Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vacation Sleep Schedule

During vacations, especially if I'm living by myself, my sleep schedule tends to spiral out of control and I find myself awake at four in the morning and sleeping at four in the afternoon. This week, I passed through the nocturnal stage of going to sleep at dawn and waking up at dusk and eventually found myself going to sleep in the early evening and waking up in the early morning.

So far, this is the most effective way I've found of getting up before dawn and still feeling rested.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Beans on Toast

I enjoy a lot of hot breakfast foods like bacon and eggs and pancakes, but I'm rarely willing to spend the time and effort required to make them. Beans on toast, however, is a whole other ballgame.

To create a fuller British experience I had the beans on toast with tea. The total prep time was around six minutes: boiling water, microwaving tinned beans, and toasting toast all at once. The only dishes needed are a plate, a mug, and a spoon.

The only issue now is actually waking up in time to have a meal called breakfast.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Fun With Knitting

In empty vacation weeks where there's no concrete schedule, I try to find constructive things to do in order to not feel like I'm completely wasting the time. This week's activity was knitting: the strange activity of turning yarn into objects of clothing.

Knitting is a fitting choice for this vacation because I'm in need of hats, scarves, and sweaters, and while these would almost definitely be cheaper to buy from a store, there's a certain rustic appeal to wearing your own handiwork.

I didn't follow the advice of learning with large needles and thick yarn, but in retrospect it would have made things a lot easier. My first project is a monochromatic scarf; the only thing simpler is probably a potholder. One reason I wanted to try knitting was for its great audiobook and podcast potential-- at the moment, I'm happily unencumbered with menial tasks.

I'm already getting the right finger calluses.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

College Kitchen Part 2

I've written before about the utensils and dishes I've collected and cooked with for the past couple years, but traveling to a different country meant getting rid of those things and starting again. At the moment, I have:

A saucepan with a lid
Several plastic cups
Several metal spoons
A few ceramic mugs
A pair of chopsticks

The saucepan and the spoons are most versatile; food can be fried or boiled in the pan and eaten straight from it. A good spoon can fill the role of a knife and fork. The mugs are for drinking tea, of course.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Snacking While Working

When snacking while working or typing or shirking,
It's clear that the system's unstable:
While munching on muffins or cornflakes while clerking,
Some crumbs tumble onto the table.

This same surface sits, now so bread-pebble stacked
That all elbow encounters are irksome
The necessity, then, is to, after I've snacked,
Clean things up so I'm able to work some.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Fun with Fonts

For as long as I can remember, Times New Roman has been my go-to font for any typed document, but this confidence has been shaken recently by rumors that using Times New Roman in a CV is a bad sign. In addition to this, Microsoft Word's default font seems to be Calibri now and I have to change it in every document I type. I'm sure there's a better way to do things, but finding a permanent solution isn't a priority at the moment; the font problem for me is still as small as the new 11 pt default.

What is the Word coming to?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Jelly Donuts and Jammy Doughnuts

One big difference between living in England and living in the US is the stuff I get at the grocery store. It would be possible to not change my diet--Tesco advertises a few shelves of imported 'American' food like Oreos--but I wouldn't want to pass up the cultural experience. Over the past few months, I've been introduced to a number of English snacks with great names: Jammie Dodgers, Jaffa Cakes, Hobnobs, and more.

One nice thing about the grocery stores here is the wide choice of cheese, as opposed to Walmart's range (Cheddar, Mozzarella, Colby Jack, Pepper Jack, Colby Jack marbled with Cheddar, Cheddar marbled with Mozzarella, and maybe Gouda if you're lucky). On the other hand, many of the new cheeses have fancy characteristics like rinds that I'm not quite sure what to do with. I may not be ready for that sort of culture.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Automated Farming

A lot of farms today are monocultures, meaning that only one crop is grown. This is apparently done because it's a lot less labor-intensive than growing and harvesting two or more crops in the same field, but monocultures are much more susceptible to disease.

Technological developments, however, may swing things in favor of polycultures. Robots tend to be good at repetitive, labor-intensive tasks such as harvesting (though some crops are certainly easier than others), so automated farms may be able to reap the benefits of polycultures without taking as big a hit in crop logistics.

I don't really know what I'm talking about here, but one day I hope to. For the moment, imagining the possibilities of automated farming is enough for me.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Increasing Threat

Video game stories are interesting because, while they tend to follow the same general arc of conflict, complication, climax, and resolution, the player is generally expected to always succeed for the story to advance. This isn't always the case, of course, but comparing Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Inquisition led me to consider the idea.

In Dragon Age: Origins, the world is being invaded by demonic creatures and the player must journey the land, gathering allies and building forces for the final confrontation. Even as the player gains power, though, the demonic invasion spreads and multiplies so that the situation at the end is just as dire as at the beginning, if not more so.

In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the world is being invaded by demonic creatures and the player must journey the land, gathering allies and building forces for the final confrontation (it's generally the Bioware model), but the stakes are never raised to the same extent as in Dragon Age: Origins. The threat to the world at the beginning of the game is as great as it will ever be, and as the player closes rifts to the other world and builds an army, the main antagonist never gets any closer to his goal. Several major missions involve eliminating large portions of the antagonist's army and turning his allies against him, so that by the time the final confrontation arrived, he is without doubt the underdog, only conceivably able to win by some slim chance (the role often occupied by the protagonist, such as in the original Star Wars trilogy). I certainly enjoyed the different style of protagonist found in Dragon Age: Inquistion, an administrator and leader rather than a lone hero, but I feel like some escalation of threat throughout the game would have made for a more intense conclusion.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Robes and Coats

For as long as I can remember, I've liked wearing robes and coats. I may not make life decisions based on clothing, but events so far have led me through a series of exciting outfits.

First was probably a Nigerian kaftan and babban riga-- loose, flowing garments that come in all colors and are often decorated around the collar. The kaftan and its accompanying trousers are extremely comfortable, and the pockets are big enough to fit whole loaves of french bread (probably).

I wore a gown at high school graduation and the same is likely to happen at the end of college. This year, however, Oxford traditions require much more frequent academic gown usage. Undergraduate gowns are the least ostentatious, so I suppose the idea is to work your way up through the fancier gowns on the path to your ivory tower.

When it rains, I use a raincoat instead of an umbrella. The idea is that I don't personally mind getting wet; it's just inconvenient if my clothes and pocket contents get rained on. A hoodless raincoat lets me feel the rain on my face while keeping the rest of me relatively dry.

Wearing a lab coat was a long-term goal for me-- my high school science labs had aprons for protection, which was effective but not quite as exciting. Last year, I finally started working in a lab where there are enough hazards around to make lab coats mandatory. I still enjoy walking and working in lab coats, and the biology course I'm doing this year provided each student with a lab coat to keep.

This upcoming winter is the first time in nine years that I'm expecting weeks (or months) of subzero temperatures. To stay toasty, I've acquired a faded blue overcoat. It might be a coincidence, but the first time I wore this coat out shopping was also the first time I was called 'guvnor' by a stranger on the street. In any case, it's certainly warmer than the jacket I've been using until now.

The future may contain more robes, and I'll be happy to take them in stride, ideally resulting in quantities of robe billowing out behind me.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Origins of Coach

The word 'coach,' referring to a bus or carriage, comes from the French 'coche,' which has its origins in the Hungarian 'kocsi'. The Hungarian town of Kocs apparently built special horse-drawn carts starting in the 15th century and they became famous enough that most European languages have some variation of 'kocsi' in their vehicular vocabulary.

The term 'coach' referring to an instructor or trainer comes from 19th century Oxford, where personal tutors were sometimes called coaches because they carried their students through exams.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sweater Weather

Climatically speaking, my least favorite parts of the year are when it's slightly too cold for short-sleeved shirts and slightly too warm for sweaters and jackets. In those few weeks, I check weather forecasts each morning to see the day's high and low temperatures. My general rule of thumb is to wear a sweater if the temperature's not going to rise above 70°F (21°C).

50°F (10°C) means I'll probably be cold even if I do have my sweater. Now that I'm living in a more northerly part of the world, it seems that I'll have to make some more rules of thumb about what happens below 50°F.

There's also windchill, but I just take the luck of the draw for that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Science Facts: Stages of Fire

At a cookout, why do people wait until the fire is mostly coals before toasting marshmallows? The reason I usually heard was that it's a more stable heat. To this day, I may not know why marshmallows are toasted over coals, but I did recently learn the chemical stages burning wood goes through in the course of a heart-warming evening.

In many ways, fire is the reverse of photosynthesis, combining organic molecules and oxygen to create carbon dioxide, water, and heat. Fire, then, is a much more evocative way of unleashing the power of the sun as opposed to, say, eating a salad. The reason plants don't usually spontaneously combust is that fire's chemical reaction has a high activation energy, so fuel needs to be heated to a certain point before the reaction becomes self-sustaining.

