Thursday, 29 December 2016

On Games 3: Abzu (spoilers)

When The Geek read my review of Hue, he said it was the best review I could have written given that I didn't play the game. Okay then; let's try it with a game I've actually played.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

On the Meaning of Christmas

My relationship with Christmas has been complicated. It's no wonder; I was born Jewish, and grew up with the knowledge that the majority of the society I lived in believed in things that weren’t real, like Jesus and Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and would, for about a month every year, attempt to force me to believe in those things as well. And I hated it. I have a vivid memory of resisting making a Christmas stocking in kindergarten arts and crafts, insisting that my wonderfully patient teacher find me a Hanukkah-themed craft instead. My mobile made of pipe-cleaner Stars of David wasn’t nearly as pretty as everyone else’s stockings, but I had taken a stand and made a point, and I was satisfied. In later years I would bring dreidels and chocolate gelt to class and teach my classmates how to celebrate Hanukkah.

My desire to assert my religious identity fell off somewhere in middle school, and in eighth grade it vanished altogether: I had transferred to a new school, in the district my mother teaches high school social studies in, in a town where people were very open about the fact that they thought their next-door neighbors who went to a different church were going to hell, let alone teenage me, who had no answer when asked what church I attended. If I wanted to fit in, I had to go to marching band every Friday night and on Yom Kippur. It didn’t work, but I still did it.

As an aside: one of the local bible study groups decided Mom was too good of a person to have to go to hell. Sometimes I can accept it as the compliment it was intended as.

I occasionally tried to connect with my Jewish peers through high school youth group events, but I was just as alone among them as I was in school. My attachment to being Jewish and doing Jewish things waned again in college: I stopped keeping kosher while living in a dorm, I stopped going to Hillel because the people there were all the same people from youth group. I started dating non-Jews.

But I still hated Christmas. I hated the music, the endless Nativity scenes and decorated trees, the debates over whether “Happy Holidays” was an attack on Christmas (spoiler alert: it isn’t), the emphasis on Jesus and the abandonment of Jesus in favor of a Coca-Cola spokesman. I did my best to avoid it, though it only seemed to get more prominent when I moved to Vancouver for grad school and found that the nearest synagogue was an hour away by bus, and the nearest Hillel even farther.


A few things have happened in the last two years that have changed how I relate both to my Jewish heritage and upbringing and to Christmas. I’ll start with the second: an egomaniac who panders to neo-Nazis became the president-elect of the United States. Suddenly, it’s become important that I be aware of my Jewishness, and that I practice it, not only to keep close the people I care about, but also in defiance of Minority President-Elect Donald Trump and those who do physical and verbal violence in his name.

The first thing is the one I really want to talk about. This is, to lean briefly on a cliché, how I discovered the true meaning of Christmas. Just over two years ago, I started dating a guy I met in my grad school dorm. Let’s call him The Geek. I somehow managed to impress his mother enough that, for our second Christmas together, Geek’s mom invited me to visit. And it was wonderful. I have never felt so happy at a family gathering. This probably has something to do with getting a large number of presents at once for the first time since a birthday in elementary school. It definitely has something to do with finally reaching my destination after an unpleasant night in an airport. It may also have something to do with the found-family effect—my own mother likes to invite all her relatives to things in an effort to keep the peace, which generally results in me spending hours making small talk with people around whom I am uncomfortable.

But here’s where that cliché comes back. What made that Christmas special, and what I think the point of a good Christmas is, is that everybody made an effort to show that they cared about everyone else. What was gotten was neither more nor less than what was given, and everyone seemed really happy to be there—and happy that I, a relative stranger, was there. Even the cat let me feed him.

This year I didn’t get to go anywhere over what we in the Happy Holidays camp call winter break. I’d thought I would get a seasonal job, and by the time it became clear I wouldn’t have one, plane tickets were too expensive for me to visit either my parents or The Geek’s. So he went off to spend three weeks at home, and I’ve been knocking around our apartment, applying for jobs I’ll never hear back about, getting a bit of cleaning done, and occasionally meeting up with friends to drive away the lonely. This year, I’m homesick for two places and two holidays: the first night of Hanukkah at my parents’ house, to which I did not Skype in because I was too sad, and Christmas Day at The Geek’s parents’, to which I did Skype in because looking at the presents Geek’s mother sent me gave me a way to avoid eye contact when I inevitably felt like crying. Not only do I understand this particular form of Christmas now, I like it enough to miss it.

