Thursday, September 15, 2016

Meal Deals

McDonalds is my go-to restaurant for small celebrations. Tricky experiment in lab worked out? Spent all day working? Did well on an exam? The answer is just a bit more food than I can eat at one time for the price of a large drink at Starbucks.

My staple order used to be a Big Mac meal, but I've found that real savings are found on multiple dollar menu orders. The top example is the 2 cheeseburgers meal. At my local McDonalds, 2 cheeseburgers ($1 each), a medium coke ($1), and fries ($1.39) will set you back $5.19 when you buy them as a meal. Philosophically, this is huge, as provides solid evidence that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

My current go-to order, then, is 2 cheeseburgers (bought individually), 1 McChicken ($1.29), and a medium coke. I used to order a small coke, but it turns out that every size of soft drink costs $1, so the only reason to buy small is self-control. Eating at McDonalds makes me feel American and proud of a century of agricultural advances. I balance my health out afterwards by walking the mile and a half back to my apartment and eating a whole head of broccoli.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fun With Calculus

I recently had my first calculus quiz of the semester and it reminded me that even as the years go by, some things stay the same. The last time I took calculus was in high school, so I was a bit worried about this semester's class. After the first few lectures, however, methods of integration and derivation were emerging from the various corners of my brain they had been hiding in. I also remembered to forget to add "+ c" to all my integrations on the quiz.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Garlic Munchers

6 hamburger bun halves (or however many will fit on your baking tray)
2 medium garlic cloves (or use garlic powder)
1 medium tomato

Lay out the hamburger bun halves face up on a baking tray. Butter them and top them with crushed or chopped garlic. Stack a slice of tomato and a slice of cheese on each face. Other toppings such as avocado or spreadable lunch meat could be added to the stack. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 F or until toasted.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Fun with Experiment Setup

I began work this week in the medicinal plants lab I'm a part of. To get back into the swing of things after a year away, I started simple with an MIC-- a test that determines how much of a chemical it takes to kill 50% of a population of organisms (in this case bacteria). It's a delicate but repetitive process and accuracy is key.

The experiment I was setting up today took about an hour and a half of measuring, calculating, and mixing liquids in a 96-well plate. I worked row by row, going slowly because measurements need to be accurate to a hundredth of a microliter but also because I'm not very fast with micropipettes in general. At last, everything was set up; I measured the optical density of the wells, prepped the plate to be incubated, and then accidentally dropped it on the floor.

I wasn't sure whether I should be upset at the waste of work or if I should just be worried that a broth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria had gotten on my shoes. I certainly had time to think about it as I set up a new plate. In the end, I was happy with the comedic timing of it all and content that my shoes were sterile after treatments of ethanol, bleach, and hot water. Hard work and fixable complications make a good start to the year.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Over-the-top Advertising

I was looking to buy a can opener on Amazon and I found an $8 model that looked like what I wanted. There was, however, something off-putting about the product description. Instead of a simple "It opens cans," which was really all I wanted, it advertised:
"High quality parts will last for years"
"Hanging hooks for convenient storage"
"Sharp cutting disc effortlessly cut the sturdiest can"
"Beautiful design to complement kitchen decor"
"Made for Seniors and people with hand mobility issues"
"Perfect gift for wedding, bridal shower, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and birthday"

Instead of the standard 1 or 2 product images, there were 5 pictures showing the can opener from different angles, and even a picture of it opening a can as if to prove it can really do it. Also, the $8 price was actually an 80% discount from the previously listed $40 price, which smells less like a once-in-a-lifetime deal and more like an inventory that really needs selling.

When in doubt on Amazon, I usually look at the reviews to see what's up, and they told the same story as the rest of the page. The can opener had a 4 star average rating, split between a multitude of 5 star ratings (from people whose openers didn't break) and a large minority of 1 star ratings (from people whose openers did break). I suspect that a lot of the 5 star revies were paid for: they have the telltale signs of emphasizing selling points (I am an old person and the large knob made this opener easy to turn and it cut through cans like butter), saying it has no cons (having all 5 star and few 4 star reviews is suspicious), and finally an eerie similarity between many reviews.

I could, of course, be misreading the situation, but one of the things I learned during my summer as a freelance writer is that many online product descriptions and reviews are written by poorly-paid people who have never used the product or anything like it, and are instead given a list of selling points and a word count to fill out. I, for example, wrote reviews of the top selling compound bows on Amazon and didn't even get paid because I used the phrase "compound bow" too many times (it throws off SEO). In the case of this can opener, I would be willing to spend $8 on an openly mediocre product that just opened all of my cans and then broke after a year, but with the sketchy descriptions and reviews of this opener, it's not worth the risk.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Laundry in a Bucket

My apartment for this year has many amenities, but laundry hookups are not among them. A nearby laundromat offers wash and fold services at $1.40 per pound, but I remembered vaguely from history books and from childhood in the village that it is theoretically possible to do laundry by hand. A bit of research and experimentation landed me with this method:

1 bucket
1 plunger
1 bottle dishwashing liquid
20 feet of clothesline
Clothespins to taste

Cut several small holes in the rubber part of the plunger so that water can run through. Put clothes in the bucket, fill it with water, and add a spoonful of dishwashing liquid. Plunge up and down and stir the clothes from side to side for about 5 minutes; this produces a similar agitation to washing machines, washboards, and beating clothes on rocks by the riverside. Pour out the soapy water and fill the bucket with new water to rinse. Plunge and stir for another 5 minutes. Pour out the water, wring out the clothes, and put them on the line to dry.

This method still has to be optimized, and isn't great for large loads of laundry, but I'm hoping it will keep my laundromat expenses modest through the year. It's also nice to be able to use the balcony for something, and nothing looks more homely than lines of drying laundry.

