Friday, February 18, 2011

Watson's Amazing Victory

Ken Jennings has written a wonderful piece for Slate about his experience playing against (and losing to) IBM's Jeopardy-playing supercomputer Watson.
But there's no shame in losing to silicon, I thought to myself as I greeted the (suddenly friendlier) team of IBM engineers after the match. After all, I don't have 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of reference works at my disposal—nor can I buzz in with perfect timing whenever I know an answer. My puny human brain, just a few bucks worth of water, salts, and proteins, hung in there just fine against a jillion-dollar supercomputer.
I remember writing about Deep Blue and what its victory against Chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov meant for AI, and Watson is exponentially more impressive than Deep Blue. Kasparov wouldn't last five minutes against Ken Jennings. The skill set and programming necessary to master Jeopardy is far more subtle and complex and that required to master Chess, at least from a pure computer AI perspective.

The Singularity is Not Near
Impressive as it is, I still balk at the notion that this is the first step towards The Singularity, for the simple reason that I believe The Singularity is the greatest farrago of nonsense since the Population Bomb. Time Magazine recently ran a long, hilarious piece on The Singularity. I laughed all the way until the end, and then I realized that it wasn't satire, thus reminding me yet again that Time isn't so much a news magazine as it is a source of absurd trend-chasing and juvenile credulity wrapped in a squishy coating of bias.

Let me state this as clearly as possible: The Singularity--the moment at which computers essentially become sentient--is the greatest load of BS to come down the pike in many generations. That intelligent people believe it's All Really True! doesn't make it so. Aristotle, the most intelligent man of his age or almost any other, was certain that the blood cooled the brain and the liver was the true seat of human life. At one point, all the brightest minds in the world were utterly convinced in the truth of geocentricism. In our own day, powerful interests continue to flog the big lie of anthropogenic global warming. 

So, I don't care one bit that some of "the best and brightest" have signed on to Ray Kurzweil's loony idea that one day (in the next 40 years!) we will reverse engineer the human brain, dump our entire consciousness into a computer, and live forever. It is more likely that I could swallow my own torso than it is for a machine to replicate the human brain. I am not saying "maybe," or "perhaps eventually," or "given the right scientific developments": I am saying never, ever, ever: not in 40 years, not in a 1000.

This is all just part of the progressive's favorite delusion: that of the continued upward development of humanity, hand in hand with glorious technical achievement. This is utilitarian nonsense. First off, it's a failure to understand the practical reality of Moore's Law. The number of transistors on an integrated circuit may in fact keep doubling every two years until infinity (although I highly doubt it, and there is already some evidence that this will eventually peak and then decline), but that does not correlate to a matched increase in processing speeds. 

Second, it ignores the immense complexity of the human brain, and just how much of its function remains poorly understood if not downright inexplicable. Even the common process of medicating for mental illness remains a matter of trial and error because we simply don't know how the brain does much of what it does. The notion that the myriad complexities of the human psyche can be wholly reproduced if we just have enough processing power is madness.

Finally, there is the part many scientists leave out due to their own personal bias. I hate to break it to the atheists out there, but the human soul exists. We are not merely clever meat. We are simultaneously physical and metaphysical beings. The notion that we are the product of random chance, originating from nothing and returning to nothing, isn't even good nonsense. Ex nihilo nihil fit. The rational soul is transcendent, and will forever remain a mystery beyond the ability of science to grasp.

The Simulated Brain
Without question, we will see continued progress in artificial intelligence. Watson impresses not because of its 15 terabyte store of knowledge, but because of its ability to parse the English language, including puns, word play, allusions, and other very human subtleties of speech. Its knowledge set did not impress me: that's simply raw processing muscle. It's language ability, however, is frankly amazing. 

Yet with all that, IBM couldn't create a truly human voice. Watson won Jeopardy, but he still would have failed the Turing test. No one listening to its answers would be in doubt that they were hearing a computer. Watson is the Deep Blue of this generation, and as such is a fascinating and important milestone in the development of artificial intelligence. Where it will lead, I have no idea. Deep Blue was dismembered and mothballed, with a chunk of it ultimately winding up in the Smithsonian. 

