Crafting Additional Playing Card Suits

It isn’t much of a secret that I am fascinated by the idea of playing card suits. In fact, I’ve previously written an article on the subject. During my research into alternative suits (aside from the French hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs, that is) I became so fascinated with the idea that I created my own set of four additional suits (being represented in a 104-card deck) which were revealed at the end of the aforementioned article. In the time since then, I have become less satisfied with these designs and more capable in my own design skills, which led me to attempt this project again.
The first thing I did was go back to my research, collecting again every attempt at a different set of suits that I had previously looked at. Then I reviewed as much additional information as I could (several comments on my previous post led me down interesting paths, and with the constant exponential increase in data on the internet, there were a myriad of options that had either been created or come to light since my previous search. Links to as many of these as possible will be provided at the end*). I then created a master document where I cut out all of the various suits I had found and aligned them with all the others for comparison purposes (I also found that, strangely, some designs seem to have been “lifted” from elsewhere, which surprises me, one would think there wouldn’t be money in doing such a thing). I then reviewed the reasons that people had listed for creating each of these additional suits (at least, those that weren’t regional variations from centuries past) and found James Robert Watson’s methodology to be what I would consider the most sound (and his designs, in my opinion, the most successful). I reviewed the elements of the standard French design for the features that made them a cohesive set, and their symbolism. I then attempted to create as many different possible shapes that utilized these features and could be made to symbolize something easily recognizable (and, if possible, similar to those of the regional Spanish, German, or Italian suits).
One of the things that I noted when reviewing the myriad of ways others had attempted this challenge was that the symbols were often either too complicated or attempting to signify something more complicated than the 4 shapes they were meant to harmonize with. Indeed, looking at the 4 suits they don’t have that much in common aside from the “obvious” derivation of the spades and hearts. Perhaps a part of their cohesiveness is familiarity. I don’t have many symbols paired together in my life the way card suits are, but there is something pleasing about the 4 of them arranged in the abstract, even though they range in complexity from two lines to six, and don’t use lines that behave in consistent manners. Upon studying these details, I laid out several rules for myself in constructing my additional suits:
  • A symbol must be made of either straight lines or simple curves.
  • A symbol must be horizontally symmetrical.
  • It is okay and, at times, preferable to have a symbol be derivative of another symbol.
  • All symbols must be easily differentiable at a glance without color being a factor.
  • A symbol may not exceed 7 lines (clubs, the previous highest, have 6).
  • A symbol must have characteristics such that it can be paired with at least one other suit and fit into a group of 4 suits.
  • A symbol must be passably recognizable as what it is attempting to symbolize.
  • A symbol must feel as if it fits with the others.
Admittedly, the last one is a bit subjective. However, during this run, cohesiveness in design was central to what I wanted to achieve. My previous attempt looked like everyone else’s, so I wanted to make something that was my own, that fit. I sketched a series of designs starting with my previous attempt and working in some of what I have found in my research. I determined that in order to visually fit in, the designs had to represent items that could be considered “timeless”. Modern mechanisms just wouldn’t fit in, and there was a reason things like flowers or swords had been chosen as suits in the past (though often not as stylized). Beyond those conscious decisions it is difficult to explain how an iterative process creates, so I will simply display the result, laid out in a way that I believe makes its connections to the source material apparent.

2018 – Is the Revolution Over?

This article is an excerpt from Smith’s Almanack (2018).

By: Austin Smith

In late April 1918, Vladimir Lenin said, “In the end, countries will coalesce into a great socialist federation or commonwealth — seventy-five or one hundred years.”* I don’t believe at this point that it will be a controversial statement to say that, with less than a year left, that isn’t going to happen. But was that definitely the case when Lenin said it? Was the course of Marxism and Leninism pre-ordained at that moment? It wasn’t as if Lenin was posturing; this was said in a private conversation. He wasn’t “out of his mind;” in the same conversation he correctly predicted the Kaiser wouldn’t last the year. But of course he was not a future-seer. How long this revolution would go on without him was not his to know.