As plant matter is heated, volatile organic gases are released and combust, forming the visible flame associated with a roasty-toasty campfire. The gas is eventually all burned and the fire moves to the 'glowing' stage in which the remaining solid part of the plant matter burns as charcoal. Once that's done, all that remains is ash.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sleep and Appropriation

As morning glances in with beamy glow
Twixt curtains patterned onto pale spread,
I shift in sleep beneath a comfy quilt
Until, annoyingly, my phone alarm
Announces the new day. Alas! No help
But to imagine frigid streets and rain
So cold. Thus lying still in bed I long
To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there's the rub!

For dreaming soft twixt sheets brings little bliss
When dreams demand my classes I not miss

Sunday, November 15, 2015

We Can't Have Nice Things

The 'tragedy of the commons' is the idea that individuals acting without regard to the interests of the group often damage the well-being of everyone, including themselves. Littering, for example, is easy for the individual and costly for society. In the most extreme case, a good thing is ruined for everybody through the actions of one person, like Hitler and the toothbrush mustache.

The basic requirement for a utopia is that the tragedy of the commons doesn't exist. In reality, harmful individual tendencies have to be discouraged by the threat of retaliation, i.e. laws and rules. To try to eliminate the tragedy of the commons by force, however, probably makes a dystopia. World governments and societies have to find a balance between individual freedom and societal good.

The extreme options, then, are anarchy and totalitarianism. The middle ground seems better, but still far from ideal. If things are not as they should be, it's because of human nature. It's not a characteristic evolution could change; the conflict between individual fitness and species fitness seems to be ingrained. The way to a perfect world must be sought elsewhere.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Coach or be Coached

I went to a training session today on how to tutor and coach students (tutoring being help with academics and coaching being help with dealing with academics). There were about a dozen undergraduates doing the training, and naturally we were told to practice on each other, first acting as coach, then receiving coaching.

This was all very instructive, but the unintended consequence was that, since we were discussing actual problems we had in these practice scenarios, we walked away with concrete plans for our own schoolwork for the next couple weeks. I can't speak for the others, but I know my practice partners helped me develop an effective reading plan and options for more productive editing.

We got free lunch too.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I'm using an online calendar for the first time this semester and so far it's made scheduling a lot easier. My previous method mostly involved writing things down on bits of paper on my desk and going on the assumption that things I forgot about might not be that important.

This new calendar use, in addition to helping me remember things, lets me say "uh... let me check my schedule" whenever an event is brought up. I imagine it's a taste of professional life. On the other hand, there's probably nothing professional about interpreting a day with no calendar appointments as a day to do nothing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Monday, November 9, 2015

Better Fate Than Late

One thing students were told at the start of this term was "Don't be late to tutorials. Just don't." It makes sense-- individual time with a professor is valuable. Unfortunately, I woke up this morning at 9:59 with a tutorial scheduled at 10:00. Within a minute, I went from comfortably asleep to speed-walking down the street (better than running and being out of breath). 

I finally got to the classroom around 10:06, and I wasn't looking forward to the bad impression I would inevitably make. It just so happened, however, that my tutor, who had arrived early to all of our previous meetings, was six minutes late today-- we got to the door at the same time. 

It may just be a small thing, but things turned out much better than my mind at 9:59 could have predicted.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Book of the Duchess

Medieval romance often deals with idealized courtly love, but one passage from Chaucer's Book of the Duchess struck me as surprisingly down-to-earth. In these lines, a lover tells of how he had just confessed his feelings to his beloved and asked for her heart:

"And whan I had my tale ydoo, ...
Trewly hire answere hyt was this
(I kan not now wel counterfete
Hyr wordys, but this was the grete
Of hir answere): she sayde 'Nay'"

That is,

And when I had told my tale,
Truly her answer it was this
(I cannot well recreate
Her words, but this was the gist
Of her answer): she said "No"

To have flowery speeches lead up to such a blunt answer seems to be a good example of Chaucer's subtle treatment of formulaic subject matter. The Book of the Duchess was one of Chaucer's earliest works, but it carries the seeds of the fascinating style he uses in The Canterbury Tales.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Essay Writing Part 3

The tutorial system I'm studying in this year involves more writing in less time than I've done before, so I thought I'd take some time to write down my new process:

1. Read texts while taking notes on A4 sheets of paper, recording authors and page numbers so that I can find stuff again while writing.
2. Pin note papers on bulletin board above computer.
3. Write down outline with the subject of each paragraph.
4. Write the second sentence of the first paragraph, then think of a good first sentence.
5. Follow the outline and write the rest of the paper, taking breaks after the first paragraph and after the 1000 word mark, unless I've entered flow.
6. Add figures if it's a biology essay.
7. Take a long break.
8. Carefully edit the first and last paragraphs and skim the rest.
9. Send the essay to the tutor.
10. Spend at least two hours relaxing before thinking of when the next essay is due.

Steps 1-3 usually happen over two days, then I set aside an afternoon or evening for steps 4-7. Steps 8-10 happen the next day.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Screenshot of the Day: Baldur's Gate 2

I am unfortunately the person in the burning cage.

Baldur's Gate 2 is a (relatively) old fantasy role-playing game and is considered one of the best in the genre. In high school, a friend and I played the first Baldur's Gate to the point of memorizing the game, so it's a surprise I haven't played Baldur's Gate 2 sooner.

The opening of BG2 is beautifully done, but quite grim: the player character and their friends, protagonists of the first game, have been captured and is helpless in the dungeon of an evil wizard. The player is being experimented on and, by the time an escape is affected, some friends from the first game are already dead. It's a very dark place to begin a story, but it gives the player a range of immediately obvious emotions and motivations to act on right from the start, a thing most RPGs attempt to do by tired stereotypes like burning down a village the player character cares about but the player really doesn't. BG2 certainly can't be accused of a slow start.

Just so the mood doesn't get too dark, there are many things about BG2 that remind me it's just a game. Resting, for example, heals the player and their companions. During my daring escape from the wizard's dungeon, I decided we should bed down and take an eight-hour nap. Nobody came looking for the escaped prisoners that whole time, so my sense of urgency took a hit, but I suppose it's partially my fault for trying to sleep in the first place. One of my character's companions did question the wisdom of camping out a stone's throw from our former cages, so the developers at least thought of the possibility.

That last phrase sums up a lot of my experience so far with BG2-- the game is constructed for any sort of character the player might wish to construct. Dialogue options can make you an upright paladin or a sarcastic bard. Quest options can make you a down-to-earth pragmatist or a passionate idealist. Equipment and class options can make you a hard-hitting giant or a nimble thief. In the main story (to this point, at least), you can be motivated by revenge or power or the wish to save an old friend. Baldur's Gate 2 starts off like no other RPG I've played and continues to realize its potential as the player's choices drive the rest of the game.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Pursuing an Education

Studying at Oxford takes a lot of active involvement, but not necessarily in the way I thought it would. I hadn't previously thought much of the phrase 'pursuing a degree', but after a few weeks, the hunting metaphor seems fitting. Books from reading lists have to be located and gathered, often from multiple libraries. Things like using the online printing system are lightly explained; a lot is left for the student to figure out.

One striking example of this educational pursuit is a lab class I had. A syllabus was posted online with topics to be covered and the dates and times of meetings, but for the location of this class, only one word was given: 'Southwood'. A bit of digging in the syllabus revealed that this referred to Southwood Laboratory, but I couldn't find any mention of the place on the Zoology website or online in general. I guessed that Southwood would be a room in the Zoology building, where most of my lectures and labs take place. The Zoology receptionist, however, couldn't tell me anything and recommended I try the Plant Sciences building. The Plant Sciences receptionist assured me that I should look in the Zoology building. Another Zoology receptionist told me what floor to look on, and finally, with the help of another student, I found the mysterious Southwood-- the entrance was inside another lab with a different name. It was obvious once I knew where it was.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sickness Deluxe

It starts with 'soph'gus sore and scratched
Then snorting sniffs through snout all stung
And sleepy sighs and snoozing snatched
With sickly slime through sneezer slung

Then cracking cough keeps kip away
A hacking clout throughout the day
And upset guts all slush with yuck
Await unhampered ugh upchuck

Monday, November 2, 2015

Reading Tired

I can do a lot of things while tired, but reading isn't one of them. I had to read some papers about plant disease today and even just a few minutes of staring at the paragraphs was enough to send me into a tired daze. I decided to scan each paper and summarize it, then sleep for a bit and try again.

I'm much more lucid now and it turns out my sleepy summaries weren't that great. One paper dealt with mechanisms by which plants can use bacterial DNA to combat viruses. The synopsis I had written down is "why politics is a thing". I'm sure it made sense at the time.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Eating Fish Poem

It is within the nature of mankind
To fear exploring that which is unknown
Whenever I eat fish I fear to find
My teeth exploring unexpected bone

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Niche Jokes With Benjamin: The Niche Joke Rises

What's the difference between eradicating invasive species and my dorm's drying machine?
One is expensive and ineffective and the other involves eradicating invasive species.

What's the similarity between university lectures and withdrawing cash from foreign ATMs?
They both involve taking notes while paying exorbitant fees.