And it's important--vitally important--to remember one thing. Watson did not create itself. It was created by a team of brilliant and dedicated people, pouring human knowledge into its brain and teaching it to think and learn in human ways. A machine can only be a simulation of the human brain, and no machine will ever be anything more than that. It will forever remain a mere shadow of the real thing.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

GAMES Magazine: April 2011

The latest issue of GAMES should be in the mail and on the shelves by now. For this one, I did a feature on the card game Ecarte, and its unusual ubiquity among 19th century writers from Poe to Doyle. There's a good sized review section this issue (both conventional and electronic), as well as the usual collection of games and pencil puzzles.

The cover is a twist--literally--on our regular Eyeball Benders puzzles. Can you tell what these items are?

Buy it wherever better magazines are sold.

The Toy Fair Recap Part III: Killer Bunnies, Flying Dummies, and The Thrilling Conclusion!

Toy Fair is an annual trade show in which the toy and game industry shows their latest wares, usually in mid-February. I liveblogged my day on Monday, and now I'm writing about everything I saw in a little more detail. The first part of the report can be found here and the second part can be found here.

Blue Orange
Blue Orange was a new company to me, but I liked what they had to say and show. Their goal is to bring quality European-style games to America without the usual high Eurogame prices.

A number of these games use round cards inside little tins. They’re compact, inexpensive, play fast, and make for good ice-breakers and party games.

Tell Tale is a storytelling game that uses illustrated cards to help people improvise stories. In Spot It!, each card has a constellation of images of varying sizes. Every card has one image that matches an image on another card. You have to be the first to find the match. Trigger! offers factoids with “true” or “false” answers. You slam down your left hand to vote false, and your right to vote true. The goal is to answer first and answer correctly. The mechanics are nothing special, but the facts, such as “Groundhogs have teeth” or “Cows drink milk” make it a fun.

Dragon Face has been in development and testing for a while and the results look good. It’s an abstract strategy game played on cloth mat with double-sided checkers. The goal is to capture the enemy’s emperor checker by blocking it in. It plays a bit like checkers and a little like chess, except that when you jump an enemy, you flip it over and the enemy piece is now yours. There are a few other nuances, but it appears to have all the makings of a really nice entry in the abstract strategy genre.

Wonder Forge
I’d never heard of Wonder Forge before, perhaps because a) they used to be I Can Do That! Games and b) they traditionally produce a lot of kid games that I just don’t cover.

However, they caught my interest with a traffic-stopping Busterpult for their Mythbusters game (it's always fun to fling a rubber crash test dummy at a target), and then really impressed me with an item called Konexi. 

The Mythbusters game looks fine: a bit of fact-or-fiction guessing, a bit of Buster-flinging, and about what you’d want in a licensed game. May it make them giant piles of Mythbuster money.

Konexi, however, was closer to a piece of playable art. The game is comprised of 26 thick, handsomely-sculpted plastic letters. These letters have grooves and tongues so that, when stacked, they hold together, although you needed to be careful during placement. The goal is to stack letters, make new words, score points for the words, and keep the tower from falling.

It’s a great game to just leave out on the coffee table, since it’s aesthetically pleasing, clever, and nicely designed. The gameplay element is simple, but it just looks and feels good.  

ThinkFun always has something interesting to show, and thus year was no exception. The two that caught my eye were Tilt and Pathwords

Tilt is a logic maze with an interesting implementation. You follow directions on a puzzle card and set the board with obstacles and sliders. The sliders are little circular tiles that travel along grooves in a tilting board. The goal is to get the green sliders through a hole in the center of the board by tilting the board in any of the four cardinal directions. The maze element is familiar from dozens on logic mazes, but the implantation is clever and has a nice design to it.

Pathwords is a logic-word game hybrid with a neat mechanic. Each puzzle has a matrix of letters that lays under a clear plastic grid, and requires a selection of translucent, colored tiles akin to Tetris blocks. These tiles come in various configurations (L-shaped, U-shaped, etc...). Each tile has to be placed over the letters in such a way that it forms a valid word, and all of the tiles must fit together without any blanks or invalid words. It's part word search, part puzzle.

