Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I think I may have been converted to horror games. Y'know... things like Dead Space or Silent Hill or the topic of this post, Amnesia: the Dark Descent. (Also the only one which I've played, though Blake grabbed Dead Space for me this Christmas. Huzzah!)

At any rate, nice thing about Amnesia is that it relies less on cat scares and scare chords to achieve its peculiar brand of horror, and more on the specific feeling of vulnerability it instills in you. Because, you see, your character-- an English fellow named Daniel-- has no means of self defense. That means your sole means of not getting killed by the thing stalking you are

1) Running
2) Hiding
3) Barricading doors so you can do more of (1) and (2) while the thing tries to bust through them.

But honestly? Hiding is your only real method of not dying, because the thing is just as fast as you are. Running is just a temporary measure.

Therein lies the trick! Anybody ever read the Cthonically-flavored the Holder series? Something you'll notice as you go through the various Holders is that there's always a point at which the Seeker is forced to rely on luck/fate/destiny to get through. Here's an example:

In any city, in any country, go to any mental institution or halfway house in you can get yourself to. When you reach the front desk, ask to visit someone who calls himself "The Holder of the End". Should a look of child-like fear come over the workers face, you will then be taken to a cell in the building. It will be in a deep hidden section of the building. All you will hear is the sound of someone talking to themselves echo the halls. It is in a language that you will not understand, but your very soul will feel unspeakable fear.

Should the talking stop at any time, stop and quickly say aloud "I'm just passing through, I wish to talk." If you still hear silence, flee. Leave, do not stop for anything, do not go home, don't stay at an inn, just keep moving, sleep where your body drops. You will know in the morning if you've escaped successfully.

And then it goes on from there. See what I mean? No matter how clever or quick-witted or brave you are, there's still a chance your quest will end in failure-- and gruesome, terrifying failure, at that. So it is with Amnesia! It's all about that feeling of helplessness.

Let me give an example. When you barricade a door behind you, a lot of times the room you're stuck in with the thing trying to bust inside is rather cramped. It's all you can do to get behind a couple of crates and hope for the best before it finally kicks in the door. And I gotta tell you, it feels like a really long time (though probably only about 30 seconds) where the monster just shuffles around the room, trying to root out the location you're hiding in. At that point, there's literally nothing you can do to help your survival-- the dice have been cast, and whether you survive the encounter or not depends on how well you chose your hiding spot. The monster could get bored and wander off; it could also find you and kill you.

There's also a difficult decision you're forced into when you're wandering around darkened corridors: if you walk around with your lantern on, then if you run into the thing stalking you it will see you and you'll probably die.

Onnnnn the other hand, if you wander around with it off, your sanity will slowly drain and eventually your legs will give out, leaving you crawling across the floor with your arms. At which point if the thing finds you, you're basically a sitting duck, and you'll probably die.

On a secondary note, I've noticed that in most genres, when game developers try to make a "meaningful" experience, they tend to start emulating movies, with cinema scenes and plot rails and the like. And a lot of times, this makes sense-- game mechanics work extremely badly for most types of social interaction, since when you're talking to somebody there's any number of things you should be able to say. Which causes games to become movies at such times, since movies are good at dialogue.

But one thing games are great at is immersion, and that's something which lets horror games beat horror movies hands down. A list of reasons:

1) You'll identify much more strongly with a protagonist who you're controlling at all times. It's not "Oh no, the monster's going to get the Attractive Female Protagonist", it's "Oh no, the monster's going to get me." The desperation feels real in games because it is real-- you're freaking out that the monster might bust through the door before you can barricade it properly, you're freaking out because it's chasing you and you're trying to push a door that has to be pulled, you're freaking out.

2) You can't look away during particularly intense moments, because that would just cause you to die horribly. Immersion!

3) You know that the possibility of failure and death exists at all times if you aren't constantly vigilant. This is in contrast to horror films, where you know that the main character's probably not gonna die until the 2 hour mark or thereabouts; and furthermore, that this will be true regardess of whether you're paying attention or not. Immersion!

In conclusion: Damn, but Amnesia's a well-constructed game.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Grad Student Horror Stories

So I was playing Audiosurf the other day. Fun times! Now, Audiosurf, when it displays high scores at the end of any given song, also gives you comments people have left about those songs. As luck would have it, the comments for One Night In Bangkok are all disgruntled graduate students. I'll give it this-- it has a higher class of commenter than Youtube does. But anyway, I'm not sure if this is the norm, or if it just happens to be the disgruntled ones who comment, but the section was just filled with complaints like:

"Man, my advisor's a slave-driver! We have to work weekends and everything!"

"You think yours is bad? Mine has started restricting the purchase of safety equipment! I have to work with toxic chemicals wearing half a lab coat because of him! And I think my glovebox is leaking toxic gases, but I'm not sure because I've lost my sense of smell."

"Oh yeah? Well, mine has us work 25-hour days, and makes us use our vacation time for restroom breaks!"

"Oh yeah? Well mine..."

I wonder why I haven't heard more reports like this coming from the UW. I know we've got a graduate student union, which makes me wonder if that's the cause or the result of the UW's lenient attitude. I strongly suspect someplace like Caltech would not tolerate union shenanigans.

Students: Hey professor, hey professor! We're forming a union!
Caltech Professor: OLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL you're all fired.
Students: Nyo~ron ;_;

Not that I haven't heard of ridiculously long hours, mind. Organic synthesis groups from what I've heard seem especially fond of having students work nights and weekends, though I'm not sure why this might be. (This is actually the main reason I didn't want to work with my otherwise-awesome Advanced OChem professor-- I'd like to do synthesis, but I'd also like to have a life, thanks.) That said, the Luscombe and Goldberg groups (which I've applied to be in) seem to be on the saner side of things, with having their students work roughly 40-60 hour weeks. We'll see how it goes!

In other news, dapper pokemon.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Hypochondria

Anyone who knows me knows I have certain... quirks. For example, I am extremely particular about what food I eat, as according to the following diagram.