What did the international student say when he saw a jar of Marmite?
I Marmite not eat that.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Writing in the Margins

In today's world, it's often considered impolite to write in books belonging to other people. In the middle ages, however, comments and annotations in the margins were apparently much more acceptable; an aid to future readers.

John Shirley, a scribe for Geoffrey Chaucer, annotated a copy of The Canterbury Tales, sometimes pointing out important parts with the word "Nota" (note), other times explaining obscure references: when Epicurus is mentioned, Shirley writes ".i. deus deliciarum" (that is the god of pleasures). In this case, Shirley was wrong in his identification, but his intent here and elsewhere seems favorable.

In a section of the Knight's tale, Chaucer apparently waxes eloquent on some uninteresting point. Shirley's comment here is, "A Chaucyre pes I prey yowe" (Ah Chaucher, peace I pray you). It's comforting to know that exasperation at the wordiness of medieval literature is such an ancient tradition.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Deep End

I've enjoyed learning about medieval English literature in the past couple years, but when it comes to Old English, I'm still very much in the shallow end of the pool. Some assigned readings this week introduced me to some very serious and detailed criticism focused on The Battle of Maldon.

The Battle of Maldon is a fragment of Old English poetry, seeming to lack beginning and end. It tells a romanticized version of a historical battle near the town of Maldon in 991 AD fought between Vikings and the native Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth, dies in battle and his loyal followers fight to the death rather than fleeing once their lord is dead.

The Battle of Maldon as we know it is only 325 lines long, but whole books have been written about it. I read one chapter that detailed the layout of 10th century Maldon and had a map that showed dykes and forests and the specific lands that belonged to Byrhtnoth. In another reading, there was a twenty page discussion over whether a location mentioned in medieval sources as 'Assandun' refers to the town of Ashdon in Essex or Ashingdon, also in Essex.

These essays of criticism on The Battle of Maldon frequently quote Old English and Latin, and sometimes German and Greek, not providing translations afterwards as I've gotten used to in other books. I can only assume that the intended audience of this criticism is other experts in the field; they may be the only people who, in addition to knowing Old English and Latin, care enough about The Battle of Maldon to find an essay on the development of Maldon's minting industry in the 990s AD interesting. J.R.R. Tolkien himself composed a fictional verse epilogue for the poem, an interesting example of fanfiction.

Near the end of a book of essays on The Battle of Maldon, one author says, "The poem that cornered the [Anglo-Saxonist] praise market has never made it into the registers of general culture." Indeed, since Beowulf, a greater poem with similar themes, exists, it seems unlikely that The Battle of Maldon will ever reach mainstream fame. The academic work surrounding it is certainly opaque to me.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Meat, Potatoes and Veg

At St Peters College, meals are served in a dining hall complete with long tables and portraits hanging on the walls. For lunch and dinner, a meal has three main parts: meat, potatoes and vegetables. I was surprised to see so many potatoes; every meal so far has had at least one potato option, usually two. Salads and desserts are available off to the side. I haven't seen any potato salad, though, so I suppose things aren't as potato-intensive as they could be.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


One great thing about studying at Oxford is the tutorial system; once a week, students meet one-on-one or in small groups with a professor and are assigned work (usually reading and an essay) to do by next week's meeting. It's a very flexible system and varies between departments and colleges. For both of my tutorials, I've been given great advice and been able to choose very specifically what to study. These first few weeks of term have involved Beowulf, J.R.R. Tolkien, medicinal plants, and nest-building behaviors in songbirds.

This seems like a pretty good deal; why isn't the tutorial system more common in Universities? Oxford and Cambridge are the main two institutions that use tutorials, and I believe Williams College is one lonely example in the U.S. It could be that holding tutorials is more expensive and difficult to organize than the lectures and classes typical of most universities. I don't know much about the logistics involved.

It is important to note that people go to college to different valid reasons-- the knowledge and skills gained, the relationships gained, the degree at the end. Tutorials may not be the ideal experience for everyone, but I suppose I've already declared which camp I'm in. In the past few years, I've found that after talking to a cynical student with their eye on the finish line, the best thing to cheer me up is listening to someone who really enjoys their work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Oft Him Anhaga Baguettes Seceth

The Wanderer is an Old English elegy, the thoughts and memories of a solitary wanderer who has lost his lord and kinsmen. The first few lines are powerfully poetic, and I quote them here, inspired by my feelings when I realized the local Sainsbury's was clear out of baguettes:

"Oft him anhaga    are gebideth
metudes miltse,    theah the he modcearig
geond lagulade    longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum    hrimcealde sae
wadan wraeclastas.    Wyrd bith ful araed!"

That is,

"Often the wanderer prays for honor, the mercy of the Creator, though he, weary at heart, must needs stir the ice-cold sea with his hands through the water-routes and ramble the paths of exiles. Fate is fully determined!"

Working out which Old English lines correspond with which modern English words is always interesting-- I'm pretty sure that "hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sae" is the part about stirring the sea with hands. "Metudes" is "God," and guessing at a few other words breaks the lines into manageable chunks. The punctuation is helpful, and is an addition by the editor, not present in the original text. The arrangement of lines is also editorial, emphasizing alliteration.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Vehicle Control

In order for data from experiments to be useful, there need to be experimental controls-- test conditions that make sure significant results are due to the factor you're testing, not anything else.

A 'vehicle control' is important because it makes sure a treatment, not its vehicle, is responsible for an effect. If a chemical dissolved in water is placed in a bacteria culture, for example, the vehicle control would be placing water without the chemical in another bacteria culture. Some vehicle controls are more interesting than others; in an experiment where plant fragments were added to bird nests, the vehicle control was going around and touching all the bird nests that didn't have fragments added, since the vehicle in this case was a human hand.

Does eating a balanced breakfast result in more alertness during the day? I looked at a few research papers on the topic and didn't find any with a good vehicle control, i.e. having people repeatedly place a metal spoon in their mouth. The awakening effects of oral contact with metal utensils could be a legitimate factor. Probably not, though.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Baguette Icebreaker

When people find out I've just been in England for two weeks, the inevitable next question is, "Well, what do you think of it?" I have a few generic answers ready-- "The public transportation is nice," "It rains just as much as I thought it would," and if I don't feel like talking, "It's been very exciting."

None of these answers are very good; I haven't met anyone interested in talking about public transportation and talking about the weather is usually a fifteen second conversation. Because of this, I've been trying to think of new things to say, and the next on my list is "I give the baguettes five out of five stars." I'm guessing this might be too French to be actually used, but cheap and tasty baguettes are in the top ten list of things I'm enjoying in England that I didn't get in the US.

Snacking with loaf sandwiches is tedious because if you have to keep making new sandwiches; I can make half a baguette into one big sandwich and be set for the next twenty minutes. The crust is much better as well. I've gotten a vague idea that English culture distances itself from mainland Europe but I'm happy to see that the genius design of the baguette straddles these boundaries.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Tolkien Fans

One of the great things about Tolkien's Middle Earth is the depth of the fiction. A person might watch the Lord of the Rings movies and want to experience more Middle-Earthy goodness-- there's a huge depth of material to look into; reading the books is one thing, but you could go the full distance and learn Elvish as well.

One consequence of this depth is a fractured fandom. Factions of fans occur for all fiction, but to different extents. A group of people who like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are generally in the same boat; the media they appreciate is distinctly movie (disregarding those who argue that the ride is better and they don't watch the movies so as not to ruin the ride). Harry Potter fans may compare and disagree about both books and movies, but I feel that Lord of the Rings fandom is even more layered than that.

I went to a meeting of the Tolkien society today and in conversations about Lord of the Rings, a few careful questions calculated the level of another fan's fanaticism.
Did you watch the movies? Extended edition? Multiple times? ... to shreds, you say?
Did you read the books? And The Hobbit? Do you actually read the songs and landscape descriptions?
Have you read The Silmarillion? How about Tolkien's other work?
Do you actually think Tom Bombadil's poetry is good?
Can you read Elvish? All three major dialects? Can you speak and write Elvish?

The ability to write flowing Sindarin poetry is about the peak of fan dedication, and it's telling that the final fan milestone is languages, the very basis of Tolkien's work. I probably fit in this scale right after reading The Silmarillion and just before enjoying the Tom Bombadil poetry.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Rules and Regulations

The rules and regulations governing student activity in St Peter's College are, in general, nothing to write home about. Most rules enforce common decency and the respectful treatment of the college and the people in it.

Rule number one, however, stands out as a work of logical and rhetorical genius:
"Students are required to make themselves familiar with these regulations."

In this way, ignorance of regulations is not a valid excuse for rule-breaking; it is, in fact, a breach of regulation in itself. The college dean explained this to new students in a much more poetic manner than I use here, and I was greatly impressed at the deftness with which this rule silences potential appeals.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wytham Woods

I had the opportunity today to work in Wytham Woods, a heavily researched patch of woodland near Oxford. Continuous biology research and monitoring has been going on in Wytham Woods for more than sixty years, which allows for study of (relatively) long-term trends.

