces , there are less constraints on how pieces can appear to be swapped.

Fixing the two sets of edge pairs is easier - swapping the uf pair of edges with the ub pair can be done with the move r2 U2 r2 (Uu)2 r2 u2. If you are unfamiliar with cube notation, check here since it's what I'm using. There are some variations on the notation for larger cubes.

The other case where an edge pair is in the wrong way, that looks like a single edge flip on a 3x3x3 cube, is a little more difficult and harder to memorize. It is r2 B2 U2 l U2 r' U2 r U2 F2 r F2 l' B2 r2.

So another more oddball bit of cubing news comes from yesterday's outing to the beach. I had a couple of the new Hasbro Rubik's cubes in the car, the ones with plastic tiles and the hard-to-disassemble mechanism that I documented here. The logos on these cubes are painted on to the plastic, and up to now I had not worn any of it off in any way. After I applied sunscreen, however, the logo came off the cube I was handling in a minute or two.

Normally people wouldn't have cubes with them at the beach (yes, I'm the only one), but here in Florida there are lots of reasons to apply sunscreen that have nothing to do with the beach.

In other news, in my replay of the God of War games, I am only on God of War 2 so far. I seem to only remember specific puzzles and boss battles in this game, while I was able to remember most of God of War 1 in its entirety. There is less emphasis on narrative, which may be what the difference is, or it may be that there just seems like there's less consistent narrative because I only play for a little bit at a time. The next game I will play is a conversion of one of the handheld games, so that will be quite a new experience for me.

I found out from my older son about a new LEGO game in the works, and I want to be excited about the new Mortal Kombat release, but I think I will talk more about those next time.

Monday, March 16, 2015

They just don't make them like they used to. Or do they?

Over the last few months,  I have been steadily picking up cheap games for the PS3 knowing that my window for getting them is steadily closing.

Now that I have a couple of Move controllers, I picked up the Time Crisis Razing Storm disc (2010, Namco) that also includes the other Namco light gun shooters Time Crisis 4 and Deadstorm Pirates. It was only nine bucks, and that's only three bucks a game! I had passed on Time Crisis 4 when it originally came out in 2007 because I didn't have a PS3 yet and it wasn't the sort of game that I was inclined to pick up a system for. Time Crisis 4 and Deadstorm Pirates are rock-solid arcade ports, but there's not much in the way of extras. Razing Storm has a variety of extra modes and a campaign mode that requires a more difficult control scheme and the Move Navigation controller. The two Time Crisis games are very consistent with the rest of the series, and the Deadstorm Pirates game is still a lot of fun despite simpler mechanics and no cover system.

Also in the light gun genre, I picked up House of the Dead:Overkill (2009, SEGA/Headstrong). It does a good job of making you think you're watching some sort of grindhouse film, including visual artifacts and poorly edited dialogue. It also has the second highest profanity count of any video game currently in existence, only because Mafia 2 (2010, 2K Czech) dethroned it. The game is still fun, and since the overall writing is well crafted, the profanity bothers me less than the nature of the swearing in something like Mad World where it just seemed like it was shoehorned in. In terms of the campy nature of the game, the only things that's even in its class is Lollipop Chainsaw.

Overall, the Move controllers work really well for light gun games - I even find them more reliable than the Wii's Wiimotes. I was hoping to complete my light gun trifecta with Capcom's Chronicles HD Collection, but I haven't run across a copy yet. I was also hoping that there would be Move support added to the HD version of the survival horror classic Resident Evil 4 on PS3, but there isn't. RE5 is the only one, since the control scheme in RE6 is too complicated for the Move.

It is nice to know that the PS4 supports the use of the Move controllers, although it does not support the use of the PS3 camera with them. So, you have to get a  new camera but the controllers are fine. (I'm not there yet, so it's not really a concern.)

So what have I been playing besides old light gun games? I went back to revisit the Sony in-house franchise God of War. I didn't realize at the time how revolutionary this game would be, how much it would raise the bar for voice actors and production costs for many of the games that followed. It is big, dramatic, and violent, but the writing is interesting, the framing of the imagery very cinematic, and the acting is on par with anything that Hollywood throws out there. Most of the saga can be had on the PS3 for $19.99 - if you get it, make sure you buy a new copy. The God of War:Saga discs have GOW1&2 on the first disk, 3 on the second, and the conversions of the two handheld games (Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta as a download code. The older games have been re-rendered, which makes them look nice and shiny again because the game is running at the right resolution for newer TV's.  You can tell the difference with the cutscenes that have not been re-rendered, looking rather fuzzy and not as nice as you remember it looking. There's one more God of War game for PS3 - the multiplayer game Ascension, which I picked up for $7.50 when GameStop put a bunch of copies on a weekend flash sale. While I have played neither of the handheld games before, nor had I played Ascension, I am going to play everything in release order, even if that means re-playing 1, 2, and 3 because frankly they're some of the best games I've ever played.

