Wrinkled Lips and Cold Sneers

In the process of writing one of those sorts of poems I was “inspired” to write something else for my “amateur poetry on loveless topics” collection. I don’t want to edit it anymore so here it is!

I met a traveler from the USA
Their nose held high, they proclaimed that they
Were no mere tourist looking to sightsee,
Perish the thought for they’d much disagree!
To them famous ruins could hold no appeal,
For that which is trendy is all the less real,
A dazzling view or mighty landmark,
Would pale before the tiniest park,
Where locals may loiter or dally or stroll,
A time among them doubtless best for the soul,
To sample the wares of hole-in-the-walls,
And never step foot in prominent halls,
To gaze on the works of offbeat artists,
Above dingy roads where many have pissed,
To travel around on only shoestrings,
Not once purchasing the blingest of blings,
An authentic journey could then be attained,
All despair avoided and accolades gained,
So upon returning they might yet relay,
That of all their friends they’d the best holiday.

(header photo credit: Asmin Bhar)


Writing Prompts Story 1

So once a month or so I like to look at reddit’s WritingPrompts subforum, reading whatever top entries have accumulated since my last visit. I decided to try my hand at one this time around, but since I submitted it so late, I doubt anyone will ever read it. So I’m reproducing it here, for posterity! Enjoy!

[WP] At age 15 you told the gf you were “in love” with that you’d always be there when she was in need. Aphrodite heard you and made it a reality, whenever your gf was in need you appear at her side. Problem is, you and the girl broke up after 3 weeks but you still appear even now… 10 years later.

Adam sat in the center of a large warehouse. Towering over him were plastic crates, metal cylinders, and sundry other boxes, cases, and containers, all tightly secured. Glancing down at his watch, he noted the time – just before 9 – and began to stow away a half-eaten apple, guzzling the last of his coffee. Various supervisors over the years never failed to impress upon him of the importance of punctuality. Such busybodies, the lot of them, but they had a point, and at least the pay was excellent.

Breaking away from thoughts of his compensation, Adam’s brow furrowed as he looked around, picturing the contents of all the packages surrounding him. Given the nature of his job, it was never clear how long it would be before he returned home, but he’d often prided himself on always finishing whatever work was needed of him.

Suddenly, a pop! as air rushed in to fill the vacuum hole left in the warehouse. Before he could so much as blink, Adam found himself in an entirely different room. Standing beside him was his once high-school girlfriend, her frown rapidly curving into a toothy smile. “Adam!” she said, “I was wondering when you’d show!” “So impatient,” he replied, reaching out to steady himself. Spying a large window (or was it a screen? He could never easily tell these days) in one of the room’s corners, he saw a smooth, snowy landscape stretched out before him, punctuated by the occasional icy spire. A very faint breeze could be observed scattering flakes bit by bit.

“Hey, Lynne, how’s it going? Where are we now?” he asked, looking back and returning a smile. She’d been traveling recently and, apparently, without event, for it had been weeks since he’d last been summoned; otherwise, several years of following his ex- as she went god-knows-where had sapped him of any pressing desire to keep close track of her exact whereabouts and occupation. “I’m good, crew’s good. SO unhelpful, as you might expect. Currently we’re just outside Cilix, near the penitent fields.” At least the snow and ice represented a change of scenery from that hot, roiling hellscape of last year, and those red, barren deserts the year before that. He was certainly glad to be out of that hyperindustrious town of Musk, hopefully for good. They were all just a bit too tireless there…

A wave brought him out of his memories – summonings frequently brought them on. Right, Lynne needed help, that’s why he was here. “What is it this time?” he asked. “Plumbing!” she answered, walking along cases and reading the label on each. “Aha!” she said, finding one that contained large, interlocking plastic plates and tubing. “Gotta get the septic tank set up and interfaced with the garden. Bit boring, I know. But no less important for it” she said, “I should be able to handle the rest!” “That’s what you always say,” Adam responded, smirking, and they got to work.

A dozen hours later, he began to feel a familiar tug stirring inside him indicating that his present task was complete, Lynne’s needs satisfied. Sighing deeply, he stood up from his computer, removing his headset and shaking out his hands. Though it took a bit longer than anticipated, working together they’d indeed managed to get the sewage systems fully up and functional. And even with delays, he should still be back shortly after 10, with just enough time to grab a bite before crashing. It had been a long, long day and Lynne, though determined, also looked ready for sleep.

