Saturday, August 30, 2014

University Bookstore

O thou bookstore, where we with humble tread
Do go to be thus overcharged
From whence grow these textbooks' daunting prices?
What reason creates costs so increased?

Dost thou think we remembereth not the internet?
Have the pages of Amazon.com decayed?
Why are thy prices multiplied twofold?
Why dost thou offer less to buy back a textbook?

The mindful student perceives that a book required is authored
By the self-same instructor who textbook required
We weep to see it only available at the bookstore
It does not grace the halls of the internet;
Yea, it is not available on Amazon.com
Does this author get royalties from a purchase so forced?

Dost thou not see the ruin of Borders?
O, Barnes & Noble mighty, head you not down the same path?
Dost thou not see Borders' bookstore standing in decay?
It was overcome; the internet has thrown down its pillars

Despite all this, we students forget not the idea of a profit margin
For the wise speak truly when they say, "Barnes & Noble has to make money somehow."
Wisely speak the elders when they say, "Just deal with it."
But sorrow still remains in the halls of the bookstore

Friday, August 29, 2014

Plushy Sales Are Up

One interesting thing about major world events is that they almost always have unexpected consequences. I saw evidence of this ripple effect today while browsing the website of a local retailer. This store has, for many years, sold fist-sized plushy toys in the shapes of different pathogenic bacteria and viruses-- there's a plushy rhinovirus, a plushy hepatitis virus, and so on. It turns out that with the ongoing Ebola epidemic, the Ebola plushy has become not only the most popular plushy pathogen, but one of the store's best-selling items. How about that?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Comparing Epics

It's time for a quote. This comes from The Silmarillion, after Fั‘anor, the greatest of the Noldor, betrays his brother Fingolfin and burns the ships that would have taken Fingolfin and his people to Middle-earth:

"Then Fingolfin seeing that Fั‘anor had left him to perish in Araman or return in shame to Valinor was filled with bitterness; but he desired now as never before to come by some way to Middle-earth, and meet Fั‘anor again. And he and his host wandered long in misery, but their valour and endurance grew with hardship; for they were a mighty people, the elder children undying of Eru Ilรบvatar, but new-come from the Blessed Realm, and not yet weary with the weariness of Earth."

The Lord of the Rings is certainly an 'epic' series by some meaning of the word, but I feel that The Silmarillion surpasses it in both scope and poetry. In a small way, these two works could be compared to the Iliad and the Odyssey-- Iliad and The Silmarillion feature an epic engagement of nations, one featuring the Greeks and the other the Noldor. These works feature a large cast of mostly noble characters whose flaws lead to the ruin of many. Both epics end with a victory purchased at too high a price.

Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings tell more focused stories, following a few characters through their perilous journeys. This pair is probably more frequently read than the previous one simply because these stories are more coherent and flow better. However, Iliad and The Silmarillion provide context that make Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings more meaningful.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Student Perspective

Today was the first day of classes and I attended three lectures taught by professors Emory has hired and one lecture taught by a graduate student. Now, this graduate student was very knowledgeable in the area he was instructing, but the minutes crawled by as a series of topics I wasn't very interested in was covered.

Each of the professors whose classes I attended was dynamic and filled with an infectious excitement for their area of expertise. They moved quickly and carried the class with them, and while they certainly weren't perfect, they were interesting to learn from.

Before I make my final generalization, there are two things that should be said. First, responsibility does rest on the student to engage in a class, so it's not only the instructor's fault if something isn't interesting. Second, it's distinctly possible that I'll one day be a graduate student teaching introductory courses, and I'm sure I'd see things differently then.