I have regulated my diet by these standards for many years! But, this is nothing special-- many people have such standards. No, where my true food-madness manifests itself is in standards of hygiene. It's as though a highly sincere yet psychotic nun has barricaded herself in the larder of my brain, and has taken it upon herself to vigorously expel any food items thought "unclean."

"Unclean" items include, but are not limited to:

  • Expired food
  • Food about to expire
  • Milk that has sat outside the carton for more than ten minutes
  • Milk that has been defiled by the touch of cereal
  • Milk that has been defiled in any other fashion
  • Warm food that was once cold
  • Cold food that was once warm
  • Wet food that was once dry
  • Too-brown bananas
  • Food that has sat in strong-smelling environments for long lengths of time.
This has led to certain... difficulties when my friends and I hold beach house parties. Most of my friends have extremely different standards for food cleanliness. They will-- and this is just an example-- place open packages of new and wholesome food next to a casserole which has been stewing in its own grease for two days straight on a countertop smelling of stale beer.

This, you may gather, causes my inner Battle Nun to flip her shit. You may also guess this leads to certain... frictions.

Aaron: Im'ma just throw this casserole and this butter and these muffins away, that cool with you guys?
What? But that's only been there for--
But that was our only food for the weekend!
Branden: NOOOOOO

To all those who think my actions excessive: all I can say is that if I was just a trifle more unstable in the ol' brainpan, I would have purged the kitchen with beautiful, cleansing fire. So y'all should be putting this in perspective!

As Monty Python says....

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Solium Infernum Update!

Well, the plan to do a night a week of SI appears to have failed, for which I will suggest an alternative plan: Everyone submits a turn a day, and if two days go by without a person submitting a turn, he gets turned into an AI. We'll be starting this Friday.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On the recycling of Wikipedia

(Just for reference, I've spent most of the day grading about a hundred 3-page-long Chemistry assignments. Hence this blog post as well as my last one.)


One question asks the students to define "conformational isomer." I have found that a large, large chunk of my students were making very similar and (to me) anomalous mistakes, using language that I hadn't heard in either Boydston's or my own Organic Chemistry class.

Among the more common mistakes I found were:

"Conformational isomers is a form of stereoisomerism in which the isomers can be interconverted exclusively by rotations about formerly single bonds"

"Conformational isomers differ by rotation about only one single bond."

"Conformational isomers require the breaking and reformation of chemical bonds."

Then, upon a spark of inspiration, I checked Wikipedia:

In chemistry, conformational isomerism is a form of stereoisomerism in which the isomers can be interconverted exclusively by rotations about formally single bonds.[1] Such isomers are generally referred to as conformational isomers or conformers and specifically as rotamers[2] when they differ by rotation about only one single bond. Conformational isomers are thus distinct from the other classes of stereoisomers for which interconversion necessarily involves breaking and reforming of chemical bonds. The rotational barrier, or barrier to rotation, is the activation energy required to interconvert rotamers.

The Peculiar Hell of Grading Short-Answer Questions


"What color is the sky?"




The sky is the part of the atmosphere or of outer space visible from the surface of any astronomical object. It is difficult to define precisely for several reasons. The sky is sometimes defined as the denser gaseous zone of a planet's atmosphere. At night the sky has the appearance of a black surface or region scattered with stars.

During the day the Sun can be seen in the sky, unless obscured by clouds. In the night sky (and to some extent during the day) the moon, planets and stars are visible in the sky. Some of the natural phenomena seen in the sky are clouds, rainbows, and aurorae. Lightning and precipitation can also be seen in the sky during storms. On Earth, birds, insects, aircraft, and kites are often considered to fly in the sky. As a result of human activities, smog during the day and light radiance during the night are often seen above large cities (see also light pollution).

In the field of astronomy, the sky is also called the celestial sphere. This is an imaginary dome where the sun, stars, planets, and the moon are seen to be traveling. The celestial sphere is divided into regions called constellations.

The sky is green.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Plan

So! We've decided to attempt to get Solium Infernum underway tomorrow. If any disagree, say "Nay!"

I feel like the ideal situation would be us blocking out an hour every two days or so to play, probably from 9-10 (or thereabouts.) Any thoughts? (Mind that this game takes quite a long time to play--probably take us about two weeks to get through a game even at this pace-- but I've got testimony from 3 sources other than myself that says it's totally worth it!)

On starting up, everyone should have access to the "Solium Infernum" dropbox folder with instructions written by our own Josh Williams.

Now then, gentlemen! Install your games! For it's a battle royale-- CAN YOU DIG IT?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Message To: Josh Williams

Get a blogspot account, you lazy SOB! I will also require your email, which has been lost to the mists of time, so I can send you a dropbox link.

In other news, we have for Solium Infernum six people, which is actually the maximum number the game can support! Excellent.


I actually have plans to give the multiplayer game a test run this weekend, since Josh, Branden, Chris and I are actually going to be in the same place for a period of time. I'll let you know how it goes!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Good times all around!

So my Advanced OChem professor is a pretty cool guy, eh. Very friendly, and is probably the best Chemistry professor I've had, but asking him questions almost always results in exchanges such as:

Me: Hey, professor, are these two reactants in Problem 3 in a 1:1 ratio with each other?
Him: Ha ha! I ask you, what in this question could possibly have made you think that?
Me: O_O (....)

But, like, in a friendly way which does not translate well to paper-- I'd say it comes out as 40% scorn, 60% playfulness. Surprisingly, this hasn't caused me to stop asking questions. I suspect that it's because I know that whichever question I ask, it will be mocked in front of the class. It's like I can accept this mockery beforehand, since I know it's coming, and I can therefore get over it before it happens. It's kinda zen when you think about it, if you don't think too hard.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Oh, also, an update!

Oh yeah! I forgot to say a bit about how I'm doing! Currently Branden and I are trying to find a gaming group; both out of a desire to game, and a desire to find somebody to hang out with that is not technically several hundred miles due south.

