Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hail the New Champion!

Sometimes traditional methods win out over the most high tech designs. Such was the case this Wednesday when my son Matthew's pinewood derby car not only won his pack's derby but it also beat the Übercar! I'm not sure if my car was just not dialed in properly or if Matt's car just happened to luck into the perfect wheel alignment but either way I have to admit that he beat me!

Naturally, Matt had my help building this car but the design was all his. I explained the principles and he came up with the design. He operated the power tools (with my supervision of course) and sanded the wood. I helped him polish the wheels and axles (turns out he doesn't have much patience for that) and helped him align the axles. He did the paint job.

His younger brother Chris' car came in second in the derby and might well have come in first if he hadn't had a minor crisis just before the race. On the way into the building, his car hit the pavement and one of his wheels decided to take a short vacation. We had to do some emergency repairs right before the race and I don't think we ever got that axle properly aligned again. It's hard when you don't have the proper tools handy.
I'm pretty happy for both of them! Now I'll just have to go back to the drawing board and see if I can come up with another car that can beat my son's!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Game Night Writeup

Last night was game night and this time I stayed for the full meal deal. I got there just after five and stayed until well past midnight. I'm gonna be napping at my desk this morning for sure.

My evening started out with To Court the King. This is a nice little dice game that has been called strategic Yahtzee or Yahtzee the Gathering due to superficial similarities to Yahtzee and Magic the Gathering. In this game players roll sets of dice trying to get certain combinations such as pairs, triples, runs, full houses, etc.; similar to Yahtzee. But in this game, instead of earning you points, your rolls earn you cards depicting members of the king's court. Each member of the court brings with him (or her) special abilities such as allowing you to roll more dice or adjust the numbers shown on one or more dice. Furthermore, you aren't limited to five dice; you start with three dice but as you add more members to your court that number can grow to ten or more. The object is to eventually roll eight of a kind so you can claim the king. Then once the king is claimed, there is a roll-off to determine a winner by seeing who can roll the most dice that match. For a game with this much dice, there is a surprising amount of strategy. The different abilities on the cards interact in interesting and sometimes complex ways which do a lot to mitigate the luck. Also, it's often not in your best interest to go for the most difficult dice combination available to you at a given time. Because there are a limited number of each courtier and you're only allowed one of each, it's often a better idea to pick off the easier ones before your opponents to be sure that you have the most flexibility in later turns. I came in second in a five player game and I'll happily play this again. Yahtzee's not really a favorite of mine but this game is much, much better.

Next up for me was On the Underground, a new game by Sebastian Bleasdale and Rio Grande Games. In this game, players build rail connections throughout the city of London. A traveler token moves about the city following a set of rules and your main goal is to get him to use your underground lines to get wherever he's going. I enjoyed this game quite a bit (I tied for the win and winning always seems to improve my impression *grin*) but I thought that it was a little bit fiddly. There are a ton of little wooden bits to manage and figuring out where the traveler will go next can sometimes be a little bit of a headache. It's perhaps a little bit too busy to appeal to the average family game player. Still, it's worth looking at. I'm sure there will be plenty of folks that will really enjoy it. We haven't got this game in the store yet but we should be getting it soon.

When that game broke up we had six people that weren't already playing another game so we decided to play . Mü is easily my favorite traditional trick taking game. It works best with five but it works quite well with four or six. I've talked about it enough in the past and I'm considering writing up a full review soon so for now I'll just say that I managed to come in second for the evening which in a six player game is a pretty good accomplishment, especially since it took a very good last hand to put me there.

And that's where my luck ended. I finished my night with two games of Tichu and they were both unmitigated disasters. Every time I or my partner had a good hand (which was rare enough), our opponents seemed to have a better one. Very frustrating. Great game though.

There were other games played last night as well but the one that sticks most in my mind is a very long game of Roads and Boats. It seemed that every time one of us asked they'd say "We're almost done!" Almost done is clearly a relative term.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Geekin' the iPod

Warning: long and very geeky post ahead that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with games. You have been warned.

Apple's iPod is currently the clear winner in the digital music wars but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Sure, the iPod looks really cool. Yeah, it's super sleek, super compact, and it has a really nifty user interface (love that click-wheel). And sure, the iTunes store has built-in podcast support and easy access to a huge and well organized catalog of music for download. Oh, all of those things may be true but none of those things is what really sets the iPod apart from the competition. Oh no. The thing that really makes the iPod light-years better than the rest is: the smartlist. Zune doesn't have it. Creative doesn't have it. Nobody but Apple has it and it's the best thing to happen to music since it first went digital.