The variety of research done in Wytham Woods also means that the part of the woods that my class was working in was already spotted with data collection points, research shelters, and flagged trees. We added a few research markers of our own, and over the next few weeks, we'll be analyzing the biodiversity of various 25m by 25m plots of woodland. Eventually, it may be that every major organism in the woods is involved in one or more research projects. It's quite a site to see.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Medieval Book Preservation

Richard de Bury was an English cleric who lived in the 14th century and wrote in Latin a book called Philobiblon; the love of books. In one segment, he describes the carelessness with which some students treat books:

"You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies ... He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth ... Aye, and then hastily folding his arms he leans forward on the book, and by a brief spell of study invites a prolonged nap; and then, by way of mending the wrinkles, he folds back the margin of the leaves, to no small injury of the book.

Now the rain is over and gone, and the flowers have appeared in our land. Then the scholar we are speaking of, a neglecter rather than an inspector of books, will stuff his volume with violets, and primroses, with roses and quatrefoil. Then he will use his wet and perspiring hands to turn over the volumes; then he will thump the white vellum with gloves covered with all kinds of dust, and with his finger clad in long-used leather will hunt line by line through the page; then at the sting of the biting flea the sacred book is flung aside, and is hardly shut for another month, until it is so full of dust that has found its way within, that it resists the effort to close it."

The above paragraphs are a generously abbreviated version of de Bury's rant on misuse of books. It's an amusingly artistic treatment of the subject, and I can imagine a library putting up some of these sentences as illustrated posters.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Better Never Than Late

In general, I don't like being late to things-- I'm much more likely to be the person sitting there ten minutes early for some reason. Today, however, one thing led to another and I found myself running late for much of my schedule.

At what point when late is it best to just not show up at all? Nobody would look twice at someone arriving in class twenty seconds late, but thirty minutes in, most people would say it's not worth showing up at all. My personal scale is based on the importance of the event and the publicity of the entrance. Ten minutes late to an one-time-only talk? Go for it, especially if you can just slip in the back. Ten minutes late to a concert with only one entrance near the stage? Maybe another day.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Origins of Taper

'Taper,' to become thinner, seems to come from the shape of candles, which used to be called 'tapers,' a word which apparently comes from 'papyrus' because candles had wicks made of papyrus. 'Paper' also comes from 'papyrus,' so I suppose it makes some sense.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Freshers' Fair

One goal I have during my year in England is to experience all the university activities portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. Today was the Freshers' Fair, where dozens of clubs and societies advertised themselves for new students to join. There was everything from a Communist Society to a Bridge Club to an Underwater Hockey Team. Perfect for the bridge-playing underwater revolutionary.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pedestrians and horses

If Atlanta is a city for cars, Oxford seems to be a city for pedestrians and maybe buses. Parking lots are few and far between. Today, I saw two policemen on horses. Maybe they can get places more quickly than their car-bound counterparts.

Some research on mounted police revealed that the sight of horsed patrols "boosts levels of public confidence in police." When it comes to displaying a police presence at public demonstrations during times of unrest, "a trained Mounted Officer on a trained horse can be as effective as a dozen officers on foot."

Monday, October 5, 2015


Prices in England are a bit daunting-- a pound is worth about $1.50 but it seems like things cost the same number of pounds as they do dollars in the US. I stopped worrying, however, when I went to Tesco. I don't know much about this store (besides that it's the biggest retailer in the UK), but it certainly is cheap.

A 500 gram box of cereal cost 31p. Two toothbrushes were 18p and toothpaste was 25p. I splurged on a bar of 'Coal Tar' soap (80p). I thought that it was just a brand name at first, but this soap is specifically designed to make you smell like coal tar. It's a great new world.


I was travelling with Iceland Air this weekend and had a stop in Reykjavik. I was a bit disappointed that my layover was too short to see what Iceland was like, but I did get to experience some of the weather-- instead of a boarding tunnel, passengers walked down airplane stairs and across the pavement to get to the gate. It was cold and rainy and a strong wind made it hard to walk. On the good side, this brief experience made the cold and rainy weather I encountered upon arriving in England much more bearable.

The Icelandic language was great to read and listen to, with letters like þ (soft 'th' like in 'theme') and  ð (hard 'th' like in 'with'). As I went þrough security I tried to read out loud all ðe signs I saw.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Singing Limerick

There once was a singer called Biddle
Who was quiet e'er since he was liddle
He used when he sung
Not the top of his lungs
But a volume nearer the middle

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Talking to Strangers

I rarely talk to strangers in public. This might be a social norm, but I personally don't talk to strangers because I assume they don't want to talk to me. There are exceptions, of course; I'll greet a bus driver or a cashier at a store. Most other stranger interactions are one of two things.

First is people asking for money. You can tell it's going to happen about five seconds in advance, since nobody else (that I've come across) maintains eye contact at the same time as almost bumping into you. The 20 second walk between the Greyhound station and the MARTA station is a good spot for this.

The other stranger conversations are much more subtle in their beginnings and are based on shared experiences. Two pedestrians at a crosswalk might see a driver speed through where passengers should have right of way-- they then share a look, as if to say, "I saw and disapprove of that, how about you?" If, at first glance, they agree, one person might say, "crazy, huh?" to reaffirm this social contract. Remarkable things bring strangers together through the action of remarking.

Now that I think about it, the third reason for me to talk to strangers is them telling me that my backpack is unzipped. It happens more often than I'd like, and it's nice of them to point it out.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Ham and Cheese

American supermarkets are all about making meals more convenient. I've seen jars of mixed peanut butter and jelly; with one of those, a PBJ sandwich should take half as long to make. More recently, I saw the equivalent for another sandwich staple: ham and cheese. It's a cube of processed, sliced ham like one would usually see, but nuggets of swiss cheese are insinuated throughout the loaf. What a great idea.

Where does food convenience go from here? I would be happy with a hotdog sausage engineered to have ketchup, mustard, and relish in its core. As things currently stand, I like hotdogs but they're more difficult to eat than I would like.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Alfred the Great

Before the year 1066, Britain was occupied by several kingdoms which I know very little about. King Alfred the Great ruled Wessex from 871-899, and in addition to expanding military and political power, he pushed education initiatives to get more people reading and writing English.

Part of this education program was the translation of Latin texts into English. King Alfred personally translated a text called Pastoral Care, and explains his process in a preface, quoted here:

"Ɵa boc wendan on Englisc Ɵe is genemned on Læden Pastoralis, ond on English Hierdeboc, hwilum word be worde, hwilum andgit of andgiete"

That is, "to translate into English the book which is named in Latin Pastoralis and in English Shepherdbook, sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense."

The word-for-word, sense-for-sense part is apparently a quote from Jerome, the saint who translated the Bible into Latin. As a method for translation, it sounds like a good idea, but I'm sure is much easier said than done. Even beyond deciding when things should be literal and when they should be sense-for-sense, I would guess that translating a sense is much more difficult than translating a word.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

TF2 and Honor

Team Fortress 2 is a multiplayer first-person shooter in which players choose one of nine classes (soldier, sniper, spy, etc.) and fight in teams, red against blue. It's a game I keep coming back to for a variety of reasons. One of TF2's main attractions for me is the human interaction it showcases. Some players will go to any lengths to win, using the best weapons possible and never stopping the attack. It's a fair way to play, well within the game's rules.

Some players, however, have what could be called 'TF2 honor,' a sense that within the range of what is allowed, some things are improper. It's bad form to use certain powerful weapons, especially when you're on the winning team. It's good form to apologize when a critical hit unfairly wins a fight for you. When a medic is healing you, you should thank (shortcut z2) and protect them. One could say that all this is just good teamwork, but it ends up making the game more interesting and fun for everyone involved. 'Honorable' TF2 players make for good teammates and better enemies.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fitting Faith

It's said that faith is being sure of something you cannot see. This has great implications, but it applies to less important things like buying clothes online. Will it fit?

There are, of course, many sizes to choose from in most online stores, charts of numbers and lengths and pages of reviews. All of that is evidence that the clothing might fit, but not proof. In the end comes the moment where the clothing physically arrives and the customer must find out for themselves if they chose the right size.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Walking Thoughts

For the past month or so, I've been living about a fifty minute commute away from the place I work. It's not ideal, but it means I have almost two hours each day to think while walking or on the bus.

Some thoughts aren't worth much, like when I think about how long it'll take me to get home. I'll reassure myself that I'm five minutes closer than I was five minutes ago, and then try to remember how I felt five minutes ago when I had so much further to go. I'll try and guess what time it is and then look at my phone to see if I'm right.

Sometimes I hum a tune, the sort of thing I used to put down on paper or on my computer as soon as I got home. I still try and work out what the notes would be if were to write it out.

The rest is hard to describe. I think about things I need to do, planning out emails to send and schedules to follow. If I'm hungry, I think about what I'll eat. Sometimes I think about ideas I disagree with and try to identify why I disagree. It's easy, of course, to win arguments in your head. I forget a lot of what happens on my commutes, but if I arrive and time has passed quickly, I know I've had a good think.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Origins of Bungee

The word 'bungee,' referring to an elastic cord, apparently originated in the early 20th century. I couldn't find a solid explanation of where 'bungee' came from, but one theory is that it's a blend of 'bouncy' and 'spongy.'