I've been trying to get something together with the Official University of Washington Pencil and Paper RPGs Group, specifically by way of the forums. Sample conversation:

Forum: (Vast, gaping silence)
Me: The time is upon us for D&D, Arkham Horror, and assorted Cthonic shenanigans disregarded by mainstream society! JOIN ME, and I promise you times of great merriment and camaraderie, the likes of which never have been seen by human eyes!
Forum: (A limitless void of inactivity)
Me: Truly! You must only bring yourselves to the domain of the University, and all the riches and amusements at my command will unfold themselves before you, like a tremendous and vibrant forest! Nay, the greatest of redwoods shall not compare in splendour to even one of the extravagant entertainments I offer to you, this very fortnight!
One Forumer: Anybody wanna buy a set of D20's?
Me: σ_σ GET OUT

So that hasn't worked out incredibly well. Following a lead now, however. I'll let you know how it goes!

Also-- solium infernum! DO IT!

Solium Infernum!

Hey everyone! So I'm trying to round up enough folks for a game of Solium Infernum. This is a very singular game, wherein Lucifer has disappeared and you're now competing for the throne of Hell against various other interested persons, shadies, and gentledevils.

Gameplay-wise, I like... well, I'll repost an email I just sent to a few people.

Basically, I like that it kills off three of the big problems we keep running into in our free-for-all type games:

1) Stalemates-- the end of the game is set at a specific time, with whoever has the most "prestige" winning.
2) Everyone cuts down the tallest poppies, leading to nobody wanting to be tallest-- this is prevented via a system where you allocate one player as your nemesis, which reduces the cost of actions against that player. You can switch your nemesis, but it's not free, which makes it somewhat more difficult to just go after whoever happens to have gained a small lead.
3) The structure of the game is such that turtling is generally a bad strategy.

It also features deception, backstabbing, and political dickery. My favorite kind of dickery!

Anyhow, I can put this game up on Dropbox if anybody is interested. You guys up for it? (Note: I'd recommend trying a game or two vs. the AI so y'all can get a handle on it.)

Short review:

There's also a short tutorial here:

Now then! I was wondering if there were any readers of this blog who may be interested in playing a highly cutthroat, highly complicated game of strategery with me and whoever else is interested (I have recently gotten both HTMC and Branden on board, so that's three-- I'd say we could use at least two more for a really good, diplomatic game.)

As for the format, it's a play-by-email game, so it's fairly slow paced-- but this is a good thing, since it means your time commitment per-day is quite low.

Oh yeah, and one other thing I like about the game? The aesthetics. Not the board game-y aesthetics of the main interface, but the art and description accompanying every piece of equipment, each character, and each army in the game, which you can purchase from the Infernal Bazaar as the game goes on. You cannot buy a "Level 2 Amulet of Protection." You can buy an Alien God In A Bottle. (I am not making this up. This is actually the name of the artifact. It protects you from being spied on by your opponents.)

And you don't have any Level 3 Melee Armies. You've got The Beast.

And finally, there's Character Creation, a process that allows you to attach to your avatar such attributes as "Unnatural Prescience" and "Prince of Lies." Anyway, it's classy business. Anyone want to give it a shot? I can allow any interested parties access to Dropbox so as to procure the game.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Fear

Or, In Which Writing is Cathartic.

There's this thing that continually infests my thoughts these days, and has since I started research at Pomona a couple years ago. A phobia which, for whatever reason, twirls constantly around my thoughts and feelings regarding lab. Like a kind of whisper; keeping me in an unholy terror that somebody will, someday soon, figure it out that I'm a fraud. I've managed to sneak this far into grad school without any of my professors detecting that I'm not one of them, and a part of me continues to feel certain that when lab work actually starts, things will go okay-- for a time-- until somebody realizes that where others churn out research after research, I can only stare in horror at a reaction mixture that refuses to do or say anything. And then come the ritual sacrifices, and it all goes downhill from there. And I know that of all my fears, this is one of the most retarded. Nevertheless it persists.

....and then, some time after finishing that mini-essay, I looked on Wikipedia, saw Imposter Syndrome, and found the sentence:

The impostor syndrome was thought to be particularly common among women who are successful in their given careers, but has since been shown to occur for an equal number of men. It is commonly associated with academics and is widely found among graduate students.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hubris: the everlasting predator

5 days before the assignment is due:

"Wow, this is such an easy assignment. Lots of number crunching, though-- this equation I ended up with has like a million variables. Eh, I'll just calculate it all out later."

Night before the assignment is due:


"So this reaction will take.... 9000 years to finish? Wait, that can't be right."

One hour later:


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Post of Many Things

(It's the chemistry that's advanced, not the exam.)

Class average grade: 45/95
My grade: 85/95
My face:
A dream I had last night. Went like this:

Josh: Hey, Aaron! You doing anything today?
Me: Not really. Anything going on with you?
Josh: Nothing too much. A group of us are just going to do a drive-by shooting. You in?
Josh: Why are you freaking out? You don't even have to really hit anything. Blindfire, for all I care. It's not really even that dangerous; the targets probably aren't even armed.
Branden: Come on, man. We'd help you if you were doing a drive-by shooting.
Josh: I thought you were our friend. What the hell, Aaron?

The "other" Ochem exam.
The one I'm TAing for, to be precise. My God, these things take a long time to grade. That said, much fun was had with mocking those hapless students who made what I am going to call "Chemistry Word Salads." The process leading to Chemistry Word Salads goes like this:

1) There's a question on the exam I don't know the answer to.
2) It's an essay question.
3) Maybe if I jam in all of the buzzwords relating to chemistry I can think of, I'll stumble on the right word and get partial credit!
4) "The SN2 resonance structures for the HOMO and LUMO are highly acidic in nature, which means they are prone to giving up electrons in intramolecular reactions. Meanwhile, the oxygen atom travels around the molecule forming what we call "carbocations." These carbocations are highly unstable, and racemize into carboxylic acids due to the resulting steric hindrance of the molecule."
5) Success! Now to hand in the exam.
6) Receive TA response:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

OChem Exam Aftermath!