IRS Transcript Sonnet

How do I get an IRS transcript?
Let me count the ways, for this one task
Most baffling yet remains by Em'ry's ask
Else all financial offers will be stripped
To use the FAFSA widget would be nice
But errors ever plague the address field
On all online attempts, the cause concealed
Alas that foreign equals imprecise
All phone calls to the IRS expire
Amongst robotic menus without end
The four-five-o-six-T form sent by wire
Did not the transcript situation mend
A finish is in sight, but my desire
To be a future donor scarce ascends

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fun With Customer Service

Over the past couple weeks, I've been in contact with several companies to set things up for my last year of college. There's been a lot of phoning and emailing and some meeting in person, and while customer service politeness has been pretty even across the board, helpfulness has been a real rollercoaster between companies.

The natural gas company was by far the best-- when an online application failed to go through, I gave them a call. In addition to processing the application for me, they explained my options for the coming year, how natural gas distribution works in Atlanta, and what to expect in fees and service over the next few weeks.

A problem with my bank's website led to a 40 minute phone call where the person on the other end very much attempted to be helpful, but we could never get past the point where the buttons present on his screen were absent from my screen. I was trying to wire money internationally to St Peter's College where I studied for the past year, but the phone call ended with the bank representative promising to get IT to fix the website.

The St Peter's financial office was really great to work with; after a few weeks of emailing I worked out with them that I could pay my bill internationally by buying a meal plan from the college cafeteria. The mindset at St Peter's seemed to be that a student's main source of stress should be their studies, not finances or other logistics.

With no laundry hookups in my apartment, I decided to test out a local laundromat where you deposit your clothes in lockers and they are returned clean in a couple days. It's a sleek facility and I set up an account and delivered my first order with zero human interaction. About half an hour later, I got a call from a customer service rep to confirm my order and to answer any questions I had starting out. It was a nice gesture.

My recent visits to the Emory Financial Aid office have been illuminating in their own way, but I can't help but feel that some of the problem-solving flexibility that comes with human customer service has been lacking. When I run into problems with online forms, I'm referred to the same forms to find a solution for myself. In a way, I suppose, it makes sense because I'm hoping to receive money from Emory Financial Aid while I'm paying money to all the other companies I mention here.

In summary, thanks to customer service, I feel at the moment a great deal of goodwill towards my natural gas provider and varying degrees of satisfaction and frustration towards the many other companies and financial institutions that are a part of living life on the grid.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Purchasing Incentives

I've just moved into an unfurnished apartment and am now going about the business of filling it with necessary apartment things, prioritized by level of necessity. I got paper towels and such yesterday evening, and was looking into buying a mattress and some sheets some time in the next week or so. However, after spending the night in a sleeping bag on the floor, the first thing I did this morning was order an airbed on Amazon to get me through the next few days. Same-day shipping, even on weekends, seems to be an affordable option on many airbeds, which is greatly appreciated by me and, I suspect, many others who have at the last moment discovered that the 'hard' in 'hardwood floors' is not a linguistic coincidence.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Deluxe Crackers

Peanut butter crackers
Grape jelly
More peanut butter
Nacho cheese

Make deluxe crackers by spreading jelly, peanut butter, or nacho cheese onto already peanut-buttered crackers. Each mouthful is an explosion of flavor, except for the peanut butter peanut butter crackers of course, for which every mouthful is an explosion of peanut butter.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

New Phone

This week, in honor of the new year, I decided that I would stop hanging on to my flip phone. In the past, I've worried that if I get a smartphone I'll accidentally start using it at restaurants and when I'm having conversations with people. On the other hand, there are several pros of smartphones that have accumulated over the years: the camera, internet access, and google maps in particular are what made my mind up.

The decision was a push as much as a pull. My old phone plan, for reasons beyond my understanding, jumped to $30 a month, so with my new $30 smartphone and its pay-as-you-go plan, I expect things will end up being cheaper than before. As I see it, using a pay-as-you-go service means that I'll either have an affordable phone bill or I'll become some sort of social butterfly, so it's really a win-win situation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Happy Returns

I told myself that I would return to blogposting when I returned to Atlanta, and now it's all happening together. There's no telling what the future will hold, but with any luck this will keep going.

Returning to the US in general has meant getting a new phone, switching back to Fahrenheit when talking about temperature, and enjoying the services of websites (like Pandora) not necessarily accessible in many other parts of the world. It also means getting back in touch with familiar people and places.

One such place is the Walmart Supercenter near me, and on the subject of returns, I saw at the cash register a sign saying that non-defective airbeds in opened packaging were not eligible for cash returns. Fair enough, I think, in the grand scheme of things.

The weather is hot and the roads are long, but air conditioning is plentiful and I know the bus routes. It's good to be back.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Language Progress

Today marks one month into my effort to learn German and relearn French. At the moment, I'm spending about half an hour a day on the two languages-- it's not a huge allotment, but I feel like anything more would result in me fizzling out a lot sooner. In German, I can say things like "The horse is eating a newspaper" and "I don't have any potatoes". Similarities to English are helping a lot.

French, a language I spent three years on in high school, is going much faster. I was able to play through the tutorial level of The Witcher 2 in French, but that may not the best measure because The Witcher 2 is decently confusing even in English. After a few more months of French, and several of German, I'm hoping to start reading childrens' books in the two languages and ideally escalate from there.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Fun With Packing

In my current stage of life, I move around from year to year and it may be a while before I have a long-term residence. My parents are moving soon as well, so there's no such thing as storing things at their house until after college. In order to travel light, I have a few thought experiments to go through whenever I need to pack:

How Bad Would I Feel If Everything In My House/Dorm Was Consumed By Flame?
It would be a big setback, to be sure. I'd have left whatever clothes I was wearing, my wallet, my phone, and maybe my computer and some books if I had my backpack with me. I'd probably need to go through a lot of red tape to replace official documents like my passports and birth certificate. I'd also lose the envelope of sentimental objects important enough to take along through every move. However, most of my digital files are in the cloud, and getting new clothes and other stuff would be pretty easy. I'd also have a good story to tell in the future.

