The Settlers of Catan – Something Completely Different

July 4th, 2010. By Dave Oei. 314,790 views.
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The Settlers of Catan on a custom board

Far too much time has elapsed since my last post.  It’s a consequence of life inserting its priorities over my own, but fortunately I’m quite happy. That, despite writing far less, working a great deal more, and cutting back on almost anything remotely entertaining.

Notice I said, “almost.”

Because if one has children and limited childcare, part of getting through summer involves dropping all non-essential activities and turning attention onto them. And the best way to shower attention is through…games, right?

Well, just like all scientists, the only way to find out is through experimentation. Hence, the segway into TinySci – I wanted to see if a 6 year old could learn to play a challenging game of The Settlers of Catan.  And have fun.

This post isn’t about the game play itself, of which there’s a significant chunk of literature out and about the Internet. Suffice it to say, all you’ve read is correct:

  • Settlers of Catan  is fun, novel, balanced, and well deserving of its many awards;
  • It’s easy to learn and excellent  for many people;
  • Despite the rumors, its can be tuned for a nice game for 2; and,
  • The 4th edition board pretty much sucks.

Rather than reiterate all the praise extolled onto The Settlers of Catan, I’m focusing on the last point – the board. And the fact that it sucks. And what I did to remedy it.

But in case you were wondering, the 6 year old and I had a blast playing it.

When laid out according to the instructions, the 4th edition “board” is one comprised of 15 hexagonal land tiles surrounded by interlocking shoreline tiles.  In theory, this implementation is a dream come true, as the shoreline tiles keep the interior hexagonal land tiles in place.  In practice, this implementation is a minor nightmare resulting from hexagonal tiles that are ever-so-slightly too large to fit into an interior space that’s ever-so-slightly too small.

To be exact, each hexagonal tile is about 79 mm wide.  Five of them, end to end, form the longest stretch of land requiring 395 mm of width within the shore tiles. And now, the distance between the shore tiles? About 393 mm. Yup, 2 mm short.


But wait – you’re thinking, how could 2 mm over the span of almost 400 mm make a difference?  We’re talking about a factor of about 1/2 of 1%.  The problem is, the stiff tile boards are about 1 mm thin, which means they can give and take under pressure. It also means if you push and shove, you can fit the hexagonal tiles within the shoreline tiles.  BUT, since some pressure is required to fit the land tiles within the sea tiles, the inevitable happens: Warping.  Warping in a bad way.

My son and I learned and played the game together one late afternoon, we had a blast, but we didn’t put it away when we finished.  We left it in the land-tile-within-shore-tile configuration until the next morning. And that’s when I saw it – the previously flat board had turned into a warped mess.  The land tiles had warped slightly, but the sea tiles warped to the point where using them again made the game altogether unplayable.  I took the sea tiles and had them sit under a stack of heavy textbooks for 24 hours, but that only helped marginally.  I read about how one guy ironed his flat (using low heat and a towel on top), but it wasn’t until I saw the warping with my own eyes did I believe it.

Warp happens.

So, how does one rationally reconcile buying a very expensive board game with these results? Well, returning the game wasn’t an option – it’s too fun. Which meant, going for the gold: Doing something, custom, home-built…but what?

Others have gone this route to varying degrees of success and effort.  I liked the solution that involved ditching the board altogether and creating an entire one, a three dimensional one from scratch using a clay mold and tons of time.  Wow, the result is amazing.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have the time.

I opted for quicker, cheaper, and a smidgen less nice. The result, still incomplete, is wonderful. It consists of a backing made from artist’s board, foam board to replace the exterior sea tiles, and rubber cement. As you can see from the picture above, everything sits flush, without pressure, without any bend or warping.  The cost of materials?  Approximately $12.

Custom Setters of Catan Board, Top View

Custom Setters of Catan Board, Top View

In a nutshell, I cut out the land tile form from the foam board and glued the remaining frame to the stiff artist’s board which serves as the backing. I also cut out rectangles from the bottom to hold the cards. The result? Carefree enjoyment of the game!