Lenin, at that moment, could not have predicted how poorly the proletariat revolution would go in the other countries across Europe. In Germany, as the First World War ended, the bourgeoisie “lucked out” when the country was proclaimed a republic before the communists could assert too much influence, and the “spartacists” were violently suppressed. How could Lenin have foreseen the violence with which the “middle class” and even the workers would resist the revolution throughout Europe, with what vehemence they would speak of “communists”? The “Fascist” movements that grew as the influence of the kings waned were certainly a troubling development for the Comintern (communist international). While the actual politics of Mussolini’s Fascists, Hitler’s National Socialists, and Sima’s Iron Guard were quite different from one another, they all shared a hatred for the communist party. By the late 1930s, with General Franco having crushed the republican resistance (who were supported by the Soviets) in Spain it seemed as if the USSR would remain alone in its “capitalist encirclement.” Perhaps the revolution was already finished.

Of course, the worst was yet to come. Neither Lenin nor anyone in the 30’s (save perhaps Hitler himself) could’ve conceived of the brutality of what might be considered the death-knell for international communism, the Second World War. One might, with the benefit of hindsight, look back and think it obvious that in the duel between superpowers the relatively untouched United States would win out against a country that had just lost some 30 million people (9 million soldiers killed {2-3 million of whom were prisoners}, 11 million civilians exterminated {1.3 million of whom were Jewish}, 8 million starved, 3 million used as slaves and then killed.† And that doesn’t even count the 500,000 Tartars, 500,000 Volga Germans‡ and sums of Cossacks, Volksdeutsher, Muslims, and all others deemed untrustworthy during the German invasion who were deported by the Soviets and forced into labor camps or killed, nor those who were murdered in Stalin’s purges). Such massive losses would account for 10% of the current United States population (it was perhaps 14% of the Soviet population then), and combined with the facts that most who died were young men, and that massive amounts of equipment and farmland were also destroyed during the war, it seems a miracle that the Soviets could remain a superpower at all.

Indeed, as the war neared its close, Soviet influence extended only as far as the Red Army could take it. In Western Europe, after heavy losses of manpower and equipment, it found itself butted up against a wall of troops it could not pass through with a guarantee of success. Despite communists gaining ground in Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia, the US (relatively fresh as far war was concerned) and its allies had them caged in. In Korea and Vietnam they rattled this cage, but even though the US ceded ground it was clear that any significant advance would be checked. The fact that in Vietnam the number of communist casualties was more than double that of US and allied casualties⁑ should have been enough to give pause, and the Americans had only left, they were not defeated.

Yet, there was hope for the revolution. The Soviet Union and its rising ally China were still formidable opponents with room to consolidate and expand their influence with cooperation. But this idea, and the last possibility for a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat, died when the actual dictators got in the way. The communist nations publicly broke with each other. Tito’s communism would be different from Stalin’s, and Mao’s different from Khrushchev’s. There would not be a unified front, and any dreams of coalescing would be put on hold. The communist sphere had reached its zenith, and it would only recede.

Still, had it really taken that long for the end to be near? Had not the spirit of communism died when it became a dictatorship? Some would argue that it wasn’t always, and didn’t always need to be, that way. The principles of communism aren’t meant to be those of dictatorship. Were Lenin (whom, we should not forget, organized the killing of thousands and said “Do you really think that we can emerge victoriously from the revolution without rabid terrorism?”) and Stalin (who ordered the murder of 500,000 and starved millions more) just flukes that could be overcome? Those many other party leaders, who eventually agreed to Lenin’s decisions, or allied with Stalin to oust Trotsky, or accepted their death sentences out of loyalty to the party, obviously thought that things would turn out better. Most only realized the blood they had waded into when it was too late. While history has shown us that it is the unfortunate place of such naïve and idealist men to be taken advantage of by the ruthless and the tyrannical.

