Friday, February 28, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: Assassin's Creed II

I shooed an eagle off in order to crouch there.
Assassin's Creed II is a stealth/parkour/stabbing people game with a strong focus on historical setting. It's widely considered to be the peak of the Assassin's Creed series, and I decided I could no longer overlook the 75% off sale on Steam. Assassin's Creed II is set in Renaissance Italy, a colorful and energetic setting. You play as a young Florentine nobleman who turns to assassination when his family is decimated by a conspiracy.

Some of my favorite moments in Assassin's Creed II are the chases. I'll be walking through a crowd and hear a bunch of hooligans begin to recognize me as the guy who beat up their boss earlier. As they run towards me, I just need to hold down two buttons and sprint towards the nearest stack of crates for my character to vault up onto the rooftoops. From there, I can run and hide or clobber my pursuers one by one as they clamber up after me.

Contrary to my expectations, I spent most of my time in Assassin's Creed II leaping over rooftops or pick-pocketing merchants rather than stabbing people. After three hours of playtime, I've only assassinated one person. A lot of hardcore gamers say that Assassin's Creed II is too easy, but the difficulty is just what I want at the moment, allowing me to traverse and play in  a beautiful and vital city without too much frustration.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Exit Part 5

Buenos Aires-- the name meant 'good wind' in Spanish, as the city was a popular destination for people resetting their timekeeping devices. Exit had never been to Buenos Aires before, but only stumbled once as he stepped off the Knotleaguer's gangplank. The air was so fresh that he almost had a concussion.

Tim stepped down beside him. "Something wrong, Exit?"
"Oh, I'm okay," said Exit. "I just got a funny feeling that I haven't been here before."
Captain Loophole sidled up grinning. "Ho yes, I believe the term is 'pas vu jusqu'à maintenant'. S'not supposed to be eerie, though." Captain Loophole probably would have said more, but he had a concussion and sprawled face-down on the dock.

Exit grabbed Captain Loophole's arms and Tim grabbed his legs. "Stop grabbing my legs, Tim," said Exit.
"Sorry, got confused there," said Tim. He grabbed Captain Loophole's legs and together they carried him to the nearest establishment-- Motel Barato. Each room cost just fifteen cents, so Exit paid for three, only discovering later that they were all the same room.

After depositing Captain Loophole on the motel bed, Exit turned to Tim and nodded. "Want to go look around the town?"
"Sure," said Tim. "There are a lot of good places to not eat down the road."
"Perfect. I just spent our last forty-five cents."
"This air is pretty fresh stuff, though, innit?"
"As you say, Tim."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tales of the Urban Dead Part 3

Albert Newman was rummaging through the junkyard once again. Life was lived on the edge of a knife, but people eventually find routine in everything. Shackleville had been calm for a few days, and Albert had been daring enough to take one or two long scouting trips.

Albert picked up a discarded stapler, weighing it in his hand before casting it back on the piles of rubbish. Then came the howl. Shrieks echoed from the direction Albert had come from. Had St. Helier's been overrun? Grabbing his trusty length of pipe, Albert sprinted towards the noise. Just north of the church, a man was being mauled by a zombie. Gritting his teeth, Albert charged forward, pipe sweaty in his hands. As the zombie turned to face the new threat, Albert swung with all his might, clobbering the zombie upside the head and sending it reeling. Knocking the creature down with a blow to the back, Albert scrambled over to the attacked man.

The victim was still alive, though bleeding from cuts on his head and arms. Grabbing the man under the arms, Albert dragged him back, glance darting between the dazed zombie and the doors of St. Helier's. It was a long way to go. Hauling the man behind a ruined bench, Albert grabbed several bandages from his pack, fumbling as he attempted to staunch the man's bleeding.

A loud groan sounded through the square and Albert looked up. The first zombie was getting up, and a second was appearing from a side street. Albert grabbed the man again and pulled, but after dragging him another few feet, he knew he would never make it back to the church in time. Dropping the limp body as the first zombie stumbled forwards, Albert swung his pipe again, knocking the creature back again. With a brief prayer, Albert looked once more upon the dying man and turned to run.

That night, Albert sat alone in the emptiness of St. Heliers, cleaning the congealed blood from his length of pipe. He kept telling himself that he had done all he could, and in the end fell into an uneasy sleep after triple-checking the bars on all the doors. Outside, one new zombie rose to haunt the streets.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ablaut and Other Things

Latin and English have their differences, but I've been surprised by how closely related (relatively) they really are. A lot of the Latin vocabulary is easy to remember simply because it has a direct link to the English words we use today. For example, 'to see' is 'videre' in Latin-- even if I don't make the connection with "veni vidi vici", English words like 'view' and 'video' provide threads along which to determine meaning.