I said I was almost done. The remaining work will occur on the backside where I will create a similar form that will fit the extended 5-6 person game.  This isn’t the highest priority though, as we’re not expecting any company soon.  Still, it’s great because the same board will serve both versions of the game.

Also, I ordered some cheap hexagonal 79 mm wide 3 mm thick tiles onto which I’m going to adhere the land tiles.  Why? Because the ones that come with the set are so thin. After paying so much for the game, I want it to last. Gluing them to engineered fiberboard should do the trick. These tiles should arrive in a week – more about that when they arrive.

For those who are interested, here are step-by-step instructions:

The Ingredients:

  1. Go to Aaron Brothers and buy a pre-primed engineered guaranteed-not-to-warp artist’s board. I got one that’s 18 inches by 24 inches for about $8.  This will serve as the backing of your custom board.  You could go larger if you wish.  Smaller, I wouldn’t recommend, as you’d have a tough time to squeeze in the outer sea chips.
  2. While you’re there, also buy rubber cement (or other glue of your choice), and foam board. I purchased two pieces of foam board for about $5 each.  I also went with black, but you could go for a more “realistic” blue to simulate the ocean.
  3. You’ll need either an Exacto-knife or a box cutter (I used a box cutter with a new blade).
  4. Tracing paper helps but is not necessary. A ruler and a pencil is required!  Tape helps.
  5. Sand paper.

The Build:

  1. Smooth out the edges and especially the corners of the artist’s board.  They’re sharp.  And, this is optional, you may want to smooth out the edges of the land tiles to remove the “hanging chad” (You’ll know what I mean when you see it.  I did, but be careful and don’t sand away too much of your tile!).
  2. Cut the foam board to the size of the artist’s board. Start by tracing the artist’s board over the foam board and use a ruler to help make your cuts.  BE CAREFUL AND DON’T CUT YOURSELF.  Having access to a cutting board helps.
  3. If you have tracing paper, lay the land tiles on it and trace its circumference with a pencil.  It helps to place a weight over each tile so it doesn’t move once you set it down (I used empty water glasses, though, room temperature cans of soda work too).  Make sure you lay the tiles adjacent to each other, but not snugly. Give yourself an iota of wiggle-room so that everything lays down perfectly flat without bunching up.  Once you have your trace, superimpose it over the foam board and center it as you see fit.  I centered mine width-wise but off centered it length-wise.  Once you have your tracing paper positioned, tape it in place.
  4. If you don’t have tracing paper do step 3 but directly on top of the foam board.  Be sure to center the tiles (or, in my case, off-center them) as you see fit.  Trace the circumference of these tiles with a pencil, then remove the tiles.
  5. Cut out the land section from the foam board. If you have tracing paper, just cut through the paper. It helps to start your cuts on the outside and to work your way into the piece to be discarded.  It also helps to use a ruler.  And, again, BE CAREFUL AND DON’T CUT YOURSELF.
  6. If you want, cut out rectangle slots for the cards, but BE CAREFUL AND DON’T CUT YOURSELF.  You’ll need six slots for the 5 different resource card and the development cards.  I spaced my cuts as such (starting at the edge): 0.75 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.75 inches for total of 18 inches.  While the cards are 2.125 inches wide, I added the extra 1/8th inch to avoid putting pressure on the cards.
  7. Glue your masterpiece to the artist’s board.  I used rubber cement because I thought it would make things easy. In retrospect, I may have opted for Elmer’s glue, as the rubber cement dried a bit too fast for my tastes. In the end, it worked.  Be sure to place a few text books over the foam board for at least an hour to help the glue set. The nice thing about rubber cement is that if you make a mistake, it’s very easy to remove the glue and start over.
  8. That’s it – go and play!

As I said, I’m waiting for some sturdy 3mm hex boards to arrive, upon which I’m gluing the land hex tiles.  I purchased them from – I ordered a “quart”-worth (I know, odd, but hey, that’s how they roll) and I’ll let you know how many I get, if it’s worth it, and if it works within the frame I built.  All signs point to an optimistic outcome. Still, even without that, this modified board works like a dream.  It’s a shame that something similar doesn’t come with the purchased product.

