Sunday, 4 October 2015

On Eating Healthy

About two weeks ago I went to the doctor and discovered that my weight was twenty pounds above where I thought it was. (I do not own a bathroom scale, lest I become obsessed with the numbers it assigns to me.) This was a bit of a shock, and I resolved immediately to eat healthier, climb more stairs, and lose those extra pounds. (It also came with realizations like "maybe that's why half my jeans don't fit." Though the expensive ones probably also shrank in the wash.)

The core of my strategy was my mother's tried-and-true healthy eating method: Lettuce as a Delivery Vehicle. I resolved to do partly as she does and eat salads for lunch instead of sandwiches. After two weeks of this, here are the results:

1. Salads got boring. I cannot eat lettuce every day, not even with green onions and sandwich meat on top. I am sick of salad the way I got sick of sandwiches. Also, bagged lettuce goes bad after about three days unsealed in the fridge.
2. I'm learning to take advantage of everything in my kitchen and have added stir-frying to my repertoire. I can do this because I am a social science grad student with a fairly open schedule; before this, I've always been much busier around the lunch hour.
3. Exchanging sandwiches for salads isn't the only change I've made to my eating--in fact, it's been much less productive than simply not eating snacks. A lot of that weight probably came from all the extra chips and chocolate I've eaten over the last six months. Giving up snacks has been surprisingly easy--I just don't buy them, and then I leave what I do have on the other side of the room so I'm too lazy to get up and eat them.
4. Not snacking has led to a couple of interesting discoveries:
4a. There's a difference between being hungry and just having a bored stomach. These last two weeks have made me significantly better at making that distinction, and at stopping eating when I'm full. Leftovers can always go in tomorrow's stir fry.
4b. Sometimes being thirsty feels like being hungry. Figuring out the difference will not only help me cut calories, but also stay better hydrated.
5. There are some vegetables you can add to just about any meal to improve it. Green onions especially.

This is the equilibrium I've reached in terms of food. Almost no snacks, more water, more vegetables, smaller portions of more varied meals. I think I can do it.

As for the climbing of more stairs...well, I've stopped taking escalators at the train station, unless I've climbed a hill to get there and my legs have noped out. And I'm going to try spinning more yarn; I use a drop spindle, which means I have to stand up to spin, which means I'll be spending less time sitting.

I am not on a diet. Thinking about it as a diet isn't helpful. I realized this yesterday while "cheating on my diet" with lunch-truck poutine. (Poutine is delicious, and can be made more delicious with the addition of green onions.) In fact, thinking of what I'm doing as a diet is counterproductive, since diets are generally presented as strict sets of rules that you're going to break all the time and then wonder why they didn't work. What I'm doing feels more like a mindfulness exercise, and it's something I've settled on on my own, not because I was told to do it. Maybe I should buy a scale, to see if the exercise is actually working; but right now, I feel pretty good about my choices and the steps I took to get to them.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

On Deciphering Fandom Inside Jokes

All groups of people who consider themselves communities have inside jokes that are difficult, if not impossible, to understand if you're not a member of that community. Sometimes it's even hard to figure out a joke if you're in the community--for example, to understand the Cerulean Revolution that happened last winter on Tumblr, you need some knowledge of the system of colleges in the Gallifreyan Academy which never shows up in Doctor Who itself and is only described in detail in a couple of tie-in novels that most Doctor Who fans either have never heard of or consider noncanon.

Others can be parsed with a little bit of detective work. This post is about one of those.

I am currently a big fan of BC-based Internet comedy group Loading Ready Run, which anyone reading my blog really should go check out. (Here is one of my favorite videos of theirs.) They do a variety of video and audio formats, including podcasts, a sitcom, and a couple different types of short comedy. The short comedy includes Crapshots, which run under a minute and usually cover a single joke.

Among the many themes of Crapshots is Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy trading card game which most of the LRR cast are big fans of. I became interested in Magic by watching LRR videos about it. This morning I was wasting time in their video archive and came across this Crapshot which had made no sense to me the first time I saw it. In the video, characters Alex and James are playing Magic, and they get into an extended back-and-forth about whether James is going to let Alex play a particular card. They each play a ridiculous number of cards as part of the argument, and when I first watched the video, I didn't know what any of them were.

I still don't know most of them. But I do have access to the official database of Magic cards, so I looked up each one. Here's what happened. (Magic players: I'm simplifying the card effects.)