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Scrambled Egg Recipe

Whene'er I cook up scrambled eggs,
I use the same instructions.
A recipe worked out
Through many scrambled egg productions:

Step one: Fry two eggs in a pan
Let whites become opaque
Step two: Attempt to flip them and
Step three: Make a mistake

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Fine, Fine Line

For the past few weeks I had a free trial of McAfee antivirus installed on my computer. Once the trial ended, I got another antivirus program, but McAfee refused to give up, still disrupting my computing every day.

What are you supposed to do, then, when an antivirus acts like a virus? A few years ago when I happened to have two antivirus programs installed, one tried to take the other down. I suppose they're territorial.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Screenshot of the Day: Dragon Age: Inquisition

I had to stand like that because I was saying something important.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI) is the third installation of Dragon Age, a series of role-playing games featuring magic, discrimination, complex moral issues, and, of course, dragons. In DAI, the player is the head of an organization called the Inquisition. It's a bit of a misleading name; Dragon Age's Inquisition focuses less on uprooting religious heresy and more on saving the world from being overrun by the forces of evil. The Inquisition usually follows this line of inquiry:
1. What's wrong?
2. How do I fix it?
3. (After fixing) Whose fault was it?

DAI has a larger scope than previous Dragon Age games-- the linear series of encounters typical of Dragon Age II have been replaced with wide-open areas full of side-quests and things to explore. There is, in fact, almost too much to do, and as a result of that, one of the interesting choices the player makes is what to leave undone; the Inquisition can't help everyone.

One fun thing about DAI is interacting with characters from previous Dragon Age games. There are several encounters with the protagonist of Dragon Age II, whose actions in DAI are determined by the choices I made while playing Dragon Age II.

Overall, Dragon Age: Inquisition is an impressive piece of work, striking at a delicate balance between open-world and story-driven gameplay.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Optimal Bread

Paying more for food usually has diminishing returns; the difference in quality between a $3 box of cereal and a $4 box of cereal is more than the difference between $4 cereal and $5 cereal.

Depending on how much grocery money you have, then, you can optimize purchases for the best balance quality and price. After a couple weeks of eating PBJ sandwiches, I think a loaf of bread is best in the $1.50 to $2.00 range-- the stuff I've bought below that price is much worse but I can't taste much improvement past the $2 mark.

I don't think I've ever bought peanut butter I don't like, so now I just need to find the optimal jelly price and I'm set.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Friday, September 11, 2015

Best 35 Seconds

I saw a video today with the caption "This might be the best 35 seconds of your day!" I watched the video and it wasn't the best 35 seconds of my day, but I can't say I'm surprised.

What was the best 35 seconds of my day? Getting a drink of cold water after coming home from work was nice, and the closest thing to 35 seconds today I can think of. Right now I'm looking forward to the 35 seconds of increasing relaxation just before I fall asleep.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ye Goode Olde Dayes

Youngsters aren't as well-mannered as they used to be-- this may be true, but if so, they haven't been as well-mannered as they used to be for a long time. The Pricke of Conscience, a poem written in the 14th century, states:

"For swilk degises and suilk manners,
Als yhong men now hauntes and lers
And ilk day es comonly sen,
Byfor this tyme ne has noght ben;
For that somtyme men held velany
Now yhung men haldes curtasy;
And that som tyme was courtasy cald
Now wille yhong men velany hald."

That is,

For such guises and manners
As young men now pursue and learn
And are commonly seen every day,
Before this time have not been,
For what men once held has villainy
Now young men hold as courtesy
And that which at some time was called courtesy
Now will young men hold as villainy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cuisine Connoisseur

A weekend in Charleston, South Carolina allowed me to experience new types of Southern cuisine. One dish that stuck out was fried chicken with a sweet tea glaze, a tasty fusion of stereotypes. The chicken was juicy on the inside with a crunchy coating; flavors were finely balanced and perfectly complemented with a side of buttery mashed potatoes.

Surprisingly enough, I had had a similar meal not too long ago: ten chicken nuggets with honey-mustard sauce and medium fries. The chicken was dry and uniform in texture; the fried nugget coating was savory and cardboard-like. The french fries were hot and salty, very tasty when dipped in the provided sauce, as were the nuggets.

I enjoyed both meals; sweet and savory chicken with a side of potatoes gets me every time.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Asterisk Advertisement

Most of the advertisements I see share a common language.

If a statement is followed by an asterisk*, I assume it's not true. I saw a box of cereal the other day that Reduces Cholesterol* (in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise) in the same way that eating stacks of A4 printer paper Makes You Rich* (in conjunction with a high-paying job and good financial planning). I'm still jaded by the Unlimited* college meal plan I had two years ago.

Sometimes things are free, but a lot of things advertised as FREE aren't worth having. I can understand free samples, for instance: people try a product and those that like it might buy some. FREE samples, on the other hand, are iffy-- why is the seller so excited that their stuff is free? Free airport wifi is becoming a norm, but FREE airport wifi usually comes at the cost of email address or some other sort of registration.

For the full package of condescending advertisement, I like to see both of these used at once: This Summer at Restaurant, Kids Eat FREE*. What a time to be alive.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Visa Verse

In days longge past did kingedoms bolde defende themselves withe walles
Encyrcling theyer borders bryght with moats and rammpartes talle
Ye moderne wyrllde moore slyly slows unwelcomme immigrationne
Withe monstruss visa fees and complecks visa applicationnes

Friday, August 28, 2015

Origins of Explain

The word 'explain' comes from the Latin verb 'explanare,' meaning 'to make plain or level.' 'Explanare' is a compound word; 'ex' means 'out' and 'planus' means 'level' or 'flat.' It seems like 'planus' is the origin of 'plain' and 'plane' but not 'airplane.'

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Antibacterial Soap Poem

I see a soap dispenser with a label that affirms
That its soap "Kills ninety-nine point nine percent of germs"
This is very well and good, but would this advert thrive
If it said "Leaves the fittest tenth percent of germs alive"

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Knee-jerk Banana Response

Do you want bananas on your cereal?

If someone asked me that, there's a good chance I would say "no thanks" right away. It's not that I don't like bananas-- I like banana ice cream, my favorite dessert is made with bananas, and eating raw bananas isn't messy. I even like the taste of bananas on cereal.

I say "no thanks," then, as a habit developed over many breakfasts in highschool. I must have decided that breakfasts should be low-effort; no time for chopping bananas. Once I started turning down offers of bananas, there was no going back. My parents, however, kept kindly offering fruit for cereal probably until the day I left for college.

Saying "no" as a default response isn't restricted to cereal toppings. I've missed a lot of opportunities by saying no to things before properly thinking about it. Thankfully, new chances do appear, and by acknowledging my biases I can try and change them. If I had breakfast with my parents today, they would probably ask if I wanted fruit on my cereal. 

And I would say "no thanks," because really, who has the time to spend 30 seconds chopping up a banana?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Screenshot of the Day: The Witcher 2

A conversation with the troll under the bridge.

The Witcher 2 is a fantasy role-playing game in which the player controls a 'witcher,' a sort of superhuman monster hunter. I started playing The Witcher 2 almost immediately after finishing The Witcher, and it's the same game at heart; the player travels from region to region, fighting monsters, solving problems, and usually creating new, bigger problems. Many factions compete for the witcher's loyalty, leading the player to think carefully about what they're trying to accomplish and why.

This next paragraph is really boring: the combat system in Witcher 2 is probably the biggest change from the first game. Dodge rolls have been added, which I see as a disappointment. In the first game, directional dodges were acrobatic and required double-tapping a key. In my opinion, single-tap rolls are too easy to overuse in every battle-- they don't look right and lessen the need for creativity. I could, howeer, just be playing the game wrong.

All in all, The Witcher 2 is a solid RPG, more accessible than The Witcher and with a story that makes slightly more sense (so far).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Bus Driving Opportunity

How much difference can one decision make? Do you buy tickets to a famous artist's last performance? Do you go to that one party? Sometimes, an opportunity comes up and you know you won't get a chance do something like that again.

The other day, I was the only passenger on a bus and was surprised when the driver pulled over and explained he needed to go to the restroom. He left the bus running on the side of the road and I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a city bus joyride.

I didn't take act on this opportunity, but as with many things, I wonder what would have happened if I had tried to drive off. There may have been some security measure in place to prevent such bus thefts; buses apparently cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are decisions to make every day that will change who I am and what my place is in the world. There's a lot more to be said about that, but for now, I'm happy to not be a rogue bus driver.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Windows 10

Windows 10 has come to town
To turn my UI upside down
The new start menu's pretty nice
Well worth the non-existant price

Thursday, August 20, 2015

500 Posts

It's a milestone! Here are some statistics:

I've made 500 posts here since November 20, 2013, which by my calculation works out to one post every 1.276 days. The most common categories I've written in are Poems (51 posts), Games (35 posts), and Food (34 posts).