And, I’m confident that if anything, we’ll get more mileage out of the game. Which, in the end, hopefully implies a more entertaining summer for me and my son.

Apple’s iPad or Amazon’s Kindle? How About Both.

April 5th, 2010. By Dave Oei. 10,827 views.
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Amazon's Kindle 2

This past Saturday, Apple started selling their WiFi version of the iPad, describe by others as being akin to a large iPhone minus the phone. Along with it came an astounding degree of vitriol, messages pronouncing an upcoming period of doom and gloom, all intermixed with declarations promoting Steve Jobs to sainthood. Then came the inevitable comparisons between it and Amazon’s Kindle, the pros, the cons, why you should buy one and not the other, and  why you’re foolish if you don’t follow what they say.

Let me be blunt. Don’t listen to any of them.

But, come on, you want to know. Is the iPad going to change the world? The simple answer? Nobody knows, and don’t believe those who say they do. Because the only certainty involved with predicting the future is this: Eventually, you’re going to be wrong.

So which, if any, should you buy? If you have money to burn, the answer is easy: Both!

While there is overlap in functionality, such as the ability to read e-books from, each has strengths that simply aren’t met by the other.  For example, the Kindle excels when it comes to reading in broad daylight, at the park, or outdoor seating at a coffee shop. There’s absolutely no glare from any angle, and unlike the iPad, reading improves with more ambient light. Not to mention, the Kindle also works well in dim lighting, but because it does not emit any light of it’s own, it will not operate in the dark.

The Kindle also comes with free 3G wireless access.  Get that? FREE. Granted the browser it comes with is severely limited, but in a crunch, it can call up information from nearly anywhere on the planet, for free.  To get wireless access in the iPad, you’ll either need a WiFi connection, or a paid 3G subscription.

And when it comes to reading, the Kindle does this job very well. It’s very light, as opposed to the 1.5 pound iPad, and it can be easily held with one hand for extended periods of time. Which makes it great for reading on the beach, lying down, you know, relaxing.  And, it helps that the Kindle has access to more premium ebooks than any other ebook store on the planet. Which is important if you want to maximize your chances of getting the latest book from your favorite author.

Apple's iPad

For those who are traveling, these days it helps to pack light. The Kindle wins in this department – with the ability keep it’s charge for two weeks or longer with 3G turned off, one could read several novels over a vacation without worrying about bringing along the USB charging cable.  Yes, the iPad’s 10 hour battery life is impressive, but most good reads take substantially longer!

Having said all that, the iPad is an extraordinary and beautiful machine. To deny that is to deny the obvious. It’s speedy and responsive, well featured, it has an excellent battery, there are many applications and games ready for it, and it’s a cinch to use. So much so it makes one wonder why computers in general aren’t as simple to utilize.  The screen is gorgeous and the interface is very intuitive, it plays HD movies with a breeze, it makes full-page web browsing portable, and you can watch streaming Netflix movies from just about anywhere.  Seriously – what’s not to like?

Oh, and have you checked out the games on the iPad? One word: WOW (and by that, I don’ t mean, World of Warcraft). Just do a search for “iPad games” on YouTube if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Yes, the iPad does also work as an ebook reader, but that’s not it’s strength.  Instead, it’s strength is in practically everything else.  While it can double as an ebook reader, I wouldn’t use it as a primary one, just as I wouldn’t use my laptop or desktop computer as one. It’s simply not as light and easy to read in daylight. But that’s where the Kindle shines. It’s an awesome ebook reader, perhaps the best around today. But it doesn’t do much else.

Does this mean you should get one vs. the other? Well, I hope it’s obvious from this article that a comparison between the two is like comparing mangos to kiwis – the attempt makes no sense. You’ll have to figure how what your priorities are, how much extra money you have lying around, and spend appropriately. What I wouldn’t do is listen to those who openly mock one device or the other with arguments that don’t relate at all to what these devices can do for you, as only you know that answer to that.

After all, that’s what’s important, right?

