Monday, June 30, 2014

Three Games With Short Play Sessions

As a sequel to "Three Games That Make Time Fly", these games, while still great fun, hardly make time seem to pass at all.

Papers, Please has great music, story, and gameplay, but it might be the stressfulness of cross-checking ingame documents that leads to my short game sessions. I'll greatly enjoy Papers, Please for half an hour or so, then decide to take a break and greatly enjoy it again some other time.

Fifa 13's football matches thankfully don't take 90 minutes-- game length is adjustable, but usually rests around 12 minutes for a full match. It's a breeze to load up Fifa 13, play two or three matches, then exit out, all virtual sporting needs fulfilled.

Team Fortress 2 is a game I play just about every week, but almost never for more than an hour. So much action is packed into each minute of this multiplayer shooter that I'll be surprised at how little time has past when I've had enough for the day.

Twofold Hundreds

It's a very statistical celebration-- over the past 223 days, I've written words on this blog 200 times, which means a post about 9 out of every 10 days. The next landmark is 365 days, and I suspect I'll do the count yearly from then on. My most commonly used tags are "Screenshot of the Day" (33 posts), "Science Facts" (23 posts), "Poems" (13 posts), and "Tales of the Urban Dead" (10 posts).

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Science Facts: Sodium

The atomic mass of sodium is 22.990. Pure sodium is reactive enough that it never occurs in the wild, but must always be refined from compounds. Interestingly, I've been thinking about what to write for about 22.990 minutes and nothing wild has occurred to me.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Three Games That Make Time Fly

These games aren't necessarily the best or most enjoyable, but they are the most absorbing games I've played:

Crusader Kings II is a game full of details, and 'just one more turn' can mean five or ten more minutes tooling around with armies, plots, and betrothals. Starting as a humble count and building up to conquer a kingdom is greatly satisfying, but it can take several afternoons.

Sim City 4 is great, and I really enjoy just sitting back and watching my intricate machine of a city work. Unfortunately, this means that after deciding I'm done for the day, I always stare at all the little charts of traffic and taxes for another twenty minutes or so.

Civilization V is the classic 'just one more turn' game; there's always one more unit to move or wonder to build. Civilization V is probably one of the most user-friendly computer games I've played, and something about the simple fun of building cities and roads makes the hours fly by. On top of that, there's also the complex fun of fiddling with culture and diplomacy and trade agreements, and there's always more to do.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Origins of Chair

The word 'chair' comes from the old French 'chaire', but originally from the Latin 'cathedra', a noun which could be interpreted as a literal seat or as the authority of a teacher or religious leader. Because of this, 'cathedral' and 'chair' share the same root.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Alexander's Loaf

'Tis said that Alexander as he gazed on his domain
Did weep upon the sighting that no conquests did remain
Thus speaks the gainful urging of the human soul's ambition
That attainment of possession grants inev'table attrition

So thought I as upon the sleeve of plastic my gaze rested
For from good sleeve had my ambition haply been divested
And as I looked upon past hour's loaf-containing sheet
I wept, for saw I there that there was no more bread to eat

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Science Facts: World's Largest Insect

Goliath beetles are the largest insects around, reaching lengths of almost 12 cm. That's quite something, but there's an extinct species of dragonfly with a wingspan of more than 60 cm. It's probably for the best that they're not around anymore.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: Papers, Please

Glory to Arstotzka.

Papers, Please is a job simulator of sorts; players serve as an immigration officer in a fictional communist Eastern European country. Hopefuls come to your window and submit their documents, which you then check for discrepancies or expired validities. You're under pressure to work fast, as processing more people results in a bigger paycheck, but with too many mistakes, you're heavily fined. The pay isn't nearly enough to support your fictional family, though, and more than once I found myself forced to choose between buying medicine for my sick uncle and buying food for my wife and son.