Today in Latin class, we learned about a feature shared throughout the happy family of Indo-European languages: ablaut. It wasn't an in-depth lesson, but as far as I can tell, ablaut is a German term referring to vowels shifting along with changing tenses (and possibly other things). Just as 'I sing' goes to 'I sang', 'cano' goes to 'cecini'. There's a lot going on behind the scenes with these languages, and while I'm not the one to figure out how these things work, it's fascinating to learn about.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Waking Up

Say three alarms are set for waking dour
Eight-ten, fifteen, and half the early hour
Upon the sounding first the thing to do
Is not to cancel both the other two

It happened so that happened this today
One wheezy 'larm was rung while snug I lay
My strength enough to cease the ringing noise
Was not enough to alter supine poise

And thus I slept après 'larm and avant
For dozing thus would hence past sleeping want
Forgotten schedule lay for time aside
As eyelids claimed the sleep alarm denied

The sleepy comfort of the bed' demand
Thus waged a war with daily duties planned

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Science Facts: Coke Floats

A can of standard Coca-Cola has a density of 1.042 g/mL, but a can of Diet Coke has a density of just 0.997 g/mL. While it's not a big difference, water's standard density is 1 g/mL, resulting in Diet Coke floating while regular Coke will sink. If you want to get rid of all your non-diet drinks without having to look at each individual can, empty your fridge into a large body of water and collect any cans that float.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tales of the Urban Dead Part 2

The search for other survivors was fruitless, but Albert Newman began to scout further and further afield for supplies. St. Helier's was situated next to a police station, a sure place to find weapons and survival gear, but the station's entrances had been heavily barricaded.

Albert eventually struck gold in a junkyard to the south. Rummaging through the heaps of trash, he picked up a slim length of pipe-- a crude weapon at best, but effective against zombies. Albert was about to make the journey back to St. Helier's when he spotted a rusty jerry can hidden under a shredded tire. Even better, it was still half-full of fuel.

In the zombie apocalypse, fuel meant life-- electricity, communications, vehicles, and more. Albert Newman returned home in silent triumph, a spark of brightness in grey-walled Shackleville.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Questions About Summer Research

I've been looking at a lot of undergraduate biology research programs for this summer and applying to all the ones I can see myself doing. Browsing various REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) postings has raised some interesting questions:

How much Spanish would I need to know to study plants in Costa Rica?
Why is one of the requirements for this job being 'able to work in adverse conditions'?
           and most importantly,
Why does SETI have a program for biology students? There can only be one reason...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tales of the Urban Dead

Albert Newman sat and thought in the corner of the dusty sanctuary. The days he had been holed up in St. Helier's seemed like weeks, and while the makeshift barricades at every entrance to the church kept the zombies out, Albert's supplies were running out.

The Shackleville suburb was quiet most nights, but Albert was still shaken from his first journey through the empty streets, knowing that death could be lurking around any corner. And so he sat in the sanctuary, staring through the broken rose window at the orange sky. Albert Newman had been somebody once, but after the world ended, it was the best anyone could do to survive.

The last light of day was fading when a streak of red light blazed on the horizon. Albert scrambled to his feet, peering at the fading red. A flare could only mean one thing.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Size of the Internet

How big is the Internet? It's a difficult question to tackle-- the Internet as a whole isn't owned or moderated by any one body. First of all, let's measure size by amount of information. As it so happens, a Dutchman named Maurice de Kunder has attempted to answer this question of size, and his results, while inevitably inaccurate, can be found here.

What I found most interesting was some of de Kunder's methods. As far as I understood it, one procedure was to determine the frequency of certain words in a huge sample of text. The example given was the word 'the' being found in 67.61% of pages. The word 'the' is then searched in Google or another search engine, and the number of pages found can be divided by the percentage (converted to decimal), giving the total number of pages out there.

I can't think of a more fascinating way to statistically measure the Internet, so I'll go ahead and take a philosophical view. If we define the size of the Internet as '1', that is to say, the sum total of information on the Internet, the size of any individual page becomes effectively nothing. In this way, the information added to the Internet doesn't increase the size of the Internet, but the insignificance of all other information on the Internet. If you take this idea to its extreme, the point at which the Internet contained all information in the universe, an infinite amount of data (consider the digits of pi), would be the moment it ceases to exist, each page having a significance of zero, and the sum of an infinite number of zeroes being zero.

