Saturday, January 31, 2015

Turbo Tax

It's come to that time of year where I, through lots of income tax forms and help from my parents, try to convince the government that they shouldn't take any money from me. In my feeble attempts to e-file instead of filling out physical forms, I stumbled upon TurboTax. This post is going to sound a lot like an advertisement.

It's like walking into an icy cold shower only to find that it's steaming warm and a string quartet is playing classical music in the next room while two or three long-lost friends grate orange peels in the kitchen. Instead of lines of boxes to fill in, TurboTax asks questions one at a time: what is your name? How much interest did you earn on your savings account? I'm fairly confident that TurboTax is targeted at a 12-and-under demographic, but that's what makes it brilliant-- when it comes to taxes, at least, I feel as confused and isolated as any chidler lost in a large department store.

Four out of five stars.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Science Facts: Vincristine and Low Yield

Vincristine is an anti-cancer drug isolated from the Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus. Unfortunately, it takes 15 tons of dried periwinkle leaves to produce 30 grams of vincristine. This is a relatively common problem when it comes to isolating medical chemicals from plants. One solution to this problem is semi-synthesis-- once the structure of a natural chemical is known, it can often be synthetically recreated from similar, more available, compounds.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Minecraft Mourning

Minecraft is one of my favorite games because of its open and creative nature. Challenge is added in that the world's most valuable resources are usually dangerous to gather. In the picture above, I explore an abandoned mineshaft (all procedurally generated) to find the precious diamonds that are buried in the deepest parts of the earth.

With a new diamond pickaxe, I gathered obsidian, a solid black stone that can only be collected with diamond tools. With the obsidian, I built a portal to the nether world, a realm of fire and magic that is extremely dangerous and extremely rewarding when survived.

I was extremely fortunate to have my portal deposit me in a huge nether fortress, a forbidding labyrinth full of blaze monsters, zombie pigmen, and treasure. I fought through the fortress with my diamond sword, collecting gold and blaze rods (used in potion making) and feeling incredibly lucky. Then, I was wounded by a wither skeleton and finished of by zombie pigmen, losing all the items I was carrying with me.

I respawned empty-handed in my castle in the regular Minecraft world. I still have my portal, and it still leads to a fortress full of riches, but dying in Minecraft often discourages me to the point where I won't play Minecraft for another few weeks or months. This is what I call Minecraft mourning, and it's happened at least five or six times over the past few years. It's a good enough game that I'll return, but it might be a while.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tuesday is the New Wednesday

I'm at the end of a very long day, and while I'm not usually this busy, I describe today's schedule here because it contained something of every class I'm taking this semester.

8:00-8:30AM: Wake up, get ready for school
9:00-9:55AM: Meet with Cell Biology group and professor to prepare presentation on microbiome for class tomorrow
10:05-11:55AM: Work in Herbarium repairing and labeling plant specimens
12:00-12:40PM: Eat lunch while reading the school newspaper
1:00-2:15PM: Introduction to Teaching class. Today's subject is current education policy in the U.S.
2:30-3:45PM: Medical Botany class. Today's subject is plant poisons.
4:00-5:00PM: SIRE seminar. Today's subject is personal statements for graduate school applications
5:00-8:00PM: Computer Aided Design class. Today we continue to learn Autodesk 2D software
8:15-9:15PM: Meet with Cell Biology group to practice presentation
9:15-10:00PM: Eat supper
10:00-11:00PM: Relax in dorm
11:00-11:40PM: Finish reading Stanzaic Morte Arthur for Arthurian Literature class.

It's been a good day.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Old Arthur

The following lines are from the Stanzaic Morte Arthur (one of the sources of Morte Darthur). King Arthur is in battle against Lancelot over the affair Lancelot has had with Guinevere.

"In all the feld that ilke tide
   Might no man stand Launcelot again,
And sithen as fast as he might ride
   To save that no man sholde be slain.
The king was ever ner beside
   And hew on him with all his main
And he so courtais was that tide
   O dint that he nolde smite again."

