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.