How Bad Would It Be If The Suitcase I'm Packing Got Lost?
For the first few days of my year in England, this was the case, and by the time my suitcase finally did arrive, I was happy but didn't need it quite as much. In my carry-on backpack I had brought my documents, my computer etc, and a change of clothes; I had to buy cheap suit and some household items to get through the first few days, but was pretty much set from that point on.

With these thoughts in my mind, I feel more free to get rid of unimportant or easily replaceable items before I travel. I'm sure things will change once I get furniture and more permanent, expensive household items, but I like to think that the concept at the heart will remain the same: the destruction of my material possessions isn't as bad as it may seem.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Internet Language

Unless you take very deliberate steps to be anonymous on the internet, it seems that you count on your actions being recorded and used for advertising purposes. I recently started relearning French using an online program and today, while browsing, I was shown the first advertisement I've seen online in French.

I suppose it's one way of increasing immersion. A few years ago, I resolved that, unless my life plans changed significantly, I would never be fluent enough in a second language to be really comfortable in a conversation. Reading and writing, however, may be more accessible. There's a lot of French literature I may one day be able to access without having perfect pronunciation.

There's also the internet. Several years ago, I used to play Runescape on European servers so I could talk to people in broken French. Internet forums also have a fair diversity of language, the most popular 'French' phrases among many being "hon hon hon" and "omelette du fromage." Recently, many of my online encounters with French have been research papers from Francophone African countries where insects are eaten. In these cases, I can understand the titles and some key words, but usually end up just looking at the figures.

In any case, I suppose I am now resolved that, while I may never carry out a smooth conversation in French, learning how to read and write second languages may have plenty benefits of its own.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Walking in the Rain

As I've mention before, I like to wear raincoats in the rain so that I can experience the elements without getting my clothes wet. I like the sound and feel of rain, and also the mood it brings wherever it falls.

When it rains and I'm out in nature, I listen to the sound of rain on leaves and watch water dripping from the trees and running along the ground. Insects seem to go into hiding during the rain, which can be nice.

When it rains and I'm in a city, I like watching the streams that form on sidewalks and roads and (hopefully) show an efficient drainage system at work. Rain can have an isolating effect on pedestrians-- people are less likely to stop and talk to me when I'm walking in the rain. On the other hand, sheltering from the rain in a bus stop or something with other people seems to make folks more friendly.

Sometimes it seems a bit strange that water falls from the sky, but I suppose that's the world we live in.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Writing: the Boring and the Fun

In the paper I'm currently writing on insect farming, there are three main sections: how things have been done in the past, how they are done currently, and how they might be done in the future. I've spent most of the past two weeks slowly writing the first two sections and spent the past two days, the most productive I've had in a while, writing the last one, which ended up being longer than both the others.

Why were the first parts more of a drag to write? It was, in large part, reporting what is already known. The facts themselves are interesting and I would happily have a boring discussion explaining them to someone, but putting the facts into a coherent essay structure is not as exciting. Almost every sentence needs a source or two, so there's a lot of tabbing between what I'm writing and what I'm reading, which really slows things down.

Why was the last part more fun to write? I do enjoy thinking of possibilities, and it's also quite likely that the future of insect farming will be larger than the past of insect farming. In addition, I get to write more of my own thoughts as long as I use enough qualifiers and conditionals. In many ways, it's the part that feels most original, and for better or worse, being original is the real battle in these circles.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fun With Tutorials

The tutorial system at Oxford involves students meeting one on one with professors and discussing a particular area of knowledge. In the biology program, among others, the student will write an essay in advance of the tutorial, and in the meeting itself, the professor will give feedback and bring up areas or angles the student might not have considered.

Different professors, of course, have different styles. Some have done fieldwork all around the world and use lots of examples from their personal experience. Others like to take the conversation to areas not covered in the reading (I see you've written about global warming; what's your favorite type of sustainable energy and why?). I've had tea to drink during exactly two tutorials, which was nice.

It's not a bad system.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Mystery of Pesto

During my first year in Atlanta, it became apparent that pesto was the fashionable condiment on the block. Getting a sandwich at Subway? "Oh, can I have pesto on hat?" Cooking up some pasta in the dorm kitchen? "Yeah, just some pesto on it, it'll be like a real meal!" At the time, I didn't know what pesto was, but I did know what relish was, and making assumptions is a lot easier than looking things up.

Just recently, I bought a jar of pesto for myself to finally crack the mystery of this green substance. I found, as many people might, that pesto is generally a mixture of basil, pine nuts, and olive oil, but more importantly, it may just be the most flexible condiment I know (behind mayonnaise and butter). Ketchup and mustard can be overpowering, but a bit of pesto could go well on anything from a hamburger to a breakfast bagel.

Pesto also made a good base for the buffalo worm sandwich I had today. I've been trying for the past two weeks to write a blog post not about insects, but it looks like that will have to wait for another time.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Second Language Descriptions

Many cultures around the world eat insects, so any study of these practices involves reading research from a great variety of locations. Fortunately for me, English seems to be the main language of research; many of the papers I'm reading were either translated into English or written in English by people for whom it is a second or third language. I very much enjoy reading these papers because while they have the same tendency towards facts and the scientific method, the language used is often less clinical and more engaging than in papers by people used to reading and writing boring things in English such as this explanatory paragraph.