  • Alex summoned Storm Crow, a moderately weak creature.
  • James responded with Daze, which counters a spell unless the person who played that spell pays one mana. This would cause Alex to discard Storm Crow.
  • Instead of paying one mana (a low cost, all things considered), Alex responds with Negate, which counters any spell that doesn't summon a creature.
  • They keep going back and forth playing counter-spell cards, including six of the same card (Force of Will). One of the cards James plays is Pact of Negation, which counters a spell but causes him to lose the game if he doesn't pay a mana cost at the start of his next turn.
  • Finally, James runs out of counterspells (or maybe out of mana to cast them with) and lets all the spells that have been played resolve. Storm Crow stays in play.
  • Alex ends his turn.
  • James begins his turn, neglects to pay the cost for Pact of Negation, and plays Unsummon, which would put Storm Crow back into Alex's hand. Alex responds with another counterspell.
As I looked more closely at the cards and their effects, I realized there are quite a few jokes happening in this video. In order:
  1. Alex and James make a huge deal about whether or not Alex can summon a creature that's not strong enough to be worth the huge deal. (And Alex could have avoided all this by paying only one mana!)
  2. A friend of mine in the fandom suggested that part of the reason for this huge deal is that there's a running joke about Storm Crow being more powerful than it really is. (This is one of those inscrutable inside jokes that I don't expect to ever learn the full story of.)
  3. James forgot to pay the cost on Pact of Negation. This means that he won the fight over Storm Crow, but lost the game immediately thereafter.
I'm not sure what else there is to say about this puzzle. It was fun to solve, and I feel smarter for it. Go watch some Loading Ready Run.

Edit: I showed this post to a friend who knows more about Magic than I do. Apparently joke 3 isn't actually there: James doesn't have to play the cost for Pact of Negation because, when the stack of spells resolved, all of Alex's spells negated all of James' spells. The explanation of this made my head spin. Oh well, at least I figured out the Storm Crow part.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

On Books #1

Ursula K. LeGuin, cat caretaker and author of such wonderful novels as A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Lathe of Heaven, was once asked by some magazine to write an essay about her favorite fifty books. As she was writing, according to her blog, she realized that the question the magazine was really asking was "what books have influenced you?" and that that was a really bland and boring question. She's been waiting for years, she says, for someone to ask the opposite: What books didn't influence her?

This is the question I'm going to set out to answer today. I have been reading voraciously for nearly all of my life. There have to be some books out there (or in there, in my memory) that didn't influence me.

Let's start with the one author LeGuin says didn't influence her at all: Ayn Rand. LeGuin read Atlas Shrugged and found it terribly boring. I got the condensed version--I read Anthem in high school. It was actually pretty compelling, but I realized when I finished it that I hated the characters, hated the society they came from and the new one they were planning to build. Ayn Rand didn't not influence me. In fact, reading Anthem convinced me that I should not read any more Ayn Rand, and probably influenced my opinion of right-wingers to this day.

The Novel by James Michener was so bland and dragged so much that when I finally reached the end I threw it across the room, glad to be free of it. It made a satisfying thunk against the wall and fell straight into my recycling bin. The Novel didn't not influence me: it discouraged me from reading any more James Michener and reminded me that it was okay to not like a book.

I disliked the protagonist of Twilight intensely and stopped reading after five chapters. But even Twilight didn't not influence me: it made me a serious fandom snob, a condition I'm even now struggling to get over. *mutters* It's okay to like poorly written fantasy novels with weak female protagonists. It's okay to like what you like. I won't judge you if you don't judge me.

*clears throat*

Moving on. Jonathan Livingston Seagull calmed me down after the emotional stress of reading 1984, but had no lasting effect. I think. It may have changed what my favorite Neil Diamond song is. John Grisham's novels have taught me I don't want to be a lawyer. The few Doctor Who novelizations I've read added depth to my understanding of the characters. I did come up with a book that had absolutely no influence on me, but I forgot what it was almost immediately.