The GameWright booth had the most important thing I needed at 3:30 in the afternoon: water. (Thanks Emily. What, you thought I was going to say good games?) When the vendors are charging $4 a bottle for water, anyplace you can score some of that wet gold is welcome.

Oh, yeah, their games were good too. Then again, we always like GameWright stuff.

First up was Gubs, with designers Cole and Alex Medeiros on hand to show it off. This is a fresh, mass market version of a game you can check out at The idea is to collect little critters called gubs, using special cards to get more gubs or take away those of your opponents. I didn’t get a really good sense of how this one played out, but the art is very nice and it looks appealing. 

Mermaid Beach is going to be popular with tween and pretweens, thanks partly to its theme and partly to its colorful art. It mixes a bit of Sleeping Queens and a bit of Go Fish together to form a quick pairing and collecting game. You gather pairs of cards (taking necessary ones from another player if needed) and then "spend" these pairs to buy shell cards of varying values. Quick, cute, and family-friendly. 

Finally, City Square Off has a bit of that ole Tetris/Blokus feel. Each players has a tray with a building in the center, a pile of different Tetris-like shapes, and a deck of cards. The cards tell you which shape to place, and the goal is to fill as much of your tray as possible.

Playroom does a lot of nice games aimed at the younger kids. The packaging and style on a number of their games is a lot like GameWright (or vice versa), so you have small, quick, fun card games like SherlockSaddle Up, and Monkey Memory. I had a great chat with a man whose name I don’t recall (it was a really long day, and I lost his card), and he showed me one of their games called Trading Faces. I’m going to cover this on its own, but it's about "collecting" and reproducing facial expressions, and looks like a great way to help kids with high-functioning autism and aspergers recognize facial expressions.

Playroom’s biggest line is Killer Bunnies, which I had never played because it seemed a bit too Munchkiny. It’s a huge success, however, and they’re expanding the series in interesting ways. Killer Bunnies and the Ultimate Odyssey seems to be a deeper game with more deck-building and strategy: kind of like Dominion with green rabbits. I’ll try to get hold of some cards and write it up at some point.

They’re also releasing some children’s games that use thick boards and magnets to create a new twist on memory games. The Magic Labyrinth, for instance, lets you set up a custom maze use little tiles placed upright inside a plastic frame. The gameboard fits over this, hiding the maze. Player pawns have magnetic bases, which allow them to hold a marble placed underneath the game surface. As the pieces move across the board, they must follow the correct path or the little upright tiles dislodge the steel balls, which rolls back to the start of the maze like a pool ball. It’s a little hard to visualize in words, but it works quite nicely.

The Magic Labyrinth uses a hidden maze under the board.

The End
I hadn't been to Toy Fair in a few years, so it was good to get back, walk the floor, talk to people, and soak in the weirdness. It's always strange to see a few acres of floor space occupied by every manner and permutation of toy, doll, game, and geegaw, with nary a child in sight. (You have to be 18 or older to attend. "Child correspondents" are explicitly banned.) This is a trade show, which means professionals who take their work seriously are either trying to put their best foot forward, or looking for interesting things to stock in their stores or write about for their publications. 

And it's not just the big guys who come to Toy Fair. I saw both of my local comic book/toy store proprietors walking the floor looking for new stock. I also saw a surprising amount of Amish people--at least half a dozen--there to look for items to stock in their own stores back in Lancaster County. 

Sure, a lot of the space is devoted to people hawking stuff you don't need and planning to find new ways to separate parents from their money. In a tough economy, toys and games need to do even more to stand out among the hoard. There's certainly a lot of junk no one needs, but there are also a lot of clever, interesting items. I focussed on the games, and found quite a lot of interesting items. There wasn't much that broke the mold or screamed "next big thing." There was no Dominion or SmallWorld on display. But there were a lot of good items that will be worth seeking out in the year to come.

Also: there was a giant mouse.

The Toy Fair Recap Part II: Lego! Mayfair! More!

Toy Fair is an annual trade show in which the toy and game industry shows their latest wares, usually in mid-February. I liveblogged my day on Monday, and now I'm writing about everything I saw in a little more detail. The first part of the report can be found here.  