But the real end can be traced even farther back. In 1918, two weeks before Lenin spoke of “seventy-five or one hundred years” the Red Army murdered hundreds of members of anarchist groups. Murders like this had happened before to different groups, and they would continue. The idea of a revolution that could elevate everyone’s lives had been abandoned swiftly. And now, in April 1918, Lenin was admitting that rapid communization would be difficult, and the régime would need to make concessions “for the moment” in order to keep pace with the world (concessions which, when revoked under Stalin, led to the starvation of thousands). In that moment when Lenin spoke, the revolution had already been undermined, and a struggle for power had taken its place. In that moment, as Lenin spoke of the future of communism, the revolution was already dead.

* Williams, Albert. Journey Into Revolution – Petrograd 1917-18. 1969 pg. 283

Ellman, M. Maksudov, S. Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: A Note. 1994

‡ Werth, Alexander. Russia at War: 1941-1945. 1964 pgs. 474 and 763

Encyclopedia Britannica (the official estimates of 200,000 South Vietnamese military deaths and 60,000 US military deaths compared to 1,000,000 North Vietnamese military deaths actually bring the ratio closer to three or four times as many).

⁂ Additionally consulted: Keith Gessen. How Stalin Became Stalinist. 2017. The New Yorker Magazine.

More Shapes in Playing Cards

Despite me having thousands (probably) of decks of playing cards there is one property they have with very little variance, and that is their rectangularness. Almost every deck of cards ever printed is rectangular, even though you’d think that with modern printing we’d just be making them in every conceivable shape. I’ve still got my hands on a few oddly shaped decks, though, and as I go through them, I think you’ll see that despite them being fascinating, there is a reason we keep the old rectangular design most of the time. (Of course it’s because they’re easier to print, hold, shuffle, and store. You already knew that, but more shapes are fun.)

Of course circular is the most popular, and the one I have the most examples of at 6. It’s the shape that is the most different from the standard rectangle, while still potentially being playable. Most sets use a simple pattern, where the illustration is in the center surrounded by 6 pips around the edge. It’s about as good a design as one could come up with for the shape, but it isn’t particularly easy to hold, both in general and in a way that allows one to see the pips. But on the table they look super cool, and they allow for strange back designs that make them “loved” by novelty toy companies that make things in China. My favorite’s the one with the world on the back, but the oldest one (by Waddingtons) with pink elephants is pretty neat too.

The third most common shape I’ve seen is surprising, but likely the most functional behind the standard. They are made by Umbra, a furniture and home décor company that apparently had some leftover cardboard (I joke, but a surprising number of décor and furniture companies have branded cards) and they’re five inch long, inch and a half wide oblong “capsules” (they have straight sides). This large shape and the ungainly rounded plastic containers they come in make them hard to store and cumbersome to take with you, but the minimalistic design with two pips and a line down the middle allow them to be easily understandable and the tall format with rounded bottoms makes them easy to fan out even while holding large hands. They might not be my first choice but maybe they’re an okay pack for vacations.

And now it’s time for the weird; if you want to be reminded of the wonderful days of summer when you’re dealing a hand there’re flip-flop shaped cards (mine are from Two’s Company, and not the ones currently available online) that are far too big but easy to fan out in your hand since the pips are printed on a part that curves away from the rest of the card. They also strangely have 3 different back designs randomly distributed throughout the cards because they couldn’t be bothered to make decisions with a straight head. And speaking of that there’s the “crooked pack” which introduces two angles into the middle of the cards in what I assume is an attempt to make them easier to fan, but has the side effect of making them impossible to shuffle, and that isn’t helped by the poor quality of their construction. Still, they are probably the most playable deck I’ve mentioned and for that reason they are actually still available (though mine say made in Hong Kong so they might not be exactly the same).