My favorite quote yet comes from an Indian researcher: "Although man suffers and benefits from the insect legions ... the suffering outweighs the benefits." I personally would have never thought to describe insects as legion, but it gives the paper's introduction an exciting sci-fi feel, and the dramatic discussion of man's suffering doesn't hurt either. Given the technical correctness of the actual content of this paper, I don't see why science writing can't be a little less frigid.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fun With Insect Names

From an aesthetic point of view, I'm generally happy that taxonomy is done in Latin. Learning plant names in an herbarium gave me a few favorites (Juncus, Carex, and Quercus come to mind). In my current insect-involving project, I've found the same bounty of fun names. Bombyx mori sounds much more dignified than 'silkworm', and the cricket family, Gryllidae, rolls of the tongue and is perfect for a group of largely edible insects.

My favorite so far is Bombus, the genus of bumblebees. I can only think of them as bombulbees now.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Research and Modding Programs

Over the next few weeks, I'll be working on a paper about various aspects of insect farming. Among other things, this involves a lot of online research: looking up papers, saving them to some sort of reference bank, and citing them properly in my paper. It's a task that takes a lot of time and effort, especially if it's not done right.

Fortunately, I spent a large part of last weekend modding Skyrim-- searching the internet for good mods, downloading them to a mod organizing program, and making sure files are where they need to be and are used properly. It's a lot of work, but it's the only way for me to meet Frodo and his companions in every compatible game.

There's a great satisfaction that comes from installing several dozen mods and managing to not have the game instantly crash on startup. Time and effort are rewarded, but also careful planning. In a similar (but hopefully less complicated) manner, I got great satisfaction from setting up a reference-managing program and being able to save papers and their metadata with just one click, as cliche as that is. I'd like to thank the creators of both the mod-organizing program and the reference-managing program for making the technology so accessible.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Smiling Muscles

It's often said that smiling takes more muscles than frowning-- an interesting possibility, but not a great reason for smiling because it probably takes even fewer muscles to hold a completely neutral facial expression. A more encouraging interpretation of this saying is that smiling is easier than frowning because we tend to do it more often.

When I go outside on a cold morning to walk to a lecture or to the grocery store, I sometimes find myself moving my face as little as possible just to see how neutral an expression I can keep. This is best paired with my generic t-shirt, jeans, and jacket, and a 10-yard stare, the municipal alternative to the 1000-yard stare. It's my idea of what might blend in with the crowd.

After a minute or two in neutral, I kick things up a notch-- 1 second smiling, then 4 seconds rest, and so on. I sometimes smile at people, but I hear that in some cultures eye contact with strangers is supposed to be like staring into the sun, so I generally just smile at pigeons instead. I don't know if this blends in with the crowd any more or less-- when you're looking at pigeons, you can't see what other people are doing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sweaters and Seizing the Moment

A few months ago, holes started to appear in the elbows of my favorite sweater, the navy blue wool that's kept me warm since high school. It was only a matter of time until the holes became more substantial than the sweater itself. I tried learning how to knit a replacement, but after making a simple hat, it was clear that knitting a good sweater is a lot easier said than done-- by the time I had enough practice, I would be back in the Georgia summer.

Fortunately, there was a shopping centre nearby with a reasonably-priced clothing store. They had shelves of sweaters in every color, but I kept putting off the purchase, thinking that tomorrow would be more convenient than today. In January, the shopping centre closed and the clothing store moved to a smaller location nearby. I didn't think anything of it, but when my old sweater finally bit the dust and I commited to a shopping trip, I found that the new location only stocked three colors of sweater. It was a tragedy.

It wouldn't be the end of the world, of course, to have a sky blue, teal, or olive green sweater, but it made me think of all the other things I could miss by putting them off until they're no longer an option. Over the next few months, I'm trying to do things in the today rather than waiting for the tomorrow. There may be some conflict inherent in that sentence, but at least I'm not writing this tomorrow.

I did eventually get a new navy blue sweater-- better today than tomorrow, but better late than never, also.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Civilization 5 Multiplayer

In the picture above, the Romans (purple) and the Aztecs (all I can think of is guava-colored) have attacked Poland (red), capturing the cities of Lodz and Wroclaw, respectively. The Polish army is coming up from the south, so while the Roman army attempts to reinforce Wroclaw with legions, the Aztecs set the city ablaze, an absolute measure to prevent the Polish from recapturing it.

This exciting episode occurred in 260 AD in a multiplayer game of Civilization V. I've greatly enjoyed maneuvering empires through history (or something distantly related to history) in the Civilization series, but one of the least appealing aspects of Civ V is the not-so-good AI. Computer-controlled civilizations tend to be predictable and incompetent, and higher difficulty levels give computer civilizations more resources, not more skill. Today, for the first time, I decided to try playing Civilization with strangers on the internet to see if it was any more exciting.

The scenario above happened about fifteen minutes into my first game. Civilizations had been randomly selected and I was the Romans. Early in the game, Poland settled a city (Lodz) very near to Rome in a spot my settlers had been heading for, which was annoying, to say the least. I wasn't the only one miffed by Poland's prolific settling: within minutes, the Aztec player sent me a message asking if I wanted to help him take Poland down a notch or two. It was only after I agreed to this sneaky alliance that I noticed another message in my inbox, from Poland. Poland was apologizing for settling my spot (he hadn't seen that I was so close) and even offered me gold as compensation. Unfortunately for Poland, I had already committed to the sneak attack, so I turned down the gold (I didn't want to feel too guilty) and told Poland that everything was okay.

Over the next several turns, the Aztecs and I built up armies and shared intel and resources-- I sent the Aztecs sugar to keep up happiness and the Aztecs sent me iron to build more legions. The Aztec player asked where I was from in real life, and I said Canada (it's one of those days). He said he was from Poland. As our in-game alliance grew, so did Poland's power. At one point, the Polish player asked me if I was building an army. I said that it was in my Roman nature to build armies. After that, I was sure to hide my legions from the view of Polish scouts so that he wouldn't know exactly how large my army had gotten.

On turn 77, the Aztecs and I both declared war on Poland-- Aztec forces attacked Wroclaw from the north and Roman legions came at Lodz from the south and east. The ambush was perfect-- Poland's entire army was off to the southwest in a war with a computer-controlled city-state. All of this leads to the screenshot above, and the meeting of three armies around the burning city of Wroclaw.