“I think I’m almost done here,” he announced, Lynne looking up. “Aww, just as we were having so much fun,” she replied wearily. “Well, thanks for all the help! It’s been a pleasure, as usual. Reckon I’ll be seeing you in three or four days? I’m going to need to dig a very deep hole.” “Ha, sounds good, guess I’ll see you th-” he said, vanishing.

In Defense of Booze

So occasionally online I’ll encounter this “drinking (ethyl) alcohol is dumb, how could anyone possibly do it, I’m so smart why would I ever tarnish the beautiful clarity of my mind” mentality. This is especially baffling because in my day-to-day life it seems drinking is popular all through the upper reaches of accomplishment, intelligence, and scientific aptitude (perhaps not independently of wealth, though — usually those people are into the fancy craft beer scene, or own a vineyard, or enjoy sipping their many-decades-aged scotch in the evenings, and so on. The connection isn’t necessarily drink -> smart or smart -> drink).

In response to someone asking what could possibly motivate anyone to consume alcohol,  I came up with a quick list of my own, personal reasons, in no particular order:

  1. It’s found in a variety of tasty beverages (and occasionally foods, e.g. in sauces), really expanding foodspace and drinkspace (especially in the already explored reaches). In beverage form it can enhance the taste of certain foods, e.g. pairing a beer or wine with a fatty protein, say
  2. In mild-moderate doses it has pleasing psychoactive qualities, i.e. a pleasant buzz. Cognitive impairment after a drink or two isn’t so great (6-12 drinks in, sure, but after 1 you can still hold plenty sophisticated discourse). This impairment is typically incidental to the main effect; the buzz to me is best described as a sort of a warm, friendly inner glow which can complement similar feelings from other sources (e.g. after a long day of intense hiking/biking, cuddling up with Kate and dog on the couch watching a movie with a cold beer in hand… the slight tipsiness only serves to enhance the experience)
  3. It can serve as a social lubricant through direct modification of your attitude and personality, letting you express yourself with boldness and free from social anxiety. Not only is being social fun in itself, but (for the more antisocial individuals reading this) it can serve plenty of instrumental goals too, e.g. in closing business deals over drinks, connecting with your coworkers and boss after work (thereby facilitating promotion/career advancement), networking with strangers to open up opportunities down the line, even interviewing for new positions (e.g. in my experience in academia it’s common to take applicants out for dinner/drinks after they give their job talk). It doesn’t have to just be for the pleasure of others’ company and can be thought of as a skill as any other, with alcohol serving as training wheels or a nitro boost, depending
  4. It can serve as a social lubricant by giving you a common ground with which to connect with someone, owing to its immense popularity — e.g. you can talk about the production or history of beer-brewing, or what flavors you like and dislike, etc. Basically, talking about your own alcohol consumption and preferences can act as an icebreaker
  5. It’s historically and culturally important in many places and you can get a deeper appreciation of a place by sampling its drinks (e.g. by going on a tasting tour and exploring the history of wine-making in France or beer in Belgium or something, never mind local scenes). If you tell my I’m drinking the product of some fermentation technique pioneered in the 7th century BC as a direct successor to the independent cultivation of wild grapes by neolithic farmers or whatever, I’ll feel all cultured and connected to the world around me and enjoy my beverage all the more
  6. Mild consumption might be good for you, or it’s at least associated with decreased mortality (a classic “j-shaped curve” is borne out in a lot of studies; e.g. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17159008). Probably confounded, but there can be plenty of plausible mechanisms at play. Thus, alcohol can have desirable medicinal properties. See here for a more thorough overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long-term_effects_of_alcohol_consumption
  7. It’s something to do while bored which will make you less bored (e.g. at a noisy house party it lowers your threshold for entertainment — flailing around on the dance floor is more fun while tipsy; related to the pleasing psychoactive qualities mentioned above). Sometimes I’ll find myself in a social situation where politeness and obligation dictate that I have to stay for some time (e.g. somewhere very noise where you can’t talk or think). Mild drunkenness helps to pass the time
  8. Its consumption is traditionally a symbolic/ritualistic behavior in a lot of circumstances (e.g. celebrations of milestones), and there are a lot of benefits to consistent tradition and ritual [e.g. after a quick google]
  9. A lot of people like it, and to some you’ll stand out — not necessarily in a good way — if you don’t. There’s a social stigma against not drinking, and failing to conform may rob you of some ability to resist social pressure elsewhere. If you’re not drinking and everyone else is, you’re failing to capitalize on “similarity effects” and your peers may feel judged for your choices (especially if you lead with “my mind is too valuable to tarnish its beautiful clarity”, implicitly or explicitly). And again, to the misanthropes — being social can be a means to an end, not just an end in itself
  10. Many activities and games become more challenging while under the influence, so it’s a good way to handicap yourself if something’s become too easy — e.g. in drinking games, or board games, or video games, or physical activities where risk of injury is low. Feeling your head spin while dancing drunk can be likened to riding on a roller coaster — i.e. fun, and drinking opens up new challenges to engage with and overcome
  11. It can be neat to prepare alcoholic drinks and experiment with different combinations of flavors in the same way that it’s fun to cook or draw or make anything else — it can serve as an outlet for artistic expression, and one you and yours can consume, too! Truly as multisensory experience!
  12. More an absence of a – than a +, but you can easily mitigate the unpleasant effects of alcohol consumption (e.g. hangovers) by drinking in moderation, staying well hydrated, not drinking on an empty stomach, getting a full night’s sleep, and maybe taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement
  13. One might have reasons to drink certain alcoholic beverages relating to their personal history, as in toasting (or libating) absent friends. For example, I’ve been lugging around the following bottle for nearly two decades now:
    It was given to me by my father shortly before his death. I’m not sure when I’ll drink it — potentially when I have kids who I can share it with who will appreciate the significance of its consumption. Hopefully I don’t die before then and bequeath it to them to puzzle over