You know, there's something about exams-- they're horrifying before you've actually arrived to take the thing, but when you're working on it, it feels more-or-less like a homework problem set. Admittedly, one which you're timed on, but there's that same sense of intense satisfaction when you get a difficult problem right-- I remember there was one tricky synthesis problem on the Advanced OChem exam today which I beat my head against until, like a ray of divine light shining down on me, I had a crazy vision of the reaction mechanism as laid down by my spirit animal.* And there's definitely something about OChem exams-- the problems tend to take the form of "Explain why this reaction takes place the way it does," and with that kind of question there's always the temptation to just BS something and hope for partial credit-- give yourself enough time, and you can even half-convince yourself you've got the right answer. But when you actually find the answer, it seems to have a ring of truth about it, because it takes the form of a bunch of obvious statements leading to the then-obvious conclusion-- no convincing necessary. Where you have to watch yourself is when you start writing paragraphs. 'Cuz you can make anything sound plausible if you give yourself a whole page to say it.

That's one infuriating thing about these exams-- all the answers sound so damn obvious after you hear them. Of course the lone pair on the oxygen donates into the sigma antibonding of the carbon-carbon bond, which in turn donates into the sigma-antibonding of our N2 group. Obviously it had to be that way, because the stereochemistry wouldn't work otherwise. Duh. That's why I hate looking up the actual answers when our tests are handed back-- it's just inviting major blows to the ego. Still, I think I did well on this thing! Knock on wood.

*I should mention this test was taken under the influence of near-lethal doses of caffeine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It basically wrote itself

AARON sits at his desk in the Chemistry Study Center. A nearby clock reads 9:00 AM, with a sign nearby reading "Organic Chemistry Office Hours". The room is deserted, and he is dozing in his chair, nursing a cup of coffee. A STUDENT walks in. AARON gasps


A student! In my section!

Wait, where's your rush, where's your hurry
You gave me such a fright-- I thought you was a ghost--
Wait a minute, can't you sit, sit'cha down, SIT.
All I meant was that I haven't seen a student here in weeks.
Did you come here for advice, ma'am?
Please excuse me if me head's a little vague
But you'd think we had the plague
From the way the premeds
Keep avoiding-- just a sec-- (takes a swig of coffee)

Heaven knows I try, ma'am
But there's no one comes in even for exams
Not for resonance or finding moles in grams,
But I guess I hardly blame them--
for this is probably the worst time, for OChem!

I know why nobody cares to come here,
I should know!
I sit here,
Awake? No...
The worst time, for OChem....
Even that 's polite.
This is probably the worst time, for OChem!
You can't doubt me, amirite?

Student: (grimacing) Yeah.


Is this just, revolting?
You have to concede it!
A weeder, so early...
Here drink this-- you'll need it--
The worst time, for OChem...

Thursday, October 14, 2010


So I've been looking into what labs I want to join recently! I've talked to two of the four professors we have to chat with about research, and at the moment I'm really liking this one where my job will be synthesizing plastics with useful properties. Specifically for use as solar cells-- most solar cells these days require lots of expensive silicon, and researchers have already realized they can make solar cells out of plastic much more cheaply.

The only problem being, solar cells made out of plastic right now are woefully inefficient. This professor's research is geared towards making plastics that will do the job better than current ones. SCIENCE! I even got to grill one of her research assistants about the job.

Me: Hey! I was wondering if you could tell me about Luscombe's lab, since I'm thinking about working there.
Peter the Lab Assistant: Oooh.... unfortunately, I don't think she's hiring right now. I mean, unless you're a synthetic chemist who wants to make polymers.
Me: Really!

So that went well. I'm also continuing to enjoy TA work, although I've come to feel sorry for my 8:30 AM group-- they get a woefully unprepared, half-awake TA to answer their various chemical questions. But! Since all my sections have basically the same questions to ask, I can use my experience with the 8:30 AM group to better answer the next students I have come to me with questions. The system works!

That said, sometimes it feels like students assume some kind of psychic TA connection with their professor, illustrated by a slightly surreal exchange I had today with my 1:30 group.

Student: Hey, Aaron! How do we choose between an sp2 and sp3 hybridized resonance structure?
Me: Choose for what? You mean how do you know an atom's hybridization?
Student: I think Professor Boydston said we should choose the one with the most sp2 character, didn't he?
Me: Wait. What are we choosing it for? You mean the most stable one?
Another Student: No, it's just when we get two resonance structures, we need to choose the one with the most S character.
Me: ...
Another Student:
Boydston said that's how we choose, but I don't get how--

...and that's how my entire 1:30 section dropped out of OChem.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

To jump on the memetic bandwagon...

I give you: Prespur Bent, Bee-Druid of the Desert.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hubris strikes again!

During TA training, one thing we were repeatedly reminded to do was to not take responsibility for our students' grades. I thought that message was a bit ridiculous at the time. After all, a student obviously is responsible for understanding the material being taught in the course. How could it be otherwise? How could someone even think otherwise?

Well, I was grading quizzes today, and I was quite glum at discovering that something like 80% of the students got a particular question wrong. This question was about "arrow-pushing", which describes the movement of electrons in a molecule-- something which I (being as I am a grad school chemistry major) took for granted as being obvious. And I caught myself thinking, what if this is all my fault? Surely this could all have been prevented, had I did some more examples on this topic during tutoring. Or what if I said something misleading, that caused this common error among the undergrads? Or what if...

I then reminded myself that I'm only one of the resources students have available to them-- they also have the professor/his lectures, as well as the chemistry book which in theory they should be reading. So really I'm probably less important than I'm giving myself credit for. Excellent!

Aaaaand now back to grading quizzes.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

This is why I shouldn't blog at 1:30 in the morning.

The Daret Follies
A Most Entertaining True Historie in Onne Day


Outside the shop Gizmo Gulch. An ISPEX glitters in the window.

Enter DARET, the techpriest.

Hark! An Ispex, newly made,
shining steady in the light--
its careful form of brilliant make,
its monitor so cheerful and so bright!


Good techpriest, I am most impressed
At the wisdom in your tone--
All this could be yours today
a mere two-hundred-ninety (plus tax) thrones!

DARET: Deal! (aside) Sucker.



Enter DARET and company. All are carrying LASGUNS.

Gentlemen, I must urge caution
Let us get some recon 'fore we go!
Our foe's perhaps too crafty, and too strong
We must find out who they are to bring them low!