As all this writing suggests, I really enjoyed the multiplayer experience-- having human players makes every aspect of the game, from diplomacy to exploration to war, more exciting. Unfortunately, there are also some downsides; right after the Romano-Aztec attack on Poland, two other players (the Zulu and China) crashed out of the game and weren't able to reconnect, so we decided to start over. Still, I had a better time in that 20 minutes of multiplayer than I did in the last several hours I've played against computer players.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Raffles for Research

Part of being a college student is being the target of many emails about surveys, studies, and other students' psychology projects. In general, I suppose, it's easier to get college students to participate in a research study than a more representative sample of the human race.

Imagine the scene: you have access to the student mailing list and your study about how carbonated drinks affect concentration is all ready to go. Out of the hundreds or even thousands of students who will get an email, how do you get twenty or fifty to show up? If you have a lot of friends, you could ask them personally, but "n = my friends" would likely not go well when defending your thesis.

The answer, of course, is incentives, and money is the most effective (or Amazon gift cards, which are essentially money at this point). The larger the incentive, the more representative of the population your subjects will be-- if you're asking for volunteers, you will be studying people who like to volunteer for things, but if you offer $100 per hour, you will be studying a much wider variety of people.

The problem, then, is that research funding is limited. One common work-around is entering participants into a raffle (for an iPad, for example) instead of paying each participant individually. Whenever I see that the incentive for research is a raffle, I assume that it's less expensive for the researchers than paying people individually. I'm not generally optimistic about my chances of winning a raffle, so I usually just ignore any studies that leave most participants empty-handed.

I recently got an email about a psychology study with both fixed pay (five pounds for half an hour) and a raffle for prizes of up to fifty pounds. Usually, I would consider this a good deal, but the study involves completing speed and accuracy tasks while receiving "mildly painful electric shocks". I suppose you could luck out and be in the control group, but I don't need five pounds quite enough to take that chance.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Headache Medication

There's a sequence of steps I follow to get rid of headaches, and while it may not be the best approach, I've never had a headache that didn't eventually go away. If step 1 doesn't work, I go on to step 2, and so on. The steps are:

1. Drink something-- maybe the headache is caused by lack of water.
2. Eat something-- maybe the headache is caused by lack of food. This often happens on days I find something to do that's more interesting than meals.
3. Try to sleep-- if I wake up and still have a headache, I'm probably just sick.
4. Try to sleep with a damp cloth over my eyes-- I don't know what this does, but it's what my parents taught me and it seems to work.

I would assume that step 5 is to find some painkillers, but I just finished with step 4 a few minutes ago and I don't have a headache anymore.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Reading Railroad

During my year in the UK, I've been going through a checklist of sorts of English experiences I wanted to have. Most of these experiences are from Chariots of Fire: wearing gowns, talking to porters, and so on. Some are from Harry Potter: eating at long wooden tables, wearing gowns, and so on. I thought that my experience on trains to and from the town of Reading counted as a Monopoly reference, but apparently Monopoly's Reading Railroad refers to a company in Pennsylvania.

I had brought a book to read on the Reading railroad, but I ended up staring out the window for most of my journey, sometimes in a crowded coach and sometimes with lots of room to stretch out. I wasn't always sure that I was on the right train, but all the connections ended up working out according to the schedule I had written down on the back of a receipt. The train stations along the way were mostly quiet and the train schedule was helpfully displayed on signs on each platform. Overall, it was a good experience, and I didn't even have to pay $50 (or $200, in the case of a monopoly).

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Jar Size Reasons

The local grocery store sells both jelly and peanut butter at very reasonable prices, but each peanut butter jar is roughly 2/3 the size of a jelly jar. If, by making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, you consume peanut butter and jelly at a roughly equal rate, you'll have 1/3 of a jar of jelly left over when the peanut butter runs out.

This has happened to me several times. One solution to this problem is buying 2 jelly jars and 3 peanut butter jars at a time so that everything evens out in the end. An interesting question, then, is whether the jar size discrepancy is a coincidence or a purposeful move to increase bulk purchases from the peanut butter and jelly sandwich demographic. I'm not sure if PBJ is the same cultural phenomenon in the UK as it is in the US; maybe the extra 1/3 jelly is meant to be spread on scones or something like that.

Funnily enough, the jar of peanut butter costs more than twice as much as the jar of jelly. Are peanuts that much more expensive than strawberries, or is it something about the processing or other ingredients? The speculation never ends.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Fun With Walking

There's been a lot going on in the past few weeks, and some of it has involved walking along a trail in Scotland with my brother. We went about twenty miles in two days, which was nice, but it doesn't quite match up with the one walking speed reference point I had-- the Roman army's full pace marches of roughly twenty miles a day. We didn't set up basic defensive palisades each night either.

I hadn't anticipated getting tired from walking, and the limiting factor for our pace turned out to be pain rather than being out of breath. With some training, I suppose, a much faster pace would be achievable. Camping regulations vary, of course, as do regulations on cutting live wood (without which constructing a palisade would be difficult), but I'm confident the Roman march is not out of reach.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Comparing Buses

Pretentious statements are in italics.

I've had a few experiences with intercity bus travel both in the US and the UK, and while these encounters can't be generalized to sweeping cultural statements, my liberal arts education drives me to make sensationalist statements qualified by words like 'may' and 'might' that give plausible deniability.

The first difference is in the names: intercity buses in the UK are 'coaches'. National Express and Greyhound seem to be the major companies in the UK and the US, respectively, and they have the same system of acceptably comfortable seats and 3am stops at gas stations for snacks and smoke breaks.

In my experience, Greyhound buses are more crowded and noisy than their UK cousins. Could this be indicative of the more reserved nature of passengers in Britain?

