Thursday, May 21, 2015

Weird Butterfly Antics

I can’t say that I spend a lot of time thinking about butterflies. They’re fairly non-gross insects (as adults) that have a mysterious flight mechanism, and sometimes they have cool colors. That’s about it. But today I was on a field trip with my daughter, and we went into a butterfly house, and the following weird things happened:

  1. A large, five-or-six-inch butterfly landed on my shirt and just hung out there for a couple of minutes.
  2. After it left, a similar one (or maybe the same one) landed right on top of my head.
  3. On the screen wall, there was another one of these large butterflies, with a hitchhiker. Or rather a hitch-sitter. A smaller butterfly was actually sitting there on the larger one’s wing.

This phone camera isn’t great, and the angle makes it hard to see the big butterfly, but it’s that long, light-brown line in the center:

downsize (1)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cake Layers

The last couple of cake slices I’ve had suffered from the same problem, one that I have found to be quite relevant in layered cake: the middle layer was too close to the top. Now think about it: you’ve got cake, which provides consistency and some flavor, and frosting, which (ideally) is what really gives the cake its flavor. (There are of course people who eat just the frosting, but that’s a different issue.) The frosting is on top. And unless the cake is small enough to get a complete cross-section onto your fork, you’re going to have to take at least one bite without that top frosting for every bite you take with it.

This is the major challenge of eating cake. And in a single-layer cake, pretty much your only option is to set aside some of the frosting from the top or edge to mix with the bottom part of the cake. Obviously, single-layer cakes should be fairly short.

Things are different with multiple layers, though. That extra layer of frosting is there to make sure the lower half of the cake gets frosting too. But how much frosting does it get? Well ideally, it would get the same amount as the top, from a layer of about the same thickness halfway down. If the layer is more than halfway down, that’s fine – you just include cake from both sides of the middle layer. But if the frosting layer is less than halfway down, you’re left with the same problem as before, only worse: a bite from the top half intersects two layers of frosting, while a bite from the bottom half gets none! In this case, you’re back to extreme measures like siphoning off frosting from other parts of the cake – but avoiding that is the whole point of putting an additional layer in there to start with! I can only imagine that cakes like that were invented by people who cram the entire height of the slice into their mouths at once, never taking time to consider the taste of the individual layers or the woes of people left to compensate for the cake makers’ lack of foresight or consideration.

Shame on them.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Catching Fire & Mockingjay: what it meant and how it should have ended

[Spoiler warning]

Against sound advice, I finished the Hunger Games books. Quality-wise, it was more of the same – very engaging, but with a lot of nastiness and unnecessary detail about uncladness. I didn’t find Catching Fire to be overly whiny, although I had already seen the movie (and been told about the third book), which may have made it easier to bear. I wasn’t really sure about some of the details at the end, like why they split up and how exactly Enobaria was in on things.

With the third book, I knew the ending basically, but I figured that reading it would clarify stuff. I actually was okay with the first half or two thirds, mostly. I mean, it wasn’t super exciting but it seemed to a least flow logically from the first. As things wound up, though, I think the main impression that I have is that I just don’t get it. The book, the story. What is it about?

It is most definitely not about a rebellion. Most of the war details are mentioned in It weirded me out how Katniss kept going insane and trying to resolve things with killing and suicide. And as for the whole “still in the games” mission to kill President Snow – absolutely nothing comes of that, as far as I can tell. If the author wanted to spend that much time on it, there should have been some kind of outcome other than having Katniss watch the end of the war from up close (and of course becoming even more immersed in watching people die and killing.) There seemed to be some kind of character development happening, and she does have some sort of breakthrough at the end. But I’m not sure what it was.

