Friday, July 31, 2009

Quote of the Day

Kung-Fu Monkey:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Not a new quote, but appropriate given the preceding two posts.

More on Megan McArdle's War on a Healthy Diet and Exercise

I have to admit I'm in a bad mood this morning for unrelated reasons, but Megan McArdle's glib misstatements of reality are getting a little irritating:
You can find the same results yourself by reading any study of weight loss: outside of gastric bypass surgery, no system has ever produced any significant long-term weight loss. None. As Paul remarked to me once, "We've run this experiment approximately 220 million times and the result is always the same. Why can't anyone believe it?"
Why won't anyone believe it? Because it's demonstatably untrue, and she and Paul Campos need to stop saying it. Here is a meta-analysis(a statistical combination of many studies - so like a more rigorous review article) from which I will quote:
Although weight regain prevention remains a challenge, there is room for optimism; a nationally representative survey estimates that 20% of individuals attempting weight loss are able to achieve and maintain 5% weight reductions for at least 1 year.[McGuire et al]. Among successful weight losers, various studies indicate that more than 60, 35, and 19% of individuals are able to maintain 10% weight reductions for 1, 3, and 5 years, respectively.[Weiss et al, Lowe et al, Wadden et al]
I can only guess she means "significant" in the non-statistical sense, i.e. that she has some conception of what "real" weight loss is, and these studies just don't measure up. She appears to be of the opinion that losing 10 or 20 pounds and a couple inches off your waist is meaningless, so that's probably what she means... but once again have a proponent of the idea of an "Obesity Myth" stating things in a misleading way. Why not actually state what you mean? Why use such a loaded term as "significant" in such a careless way?

This is what happens when people play advocate for an idea instead of trying to get at underlying truth and have a productive discussion. There are interesting and valid points that have been made by McArdle/Campos, but they are being completely lost because of the pair's apparent attempt to "Win the Internet".

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The War on a Healthy Diet and Regular Exercise

I'm not going to spend much time on Megan McCardle's interview of the author of The Obesity Myth, Paul Campos, as I'm not involved in obesity research and generally agree the "Obesity Epidemic" concept is overblown. However, there is a statement in the interview that absolutely needs to be addressed, less it cause some real confusion:
I mean, there's no better established empirical proposition in medical science that we don't know how to make people thinner. But apparently this proposition is too disturbing to consider, even though it's about as well established as that cigarettes cause lung cancer. So all these proposals about improving public health by making people thinner are completely crazy.

Emphasis mine. I hate semantic arguments as much as the next guy, but here is an instance where clarity and precision of language makes a big difference in how a statement is interpreted. I believe the operative phrase in the highlighted sentence to keep it from being absolute nonsense is "make people". What I suspect he is trying to say is something to the effect of "no public policy has been shown to reduce obesity"... which I suppose is a fair, though debatable, statement on the efficacy of various public health policies.

However, I don't suspect many readers of the interview would come away with my interpretation his statement. It sure sounds a lot like he's saying that it's well established that diet and exercise "don't work".

Rest assured that you're not wasting your time counting calories or going to the gym to work out. The ability of diet and exercise to cause weight loss are beyond question. Whether or not a "soda tax" will make the kid down the street lose weight is another question entirely, and I think Paul Campos has a responsibility to make the distinction clear.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Yet another reason to hate our abysmal weather this year

It's killing all of our tomatoes:
Late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century, thrives in damp, windy weather. Its symptoms include white powdery spores, brown spots on leaves and open lesions, each of which can produce hundreds of thousands of infectious spores. Burning, spraying and deeply burying infected plants are options for farmers; home gardeners should pull plants out at the first sign of the disease. Rather than composting them, the plants should be sealed in plastic bags and thrown away.

Every state in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic has confirmed recent cases of late blight, which normally does not appear in the region until August, if at all. The source of the outbreak is being investigated by pathologists. Home gardens likely helped spread the infection: Lowe’s, Home Depot, Kmart and Wal-Mart all sold tomato seedlings with late blight in their garden centers from April to June. All are offering refunds or credits to gardeners who must destroy their plants.

Apparently you need 10 straight days of 85+ degree weather with dry nights to kill it, and we're not expected to see that in August. Pretty terrible news for local farmers, who I imagine were already hurting from the state of the economy.

I, shamefully, haven't made it to a farmer's market in weeks, so I have no idea how local tomatoes are looking or costing... but this doesn't make me optimistic. I'll have to make a special effort to get down there and support them, but it doesn't sound like we'll be seeing many bargains.

It might already be too late

At first, this bizarre Slate article comes across as a straight-up lament of the success of the sensitive emo vampires of the Twilight series, laying blame squarely at the the feet of Angel:
The first sign that something was awry came with the introduction of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A prime example of the brooding, crying-on-the-inside, leather-jacketed emo boy of the '90s (see also: Dylan McKay, Beverly Hills, 90210; James Hurley, Twin Peaks), Angel was a vampire who had a soul. He fell in love with Buffy, teared up a lot, and believed in random acts of kindness. Angel, in short, sucked. Or, rather, he didn't suck, which was the problem. When he did suck, he took limited amounts of blood from consenting human women, or sucked blood against his will, or sucked rat blood.

Rat blood.

Think about it. Faced with the impact of his diet on humans, Angel accepts a yucky, cruelty-free substitute, then endlessly lectures other vampires about their moral failings because they don't do the same. He's not a vampire—he's a vegan.
Arguments about what makes a real vampire are something my geek self can get behind... and I'm sympathetic to this particular perspective, since I never "got" Buffy, as it always struck me as a Saved by the Bell clone with a cheesily portrayed and logically incoherent horror element tacked on. However, I do have to say that he blames entirely too little of this development on Ann Rice. As far as I know, Louis Pointe du Lac from Interview with a Vampire was the first vampire to eat rats to avoid killing humans... and he was such a freakin' whiner about his lost humanity that I couldn't even finish the damn book. Louis was definitely the first emo vampire, and absolutely the worst one. I really can't muster up much angst about Angel after suffering through Louis.