Travelling with National Express was stressful for me because the bus driver did not announce the names of the multiple stops in each town or even the names of the towns we were stopping in. Since I usually travel at night, it was very difficult to tell when my stop was or if I had missed it. This lack of announced information could be rooted in a culture of unwritten rules and traditions.

I should probably say that I've enjoyed travelling on buses in both countries, and, as one might expect, the experience improves with experience.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Work and Reward

There's nothing quite like finishing an essay, closing all the research tabs you had open, and then pouring yourself a bowl of cornflakes and relaxing.

It's a lot like coming home through the cold from a day of classes or work, then sitting down and pouring yourself a bowl of cornflakes and relaxing-- which reminds me of the feeling of finishing a load of laundry, pouring yourself a bowl of cornflakes, and relaxing.

At the moment, I have 14 (mostly empty) boxes of cornflakes adorning my desk and shelf. For special occasions, however, like finishing the last essay of term, which I happened to just do, I have something special like sushi, which certainly tastes a lot more interesting than cornflakes. I'm breaking out the chopsticks as we speak.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Reasons to Not Get a Haircut

It's been a couple months since my last haircut and the time has probably come for me to get another one. Here are some of the reasons I don't look forward to haircuts:

1. I have to find a barber shop. Generally, I try to get each haircut at a new barber shop in case I offended someone at the last barber shop by breaking an unwritten rule of customer etiquette.
2. It costs money, and the added element of tipping makes payment ambiguous and confusing.
3. I still don't have a good answer for the "how would you like it?" question. The best I can usually come up with is "like it is now, but shorter."
4. The two options for conversation during a haircut tend to be (sometimes) forced conversation with the hairdresser or a ten-minute silence punctuated by "hold still" and "tilt your head, please." Neither of these tends to be much fun; my favorite outcome is the hairdresser talking to another hairdresser the entire time.
5. I'm worried that I'll walk into a barber shop and ask for a haircut and it'll turn out I'm actually in a shoe store or somewhere else where they don't give haircuts.

As I'm sure you can see, most of the issues I have with haircuts are on my end. If grocery shopping and getting fast food are a 1 on the social difficulty scale, a sit-down restaurant is a 2 and getting a haircut is at least a 3. In the end, I suppose I'm thankful that haircuts are more stressful than anything else that usually happens in my week.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Live eSports

To complement my new enjoyment of serial TV shows, I've taken to occasionally getting front-row seats at the live sporting spectacle that is competitive Team Fortress 2. TF2 is a video game I've written about many times, and it is competitively played online in two main leagues, one based in Europe and one in North America. Games are streamed live online with two sportscasters and a chat bar for spectators to voice their thoughts.

Competitive TF2 certainly isn't the largest esport, but there is money on the line. I mainly watch North American league; the current season is exciting because there have been a few important upsets and a newer team has risen to the top of the league standings. Most competitive players are in their late teens or early twenties, but two of the six starting players on this new and successful team are fourteen years old and have reportedly had late-night matches conflict with parentally-enforced bedtimes.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Fun With Climate Change

I'm writing an essay this week that involves climate change and two of my main sources are the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the NIPCC (Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change). From what I've read so far, these groups disagree on almost every point in the climate change discussion, drawing very different conclusions from the available data. They even use different language to talk about the same concepts: the IPCC says 'acidification' and the NIPCC says 'declining pH'.

Another highlight of my reading time was my struggle with vocabulary; I spent about five minutes reading about 'sulfur and nitrogen deposition via precipitation' before realizing that the paper was talking about acid rain.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Waking Up Poem

I wake up first at four o'clock
And go right back to sleep
This is my favorite time of night
No need for counting sheep

I wake up next at eight-o-five
And start to brace my frame
I have another half an hour for sleep
But it's not the same

I wake up last at eight, half-past
Emerge from my bed's fluff
I don't always feel rested
But I am awake enough

Friday, February 19, 2016

Serial Television

One of my favorite TV shows is Vikings, a historical drama set during the Viking invasions of England and France and featuring the family of Ragnar Lodbrok. The fourth season of this show premiered today and I resigned myself to waiting until the season was released on Amazon Prime. Usually seasons of shows will be released a year or more after they first air.

When I checked Amazon Prime, however, I saw that the premier episode was already up and available for viewing, and each subsequent episode will be hosted there as well. For the first time, then, I'll have the experience of watching a show week by week as episodes come out. I'm looking forward to this new and strange aspect of TV and hoping that the cliffhangers won't drive me crazy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Fun With Bioethics

Under English education, university courses tend to be focused on one subject. I've enjoyed studying a lot of biology, but I do miss some aspects of a liberal arts education. I was happily surprised recently to come across a biology paper that, after going through a couple pages of science, began discussing philosophy and democracy (with the ultimate goal of arguing against the EU's strict regulation of genetically modified crops).

There were no direct truth claims in the philosophy portion of the paper (possibly because philosophical ideas are difficult to experimentally verify); instead, each viewpoint was presented as an observation of the human population. Things did get a bit snarky under this method.

To paraphrase:
"the subset of people who, neglecting generally accepted democratic principles, place primary value on personal subjective beliefs pertaining to the negative impacts of genetically modified organisms, may be inclined to argue for extensive government regulation of transgenic crops."

This paper also includes my favorite expression of philosophical criticism: "Many have criticized Rawls' restrictive notion of public reason for being far too restrictive."

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Science Facts: Underground Succulents

In desert environments, water is a resource of primary importance, so plants tend to take up as much water as possible and lose as little water as possible from day to day. Most water in plants is lost through transpiration, a process that cools the plant.