Here is my best guess though: Katniss hates the capitol and she loves her family and friends, but and sthe story moves on she is motivated more and more by simpler priorities. Staying alive is the priority for a while, and then not getting herself or her friends (mainly Peeta) tortured. In the end the priority is to kill President Snow, even though he’s not necessarily an important military target. In that state, she kills a civilian without thinking (although presumably she views the woman as a threat to her life, since she’s trying to call for soldiers.) And she’s very miserable at this point – all she can see in the world is the suffering she has contributed to. Gale is also caught up in this, and his involvement culminates with his battle preparations contributing to the death of Katniss’s sister. This, and the relief Katniss feels when she learns that Gale is gone and won’t come back, might be seen as a “revenge won’t fix things” motif. In contrast, Peeta’s willingness to sacrifice himself, plus his kind nature, are why Kantiss pick him in the end, and they are what drag her back from her depression to a place where she can participate in the world. That, along with Katniss’s project about recording the good things she remembers.

So I guess that’s what the story is supposed to be about – Katniss learning to cope with evil by focusing on good things. But man, it’s a depressing journey with not much to show for it other than her survival.

There was one bit at the end that was glossed over, though, that seemed very significant to me: the part where Katniss votes to hold one last Hunger Games with the Capitol leaders’ children. Sure, it’s presented as an alternative to wiping out all of the Capitol citizens, but clearly it’s not the only option, as evidenced by several dissenting votes. And right before she votes “yes”, Katniss thinks about how horrible it is that the rebels are bringing the games back. Apparently she casts her vote in desperation, effectively giving up on humanity. But still, why is she willing to participate? If it’s so awful, and if she felt so wronged, why would she agree to murder innocent children? Whatever the answers to these questions are supposed to be, they’re swallowed up in Katniss’s subsequent mental and emotional breakdown.

As a literary point, I think that was a mistake. If Katniss’s personal journey of depression and revenge really has led her to the place where she would support the Hunger Games, then the book should have ended with that. Specifically, I think a better ending would have been to show Snow’s granddaughter as she prepares for the games, ending just as she goes up through the tube and enters the battlefield. That was an intense moment in the first book, switching from preparation to the actual horror that had been looming for the whole book, and showing Katniss as someone who orchestrated this for others would have made the whole “revenge doesn’t help” point much better. Especially if you had heard Katniss’s voice announcing the start of the games or something. Oh well.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Spontaneous but Useless Song Ideas

A few weeks ago I was playing with little animals with my daughter. I was there for quite a while, so when I stood up, my legs got all wobbly, causing me to feel old. I commented to my wife, “My hips might not lie, but they also don’t work.”

Now tell me that wouldn’t be an inspired song, sort of a Shakira / Weird Al thing. “Hips Don’t Work.” What a missed opportunity.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mario 3

Super Mario Bros. 3 was the first video game I ever had, and it was my favorite for a long time. The nostalgia actually goes back to before I got it; a couple of friends of mine had the strategy guide, which I think I read cover to cover before I actually played the game. The themed worlds were cool, and the enemies were even cooler. Mario himself isn’t the most intriguing character, and the game isn’t rich in awesome tunes like Mega Man games are (although I hadn’t heard of Mega Man at this point), but the world and characters and the epic feel to the whole thing made up for all that.

I don’t think I ever expected to actually beat the game when I got it, but after I beat Mario 2, I decided to give it a shot. I was very methodical about avoiding the dangers of Dark Land – my strategy was to collect as many P-wings and Jugem’s Clouds as I could so I could skip most of the final world. (To be specific, I’d get P-wings from the white Toad’s house in World 1 and the airship of that world, and a Jugem’s Cloud from World 2. Then I’d get the frog suit near the start of World 3 and warp to World 5, where I’d get a bunch more items. Then I’d warp to World 7 and pretty much immediately to World 8. [I didn’t realize you can warp from an early area of the warp zone to World 8 directly.] This way I could fly over the Dark Land airships and level 1, and use the Jugem’s Cloud on the mini-fortress. The frog suit was to make it easier to swim under the boats.)

Once I beat the game, I eventually went and explored the other worlds. I had actually never been to Giant Land until after beating the game, so that kind of thing added replay value. One time I actually beat the game straight through, without warping. It took a very long time though; level-wise, I think Mario 3 is still the longest Mario game (although some of the levels are very short).