My experience today indicates that it takes more than basic knowledge to be a good instructor, and I think it's a shame that so many classes at a school like Emory are taught by students only a few years more advanced in their education than us. I don't have an obvious solution, but would suggest that if a student is expected to invest financially and mentally in a class, it should be more than a student-led study session.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Textbook Limerick

There once was a college bookstore
That thought selling books was a bore
With that thought they took
One gross dollars per book
Now  no-one shops there anymore

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cleaning

I've been cleaning house today and find cleaning an interesting idea because it's something that needs to be done periodically, like eating, but not all the time, like breathing. In other words, the two extremes of cleaning are both useless-- cleaning never means that cleanliness does not exist and cleaning always means that not much else exists.

The real question, then, is how often does cleaning need to be done? A sensible answer would be, "when something's dirty," but that's subjective since dirtiness is a gradual scale, not an on-off switch. As far as I can tell, the college student answer is that cleaning should be done when the discomfort of things not being clean overcomes the discomfort of cleaning. This is far from a solved question, but at least it gives me something to think about while wiping down windowsills.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Does Zeus Play Dice?

In Ancient Greece, people drew lots to ascertain the will of the gods. In Greek mythology, it's a pretty sensible thing to do-- leaving something to chance is essentially the same as leaving something for the gods to decide. However, I was reading some mythology today that casts drawing lots in a different light.

Cronus the Titan was ruler of all the universe when his children (Zeus and co.) rose up against him and overthrew him and the other Titans. According to the story, when Cronus was defeated, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades drew lots to see who got to be supreme god next. What all this suggests to me is that being supreme Greek god isn't all it's cracked up to be if 1. it's very possible to be overthrown like Cronus and 2. you have to draw lots to see who the supreme god is. Are the Fates really the ultimate power in Greek myth, the ones, haha, pulling the strings? There may not be an answer to this question, but it's been interesting to think about.

Simplicity

At the end of a summer of cooking and pseudo-cooking, it's time for one brief recipe.
Combine in bowl:
- 2 cups flour
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 3 tablespoons water
- salt to taste
Mix until dough is dough-like in texture. Divide into thirds and eat one third. Spread remaining dough on cookie sheet and bake until golden brown. Serve hot.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Virtual Life

I stand in a virtual forest
I'm chopping down virtual trees
I swing my big virtual ax
And feel the nice virtual breeze

I fill up my virtual pockets
With heaps of cut virtual wood
I gain lots of virtual experience
It does me great virtual good

I place logs on the virtual ground
And kindle a virtual fire
I pick up the virtual ashes
To sell to a virtual buyer

It's a wonderful virtual experience
I meet dwarf and virtual elf
It isn't actually important
But a story I tell to myself

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Science Facts: World's Smallest Carnivore

The world's smallest carnivore (order Carnivora) is the least weasel, which can have a body length of just over 10 cm. Its prey includes small rodents, but adult rats and hamsters can usually drive off a least weasel. Pliny the Elder of Ancient Rome wrote that a weasel is the only creature that is able to kill a basilisk.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dialogue Trees

Dialogue in games can be a tricky thing. If there are too few options of what the player can say, said player can feel limited and more of an observer than a participant in whatever story is being told. Trying to make a whole range of choices and branching conversations, on the other hand, is a huge amount of work and produces a shorter game for the same amount of resources. Even if there are only three points where a conversation branches two ways depending on the player's choices, any given player will only experience seven twelfths of the content written for that conversation. A conversation with four branching points of three choices each will result in players seeing just over a third of everything written. If the outcomes of certain conversations affect other, later, conversations, it gets even more inefficient.

What's the answer, then? I can't say that I know for sure, but as a player of story-driven games, I'm engaged as long as I can find a dialogue option that roughly describes what I'm feeling. The important in most situations, I think, is not real choice, but the feeling that you have an accurate way of responding to events and other characters in the game. For example, in the human noble origin story in Dragon Age: Origins, you're told that you're not allowed to go with your father's army. The dialogue options provide many ways of responding to this, from frustration to relief, but the conclusion is the same: you're not allowed to go. In this way, with many options quickly leading back to one main thread, the player has choice and the developers don't need to write novels of content for every conversation.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Chopstick Gauntlet

How do you approach a mass of culture that you'll never be able to fully learn and appreciate? You only ever get one chance to be a native of somewhere, so what do you do when you're somewhere else? In other words, is eating Chinese food with a fork better than doing nothing?