The third thing is a story I found on the Internet which I’m including because neither you nor I came here to be sad. (At least, I assume so; I've never gotten any comments one way or the other.) An anonymous parent explains that, instead of crushing their son’s dreams by telling him Santa doesn’t exist, they instead taught him how to be a Santa himself.

Oddly enough, this story represents a convergence between Christmas and Judaism: what this parent is teaching their child is, in Jewish law, called tzedakah, the divine commandment of charitable giving. According to this parent, giving anonymously without thought of reward is the core of what it means to be Santa. According to the ancient rabbis who distilled Jewish law from Scriptural commentary, that same anonymous giving is the highest form of tzedakah. (Hat tip to the late George Michael, who was apparently a serious mensch in this regard.) Funny, isn’t it, that the meaning of Christmas is so Jewish.

I hope your Christmases have been merry, your Hanukkahs happy, and all your other holidays joyous and peaceful. Here’s to a better year.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

On Politics in Movies

All movies are political. Let's just start there. All movies reflect the culture in which they were made and the values of their creators.

Taking that as a given, there is still a class of movie which is much more intensely and obviously political than any other. That is the class of movies which depict titanic struggles between good and evil. The obvious politics of such a movie are in how good and evil are defined.

Today I saw Rogue One in the theater. For the benefit of anyone not in the know, Rogue One is the eighth movie released in the Star Wars series. It's a direct prequel to the first movie, which is known as Episode Four because they were made out of order. Now, it might seem like Star Wars has the most clearly-defined morality of any blockbuster movie of the last twenty years: the good guys are the plucky Rebel Alliance that represents a defunct Galactic Republic and, accompanied by divinely empowered Jedi Knights, stands up to the evil Galactic Empire, whose goal is to bring order to the universe by scaring everyone else into obeying them.

But that's not all there is to it. Every time someone gets it into their head to make a new set of Star Wars movies, the good guys and the bad guys stand for different things.

The original movies, Episodes Four, Five, and Six, were released between 1977 and 1983. In these movies, the Empire is Nazi Germany, and the rebels represent first the European anti-Nazi resistance movements and then a heroic depiction of American forces sweeping in to save the day and liberate occupied planets countries (represented none too positively by the Ewoks as ugga-bugga natives).

Episodes One, Two, and Three came out between 1999 and 2005. They show the rise of the Empire from a complacent and corrupt democracy--relevant then, as George Bush expanded executive power and restricted individual freedom to fight an enemy largely of our own creation; and relevant now, as Donald Trump promises to do the same, only more so and with no enemy but the ones he makes himself simply by opening his mouth. In this movie, there are few good guys: the chosen hero is easily corrupted by an ambitiously evil man with both Jedi power and political power, and the Jedi Order and the government of the Republic cannot see the threat within their ranks.

I'm going to skip Episode Seven for a moment, because the politics of good and evil in Rogue One provides an important historical bridge between Episodes Three and Seven, along with the movie itself being a wonderful narrative bridge between Episodes Three and Four. My aha moment came when I was introduced to the planet Jeddah, once home to a grand temple of an ancient religion based around the Force. Now its statues and temples are in ruins, and the streets of its capital city are patrolled by Imperial stormtroopers who beat up headscarf-wearing locals on the slightest suspicion of misbehavior and who occasionally engage in fights with local militias wielding improvised explosive devices. Sound familiar?

Yep, the Empire in Rogue One is the United States of America. Think about that for a moment, and then call your Congressperson. The metaphor gets a little muddied when we switch from Iraq on Jeddah to Vietnam on Scarif, but it doesn't go away. In the eyes of most of the world right now, the US are the bad guys. Let's do what we can to not make us actually the Galactic Empire.

That brings us to Episode Seven, released last year, which in many ways feels like Episode Four but on a larger scale. The Republic has been re-established, but finds itself beset by a wannabe continuation of the Empire called the First Order, which has a bigger Death Star, bigger holograms of the wannabe Emperor, and stormtroopers with mustaches on their helmets for some reason.