How Facebook Failed Privacy 101

December 11th, 2009. By Dave Oei. 9,775 views.
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Facebook and Privacy, or Lack Thereof

Facebook and Privacy, or Lack Thereof

The biggest piece of news to hit 350 million Internet users this week was the introduction of new “privacy” controls in Facebook. I use the term “privacy” loosely because if you bothered to dig into your Facebook privacy settings, you would have been somewhat shocked to see that many of the default privacy settings magically reverted to an open-free-for-everyone state. It happened to me and a few others. And, apparently, it happened to many millions of others. The bottom line? Very few of us were happy.

Here are the reasons why Facebook has it all wrong. Actually, there’s only one big reason. And, if Facebook is paying attention, this critique can eventually lead to Facebook privacy a model that’ll be a standard for the Internet.  Ready?

It’s Way Too Complicated
Oh.  My.  Goodness.  Have you ever bothered to count how many screens and how many tabs on each screen you have to visit before you’ve fully examined all your Facebook privacy settings?  Rather than looking, I’m trying to figure it out in my head and I’ve concluded that I’d much rather attempt mental long division.  Or cube roots.

Facebook could argue that they would like to give users a high degree of granularity when it comes to exactly who can seen what.  That’s understandable.  After all, who would want their mom to catch a photo of them passed out on the toilet after a night out with the old gang?  Because you know your buddies are going to post the photo.  Then tag you.  And before you know it, you’re paying own way through college.

My response?  You have several options.  First, don’t invite your mom.  Or second, get new buddies.  Or third, don’t invite anybody you don’t trust.  Personally, I favor both the second and third options.  And I’d think most others would as well.

Ultimately, what Facebook fails to realize is that these extreme levels of granularity are completely and entirely unnecessary.  Because if you “friend” a bunch of jerks who plaster your wall with vulgarities, is Facebook really to blame? Obviously not. And, what Facebook doesn’t realize is that the only reason why people feel okay with posting status updates and pictures is not because there’s a sense of trust within the underlying computer code.

Instead, it’s much more simple.  People post because they trust those they’ve “friended.”

Once a user has made a commitment to “friend” someone, they inherit all the risks and rewards that go along with that decision.  I honestly doubt that a significant percentage of Facebook users have used any of the privacy options that prevent one group of friends from seeing things that another group can’t.  And why should they?  Because they’re your friends.

So, Facebook, cut it out with privacy controls to the extreme. Come 2010 all I want to see is this:

Facebook Privacy Settings

Please select one of the options below which will dictate how all of the content generated and provided by you will be seen by others.  Show what I create to:

  • Just me.
  • All my friends.
  • All friends of friends.
  • Everybody.

Please select who can search for you:

  • Just me.
  • All my friends.
  • All friends of friends.
  • Everybody.

Yes, it’s that easy.  I’m willing to wager that about 99.5% of all Facebook users would be thrilled with the above.  But for reasons that go beyond the scope of this article, I don’t believe Facebook shares the sentiment.  Why?  In a nutshell: Ads.

Getting back, Facebook, ok, I realize I may be wrong.  But I doubt it.  If you think I’m wrong, I challenge you to share with the public what percentage of your users actually take advantage of the granular per-friend privacy settings. My guess is something around 0.01%.  If that.

In the end, does any of this matter?  Because if history is an indicator, Facebook may be the “it” thing now, but won’t be forever.  Who knows what will eventually surpass Facebook as the “it” social networking phenomenon?  Whatever it is, my money’s on the one that’s more user-friendly, more transparent, easier to use, and customizable.

For now, Facebook ol’ buddy, you’ll just have to do.  And consequently, I’ll have to be on my guard and make do.

Author’s aside: You can try but for very obvious reasons you won’t find me on Facebook.  Instead, try my twitter account: @daveoei.

A Spectacular Meteor Shower Predicted for this Weekend

December 9th, 2009. By Dave Oei. 8,895 views.
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Geminid Meteor Shower, Source: NASA

Geminid Meteor Shower, Source: NASA

The Geminid Meteor Shower doesn’t usually get the full-court press offered to the two other notables, namely the Leonids and the Perseids.  However, recent studies point to an expected increase in meteor shower activity from the Geminids that will continue for the next few decades.  Why? Jupiter’s gravitational influence is going to steadily push more of the stream of ejected material from the extinct comet Phaeton our way over this course of time. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about Phaeton slamming into us, which is now technically just an asteroid.