So what is a smartlist and why should you care? Well basically, a smartlist is a filter that lets you build a list of songs based on any one of the dozens of different attributes that iTunes associates with each of your songs. For instance, you could build a smartlist that contains twenty randomly chosen songs by your favorite band. Or you could build a smartlist that contains all songs that you have rated with five stars.

When I first started using my iPod I immediately realized how useful it would be to rate each of my songs and I immediately created a smartlist that contained all of my four and five star songs. Then I could turn on shuffle and play that list, ensuring that I never heard a stinker. That was fine for a while but I soon realized that I wanted to be able to do more. I kept hearing the same songs repeating over and over (because random selection does not ensure that each song gets played the same number of times, or even at all) and I wanted more control over how the songs were mixed. Because Apple (foolishly in my opinion) doesn't provide any detailed documentation on how smartlists actually work, and because there are some quirks that aren't immediately obvious, it wasn't until much later that I actually figured out how to leverage them to give myself exactly what I wanted. Now that I've figured it out, I'm going to share what I've learned.

How Smartlists Work

(Caveat: this information is correct as of March 16, 2007)

The iPod has two kinds of playlists: regular playlists and smartlists. Both are important so I'll explain them both here.

Regular playlists are useful but they're static. A playlist is just a simple list of songs (well actually, tracks since you can also include podcasts or videos or most anything you can store in iTunes). It never changes unless you make it change by adding or removing songs to the list yourself. Its order is also static. If you want song A to play before song B then you need to put song A above song B in the list.

A smartlist is a set of rules that iTunes (or the iPod) uses to populate a playlist. A simple smartlist might be: "All songs rated greater than 3 stars." When you create a smartlist, iTunes evaluates all of your songs against the conditions of the list and populates the list based upon those conditions.

Smartlists can be built with multiple conditions. If you use more than one condition in a smartlist then you can specify that either all conditions must by satisfied or any of the conditions must be satisfied. (Some of you will recognize that as a logical AND or a logical OR.) There are dozens of conditions you can evaluate against but some of the most useful are conditions that check the rating of the song, the artist, the title, the genre, the play count, the skip count, or the length.

Smartlists can also be limited to a set number of songs (based on count, time, or size) which are chosen either randomly, or by some other criteria (such as length or play count).

iTunes comes with a few pre-built smartlists such as the "most recently played" list which lists all tracks which have been played in the last two weeks by descending play order, so the most recently played track is at the top of the list. There's nothing special about these smartlists. They follow the same rules as any other smartlist. You can even change them or delete them if you want to.

Smartlists caused me no end of frustration when I first discovered them. The first thing I tried was to set up a smartlist that contained twenty random 4 and 5 star songs. I immediately discovered that I got exactly what I'd asked for but that the list never changed. It was the same twenty songs in the same order every time I played it! That's hardly useful.

So the next thing I tried was to check the "live update" box. I figured that would make the list change every time I played it. WRONG! There was no difference! The list still always contained the same twenty songs! How odd!

Eventually I realized that smartlists weren't broken. I just didn't understand how they worked. I needed to know the answers to three important questions: "How can I force a song to leave my list?", "What happens to the other tracks in the list?" and "When will the list be updated?" These questions and others will be answered in this section.

There are a few very important concepts you need to understand about smartlists:

  1. Smartlists do not change unless something causes them to be updated.
  2. Tracks are never automatically reordered within a smartlist.
  3. Tracks are not automatically removed from a smartlist unless they no longer meet the list criteria.
So when will a smartlist be updated? A normal smartlist will be updated whenever you press the OK button in its property box. That implies when you create the list or change the list conditions, or even if you don't change the list conditions but just open the property box and press OK.

Live-Update smartlists are a little different. In iTunes, live-update smartlists are updated every few seconds whether they're selected or not. On the iPod it's less frequent since the iPod has limited processing power. Instead, a live-update smartlist is updated on the iPod only whenever it is chosen from the playlists menu. Merely repeating the smartlist isn't good enough. You have to actually select the list again.

Removing a song from a smartlist can be done in any number of ways. The easiest way is to select the song in iTunes and delete the song (note that the song is only removed from the list; not your library). If you delete only some of the songs then the other songs will remain in the list and they'll slide up to take the place of the deleted songs. The next time the list updates, the list conditions will be evaluated to see if more songs should be added to the list.