You speak the truth, but you forget
An ability I've had since dawn--
Behold as my new ISpex Plus
illuminates the passage-way anon!


CALLIDON: Is it supposed to--

DARET: Shut up.


DARET and company walk down a darkened corridor, blood staining their clothing.

By the Emperor, we've come so far
A rocker's life is one I've come to miss!
The money grand, the groupies fine,
And kickass techpriests turning--

A HERETIC leaps out of the shadows, impaling REMSKI with a POWER SPEAR.

Hah! You are surrounded, fools
The agony we'll not prolong!
Behold fellow-cultists, powers great,
perhaps twenty thousand crazy people strong!

Foiled in our designs,
We'll be with the Emperor by the morrow!

(SIX, CALLIDON, and THE LINEAR are killed by lasgun fire. DARET flees, ISPEX in hand. The ISPEX lights up.)

Warning! Acolytes, I must declare
A note before you all continue on--
Her'sy lurks, and shall attack
So please prepare your armaments anon!


Friday, October 1, 2010

Science Analogy Time!

Yesterday I went to this seminar-dealie wherein the faculty presented their research for all of us first-year grad students. A lot of cool stuff, but also there were quite a few lectures where I found my eyes starting to glaze over, my interest in scientific accomplishment becoming eclipsed by thoughts of food and a growing urge to find a restroom. Anyways, I was wondering why it was that some lecturers seemed much more interesting to me than others, and I think it just comes down to my perception of science in general.

So I like to think of all human endeavors and ambitions as taking place on a huge map. Humanity's got a fair bit of territory nowadays-- we've mostly explored the regions of Steam Power and Computation, and we've even made some progress in the fuzzily-defined regions of Applied Psychology and Political Science. Our means of getting from one place to another are tunnels, which we call Theory when they're going down into the earth, and Invention where they're coming back up again.

You can point to basically any newly-discovered region and point to the tunnel (or tunnels) that led there. You might call university professors tunnel-specialists; but to hear some of them talk, it's like they're building tunnels not to get from point A to point B, but because they just like building tunnels. And then they can't hold my interest because instead of saying "we're attempting to build a tunnel to the region of Tumor Removal, and here's how we're doing it", they say "Hey! You guys should totally work on my completely awesome tunnel!" And then they start going on and on about their tunnel, while I'm still trying to figure out where it's supposed to be heading.

Now, I'm not gonna deny it-- some tunnels are entirely awesome. And any of them can be really useful down the line, when what looks like a dead-end turns into the only possible way into a specific region. Just look at how theoretical physics led us to nuclear power. But man, I really wish my professors would give us a concrete destination when they start explaining their research. 'Cuz I like tunnels, but I like them even more when I know where they're going.

It kinda reminds me of my thesis research-- it felt a bit like my profs just sent me down into a random shaft, thrust a pickaxe into my hand, and were all like:

Professors: Hey Aaron, hey Aaron! How would you like to beat the hell out of this rock for a year?
Me: ....why?
Professors: Because you need thesis material. Also, isn't this an awesome tunnel?
Me: Nyo~ron.

EDIT: As I was writing this, I keep having the suspicion that I just assume that a prof doesn't have a practical application in mind if he doesn't talk about it. Which might not be valid. My only worry is that if I ask about direct applications, it'll come out like I'm implying that the research sounds pointless. That said, I have at least found a couple of profs who seem application-oriented, so I'll be in good shape if I can get into one of their labs. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I just like that image.


That's the name of this thing we had to go to today, wherein we'd teach a class for five minutes about a topic that we've prepared beforehand, with a camcorder trained on us all the while. Then they'd play the video back for us, while we get the dubious pleasure of watching ourselves stutter and stumble over explaining basic chemistry concepts. Afterward, our peers would critique our performances. What fun!

Anyway, I'm well aware of the phenomenon of people hating how they look on video. Mine was the last video to be played, and it was slightly amusing watching my fellow classmates cringe over their actually pretty decent lectures. Of course, I knew (beyond a doubt, really) that when my presentation was played, I would be able to watch it with complete objectivity and relaxed self-satisfaction.

Ah, hubris.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cities always teem with evil and decay!

So I was on my way to the library today to get myself a card, when I noticed that the back tire on my bike was gone. Just flat-out gone. Now, I'm pretty conscientious about locking up my bike whenever I'm planning to go more than a few feet from it, and so my bike-minus-the-back-wheel is still attached to the bicycle rack via my U-lock. Like it's trying to say "don't blame me-- I did my job."

So, I embarked upon a quest to get myself a wheel. Unfortunately, the bike shop nearest to me (I was informed) does not carry a specialized part that was missing when I found my bicycle this morning. So, it's time to go on a hunt for such a shop!

On the plus side, I've found an underground parking garage which has a fenced-off area specifically for bikes. I suspect it will end up being much more secure than my current spot.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

First week of Orientation: COMPLETE

Hey! So after completing this first week of orientation, I think I'm gonna have fun at the UW. Grad school seems to be divided into three parts: Regular classwork, tutoring students (also known as TAing), and actual research. The research I haven't started yet, and won't for a couple months, but I've got both the classwork and tutoring worked out.

I'll be giving quizzes and tutoring four sets of 25 Organic Chemistry students each Thursday, and will be having office hours at various times during the week so that students can come talk to me and get help with their assignments. I figure this'll be a fun break from actual studying; I've always enjoyed helping folks understand complex concepts, and I'd enjoy having a chance to review my OChem materials (most of which I've forgotten by now. Sad face.)

Most of our orientation was just on TAing, which is a lot more complex than I figured it'd be. Since we have so many TAs for a given class, a lot of what we do is just focused on not giving the students any sort of advantage based on what TA they have-- that's why we're not allowed to talk about upcoming exams, or give arbitrary extensions on papers. Also: no canoodling with your students. Okay, that one's obvious, but even chumming around with them outside of class is bad news, since it's a lot harder to tell a student "No, I won't take your late paper" if you've got a game of Starcraft with him that weekend and really want him to be in a good mood. Best to keep things impersonal. But on the other hand, you want to develop a rapport with your students so that they're comfortable with asking questions. You have to strike a balance.