Papers, Please is surprisingly compelling, and the moral choices involved (help a fugitive, or heat house during winter?) make it more emotionally engaging than a paperwork simulator ought to be. At this point, I'm afraid I have to admit that indie games can be really good.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Gambling For Science

I was part of a psychiatric study today investigating how people make risky financial decisions. Said decisions were delivered by means of several minimal computer games. My favorite one was an expanding balloon of money: on the screen was a balloon and a pump, and clicking the pump inflated the balloon. The bigger the balloon got, the more money (real-life money, too) the subject got. However, at any point in this expansion process, there was a chance that the balloon would pop, and the subject would get nothing. It was edge-of-the-seat gameplay, to say the least.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Things I Learned From My Brother

Because August is still too far away.

Don't always worry about what other people think of you.
Fez isn't a bad game.
Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Look on the positive side of things.
Always using the same bowl saves a lot of dish-washing.
Money should be a means, not an end.
Pursue the things you're passionate about.

An Overview of Corn

When it comes to American cereal plants, corn is king. Interestingly, though, it doesn't all end up as cobs of vegetable on the dinner table-- about 40% of this mighty crop is used to make ethanol. After the United States, China is the world's next biggest producer of corn.

While the huge US subsidy on corn ethanol expired in 2011, I still found the cobby chaps available in Walmart for an ear-shucking 20 cents per capita. To end a string of facts quickly descending into madness, let it be known that the 327 million bushels of corn consumed by Americans each year, including grits and corn flour, pales in comparison to the 5.25 billion bushels eaten by livestock nation-wide.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Duncan's Dunkin' Donut

The noble Duncan steered ahead
To Dunkin' Donuts' lofty hill
And from good Dunkin' purchaséd
A donut for to Duncan fill

As Duncan Dunkin' from did stride
With glazéd donut grasped in hand
He straight a peerful friend espied
Who Duncan 'proached with this demand:

"Good morning, Duncan Donut-have
I see that Dunkin' Duncan's scanned
I ask you donut to donate to
My sans-Dunkin' Donuts hand"

Spake Dunc': "I do good donut hold
This 'nut from Dunk's requested
While spake you, though, donut grew cold
And swallowed, and digested"

And Duncan's friend grew gray with grief
For while his mouth to sweeten
The petition to donate donut
Good Dunkin' Duncan'd eaten

Monday, June 16, 2014

Origins of Orange

The word 'orange' originally referred to the fruit; the color was named after it (just like peach or plum). 'Orange' comes from the French 'orenge', which surprisingly enough doesn't come from Latin-- 'orenge' has roots in the Arabic 'naranj' and Persian 'narang', both referring to the fruit.

Interestingly, the place name 'Orange' in France is unrelated to the fruit-- a Celtic town called Arausio existed there in Roman times, and later became linked to the color orange, Protestantism, Dutch royalty, and, to make this all relevant, the Dutch football team that beat Spain 5-1 in their first World Cup 2014 match.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: Mount & Blade: Warband

The Hornburg will never fall while men still defend it.

Mount & Blade: Warband is the sandiest of sandbox RPGs, giving the player a sword, a horse, and a low fantasy world to use them in. Six kingdoms go to war with each other at the slightest provocation and pretenders to various thrones try to unseat current monarchs. Castles are conquered, then won back, then captured again. Best of all, these events are unscripted; driven by systems and the player's actions. The player character can become a property-owning lord, even rising to be king or queen, or can rob passing caravans and use the funds to start a nation-wide chain of tanneries.

I began Mount & Blade as a landless son of a noble, winning fame by emerging victorious in tournaments throughout the land, and fortune by betting heavily on myself in said tournaments. Eventually, I was granted a fief by King Harlaus of Swadia, and, with my Swadian brethren, went on to conquer many towns through a series of wars with the surrounding nations. Things went downhill as other kings began to gang up on Swadia, and King Harlaus began drinking heavily, holding feasts while his kingdom crumbled. I'm currently trying to rally the Swadian lords and regain lost territory, and look forward to many more stories in the land of Mount & Blade.