What's the next goal? 1000 posts, I guess; I'll hope to give an update about two years from now.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Planet Earth

"These rocky slopes look too barren to hold any life, but the stony incline beetle makes its home here" 
*camera zooms in on beetle*

The above scene is bread and butter for Planet Earth, a great TV show about nature. After watching a few episodes, I would be surprised if things went any other way.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Settings to Match the Medium

The premise of long-running TV show Dr. Who is that 'The Doctor,' a powerful alien, travels through time and space with a human companion. This setting is great for TV because time/space travel means that each episode can have a different setting to keep things fresh. The human companion provides a reference point for the audience; if the Doctor was working alone, he wouldn't be constantly explaining things to a 21st century human audience (this may also be the reason why the main character in The Last Samurai is an American).

The setting of The Witcher is good for a role-playing video game. The player controls a superhuman monster hunter, which allows for:
1. Regular travel and combat
2. A conventional quest structure
3. The player character being good at everything
4. The player character being treated as an outsider by non-player characters

Point #4 might be most important: in almost every RPG, the player doesn't 'belong' to the world they're acting in. The player is most often an outside force, swooping in, solving problems, and making things happen. Some of the most exciting moments in RPGs are reacting to the plot-influencing choices of non-player characters.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ways of Eating

I had rice and beans for lunch today and sushi for supper-- two very different eating experiences. The plate of rice and beans was my own preparation, as simple as possible. It was warm and savory and had uniform taste and texture. I shoveled through with the largest spoon I have.

Sushi (which I haven't had before) was complex and vibrant. Each piece had its own array of flavors and I had two sauces to dip things in. Some parts were crunchy and some parts were chewy.

What was the real difference between the two meals?  I would borrow an old expression and say one is eating for the stomach and the other for the mouth. The rice and beans tasted good, but my main reason for eating them was that I wanted to take nutrients and introduce them to my digestive system. Sushi filled me up, but I was more interested in the party my taste buds were having.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Screenshot of the Day: The Witcher

They call him "White Wolf" because his hair is white, right?

The Witcher is a fantasy role-playing game in which players control a 'witcher,' a sort of superhuman monster hunter. Interestingly, a big part of witchering is research and preparation for battle. My witcher was tasked with clearing ghouls out of  a crypt. I asked a few villagers what they knew about ghouls and then bought a book about undead creatures for more detailed information. After that, I was able to collect specific plants and use them to make a magical oil that would do extra damage to ghouls. I made another potion that would allow me to see inside the dark crypt. Actually fighting the ghouls only took a few minutes.

The Witcher is based on a series of books, the Witcher Saga, written by a Polish author. The game was developed by a Polish company and is probably the most famous RPG to come out of Eastern Europe. I'm enjoying the methodical witchering so far and am looking forward to seeing where the story goes. The Witcher has two sequels, and according to popular opinion, each one is better than the last.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Science Facts: Paper and Termites

Is paper edible? Technically, yes. Most paper, however, is made from plant pulp, which is made of cellulose, which the human body cannot digest. Termites, on the other hand, can digest cellulose-- they do eat wood, after all.

I always thought termites were closely related to ants, but they're only is the same class (Insecta). Termites are most closely related to cockroaches.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Slow or No

Some of the most powerful forces on Earth work on a long time scale-- the moving of tectonic plates, the erosion caused by wind and waves, and more. Even a steady drip of water can do a lot if it lasts long enough.

Here's a question I've heard passed around: is it better to have slow internet or no internet? You can get a lot done with slow internet, but constant buffering and disconnects gradually chip away at your patience, especially if you've experienced fast internet in the past. There's a certain indecision involved: after a few minutes, you think, "is loading this page really worth it?" Compared to that, the finality of no internet might be relieving.

One of my least favorite things to feel is buyer's remorse, and that's why I never look back after ordering at a restaurant. Once the food has arrived, only unhappiness can result if I wonder if I should have ordered X instead of Y. I can admit there might be better food on the menu, but I won't spend any time wondering what it is. This system is working out pretty well at the moment; the last restaurant meal I remember regretting was a hot dog a bit over a year ago.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Triple Rice Pudding

I have a lot of rice on hand, so I decided to make some rice pudding. Unfortunately, I don't have any milk or sugar. Fortunately, I really do have a lot of rice.

2 C cooked rice
3 C rice milk
1/3 C rice sugar

To make rice milk, blend 1 cup of cooked rice with 4 cups of water. Shake before each use.

To make rice sugar, add a bit of water and amylase to mashed up cooked rice. The amylase will break down complex carbohydrates in rice to form sugars. No need to visit a chemist; the water and amylase needed for this step are both present in human saliva.

Combine the rice, milk and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, then simmer for about twenty minutes until thick. Stir regularly.

I went back for second helpings on this one; it may be best, however, not to dwell on the rice sugar step while actually eating the pudding.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

High Jump

I'm relatively tall, but  I've never been able to jump very high. I can't touch the bottom of a basketball net.

High jumping was one of my least favorite units in P.E. class-- you have to perform all at once, and there's no room for mild failure. You succeed all the way or you don't.

Today, I had a high jumping experience for the first time in a while. I was in the park looking for oak galls and saw some on a branch just out of reach. A running leap off a slight incline was involved, but I got the galls in the end. Maybe I'll try for a basketball net next time I see one.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Cooking Beans

I've been cooking a lot of dried beans recently and was impressed with how long they take to become edible. Why do beans need to soak before cooking?

The soaking apparently shortens cooking times, removes toxins in some cases, and preserves nutrients and texture. I suppose it's worth it.

What about rinsing, though? One source said that beans should be rinsed because they're dirty-- any sort of rinsing or washing during processing and packaging might make the beans sprout. The beans passed my personal test of looking clean and smelling clean. Could there be bacteria? Probably, but by now I assume there's bacteria on everything that hasn't come out of an autoclave in the past five minutes. I was eating yogurt while thinking about this, so I decided to think about something else.

I found a small rock mixed in with my pinto beans, which made me think of home. Just like bacteria and yogurt, it's an experience all about context: a crunch fine with hard-shell tacos, but when your rice and beans crunch it's a whole other deal.

One article mentioned pesticides on un-rinsed beans, and I ended up deciding that rinsing beans would be easier than learning about pesticides.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bottle Bank

I have a plastic bottle
With a slot cut in the lid
And any coins I gather
Quick into it then are slid

It's getting pretty heavy
But it's mostly filled with pennies
It could buy me something fancy
Like a waffle plate at Denny's

And when the day arrives
And a financial need does hap
I hope I have a backup, 'cause
I can't unscrew the cap

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Health Decisions

One interesting thing about living alone is that there's nobody around to point out unhealthy decisions. I realized recently, for example, that nobody was going to make me stop eating Spam and Lucky Charms. Personal health is a new sort of responsibility.

I had a bit of mild neck pain the other day-- maybe I have bad posture or my backpack is too heavy. I had bad posture and a heavy backpack in highschool, too, but back then I used to watch a lot of tennis so everything worked out.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Buses Waiting

Imagine you need to catch a bus and you're about thirty seconds away from the bus stop. You see the bus waiting there, but you can't tell if it's going to leave in five seconds or five minutes. Do you sprint towards the bus and potentially waste a bunch of energy and dignity, or do you take the thirty second walk and risk getting left behind?

This often happens to me, and the nature of Atlanta's public transportation system raises the stakes: most of the time, the bus I need only arrives once every half hour or longer. My solution is to walk quickly and try and catch the driver's eye in a side mirror or something.

On the other side of things, sitting in a bus that's waiting at a bus stop is very relaxing. Once I'm safely on a bus, I don't have to worry; my only responsibility is to sit quietly and wait. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Headache Treatment

Would you rather have a headache or an upset stomach? Different types of unpleasantness, to be sure-- I usually say I would rather have an upset stomach because in that case sitting still can make me feel better.

When I do have a headache, medication is usually a last resort. If painkillers had an instant effect, things would be different, but my headache reasoning is that myself half an hour in the future will have gotten over the headache or will have mentally accepted it and used it as an opportunity to build character.

Two headache treatments I do use are drinking water and eating food in case I've forgotten to do one or the other for too long. If that doesn't work, I sleep until the headache goes away.

I do in fact have a headache while writing this, and the funny thing is that if I had an upset stomach I would probably say I would rather have a headache. I'll have to remember to write something down when I next get queasy-- the grass is greener on the other side of the illness fence.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Recipe: Spam Hashbrowns

Ingredients (pictured above)
2 medium potatoes
1/4 can Spam
2 T vegetable oil
2 t salt
1 t pepper
1 C peas (side dish)

1. Grate potatoes and spam into large bowl. Mix in salt and pepper.
2. Pour oil into frying pan and dump in grated mixture.
3. Divide grated mixture into two equal portions. Cook portions on medium heat for 5 minutes on one side and flip to cook on the other side for another 5 minutes.
4. Serve with ketchup or other sauce.