Going back to my first example of the 20 random songs list, if I just select all the songs and delete them they'll disappear from the list. Now if I open the list properties window and press the OK button it will suck in 20 more random songs. If I make the list "live updating" and delete all the songs, then I need only wait a second or two (if that) and the list will repopulate itself; no need to open the property box at all.

Do note that deleting a song from a list like this one doesn't necessarily mean it won't be pulled right back into the list. If it still meets the conditions then it might very well be chosen again.

Another cool thing about smartlists is that you can reorder the songs in a smartlist if you want to by clicking and dragging songs around and your changes will be respected because the songs will still all meet the list conditions.

The problem with using delete to remove songs from a smartlist is that there's no delete key on the iPod so you can't use this method to change the list dynamically on your iPod. Instead what you need to do is find a way to make the song remove itself from the list by no longer meeting the criteria. The easiest way to do that is to add two rules to your list:
  • exclude any song that has been played in the last day
  • exclude any song that has been skipped in the last day

Now songs will automatically drop off the list as they are played and if you decide you don't want to hear a song then you can skip it and that will also cause it to drop off the list. Note that you still should let it play for a second or two or the iPod may not mark it as skipped. Also note that on the iPod the songs won't actually be removed from the list until you select the list again from the playlist menu (a side-effect which can actually be rather handy). And also note that this means you won't hear the same song twice in a day using a list like this. (It would be very nice if Apple would let us specify a time interval shorter than a day.)

Putting It All Together

Now that you understand how smartlists really work you can do some very cool things by combining smartlists. Let me give you an example. Consider this set of lists:

-The Mix-
match any of:
.playlist is Ω 5 Star Feed
.playlist is Ω 4 Star Feed
.playlist is Ω Recently Added Feed
25 songs chosen randomly
live-update true

Ω 5 Star Feed
match all of:
.rating is 5 stars
.last skipped is greater than 1 day
.last played is greater than 1 day
6 songs chosen randomly
live-update true

Ω 4 Star Feed
match all of:
.rating is 4 stars
.last skipped is greater than 1 day
.last played is greater than 1 day
3 songs chosen randomly
live-update true

Ω Recently Added Feed
match all of:
.playlist is not Ω 5 Star Feed
.playlist is not Ω 4 Star Feed
.rating is greater than 3 stars
.last skipped is greater than 1 day
.last played is greater than 1 day
.date added is less than 2 months
3 songs chosen randomly
live-update true

This may look a little complicated but it's actually not that bad. The result is that -The Mix- will contain twelve randomly chosen songs with a carefully crafted mix: six 5-star songs, three 4 star songs, and three 4 or 5 star songs that I recently added to my collection.

One thing to notice is that -The Mix- is limited to 25 songs although it can only contain 12. The size of the list in this case is limited by the size of the lists upon which it depends. It will add random songs until either there are no more songs to add or until the list is full. Choosing a larger number means that if I ever decide that I'm not hearing enough 5 star songs I can bump the size of that list and I don't have to worry about changing the conditions in the master list.

Notice also that the Recently Added Feed checks itself against the contents of the 5 Star and 4 Star Feeds. That's because the criteria overlap and if I didn't do this then it might choose something that's already been chosen by one of the other lists. That really isn't a problem because when the lists are combined into -The Mix- the duplicate songs would only show up once, but that would result in a shorter list and I'd rather have the list always be the same length.

Another thing to notice is that -The Mix- starts with a hyphen and the various dependent lists start with an omega symbol (Ω). That's to make sure that the main list shows up first on my iPod's playlist menu and the various smartlists that are used to build it are forced to sort at the end of the menu behind any other lists that I might actually want to select. Sort order tricks like this are handy because it means it's easy to find the list I really want. (It would be nice if Apple let you hide certain lists altogether on the iPod.)

The list I actually use on my iPod is much more complex than this. It consists of a precise mix of 5 star songs, 4 star songs, recently added songs, songs that haven't played in a very long time, songs that have never been played at all, a few Brazilian songs (I lived in Brazil for a while), and one of a few other select songs that I want placed into "heavy rotation". Furthermore, instead of drawing my 4 and 5 star songs from the entire iPod or even a single genre, it pulls my songs from a carefully crafted set of lists that contain all the types of music I generally listen to. I also have special song feeds for Christmas songs and country songs that I can play if the mood strikes me.

I've also set up lists whose sole purpose is to help me maintain my feed lists. These lists show me all the songs that are not rated at all, songs that for whatever reason are not available to any of my main music feeds, and many other conditions that are interesting to me.