This is, I think, the most up-to-date depiction of Empire and Alliance yet. The Alliance is the US, which seemed to have its feet mostly* back under it from about 2008 to 2014. The First Order is neofacism: an army of anonymous Internet commenters and perpetrators of real-world race- and gender-based violence, headed by an enormous demagogue (Trump again), and the movement's iconic face is that of a whiny twentysomething neckbeard. Yes, Kylo Ren is clean-shaven, but he is still a neofacist neckbeard. The movement has even changed its name: the "First Order" has exactly as much to do with the Empire as the "alt-right" has to do with the German Nazi party. Which is to say, everything.

What really gets me, though, is that while Episode Seven acknowledges how dangerous this generation's crop of hate-motivated violent white guys is, Rogue One works hard to deflate them at a more subtle level of cinematic politics. The protagonist is a woman who does not give in to pressure to be in a romantic relationship with a man. Women lead the Alliance and fly some of the X-Wings. The cast includes African-American, Chinese, Pakistani, and Mexican actors and actresses. Two of the male main characters are probably in a relationship, and one of those two is blind. The Rebel Alliance is more diverse than it's ever been. And that will make it strong. That will make us strong. Respecting diverse experiences, making sure all viewpoints are valid except for the hateful ones: that's how to be an ally. That's how we win this.

May the Force be with you all. Except for the neofacists.

Friday, 11 November 2016

On Improbability

Note: This story is based on an actual conversation I had yesterday with a Facebook friend. I have fictionalized it with his permission.

I met Freiberg once in person, while I was dating an old school friend of his. Our acquaintance far outlasted the relationship, and though I have not seen him since, we correspond from time to time via Facebook on the oddities of science and science fiction. It was he who introduced me to the intricacies of the four-dimensional Rubik’s cube, and I who found him what is believed to be the oldest English-language story about a time machine.

Yesterday he approached me with perhaps the oddest and most profound of his ideas to date. I present it to you here as he explained it to me.

"A fascinating (if fringe) theory about how gravity is actually an emergent property of entropy and information, just like much of thermodynamics is.
"I have to admit - I like it in large part because entropy is intrinsically a probabilistic thing. So a drive that could create large improbabilities, under this theory, would in fact be able to warp spacetime."

Wait what

"It's well-established that entropy can cause macroscopic forces. If you pull a coiled polymer chain, for instance, it'll resist the pull past a certain extent because its entropy is far lower in an uncoiled state than a coiled state.
"This guy is saying that gravity is a result of similar entropic forces, but at a much smaller and more fundamental level."

Explain how entropy being probabilistic allows the improbability drive.

"If gravity is due to entropy, then gravity is probabilistic. Einstein's general relativity holds that matter and energy warp spacetime due to their gravity - and any theory to expand on or replace general relativity would have to explain the experimental results which show that matter and energy warps spacetime."

Which would make the spacetime warping probabilistic?


Making it theoretically possible to warp spacetime by causing improbable things to happen?

"In this theory gravity would be isotropic because the chances of macroscopic differences in the x and y and z axis are miniscule. But if a macroscopic difference were to happen, gravity would become directional and spacetime would warp. Just like an Alcubierre drive."

What are you thinking of when you say "macrosocopic difference"?

"If you're a hundred thousand miles away from the Earth, the force of gravity you feel from the Earth is independent of whether you're above, below, or on the ecliptic. In this theory, there's a chance that the force of gravity could briefly become twice as strong above the North Pole as below the South Pole, analogous to the chance that all the air in a room will briefly go into one corner."

ok, but how would you generate a region of space where that happens?

"There's a thought experiment (that actually got built and tested, back in 2011 or so) called the Szilard engine. It was able to show that information and energy are equivalent, like matter and energy are, because of entropy. In theory, a fine enough method of storing and manipulating information could cause a localized change in entropy, causing a macroscopic difference in the distortion of spacetime.
"In practice, such a thing (if possible, which is not at all guaranteed) would be indistinguishable from an actual Alcubierre Drive. Because ultradense matter is the only way you can store that much information. But at heart, it'd be an improbability drive. There's something satisfying in that."

there really is
now would you be able to bootstrap an infinite improbability drive the way Douglas Adams describes it?

"How much detail do you need? Because 'infinite' is pretty difficult."

