Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Nintendo 3DS: Coming in March

Nintendo's new 3DS portable gaming system has an official ship date: March 27th. The device, which allows portable 3D gaming without the need for special glasses, has been getting a lot of buzz since it was first announced. 

Like the DS, the 3DS includes two screens: a touch screen on the bottom and a 3D screen on the top. As Nintendo says: "Looking at the screen is like peering through a window into a world where characters and objects have true depth. The system also has a 3D Depth Slider that lets players select the level of 3D they enjoy the most. The 3D effect can be ratcheted up to the highest level, scaled back to a more moderate setting or even turned off completely, depending on the preference of the user."

In addition to the standard DS controls, the 3DS adds a circular pad to provide more precise directional control. A built-in motion sensor and gyro sensor can react to the motion and tilt of the system, and more robust connectivity features. It ships in blue and black and is set to retail for $250.

More pictures, and the rest of the press release, after the jump.

"Mythbusters": Gamer Style

Sadly, it's not the real Mythbusters, since watching Kary blow up Tory with a redirected rocket would make for good TV.

Instead, a group called "Defend the House" has produced a series of in-game videos tackling certain myths from Halo: Reach, Black Ops, and other videogames. I usually find watching in-game videos about as entertaining as watching test patterns, but these are short, slick, entertaining, and often quite funny.  I'll embed a couple of samples, but you can find the whole series on Youtube.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Poe's Cipher Fascination

Pen and ink by Gabriel Caprav
Today marks the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's writing made a huge impression on me when I first discovered it in junior high, and has stayed with me ever since. His picture hung over my desk for years, which is pretty apt, since Poe was frequently hungover.

Poe had a madness for ciphers. This was most famously exhibited in "The Gold Bug," which includes a substitution cipher (and a lengthy explanation of its solution) as a key plot point.

That cipher reads as follows:
And is solved thus:
A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death's-head a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.
Poe Cipher
But there was another Poe cipher mystery that was lost in the pages of Alexander's Weekly Messenger for almost 150 years. Poe had used the newspaper to challenge all comers to send him ciphers, and he would crack them all. He claims to have solved at least 100 of them, and then signed off with two new ciphers by a "Mr. W.B. Tyler." There is some convincing evidence that Tyler was Poe himself, and that these final ciphers were his parting mystery.

They remained forgotten and unsolved until Professor Louis Renza of Dartmouth College brought them to light in 1985. Prof. Renza subsequently established the Edgar Allan Poe Cryptographic Challenge, complete with a $2500 prize, to crack the codes. In 2000, Gil Broza managed to do it and claimed the prize

There was some hope that these ciphers would turn out to be new, previously unknown writing by Poe, but this is almost certainly not the case. One was a passage from Cato, by the English essayist Joseph Addison. The other remains unidentified, but is not in any style recognizable as Poe's.

Angry Lego Birds

Now that those Angry Birds have their own plush toy line and TV show, it was about time for them to become immortalized in the Art Medium of Choice here at SOP. Lego craftsman Tsang Yiu Keung has created this fab set of Angry Bird sculptures, including slingshot and pigs, all from little bricks.

In other AB news, former Vice President Dick Cheney had this to say: "My three-year-old grandson was teaching me how to use an iPad the other day. To play games. 'Angry Birds' or something like that." 

Chess: "Proof Games"

If you have any interest in chess, then Chess Cafe should be a regular stop. Today, chess problem-solver John Nunn offers eight variations on the traditional chess puzzle. These "proof games" present a board position and the number of moves that have been made, and then challenge you to figure out the moves that led to that position. It's a neat kind of problem, as you can see from the example below.

For all 8 puzzles, including Nunn's interesting commentary and the solutions, check out the Skittles Room at Chess Cafe.