At worse, about 100 streaks an hour can be expected starting around midnight local time in North America.  Start by finding Orion, look at his arrow-wielding arm, follow it “up” until you reach the constellation Gemini.  That’ll be where it appears the shower is coming from.

What of the prediction of increased shower activity? At they high end, you’re looking at possibly 200 streaks an hour.  Wow!

Source: NASA

That’s a Nice Looking Spaceship – I Want One

December 7th, 2009. By Dave Oei. 8,792 views.
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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo (SS2).  I'll wait for version NCC-1701.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo (SS2). I'll wait for version NCC-1701.

Perhaps sometime later in my lifetime I will have mustered the gumption, not to mention the cash required to jump onto Virgin Galactic’s tour of outer space.  But for those of you who not only have enough of both but have been one of the first to reserve your seat into one of the first of such rides for the paying public, aside from those willing to fork over $1M for a jouney on the ISS, here’s what your ride will look like.

The rest of us will just have to sit back and drool.

Science Headlines for Week 1 of December 2009

December 6th, 2009. By Dave Oei. 9,120 views.
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Ok, what’s with the new science-blog format?

Honestly, the day job has been very busy, something had to give, and lately that has meant fewer science posts.  But, in an effort to stay current, we’re going to try something new: Very condensed posts about more things we find very interesting provided a little less often.  Hopefully, at least weekly.  We’ll see if this works.  And in the mean time let us know what you think.  The best way is to send a tweet to: @daveoei or post a comment on the site.  Enjoy!




  • New mathematical model points to at least two stable weights per individual, does not offer suggestion on hitting the lower of the two. Harvard
  • Very early intervention certainly isn’t a cure for autism, but the apparent marked effectiveness of therapies starting at 18 months certainly makes the effort worthwhile.  University of Washington

Cool Piece of Astronomical Software of the Day: Stellarium

September 4th, 2009. By Dave. 9,252 views.
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Stellarium (courtesy of

Stellarium (courtesy of

Ever wonder what is that third star from the right?  Could that planet be Jupiter or possibly Venus?  Or, are you just planning a stargazing trip to someplace distant sometime in the far off  future and are wondering what you can expect to see?

Then, Stellarium is just for you.

While the free downloadable software (Windows, Mac, Linux) has been around for a while, it still hasn’t hit version 1.0.  As of this article, it’s on version 0.10.2.  Still, despite my best efforts, I could not get the program to crash, and I run an old P4 1.73Ghz PC.  I can only imagine how it will work on a newer computer.

As you can see from the screen shot, Stellarium will give you a view of the night sky, as if you walked outside your home on a clear, dark night.  But, that’s just the beginning.

Read more…

Better than the seedless watermelon: Room temperature ice cream

September 3rd, 2009. By Dave. 9,471 views.
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Ben and Jerrys...warm?

Ben and Jerrys...warm?

Many Gen-Y’ers have no memory of seeded watermelons.  In fact, you would have to look long and hard to relive the glory days of spitting out those small black slippery suckers on hot summer afternoons.  I suppose we all owe a debt to those scientists who relieved us from the need to eat nimbly while devouring a watermelon, scientists who, per Jerry Seinfeld, somehow decided to give up careers looking for the cure to cancer to instead fight the war on pt-tooing out seeds.

But I digress.

Unilever, owner of Ben and Jerry’s (Surprised? It happened 9 years ago) is looking to sell you warm ice cream.  It has a team of scientists looking into the prospect.  Why?  To help reduce or eliminate the need for keeping their very expensive ice cream frozen before you buy it.  Why? Because keeping things frozen for long periods of time not only costs energy, but ultimately yields a high carbon footprint.  Unilever figures, if they can sell you warm ice cream that you freeze when you get home, the environment wins.  Big.

Though the scientific work required to make this happen won’t likely earn anybody a Nobel, it may, someday, earn some gratitude from a polar bear or two.

Source: TimesOnline

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