Be as detailed as possible please
Be more detailed than Douglas Adams

"...actually, I have an idea. Give me a minute to flesh it out."


While I waited, I located my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy collection and refreshed my memory of the history of the Infinite Improbability Drive.

"This isn't super coherent yet, but bear with me."


"In a purely classical or quantum universe, infinity is impossible. There are a finite number of states and a finite number of possibilities to fill those states. There are discrete energy levels and discrete packets of matter and of light. There's no way to make 2x2=∞."

uh huh
or even 1+1+1...

"However, we don't live in a purely classical or quantum universe. The Planck Length and Planck Time are often heralded as the discrete units of space and of time, but that's not necessarily true."

they're the units below which things stop making sense

"Indeed. But they're not necessarily the level at which complexity stops. Every time we probe down further and further, we find more evidence of complexity. The first people to observe cells called them 'cells' after the bare rooms in a monastery, only for us to find out that within each one, there's an unbelievable amount of stuff going on. And same at the atomic - I've personally changed the half-life of Sisypheum-170 without stopping it from being Sisypheum-170, something people didn't think was possible fifty years ago, and something I didn't know was possible before I interviewed for the job.
"So what if the complexity never ceases?"

you did what?

He explained. It involved a complex process of electron bombardment which changed the energy state of the Sisypheum nucleus.


"I get very easily distracted. My point was only that even at the level of atomistics, things aren't as simple as they first appear, and things in fact get complex in different ways when you get to the quantum and subquantum levels. If the Planck length and Planck time are the levels of length and time at which our current theories break down, that doesn't necessarily mean that there's not further complexity at that level. It just means that we can't meaningfully discuss it. To get an infinite improbability, you need an infinite number of potential states, out of which only one is chosen. You can only do that in a pure continuum."

so if we're quantized, we don't get infinity

"Yep. To get one state in an infinite number, you need to continue going down, further and further, in the length and time scales. To do that, you need new theories and new machines for each scale and level. In fact, you need an infinite number of levels of complexity for this to work.
"However, information is substance in this theory. All you really need, fundamentally, is a way to manipulate information. And that's where the improbability drive comes in.
"If you have a conceptual space of all possible models to describe any individual layer, the odds of picking the one that actually describes our universe is slim. But we have an improbability drive, so that's no hindrance. We tell the improbability drive to find the models that describe our level of the universe, and a computer to take that model and make an improbability drive on that lower level."

the improbability drive being a way to manipulate a region of the universe so that events of a particular probability are certain to occur?

"Indeed, or at least far more likely than they otherwise would be. The improbability drive and computer (which I'm assuming are a single unit), work in tandem to find a model of the universe at the length scale below the one they operate and make an improbability drive on that length scale to manipulate the one below it. And they can make it because, when information is substance, there's no fundamental difference between a truly complete model of something and its implementation."

What does it mean for information to be substance?

"Just for information and energy to be equivalent in a similar way that matter and energy are."


"The improbability drive has some probability of failure, of course, but it has to contend with all of the cumulative length and time scale smaller than it is. The drive below it has some smaller probability of failure, and the drive below it a smaller probability still. Take the infinite product and, if it trails off quickly enough, the probability could still be nonzero. And calculable. Calculate that number, plug it in, and there you get the Heart of Gold."

This is beginning to sound like a supertask

"That's precisely what it is."

So is the Infinite Improbability Drive just a supertasker that calculates probabilities? Or is the supertask what creates the drive?

"The latter. This is all still sketchy, obviously. But just believable enough that I could avoid getting lynched by a mob of respectable scientists."

so what I'm getting is:
Computer A calculates the likelihood of computer B existing, B calculates the likelihood of C, and so on. Each step takes less time and has less error, and when the infinite series reaches its sum, the result is an infinite improbability drive (computer Aleph).
Am I still with you?

"That's exactly it."

But calculating the likelihood of something happening doesn't cause it to happen. How do you make Computer A translate probabilities into events?