I had some time on my hands last week, so I decided to play through the game again, start to finish. I decided to beat every level, and to avoid using any P-wings or Jugem’s Clouds. And of course no Game Overs. (This was on an emulator, so I play it over several days. I still have my licensed copy of the game, though.) It was fun. I got to re-discover some things I had forgotten, although I did remember a lot of the tricks. Here are some notes from the experience:

  • It was definitely easier than I remember. I did the trick in World 3 where you rack up 99 lives by bouncing a Koopa shell between two Bullet Bill Blasters. This is a good idea for a “new explorer”, but in my case I think it was a mistake. It was a long time before my number of lives dropped below 95, which means the extra lives I earned in-between were wasted and not satisfying at all. (You can’t get more than 99). The last two worlds were still tricky, and I ended with 75 lives. I’m quite certain I would have gotten the number up past 30 before that, though.
  • Speaking of easy, I ended up not using items on the map screen very often either. Maybe a more interesting challenge would have been to beat the game without visiting any Toad’s Houses or N-spade games, although the rare suits are fun. (You can get them in some levels, but holding onto them is really hard.)
  • I think I might have found a more optimal “safe” path through the game than what I was doing before. After beating World 2 (which isn’t very hard for someone taking on World 8), I might warp to World 4, where you can get a P-wing and a Jugem’s Cloud early on from the Sledge Brothers. Then you could use the remaining whistles to go to World 8, or maybe World 7 for another easy Toad’s House. Of course you could also just beat that world and get some more items from World 5.
  • This was the original NES version, of course. The Mario All-Stars remakes are cool, but I don’t think you would appreciate them without knowing the originals, especially since the Super Nintendo graphics themselves look out of date by today’s standards.

Final note: Mario 3 has a really epic-feeling ending song – still my favorite from any game, I think. It ties in the feel of the whole game while you see a brief review of the different worlds, leaving you with a sense of having accomplished something big, mixed with a bit if wistfulness that it’s over. (Contra does a great job of that too, but Contra isn’t nearly as cool.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Chicken or the Egg?

I would like to announce that I have solved the chicken-or-the-egg problem:

An egg is a chicken.

Think about it. A fertilized egg is a single cell with complete chicken DNA. When a chick breaks out of its egg, it’s really just shedding a layer of itself, the way scorpions molt from their old skin.

(Of course, this still begs the question of whether the first chicken appeared as an egg or an adult, or something in-between. But putting it that way is not nearly as compelling.)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

People's obnoxious questions about children

A while ago my wife and I were leaving a store with some of our kids, and someone commented, "You've got your boy!" I thought that was weird – I mean, why would we leave him behind? But then my wife explained that the lady had probably meant, "You had some girls and then stopped because you had the boy you were hoping for." Apparently my wife gets comments like this all the time. I was shocked. And actually, this is just a slight variation on a whole category of questions, comments, and assumptions that people throw out about other people’s families, none of which I understand. I would think it would be common sense to avoid this kind of thing, but evidently not, so as a public service announcement, here are a few.

  1. “Are you pregnant?” Come on people – Weird Al even makes fun of this kind of thing. (See the lyrics of “Tacky”.) If a woman wants you to know, she will tell you. I seriously doubt any woman has ever gone around thinking “Why don’t people ask me about the shape of my abdomen?”
  2. “Do you hope it’s a boy or a girl?” This may sound innocuous, but think about it: If you don’t get what you told someone you were hoping for, then that makes it look like you’re disappointed about your child. And if your child ever found out that you had said something like that, (and remember, anything online is there forever,) how are they going to feel?
  3. “So are you done?” or “So are you having more after that?” or even “When are you planning to have another one?” This kind of question is wrong for at least two reasons:
    1. It’s pretty much the most personal issue you could ask about.
    2. Just like the previous example, your response could be incriminating. If you say you’re done, and then you have another child, then that child could end up thinking that he/she was unwanted. And if you say you’re not done but then don’t have more kids, your youngest might end up feeling somehow inadequate. Not that such feelings would make sense, necessarily, but they happen.
  4. Then we have the cases where people assume you were waiting for a boy. (This is perhaps the worst of the lot.) If a couple really has this mentality, that’s like viewing daughters as mistaken attempts at a son. It would be a very sick way of family planning, and it amazes me when people imply that I would think that way.

I know it’s natural to be curious, but some issues are just off-limits unless someone volunteers information.