After Hasbro, I cabbed it over to Javits, had a painless check-in, dropped off my coat, and started heading for the show floor. That’s when I noticed that Activision was doing a bit of a demo in a little conference room off in a corner. Thus, I began my day by looking at …

Wappy Dog
Okay, so it wasn’t the most thrilling way to begin Toy Fair, but it’s a cute product that is expected to have a reasonable price point. Wappy Dog is a little robot dog (like the old Tekno toy) that works in tandem with a Nintendo DS game. The package comes with a DS cart and the dog itself. The game is a standard Nintendogs clone, but the twist comes from its ability to interact, wirelessly, with the robot dog. The dog barks, sings, changes color, makes noises, dances, and so on. You can pet it, train it, play with it, and get reactions from it.

Look, I have a daughter, so I’m around a lot of little girls. This kind of stuff is like catnip for them. If it works (the version I saw was prototype) and the price stays reasonable, it could definitely find its market. 

Although I didn’t make an appointment, I did manage to slip behind the velvet ropes of the Lego showroom and get a tour of their game line. It turns out that last year, Lego nabbed almost 13% of the children’s game market with their new Lego board game line. The first series of games not only had several Reiner Knizia designs, but Knizia had input into the direction of the line.

Lego games will continue in a couple of interesting ways. The new flagship title, following on from Lego Creationary, is Lego Champion, which offers a combination of building challenges and racing.

The new Lego Ninjago line (a popular item with my son) is getting a board game this August, and there’s also a pirate-themed game called Pirate Plank due in March.

More interesting is the Heroica line, which is an entirely new Lego line created exclusively for boardgames. The initial releases will be four build-and-play adventures—Draida Bay, Waldurk Forest, Caverns of Nathuz, and Castle Fortaan—which can be linked together to form an even larger game. All four are due in August, but the art I have is tagged “preliminary” and is thus embargoed. I could probably describe it to you, but I’m afraid Ninjago agents would appear from the shadows and cut me to ribbons with their little Lego weapons.

Oh, and Lego now has the Pirates of the Caribbean license, which explains this stupid photo of Yr Humble Correspondent. 

Man-sized minifig heads:
Gruesome trophies from a tribe of Lego headhunters 

Queen Games
I’ve been trying to score a review copy of Fresco for ages with no luck. Now I understand why: Queen Games is based on in Germany and has no real US PR presence. Plus, their products are big, heavy, and beautifully produced. They had a wide range of items on display—Samarkand, Kairo, Lancaster, Show Manger—but Fresco and its expansions was clearly the highlight.

In Fresco, you manage your Renaissance art studio, buy and mix paints, and slowly restore a fresco for the bishop. The pieces, board, art, and mechanics all look wonderful. I’m going to have to buy this one, so please start shopping through my Amazon store so I can afford it.

Days of Wonder
My first scheduled meeting of the day was with Days of Wonder’s Mark Kaufmann. DOW didn’t have a booth and they were only showing Cargo Noir, which I’d already covered. So we just talked a bit about the games business and some of the interesting reactions Days of Wonder games generate among hardcore gamers. It was nice to sit down and talk with someone who wasn’t trying to flog his new game--Scowling Men With Beards Trading Little Wooden Blocks--as the greatest thing since penicillin. Thanks for the break, Mark.

And then it was on to Mayfair, who are also very matter-of-fact about their product and their audience. When you have the first Eurogame to be sold in a big-box store like Target, you really don’t need to worry about what the hardcore crowd on BoardGameGeek think.

Mayfair's Bob Carty ran me through the brand-spanking-new, straight-from-the-printers copy of Martin Wallace’s new game, Automobile. This one looks good, but it’s a heavy numbers game, with the entire board dominated by research, auction, sales, and production tracks. It lacks the map element that gives Wallace’s train games their life. I think this one will find its audience, but it probably won’t break as a big as Steam (my favorite among Wallace’s train games).

On the other hand, Bob got me all worked up when he mentioned the third part of the Mayfair/Wallace transportation trilogy. The next game will be about air travel, and will return to a map-based design as people fight for dominance of various air hubs.