"That's where the sketchiness comes in. I'm assuming that, since gravity itself is a byproduct of entropy, that matter and energy are both byproducts of information. On a macroscopic level, there's a difference between making a model of something and actually implementing it. On a microscopic level, that difference becomes less clear. There's an SMBC somewhere about how a piece of cheese is actually an analog computer running a perfect simulation of a piece of cheese, and it's not entirely wrong.
"I'm assuming that since our top-level computer / improbability drive is already capable of the mind-bogglng feat of translating information into macroscopic improbabilities, that its simulation of the lower-level computer / improbability drive becomes indistinguishable from the real thing."

So we'd need a way of massaging the equivalence of information and matter
to convert probability of existence into existence
this is definitionally what an Improbability Drive does


Perhaps Freiberg’s theory is simply a diversion from the terrible shocks of recent days, or a mad scientist’s attempt to put them into cosmic context. But it could also be that the only reason we do not live in the universe described by Douglas Adams is simply one of probability. Anything truly is possible.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

On the 2016 Presidential Election

I support black people, Hispanic people, Native Americans, Asian people, and people of mixed descent.
I support recent immigrants to the United States and speakers of minority languages.
I support gay people, lesbians, bisexual and pansexual and asexual and queer and transgender people.
I support people who are chronically ill or physically or mentally disabled.
I support Deaf people and neuroatypical people.
I support Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans, and atheists.
I support people who rely on government support to buy food and medicine and pay rent.
I support children and teenagers.
I support survivors of abuse and violence.
I support these and all other people who have been made afraid by the calling of the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.

It is important to remember that the world has not ended. The sun rose on Wednesday, and again today, and it will again tomorrow. We are alive, and we have each other, and it is all of our duty to ensure that as many of us as possible remain alive and safe and well and are there to see that liar, that abuser, that monster leave office.

Take care of yourselves, your family, and your friends. Reach out to others who are afraid, and share hope with them.

Be safe. Stay warm.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

On Games 2: Hue (spoilers)

"We can't control what happens to us, but we can control how we see it."

It's an important piece of advice, and I've heard it in a variety of forms over the years from relatives, therapists, and the media. Earlier this week, I heard it in a video game that seemed both totally designed around the sentiment and unable to do it justice.

Full disclosure: what I know about this game, I know from watching a Twitch livestream by Paul Saunders of LoadingReadyRun. My opinions are my own, with influence from Paul's reaction to the game.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

On the Stack: Explaining my thesis in Magic: the Gathering terms

I'm defending my master's thesis on Thursday. I'm terribly nervous some of the time, and terribly confident at other times. The time I was most confident was right after I gave a practice talk a couple days ago, and I'm taking that as a good sign.

Today I came up with a wonderful way to explain the aspect of language that I write about in my thesis--except I can't use it in my defense, because the only person in the room who'll know what I'm talking about is my boyfriend, and that's because it's an analogy to Magic: the Gathering.

Here's how casting a spell works in Magic: you declare that you are casting the spell, you tap the amount of mana required to cast the spell, and you show the card representing the spell to your opponent. The spell goes on the stack, giving your opponent an opportunity to respond. If everything goes according to plan, the spell resolves and its effects happen.

The declaration that you are casting a spell is what linguists call a speech act or a performative act. By saying the words, you are doing performing the action the words describe. Other speech acts include requesting, promising, voting, asserting, and apologizing. (These five represent the five categories I sort speech acts into in my thesis. I think, but am not sure, that casting a spell in Magic is most like asserting. It could be like voting.)

All the things that make casting the spell go smoothly--having the card in your hand, having the right amount of mana available to tap, your opponent not countering or redirecting it--are the felicity conditions of the speech act. Different unmet felicity conditions have different effects on how the spell/speech act fails to resolve. If you don't have the card, or don't have the mana, the act can't be performed. The parts you've tried to do get undone, and you may get a warning from a judge if you're playing in a tournament. If your opponent counters your spell, the spell is cast, but has unintended effects: you and your opponent have each moved one card from your hand to your graveyard. (There are other ways spells can fail, but these are the most common.)

Regular non-game-related speech acts work the same way. If you try to declare two people married, but you aren't presiding over a wedding, either nothing happens or someone gets mad at you. If you make a bet, but no one accepts it, the bet doesn't happen.

These are the basics of what speech acts are and how they work. Hat tip to How to Do Things With Words, a collection of lectures by J.L. Austin published in 1962 in which he figures out all this stuff and more. If you want to know more about my thesis, what I actually do with the speech acts, and what politeness has to do with any of this, I'd appreciate it if you commented on this post or sent me a tweet.