It also sounds like there's a certain personality type professors/TAs hate, and that's the type that, after every exam/problem set, tries to badger tiny points of partial credit out of the TA. ("I got a 3/10, but I really think my work warrants a 4/10.") Our prof's making very explicit partial-credit rubrics so that we don't have to have moronic arguments to that effect. Also, we are advised to not hold office hours on the day before exam time, since that's when you get swamped by desperate procrastinators who need you to teach them three chapters in one hour.

Oh yeah! And this professor is one that I'm really thinking about working with come next quarter, so this'll be a good opportunity to get to know him and his group. I met with him before, and he seems really cool-- at this point I just need to 1) verify that his group seems happy and productive via going to group meetings, and 2) make sure that his group doesn't work more than sixty hours per week. Both are very important.

Monday, September 20, 2010

First Day of Orientation: COMPLETE

So, I've just had my first day of TA orientation. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit-- the instructor not only talked about what policies they had in place, but also the reasons for them, and how the University got to doing them in the first place. In particular, I learned how much the student-teacher dynamics change when you start having fifty people in a class-- the kids start looking less like special snowflakes each deserving of your time, and more like a pack of hungry wolverines each wanting just a little bit of your flesh.

Like, she advised us not to give out personal email addresses, or else the students will be emailing us all the time, and if you don't respond to any given email the kid involved will feel like you're responsible for his bad grade ("But you said we could contact you through e-mail!") Actually, a lot of TAing appears to be the art of helping out the students without taking responsibility for their grades.

Fun snippet gleaned from the lecture, not necessarily related: Contractors are terrified of doing any kind of work in chemistry labs ("But... there are molecules in there!"). So are firemen, with probably more reason. Different fun snippet: Honors chemistry students tend to be a bit more reckless than average in the labs, particularly since sometimes you get precocious 13-year-old chemists who are (in some ways) very smart, but who you need to keep an especially close eye on when they're working with dangerous chemicals.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Productive use of leisure time

I was reading The Screwtape Letters, and ran across the following passage:

"Nothing is very strong. Strong enough to steal away a man's best years... in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off."

This struck a chord with me-- sometimes, when I've got a bunch of time to kill and don't want to do work, I default to doing things which suck up time and attention, but that I don't really enjoy all that much. EXAMPLES!

1) Browsing news aggregators.
2) 4chan.
3) Several other miscellaneous websites that I will file under the heading of "undirected intarwebs activities." (Man, it surprises me how much the internet is a culprit here.)

As opposed to the things I actually enjoy, and feel good about after I've done them:

1) Reading good books
2) Social gaming (like, Left 4 Dead or board games, or Starcraft.)
3) Writing
4) Bicycle-riding.
5) DDR!
6) Fine mexican cuisine.

I suspect that the big lure of Undirected Intarwebs Activities is that it takes absolutely no energy to click on a link; with bike riding, or book-reading, or writing, you have to spend about 10-15 minutes getting into it before it starts to become fun. And in fact, I decided to make my blog daily because I realized that the Muse doesn't just come and go as she pleases, despite what it feels like when I'm writing; rather, the more effort you put into summoning her, the more easily and often she'll come bearing gifts. And if you cease calling on her, then she'll get all huffy and stop coming around at all.

I think that's the reason that schedule slip tends to cascade on itself-- whenever an artist or author decides to only write when the Muse is there, rather than on a fixed schedule, this is implicitly a decision to stop making an effort to conjure her. It's not unlike figuring that since successful fishing requires the fish to come to your boat, you may as well doze off and wait for them to flop into your bucket of their own free will.

But yeah! Back on topic, I'm going to make a resolution: Whenever I'm not doing work, I'm going to do an activity that I actually enjoy. Hopefully this will compensate somewhat for the lack of leisure time I'm going to have during grad school.


So I got back to my University of Washington apartment, and it looks like everybody's moved in! Good times, particularly since I was feeling a bit uncomfortable with the idea of slacking off while my housemate (who started class a couple of weeks ago) was busting his ass at labs. Make no mistake-- he's still working nose-to-the-grindstone, but I do feel somewhat less guilty now that not-working is the current norm.

Not that I'll have much time to enjoy it, since orientation starts on Monday and appears to run from 9 to 5. It'll be a good transition into grad school, since I had a meeting with one of the professors I wanted to work with a few days ago-- his advice was (and I'm coming near as I can to quoting):

"Okay, so most students who drop out do it their first year, and that's because you probably learn more in your first year of grad school than you do in your entire stay at college. It gets a bit more relaxed your second year. So yeah, be prepared to work balls-to-the-wall for a while, but if you feel like you're going to burn out, say something and arrange for some vacation time. Important thing is, wait until your second year to drop out, if you think you're going to."

So I'll let you know how that goes. Although on the other hand, the UW gave me a 2,000 scholarship on top of their normal stipend to attend, so I guess that signals some amount of confidence in my abilities.

In other news, I arrived at the apartment this morning to see that one of my housemates has bought a bottle of Crown Royale (a moderately-priced hard alcohol.) A harbinger of things to come? WE'LL SEE. Although I have to say-- I'm not overly sanguine about the prospect of heavy drinking with a group I don't know well. I'll go for it once so that I don't get a reputation as a loner, but I figure I'll probably sit out of most drinking sessions after that. More time for crafting stars, y'know.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Taking Advice: Big hassle, or biggest hassle?

Apologies for the lack of bloggery-- my internet was acting weird last night for some reason. (The night before that was just, uh, laziness.) At any rate!

A couple nights ago, I had a 1v1 game going against Rome, wherein Blake stood to the side and did a running commentary on how we were doing. And I began to notice that I have a weird contrarian streak when it comes to accepting advice (even when I explicitly ask for it), which causes this kind of exchange to occur more or less constantly:

Blake: Hey Aaron, hey Aaron! You should do X!
Blake: Nyo~ron.

This, despite the fact that some of his advice was rather good, and even inspired me to create this flowchart for the advanced management of your Starcraft 2 economy:
This chart is also applicable to void rays.