Grated potatoes and spam

Hashbrowns after flipping

Finished meal

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ant Advance

I see an ant upon the floor
I soon suspect there must be more
They probably want my apple core
They will not stop; that is for sure

The social insects form a hoard
A colony beneath some board
Where morsels gathered can be stored
In time my desk will be explored

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Preaching to the Choir

I work on the 5th floor of a large building and there are two ways of getting up there: stairs and an elevator. In the elevators are cork boards with notices and advertisements for various events. It's a good idea; 20 otherwise unproductive seconds in the elevator can be used to get up to date with what's going on in the community. It's also nice to have something to look at during silent elevator rides with other people.

The stairs up to the 5th floor have no announcement boards, but I suppose reading while walking up stairs is a bit tricky. Instead, the walls of the stairwell are decorated with paintings about the dangers of obesity and an unhealthy diet. It seems a bit strange at first; one is inclined to think that the target audience would be in the elevator and the people voluntarily taking five flights of stairs might be relatively health-conscious.

On the other hand, 'preaching to the choir' like this is probably the path of least resistance. Nothing's easier than arguing a case to people who already agree with you. There's a long discussion that could be had about this, but it's better had in person-- how else would I know how to tell people what they want to hear?

Why do I know about the paintings by the stairs? For one thing, the stairwell has large windows with a great view of the plaza below. The main reason I sometimes take the stairs, though, is that it's better than 20 seconds in a silent elevator with another person.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Oxford Anticipation

I'm going to be spending the next year studying at Oxford, which is exciting to say the least. Here are a few things I'm looking forward to:

Old buildings and traditions: I've always enjoyed wearing robes and I hear that there are a number of events each term at Oxford for which formal academic dress is required.

Botany: unlike Emory, Oxford has an entire department for Plant Sciences. There's a Botanic Garden and herbarium in town, and Kew Gardens isn't far away.

Tutorials: in a tutorial, two or three students meet with a faculty member each week for discussion and the students are assigned readings and work to discuss next week. Tutorials allow for very flexible and specific study.

I don't know how much culture shock to expect. I enjoy standing in queues and not making eye contact on public transportation, so that's a start, I guess.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Screenshot of the Day: SimCity 4

Citizens of Marseilles can now enjoy eating at a local Chick-fil-a.

SimCity 4 is a simulation game that allows players to build and manage virtual cities. It's a game my brother and I have played for a long time, developing such strategies as "spend huge sums of money until your city's debt unlocks a government bailout" and "build only one road from the suburbs to downtown and place ten tollbooths on said road so that it costs each citizen $20 to commute to work every morning." It's a very flexible simulation and is good practice for budget management: municipal spending for utilities, healthcare, education, and more needs to be carefully balanced to keep city funds in the black.

There are, to be sure, a lot of unrealistic things about SimCity 4: I always cut the fire department budget because a single fire engine is all that's needed in most cities to keep fires in check. Even if a city is a utopia of health, wealth, and education, citizens will complain and leave forever if income tax is more than 15%. Municipal income, then, has to come from other places. In the city in the screenshot above, a large chunk of the budget comes from bus fares and a government stipend I receive in exchange for allowing an army base, missile range, and federal prison to be set up in my city.

SimCity 4, first released in 2003, is widely held to be the best of the SimCity series, and it still holds up as one of my favorite creative games.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fun With Microwaves

Microwave ovens are pretty futuristic by most standards; they're relatively small, heat things more quickly than conventional ovens, and do so without any easily visible mechanism.

Regular ovens apparently heat food by heating the air around the food. Microwave ovens, on the other hand, use waves at a specific frequency to heat up water molecules in food directly. Metal materials cause problems in microwaves because they reflect these waves.

Bread baked in conventional ovens gets a crust because the heat is coming from outside the bread, from the air. This doesn't happen in microwaves, so the crispy crust of, say, a Hot Pocket, is produced by the cardboard sleeve thing that the Hot Pocket is supposed to be put in. A material on the inside of the sleeve absorbs microwaves and heats up, producing the 'outside heat' that causes crustiness. I had always thought that the sleeve was just meant to hold the Hot Pocket after taking it out of the microwave.

I had a bag of microwaveable pizza rolls that listed these microwave instructions: 6 rolls on a plate for 1 minute. I wanted to prepare 12 rolls at once: how long would that take? 2 minutes seems logical, but the instructions for Hot Pockets say that 1 pocket takes 2 minutes and 2 pockets take 3 minutes. I ended up microwaving the 12 rolls for 1:30 minutes, but now that I know about the whole sleeve business, I might have to reevaluate.

I still don't really know what's going on with microwaves; why does pasta sauce always splatter on the microwave walls when heating? Why can't styrofoam containers be used? Why is rotating important? If cooking over a fire is equated to talking, microwave cooking is like speaking over the radio.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sleeping Patterns

It's great to be tired and in bed at the same time. Having to get up in the morning while still tired is a common affliction. One of my favorite things is waking up at 4 in the morning and going back to sleep, especially if it's raining.

In high school, I had to get up relatively early and the resulting slight lack of sleep during the week meant that I could generally fall asleep in 7 minutes or less. Today, I get more rest so it usually takes about 15 minutes to fall asleep each night, and more during summer months, when I get more sleep than I probably need. I rarely remember dreams.

Napping doesn't usually work well for me--I get very disoriented--but I suppose I haven't had much practice. I'm about to go to sleep right now and am looking forward to it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Origins of Poster

'Poster' originally referred to something pinned on a doorpost or other such structure. The Latin root is 'postis,' which means 'post'.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Phone Limerick

There once was a flip-phone so clattery
That to call it "advanced" would be flattery
The screen was quite bright
So if not charged at night
By the morn it would be out of battery

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Lab Naps

The lab I'm currently working in has a closet-sized room with a cot, pillow, and blanket for anyone who needs to catch some sleep as experiments run. I enjoyed a three-hour nap there this morning and it was surprisingly comfortable.

I don't often take naps, and when I do, I'm usually very disoriented when I wake up. It took several minutes to clear my head today since I'm not used to waking up and finding myself in a lab.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

10 for $10

I went to CVS today and, while searching for discounted food, saw a "10 for $10" area. "Mix and match, 10 for $10," a sign read. It looked great until I realized that each individual item in the area cost $1 by itself. There was no discount-- I suppose the "mix and match" referred to the process of shopping in which a customer can buy more than one item at once and just add all the prices together for their final bill. Revolutionary, really.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Niche Jokes With Benjamin: Microbio Edition

What sort of movies do infectious bacteria watch?

What network do bacteria use to watch biofilms?

What's the difference between a standard deviation of 1% and these jokes?
One is good and the others are jokes.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sonnet Trainwreck

The sonnet; what a noble form of art
The stately structure of its ordered phrase
Each syllable performs its chosen part
Except when you can't find a word that rhymes

And then stop using iambic pentameter
And accidentally skip eight lines

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Modeling and Rendering

There are two main parts of making 3D objects on a computer: modeling and rendering.

Modeling is the construction phase, moving solid shapes around and building the structure of the object. Rendering is all about determining what happens when virtual light hits your virtual object. Color, illumination, texture, transparency, and reflection are all part of rendering.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Background 3.0

I've been writing in a lot of notebooks lately-- recording experiments in the lab, scribbling down ideas while on the bus, and taking notes while collecting plants. I'm trying out a new blog template to take this notebook trend to its bitter and inevitable end.

In fact, the background change is mostly for the sake of change and to try a theme not inspired by Newgrounds. We'll see how long it lasts.

My second favorite thing to write on is old receipts. Just buy one thing at CVS and you get a receipt long enough for a 1000 word essay.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Oreo Ratios

Every now and then I buy a pack of Oreos as a special treat. They're certainly tasty, but I've always found that the biscuit to filling ratio is a bit too high for my liking. Recently, I got some Double Stuf Oreos to see if extra filling would fix my problem. These new Oreos were also good, but this time too sweet, with too much filling. All in all, I think a 1.5 Stuf Oreo would just about hit the spot.

Game Development Software

Through the years as computers and computer games have become more common and accessible, software for making games has also been bound up in nicer and neater packages. I've seen lots of programs that say they allow users to make games without any programming knowledge. That's handy; removing limitations for creative and artsy people who don't know how to program can only result in a greater diversity of games.

Today, I saw an advertisement for game-making software that said (in paraphrase) "Make games without needing any programming, art, or music skills!" That sounds almost too good to be true, and there's an obvious question resulting: what other skills do you need to make a game?

As I understand things, there are three major parts of making a game: design (deciding what happens and how things work), coding (making things happen and work), and aesthetics (all the writing, art, and music). Software that makes programming and art more accessible is probably best for designers, people with an idea for a game but without the skills previously necessary to make it a reality. It's similar in this way to architecture; there would be fewer architects around if a person who designed a building had to construct it by hand.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Origins of Guacamole

'Guacamole,' as one might guess, came to English from Spanish. The Spanish 'guacamole,' still referring to the avocado dip, comes Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs: 'ahuacamolli,' a combination of 'ahuacatl' (avocado) and 'molli' (sauce or paste).