Monday, 27 June 2016

On Books #2: Casino Royale (spoilers)

I bought Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, at a used bookstore yesterday, thinking it would be a nice brain-free read. Then I got a third of the way into it, and realized it was making me think. Ian Fleming is a terrible writer, but he's good at making himself seem like a decent writer. He arranges words so that they flow remarkably well, even while conveying racist, sexist, or ableist sentiments, or saying literally nothing in a half-page paragraph.

It did have moments that caught my eye in a positive way, particularly when Bond doesn't act like the ultimate macho that popular culture thinks he is. Like when the two assassins sent after him get blown up by their own bomb, and turn into a graphically described rain of gore, he struggles not to throw up where the average Call of Duty player character wouldn't even blink. And then towards the end, when he's in the hospital recovering from repeated groin attacks, he starts to have second thoughts about the whole spy thing and produces a brilliant paragraph or two about how political attitudes change over time.

I was all set to write about how this book was occasionally clever by accident, and to relate the part about politics to the stupid and scary things that have been happening recently in the UK. Then I read the last chapter, and Casino Royale abruptly turned into A Farewell to Arms.

Bond falls in love with the capable-in-spite-of-sexism female spy. Then she starts getting shifty and stops trusting him. Things get better briefly, and then out of nowhere she commits suicide. The note she leaves reveals that she was a Soviet double agent and her boss had sent someone looking for her. Bond calls MI6 headquarters and reports that "the bitch is dead."

If you've read Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (I did in high school and have not forgiven the teacher who assigned it), you'll be familiar with this kind of ending. The Lieutenant falls in love with a woman, gets her pregnant, and then loses all capacity for emotion when she betrays him by dying in childbirth. I can just see these two men walking away from their respective duties to society in Hemingway's famous rain, stopping only to make eye contact and share a totally anachronistic fist bump before continuing on their separate ways to become the heartless machos that popular culture thinks they are.

Rating: I read the whole thing, and then threw it at the wall.

Friday, 13 May 2016

On Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt

I first became aware of self-serve frozen yogurt about six years ago, when I moved into a University of Pittsburgh undergrad dorm with a Razzy Fresh next door. For a brief moment I thought it would fill the niche left in popular culture and teenage life by the death of the soda fountain some four decades earlier. Not only did I not see that happen, I could swear there was a competitor right around the corner. Berry something? Not Pink Berry, that was nowhere near me, I learned it existed months later from a Vlogbrothers video. But I recognized it from the photo in the video: Pink Berry was a Razzy Fresh.

That’s the thing about these frozen yogurt places: they all have different names, but Pink Berry and Pitt’s two Razzy Freshes and the Yeti Yogurt on the SFU campus, and that one in my hometown whose name I can’t remember, are all the same place, with the same decor (except for the mascots) and the same procedure: you walk down the buffet line with a waxed cardboard bowl, taking whatever soft serve flavors suit your fancy, topping with toppings, and paying by weight. They make no attempt to differentiate themselves, and they might as well be owned by the same people.

(Side note: the Wikipedia page on Pink Berry mentions none of the other frozen yogurt companies. Razzy Fresh doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. Maybe they’re all clones of each other.)

A new one of these yogurt clones just opened in the SFU food court, and I went there today after running some errands to check it out. It’s called Menchie’s, and in spite of the Yiddishkeit appeal of its name it’s just Yeti Yogurt with fewer options. (They even have the same spoon supplier.) They insisted I take a loyalty card; it will probably become yet another Plastic Age artifact in the stratified clutter of my desk.

But here's what made me think, walking home with mascot-topped spoon in hand: the amount of frozen yogurt I can eat comfortably in one sitting barely covers the bottom of the bowl--that is, of the standard smallest size of bowl used by all of these frozen yogurt places. I usually take more, but my limit is around $6 of yogurt and toppings, around half the volume of the bowl, and it still always looks like I've taken hardly any and could do with just a little more.