In some other Mayfair news of interest:
  • They’re publishing a new edition of 1830 with a nice-looking board, original rules, and new variants. It’s a slick-looking bit of work for the hardcore 18xxers. 
  • Steam is getting a map expansion with three new tracks: Mid-Atlantic US on one side, and Belgium & Luxembourg and Brussels Metro on the other. 
  • Rivals for Catan is also getting an expansion, with new lands, resources, and adversaries. 
  • I’m not at all sure what to make of First Bull Run: A Test of Fire, a fast-playing Civil War game from … Martin Walace. It’s listed as ages 10 & up with a 30 to 60 minute play time, which sounds a lot like Battle Cry. I’m really curious to see what they do with this one. 
  • The final one that caught my eye was Five Points: Bloody Politics in Old New York. Since everyone else is going to be calling this “Gangs of New York: The Boardgame,” I might as well get the ball rolling. Players control factions vying for influence in upcoming elections, using agitators to tip the scales in their favor. It plays in under an hour, so it’s obviously a lighter game. 
I also got my best swag of the trip from Mayfair. I whispered in the ear of a friendly Mayfair lass that my daughter was the biggest Catan fan in the world, and she returned with a bag filled with these:

My daughter always tells me I’m the “best daddy in the world,” but last night she really meant it.

Final part of the Toy Fair recap coming later today.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Best Toy Fair Swag Evah!

Yes, they're stuffed anthropomorphic Settlers of Catan goods, courtesy of Mayfair Games.

I found them a happy home with the biggest Catan fan on the block. (Well, at least until she trades them for some road.)

The Toy Fair Recap Part I: Introduction and A Visit to Hasbro

Yesterday was one long day.

You have to understand something: I don't really leave the house that much. I drive the kids around, teach about once a week, volunteer, and go to church, but that's about it. I've been working on my agoraphobia skill set for several years now, and it's coming along swimmingly.

Also, you should realize that I live in South Jersey. Down here, we consider ourselves a different state than New Jersey, and I'm hoping to spend my declining years fighting for full secession. I'm far enough south that it takes 2 to 3 hours, door to door, to haul my sorry, arthritic, anti-social corpse into mid-town Manhattan. This was easier when I was young and went to school in New York. I'm not young any more.

So, I only planned for one day on site at Toy Fair, which means I had to cram the maximum amount of appointage into about 8 hours of time at the amazingly awful Javits Center. (I've been told that the place is a firetrap with poor safety protocols: the Titanic of conventions centers.)

I'm going to run through my day (leaving out things like tooth-brushing, bathroom breaks, and $4 hot dogs) and pick out some of the highlights. At some later point, I'll post a bit more on individual games that struck me as notable.

First off, I decided the liveblog the entire day. We have a nice new Verizon iPhone, so I used it to take pictures, and then wrote and posted using BlogPress. The whole things was an experiment, but I'm kind of pleased with the way it turned out. I'm not thrilled with the picture quality, but the snapshots add a bit to that "you are there" feel. At least, that's what I tell myself.

So, onto my day:

Hasbro's offsite, permanent showroom is always the first stop, since it's on the way from Penn Station to the convention center. The charming Laura Trani showed me the line, skipping the toys and going right to the games. She mercifully whisked me by the branded products (SpongeBob Ants in the Pants? I only wish I was making that up.) and straight to the new card games: Ratuki and The Game of Life: Adventures.  Ratuki seems like a fast-playing variant of Spit, while Life: Adventures continues the trend of making board games into card games.

Scrabble Flash is a huge hit for Hasbro (it's even up for a game of the year award at Toy Fair), so they're expanding the line with Yahtzee Flash and Simon Flash. As far as I'm concerned, you can keep anything with the name "Simon" on it, but the Yahtzee Flash looked better than you might expect. Both versions were in prototype, so it's still too early to say much more.

Hasbro is experimenting with a new line they're calling "Live," which blends electronics and board games. I may like chocolate in my peanut butter, but I hate electronics in my board games. However, both the Battleship and Monopoly "Live" games seem to do something worthwhile with the technology. The center of the board is a tower (I'm assuming it's fitted with infrared sensors) that "reads" board states and inputs. This allows not only for more interaction on the board, but also for more dynamic game environments, such as storms that change the positions of ships in Battleship or random money events (auctions, races, etc) in Monopoly. Gimmicky,  but interesting.