In my experience so far, that's the choice to be made-- among other things, getting to know different sorts of people makes it more than worth the effort. As they say, it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

7_Dan_7 Part 4

It was almost noon when 7_Dan_7 woke up. He stumbled down the stairs and waved at Father Aereck before heading out the door. It was a bleak day and there weren’t very many people on the streets.
7_Dan_7 was still cringing from his encounter with the bullies the day before, but he decided to take Alt1tude’s derisive advice and train on chickens. After all, if 7_Dan_7 couldn’t handle cows, he didn’t really have any other options. He picked up a bronze axe and headed to Fred the Farmer’s chicken coop.
Fred the Farmer was absent-mindedly staring at the wall when 7_Dan_7 walked by. It had always seemed a bit strange to 7_Dan_7, but the other people of Lumbridge didn’t seem to notice Fred’s odd habits. 7_Dan_7 walked out among the chickens and was just about to get started when he heard a voice. “Time for some n00b chicken farming, n00b?” It was Alt1tude.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Preparing For School

It's just a couple weeks until school starts again for me and I've been wondering how to prepare myself for the sudden change. I like the idea of the brain as a muscle, so how do I get back in mental shape? Reading through encyclopedias as an exercise comes to mind, but I don't at the moment have the energy or capacity for that. More importantly, what I've learned in my first year of undergraduate science is that knowing how to not know things can be just as important as knowing a few certain facts. To put it differently, science is a tool for exploration rather than a big book of facts and theories. Every idea that science produces is a rough draft that is edited for years or centuries afterwards.

Now that I've gone on my high-flying discussion of the nature of science, it's time to come back down and admit that I might not know what I'm talking about. Let me end the thought with this: facts are very important, but focusing just on knowledge might be missing the forest for the trees. With all that in mind, how do I prepare for school? The first step is to get into the mindset of asking questions.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Origins of Window

'Window' comes from the Old Norse 'vindauga,' a combination of Norse 'vindr,' which means 'wind,' and 'auga,' which means 'eye.' I'm not sure if wind-eye is an overly poetic description for a window or if there's some Norse context I'm missing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: Titan Quest

That's me in the red chiton.

Titan Quest is a third-person RPG set in the world of Ancient Greek myth. I certainly enjoyed the concept as I enjoy Greek mythology and don't see too many games with that setting. As far as I've played, though, I haven't encountered anything in the mechanics or atmosphere that make it different from the standard fantasy RPG. Fighting hundreds of satyrs feels quite similar to fighting hundreds of goblins in another such game. This lack of distinctiveness isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it meant that playing the game wasn't as exciting as I had hoped.

The real reason I stopped playing Titan Quest is that it got very difficult very quickly, at least for a gamer of my skill level. By the second major area, I didn't feel like my character was either Greek or a mighty hero. The only thing I had left to play for was enjoyment of the combat, and it was too click-heavy for my liking. Titan Quest is a decent game, but it's not my cup of tea.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Doppler Effect Without Cars

From what I understand, the Doppler Effect is the distortion that occurs when the source of a wave is moving relative to the observer, but more practically explained as 'that thing where a car drives past you and goes niaaow.' Now that I think of it, that's probably the only example I've ever heard given, and for a mostly good reason. There are a lot of things in the world that move fast and a lot of things that make a constant, loud, noise, but cars are some of the few things that do both and that most humans are familiar with.

However, the Doppler Effect becomes much more interesting upon the realization that it applies to all sorts of waves, not just sound. The Doppler Effect is understood in astronomy as redshift and blueshift; light from stars moving away from the Earth appears more red to us. and stars moving closer appear more blue.