The combat is some of the best I've seen in any RPG, too.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Science Facts: The Densest Element

Osmium is the densest natural element, at 22.59 g/cm3. Gold, in comparison, has a density of 19.30 g/cm3; lead has 11.34 g/cm3, and hydrogen has 0.00008988 g/cm3.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Fun With Media

As the first match of the World Cup approached, I realized that my TV was sans-ESPN, and that I therefore needed to find a way to watch the game online. In the year 2014, it's definitely not as easy as it should be. I'm a novice technology tinkerer, so the best setup I could arrange was live radio coverage from the BBC website while watching a muted Spanish video stream. When the video cut out part way through, I resorted to looking up clips of recent match highlights on Youtube as soon as I heard something exciting on the radio. It was a decent system, but I'm still disappointed at how difficult it is to watch the world's biggest sporting event while living in the US.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How To Make A Kill Curve

You might know that it's not a good idea to drink bleach, but how do you quantify how lethal bleach is to an organism? The answer is the humble kill curve. Take a bunch of the organism you're testing and expose different individuals to different amounts of the possibly lethal factor. It could be milliliters of bleach, seconds exposed to ultraviolet light, or any other number of things.

When you have your results, it's time to plot the kill curve. On the y-axis is percentage of organisms left alive and on the x-axis is amount of potentially lethal factor. The curve should go from no exposure to factor (100% survival) to the amount of exposure that results in 0% survival. It's a bit grim, but there's a reason they don't call it a life curve.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Version 1.2

As material piles up on the blog, I've started making more categories for posts to make it easier to find things. The three newest (accessible in the 'Series' box) are lifestyle, poems, and word origins. Also, I've added a 'translate' gadget at the bottom of the right bar that will badly translate the blog into most major languages. It's done by Google Translate with as much accuracy as a computer program can muster, but it's still interesting to see what certain posts look like in Dutch or Hausa.

Most noticeably, everything is orange now just to shake things up. It's probably a temporary change, depending on Factors.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: The Guild II

Innkeeper Aldis Kaldi prepares food for his guests.

The Guild II is a medieval merchant simulator, taking cues from games like The Sims and Stronghold. Players take control of a dynasty, starting from the bottom with a humble fishing hut or carpenter's shop and building a commercial and political empire over the course of hundreds of game years. There's a huge range of possibilities-- players can bribe their way to power, abusing political offices and sending thugs after any who oppose, or can play a clean game, keeping a chain of inns or smithies and going to church every other day.

Regardless of profession, my favorite part of Guild II was building an efficient economic machine. I loved watching one of my farmers wake up, go to the fields, pick wheat, and load it on a cart. The cart would go to town and drop off the wheat at my inn, where an innkeeper would make it into wretched gruel and carry it up to paying customers. With these chains of production going on for each apothecary, tailor's shop, and bakery, Guild II cities are swarming with workers convincingly going about their business, wearing different-colored tunics depending on which great family they were employed by.

The Guild II is a bit buggy, but for a game of its ambition and scale, it holds together remarkably well.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Armour and Hormel

It seems universal that for every well-known product, there is a knock-off version of said product. You would think that for things like Spam, the product itself would be the end of the line. The other day at Walmart, though, I came across the Treet Luncheon Loaf-- much cheaper than Spam, and, upon purchase and consumption, not quite as good.

I assumed this was a regular knock-off job, a lamentable product for those who didn't want to shell out for name-brand Spam. I was just surprised that it was called 'Treet', not 'Span', or something along those lines. It turns out, though, that Armour, the company that makes Treet, is also responsible for the famously tinned Vienna Sausages.

The company that makes Spam is called Hormel, and I wonder if Hormel and Armour are for the tinned meat world what Coca-Cola and Pepsi are for soft drinks and Microsoft and Apple are for computers. I haven't looked any further into the matter, but I'm sure that struggles in commercial meat packing are just as dynamic as the constant Coke-Pepsi war.