Here's a book that definitely had no influence on my whatsofrikkin'ever: my high school chemistry textbook. Other textbooks have convinced me to like a subject (Intro to Linguistics) or to dislike one (third year Chinese), or just to make me laugh during an otherwise nondescript class (my high school calculus textbook had a number of functions defined as f(u)). Chemistry, though...I remember nothing about the book except the cover. It must have been as bland as the class, and yet I'm still watching chemistry videos in my spare time. It neither encouraged nor discouraged me. It hasn't changed any decisions I've made since reading it. I think.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

On Self-Promotion

I'm starting to think self-promotion is the most important skill taught at universities. You know, right after the harsh social environments of middle and high school convince you that nobody cares about how special you are and that the safest thing to do is be like everyone else, you start getting letters from schools asking you to convince them that you are important as an individual and that it's worth their while to spend money on you specifically. That's the entrance exam. Once you get in, you start practicing how to write grant applications and job applications and posters and academic essays, all of which have the end goal of "getting your name out there" so you can make some money and/or gain some recognition that will get you more money and/or recognition down the line.

I was going to spend some time in this post dwelling on the irony of this, but all it really boiled down to was that my experience in middle and high school sucked, and I sat down to write this post about happy things. So here goes.

Through the process of applying to and attending both undergrad and grad school, I've started to learn how to make important people aware of my personal abilities and achievements. To my surprise, I've begun to do that successfully on Twitter. I never thought Twitter would be a useful professional platform. I laughed when, as part of a summer job at a publishing company, I found out that I'd be required to create a Twitter account for promotional events. And for the most part I use my Twitter account to talk to people I've met through other online communities.

But--and here's the important thing about Twitter--everyone is on it. Including potential employers. Including the big names in my field. And that is how I found myself yesterday tweeting about an episode of the linguistics podcast Lexicon Valley with Ben Zimmer, a prominent lexicographer and regular contributor to the podcast. I'm not going to tell you what we talked about, because this morning the answers to the questions I'd asked him appeared in a post on Language Log, a language blog to which Zimmer contributes. That post was written by a colleague of his who I cited extensively in the research papers I wrote to finish up my Chinese major.

But this was not the only instance of "getting my name out there" that happened today. My school's graduate admissions office asked me and a couple other students to fill out a student life questionnaire for their website a couple weeks ago, and that just finally went up. I'm pretty sure my life is not typical of the graduate students here, but I'm glad they think my opinion is worth including.

I don't know if I can give any advice for making people think your opinion is worth including in things, or that your questions are good enough to blog about, or that they should give you a job or a scholarship. I'm aware that there's a balance between overpromoting and underselling yourself, but I don't know exactly where that is. My strategy right now is just to listen to what people have to say and respond intelligently. And if you don't respond intelligently and someone important corrects you, be gracious. Thank you for their help. That way they'll remember you positively. Which is, after all, the goal of self-promotion.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

On Games and Fun 1: An Informal Review of Doctor Who Legacy Version 3

Let me begin by disclaiming. No one is paying me to write any of this. I wish they were; wouldn't it be nice to have someone promise you a monthly paycheck with the only rules being "write on this topic and stick to these deadlines"? It would at least give my blog a topic, instead of being as it currently is about anything that pops into my head and seems suitable for writing about. But maybe that's what you're here for. Do let me know what you like or dislike about this blog, its topics, my writing style. Anyway. What follows are my thoughts and no one else's, though I'm sure it has been influenced by opinions from other parts of the Internet.

(Note: all prices listed in this post are in US dollars.)

For about two years, I've been a big fan of Tiny Rebel Games' Doctor Who: Legacy. It's a free-to-play puzzle game based on the last five seasons or so of Doctor Who, with bits of the earlier show thrown in where it fits the storyline about various aliens messing with time and the Doctor running around and collecting his Companions and other regenerations to fix it.

To me, the collecting part is the important part. I enjoy feeling like I've completed a game, and it seems the way to complete Doctor Who: Legacy is, to paraphrase from a much older game, to catch 'em all. There are around a hundred and fifty characters, plus costumes for many of them, that drop randomly upon completion of certain levels. Different characters have different in-game abilities and can be used to play with different strategies. Other random drops can be used to level up characters. There's also an in-game currency that can be obtained either by spending money or simply by loading the game a certain number of days in a row. It can be used to unlock characters and costumes that don't drop in-game. There is a $5 charge to unlock a bonus set of levels. I felt no obligation to do so when I did, except my own drive to collect and complete.

This is all good. And this was the state of the game until a couple of months ago, when the developers announced they were cutting back on new content in preparation for a big release with no fixed date. I kept playing the one or two new levels a week, practicing with new mechanics, collecting upgrade drops and in-game currency so I could be ready for whatever Version 3 threw at me.

And now it's here. Behind an unexpected pair of paywalls, in a game I'd come to think of as "free-to-play done right." I now cannot catch 'em all without paying another fifteen dollars.