I already described Scrabble Alphabet Scoop, but there's also Connect 4 Launchers, a new Clue Harry Potter, and Cranium Brain Breaks. Connect 4 Launchers is kind of like Connect 4 meets Ants in the Paints: flick the little discs into a double-level game grid and try to make four in a row. I actually kind of enjoyed it. The first Clue Harry Potter game was one of the better Clue variants, and the new version looks pretty nice as well. Cranium Brain Breaks is a set of cards describing a couple hundred mini-games that can be played in about 60 seconds. It has familiar Cranium challenges like acting, drawing, scultping, guessing, and so on. A nice little party/filler-game.
 But Laura saved the best item for last: Ji Ga Zo. This jigsaw puzzle from Japan allows you to create a mosaic puzzle out of any picture. The box comes with three hundred shaded, gray scale puzzle pieces. You import a photo (high-contrast facial portraits work best) into the Ji Ga Zo software, and the software outputs a coded puzzle matrix. Each puzzle piece has a symbol on the back, and by assembling the symbols to match the printed guidelines, you create a mosaic-style custom puzzle. The pieces can be used repeatedly. I haven't tried it yet, and I assume that not all pictures will work well with it, but the results on display were amazing.

And that wraps up Hasbro's offerings for 2011. Tune in later for more from this year's Toy Fair expo.

Monday, February 14, 2011

GameWright Keeps the Fun Coming

Live From Toy Fair. GameWright is a favorite around Casa McD, and they have a few new items this year that look good.

Mermaid Beach seems like a fresh riff on Sleeping Queens (one of GameWright's best titles): you "spend" pairs of cards to buy shell cards of varying values. There's also a Go Fish element as you try to take cards from other players.

City Square Off has a bit of that ole Tetris/Blokus feel. Each players has a tray with a building in the center, a pile of different Tetris-like shapes, and a deck of cards. The cards tell you which shape to place, and the goal is to fill as much of your tray as possible.

I also looked at a game called Gubs, which has beautiful art and some interesting mechanics. I just didn't get a good feel for how it all played out.

(This post didn't actually transmit from Toy Fair. It got stuck in the mobile blogging software, and I just found it.)

Konexi: A Tower of Letters

Live From Toy Fair. Wonder Forge has a very cool word game that combines words with Jenga. In Konexi, you build towers of letters, scoring points for complete words. Very nicely done.

They're also producing a Mythbusters game that includes a Buster catapult.

They had a cute scale-model of a Busterpult:

Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Automobile Debuts

Live From Toy Fair. Martin Wallace's new game, Automobile, makes its debut from Mayfair.

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Living Game Board for iPad

Live From Toy Fair. The Living Game Board combines an iPad dock with a touch sensitive gameboard to create a unique experience. Sure it's a gimmick, but it looks like a neat one.

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Finally got a look at Fresco from Queen Games. Gorgeous.

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Lego Heroica

Live from Toy Fair. Lego is expanding their game line in a couple of new and exciting ways. First, there's going to be a Ninjago game, which will be happy news for my son. Second, they are creating a new, game-only line called Heroica, with four smaller games that can be linked to create a larger game.

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Hasbro "Live" Games

Live from Toy Fair. Battleship and Monopoly are getting a new electronic treatment that looks pretty interesting. I'm no fan of adding electronics to classic designs, but both of these games use tech to change up the gameplay in interesting ways. A central tower (probably infrared) detects positions and movements, which not only allows for interesting interactions, but also creates random events, such as a sudden storm in Battleship or an impromptu horse race (complete with betting) in Monopoly.

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my iPhone

Scrabble Alpha Scoop

Live from Toy Fair: Hot off the success of Scrabble Flash, Hasbro is introducing a clever kids version. You get a pot of letters covered with a lid. Everyone gets a word card, scoops put some letters, and races to form their word. Get a fly tile, and all your letters go back in the pot.

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Toy Fair Today

I'm spending today at Toy Fair 2011 in New York, starting in the morning with a tour of the Hasbro showroom. If all goes well with the iPhone and the blogging app, I'll try to post live from the show.

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Location:Orlando Ave,Trenton,United States