Tuesday, April 2, 2019


Well, after 7.5 years, I guess I'm no longer posting on G+.  Maybe I'll post more here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I'm mostly posting on Google Plus now

I've moved almost all of my blogging-like activity over to Google Plus.

My profile on Google Plus has some amount of public content, and if you follow me there and I know you, I'll add you and I share quite a bit more to my limited circles. My public posts on my profile are a bit skewed toward photography.

For board gaming related posts, I've also created a "Plus Page": mkgray Board Games where I'm posting most of my public board gaming related comments. I just started it earlier this week, but have a big burst of activity due to a ton of gaming at Lobster Trap (a friend's mini-gaming con).

Saturday, January 8, 2011

2010 Gaming

My "game of the year" is pretty definitely Space Alert, which for me is a perfect combination of programmed action, cooperation & realtime play, the former two of which I like a lot, and the last which I like when well done, and it's well done in Space Alert.

Dominion remained popular and will likely continue to do so, though RftG somehow almost entirely slipped out of play this year, which is a little sad. I'll have to make sure to go back to it more in 2011. Non-kids games successfully played with the kids this year: Dominion, It's Mine, Ciao Ciao, & Rumis, notably.

Overall Stats
  • 302 Games Played
  • 52% at home (family & guests)
  • 9% at work
  • 18% regular gaming group
  • 175 different Titles
  • 105 days with at least one game played
  • 51 new-to-me games played
  • Gamed with 126 different people
  • 32 new games or expansions acquired
Top Games
  • 32 games of Dominion (9 with 6-yo!)
  • 17 games of Space Alert
  • 6 games of Forbidden Island
  • 6 games of Nacht der Magier
  • 5 games of It's Mine!
  • 5 games of Ciao Ciao
  • 5 games of Zigzag
  • 5 games of Zick Zack Huhnerkake

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Clue Treasure Hunts for kids

This past winter, at the suggestion of David Saff, I started creating "treasure hunts" for my kids, partially as an activity to enhance reading vocabulary, but mostly for fun. The hunts take the form of a bunch of index cards on which I write a clue, like so:

The kids read the clue and go to wherever it says, and find another clue:


Finally, at the end of the hunt they find a "treasure", which for us is just a poker chip which they then put in their treasure bag which acts as a log of all the hunts they've done. A white poker chip is at the end of a short 5-clue hunt, a red at the end of a 8-clue hunt, a blue at the end of a 12-clue hunt and a gold chip at the end of a 18-clue hunt. At this point I've got a stack of 50+ clues which are more or less complete composable into new hunts, meaning that it's easy to set-up a new hunt by hiding clues relatively quickly and soon the kids are off to the races. These treasure hunts have been a rousing success, with some of the clues getting a star on them, indicating they are suitable for reading by my son, who's not quite reading age yet. I highly recommend these hunts to any parent with children around age 5 or 6.

As they got better at the basic hunts, I added more complex clues, including fill-in-the-blank clues and dictionary clues. The fill-in-the-blank clues look like this:
So, under the couch they might find the word "behind" and on the red chair they might find the phrase "the TV", and the next instruction would be found behind the TV. For dictionary clues, they would be given a dictionary of nonsense words at the beginning of the hunt and the clue would be of the form "Look flurb the siddy boff." and they'd have to decode the clue with the dictionary.

So, for Genevieve's 6th birthday party, I decided to have an elaborate multi-stage treasure hunt. The goal of the hunt was to rescue/find 4 fairies hidden around the yard. But, in order to find the fairies, you needed to follow clues on treasure hunts, like the ones I described. But, in order to get the first clue for each treasure hunt, the kids needed to "buy" the clue with treasures. In order to get the treasures, they had to go on "Quests" and complete "Challenges" which were essentially various little backyard birthday party games. A kid would complete a Quest and they'd get treasure, like "1 silver ring and 2 red hearts" and another would complete a Challenge and get "2 gold coins and a blue gem", etc. Then to buy the clues they'd have some large combination price like "1 blue gem, 5 gold coins, 1 silver ring, 5 red hearts", like so:

Buying a clue

During the course of the individual fairy treasure hunts, some of the individual clues, rather than specifying a location, would say "Bring 1 gold coin, 1 blue gem and 1 silver ring to the Royal Court." (The Royal Court was the grownups) meaning they'd have to see if they had enough resources or they'd do more challenges/quests.