That is to say,

In all the field that day
No man could stand against Lancelot,
And he (Lancelot) rode as fast as he could
To make sure that nobody was killed
The king (Arthur) was ever near behind him
And hewed at Lancelot with all his strength
But so courteous was Lancelot that day
That he would not strike Arthur in return

On one hand, this passage shows Lancelot's reluctance to fight against Arthur, but it also tells in very few words the waning of Arthur's physical strength. As a young man, Arthur had legendary battles with knights such as Pellinore and Accolon, but here he cannot even faze Lancelot. King Arthur's physical decline mirrors the decline of his court, but Lancelot's continued respect for his lord shows that the chivalry of Arthur's reign outlasts man and table and is the real legacy that Arthur leaves.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Origins of Carpet

The word 'carpet' comes from the old Italian 'carpita,' meaning 'woolen bedspread,' which comes from the Latin 'carpere,' 'to pluck or pull to pieces.'

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Crosswalk Poem

Ich walke uppe to ye trafficke lighte
Ich presse ye crosswalke buton twice
Ich waite withe signalle in mine sighte
Ich cross ye roade, 'tis very nice.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Coffee as Medicine

Rafinesque's Medical Flora, published in 1828, is a comprehensive overview of plants in North America that have medical properties. Rafinesque says that coffee "promotes digestion, revives and keeps awake," and is an "antidote of opium."

However, "the abuse produces tremors, nervous diseases and palsy." It is also "baneful to nervous, hot, choleric, and phthisical persons." A phthisical person is someone suffering from phthisis, a wasting illness of the lungs.

After writing those last two sentences, I need to wipe spittle off my keyboard.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Aragorn and Vacuuming

When I wonder if I should vacuum the carpet, I remember Aragorn's inspiring speech before the Black Gate. Here is my modified version:

Hold your ground! Hold your ground!
Sons of College, of University, my brothers,
I see in your eyes the same wish for cleanliness that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the laziness of men fails,
When we forsake our chairs and get out the vacuum cleaner.
But it is not this day.
An hour of noise and tangled wires,
When cluttered furniture comes crashing down.
But it is not this day.
This day we do something else!
By all you hold dear within reach of your armchair,
I bid you sit, men of the rest!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How to Contradict People

Here's a situation I often find myself in: I'm talking to someone and they say something I disagree with. Should I loudly interrupt and give them the reasons they're wrong? Common decency would suggest not. Should I just ignore the incorrectness? Sometimes, but my dedication to accuracy moves me to say something more often than not. Here's my solution:

After the person has finished their thought, nod and say, "I agree with what you're saying." Follow up with a sentence that brings up the idea that there is conflict about this idea. Next, present your arguments, using a tone of voice that sounds like you're still defending their point of view. 

By the time they've realized you've contradicted them at every point, the subject of conversation will probably have changed. If they're sharp and say, "you just disagreed with everything I said," laugh and say, "wow, I suppose I did. [Subject of disagreement] is interesting like that."

Here's a short example, a reply to a classmate who suggested on the class discussion board that it would be better for humans to be closer to nature, i.e. use fewer or no artificial products:

"I also like thinking about natural resources like plants that we could use more diversely and effectively. Interestingly, there are some plants (like Guaiacum officinale L.) that have become endangered because of overuse as medicine. It seems that humans living close to nature are liable to take what they can and give very little back."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Screenshot of the Day: Two Worlds II

I don't know how you aim with the sun in your eyes like that.

Two Worlds II is a role-playing game that mixes story and an open world that plays a lot like a mediocre installment of Elder Scrolls. The fantasy world of Two Worlds II, as far as I played at least, is completely generic except for the one twist that the race called orcs are on the side of good for once.

What made Two Worlds II stand out to me, besides the hilarious title, was the weirdly high level of blurriness in cutscenes and when walking around the world. I did have my graphics set to low, but the haziness can't all be attributed to that. Whatever was going on, the world of Two Worlds II was dream-like in that it was populated with characters and landscapes that were blurry until focused on. It's almost like it was a second world. Maybe the title does make sense after all.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Science Facts: Mace and Nutmeg

The spices mace and nutmeg both come from the Myristica fragrans tree native to Indonesia. This tree has a fruit, and in the fruit is a single large seed with a red coating. The red seedcoat is made into mace and the seed itself is made into nutmeg.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Gawain and Lucius