In the end, though... while I prefer my vampires more monstrous... doesn't it just come down to the fact that "edgy" (but not actually dangerous) guys are popular with teenage girls? I'd say vampires with morally based dietary restrictions are a fairly clever way to introduce said edginess without using the tired trope of the juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold from the bad part of town.

I'll admit that the idea of an old skool Dracula movie seems far fetched in this kind of environment, and that's a sad thing, but I'm not seeing where this argument is going...

Just as America's young men are being given deeply erroneous ideas about sex by what they watch on the Web, so, too, are America's young women receiving troubling misinformation about the male of the species from Twilight. These women are going to be shocked when the sensitive, emotionally available, poetry-writing boys of their dreams expect a bit more from a sleepover than dew-eyed gazes and chaste hugs. The young man, having been schooled in love online, will be expecting extreme bondage and a lesbian three-way.

The bigger problem here is that we're breeding sexually incompatible human beings, and vampires are to blame. I can see a time coming when the birth rate is going to precipitously decline. And what that means is that vampires are going to run out of food. But if Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton, Stephenie Meyer, and all the others are right about the souls of their emo, Goth, velvet-wearing, crybaby vampire spawn, then maybe some kind of mass, Kurt Cobain-inspired, "You'll miss me when I'm gone," specieswide suicide is what vampires have been after all along.

I gotta say that I didn't see that coming.

Not being a teenager, I don't really care about how unrealistic their dating expectations are... but I feel like I have some responsibility to concern myself with the fate of the entire human race.

But ultimately I think it's worth the risk of emo vampires destroying our species to have 2000 young women camping out to get into a comic book convention. I mean, hello? 20 years ago girls still liked dark and brooding poets more than socially awkward Dungeons and Dragons fans, but I sure as hell didn't have the opportunity to accompany a female to a comic book convention... I didn't even get to a mention I even knew what a comic book was.

This, of course, brings us back full circle to Buffy/Angel... which, despite my dislike of the series, has to be acknowledged as a huge step forward for nerds who like girls. It might have led to Twilight, but it also led to young ladies primed to experiment with more hardcore geekiness.

Thus I would advise any young male nerd interested in courting to think of Twilight as a gateway to greater geekdom... not as disqualifying characteristic. She starts out mooning after sensitive vampires and before you know it she's min-maxing dark elf assassin builds. Well... ok... that's not terribly likely, but it's at least possible.

The downside? You'll probably have to watch Twilight movies... and worse... pretend you like them.

But that's why being a teen-aged boy sucks.

photo by flickr user Satsukiame used under a Creative Commons license

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Are "Restaurant Weeks" worth it?

Ezra doesn't think so:
Take, for example, PS7s. Excellent restaurant, if a bit pricey. Exactly the sort of place you might try during Restaurant Week. But how pricey? Depends what you order, of course. But say you order on the expensive side. You start with Sarah's Salad. "Mixed field greens with fresh strawberries, toasted sunflower seeds, rosemary-black pepper crouton and mascarpone and lemon dressing." Sounds good, right? Ten dollars. And maybe, as your main course, you order the cornmeal-fried trout. That's got "lemon-butter sauce, French beans and a ginger-tomato confiture." Delicious! $22.

You're still only at $32. Now, Restaurant Week includes a dessert, and dessert costs more than $2.09. But it's also the least interesting part of the meal. More to the point, there are certain costs to participating in Restaurant Week. For one, the menu is limited. And the few selections on the limited menu are made in great quantity, so they're often worse than they'd be on a normal night (sort of how the food at a large event catered by a restaurant is worse than the food you get if you went to the restaurant for dinner). The place will also be more crowded, the servers will be more harried, and there'll be more of an effort to rush you through your meal.

I feel like we just had a restaurant week here in Boston/Cambridge, but apparently we have one coming up in August just like DC. I would guess the last one was in Spring, so it makes sense to have another one at the height of local produce availability.

We made it out to two different restaurants for the Spring restaurant week(s)... Harvest with another couple and just the two of us at Upstairs on the Square. In both cases, it was a pretty good deal money wise since both of those places price their entrees in the $30 dollar range. It's still an expensive night out, and don't be fooled into thinking it's some amazing bargain... but I certainly didn't feel cheated... other than that it did convince us to go out for two expensive dinners in the span of two weeks, which is significantly higher than average for us. However, we'd been meaning to go to Harvest for ages, so it provided a nice excuse.

Of the two, I thought Upstairs on the Square was fantastic and Harvest... less so, but still quite good. Part of that in the latter case may be more of a "catering mentality", but it's not like we're talking 1000 plate banquets here... they still have the same number of seats, still offered their regular menus, and had several options in each course for their prix-fixe menu. So the idea that they all turn into veal cutlet factories for the duration of restaurant week seems a tad overblown.

I think Ezra also undersells the benefits of a prix-fixe menu where a skilled chef has selected courses and wine pairings for you. While I wouldn't want the guy in the back at Red Lobster telling me what to order... or even necessarily the chef of your average "nice" restaurant... it can certainly be a superb dining experience to have your menu crafted by an expert. My trip to L'Espalier, many moons ago, remains the finest dining experience of my life. The vegan tasting menu we had for Anna's birthday last year at Upstairs on the Square was similarly amazing. While I won't assert that your average restaurant week menu is going to be the equivalent of those experiences... it's only three course for one, and not $100 a person for two... but it should be a little more interesting than what most of us do when we go out and order a main dish and split a random appetizer. Presumably a trained chef has put some thought into how the elements work together to create the overall meal in a way I can't really do as an amateur.

So while I wouldn't bother with a, perfectly fine, but not all that exciting Grafton Street during Restaurant Week for the hassles Ezra mentions... but why not grab lunch at L'Espalier, even if it's only a modest price break from $40, since I wouldn't otherwise do it?