IN OTHER NEWS: After attempting to make a Let's-Play of Europa Universalis 3-- a couple of times, actually-- I concluded that making a decent LP of that game would be incredibly difficult due to the intense, oppressive boringness of the title. Particularly in a peacetime game, because basically any peacetime game of EU3 devolves into a five-step process:

1) Set your nation's budget and sliders into something sustainable and economy-improving. Set game speed to "high".
2) Get a book. I recommend a Jim Butcher title.
3) Read said book.
4) ???

Even warmongering games are pretty bad, since it's damn near impossible to inflict significant casualties on an opposing army (they fight for like a minute and then one person retreats with 10% casualties), and thus it takes about a half-hour to finish a war that you will inevitably win anyhow. The reason it takes so long? Because not only can you not kill the enemy troops, but when you vastly outnumber the nation you're making war on, they'll just ignore your minions and base-race you, forcing you to backtrack from whatever sieges you're laying in order to resecure your homeland. And the enemy armies will keep running, except instead of retreating back to their nation, they'll just retreat further into yours.

Okay, I know that this probably sounds all strategic and "clever" and stuff, but I guarantee you it contains roughly the same strategic content as a Yakety-Sax-style chase scene. It's not a good deal, folks!

IN OTHER NEWS: I have re-installed oblivion with like twelve mods. EXCELLENT.

Monday, September 13, 2010

In Defense of that Hated Game

By which I, of course, mean Defense of the Ancients! And all similar games. I defend it because I suspect that DOTA-haters don't actually dislike the game itself, so much as the people who play it.

Yes, I'll grant you that many of them are dicks, with a fair few crossing the line into douchebaggery. Many's the time that I've been accused of "feeding" the enemy, merely due to my eight consecutive deaths in half as many minutes-- when I've been yelled at for snatching a teammate's carelessly dropped items-- even for causing massive "friendly fire" with a careless nuclear strike. But this is no reason to drop the game! Friends and compatriots, we must turn the other cheek, and make an enemy into a friend; failing that, find better allies; or if all else fails


Now join me, friends-- and let's take back our servers! For Justice! For the ancients! FOR NER'ZHUL!

I mean Aiur.

A man after my own heart


I seem to lose the most around the 30-50 food mark. Like, when I'm first getting my natural up, I haven't quite saturated yet. Or I'm saturating it, but at the cost of having no army.

Right around there I lose the most. It's just... It's vulnerable to me, and there are established, strong formulaic builds Toss and Terran have designed to walk in with the most shit at that moment.

4-gate, or a 3-5 rax MM stimpack push.

Zerg BOs read like they were designed for fucking hippies.

"Well, y'know man. Kinda drone up and see what he's up to, bro. Feel it out, drop 1-7 spine crawlers and get roaches, speedlings or hydras depending on your feelings."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Burden of Manliness

So I was working at Remlinger Farms today on the rock-climbing wall. About 20-30 feet high (I'm very bad at estimating distances), and my job there was to help the customers into their harnesses, and hook the harnesses up to the little pulley-rope that extends from the top of the wall. This rope's job is to limit the customers' falling speed, and so it exerts a constant upwards force-- for this reason, the rope's hook spends all of its time either attached to a harness, or an anchor on the climbing wall. (Jesse, I lack proper terminology here. Help me.)

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it mostly is. The design of the hook is a bit tricky, though, since you have to twist it such and so if you want it to unhook it from whatever it's attached to. Tricky at first, but easy once you've done it a few times.

This has hilarious results when you're dealing with teenage boys, because they hate hate hate letting you help them with any part of the process. The reason's pretty obvious; they're just getting out of childhood and want to Prove Their Manliness, and letting me help them out would be like admitting they couldn't do set up the harness and pulley themselves.* (Which they can't, but I know from my experience as a teenage male that it wouldn't have helped to say it.)

One guy in particular comes to mind. He was in his harness, and was fumbling with the pulley-hook, trying to get it detached from its anchor. "Here, let me get that for you," I said.

"Ha ha! No thanks, I got this," he replied.

About thirty seconds later, after helping another kid out of his harness, I looked back. The guy was hunched over the hook, eyebrows furrowed, as he tried to wrap his mind around the arcane mechanism governing its function.

"Uh, are you sure..." I started.

"No! No!" His face was almost red at this point, as he pulled frantically at some likely-looking part of the hook. "I've almost! Got it!"

A long, long thirty seconds later, I could almost feel his relief as he finally got the hook open and onto his harness. I would have clapped, but that would be trollish, even for me.

The moral of the story: damn but I'm glad I'm not still a teenager.

*Not that I was any better at that age. Thankfully the burden of pride lessened for me somewhat during late high school.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A List Of Social Things

Next time I get completely knocked out in a Starcraft team game, I think I'm just going to grab our other zerg players' queens and start propagating creep alllllllll over the map. Also vomiting on hatcheries, 'cuz who doesn't love that?

Okay, so you guys should do your weekend homework early-- I'm going to be on a fast internet connection Sunday for the first time in a really, really long while, and I so want to get my zambie on first chance I get. (I'm guessing I'll be pretty much moved in at 8:00 PM.)

The rest of the week will be an attempt to break into the gaming community in Seattle/make a few more friends that I can see on a regular basis; this is something that I've been traditionally slow to do, and I've decided to take a more assertive tack this time around.

I have a four-pronged strategy for this, which I will have pursued by the end of the week with Branden's assistance:

1) Attempt to find ongoing board games at hobby shops.
2) Inquire at those hobby shops about local tabletop/vidja groups.
3) Figure out such groups that have gotten official recognition from the University.
4) Also, booster drafts. Damn, but it's been a long time since I've had a good booster draft. Who doesn't love 'em?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

STORYTIEM 2: Revenge of Storytiem: The Dramatization: Part 1

So there we were, in our dingy cabins, the sixth day of our seventh-grade band camp. Hive of scum, villainy, and things not bearing mention in polite company. Also musicians.