Here's a little gotcha I discovered the hard way: don't build a live-update smartlist that uses the "podcast is not true" condition. While that condition is supported in iTunes, it is not supported on the iPod so your smartlist won't ever "live update" on your iPod. Instead use "genre is not podcast".


Note that all of this assumes that you've rated all of your music. I use a pretty simple ratings system that works like this:

  • 5 stars: songs that I love and am always eager to hear. These should come up most frequently.

  • 4 stars: songs that I like and want placed into my rotation.

  • 3 stars: songs that I think are fine but I don't like them enough to want to hear them unless I explicitly select them. Most of these start life as 4 star songs and then I bump them down as I've decided they're not good enough to hear very often. I occasionally review these to see if some should be promoted again.

  • 2 stars: songs that I really don't like. If my iPod ever begins to fill up, these are the first to go.

  • 1 star: songs that I want kept around but I don't want these ever placed into rotation. Most of these are songs that are duplicated elsewhere in my collection; perhaps they're on a greatest hits album. Sometimes these are track that only work in an album context. The key here is that a one rating doesn't mean that I hate the song; it just means that I've rated it and I want it to stick around.

  • 0 stars: songs that I haven't rated yet.
Naturally, you're free to use whatever rating system suits you.

Last Words

Once you've got your music feeds set up just the way you want them you may never need to use the iPod's shuffle feature again. Since your master playlist will be populated by a random set of songs anyway, there's little reason to turn on shuffle and leaving shuffle off can have several advantages. For example, even though the list is randomly generated, it's sometimes nice to be able to see what's coming up next. Also, if you have to pause playback for whatever reason it's very easy to continue right where you left off because when you navigate back to your playlist later, the song you were listening to last will be at the top of your list when you return to it.

So take control of your iPod! Don't let Apple's mysterious shuffle algorithms get the better of you! Make sure you always get to listen to what you want to listen even when you aren't sure!

Finally, are you listening Microsoft? The Zune's pretty cool but until you come up with something that can compete with Apple's smartlist you will never be number one.

Appendix: Essential Smartlist Principles

  1. Smartlists only change by themselves when they are updated.
  2. Simple Smartlists are updated only when you press OK on their properties dialog.
  3. Live-Update Smartlists are updated in iTunes every few seconds.
  4. Live-Update Smartlists are updated on the iPod only by the act of choosing them from the menu.
  5. Tracks are removed from a list only when the list is updated and they no longer meet the criteria.
  6. If a track is removed then subsequent tracks slide up to take its place. When the list is next updated, the rules will be consulted to see if more tracks should be added.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Shorter Game Night

Last night was game night and I went but I'm afraid that I didn't stick around very long. I've had a lot going on lately and I really just wanted to take it easy at home. So when the turnout was a little on the slim side and we found ourselves with an inconvenient number of free players I took advantage of the lull to make my exit.

In fact, I only got in two games. My evening started with one half of a game of Tichu. Then after enough other people had arrived we broke that game off to play Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix. When that finished, one of our number had to leave and we were left with the same four that were involved in the aborted Tichu game so we finished our game and then I headed for home. Meanwhile the others in our group got in a game of Yspahan followed by game of Hermagor. I'm told that Power Grid came out after I had left.

Here are a few brief comments on each of the games played.

Tichu: I've said it many times and I'm sure I'll say it again. For my tastes, this is the best four player partnership card game on the planet. I've played it hundreds of times and I never get tired of it. Even when I lose badly like I did last night. Enough said.

Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix: This is a really nice card driven race game. Cars are auctioned off to all the players and then the cars run a single lap around the board. Owners are awarded cash based on how their cars place. Whoever has the most money after three races wins. Players take turns playing cards from their hand. Each card moves one or more cars. Since you are required to play a card on your turn you often end up advancing other cars more than your own. The game is all about deciding which cards to hold back and which to play when. It's all timing. I did pretty well but I didn't win.

Yspahan: This is a very nice game from Ystari games, the folks who did Ys, Caylus and Mikerinos. Greatly oversimplified: it's a dice driven area control game. I like it but it's not my favorite. It seems that Curt's always playing this game lately. I can only assume that he likes it more than I do.

Hermagor: I've never played this one. It's by the same guy that did Oltre Mare and Il Principe which are both pretty good games. I know nothing about Hermagor other than that it seemed to take a very long time for them to play it. The fact that they were also just learning how to play it may have a lot to do with that. Hopefully I'll get a chance to try it out soon.