GatesGate 911 Call

I imagine every one is tired of this controversy by now... can't say I've noticed that it's engendered a productive discussion on race and police powers... just revisiting the same battle lines in the culture wars... so what's the point of bringing it up again? Only that in the initial reporting, the person who phoned 911 about the incident was called a "neighbor" who claimed to see "two black males with backpacks" at the Gates residence. From those scant details, it seemed possible that the 911 call might have been responsible for some of the initial misunderstandings that set of the confrontation. However, besides not being a "neighbor" (she works nearby and thus wouldn't likely know residents) the transcript of the call acquits her best of anybody involved. She mentioned seeing suitcases, not backpacks, and that the people she saw may have just been having trouble with the door. She also doesn't say anything about them being black.

So I do have to wonder how "black males with backpacks" got into the arrest report. Is that how the 911 operator interpreted what s/he heard? Was it Crowley jumping to conclusions?

I guess it doesn't matter though, since having a beer with the President will make us post-racial again.

Shatner and the Palin Farewell Speech

via Yglesias

And yes that is actually verbatim from her speech. Reading the transcript doesn't help decipher WTF she was talking about... though apparently "Cheechakos" are people new to the Yukon and "Sourdoughs" are the old hands... so she wasn't talking about Alaskan version of the pierogi or anything... which is a relief, I guess?

EDIT: Fixed the broken YouTube link with the NBC one.

Monday, July 27, 2009


That's what I need to make. I haven't been cooking anything other than frozen pizzas and pasta since we got back from the beach, but the oppressively hot and muggy weather definitely has me thinking how great a cold soup would be. I think Anna is tired of the chipotle/lime one we've made a few times... maybe a white gazpacho?

photo by flickr user paul goyette used under a Creative Commons license

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This is not a RickRoll

An incredibly skillful mashup... but I was more impressed with this one.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

America's Most Trusted News Voice

via DougJ
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Born Identity
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

According to this internet poll anyway(i.e. not likely to be remotely reliable)... but I wouldn't be surprised that when Lou Dobbs can get on CNN and go all Birther on us, people start to turn to comedians to be informed on the issues. Better to laugh, eh?

Masa vs. Masa Harina

Man, I thought I was pretty slick for living over 2000 miles from the Mexico border and yet having my own tortilla press for making homemade corn tortillas... but it appears the truly hardcore make their own masa instead of using the dried stuff:
Using machinery from Mexico, Mr. Ruiz and Ms. Page produce about a ton of masa every three weeks, using kernels of a natural corn hybrid bred specifically for tortillas, grown in Illinois.

In a big tub in the shop’s basement they boil the corn for about an hour in a solution of calcium hydroxide — or slaked lime — that breaks down and loosens the hull, softening the corn and making it easier to digest. (The Aztecs used limestone-rich lake-bed sediment.) The corn is soaked in the liquid overnight, rinsed, then lifted up a corkscrew conveyor into a grinder. The process is called nixtamalization. A fine grind becomes tortilla dough; mixed with stock and lard, a coarser grind is used for tamales.
I was fairly shocked that in a place like New York City that there wasn't any fresh masa available until this mom and pop operation started a little while ago. As far as I know, I've never had a tortilla made with it, so I don't know if it makes a big difference, but the devotees in the article certainly seem to think so. I'd ask Anna about the joy of fresh masa tortillas, since she spent some time in Mexico, but the traditional version is decidely non-vegetarian... what with the stock and bacon butter... so she probably had to avoid them.

A quick Google didn't turn up much in the way of fresh masa sold in Boston, either... no surprise there... but I guess there is a local tortilla factory and restaurant (Cinco de Mayo in Chelsea - according to Chowhound the restaurant is currently closed for renovations but the factory is still operating in Lynn) that sells fresh tortillas in Market Basket stores in Chelsea and Somerville... but are they actually using fresh masa? If it's only recently become available in New York, then I'm guessing they are just using the powdered harina like me... and then what's the point of buying them? Still, I'll keep an eye out.

Now I'm hungry for enchiladas.

photo by flickr user artolog used under a Creative Commons license

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Drunk Yoga Positions

via Sully's site

I'm not sure I think this is awesomely funny or anything, but based on my gilfriend's profession I'm pretty sure I'm Constitutionally required to post about any new internet meme that involves the word "yoga":

More at the link.

UPDATE: Yoga teacher girlfriend is appalled at the drunk peoples' form.

The Vitue of Canned Beans

I always thought Mark Bittman's obsession with how great it is to cook your own beans all the time was fairly wacky, but apparently he is relenting:
Canned beans are beans someone else cooked and then canned, and canning is an inoffensive preserving process that’s certainly no good for things you want undercooked or crisp-tender, but is fine for things you don’t mind mushy. I’m not saying I’m giving up on dried beans, but I’m going to think a little more often about canned beans from now on.

With unusual beans(that you can't find canned anyway) or a dish like cassoulet, I certainly cook my own... but I've never honestly noticed a difference in a strongly flavored dish like black bean soup or chili. Actually that's not true, I have noticed a difference... when I cook my own I invariably jump the gun and end up with undercooked crunchy beans.

Relax WoW fans

Uwe Boll will not be directing the World of Warcraft movie. Of course, they already said that ... but you can never be too sure. I don't expect this movie to be anything other than absolutely terrible... Uwe Boll or not... but it is Blizzard, and Sam Rami did bring us Evil Dead, so who knows?

I still think it's a little weird to make movies based on video games (and then a video game adaption of the movie adaption of the video game?), and don't see how it could ever turn out well... but then, people thought there could never be a good comic book movie until they finally made a few good ones.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


99% of the time I'm quite proud of where I live... the pinko commie dirty hippie wonderland known as Cambridge Massachussets... but this is just shameful. Granted, it's Gates side of the story and presumably biased, but even taking that into account, it's hard to imagine something like that happening to a white professor. Confronted for breaking into his own house... in the middle of the afternoon. As he mentions, he knew he was going to be fine all along... that his friends would come and help him... but you wonder about people without Harvard law professors on their speed dial.