Another important tip: If you had a save game for the standalone version of God of War 3, and you put in the God of War 3 disk from God of War:Saga, there is a substantial chance that the game will never make it to the menu screen and just stall out on a black screen before making it to the menu. There are some people that have old PS3's that can't play Saga or Ascension because of disk mastering issues and have battled with their retailer trying to get another disk, but that was not my issue. In my case, all I had to do was erase my old incompatible save files and GOW3 then came up just fine.

With all of this nostalgic ultra-violence on my screen, you have to wonder what my kids are playing - turns out that my older son has been playing a lot of WiiU Smash Bros, and more often than not my younger son has been playing Sengoku Basara Utage. (Not bad for a kid that can't read very much Japanese.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Two good examples of the Second Habit.

I typed this weeks and weeks ago thinking I would use it nearer to when "Splatoon" comes out for WiiU, but it's taken longer than I originally thought for the game to be finished and I'm uncomfortable with a post lingering in the backlog for too long.

I was sent to a few productivity seminars at my last job, and while a few day-to-day things stuck, one really apparent thing stuck with me and resonated with the way that I want to be able to do things: The Second Habit from the Seven Habits that they teach at the Franklin-Covey classes.

Basically stated, the Second Habit is : Begin with the End in Mind.

If you know what it is that you're trying to accomplish, it's easier to attain that goal. More importantly, the more specific a goal you're trying to attain, the more specific you can be about how to go about achieving that goal. You'll have to pardon me for with starting with an electrical construction example, but it may turn out to be useful information for a lot of you regardless.

The recessed light can may not seem important, because it just looks like a metal cylinder to hold a light bulb in the ceiling, but it typically dictates what trim and what light source you use. The trim is the part of the light fixture that you can see once it's installed in the ceiling, usually just a decorative ring around the light source. Sometimes the trim is a shiny reflector, sometimes it's just a baffle to disperse the light around, or perhaps it's a fancy piece of art glass, or an adjustable bracket and housing that allows the light to be aimed a certain way. There are a lot of brands of recessed light out there, and quite a number of available sizes, and at least as many different trims as can fill ten catalogs the size of a phone book. The majority of the trims out there are designed for a specific light source type and go in a specific brand and type of recessed can. The cans are by no means universal, and most manufacturers can't be bothered with getting all of their different trims tested and UL listed for use in other manufacturer's fixtures. Only a few of the most generic trims may get approved for use in other fixtures. These days the light source could be incandescent, fluorescent, LED, metal halide, some sort of low voltage reflector lamp, and a lot of variation exists even among those categories. In addition, the sorts of light sources that would go in a smaller 3" or 4" fixture would seem lost in a larger recessed can, so the trims you might easily find in a smaller can are nowhere to be found in the catalog for the larger fixtures or vice versa.

With the great variety of lamps and trims available, and not to mention the hundreds of other light fixture types that may go into a commercial project, often a lighting designer or an engineer or an architect is involved in the process of selecting the exact fixtures to be used for the job. Knowing what the customer is looking for as an end result is key to making a good selection of light fixture. That end result could be anything from keeping the price of the lighting as low as possible, to achieving a specific light color, to creating a specific mood in a space. There are always tradeoffs, of course. The cheapest fixture may not have a trim available that meets the aesthetic requirements, the most adjustable fixture may the most expensive, certain colors of light sources may only be readily available in certain sizes, and so on.