Now, obviously drinking in excess can have unpleasant consequences, that’s what in excess means (QED). Drinking until vomiting the night before a major life event can really be a drag, especially if you operate heavy machinery and die in an “I’m totally not drunk, naw, I’m good, later, ‘night” stupor. Alcohol can be expensive, both financially and calorically (it is the fourth macronutrient @ ~7 kCal/g). Excess drinking in the short term can result in alcohol poisoning, and in the long term all sorts of cancers, liver disease, heart disease, pancreatitis, damage to the nervous system and psychiatric disorders, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and so on (and alcohol interacts with lots of other stuff, e.g. acetaminophen). It’s clearly a drug to be respected! But, barring certain physiological conditions or a history of alcoholism or something, it doesn’t necessarily have to be avoided altogether (and indeed would be difficult to avoid entirely, given its prevalence in sauces and foods, though most of it usually gets boiled off in the cooking process). Alcohol consumption has plenty of benefits and few enough costs if you take the necessary precautions and drink within reasonable limits.

As such, I feel I have a fairly healthy relationship with alcohol, in that I consume usually around 2-3 drinks a week, more if I’m on vacation (4-5), fewer if I’m especially busy with work (~0). Ultimately there can be no dispute in matters of taste, but I think people are mistaken when they claim there can be no possible upsides to having a drink every so often.

Circle of Life

(apologies to the long-dead Wilfred Owen, killed in action at age 25, whose excellent “Dulce et Decorum est” was shamelessly modified to produce the below):

Stumbling, like bright-eyed, newborn fawns,
Injured, trailing blood, we crossed the plains,
Before the blazing suns of many dawns
We toward oases walked, ignoring pains.
Babes trudged forth. Many had lost their fur
But limped on, rotting. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the purr
Of hungry, desperate lions that lurked behind.

Teeth! Claws! Quick, run!—An ecstasy of leaping,
Escaping laceration just in time;
But someone still was screaming out and weeping,
The struggles of he who’d just heard death’s chime.
Dim, through a mirage of the sun’s bent light,
As under a red sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He clambers to me, choking, bleeding, drowning.

If in some disturbing dreams you too could pace
That evening, after the danger had passed
And recall the cruor coloring his face,
His eyes like marbles, brown windows freshly glassed.
If you could hear the frantic, distant gasps
Come gurgling from a frothy, punctured throat,
His once proud bellows now reduced to rasps
With gaunt chest slowly stilling, far from a grassy cote,—
My friend, you would not say it for the best,
To children pleading for some bedtime story,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro natura mori.

(this poem brought to you by my ongoing foray into poetry. Any non-accidental aptitude in the above is attributable to Owen, with apologies again)

Purple CYOA

On a lark I made one of those CYOA images!

I’ve been enjoying CYOAs (on SpaceBattles, Reddit, etc.) for a fair bit and figured to try my hand at making one myself. Not a physicist, obviously, so apologies for any factual or conceptual inaccuracies! Special thanks to all the artists whose images I stole off google images. Please forgive any compression artifacts; when I exported everything looked clear but IMGUR compressed it pretty dramatically.

See it here!

Nerdy V-Day Poems

In anticipation of Valentine’s Day I’ve seen the following poem making rounds on Facebook:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
If you were a null hypothesis,
I’d fail to reject you.