One type of desert plant keeps cool by having not only its roots underground, but most of its leaves as well. This may seem counterproductive to the purpose of leaves, but in this plant the tips of the leaves are heavily coated with wax and emerge just above the ground's surface. These wax tips serve as little windows for sunlight to reach the rest of the photosynthetic tissue in the underground leaves.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Great Deals

I'm always happy to get a good deal when grocery shopping. Late in the day, bread from the bakery is often discounted, and to go with it I can get whichever cheese costs 1.50 instead of 2 pounds at the time. The generic brand is almost always better than the name brand for value per value.

Today, I saw that bags of "4 pears" were selling for 1.25 pounds and I nabbed a bag with five pears in it, still 1.25. What a win.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Bad Dream

I had a dream last night that I woke up and looked at my phone and it was 12:30 PM. "Oh no!" I thought, "I missed my Monday morning lecture!" When I looked again, I saw that it was actually 12:30 PM on Tuesday. "Oh no!" I thought, "I slept through the day that I had planned to do the reading for my essay!"

I went over to my computer and saw that my phone was actually a day behind and it was really 12:30 PM on Wednesday. I had slept through the day for writing my essay as well! This was pretty depressing, so I went to the kitchen to get some food. I ran into a friend there and said, "Hey, is it really Wednesday today?"

"What?" he said, "No, it's Friday." I had slept through an entire week of work and appointments! I was trying to figure out how I had been sleeping for almost five days straight. Maybe I was sick again. It was then that I woke up and found to my relief that it was 6:50 AM on Monday, which meant I could still sleep an hour or two more.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Screenshot of the Day: Tropico 3

I was really impressed with the procedurally generated shacks.

Tropico 3 is a simulation game much like Sim City, but instead of playing as the mayor of a city, the player is a dictator of a small island nation during the Cold War era. This means that in addition to running a stable economy and providing civil services, you also need to work to stay in power and manage relations with the US and the USSR, who will send heaps of development aid if courted properly.

I personally tried to stay in power by being a good leader: providing education and good fixed salaries to my people (there was even free food and housing for all students, a matter close to my heart). Educated citizens can produce processed goods, which are more profitable than the raw materials my economy would depend on with an unskilled labor base. Because of all this, I was liked enough that I could hold free elections and still stay in power. My democratic tendencies led to good relations with the US, which was nice.

That being said, I did play into the dictator persona a bit: on of my favorite systems in Tropico 3 is the dictator's personal Swiss bank account. Your score in game is increased by running a successful country, but also by funneling as much money as possible to your secret account. Under my mandated permit policy, 10% of the cost of every building project went to my account, and I paid bankers to divert a small percentage of each yearly national budget to my account as well. It was almost a victimless crime until I found out that I hadn't built enough housing and the professors I had hired were living in shacks behind the university-- I knew I had forgotten some part of the budget.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Sainsburys vs Tesco

Sainsburys and Tesco are the two local grocery stores that have about the same selection of goods at about the same prices. They're even about the same distance from my dorm. At the moment, Sainsburys is my preferred location for four major reasons:

1. I like the name Sainsburys better
2. Sainsburys' generic brand is more aesthetically appealing (simple orange and white) than Tesco's
3. Sainsburys has larger, sturdier grocery bags
4. Tesco receipts are printed on both sides, but Sainsburys only on one, so I can write notes on the other side

Funnily enough, the fourth reason is what closed the deal for me. Over the past couple years, I've gotten used to having ridiculously long CVS receipts scattered over my desk and now I'll forget to do a lot of things if I don't have them written down on a receipt somewhere.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sleep Kickstart

A few times in the past year, I've found myself in a sleep schedule where I go to sleep and wake up far too late. One way to kickstart a more helpful schedule is the good ol' "stay up all night and then go to bed at 4 pm the next day" plan. After the initial day, there's a week or so of invigorating early nights and early mornings, which does great things for my productivity, first because I wake up when I'm rested instead of when I have to for class and secondly because I have several hours in the early morning with few distractions.

Unfortunately, I've used this strategy twice in the past couple months. It's a temporary fix, and as I'm currently reaching the end of the effects of my last kickstart, I'm working on developing a more permanent strategy. Probably something involving post-it notes on my bulletin board.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Niche Jokes With Benjamin: Not Funny Even With Context

Why did the parasitoid only donate to radio stations led by intelligent radio personalities?
Because the parasitoid's distribution was inversely dependent on local host density.

You know certain models of ecological succession are hypocritical because the most tolerant individuals are also the best at excluding others.

What's the difference between fire and the water vapor produced by the dorm showers?
One triggers the dorm fire alarm and the other promotes the establishment of conifers.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Notes and Notepaper

At the moment, I consider any reading that I don't have to take notes on reading for pleasure. Just like having to fill out a worksheet while watching a movie in class, taking notes while reading hugely changes the tone of the task.

What I didn't realize is that the sort of notepaper I use changes the tone as well. For the past few months I had been writing on unlined paper and I just ran out and made the switch to a lined notebook last week. The lined paper has been great; I feel like my notes are more regular and organized now, and it also helps to have a notebook to flip through instead of stacks of paper covering my desk.

Funnily enough, the topic I'm taking notes on is the importance of accounting for relevant parameters when optimizing a system. In light of this, I'm trying to think of other factors affecting my studying and how I might reach optimal note quality. Using multiple colors of ink is next on my list of experiments.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Next Level Fun

Some games get less fun as you get better at them. Tic-tac-toe, for example, turns out to be simple enough that two player who know the game well will always draw.

Team Fortress 2 (a team-based first person shooter) is one of my most played computer games, and getting better at it has led me to expect to do well. When I play badly, then, I get more frustrated than I would have when I was still new to the game. However, when I'm playing well (and competitively) at my current skill level, it's a lot more fun than anything I experienced as a beginner.