Now that's all nice and sciencey, but I didn't realize until today that the Doppler Effect also applies to water waves. It's easiest to see in still water-- dropping an object into the water will cause a series of concentric circular ripples centered around said object. The Doppler Effect is that V-shaped ripple that would happen when you drag the object through the water. The object is still sending out circular waves, but since the origin of each wave is different from the last, a distorted shape is formed.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

More Video Game Music

Several months ago, I made a post about some of my favorite video game music and I think it's time for part two. Again, YouTube links are included for each song.

Papers, Pleasehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBQE_TNI7zw
This piece is simple by most accounts, but sets the tone perfectly for the gray, oppressive world of Papers, Please. Evoking marching feet and a downtrodden people, this song also contains a glimmer of hope.

Dragon Age: Awakeninghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pyq4B3CQxgU
Awakening is the 30-hour expansion to Dragon Age: Origins, one of my favorite RPGs, and has a new theme-tune to reflect the new land the player is put in. The tone of this song is epic, but not as straightforward as the Origins theme.

Half-Life 2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Nw8zKOX858
I feel tense just listening to this song. I'm not sure exactly where it came in the game, but this soft, drum-heavy music was probably playing as I was being chased along some sewer by combine soldiers, constantly being ambushed by headcrabs from dark corners.

Divinity 2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyGeRVvW6cs
The song I've linked for Divinity 2 isn't the main theme, but the music that plays in the first village the player walks around in, exploring and doing tasks for the player. I was strolling over lush green hills in-game when this song started playing, and the whistling part especially made me feel warmer and fuzzier than any other game I've played this year.

Team Fortress 2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNlVo5udnPs
Another Valve game, but a very different style. This snazzy song encompasses the fun, energy, and pace of Team Fortress 2. Just about every song in this soundtrack is good, ranging from calm and jazzy to bombastic and jazzy.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The History of Minimum Wage

There's debate over whether or not a minimum wage is a good thing, but what's even more intriguing is that the formal minimum wage was predated by a maximum wage. In England in 1349, King Edward III declared a maximum wage for laborers. The Black Death had severely reduced the number of workers on the market and Edward III put this cap on wages to make sure the high cost of labor didn't ruin the economy. Whether or not this was an economically wise decision, it's clear that the King knew which side his bread was buttered on.

A formal minimum wage was instituted in England later on, in 1604. As the centuries passed and capitalism became more popular, all these wage laws were repealed. It ended up being New Zealand and Australia in the 1890s that led the charge of minimum wages in the modern era. The US instituted a national minimum wage in 1938.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Remaineth There No Sustenance?

When runneth dry the saucy can
And breadbag bread containeth not
And sitteth there no spam in pan
And standeth same no broth in pot
And dwindleth sharp the butter dish
And wasteth 'way the carrot stalk
And waiteth there no tuna fish
And useless hangs the cookman's frock
And vacant sits the cutting board
And empty stands the cereal box
And crumbs fall not upon the floor
And hardeneth the salt as rocks

Then looketh I upon the shelf
And see-eth I with gloomy art
That planneth must I for my self
A trip tomorrow to Walmart

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Origins of Toast

The word 'toast' comes from the Latin 'torrere,' which means 'to scorch or bake,' especially when talking about the sun. It passed through the Old French 'toster' to become the 'toast' we know today. According to my sources, proposing a toast to someone comes from seasoned pieces of toast that were put in wine in the 17th century.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Game Communities

The two multiplayer games that I've put the most time into are Runescape and Team Fortress 2, an MMORPG and an online FPS, respectively. Because of the different genres, comparing these games' communities is an apples and oranges matter, but I'll go ahead and do it anyway.

Team Fortress 2 is a competitive game, so you'd think that most social interaction is antagonism between the two teams, but the real staple of conversation is intra-team bickering caused by differences in skill levels and goals among the members of one team. For every carefree submachine sniper, there's an aggressively competitive pyro telling said sniper to change class. There are more laid-back veterans who are happy to teach new players and have a good time, but most conversations seem to be on the negative side.