With that begins the game of 'find the flaw in logic'. Isn't the Internet an interesting thing?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: Urban Dead

The graphics are pretty good for a text-based game.
In my most recent article for Corrupted Cartridge, I mentioned text-based RPGs, games that I've heard of, but never really played. I did some searching and found Urban Dead, a zombie survival browser-based MMORPG. I decided that my character would be a medic, and I was dropped off in the middle of Malton, the city Urban Dead is based in. Every action in the game uses action points, which are regenerated at the rate of one point every half hour, so Urban Dead is the sort of game you play for five minutes every other day, slowly building your character and trying to stay alive.

The great thing about text-based games that I've seen so far is the huge number of possible actions and ways to play. As a medic, I plan to be that solitary, noble, and slightly crazy character that shows up in one episode per season of a zombie TV show, helping out the main characters. I've holed up in St. Helier's church, and after making sure everything was barricaded, I started going on short scouting trips to get supplies and maybe even fuel for the generator I found.

One last interesting thing about Urban Dead is that every individual - including each zombie - is controlled by a person. When your character dies in the Urban Dead, they rise again as a zombie, and you make it your goal to hunt down the remaining survivors. Malton is a huge city, and I've only met one other survivor so far, but the mystery of what's really out there makes Urban Dead so interesting.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Social Pressure and Salad

In Psychology class last year, we learned all about how people's behavior is affected by their environment. There have been times that I've been skeptical about the extent of this happening, but I noticed today how just being at Emory has changed my habits.

It was about 5:30 PM when I realized that I had eaten a salad for lunch and gone for a run in the park. It seems like a normal thing now, but just a few months ago, I had no qualms about eating hamburgers and drinking soda for just about every meal, with my only exercise being walking to class.

As far as I can tell, I'm about as physically healthy as I was last semester, and I get the sense that my slow adoption of elements of the salad & run lifestyle is happening just because it's what people do here. I've by no means completely changed my habits, but any psychological phenomenon that has me voluntarily visiting a salad bar is probably worth noting.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Telemachus and Odysseus

We've been covering the Odyssey these past few weeks in my Ancient Heroes class. It's been interesting to approach the Odyssey from a more analytical viewpoint, and I'm feeling the need to share my opinions.

First of all, Telemachus isn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. For the most part, though, I don't mean that as an insult. Telemachus is strong and virtuous, certainly, but as he talks to various people who knew his father, it becomes clear even to him that he'll probably never be as wise or cunning as Odysseus. 

While not knowing Ancient Greek culture myself, I was intrigued by the scene where the arrogant suitor Antinous breaks his stool over an unflinching Odysseus. Telemachus is looking on, and deeply grieved, but in accordance with his father's scheme, does nothing. As opposed to Penelope, who cries at even the mention of long-lost Odysseus, or Odysseus himself, who earlier cries for seven years straight at the thought of long-lost Ithaca, Telemachus doesn't shed a tear.

Telemachus is said to be the spitting image of his father, but similarities with Odysseus are scarce after that. The one skill he does share with Odysseus is strong rhetoric, an ability Telemachus comes into through the course of the Odyssey.

Initially, I thought that the chapters about Telemachus' journey to Pylos and Sparta were a waste of space in the Odyssey, but I've been slowly convinced otherwise. In many ways, the Odyssey tells the story of Telemachus preparing to meet his heroic father and coming to terms with his seeming normality in the face of Odysseus' greatness. Through the struggles, Telemachus finds his own identity, more soft-spoken than Odysseus, but wise beyond his years.

It's a story worth looking into.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: Viscera Cleanup Detail

At least the Ming vase wasn't damaged.
Viscera Cleanup Detail: Shadow Warrior is a game I received bundled with first-person hack and slash Shadow Warrior. In Shadow Warrior, you play a classic action hero, taking apart legions of demons with a katana and an arsenal of guns. Viscera Cleanup Detail: Shadow Warrior follows the story of the janitor tasked with cleaning up the protagonist's mess.

When you come right down to it, Viscera Cleanup Detail is a very tedious game. Mopping up one or two pools of blood makes your mop dirty enough to have to take another trip to a water source for cleaning, and each individual body part has to be carried to a special disposal bin. In some ways, though, I think that's the point of Viscera Cleanup Detail-- the actions of the gun-toting hero have consequences, and while destruction can be fun, someone has to take care of the mess at the end.