Back to the recessed can, now we look at the fixture in the context of a project to be completed. When a general contractor comes on to the job, his primary concern is usually time, since there is a lot to do and coordinate and his costs for a job typically go up in proportion with the amount of time taken. While many light fixtures are merely mounted to a junction box, and the box is a simple, inexpensive, industry standard item that can be put in quickly before drywall goes in, the recessed light has to go in before the drywall does. If a wall light shows up late to the job, it can be mounted after everything else happens. Wiring can go in and be ready at the box and it's a simple matter to install the fixture once it arrives. Recessed lights really should go in before the drywall in the ceiling is done. It's the sort of thing that can hold up a project - but it's also the sort of thing that can't afford to be done twice. I've seen contractors panic and tell the electrician that they need to put in a more readily available light fixture, and have them go pick something up that's on a shelf somewhere. So, if it turns out you can't get the trim or the light source for that recessed can that the designer had originally picked out, what have you saved? Alternately, if you cancel an order with a vendor because they can't produce fixtures fast enough for your schedule and have to start a redesign with an alternate vendor, how much time have you really saved?

I will admit that there are instances where a job is ridiculously overdesigned and the contractor and the electrician do manage to save the day (not to mention the job schedule) with a smart redesign. Usually that tends to happen when the designers aren't really listening to the owner.

If it's your project, and maybe you're just talking about fixing up one room, you still have to ask yourself a few questions about what you want and how you're going to accomplish it. The first question should always be "What do I want this project to look like when I'm done"? All the other questions and answers lead from the answer to the first question.

So, now to the other side of this. Console video game systems are about what kind of game you want to play. Certainly, there are many games these days made for multiple platforms these days.  When the basic game experiences - visuals, sound, controls, content - are the same between multiple platforms that doesn't mean you will enjoy the same experience. Sometimes the network or the community differences between versions of a game can make a big difference.  (Do I have to pay extra to play online? Does one of the versions of the game allow you to spend real money to get in-game advantages in multiplayer? Which of my friends are playing this game and on what system? Was the networking code for one of the versions of the game written by monkeys randomly operating computer terminals?)

Where the systems are more different, it takes more consideration to figure out how one wants to play the same game on different systems. Do I want to use an updated version of a comfortable controller? Do I want to take a chance on a new controller because I think that having a touchscreen will help with the kinds of games  I want to play?

At the extreme ends of the disparity, it comes down to things like which system exclusive series you want to play. If you really like the Zelda or Mario series, then you're probably already sticking with the Nintendo machines because there really isn't anything comparable to those experiences on other platforms. But, if you're amenable to some alternate suggestions, many have found the Darksiders games a bit like the Zelda series in terms of the combination of overworld action and item-specific dungeon areas. Honestly, I don't think there is anything on any other platform that is like the Mario games, so I don't think we can find an alternate choice for that game

If you're a racing fan, you may like Gran Turismo, a Sony exclusive series which leans very heavy toward simulation, but there are other similarly featured racing games like Forza for the Microsoft systems. That's not to say that there's no racing on Nintendo systems, but lets just say that if you don't like the word cart with a "K" in it, maybe that won't work for you.

If you've been a big fan of shooters or sandbox games, then it's more likely you're playing on a Microsoft or Sony machine. While it would be interesting to see what Nintendo could do with Mario and company in an open-world game, it's not usually the sort of narrative that they craft. Traveler's Tales has done a fantastic job with Lego City Undercover in that regard, and the WiiU version of Batman:Arkham City (called Batman:Arkham City Armored Edition) is another great choice. If you are playing WiiU now and you're mad that there aren't a lot of shooters, remember Nintendo's intended demographic and have an open-minded look at Splatoon.

At a certain point, it no longer matters which hardware is 'better' than which. If the end result is playing games that are enjoyable to you, then the decisions made on hardware need to support that. While I have thrown out a handful of cases where you can find suitable alternate games for certain genres even with the least favorable hardware choice, note that these are largely the exceptions that I'm pointing out.

Of course, if you can't manage the perfect combination of hardware and software, or the right combination of fixture and light source and you feel like you're just doing the best you can manage - just wait a few years, technology will improve, and you can carry your gathered wisdom with you to the next challenge.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What is the opposite of solved?

My holiday cubing was noteworthy this year. I spent some time working on solving large cubes, although I haven't managed to migrate to a modern solution yet. It was nice to knock three minutes off of my 5x5x5 solve time, although it's not really that noteworthy since I'm just down to 10 minutes from 13. I couldn't really do much with my 4x4x4 time, since I'm still using a Rubik's Revenge from the 80's and the stickers slide around a lot and I'm worried about losing one. Both of those were just warmups for the VCube 7x7x7 that I got this Christmas, but my only solve time for that was nearly three-quarters of an hour, and I'm nervous about the stickers on that as well as they're very small and I've managed to rough one of them up already. I'm not quite ready for anything bigger until I refine my solution, since nobody wants to sit around for hours while I solve a cube. (At least I'm not working on a 17x17x17.)