That's the thing about these places. They're pink and green temples of consumerism, designed to gently coerce you into overindulging with their gigantic bowls, clearly defined path from yogurt to chocolates to sauce, and signs all over the walls assuring you that this is healthier than real ice cream and can be dairy, nut, and gluten free if you so desire. Really, the best way to get your money's worth out of self-serve frozen yogurt is to put on your game face and ignore, or actively reject, all the cues it gives you. Walk up and down the line of soft serve nozzles and pick one or two flavors before you even take a bowl. Scout the toppings the same way. Know how much you can eat, and when it looks small, remind yourself that it's because the bowls are too big. You might even spend less than five dollars this way, and you won't have to choose between eating too many calories and wasting food.

And don't take the loyalty card, no matter how earnest the cashier is about it. I'm not great at that one.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

On Election Season

The student government elections at my university are next week, so it's been campaign poster season for the last two weeks. I generally ignore them, since all the candidates are undergrads and the last time I was affected by university policy was last summer when the teaching assistants' union went on strike to end the three years they'd been without a contract.

Today, though, I saw a new poster that gave me pause. It reminded its reader that last fall, the student body had voted to approve construction of a new student union and sports stadium. Four hundred and thirty-seven students had voted for this...out of an undergraduate body of over fifty thousand students. Letting under two percent of students approve a multi-million-dollar project that would add hundreds of dollars per student to future tuition was the opposite of democracy, this poster argued. Vote for the person who wrote me, it boasted, and he will ensure greater oversight in the future.

My first response to this was "you're gonna need that stadium, to get fifty thousand kids into one meeting." Then, "how else would you do it? Email vote? But how many of these students would even read that email, let alone vote?" Probably that same less than two percent. Then I started thinking about low voter turnout in general. Four hundred and thirty-seven is a low enough number to be undemocratic, but a big enough one to make any potential four hundred and thirty-eighth voter worry that their vote doesn't matter. And good intentions count for nothing in either case. I'd decided who I was going to vote for in my state primary. But it came and went, and Hillary won handily, and my absentee ballot never showed up. Would my vote have counted? I can't know for sure. But now it certainly won't.

I could easily turn this into a rant about the transparent racist- and classist-ness of certain states' recently passed voter ID laws. Feel free to do that in the comments. But that's not where my thoughts went on my walk home from office hours today.

Where my thoughts went next was, "Who the hell gives final approval power on a project this big to undergraduates?"

Anyone got an answer to that, let me know.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

On Writing #1

I have trouble starting things. Writing essays, going to a club meeting for the first time, you name it. There are also a lot of things I have trouble going back to. Clubs, especially if I didn't feel totally at home the first time. Video games. Most relevantly, my master's thesis, which I'm supposed to be spending at least fifty percent of my time writing. I've just got this psychological barrier that makes Sitting Down And Doing anxiety-inducingly difficult.

Now, about that thesis. I used to think I got my best writing done in the morning. Now, though, my mornings look like this:

  • Wake up
  • Make sure my boyfriend is awake and coming up for breakfast
  • Breakfast
  • Shoo boyfriend out the door so he gets to class on time
  • Read blogs and webcomics and catch up on Youtube subscriptions
Not exactly conducive to paragraph-making. And when I clear all that away, usually after lunch, and sit down and say "okay, now you're going to work on your thesis," I often don't have a good idea of what I want to say about my topic.

That's the bad news. The good news is something I discovered recently, and which a quick scroll through Tumblr confirms is universal: I'm full of ideas while walking from my dorm to my office or the grocery store and back, and right before I fall asleep, and after mindfulness class, and sometimes when I'm in the shower. At all those times, I know exactly what I want to say, at the part of the thesis that is currently on my mind, in nearly-perfectly-formed sentences.

Thank G-d for Google Drive. When that perfect sentence bubbles up out of my subconscious, I can open a document on my smartphone and write it down so it doesn't float away again. I can even edit it so it sounds better, something impossible on even last century's best dictaphones. And once I've gotten everything in my head out onto virtual paper, I can save it to the cloud and forget about it until I have my laptop in front of me again and can just copy and paste it into my thesis and add citations and anything else it needs.

Plato is said to have worried that writing would decrease the power of the human memory as it became more and more popular as an information storage method. I'm not going to tell him he was right or wrong, but I'm glad I have an extra brain in my pocket.

Tell me about your efficient-writing strategies. Maybe some of them will help me finish my thesis on time.