As the party approached and I explained the plan to family & friends, I got a lot of raised eyebrows expressing skepticism as to whether the whole thing was a bit complex for 6-year-olds. The party came and it was an outstanding success; the kids understood it without difficulty and had an absolute blast. I highly recommend it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 Games Summary

I managed to hit the one-game-per-day threshold just barely this year. Gaming with the kids has continued to progress, and that's allowed us to start hosting more gaming. Hopefully, lots more in 2010. There's still lots of good gaming at lunch at work, though my personal amount of play has gone down a bit. Race and Dominion dominated again, and overall another good year of gaming.

My kids are great gamers. My 5-year-old now plays real games, and is beginning to learn some actual tactics, and my 3-year-old finally has enough patience for an extended (ie 20 minute) game. Non-kids' games successfully played with kids include: Quoridor, Twixt, Zig Zag, Chess, Pitch Car, Pingvinas, Blokus Trigon, Dvonn, and a variety of others, focused on abstracts.

Overall Stats
  • 365 Games Played
    • 44% at home (family & guests)
    • 15% at work
    • 22% regular gaming group
    • 12% "events" (eg, Unity Games)
    • 7% other friends' homes
  • 192 different Titles
  • 141 days with at least one game played
  • 54 new-to-me games played
  • Gamed with 162 different people
  • 33 new games or expansions acquired
Top Games
  • 44 games of Race for the Galaxy
  • 43 games of Dominion
  • 9 games of Electronic Catchphrase
  • 8 games of Connect Four
  • 7 games of Viva Topo!
  • 6 games of Loopin' Louie
  • 5 games of Quoridor
  • 5 games of The Adventurers
  • 5 games of Go Away Monster!

New Games
The kids' game success of the year was clearly Viva Topo! which I picked up at Danger Planet when they had their store closing clearance. It's a nice push your luck race game, which is a mechanic that works well with kids.

Among the adult games, only the expansions for Race and Dominion really stand out. Three Commandments, The Adventurers, Ghost Stories and At the Gates of Loyang were all very good, but none are breakout hits.

Ten Years of Games

I have been tracking the games I play now for 10 years. I tracked games some in '97, '98 and '99, but didn't start keeping really good records until 2000. In this past decade, I played:
  • 4480 games: 1.2 games/day
  • 1060 titles: 2 new titles/week
  • 1267 different days: 2.4 days/week
  • with 977 different people: 8 new people/month
Top People
Of the top ten people (by number of games played) my wife and daughter are #1 and #10. Of the remaining eight, two (FR & ET) are folks I game with every month, two are people I've gamed with many times a year for the entire decade (RS & SD) and four are four are people who I gamed with a lot and then they moved away.

Top Games
The following 30 games got 20 or more plays in the decade:

100+: Electronic Catchphrase, Race for the Galaxy, Crokinole
50+: Dominion, Call My Bluff, Speed
40+: Battle Line, 6 nimmt!, Geister, Spin Ball, Can't Stop
30+: For Sale, Zirkus Flohcati, Apples to Apples, Light Speed, Loopin' Louie, Trans America, Knockabout
20+: Pente, Ra, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Go Away Monster!, Blue Moon, Hick Hack in Gacklewack, Werewolf, Heroscape, Flinke Pinke, San Juan, Princes of Florence

A few games that didn't make the 20 plays threshold, but deserve mention from this decade, for me: Descent, Traumfabrik, Vinci, Fiese Freunde Fette Feten, RoboRally, Power Grid, Schnaeppchen Jagd, Goa, Battlestations, Medici, Fresh Fish & Medina.

Every Year
Only four games got played every year of the decade, because well, a lot of great games came out during the past decade. Those four are Igel Argern, Can't Stop, 6 nimmt! and Ra. A bunch of games managed to hit 9/10 years though: Medici, Knockabout, Crokinole, Basari, Battle Line, Call my Bluff, Lord of the Rings, For Sale, Zirkus Flohcati, Speed, Electronic Catchphrase & Apples to Apples.