It makes business sense: excitement over the game has faded, especially now that Doctor Who is between seasons. And I did notice they were advertising the bonus levels more heavily, and that they'd added in-game advertising for people who hadn't bought the bonus levels. It shouldn't have been unexpected that they would start charging for content. They need the money, and I'm okay with that because they've created a great game that has entertained me for much more than five dollars' worth of time.

But as a player who'd come to expect good free content, I was, for a little while, annoyed by the locking away of this new content. Who were they to prevent me from having fun? And then I began to wonder about a couple things. The first was whether my generation's financial disempowerment contributed to our general feeling that we were entitled to free digital content. That's not what this post is about. This post is about the other thing I wondered: was I having fun? After waiting and waiting for this new content, was I still interested enough in the game to give its creators the money they need and probably deserve?

So I played the free trials of the new "premium" content. There are two paywalled areas: Sonic Adventures, which may or may not be a continuation of the main storyline (and is not to be confused with a series of Sega games about a hedgehog), and a Kids' Area with easy levels for younger children who have seen Doctor Who and now want to be part of the adventure. Both contain random character and costume drops.

The free Sonic Adventures levels were a slog. Not only did they pile on new mechanics, but they required you to use a team of entirely new characters with unknown abilities that you had to figure out while the enemies were planting bombs in the play field and reflecting your damage back at you. I missed the thrill of earning these characters and leveling them up, a thing which I would have the chance to do if I paid $10 to unlock the whole area. In the middle of the second or third level I suddenly realized I wasn't enjoying the game anymore, but I continued to see if I could get the two random drops in the free levels. (I did get one of them.) Beating the final free level produced an advertisement for the premium content. It felt like I was being asked to "please insert all your remaining quarters to continue having fun," when I hadn't been having fun in the first place.

The Kids Area free levels, being kids' levels, were much easier than the level I'm used to playing at. They had fewer playable characters and simplified mechanics. But each level had a silly little cutscene at the beginning to introduce the characters for that level. And those cutscenes were, for the most part, fun. I even laughed out loud at one: the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors find themselves in the TARDIS control room together. The conversation goes something like this: "What are you doing here?" "Who, me? What are you doing here?" "What the heck--we're all here, let's go have an adventure!" This conversation sums up all the things I like about Doctor Who: when it's a group of adventurers, thrown together by chance, seeing the universe because they can and saving the day in the process. The current run of the show has moved away from that, and I think I've lost interest in it as a result; but again, that's a post for another day. Again, beating all the levels in this section earned me an ad for the premium content. Sigh.

To sum it all up: my interest in this game has waned, and the release of a new version containing paywalled premium content has made me aware of it. I still recommend the free parts of the game as a good Doctor Who experience and a good free-to-play experience. Completionists beware, though: this is a twenty-dollar game, and I no longer feel the need to complete it.

PS: My latest post on my collaborative blog project, the I Like Homestuck Project, has just gone up. Find out Why I Like the Courtyard Droll, and check out other excellent posts by a couple of my friends. (Warning: Homestuck spoilers ahead.)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

On My Diaries and Their Writer

I used to keep diaries in middle and high school. It never lasted long; I would try to make it a daily habit before I fell asleep, but I'd always forget, fall behind, wake up one morning and suddenly realize I hadn't written in my diary in months. And then I'd feel compelled to catch my journal up on everything that had happened since then, no matter how much time had passed. And then I'd get self-conscious; what did I think I was doing, writing a novel? No one wants that much detail! And after a few months of this I'd put the diary away on a shelf and never look at it again.

Sometimes I'd find them while I was cleaning my room. Sometimes I'd read them--the old one with Harry Potter on the cover, the little one with rough pulpy pages and wooden covers that smelled nice, the one I'd taken on all my summer vacations since I'd learned to write. And I would cringe. Why was past me so excited about this crush that didn't work out, that summer camp where no one liked her? I knew how those things ended, and I didn't want to be reminded. Why did she write these things down, in such dramatic language, as if every argument with her sister or her mother was the end of the world?

To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, she wrote because it mattered. These are the things that mattered to her. And as much as I would like to distance myself from the misapprehensions and faux pas of my childhood, I'm now in graduate school and starting a new blog about the things that matter to me rather than even look at the one I tried writing as an undergrad. It had about the same success rate as any of my diaries. Maybe I'll be better at keeping up with this one.

Or maybe I'll end up like this guy. (Image from