Vegetarian Robots to adhere to Geneva Conventions

via TNR we have an a pretty awesome press release:
RTI’s patent pending robotic system will be able to find, ingest and extract energy from biomass in the environment. Despite the far-reaching reports that this includes “human bodies,” the public can be assured that the engine Cyclone has developed to power the EATR runs on fuel no scarier than twigs, grass clippings and wood chips – small, plant-based items for which RTI’s robotic technology is designed to forage. Desecration of the dead is a war crime under Article 15 of the Geneva Conventions, and is certainly not something sanctioned by DARPA, Cyclone or RTI.

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,” stated Harry Schoell, Cyclone’s CEO.

Oh right, like I'm supposed to trust the CEO of the flesh eating robot company. I bet that's just what the machines told him to say.


We've got an overdue progress report for an R01 that needs to get submitted while my boss is abroad with little or no internet access (and French keyboards when he has it)... so probably no posts in the near future.

Monday, July 20, 2009

FES Rowing in the Boston Globe

While I was away on vacation, it looks like our FES rowing project got a front page story in the Sunday Globe. Pretty cool.

Things I Learned On My Summer Vacation

  1. Water parks are pretty fun.

  2. I'll be 33 in less than a month, and thus wasn't really expecting much from an activity I haven't sought out in nearly two decades... and Jungle Jim's isn't the most impressive collection of water slides I've ever seen... but it was surprisingly enjoyable. I was probably the most dubious of the four of us about how much fun it would be, but finished second only to Anna in the "Just one more slide before we go" department.

  3. I am not very good a miniature golf.

  4. I was aware of this already, but apparently you don't get better by not doing it... who knew? Luckily, Anna is worse, so my ego was salved.

  5. I still get sunburn in roughly a nanosecond.

  6. They all laughed at me for the 70+ SPF sunscreen, but the only serious burns I got were when I went kayaking on the first day without any sunscreen at all. I also cowered under an umbrella the entire time we were on the beach, like an old person... but I'm not peeling too badly at the moment, so I'd say it was worth it. Score one for pale people.

  7. Delaware doesn't allow you to get eye exams anywhere but a private practice.

  8. You might be wondering how I found this out. Do I just have an academic interest in obscure laws regulating optometry? Well, no. In fact, I lost my glasses on the first full day of our vacation(same day as the sunburnt kayaking incidentally - so not a lot going right that day), when we were staying out on the eastern shore of Maryland. I went out sailing on a little one person sail boat... something I haven't done since I was 13 or so, and something I've never done well. A gust of wind came up and I sent the boat one way when I should have sent it the other and thus I ended up floating in the Choptank river. Unfortunately I didn't realize my glasses didn't come back out of the river with me until I was well away from area I tipped. While certainly not ideal, I had been wanting new glasses for a while and I'm fairly functional even without my glasses... so I wasn't completely incapacitated. We drove up to Dover from Lewes one morning, intending to walk in to a Lenscrafters, get me an eye exam, pick out a pair of glasses, and hopefully be back on the beach in the early afternoon. No dice... apparently Delaware, Rhode Island, and Oklahoma are the three states that don't let Lenscrafters and the like have their own in house eye exams, so it took all day to get me a walk in appointment at a local optometrist and get me glasses. On the bright side, we did get to spend some time in a mall and historic downtown Dover... which is about as exciting as it sounds. So in summary: If you lose your glasses in Delaware and don't have a current prescription, drive to a different state... luckily it's not very big.

  9. Also in Delaware: Apparently steamed crabs don't come with Old Bay on them by default.

  10. As seen above, I ordered a dozen crabs from Lazy Susan's and they came with absolutely no seasoning whatsoever. So, if you hate Old Bay, Delaware may be the place to go for your steamed crabs. For the rest of us, it might be a tad disappointing. I saw people in the restaurant eating seasoned crabs and they sold Old Bay and their own seasoning mix, but I wasn't asked whether I wanted them with or without... so part of me wonders whether it was some kind of mistake, but I never called to find out... and in places like North Carolina they do crazy things like boil them and serve them plain, so it wouldn't be so surprising to find that the people of Delaware also live like savages. Despite the closeness of Delaware to Maryland, I guess that's just another lesson that you can never assume people know what they're doing.

Here are some more pictures if you are interested. I'll try to put in some comments later in the week.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Off to the Beach

Anna and I are off to Delaware this afternoon, which, besides being the state everyone hates to drive through because they charge you like $30 to go two miles, actually has some lovely beaches (see above). The place we're staying(in the Lewes/Rehoboth area) doesn't have internet access, so likely no posting until we get back... though I will be checking e-mail occasionally at free Wi-Fi places. I'll resume posting sometime around the 20th.

photo by flickr user mmahaffie used under a Creative Commons license

MechWarrior Reboot

It seems weird to think about rebooting video game franchises... but it's a fact that there are current college students who weren't born when the first MechWarrior game came out... which makes me feel old and decrepit. Sigh. The above is, allegedly, in-game(or in-engine?) footage... and... uhm... it looks pretty darn good.

This new MechWarrior is set on the planet Deshler in the year 3015, and places players in the role of Adrian Khol, a wayward nobleman who prefers partying and shirking responsibility over his training and studies. However, when House Kurita launches a massive invasion to conquer Deshler, resulting in the death of his entire family, Khol discovers a purpose to fight for.

There are ambitious plans for this new MechWarrior. The original MechWarrior games were limited by technology; now with modern computing power, the developers are hoping to really capture the sense that you're piloting a giant, walking war machine in the middle of an incredibly dynamic battlefield. While the two companies are still talking to potential publishers that could determine the final production budget, Weisman and Bullock explained that they plan to have a full single-player campaign, as well as support for a four-player co-op campaign, and a full multiplayer suite.

One of the key features is a sense of information warfare, using everything from unmanned drones surveying the battlefield from above to light scout mechs relaying information to teammates. Weisman and Bullock both explained how they want every class of mech to really matter in this game; it's not just a race to the heaviest, most powerful mechs. The designers want to reward you for picking a mech and sticking with it -- you will gain experience and become better at piloting your chosen mech, and that will translate into better accuracy and damage with weapon systems. This way, a player could specialize in a light mech throughout the entire game if they choose. It also means there are multiple playthroughs with different mechs. The developers also said the game will change based on your chosen mech class.