And since Chinese manufacturers tend to not ask questions, there are a ton from there, most coming in cheap clear plastic cases that match the cards’ shape, and the card quality is low enough that they begin to fall apart after a few plays. I’ve got a guitar pick deck that has the pips printed in such a way that you can only play with the deck in one direction (which seems to be upside down) and not very comfortably at that. Then there’s a deck shaped like a football, which literally just has regular playing card faces printed small enough that they fit inside the shape and thus are almost unplayable because there’s no way to hold more that a few and see the values on the card. And I have a heart deck that looks just as bad despite trying to compensate for the new shape.

But the absolutely worst shaped deck I have ever encountered is a little one shaped like a racecar, complete with an east-to-tear triangle for the spoiler. The deck is a master-class in not thinking: the design is too complicated to hold, shuffle, or easily put back in the case. The cardstock used is flimsy and easily tear-able, while the coating makes them slippery when being held. The pips are placed where they are hard to see while fanning the cards, and they are black numbers surrounded by a black circle (yes, all four 9s have the same pips, same for the 8s, etc.), and to make things just that little bit more confusing, they even changed out the regular suits for: helmets, trophies, flags, and wheels. They’re just a disaster, but you can still buy them at party-favor websites if you don’t want anyone at your party to have fun playing cards.

(Now, before the last paragraph here, I’d like to briefly mention a deck that had me fooled. Even though I had previously seen what was inside I still thought that the “Archideck” was a set of different shaped cards because of its “building” -shaped box, but alas, they just have boring pictures of New York buildings on them, and shame on me for being fooled.)

So is there a lesson to be learned from all that? Yes, I think: if you want to play a game, maybe just stick to regular cards, but other shapes are fun to look at and to mess with. If there is a better shape than the rectangle I haven’t found it yet, and I’m starting to think there probably isn’t and we got it right the first time. But, of course I do enjoy all these experimental decks, and getting one out to use every once in a while is still a fun thing to do.

Interlude: WINTER EDC – EDC 2016-17 Part 2.5

As a quick little interlude here, I wanted to do a short list of stuff I carry/use in the winter as part of my daily-carry systems that are omitted from the rest of this list, which is essentially a summer list since I live in an area of the world where it doesn’t get cold very often (people in Alaska would probably say it never gets cold here). But, with it being winter (barely) now, they’re on my mind.

  • Overcoat (London Fog) (Pretty generic beige color. Keeps me warm with the liner, and keeps the snow/rain off of me with or without it.)
  • Fleece(y) Headband(s) (I don’t know the brand of these but they come from Wal-Mart {probably} and my ears love them.)
  • Driving Gloves (A nice pair of warm leather gloves that used to belong to my father and whose only identifying markings say “made in Hong Kong”.)
  • Other (Touchscreen) Gloves (Champion) (Basically, Target brand gloves that aren’t as warm but are much more useful if I want to use my fingers, grip, or manipulate a touch screen {phone probably}.)
  • Silk Handkerchief (An essential item for wearing layers. I wear it over my neck under my shirt to prevent 4 layers of clothing from chafing it into oblivion.)
  • Scarf (Cashmere)
  • Hand Warmers (Mostly Grabber) (Isn’t it obvious why?)

And that’s basically it. I don’t go overboard for winter since there isn’t much of it here (where I live), but I just thought I should include a little bit about how I prepare for it since it does affect what I can carry.

2016 The Year of Oops… Redux

Back in the dark ages at the end of 2013 I wrote an article about how that year, mostly in tech but also in other aspects of life, was full of enough flubs that it should probably be forgotten. I lamented that the tech industry specifically and the mountain of humans in charge of things in general had lost touch with reality and were making decisions seemingly based on what they thought was a good idea without doing any testing. I made a few predictions for the future that these tone-deaf companies would roll back what they did and use the “frog in hot water” method to bring them back. I was slightly more accurate than I expected, but I still held out hope that the people in charge would take the hint from their customers (probably in the form of declining sales) and change their tune. Three years later and I couldn’t have been more wrong. So I’m back again to take a look as some of the “facepalm” (I guess) worthy instances of the last year.