Video games, of course, are not the same as reality, and it is possible to enjoy a virtual story without cleaning up after yourself. I think it's important, however, to have that one boring janitor simulator out there to remind us how outlandish games really are.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Science Facts: Gel Electrophoresis

Strands of DNA contain a lot of information, and scientists have developed a lot of processes to study and record everything DNA has to say. One procedure I've appreciated recently for its understandability is gel electrophoresis.

A special slab of gel is prepared and fragments of DNA are placed at one end. These fragments have a negative charge at neutral pH, so when an electric current is run through the gel, the DNA will migrate towards the other end of the slab. Small fragments will travel more quickly, less impeded by the gel. After a set time, the electric current is switched off. The DNA fragments will have formed bands, with fragments of a specific length all grouped together, longer fragments closer to the start and shorter fragments closer to the end of the gel slab.

There are, of course, a lot of things that can be done with this information, but as a simple way of sorting tiny particles of DNA by length, it's remarkably down-to-earth.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Finishing Mass Effect 2

A couple weeks ago, I posted about my experiences at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. To sum up, Mass Effect 2 is a space adventure RPG-- captaining a spaceship around the galaxy in a grand story about humanity's place in the universe. After about 22 hours of playtime, I've finished the game, and my strong recommendation still stands,

It's easy to play Mass Effect 2 in half-hour chunks-- you can count on each little episode to have a bit of shooting, a bit of dialog, and a bit of exploration woven together in a story that ties into the overarching narrative. Besides that, it's fun to be a space captain, building a cohesive crew, making big decisions, or just assembling model spaceships in your cabin.

There are some negatives-- environments sometimes aren't as interactive as they could be, and using powers in combat can be a hassle. There's so much done right, however, that I think Mass Effect 2 has joined the ranks of my favorite games. It's always nice to end on a high note.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Science Facts: Basic Drinks

Highly acidic drinks like Coca-Cola (pH 2.8) often grab the spotlight when it comes to drink pH. It turns out that there's a reason for this-- there are no high-profile drinks with a shockingly high pH. After some research, which ended in digging through the controversy of whether goat's milk or water makes better soap, I've come to the conclusion that the most basic drink is pure water, at pH 7.

With this in mind, did you know that the pH of Coca-Cola, 2.8, is just above 2, the pH of stomach acid? Isn't that astoundingly spotlight-worthy?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Snow Day Again

It's happened again-- because of inclement weather, Emory will be closed on Tuesday and possibly Wednesday (I just learned that 'inclement' is defined as 'unpleasantly cold or wet'). It's a semi-welcome break this time around, and while the novel atmosphere of two weeks ago is gone, I'm hoping to at least get some work done tomorrow.

On a different not, the opposite of 'inclement' is apparently 'torrid'-- very hot and dry. I wonder if there's any reason to cancel school because of torrid weather.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Psychology and Pain

To explain the unfortunate occurrence of two consecutive days without a post, let me say that I've been away from my laptop for the past couple days, as well as experiencing the flu this week.

Interestingly, this sickness wasn't just a physical struggle, and the dentist appointment thrown in on Thursday made things a lot more interesting. My symptoms this week have been pretty basic-- a sore throat, coughing, and a runny nose. I was feeling pretty good the morning I went to the dentist, and I got to see the screen showing the x-rays that were being taken of my teeth.

According to the dentist's tentative diagnosis, my wisdom teeth are not growing in as should be and might need to be removed some time soon. I hadn't felt any pain from my wisdom teeth in the past, but I could see on the x-ray that they looked sort of pointed towards my other teeth, with no room to grow. I thought no more of this, however, until two days later.

On Saturday, my jaw began to ache, almost as if my teeth had no room and were growing into each other. It worried me quite a bit-- I wasn't planning on getting my wisdom teeth worked on for a few months at least, and wouldn't want to have my teeth aching until then.

It was then I remembered my AP Psychology lessons and the power of the placebo. Was it possible I was just imagining the pain because I had seen my teeth growing together? It certainly didn't feel imagined. I was feeling a bit tired, so I took a nap. By the time I woke up, I had no pain in my teeth, but did have a small headache.

That evening, the tooth pain came back in force, and I got even more worried. With the level it was at, even waiting until Spring Break for surgery seemed like too much. I decided to formulate a theory strong enough for myself to believe-- my teeth were not growing together, as I had felt no pain before the dentist appointment. The pain I was feeling was just from my sickness, and would pass.