That sounds like a perfect game, but they all do before they've got a publisher or a release date... stay tuned.

That was fast

Today's xkcd, and then some apropos suggested search terms from Google:

Either Gödel, Escher, Bach is more popular than I imagined, or xkcd has some crazy Google mojo. I guess I should be pleased I wasn't the only one who needed to look it up.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Blood Bowl Multiplayer Thoughts

When I first gave my impressions of Blood Bowl, I wasn't yet certain how much I would be doing multiplayer... in general, except for games like Call of Duty, I'm more interested in co-op with friends than I am with competition with strangers. However, this is a game I suspect can never reach it's full potential unless played against other human beings. Even if the single player AI was awesome, which doesn't appear to be anywhere near the case, it seems you need human opponents to really learn the nuances of the game, since you'll encounter such a variety of different play styles and skill levels.

In fact, since I started playing online, I've only played a couple of games with my single player team... it just hasn't seemed quite as interesting. The main difference... besides interaction with so-called "real people"... has been the fact that you are forced to live with the results of bad decisions and events... and in Blood Bowl those results can be pretty disastrous. Now, in the single player game, the same things happen, but you can always revert to your last save if you want... nobody's making you try to recover your team from having its two best players killed by a rabid Rat Ogre. Is it lame to hit the "reset button" when you're losing? Of course it is. But when have I ever claimed not to be lame? For the most part I accept the consequences, but I admit to being so frustrated by my "bad luck"(read: bad coaching) that I've quit a game or... erm.. two... or, uhm, something like that... with no negative reprecussions. When you're allowed to do it, and nobody is watching you, it's hard to resist... at least for a person with low willpower.

So now that my lameness and lack of willpower have been firmly established... how is the multiplayer experience different? Let me illustrate with my first two games in the Penny Arcade Blood Bowl League. Game 1 was against a bashy Orc team... and it was going pretty well early in the first half... I scored a touchdown and had gotten some SPP(star player points - for leveling up) from hurting one of his guys... but then he loses his internet connection for a minute and the game ends. Kind of a hassle to have to replay it right? Well no, since he was defeated by his internets, I get a win and he gets a loss. I get both shares of the prize money, both of the MVPs, and two TD's assigned randomly(and the associated points). His injured guy? Still hurt. Pretty harsh right? Of course it is, since the idea is to dissuade people from pulling their internet connection when they lose half their players in a match. In this particular instance, since the guy clearly didn't do it on purpose, it was unfair, but that's sort of what Blood Bowl is about. What else? Well, one of my Blitzers leveled thanks to the SPP points from the disconnect... yipee! A pretty good haul for what amounted to about 6 turns of work... but what did I do? I picked the wrong skill... Grab instead of Guard (stupid G words!), where Guard is one of the most picked skills in the game because of it's utility... and nobody really even knows what Grab does since it sits in obscurity as one of those "Why did you pick that?" skills. In single player, I would have saved before I leveled up and reloaded to get what I wanted, but in MP I've got to live with "Grabby" the Blitzer who everyone is going to laugh at. Why is that a positive? Because once I was stuck with the skill I never would have picked, I had to think about what I would take next to try and make the best out of it... and I'm starting to get a little excited about the idea of putting Strip Ball on the guy, so that he won't just grab and pull players into squares they normally wouldn't be able to go, but also be able to get the ball out of their hands at the same time. Not what I wanted, but it could be handy... or maybe he'll die in my next match and I'll be free of his useless ass. Whichever.

My second game was against another bashy race... Dwarfs. This game however, was played to completion... and I won! 2-0! It was a pretty good game, though I was more lucky than skilled... but as you can see from the picture above, it was not a victory without cost. A dead Blitzer(pictured being fouled to death by meany-pants Dwarfs), one Lineman with a broken neck(-1 Agility permanently), and another with a damaged back(greater chance to be injured in the future). While still alive, both of the latter two player are out for my next game... leaving me with 8 players (out of 11) to suit up for it. Thankfully, the game will provide me with temporary replacements until I can afford a more permanent solution... and if those replacements have a really good game earning lots of SPP? As long a I can afford it, I can hire them after the match and they keep those SPP... which means my permanently injured Linemen get kicked to the curb... sorry, no injury settlements in Blood Bowl. Of course, now my Team Value has dropped to 900 from the 1000 start... despite the fact that I have a level 2 player. I don't think I would have bothered to try and climb out of that hole in single player, but now I'm fairly excited by the challenge.

So beyond playing with real people and accepting harsh consequences, how is the rest of the multiplayer experience? Fairly terrible, to be honest. The games themselves are great, but everything getting up to playing is poorly designed and kind of a pain. For example, the aforementioned PABBL is actually being administered by hand, not within the game's league system, since those "leagues" are in fact round robin tournaments... and thus you have a fixed match times with set opponents (I've not actually been in one of these leagues, so this is hearsay) which is a tremendous hassle with people in all different time zones, and not how the tabletop leagues are set up. In the "real" leagues, players play as often as they want against whomever they want... with the main stipulation that you can't play the same person more than twice in a row. At the end of some time period (a month in our case) the top teams based on some formula, like winning percentage times team value, will play in a tournament to crown the champion. Kinda strange that you can't set something up like this in the game, but you can't. So we had to create a dummy league, with fake teams we don't use, so that we would have a private chat channel to see if other players in the league were online... so that we can play games against each other with our real teams in the Public league (promising not to play games with randoms, but with no way to enforce it). Then, we have to PM the league commissioner with the results of our game so that he can keep track. Awkward, eh? The interface isn't any better, where even the simple act of challenging someone who announces they are "lfg"(looking for a game) in the chat channel involves: clicking a button, typing in the coach's name into a box, clicking the search button, identifying which of his teams he was talking about, and then hitting the "challenge button". I should be able to do that by just right clicking on his name in the chat window.

