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.