I might remember this as more sudden than it actually was, but after half a minute or so of debating with myself in this manner, my tooth pain subsided slightly and I began to feel a headache. There was a bit more oscillation, then I finally was convinced that my teeth weren't the problem. I had a strong headache, but that was almost a relief after contemplating dental surgery.

I'm still not quite sure what happened that night-- sickness seems to have a way of dabbling with my mind. When I got a headache, previously not one of my symptoms, my thoughts about my wisdom teeth must have made me miss-attribute the pain. At the time, it was either that or I had managed to convince myself that my tooth pain was just a headache. There were a few minutes when I could mentally switch between the sensation of an aching jaw and a throbbing head in seconds.

I'm feeling better now, and slightly more curious about how people perceive pain. I'll have to add it to the list, just beneath 'Why can't you microwave metal stuff?'

Friday, February 7, 2014

Limerick vs Paragraph

I was going to write a couple paragraphs about my Chemistry exam today, but I realized that everything I was saying could be summed up in a limerick:

There once was an Emory cheese
Who thought that to save all the trees
All desks should be smaller
But this means that scholars
Must supplement desks with their knees

Things were more politically correct and well-informed in paragraph format, but an interesting thing about limericks seems to be that there's not much beating around the bush. It's also hard to just write one, and as I go on, the quality decreases on an exponential scale.

There once was a fellow named Clyde
Who had an unfortunate stride
His legs were so stiff
That he tripped off a cliff
And fell to the bottom and lived to marry happily and raise a family of five

At this point, it's probably best to call it a day.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Science Facts: Trees and Dentistry

Using the estimate that an average pine tree can be converted into 80,500 sheets of paper, the amount of dentist appointment forms I had to fill out just cost the planet 0.0001242 average pine trees. It doesn't seem like much from this comparison, but it sure was a lot of forms.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Runescape Merchanting

This is a picture of part of my Runescape merchanting lists. Merchanting, also known as 'merching' in Runescape, involves buying and selling huge quantities of in-game mythical goods in order to turn an in-game profit. I started merching for a set of articles I'm writing about Runescape's economy, but it was a few days before I fully realized that I was making a detailed excel spreadsheet in order to play a computer game-- sort of missing the forest of entertainment for the trees.

In many ways, though, I do find merching entertaining. I've always liked the idea of investing money, and buying and selling virtual items on a market gives me an investment sandbox with no real risk. In the space of a month, I've accumulated about 14 million gp (the Runescape currency), and as I acquire a larger investment base, profit comes more quickly. Merching isn't too time-absorbing either-- after posting a buy or sell order on the market, I do homework or write, occasionally checking to see which deals have gone through.

There's a lot more I could say, but the price of cosmic runes just crashed down to 285 gp each and I need to run some damage control.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Nonsense Sentences

I was looking up nonsensical sentences today, and while Noam Chomsky's "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" has a lot of academic merit, my favorite is a question from an internet forum:
"Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?"
It's an intriguing question, and as far as I know, a satisfactory answer has yet to be supplied.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Modding Skyrim

As I was roaming through Skyrim with my newly-mapped out controller, I decided that the world I was experiencing was a bit too bleak for my tastes. It was then that I remembered the great jewel in the crown of PC gaming-- mods. Mods are alterations or additions to a game that are made by players for players. Skyrim has mod support from the Steam Workshop, so it was to the Workshop I went in search of changes to make my world more fantastical.

I started out with some small conveniences-- a better map system, some travelling merchants, and better combat AI for NPCs. Then I went for graphical and audio improvements, adding more ambient sounds, improving graphics, and adding more detail to cities. I got a mod that made NPCs flee for their lives whenever a dragon attacks.

More large-scale changes were in order, though. I added some floating sky-islands and the city of Atlantis. I got another mod that makes the whole continent of Tamriel accessible, no longer limiting the player to the land of Skyrim. New creatures, new spells, new quests-- I downloaded 68 mods in total.

When I started up Skyrim, things were different. It's a wonder the game didn't instantly crash, for one thing. There was a bit of a surreal moment when a guard calmly leapt into the air, flapping his arms, and glided around above my head (I'm not sure which mod that came from). Overall, I'm happy with the changes and confident that the rest of my playtime in Skyrim will be much more engaging, if slightly more buggy.

Science Facts: Snow Density

Depending on temperature and other environmental factors, snow is usually one third to one half as dense as liquid water. Ice is bit more than nine tenths as dense as liquid water. This is probably why throwing snowballs at people is more socially acceptable than throwing baseball-sized chunks of ice.