That said, I'm going to keep playing like mad, and hope they patch up the system, because the underlying game is simply awesome.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I heard about the Minstrel Show Transformers, but there's also a slutty Decepticon?

Apparently yes.
So how do the Decepticons plan to get the symbols, I guess?
Well, the Decepticons have very cunningly created a hot chick robot who they enrolled in the same college and put in the same astronomy class as Sam. And they made her a huge slut.


There's a slutty Decepticon?
Yeah, she's a real ho. The Decepticons apparently have an incredibly powerful slut-making program, because she has it down, man. Anyways--
A pretty brilliant Transformers 2 FAQ at Topless Robot. The part about Transformers in heaven is epic... and apparently accurate.

My Day

After wasting so much time, I really need to get some work done, so no posts in the near feature.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reason #783 to be thankful for not having cable

Kevin Drum:
The Michael Jackson tribute is currently being aired on 18 separate channels on my TV. Just sayin'.
And yes I know... but I'm not pretending I'm reading War and Peace while others waste their lives sucking on the glass teat... I'm just saying that wasting your life on the internet means you can avoid things like this pretty easily.

Mushroom Lasagna

A few months ago, when Anna was still new to the cheese thing, I made some four cheese pasta... it was probably this one($$$) from Cook's Illustrated, but I didn't blog it so I can't be sure... regardless... she really loved it. It was, I believe, instrumental in showing her that cheese can indeed be delicious... and not just something people throw on everything to irritate the non dairy consuming minority. She had been Vegan for like 10 years or something at that point, so pretty much all she knew about cheese was hearsay or faint rememberances from her youth... and one of the first dishes she had after deciding to do the dairy thing was quite a disappointment... so the pasta ai quattro formaggi was pretty key to her not just abandoning the whole venture. However, ever since then, she's wanted to make it with vegetables in it... because she feels guilty about betraying her principles... is worried about all the calories in cheese... or something. Unfortunately, no such dish exists as far as I can tell... if you are going through the trouble of getting four cheeses, you generally want to focus on them. Now obviously, there are all sorts of vegetarian baked pasta dishes, but the challenge was finding one with both interesting cheeses and interesting vegetables. I checked through NBR, Bittman, and searched the net... but nothing really jumped out at me, so I got on to Cook's Illustrated's website and started poking around.

Enter Wild Mushroom Lasagna($$$), which fit the bill like a champ... five types of mushrooms(porcini, oyster, chantrelle, shiitake, and cremini) and two cheeses (fontina and Parmesan)... score! Of course, the downside is that it's not always easy to find that many wild mushrooms... which we didn't. Of the three places we visited, we only saw some pretty sad looking oyster mushrooms and neither hide nor hair of chantrelles or shiitakes. Fortunately, the people at Cook's Illustrated anticipated this and provided a recipe for Wild Mushroom Lasagna($$$) that only uses portobellos, creminis, and porcinis. Not quite as exciting, obviously, but available at pretty much every supermarket. Next time maybe we'll head to Russo's instead of Whole Foods and have some better luck.

One important note... the recipe calls for Italian fontina and says to substitute mozzarella if you can't get it... not some other kind of Fontina. They mean it. I didn't listen to them, because I thought the knowledgeable cheesepeople at Formaggio Kitchen would give me the best possible substitute... and they did... flavor-wise. However, the deal here is hardness, which I didn't appreciate until we were getting ready to make our first cheese layer and had vastly too little cheese. Of course, we had the right amount weight wise, but because the Belgian fontina we had was very soft, it didn't shred at all really... just sort of made little balls of cheese. So instead of even layers, we ended up with pools of cheese interspersed within... not the end of the world, and the same overall level of cheesy goodness, but not ideal. We almost went to the store for some mozzarella at the last minute, but I worried we might overcompensate and make it too cheesy(yes, it is possible)... so we decided to just forge ahead.

Aside from the above fiasco, I think it came out quite well. The béchamel sauce was fun to make, as was assembling the layers of lasagna. I'm pretty sure we'll try it again with wild mushrooms and the right type of cheese!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fancy Fast Food

I don't even know what to make of this blog, but it's definitely worth checking out. Apparently, they take fast food and... well... make it "fancy", I guess. Some of it's fairly visually impressive, like Spicy Chicken Sushi, but the real test would be to get people to pay $30 a plate for it... but I'm guessing the taste doesn't match the presentation. Still, it's pretty awesome.

Lynn Woods

Anna and I didn't do a whole lot this holiday weekend... we stayed local, nerding out via War of the Ring, and drinking Planter's Punch to remind us of Jamaica, instead of watching fireworks. However, we did get some exercise and spend time in the sun(!!!) by going for a hike in Lynn Woods with another couple on Sunday. I didn't GPS it(left my Garmin at work) or take any pictures (didn't want to disrupt the flow of the hike), but I can give a short take: it's pretty nice! Only about 10 miles from Boston, it's easy to get to for us... though it's off of hellish Route 1, which I hate and fear almost as much as 93 South, which is saying something. For such a nice park, it was also not particularly crowded on the first nice sunny Sunday afternoon in weeks... though it's clearly a popular destination for dog owners.

You can get a trail map(PDF) from Friends of Lynn Woods, which you will definitely need. We're were trying to follow directions from a hiking book that were fairly vague, and if the other couple hadn't brought a map, we would have gotten pretty lost... not disasterously so... it's not that big of a park, but it's still annoying to not know which way to go. However, even with a map, the park is a little hard to navigate. It has a system of marking intersections of trails, but not every intersection is marked... or at least not obviously so. In addition, their blazing system seemed a little... haphazard. I think it might take a trip or two to really get your bearings, but it seems that if you lived nearby you could walk there pretty often and, because of the number of trails, not get bored.

It doesn't have a lot of elevation or steep inclines, but you do get some views of Boston if you hit Mount Moriah and Steel Tower, and you can trek close to the various ponds. While there are flat old roads that go throughout the woods (the most heavily traveled areas) you can pretty much avoid these and stick to rougher paths to get a nice secluded hike.