Proof Game One
Tibor Orban
Die Schwalbe 1976
Position after Black's fourth move

Thanks to Wayne for sending this one in.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

From a Knave to a Jack

"He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!" said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. "And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!"
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.
She won the game, and I dealt. I misdealt, as was only natural, when I knew she was lying in wait for me to do wrong; and she denounced me for a stupid, clumsy laboring-boy.
              Charles Dickens, Great Expectations 
All Fours is a kind of seed-game from which other, better games have grown. I plan to write about it shortly, but I wanted to start by discussing its most lasting contribution to card lore: All Fours is the game that gives us the word "Jack" for the card then commonly known as a "Knave."

Playing cards in Great Expectations
A Knave-like figure--the lowest rank in a royal court--appears in various guises in European decks: sometimes as a footman, a cavalier or knight, or a young man or woman. Their role is to be higher than the numbered cards, but lower than any court card. Traditionally, a "knave" was a serving boy of humble origin, or simply a male servant.

The game of All Fours probably arrived in England (and particularly in Kent) some time between 1621 and 1674 via the court of Charles II, and most likely originated in the Netherlands. The word "Jack" is probably a Kentish contribution. Although the reasons are lost in the mists of time, we can make a decent guess how the name came to be. In lower class English slang, a "jack" would have been shorthand for a laborer (eg, lumberjack) or a sailor. This may well have been how folk culture viewed the subservient "Knave" in comparison to the King and Queen of the royal suits. It's as a good a guess as any.

In any case, "Jack" didn't catch on until the late 19th century, when printer Samuel Hart started putting identifying letters on the corner of cards. These new cards were known as "squeezers" because they allowed you to "squeeze" your hand up tightly and just read the corner markings, as we do now. There was a "K" for "King," a "Q" for Queen, and, not wanting to confuse matters by placing another "K" for Knave, he added a "J" for Jack as a reference to its name in All Fours.

An early "Squeezer"
In the early part of Dickens' Great Expectations, which takes place some time after 1812, young Pip is mocked mercilessly by Estella for using the word "Jack" during a game of Beggar-My-Neighbor. The word was considered low, vulgar, and commonplace, rather than the proper term "Knave." At this moment, Pip's understanding of playing cards is as large an indication as his shoes or rough hands of the class gap separating him from Estella.

This would change by the end of the century. Knave became archaic and largely vanished, while the more commonplace word "Jack" took its place. It's an interesting transformation. Remember: playing cards first emerged among the upper classes, and only gradually filtered down to the lower classes, most likely as wealthy card players passed old, worn-out decks down to their servants. The common folk made these cards--and the games played with them--their own, altering an element of high culture into one of popular culture in the process.

Next time you call that card a Jack, consider it a triumph of the working man. He's a Jack because the common Englishman saw in him a fellow man of labor.

Swastika Playing Cards

I've been trying to get my hands on a strange old example of early 20th century card design from the US Playing Card Company. These are "No. 500" cards, possibly produced as early as 1909, and made until sometime in the early-to-mid-1930s. The entire card back is covered in an intricate pattern of swastikas.

Prior to the rise of National Socialism, the swastika was a common graphical motif, found in everything from Indian blankets to architectural details. (My wife's grammar school featured a nice tiled row of swastikas when she was young. I doubt very much they're still in place.) The prominence of the design in many cultures with a wide geographical and historical spread is actually easily explained: it's a common repeating pattern that naturally forms in certain types of basket weaving.

When Hitler adopted the "crooked cross" as the Nazi Party symbol, the once-harmless design took on sinister connotations which it shall never shed. I read some speculation online that these cards were produced by USPC for export to Nazi Germany, which is absurd on various levels. German card design is different, for one thing, and they had no need to import cards. The idea that Nazi Germany would have imported French-suited playing cards from the US is just silly.

Here's the best quality picture I can find, and this one came from an auction that I lost. If I can get hold of a better quality version, I'll post it at a later date.

Board Game News Weekly Digest – 1/14

Seize Your Turn continues to deliver the board gaming news links, hot and tasty. Meanwhile, I'm putting the May issue of Games to bed, which is requiring massive amounts of game time. Oddly enough, nothing interesting has shown up lately, but I have a large backlog of titles and bits to write about once time allows.