Starting off strong where I left off: Yahoo! (a company I’m already not a fan of for reasons that could be a post on their own) disclosed that it got hacked (“hacked” always being a relative term) years ago and that a huge number of accounts’ information and passwords were stolen. As anyone who uses the system knows, they now advise you to change your password and personal information. Thank you for telling everyone a few years too late. Your security is so good that I, the “owner of the account” can’t log in, but some other random person who stole millions of accounts data can and I appreciate that. At least it’s good news for Verizon who could negotiate to pay a capitol “B” Billion dollars less in their acquisition that now seems even more questionable than that time they bought AOL. So with Verizon in a slap-fight with Sprint while cutting off customers’ unlimited data plans and Yahoo! (who I’m pretty sure still runs AT&T’s email) bleeding money like it’s done for the last decade it seems like Tumblr is still the most sane member of the family.

My segues didn’t get any better in the intervening years so I’m just going to move on to Apple, who seem to be determined to destroy everything I once liked about them. The Apple watch isn’t doing so hot, even with its second generation. I don’t know why they thought it would work well. I, and others, made fun of Samsung for doing it back in 2013. I guess they probably still made boatloads of cash, so success is relative. Their Macbook Pros finally followed their desktop brothers and restricted users to a single port-type, to which I respond “I get it, I get it, the future is coming, but could you please not shove it down my throat?”. But I guess I’m an outlier. I’m still kinda mad they got rid of optical drives. It seems like their innovation has become more desperate to put out a new model of at least 2 devices each year. Their last iPad had me bored, their touchbar had me snoring, and Bluetooth headphones had me enraged. At least the iPhone 7, while being bigger than a datapad from Star Trek and having the worst audio playback quality of any phone in recent memory, has enough internal storage now to replace my iPod classic that lets me have all the music I want anywhere I want it; thank you very much for not coming up with a suitable replacement. People might just say I’m behind the times with my clunky old devices, but as Apple’s OS’ bugs increase, their product lines diversify in the weirdest, most confusing possible way, and they start to become more locked down. I get the impression that Apple thinks I’m an idiot, and an idiot who can be counted on to buy their chained-down PC’s time and time again without question. They’ll still probably get one more generation of devices out of me, and hey, they’re one of the richest companies in the world, but I’m seeing a downward trend I hope they can pull up from.

But while Apple might be specifically annoying to me (and making some general duds) the whole message coming out of the tech industry this year is one to make them not be trusted. While there hasn’t been too much negative press at the announcements themselves, things like Uber’s new “fleet” of self-driving cars and Amazon’s grocery store show that the ideal future in the minds of emerging companies is one without you (and anti-trust laws). And this latest attempt to begin the demolition of these two huge employment sectors in the US comes after years of union gutting, tax evasion, and price slashing that competitors can’t keep up with, while offering no compensation and spitting in the face of one of the core tenets supposed to keep capitalism in check “if the people working for you don’t earn enough to buy the products, your sales will diminish”. Amazon has gone the pacification route by also introducing a way to donate to charities without changing much of your shopping routine (maybe someone’ll create a charity for helping Amazon’s warehouse workers in poor conditions) while Uber and Lyft decided to stamp their foot down and declare “We don’t need you, you need us!” and pulling out of Austin (and other cities) when a clunky but reasonable local law made it necessary to fingerprint their drivers. Their leaving sends the interesting message that the law, their customers, and their contractors can all go to hell, they’re playing for some imaginary future where they win. The future isn’t quite here yet: Teslas are smashing into trucks they think are the sky, Samsung’s phones are literally exploding (because seriously, maybe they should test their products a little better; they don’t have to release a new pocket-dinosaur every year), and a private company landing a rocket is still something to be impressed at, but as the most recent job-destroyers gain footholds on the coasts, it’s only a matter of time before they start moving inland.