One thing I still don't get is what's the deal with Lynn having a Walden Pond? If the real one is in Concord, isn't putting one in Lynn just being mean to tourists?

Photo by flickr user d4vidbruce used under a Creative Commons license

That's some impressive facial hair

detektor's new family member. If certain people's wives didn't have "all rights reserved" set on their flickr accounts, then I could be like all the cool kids and post other people's pet pictures on my blog.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Palin to resign?!

That just doesn't make any sense... from a political perspective, at least. Would she have a shot at the nomination as a 2.5 year Governor? I can't imagine so. There's gotta something more here, or somebody is giving her terrible advice.

Krugman: Be happy you still have a job

Now I feel bad about complaining about working on a holiday... Krugman brings the sunshine:
Since the recession began, the U.S. economy has lost 6 ½ million jobs — and as that grim employment report confirmed, it’s continuing to lose jobs at a rapid pace. Once you take into account the 100,000-plus new jobs that we need each month just to keep up with a growing population, we’re about 8 ½ million jobs in the hole.

And the deeper the hole gets, the harder it will be to dig ourselves out. The job figures weren’t the only bad news in Thursday’s report, which also showed wages stalling and possibly on the verge of outright decline. That’s a recipe for a descent into Japanese-style deflation, which is very difficult to reverse. Lost decade, anyone?

Wait — there’s more bad news: the fiscal crisis of the states. Unlike the federal government, states are required to run balanced budgets. And faced with a sharp drop in revenue, most states are preparing savage budget cuts, many of them at the expense of the most vulnerable. Aside from directly creating a great deal of misery, these cuts will depress the economy even further.

Unsurprisngly, he advocates for another stimulus. Since the majority of analysts thought the last one was too small, I tend to think he's right... but I'm not optimistic about it happening for all the reasons he states in his article.

How exactly can we get 60 votes in the Senate for another stimulus?

I'd rather be playing Blood Bowl...

Yeah, still addicted to that. Played my first multiplayer games last night in the public league, and ended up a glorious 0-2-1. I only really got stomped by a Chaos team... the other two were winnable, but I made some dumb mistakes. Live and learn.

If you see me online feel free to challenge me... my Coach's name is ArmLion.

However, you won't see my online today, since I'm at work... like seemingly no one else in the city. Working in hospital system, since doctors and nurses and such often need to work on holidays, we don't get any official holidays... we just get extra vacation time to cover them. Logically then, it makes more sense to work those days when you don't have plans and use them at your preference. Fundamentally, this isn't any different than getting credited vacation time when you choose to work on a holiday, but psychologically it feels much different to get "extra" for working versus having to take vacation... so invariably I choose to work. But every single time I do, I find the city asleep and nobody on the train and wonder why the hell I didn't take the day off. At least it will be quiet.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Vegetarian Tamales for the 4th?

Thanksgiving holds the crown for "least friendly vegetarian holiday" by a wide, WIDE margin, but certainly the "cookout holidays" are pretty bad as well. In some senses, this problem with cookouts can be even more annoying than turkey filled holidays since people like to grill outside for parties any number of times over the course of the summer... if it's not raining every single freaking day that is (I'm only a little bitter about the weather). While never experimenting with the meatless lifestyle myself, I live with one of those people, and know countless others... and have confronted this issue on multiple occasions and have yet to find a particularly elegant solution, and thus was intrigued by the idea of a vegetarian survival guide.

I wouldn't call it much of a guide... it's really just a recipe and its rationale, but the recipe in question strikes me as a particularly good solution to The Cookout Problem. Vegetarian Tamales have the decided advantage over veggie burgers or grilled portobellos in that the part you eat never touches the grill... a point Mr. Fisher only briefly mentions. Maybe in all his focus on sharing and community that he wants vegetarians to embrace for the 4th, he forgot how freaking disgusting most peoples grills are... and I say that as an avowed meat eater and slob. For a vegetarian, getting a section of the grill that is both clean and people promise not to cook burgers on is probably the biggest challenge of the whole deal... and for people who don't know why a vegetarian has to be all huffy about where meat was just cooked, it's not just because "ewwww cow flesh", but because it makes them sick. Regardless, to avoid that whole situation is defintely a stroke of genius. The person cooking the meat won't have to be quite so nervous about where to place everything... the vegetarian won't have to watch the grill like a hawk or wonder if they're going to be getting sick in an hour... and, of course, everybody loves tamalesFREEDOMALES!!

While we're not going to any cookouts any time soon, Anna and I have been talking about making tamales for a while now but never settled on recipe... so maybe we'll try this one... though it would have to be scaled down since I don't think we need 20 exactly.

photo by flickr user Mexicanwave used under a Creative Commons license

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blood Bowl: Impressions from a N00b

I went ahead and purchased this last Friday from Cyanide's website for about $50 USD. It's only available via download for US peeps at the moment, though the wiki suggests hard copies will be available when it comes out for 360 in the fall. I have no idea when/if it's going to be distributed on Steam and the like, but I didn't have any problems with Cyanide's system... it comes in 3-4 chunks plus an installer, and is not terribly large( about 1.5 GB)... and even coming from across the pond, took no more than an hour to download on a standard DSL line. I haven't touched multiplayer yet, I've only made human teams so far, and I've done all my play in turn-based mode, so as the title says, these are only impressions... and pretty incomplete ones at that. However, I'm having a lot of fun with the game, so I wanted to share my eperiences as well as provide information and some links to resources that have finally helped me (barely) understand what I'm doing. I have no experience with the tabletop game, though a fair amount of experience with tactical computer games, so you won't hear about the faithfulness of the recreation, just how it feels in general in the early stages of my play. However, let's get the basics out of the way:

Blood Bowl is a version of football/rugby played with fantasy races from the Warhammer universe (like Orcs and Chaos). The only way to score is by touchdown (i.e. no field goals), though you can accomplish this with a quick fragile team dodging blows and racing down the field to catch long bombs... or with a tough plodding team bashing opponents to death and trotting into the end zone after you opponent's team is left writhing on the field... or something in between. It's designed as a humorous parody... not a serious sports sim... so you get little goblins with giant chainsaws and dwarfs driving spiked steam rollers. You can cheat by kicking down players when the ref isn't looking, using performance enhancing potions, or bribing the ref or your opponent's players (some of this depends on the game mode you choose). All in all some good clean fun.