Year-by-year breakdown
Year    Games   New     Diff    Ses     Ppl
1997 ~30
1998 ~100
1999 ~150 63
2000 301 112 141 126 129
2001 712 172 266 175 165
2002 650 161 279 163 241
2003 552 128 272 129 180
2004 470 80 212 112 216
2005 429 92 208 124 236
2006 365 84 205 83 216
2007 256 73 153 78 170
2008 370 66 168 140 159
2009 365 54 192 141 162

Monday, September 14, 2009

People who are unintentional "spoilers"

I've noticed some interesting cross-player interactions in game win rates. If a player is good at a particular game, or games in general, you'd expect them their performance to be relatively consistent across opponents. Or, you might reasonably expect they do well against most opponents, but not against others, who beat them more often, even if that opponent isn't as good in general. That is, you might see a rock-paper-scissors kind of effect.

But, in at least two cases, I've observed a different phenomenon, where a particular player "S" has a substantial effect on the performance of player "P", without that performance coming at a cost or benefit in S's performance. Here's the two examples I've observed. All games include me as well, so it may be a three-way interaction.

I have a colleague T who we play a lot of Race for the Galaxy with. He is good at it. He has won 20 out of 46 plays, with an average number of players of 4. But, if you break it down further, there's another person "R" who basically is necessary for T's performance to be high:

T's win rate, games with R: 18/33
T's win rate, games without R: 2/13

Further, while R does better when T is not in the game, the effect on his own play is only part of the change in win rates:
R's win rate, games with T: 5/33
R's win rate, games without T: 6/16

In the other example, the effect seems to apply across all games. "E" does very well overall. In 327 games, he's won 94 games with an expected number of wins of 80, given the numbers of players. But, when A plays, E's performance suffers badly, but it doesn't really help A:

E's wins, without A: 87 wins, 69 expected (276 games)
E's wins, with A: 6 actual, 10 expected (51 games)

A's wins, without E: 22 wins, 23 expected (93 games)
A's wins, with E: 10 wins, 10 expected (51 games)

In both cases the help (R) or hindrance (A) seems mostly distribute wins to other players. Since I'm the only other constant player throughout the games:

My wins (E, not A): 65 (69 expected, over 283 games)
My wins (E & A): 17 (10 expected over 51 games)

My wins (T, not R): 6 (3 expected, 13 games)
My wins (T & R): 6 (8 expected, 33 games)

One more example, lest this all sound like sour grapes; the introduction of R or A helps or impedes the other players as well:

Games with T & !R: T wins 15%, neither I nor T wins 38%.
Games with T & R: T wins 55%, neither I nor T wins 27%.
So, R benefits T and impedes everyone else.

(Limiting to 4 player games with E & A so the percentages can be compared)
Games with E & !A: E wins 42%, neither I nor E win 40%
Games with E & A: E wins 0%, neither I nor E win 53%
So, A impedes E and benefits everyone else.

Further, I'm pretty confident in neither of these cases is the spoiler intentionally helping or hurting the other player. That is, R isn't trying to help T, and A isn't targeting E, it just happens that way.

There's lots of plausible mechanisms, psychological, in-game, and otherwise for what's going on here, for which I don't have any compelling data, but it's an interesting phenomenon, or perhaps simply an anomaly.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Davis Mega Maze via GPS

The Davis Mega Maze is excellent. It is an elaborate multi-acre corn maze, with bridges. It's a great deal of fun. If you're in Massachusetts, it's a worthy excursion each year, with kids, or as just adults. This year it took us over 3 hours to solve the maze.

Except when the battery performance is awful, or the on-device storage is running low I love my Android phone. The apps are fewer than the iPhone, but except for games, I find the Android apps more useful (Gmail, Gtalk, SkyView, Zombie Run, Barcode, Twidroid, WeatherBug, Calendar, etc.). In particular, My Tracks is really cool.

Put them together, and what do you get? An amazingly cool digital memento of this year's solving of the maze:

View Mega Maze in a larger map
In addition to the GPS resolution not being quite good enough to distinguish two paths in the corn that are barely a meter apart, they change the maze with non-corn barriers slightly every day, so it won't quite help you solve it, and it didn't help us that much when we were in the maze (though it did, a little), but it's really cool.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Google's architecture through the eyes of a 4-year-old

My 4-year-old daughter drew this picture of the Google architecture today (I told her how to spell the words):
Here's the backstory that lead to this picture...