I can't tell you much about the music we played there. A snippet of song here, a line of lyrics there. My memory for those days is like a sieve -- a sieve riddled with bullets, then set on fire -- but there's one selection of notes I'll keep in memory forever: those of my cabin counselor's voice that gray summer evening. His words fell one right after the other, each one the sound of a nail being driven into our collective coffins.

"Who... has stolen my Mentos?"

Imagine twelve pairs of eyes, gazing in silent incomprehension at the dread carpenter. A second later, sheer chaos. Questions sprang forth from the students, like grease out of the pan of a sloppy chef.

"Surely not!"
"What do you mean, 'stole'?"
"Are you sure you counted them right?"

Counselor Roger's gaze fell on us like anvils from a cartoon sky.

"I counted my Mentos before I walked into the restroom. There were twelve. And now? Now I count eleven. So unless one just shot itself into the aether, I find myself... how to put this... at a loss."

Silence filled the room, no man of us daring to draw breath.

"Now, then. I am going to leave this room, and when I return, I want to see either my Mento sitting on my bunk... or its devourer. You have five minutes."

The door shut quietly behind him.

I was unobservant, and had no idea who had grabbed the errant Mento; it was a rookie mistake, and I knew I'd pay for it before the day was out. For as the Good Book says: in a crowded elevator, every man shares the smell of guilt. But as I locked eyes with the heavyset student across from me, the both of us like two fists locking into a scorched-earth Thumb War, I knew that my investigation would soon become a bit more.... personal.

------TO BE CONTINUED?!?!?!?!??!----------

*Due to the.... questionable veracity of many stories on this blog, I should mention that our cabin actually did get accused of stealing a single Mento out of a pack.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Addendum to Stormshrug's Starcraft Beef

Stormshrug's beef with the Starcraft 2 campaign's moral dilemma feels a bit analogous to those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books I read as a kid, where I'd always end up getting shoehorned into a choice like:

You've come to a fork in the road on your way to Grandma's place!
1) Choose the shady path to your left: Turn to page 56.
2) Choose the weed-ridden path to your right: Turn to page 89.

(turning to page 89....)

Page 89:
You get lost and are eaten by a rage-bear. THE END.

(Were you one of those kids who'd keep a finger in the book before turning to page 56? I was.)

Anyway. This model is irritating because the consequences of your choices-- moral and otherwise-- shouldn't be surprising. Other things in the story can be, but not the results of choices the game explicitly gives you. That's because unless the designer is really good, "surprised by the consequences" means "did not have enough information to predict the consequences," which isn't much different from not having a choice in the first place.

"Heads, or tails?"

Hmm. Maybe that's too-strong a position. I know it doesn't hold for games like Baldur's Gate, where unexpected consequences were half the fun. Maybe it's more a rule for the RTS genre? After all, Strategy is a genre that's all about giving you that feeling of control.

Or maybe I'm all washed up. WHO KNOOOOWS

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bad end! BAD END!

Professor Woolsey clapped loudly at the front of the room, signaling the start of class. After several more seconds of finishing conversations, silence filled the hall, and a grinning Woolsey held up a large black tome.

"Today, class, we're going to be doing something a bit different. Our friends in the Archaeology Department--" here he nodded to two students in the back row-- "have recently found for us an old book called… what was it, again?"

One of the archeology students piped up. "The Necronomicon, sir."

"Right, the Necronomicon. Well, the Thaumaturgy Department was wanting to do some research on it-- exploring what the rituals do and whatnot-- but the Safety Committee was a bit leery about doing rituals out of some book that we'd never heard of. So, they've made a literal translation of the relevant parts, and they want us, the English department, to do a literary analysis on the text to determine what this book will do when it's read aloud in its own tongue! So, I figured I'd take this… Necronomicon here to see what you all can make of it. Rachel, do you want to read the translation aloud?"

A small, nervous-looking girl walked up to the front of the room. She took a deep breath, and read:

"Cthulhu, Lord of Carcosa, Traitor to Ythill,
In your name do we live
And in your name do we die.

The ruins of Ythill do homage to your might
The walls unbearable, the towers hideous
The architecture, impossible yet existing.

Oh Cthulhu, take your throne
And let the world perish at your coming.
For the cause, let us grant you this offering
Of our bodies and souls.

The professor clapped. "Well done, Rachel. So, what do you all think this text is saying?"

One student raised his hand. "It seems to me that there's a lot of "castle" imagery in that second stanza. Now, I may be out on a limb here, but I think that the castle actually represents sexual repression. It is, if you will, unbearable, hideous, and impossible to sustain. So, we can infer that in this sense, "Cthulhu" symbolizes some kind of sexually liberating force. Do you think there's anything to that?"

Professor Woolsey beamed. "You know, you may be on to something there, Jake. Anybody else want to add on to that? Yes, Kelly."

"I disagree. I think that it more symbolizes the broader constraints of culture. The culture (or "world," in the next stanza) will "perish" when he arrives, but the living/dying dichotomy in the first stanza surely suggests that this "perishing" will have a life-giving component as well. It's like Cthulhu is, in a sense, renewing the old and stagnant culture."

A shorter girl-- Sally, I think-- raised her hand. "Actually, I read the text a bit more… uh, literally? Like, with Cthulhu coming and actually destroying the world?" She paused nervously. "That would be bad, I think."

Woolsey hesitated. "You know, that's a fair point, and I'm sure we'll get back to it shortly, but for now I think the literal translation is not the most interesting we could use. Anybody else?"

A tall guy in back started talking. "You know, I think that Kelly had a good idea about Cthulhu renewing the culture. That last line talks about making "offerings" to Cthulhu-- I think that really suggests a sort of friendly, reciprocal relationship. Like, how you would "offer" gifts to a neighbor or friend. And really, aren't we all, in a sense, the friends of change and rebirth?

"Yeah, so really it's like he's offering prosperity and wealth to the whole of humanity. And "bodies and souls" is used to represent our dedication to the cause."

Rachel spoke again. "Yeah, I could see that."

The professor stood up. "Well, I think we've all pretty much reached a consensus. Sorry, Sally, looks like you've been outvoted-- we'll be telling the Thaumaturgy Department that only great things will come of the Necronomicon. I've got a good feeling about this one, you guys!"