Power Grid: I consider this game to be Friedeman Friese's masterpiece. It's a wonderful game of auctions, economics, and supply and demand. It's polished and clever and can be quite difficult to play well. I need to play this one again soon. It's been a while.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Nübercar

Last August you may remember that I posted a short article about a pinewood derby car I made called the Übercar. Well it's that time of year again, and so over the last week I helped my two cubs build their cars for this year's race. I also took the opportunity to build this:

Call it "Übercar 2", "Son of Übercar", "The New Übercar", or perhaps just "The Nübercar". Whatever you call it, I call it pretty darn fast. Last night I had the chance to test it out against the original Übercar at a race I ran for a cub scout pack in Issaquah. The Nübercar averaged 3 hundredths of a second faster than the original Übercar. I credit such new features as a slightly longer wheelbase, more carefully aligned and polished wheels and axles, and a spiffy purple paint job. Well OK, perhaps the paint job doesn't have much to do with it but it sure looks cool.

Here's a short video of the car in action. In the last two sequences (3 and 4), my oldest son's pinewood derby car is in the left lane as an example of a typical cub scout's first place car. The original Übercar is in the center lane and the Nübercar is on the right, winning by over half a length.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

This Week's Gaming Goodness

We had a lighter than usual turnout this Tuesday since several of our regulars are on vacation but we still managed to get in plenty of good games.

First up for me was The Downfall of Pompeii. This game is by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, the same guy who gave us Carcassonne. It's a relatively light game about the Roman town that was famously eradicated in 79 A.D. when nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted. The game is played in two parts. In part one, players rush to put as many of their citizens in Pompeii as they can. Then in part two, players rush to pull as many of their citizens out of the city as they can before the lava engulfs the city. The number of citizens you manage to rescue is your score. There's a fair amount of luck to this game. In the first part, moves are heavily dictated by a card draw and in the second part, moves are heavily influenced by a tile draw. Still, in spite of that heavy random factor, I never really felt like I didn't have any interesting decisions to make and I felt like I had enough control over the game to influence my score. There is also a pretty large amount of "Take That!" in this game: with plenty of opportunities to arbitrarily choose one or more pieces belonging to an opponent and toss them into the volcano, never to be seen again. So if you like your games to be purely friendly and sweet then this might not be the game for you. As for me, I quite enjoy a good pagan sacrifice every now and then so I enjoyed this game quite a bit and look forward to playing it again.

Next up was an old classic from the Alea big-box series: Chinatown. Chinatown is a pure negotiation game. Players are investing in businesses and real-estate in New York's Chinatown. On each turn, players receive a randomly selected set of business locations and a random set of buisness tiles which can be placed in those business locations. Each tile has the name of a business and a number denoting how many matching tiles are required to make complete set. Businesses are worth more when built from orthogonally connected sets of matching tiles and worth even more if they are formed from a complete set of tiles. On each turn, after players receive their lots and business tiles there is a round of heavy negotiation where players are free to trade just about anything with one another: business sites, business tiles, and cash. After the dust from the trading settles, players are free to place as many business tiles as they like on their plots. Business are scored, income is generated, and the next round begins. This repeats for several rounds and whoever winds up with the most money wins the game. I enjoyed Chinatown but I can tell it's never going to be one of my favorite games and this particular group perhaps wasn't the best group to play it with. Some in our group tend to be pretty competitive and negotiation rounds seemed to last forever with plenty of heated discussion ensuing. I deliberately played more to get the feel of the game and just to enjoy myself and as a result I lost quite badly. Still, I enjoyed it.

Next up for me was a short game of Sticheln. Nothing is quite so delicious as someone leading high in his "pain suit" and getting punished for it. Unless it's when it happens twice in one night. So much fun from such a simple game.

Finally, four of us stuck around for our traditional closer: Tichu. I could discuss the outcome of this game but I don't really want to dwell on ugly disasters so instead I'll briefly mention the Tichu game we played over lunch that day: my partner and I were down by roughly four hundred points. Our opponents had just barely gone over 900 points. Things looked bleak for our heroes. Then one of our opponents called "Tichu". We barely managed to set him and after several more hard fought hands the final score was 1010 to 990 in our favor! A delightful comeback! Too bad the evening game didn't go nearly so well. I don't want to talk about it.

Come join us next week! We meet every Tuesday night at 5 in Microsoft's building 50 cafeteria.