Is there a way I can experience the good without the bad? So far, the answer in TF2 seems to be focusing on the teamwork aspect of the game. When I play as a medic, a relatively weak class that heals teammates, I don't necessarily expect to do well, since even a skilled medic dies easily. The fun comes in getting the rest of the team to work with and protect me, which results in everyone doing better. My favorite experiences so far in TF2 have been joining losing teams, convincing the players to work together, and ultimately winning through much effort.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Water Thermometer

The temperature here varies from day to day between cold and very cold (by my standards, at least). There is, however, a significant practical difference between the two in that if it's only cold I just need a coat whereas if it's very cold I need a hat, scarf, and gloves as well.

In order to tell the temperature before I go outside, I keep a cup of water on my balcony easily visible from inside. If I get up in the morning and the water is frozen, I know it's going to be very cold outside. This system is working pretty well so far, but I'll have to think of something else if I ever need to differentiate between very cold and extremely cold.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Background Noise

The college library is usually a good place to read and get work done, but it just so happens that for the past couple months there's been a construction project right outside; I assume it's taking so long because the construction only happens when there's most need for a quiet library. It's not the construction workers' fault, of course, but I find myself expecting to see someone have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the library when the noise finally becomes unbearable.

Most of the construction noise seems to be drilling, which is unfortunate. I feel like listening to a pile driver or someone shoveling gravel would be more pleasing to the ear. I'm relaxing right now by listening to all kinds of shovel sound effects.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Chess Jargon

Possibilities in chess may be practically infinite, but there's a relatively finite set of common plays. I currently know almost none of them, but hearing the named strategies discussed is as entertaining as the fencing jargon in The Princess Bride. If white opens with e4, for example, black may adopt the Sicilian Defense, prompting white to advance the Smith-Morra Gambit, and so on.

One variation I learned of is called the Dragon, so if there's one thing I'm likely to take away from this, it's to develop the Dragon as often as possible. Using a strategy with a cool name is almost as good as winning, right?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Stopping Watching

There are a few movies I'll watch through purely on the recommendations of other people. In many cases, though, I use the half hour test, turning the movie off if the first half hour isn't interesting. In some cases, I assume, this is my loss because the rest of the movie is better and makes the first bit more interesting as part of the whole, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

There's often a trigger that makes me quit a movie or TV show, like a long conversation full of angsty staring or a story decision that breaks the fantasy the movie is trying to sell. In many cases, it's cringe that makes me leave; watching embarrassing situations is the opposite of entertaining for me, so unless there's a good reason to keep watching, I switch to something else.

I can't think of many examples of movies I've stopped watching, mostly because I didn't like them much. This blog post, however, was triggered by the film Drive after one too many ten second silences in conversation. My motto is "I'm not a connoisseur."

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Science Facts: Trilobite Lenses

Nearly all lenses in animal eyes are made of cell tissue and protein. Trilobites (a class of extinct marine arthropods) are an interesting exception: their lenses were made of calcite, a transparent crystal. Trilobites apparently produced these natural eyeglasses by drawing calcium carbonate from seawater and directing it to the eyes.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Jelly Donut Limerick

There once was a packet of donuts
Each had jelly inside as a bonus
They could well be improved
For each, when bit into
Leaked its gelatinous components

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Origins of Jelly

The word 'jelly' comes from the French 'gelée,' which apparently can mean jelly or frost. This comes from the Latin 'gelu,' which means frost or chill. The Proto-Indo-European root, 'gel,' is also the ancestor of English 'cold,' which came through the Germanic rather than the Latin path.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

High School Music

A few years ago, I made a lot more music than I do these days. I'm very happy to have done it not only because of the constructive nature of the task but also because I still enjoy listening to the songs I wrote. This could just be vanity, but I like to think it's because I was able to record in some small way the musical thoughts I had at the time. I'm the perfect audience because I know the emotions in each song and I don't have to be polite when it comes to the technical quality of each piece.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

One Dish Pasta

When cooking for myself, I tend to get stuck in ruts, making the same dishes over and over. It's not the best situation, but it does let me hone recipes to perfection, i.e. the simplest possible without completely sacrificing taste. Here's my current method for making pasta:

1. Boil 1.5 L of water in electric kettle.
2. Make a cup of tea and pour the rest of the water into a saucepan.
3. Put the saucepan on medium heat and add about 2 C dry pasta.
4. Place a jar of pasta sauce in the saucepan alongside the pasta.
5. When the pasta is cooked and the pasta sauce is warm, combine them in a large bowl.

Using this method, the only dishes that really need washing are a bowl and a spoon. The tea is optional, but I usually make it because the kitchen is cold.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Civilization V Conflict Resolution

Civilization V is a video game in which the player controls a civilization through history, trying to win through culture, diplomacy, or sheer military power. I tend to try for the former but often end up with the latter, since a strong military is an easier solution to pretty much all the problems that come up in the course of a game. Are there no iron deposits in your kingdom? You could spend an arm and a leg trading for iron with the computer players, or you could just build some soldiers and conquer the nearest enemy territory with an iron mine. Annoyed with one of the decisions of the United Nations? You could spend hours in careful negotiation to reverse the policy, or you could shake things up and declare war on the civilization hosting UN conferences.

I would imagine these tactics work better in Civ V than in real life. One thing that personally encourages me to warfare in Civ V is the snarky diplomatic dialogue used by all the leaders. For example, in a recent game, the Incas, while maintaining a friendly front, were constantly sending spies to steal my technologies. Whenever an Incan spy was caught, I would have a meeting with Pachacuti, the Incan leader, and he would dramatically stagger off his throne and drop his scepter in dismay before deeply apologizing for the actions of his spy and promising it wouldn't happen again. However, without fail, another Incan spy would be caught just a few turns later. Eventually, one is inclined to conquer the Inca just so you don't have to see Pachacuti again. Another interesting thing about computer player leaders is that they don't get less humble as they get less powerful-- kings with only one city and completely obsolete technologies make demands as if they were superpowers.

In the end, then, war is the most exciting and effective activity available. I suppose that's what happens when only one civilization is allowed to win.