And well… I mentioned politics last time so… Trump, am I right? or more the fact that he created a social-media campaign strategy that no one seems to really understand, even the facilitators like Facebook and Twitter. Presumably afraid that any human interference would be labeled as bias and hurt their image (which did happen) Facebook got rid of human news “editors” and replaced them with an algorithm that gave everyone a healthy dose of fake. I’m still not sure if I’d prefer a biased human serving me up news or a robot feeding me wrong information, because given two bad answers, why choose? (-Apparently Everyone in 2016). Twitter (or Reddit, or really anywhere,) didn’t fare much better, as every attempt at policing they did was interpreted as an infringement on peoples’ rights (which it might be?) and only served to bolster the things they were attempting to be rid of. But public confidence in their ability to be arbiters was only destroyed once they were all that was left after most of the “regular” media came out as crazy biased, as in “blatantly endorsing a political candidate when you’re supposed to be a neutral arbiter of truth” biased. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy with the fact that there was an election between, and I don’t have the exact numbers here, about 176,000 people all of whom I hated, but someone had to win, and if anyone stating an obvious political opinion when their job is supposedly based on facts and not opinion, is obviously shooting themselves in the foot. Even sites like Wikileaks that don’t really even have stories, just documents, appear to be extremely biased with the specific documents they release (but who was trusting information from potential traitors anyway?)

Without a segue, but with a bad taste in my mouth, I’ll just move back to less political industry topics. Time-Warner Cable was going to merge with Comcast in a deal that was shady enough they were going to give a significant chunk of their subscribers to Charter Communications and create a new company with other divested subscribers that would be controlled by both of them. But even still, it apparently wouldn’t make it through anti-trust regulations so they had to give up and Time-Warner merged with Charter instead creating the second-largest telecommunications company. Now they’re trying to re-brand, meaning people will get the same terrible service with a new uninteresting name: “Spectrum”. They’re even shooting themselves in the foot a bit by continually saying “Time-Warner Cable is now Spectrum”… way to get your name off of it. But at least they’re addressing their criticism, albeit by running away from it, unlike the Youtube/Google/Alphabet (who cares?) machine that long ago figured out it didn’t have to answer to anyone, especially customers. Even as Youtube sparks large controversies that alienate creators (3 in the last year if my (minimal) count is correct) there is no danger of any competitor catching up and thus a negligible number of creators will leave. Google (and Alphabet) like to keep their big mouths shut about how they can control your online lives for the most part (smart tactic I suppose), and Youtube mostly does as well, but its actions affect so many people that they are pretty uninterested in how to run the business so it benefits the creators and the consumers more than it does at the moment. And they’re big enough that they don’t have to answer to anyone, and even though they’re guilty of many of the things I’ve already talked about here nothing sticks. They just put their heads down and barrel forward with only their own internal monologue to hear.

So I guess the moral of the story is that everything is terrible and you shouldn’t trust anyone? I don’t want that to be the case, and while one should be watchful of that potential outcome we aren’t quite there yet. But as these newer companies get larger, they grow increasingly out of touch with regular people. In many cases they’re just sort of forgetting that people exist, and it seems like more often than not they’re being forgiven (or maybe just forgotten) for it. Hopefully, there are greater potential repercussions for these companies than just me and a few other people talking into the internet void, and hopefully that means more of a dialogue between the parties that will lead to more awesome things in the future. But now my internal pessimism disguised as realism begins to show through. I would feel equally confident in a prediction that the increasing complexity of electronic systems will lead to companies focusing even less on the end user and more on simply creating a product that they can put out, and still crashes, bugs, glitches, and hacks will become more prevalent and more disastrous. And even if things get better, I’ll probably be back in 3 years to talk about some other perplexing failure. But hopefully not sooner.

Man, I left the 2013 article on so much less of a downer… Maybe pessimism is just the curse of a thinking people… No that’s not funny! Um… At least we won’t hear “Do it for the Vine” anymore? Maybe… Samsung and Apple should be less conspicuous with their Hitman™ exploding phones… Sure, good enough.


Post-Script: Here is a link to a Verge article that, while not being the inspiration for this article, helped guide the direction it went.