One more thing-- as of 2013, Hormel also owns Skippy, my favorite peanut butter brand.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Walmart Tactics

Walmart is many things, and one of them is full of people. I'm very easily unnerved by large groups of strangers, so I've fallen into a few routines to make my shopping trips more comfortable.

The trick to not being decomposed by strangers is to be even stranger. Sure, I might be a bit uncomfortable when a family is blocking the aisle with their cart, but they're probably even more uneasy with the long-haired fellow perambulating up and down, reading the labels on mayonnaise jars and humming disjointedly.

It's not a perfect solution, or even a very good one, but I like to think that most people consider themselves normal, and seeing things from their point of view makes shopping much more interesting.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Science Facts: Most Common Metals On Earth

Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust, at 81,300 parts per million (8.1% of the crust's total mass). Iron is next at about 5%, then titanium at 0.4%. Gold weighs in at 0.0011 parts per million, or 0.0000000011%.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Divinity II Screenshots

Among other things, Divinity II is one of the most screenshot-friendly games I've played. It's very generous with vistas, and has a huge variety of beautiful environments. Previously, Mass Effect 3 was the game I'd taken the most screenshots of, at around 250. By the time I finished Divinity II, I had collected more than 850 screenshots. Here's my favorite 0.6%:

One of many less-than-competent guards

 Using dragon powers to light a candle

The Argonath's little brother

Reading in full armor under a painting of a pig

A worried wizard

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Cooperation For Fun And Profit

In many situations, cooperation benefits not only the group, but each individual involved as well.

That is what I learned today as I lay in an fMRI, kitted out with headphones, a simple game controller, a blood pressure cuff, and a Vitamin E pill taped to my forehead. I was a research subject playing a version of the Prisoner's Dilemma: Player 1 chooses either 'cooperate' or 'defect', then Player 2, having seen that choice, also decides between cooperating and defecting. If both players cooperate, they each get two dollars. If both defect, they each get one dollar. If one player cooperates and the other defects, though, the defector gets three dollars and the cooperator gets nothing.

In all the rounds I played, defecting against a cooperator was never worth the extra dollar in the long run. Even without taking morality into the equation, cooperation was the better option, as the extreme lack of cooperation following a defection resulted in less earnings for both participants.

On the other hand, if there's one thing I've learned in science classes about studies such as this, it's that test subjects are rarely told what's actually going on and what the research is actually about, so I'm certainly not an authority on what was happening in that game. It's distinctly possible that I was on psychoactive drugs during the game (I don't know whether I was given a drug or the placebo), and I strongly suspect that the people I was playing the game with weren't given the same instructions as I was.

Because of this, I'll end with a more definite fact: A Vitamin E pill can serve as a handy point of reference when looking at images from an fMRI.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: Fifa 13

Argentina 4, Netherlands 2

Fifa 13 is, in essence, a football simulator-- everything is covered, from pregame ceremonies to two British commentators giving their thoughts on each match in real time. A complex control scheme allows players to practice precise control over passes, shots, and tricks, but it's very possible to enjoy the game with just three buttons: pass, shoot, and slide tackle. There's a huge thrill from scoring a virtual goal, and virtual crowds will go wild (or groan in disgust, if you're the away team). The Fifa series is working towards the point which viewing a virtual game will be indistinguishable from a real game. If you squint and ignore some of the strange player animations, they're mostly there already.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Origins of Coleslaw

Coleslaw is generally defined as a shredded cabbage salad miked with a dressing such as mayonnaise. The word 'coleslaw' comes from the Dutch 'koolsla', where 'kool' means 'cabbage' and 'sla' is short for 'salade', which, understandably, means 'salad'. The Dutch word 'kool' is most likely descended from the Latin 'caulis', which means 'stem' or 'stalk'.

Sunday, June 1, 2014