I started working at Google when my daughter was two years old. I would come home from work and I would ask her "What did you do today?" and she'd answer. Before long, she'd start asking me, "What did you do today?" Frequently, in my first year at Google (and still today) the answer was "I wrote a MapReduce." Fast-forward two years, and now both she and my son (age 2) often race to the door when I arrive home to see who can be the first to ask "Daddy, Daddy, did you write a MapReduce?"

She is also fascinated by "how things work" and will regularly request at bedtime an explanation of how something works. "How does the light work?", "How does your stomach work?" etc. Not too surprising for the child of two engineers. As a brief diversion, I had another "I live in the future" moment the other night: My daughter asked at bedtime "How does your eye work?" I explained in as much detail as I could and she was intrigued, and asked "Can we see it?", so I put my eye close to hers and explained what she was seeing. She replied, "No, I mean the inside!". An idea dawned on me. I pulled out my G1, spoke the words "diagram of an eye" (Voice Search is awesome), and a few seconds later a beautiful diagram of an eye was on the screen. My daughter was satisfied, but didn't even blink at what had just happened, while I felt like I was in a remarkably banal Star Trek episode.

In any case, yesterday I arrived home, greeted by the chorus of "Did you write a MapReduce?" to which I replied "Yes, I wrote a MapReduce." She asked what it did, I explained that it organized some information about books in a Bigtable, which is a useful place to store large amounts of information. She declared, "At bedtime tonight, I want you to explain how a Bigtable works." At bedtime, she did in fact ask, and I did my best to explain it at a 4-year-old level and she seemed to absorb it alright. After she went to bed, in a combination of amusement and fatherly pride, I twittered about it.

This morning, I told her that some of my friends were very impressed that she wanted to know about Bigtable. So, she decided she would draw a picture. The picture shows, on the Bigtable side a table (notice the legs) with a bunch of boxes (bigtable cells) organized in rows and columns. On the MapReduce side, the box between "Map" and "Reduce" is the mapper, while the big swirly cloud connected to it is the shuffle phase, and then the nice neat lines connected to that is the reducer. I'd love to say the big scribble at the top is the "cloud" from cloud computing, but she informs me that's the ceiling.

(Actual details about various parts of Google's architecture are available at Google Research's site, including papers on Bigtable and MapReduce.)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mozy review: It doesn't work

I tried out the free version of Mozy in the fall of 2007, having heard good things about it. It quickly backed up over a gig of data and I decided to sign up. From here it went bad. I knew the full upload was going to take a while, but based on how it worked during the free period, it looked like it should take 4-8 weeks to back up my 100G of data. It slowed down dramatically, in two senses:
  • The raw upload rate got a lot slower
  • It would regularly get "stuck" and have to be manually killed and restarted, sort of defeating the purpose of the whole background thing.
Further, it would regularly (many hours a day) use 100% of CPU, rendering the machine unusable. Changing the set of things to be backed up would always kick it into this state, and would take hours and hours to finish, meaning there was no easy way I could tweak the backup set to just backup the most important stuff first.

So, I contacted support. They were very friendly and encouraged me to upgrade to the latest and greatest client, which I did. They extended my membership by one month for free. But, none of these upgrades worked. I asked that they cancel my account and they instead kept suggesting I try other things. I tried several of them and nothing worked. At this point, several gigs of data had been backed up, but my machine was still almost unusable while a backup was running. So,
I decided to try a test restore. I went to their web UI, which took tens of minutes to load, and in the end gave me a "No backups found" error or a generic "An error has occurred" message. I again contacted support, and they replied "well, it works for me", which was singularly unuseful. I asked again to cancel, and again got the "well, upgrade to the new version". I gave up. Nine months later, the 100% CPU problems were still occurring, though with less frequency,
and it finally "finished" the backup. I tried another test restore, and it still didn't work. I gave up and turned off Mozy.

(A couple other things worthy of note: This was all on a MacBook Pro, and I lived in two different places during this time, with very vanilla network configuration, using two different ISPs, so I'm doubtful the problems were particular to my situation)

Then, this past fall, I got auto-renewed. I sent an email making it clear I wanted my money refunded and my service canceled in no uncertain terms. I canceled and they refunded all but $5 of my renewal fee. So, in the end:
  • The software was slow to the point of being unusable.
  • The software had a detrimental effect on my usual use of my machine
  • The restore functionality never worked
  • Despite multiple requests, they refused to cancel my account in the first place
  • On cancellation, they didn't even refund the full charge