Other English words from Nahuatl include 'ocelot' from 'ocelotl' and 'chocolate' from 'xocolatl'. Any guesses on what the Nahuatl origin of 'tomato' is? Tomatl. I was hoping that 'potato' would have the same thing going on (potatl), but it's from Taino, a Caribbean language.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Video Game Music 3

It's time for round three of video game music, a series in which I pretend I have something to say about my favorite soundtracks.

Simcity 4:
This song starts off strong then drops into a rhythmic thrum. Like most Simcity music it evokes movement and progress. I can almost hear high-tech industry developing in my simulated city when this song plays.

Tales From the Borderlands:
This is the menu music for Tales From the Borderlands, a story-driven game mostly about making choices in a sort of sci-fi Wild West. The adventurous, sweeping melody sets the tone well for what the game has in store.

Mass Effect 2
This is probably the most famous part of the Mass Effect soundtrack. The determined and hopeful theme that rises here is really what Mass Effect is all about.

Cave Story
Cave Story is an indie platformer that I didn't really enjoy except for the music that plays at the menu. I started up the game many times just to listen to it for a while before quitting and doing something else.

This is the music that plays in the old starting town of the Runescape world and is one of the most recognizable parts of the soundtrack. It's not the most high-quality song, but an example of doing a lot using just a few instruments and repeating loops

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Baked With Real Fruit

To celebrate the 4th of July, I got a box of patriotic Poptarts that had red filling and blue icing with white stars. As with many Poptarts, a message on the front of the box said, "Baked with Real Fruit!*" I eventually found the "*" on the back of the box. "Baked with Real Fruit!" means "Filling made with equal to 10% fruit."

A quick look at the ingredients list reveals that these Poptarts as a whole are made with "two percent or less of ... dried strawberries, dried pears, [and] dried apples." I'm sure this adds up to the advertised 10% of the filling. Interestingly, while each fruit Poptart contains the fruit advertised, they additionally all contain apples. The blueberry Poptarts also have grapes.

Having learned all that, I take issue with another statement on the front of the box: "Naturally & Artificially Strawberry Flavored." The ingredients don't get any more specific, simply saying, "natural and artificial flavor." Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure I'm not tasting the less than 2% dried strawberry in the filling-- I would have to be some sort of mouth sleuth for that.

Am I going to stop eating Poptarts? No, I just think it's interesting to know what's in them. I'm waiting for the first strawberry Poptart box that boasts "No Natural Products Included, 100% Artificial."

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Game Balance

'Balance' is a big concept in games that basically boils down to two points: there should be no exploits that  allow for easy victory, and all game content should be usable. Chess is a good example of a balanced game. Each chess piece has a different role and value, but they are all useful. The most powerful piece, the queen, is balanced in that each player gets only one. Knights, with their L movements, are good at causing trouble up close while rooks and bishops can move long distances.

There is, however, one element of chess that's unbalanced: the first-move advantage. At the highest level, the win rate for white (the starting side) is apparently a bit above 50%. It's an interesting thing to find in the world's biggest strategy game.

My brother pointed out that fine balance only really matters at very high levels of skill. In other words, unbalanced systems in games only matter if players know how to take advantage of them. It makes sense; I've often gone first in chess and I can't remember the last time I won a game. Along the same lines, tic-tac-toe only continues to exist because not everyone knows that the first player cannot lose if they know what to do and cannot win if the second player also knows what to do.

Because of this skill aspect, a game doesn't need to be perfectly balanced to be fun. In competitive Age of Empires II, it turns out that Mayan archers are the best units and have no effective counter once there are enough of them. Despite the existence of this 'exploit,' I've enjoyed lots of multiplayer Age of Empires because I play at a skill level where it doesn't really matter what nation I play as.

What's the perfectly balanced game? Probably Yahtzee, unless you know how to make the dice land in a certain way.

Friday, July 3, 2015

19th Century Plant Research

I found a book today (written in 1802) about the medicinal properties of Liriodendron tulipifera. It seems that some things about plant research haven't changed in the past 200 years: grinding up a plant and putting it in alcohol for a few days is still one of the most common ways to get an extract.

Other experimental methods have changed a lot. The author was guided by smell and taste in identifying many chemicals in the L. tulipifera extract; today, smelling and tasting unknown chemicals is not recommended. Here's an excerpt from the book that shows the author's true dedication to the cause of science:

"A grain of the powdered bark was ʃnuffed up the noʃe. It inʃtantly produced heat, and exquiʃite pain, in the ʃchneiderian membrane. The mucous of the part was ʃecreted in large quantity; and the pungency of the impreʃʃion, creating a ʃympathetic action in the lachrymal glands, cauʃed an abundant flow of tears."

I can only imagine that these notes were written down several minutes after the event took place.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

One-Eyed Night Vision

I heard once that if you get up at night and need to turn on a light, you should keep one eye closed in order to keep your night vision. The open eye will adjust to the light and the closed eye will still be able to see in the dark once the light is turned off.

I've tried this a few times and it does seem to work. I suppose it's an interesting phenomenon because eyes usually do everything in sync with each other. For me, the sensation of having each eye adjusted to a different level of light was a bit unpleasant.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

World's Largest Islands

A fact I've often heard is that Madagascar is the world's fourth largest island. I was thinking about it today and realized I didn't know what the rest of the world's largest islands were. Greenland is first, I suppose, but what comes after that? Scan the world map in your mind.

It turns out that Indonesia and Canada are the countries to look at. New Guinea and Borneo are second and third in size and Sumatra is sixth. Canada has Baffin Island, Victoria Island, and Ellesmere Island at five, eight, and ten.

The last two islands in the top ten are Honshu and Great Britain at seven and nine. Honshu is the largest island of Japan and its name apparently means 'main island' in Japanese. The 'great' in 'Great Britain' is in comparison to Brittany (Lesser Britain), a region in northwest France. During the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, many of the native Celtic people were pushed into Wales, Cornwall, and across the channel to France. These refugees to France were called Bretons and their new home became known as Brittany.

Java has the highest population of any island at 143 million. It's the fifth largest island of Indonesia and thirteenth in the world.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Modding SimCity 4

SimCity 4 is a simulation game in which the player, as mayor, builds and runs a complex and dynamic city. SC4 was released in 2003, so it's old by computer game standards. There is, however, still an active base of users who still play and even create new content for the game (mods). I've written about my experience using mods in Skyrim, but modding SC4 has been a whole new playground.

One mod I found for SC4 adds new, high capacity buildings that allow cities to grow much larger than in the vanilla (unmodded) game. I downloaded this mod and installed it, but found out that I would need to find other files that contained the actual new buildings. For each building, there was a 'Lot' file that defined the area and placement of the building, a 'BAT' file that determined the structure, a 'Texture' file that determined what the building looked like, and several 'Prop' files to add detail. For some reason, these four file types were all in different places and had to be hunted down and compiled over the course of several hours.

I felt a nice sense of accomplishment when I finally got a modded building to appear in my city, but was it really worth it? I don't know how much these mods will really improve my SimCity 4 experience. It might be that the real value I got from this was practice with problem-solving and troubleshooting computers. It's something, I guess.

Origins of Tannin

'Tannins' are a class of chemicals that bind to proteins. Many plants produce tannins, including the oak species I'm studying this summer. The name 'tannin' comes through French from the Latin 'tannum,' which means 'oak bark.' The German word 'tannenbaum'  (Christmas tree) is apparently related; 'tanne' means 'fir' and 'baum' means 'tree.'

Friday, June 26, 2015

Kleenex Limerick

There once was a fellow from Bissues
Who had many runny nose issues
It is safe to say
That most every day
He used at least two dozen tissues

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Fun With Crosswalks

I really like crossing crosswalks. After years of dashing across roads through breaks in traffic, it's nice to be in a place where a system of lights keeps intersections organized. As soon as I get the go-ahead from the pedestrian light, I start walking, looking around at all the cars and enjoying my few seconds of right-of-way. I always feel bad, though, when a light gives me 30 seconds to cross a street when I only need 10, leaving cars at a red light for an unnecessary 20 seconds.

I was out walking today when I came to an intersection that already had the go-ahead pedestrian light shining. I didn't need to cross the street, but I did anyways because it would be a shame to waste the opportunity.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Screenshot of the Day: Borderlands 2

Compare the detail level of the gun with everything else.

Borderlands 2 is a first-person shooter set on an alien planet that's a bit like the wild west. Things are broken down and people generally fend for themselves. As far as I can tell, it's a game about finding increasingly better guns and using them to shoot at increasingly tougher enemies. The combat is very dynamic; players can hide behind cover and snipe or run in, punching enemies or anything in between.

The story, unfortunately, is very linear and based on the assumption that the player wants revenge on the game's antagonist. A cast of wacky characters exists to help the player, and so far I've ended up disliking all of them. Borderlands 2 is in many ways designed as a multiplayer cooperative game and I would probably enjoy it a lot more if I was playing it that way.