Tales of King Arthur date back as early as the 6th century AD, and long before Lancelot was the best knight of the Round Table, Gawain was Arthur's most fiery champion. Here is a paragraph translated from Latin from Geoffery of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (written in 1136) that describes the battle between Gawain and the emperor Lucius in Arthur's war against Rome:

"Gawain ... by hewing down troops, as has been told, found at last the opportunity he wanted and attacked the Roman commander and engaged with him directly. But Lucius, vigorous with youth, had much bravery, much energy, much valor, and he desired nothing more than to encounter a soldier who forced him to test what he could do in arms. Confronting Gawain therefore, he was glad to enter combat with him, and he gloried, for he had heard so much of Gawain's great fame. As the battle was long waged between them, they dealt powerful blows, extending their shields against the attacks, and each labored to bring on the death of the other."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Science Facts: Pasteurization

Pasteurization, invented by named after Louis Pasteur, is a process in which food or drink is heated to kill dangerous bacteria. Pasteurization is different from sterilization in that sterilization kills all life in its object while pasteurization only kills some organisms. Milk, for example, is pasteurized at 60 degrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit) for 20 minutes.

Death Valley in California, the place with the hottest recorded temperatures on Earth, has reached 56 degrees Celsius, so any milk left outside in Death Valley is almost at the point of being continuously pasteurized.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Not Pockets

A new semester is full of new things, but I wasn't prepared for the moment I walked into the convenience store and discovered that they no longer stocked hot pockets. What am I going to eat for my unhealthy midnight snack if not a mass of meat and melted cheese inside a pastry pocket?

I bought some other microwave snack and was flabbergasted when I saw the cooking instructions: cook for two minutes in the microwave, then seven minutes in the oven. What's up with that? If I wanted to be doing complex cooking, I would be eating meringues and yorkshire pudding.

Of course, what I'm talking about here isn't an actual problem, but a demonstration of the rightful place of hot pockets in any good frozen aisle. In a market where food designed for convenience, requiring lazy college kids to place something in a microwave, wait, remove it from the microwave, place it in the oven, and wait some more has to be the death of success.

Once and Future One-liners

Cheap action movies are filled with cheesy one-liners, often uttered by the hero just before dispatching a villain.

This is by no means a modern phenomenon, and I came across one such line in Morte Darthur, a book published in 1485:

"[King Arthur] slew a great giant named Galapas, which was a man of an huge quantity and height, he shorted him and smote off both his legs by the knees, saying, 'Now art thou better of a size to deal with than thou were,' and after smote off his head."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Declaring a Farm

I've just returned from a visit to Nigeria, part of which involved a five-minute walk through a field of harvested guinea corn. I declared this visit to a farm in the required checkbox on my customs form (I wasn't in a hurry to get through immigration), and this is what happened.

After getting off my flight, I waited in a line for an initial passport scan at a self-service booth. I had filled out a customs form on the plane, and I reentered important customs information on the touch screen there. I got a paper from that machine with a large X on it.

I was then directed to wait in the line for people with an X on their papers. I assume that the X means they have something to declare, like my stroll through farmland. I got to the front of the line and told the immigration officer that I had been on a farm when he asked that I clarify the nature of my agricultural declaration. He wrote an A on the paper that had an X on it.

I picked up my checked baggage and then waited in line to go through customs. I'm assuming the A on my X paper stood for 'agriculture', because upon presenting it, I was given a green-edged transparent folder to put my X paper in and told to go wait in the green folder line.

I didn't actually have anything agricultural in my luggage, but the forms I had filled out hadn't made any differentiation between having walked through a field and physically carrying a dozen cobs of fresh-cut Mongolian corn. In any case, the agricultural examination area was interesting to look at.

When it was my turn to present my documents, I said that I wasn't carrying any food or plants, but had walked through a farm in Nigeria. The man on duty there called back to a colleague, "Hey, we have a guy who was on a farm in Nigeria." There was a brief summit and an answer was returned: "We can disinfect your shoes if you want."

Having spent all that time waiting in lines, I thought it would be a shame to leave without having anything done, so I held my shoes over a floor-level sink and they were sprayed with something in a Windex-style bottle. I walked out of the airport feeling that something great and bureaucratic had been accomplished. I also had squeaky-clean shoes.