Runescape, on the other hand, is a much slower game and most time is taken training skills. Because of the way 'skilling' is designed, some skills like mining foster selfishness and distrust-- a given rock has only one piece of ore, and only one player is going to get it. About ninety percent of the angry conversations I've heard in Runescape are arguments over mining.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that my favorite part of Runescape is fishing, the skill that lies on the other end of the social spectrum. There are infinite fish in every fishing spot and player's hands are free while they wait for a bite, so it's easy to fish alongside lots of other people strike up a conversation in the chat window. People are generally good-natured in the absence of competition over in-game resources, and this leads to my final point.

The thing that I think Runescape's community has in more strength than Team Fortress 2's is a sense of solidarity and goodwill. There are jerks in Runescape, but the general sense I get is that players are there to journey together on the path to higher levels and shinier armor. In Team Fortress 2, I feel that players are there to win, aiming not only over the other team, but also to be the best on their team. There's much more to be said on this matter, but writing more than a paragraph after mentioning a final point is probably bad form.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Science Facts: Average World Temperature

There's been a lot of discussion about global warming in the past few years, but one piece of information I've recently come across is that the average temperature of the world (air temperature at the surface, I would assume) is currently at a cool 14.5 degrees Celsius (about 58 degrees Fahrenheit). That's sweater weather in my book, but what's even more shocking is that in half of the places in the world, the temperature is below average.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Screenshot of the Day: Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress graphics don't get any better than this.

Dwarf Fortress is an open-ended base-building and adventuring game, but these words don't do it full justice. In a previous post, I talked about a future of procedurally generated RPGs, and Dwarf Fortress is the closest game I've seen to that dream. Players determine what kind of world they want, choosing things like size, harshness, and age, and said world is generated, complete with civilizations, heroes, and histories. My world is called Boksmata, and I decided to start with only five years of history.

My first play session in Boksmata had me controlling Jasro Thrunion, one of the first humans. I walked around a hill for a while and ate some snow, then saw some ravens. I decided to attack a raven as was presented with a series of menus. I needed to first choose what part of the raven to strike at (head, neck, right wing, left foot, and about twenty other choices), then choose exactly how to strike. Should I try and stab this raven through the upper body, or just attempt to step on its wing? I eventually killed the raven, and, not knowing how to cook it, ended up just licking the carcass for nourishment. That night, Jasro made the mistake of sleeping out in the open and was killed by bogeymen.

Dwarf Fortress, at version 0.40.05,  is still a work in progress, but it already has a huge number and depth of systems. There are different actions for detecting an odor in the environment and detecting the primary odor in an environment. As I see things at the moment, DF is my procedural RPG except for one huge, huge element: polish.

In its current state, Dwarf Fortress is unplayable for most people because of its difficult, complex, controls and abysmal graphics. DF is made with ASCII art and controlled exclusively by keyboard. Even with the power of wikis and 'newb' mods, learning how to play Dwarf Fortress takes a huge amount of time. I'm glad that such an ambitious game is out there, but I might not be able to fully enjoy it at the moment.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Upside of Limping

I've just come back from a week of camp, and one of the results of this recent sharp increase in daily physical activity is several aches and a thriving limp.

I've been pondering for years whether having a headache or an upset stomach is worse, and today I'd like to consider the mild achy limp as the best possible ailment in my opinion. The knowledge that your pain is the result of something beneficial (lots of physical activity) is a plus, and even better is the fact that you're not hindered by said pain unless you're walking around. In addition to all this, a limp can be a potential conversation-starter, a much-needed commodity in my social enterprises. The only real downside so far is not being able to cross streets as quickly as before.

All in all, I'm glad to have had a good week at camp and to have taken away something to remember it by.