As a result, the 3x3x3 still has to be the go-to cube for going out in public and talking about cubing. It's still the most mechanically robust design, and it's what people are familiar with anyway. So, that's what I'm always carrying around with me. Last Friday night at a small gathering of friends, I was asked about something unusual - something quite the opposite of what's usually done with the cube. I was asked if it was possible to get all six colors on each of the six sides. I was pretty sure that it was, but I didn't have a ready answer because I didn't seem to be in the right frame of mind. (I had fumbled a question about the meaning of the Apple logo despite having just listened to an episode of The Nerdist with Benedict Cumberbatch the week before.) I knew that there should be several possible positions that satisfied these conditions, but it worried me a little because in my head I started with the most extreme case - throwing stickers on a blank cube and then wondering if it meets conditions of solvability afterwards.

If you take a cube apart and reassemble it at random, you have a one in twelve chance of having a solvable cube. If you start from a blank cube and apply stickers at random, you have a much lower chance of having a solvable cube. If you put the six centers on first, assigning random stickers, you have less than a 1 in 48 chance of having a solvable cube since all six have to be different. It just gets worse from there. Clearly, this was the wrong approach for the problem. So, as I walked back home, I imagined what you could do with conventional patterns, hoping that I could figure out something that wasn't too bad, but nothing came to mind. I could guarantee three or four easily, but once I put more one place, I would always have a side that came up short.

When I got home, I did a quick internet search, thinking that this was already a solved problem and I was just going to reinvent the wheel. While I found a couple people asking the question rather easily, I did not find the answer there. It was hard to find people that even understood the question, since I don't always hold out a lot of hope for Yahoo Answers on questions of this type. But, in the minute or two that I looked, I also didn't find anything that overtly stated that it was an impossible position, so I decided that I would stop checking the internet and leave it as a problem for Saturday

Often when presented with a problem like this, I find myself working on it even when I'm not working on it. As I put my head down to go to sleep, I have this overwhelming thought - "Superflip!" Now, this is not the entire solution, but it puts you a lot closer without much difficulty. The position referred to as the superflip is the state of the Rubik's cube where all of the pieces are in their correct places, the corners are all correctly oriented, but none of the edges are correctly oriented.

So, with the superflip, you automatically have 5 different colors on each side - the corners and the center are the regular color of the face, and the four edges are the colors of the four adjacent faces. The only thing left to do are things that manipulate centers or corners that mix colors from opposite faces. If you move centers around, you can either move six centers to adjacent faces, which we don't need, or you can move four centers to opposite faces, which gets us 2/3 of the way there.

The cube on the left is the superflip cube from the first picture with the centers moved, the cube on the right is a cube with only the same four centers manipulated.

So, I am left with only two sides that need a piece from the opposite side, and no available tool to move centers around. So, what can I use to manipulate some corner pieces without disturbing the edges? The first thought I had was one of the zigzag patterns.

So, once you do that, then the finished cube ends up like this:

So, now we have all six different colors on all six of the sides. If you need the cheat code to get here, try using B' D2 L2 B L' R' D B F' L' F2 R' B2 R' D' U' F2 R2.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The future of Street Fighter is here, and it is noodly.

Fans everywhere of Capcom's "Street Fighter" fighting game series rejoiced this week. Not only did a new patch for Ultra Street Fighter IV get released which included character re-balancing and the debut of the supremely wacky Omega Mode, but we also got our first glimpse at a live match of Street Fighter V which was announced for PC and Playstation 4.

While the Nerdist runs the headline as "Destructible Stages Revealed in First Ever Live Street Fighter V Match", I think they buried the lead here. The real headline should be "Chun-Li Kicks Butt, Even With A Bowl Of Noodles On Her Head."

If you fast forward to around 6:54, you will see series mainstay Ryu finish a round against Chun-Li with a devastating Denjin Hadoken, pushing her through the stage wall and into the kitchen where a bowl of noodles lands on her head. It's not just a cutscene tagged onto the end of the round - the noodles stay on her head for all of her victorious last round and the closing tag, despite her rather acrobatic Spinning Bird Kicks.

Certainly, there are more implications to be discussed, like why Street Fighter V isn't going to make it to XBox One or WiiU, or how on earth Charlie has made it back into the series despite being MIA since the Alpha series games, but those will have to wait for another time.