The rules for the actual table top game are located in PDF form here. If you've never played Blood Bowl, I highly recommend checking them out because the tutorials don't really get into the underlying mechanics very much and it can make a huge difference in understanding what's going on and what you should be trying to do. Also, for FUMBBL players... Blood Bowl uses LR5, not LR 4 like FUMBBL, so you might want to familiarize yourself with the changes, since from what I understand some standard builds don't make as much sense now. Also note that the game comes with a strategy guide in the "goodies" folder, but here is a great strategy guide as forum post... with links to individual race strategies and builds.

For either single or multiplayer, you build a team with a set amount of cash from one of the 8 available races. Each of the races has different types of players which cost different amounts, are allowed in certain quantities, and have different abilities available... though there are some common types, like Lineman or Blitzers, that you'll find on several races' teams(though still with different abilities and skills). You can have up to 16 players, but only 11 max will ever be on the field at one time, and so the rest are for injury insurance(a very good idea for all but the heaviest teams!) or for offensive/defensive substitutions (mainly practiced by the versatile human teams, as I understand it). You also spend that starting money on how many re-rolls during a match you get, an apothecary who can try and save your injured (or even dead) players, and cheerleaders(haven't seemed that useful... can get you extra rerolls in certain situations but I think that's it). You can increase those things later, after earning more cash, but some might be cheaper initially based on team (not sure about that).

Since I've only played the Campaign mode with turn based action and a human team (starting over twice), that's what I'll focus on. As I mentioned above, the tutorials aren't super great... they're fine and can get you out there playing... even winning... but a lot of results will seem incomprehensible or unfair, when they're obvious if you understand the basic mechanics. That was what most of the games I played this weekend were like, after getting crushed a lot early, I did develop a feel for what my players could do... and could win games... but nothing ever clicked until I read the rules and then restarted my team. It may be that you have to do that sort of thing regardless... that the rules will seem like gibberish before you actually see it play... but now, after probably a dozen games, I'm starting to feel like I get the tactics.

There's a learning curve is what I'm saying.

Personally, I advise learning what tackle zones are... how nearby players can assist in a block... and how you can neutralize those assisting players. That's the major thing that's helped me understand the underlying tactical game that, as I "get" it, really seems superb. It may be that after I've got some more experience, it won't seem very deep, but based on the fact that people have been playing variants of this game for 30 years... I sort of doubt it... but you never know.

Beyond the tactical portion contained in the individual games, you also have the strategic aspect as you grow your players(and replace the dead ones) over the course of a season... in the single player campaign, each season has multiple parts where different tournaments become available, though you can only play in tournaments your team is prestigious enough for. Win tournaments, get more famous, and then play in harder tournaments is how it goes... but as you do this, your players earn points towards a new level where you can learn a new skill RPG style. You only earn points for "big things" like touchdowns, passes, interceptions, causing casualties, or being MVP (completely random, not merit based)... so leveling up a player can take several games. Combine this with how fragile (some) players are and how big a difference skills can make, and even a level 3 player is a badass. One aspect that I like is that it seems that the most fragile players have the easiest time scoring... and thus get points quickly for leveling up... and then become even better at scoring... but this makes them a huge target for the other team, and then one bad roll... SPLAT... your best player gone. That kind of trade-off will affect your tactics in specific games as you decide whether to use players in ways they're not naturally suited to get points to level, even if it is more likely to be disastrous.

I don't actually have much to say about either graphics or interface, but felt like I needed more sections. :) The artwork is great, but the graphics won't blow you away by any means... they share a lot with WoW... colorful, cartoony, and plenty of character but not jaw dropping and not everyone's cup of tea. I spend most of my time zoomed out looking at the whole field, so I don't really notice the quirks (positive or negative) much anyway. For the most part I think the interface works, though I've had my problems with it. It's not intuitive, but I don't feel like I'm fighting it... it's just easy to miss things if you don't know where to look.

I don't buy strategy and tactics games for graphical excellence, and I'm someone who doesn't care much one way or the other about interface design unless it gets in my way excessively... but YMMV.

It should be obvious that I think the game is pretty great, though I've only been playing for a few days(and we all know it can take a while for warts to show up). As someone new to Blood Bowl (though I did love M.U.D.S. back in the day so I might have a soft spot for the genre), I found it a little tough to learn how to play, but still have thoroughly enjoyed it and think I'll get a lot of miles out of the title. One of the big determinants of how long it stays on my playlist is whether or not I get into MP... as I don't have any friends with the title, I'll have to see how I like public leagues playing with randoms (I generally don't), or if I can find a good community source of managed leagues. However, I feel like I'll enjoy leveling up my players and trying new play styles for quite some time, even if I stay in SP.

Now, it also appears that there are some problems with the AI... obviously, as a newb playing at Medium difficulty, I'm not really to the point that I've really noticed much "brain dead behavior". I certainly haven't had much trouble losing games at any rate, but we'll see how that develops as I play more. If the game stops being challenging once I've been playing for a week, I may not be so pleased with it.

As Tycho says, it may be advisable to wait for a patch or two if you're on the fence after reading all this.

photo by flickr user Phil Gryford used under a Creative Commons license

Bittman on Infused Oils

A little late for our own foccacia (or early for our next), but I just noticed that Mark Bittman did a little thing on making your own infused oil.

Important differences from what Peter Reinhart suggested is how hot Bittman wants you to get it... simmering for 5 minutes with the herbs... whereas Reinhart says to just get it warm (100 degrees) and then add the herbs. However, the proportions are the same (1/2 cup fresh herbs to 1 cup of oil, much less of anything dry).

I presume Bittman's will be much stronger in flavor, but maybe that makes it better for dipping bread into as opposed to a focaccia topping?