Now, far be it from me to offer criticism, I’m certainly not one to talk, etc. but this poem sucks. It fails to embody one of the two principle properties the original poem had, the rhythm of it’s 4-syllables-per-line (the other being the abcb rhyme scheme):

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.

That’s what makes it flow so nicely!

So, emboldened by my recent forays into poetry, I decided to try quickly my hand at a few (admittedly poor) alternates, inspired by nerdy-sciencey-academia type stuff. Here they are:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Reviewer three,
I do hate you.

Markings are red,
I am so blue,
Grading this test,
They have no clue.

Errors are red,
Death screen of blue,
Code has just killed,

Eyes are so red,
Sky no more blue,
Sipping coffee,
Near a breakthrough.

Though those aren’t really romantic, I realize. So let’s try:

Smoke lights are red,
Lab gloves are blue,
Best that you now,
My form review.

Haematid’s red,
Hemolymph’s blue,
Blood is flowing,
When I see you.

Priors are red,
Likelihood’s blue,
Ol’ Bayes would want,
Your post’ to view.

Math papers read,
May make me blue,
P-values rise,
When next to you.

(Cover Image Credit: Arashiyama, from Wikimedia Commons)

SF Flag Design

So a little while back I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts — 99% Invisible — which focused on the study of vexillology, or the study of flags, with particular attention paid to vexillography, or the study of flag style and composition (though the former, being much more popular a term than the latter, sometimes also encompasses it). Later on the host of 99PI, Roman Mars, appeared on TED to present on the good, the bad, and the ugly of flag design. One of the flags particularly lambasted in both instances was that of San Francisco, which features a somewhat ornate phoenix rising out of flames placed above a ribbon on which is written the Spanish phrase “ORO EN PAZ FIERRO EN GUERRA”, or, in English: “GOLD IN PEACE IRON IN WAR”. Below this in striking blue sans serif are the words SAN FRANCISCO, and the whole deal is surrounded by a thick, warm, yellow border.


According to Ted Kaye, vexillologist and author of “Good Flag, Bad Flag“, there are five basic principles of good flag design:

1. Keep it simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
2. Use meaningful symbolism. The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
3. Use 2-3 basic colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
4. No lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.
5. Be distinctive or be related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

The SF flag, then has clearly too many colors (6, including white and black), has less than meaningful symbolism (yes, it’s burned and rebuilt, but so have plenty of cities. There’s also a rather large city called Phoenix, with a flag also featuring a phoenix, in a neighboring state), has too many lines on the bird, and features several words. Personally I don’t think the flag is too bad, but insofar as the above five principles are valid, there’s clearly room for improvement.

So living right next to the Bay Area and inspired by a friend who also took a crack, I attempted to redesign SF’s flag using what meager graphic design skills I have. My first order of business was to discard some of the rules, particularly the ones relating to colors and simplicity. I do like me my colors, especially for symbolic purposes, and while I get the appeal of minimalism, the more extreme sort touted by a few of the flags in Good Flag, Bad Flag is not quite to my liking. I’ve historically also always rather liked overdesigned, busy esthetics, as embodied in things like the steampunk genre or Ghibli’s interpretation of Howl’s Moving Castle. I will note, though, I that I did manage to abide by one of the 99PI criteria for simplicity, that of drawing by hand your design on a (1″, 1.5″) rectangle:


So then I created this first flag design in photoshop, reproduced below from the header (with aspect ratio mirroring that of SF’s flag above):


The symbolism here is pretty obvious — in the foreground, there are two green hills, fairly common sights in the Bay Area:


at least when it’s not summertime:


Between these hills is the dark water of the Pacific Ocean, above which is seen a stylized representation of a segment of the Golden Gate Bridge, drawn in its characteristic International Orange color (though modified somewhat — see below). I chose the GGB because it seems to be SF’s most iconic and distinctive icon, as evidenced by the observation that, when I google imaged “San Francisco”, it was featured in most of the results:

(photocredit: Rich Niewiroski Jr.)

The sun shines overhead, and a palette of rainbows mirrors the hills at the base, echoing the Rainbow Flag and the long history of civil rights activism and inclusivity San Francisco is known for. Rainbows also bear some rich symbolism throughout myth and legend, feature strongly in one of my favorite childhood books, and have some loose connections to the computer industry, if you accept as “loose connection” the fact that microchips and glass prisms are both made of roughly the same stuff. Likewise — the sun! solar power! fiber optics! IDK! Take that, rules 2 and 5!

I’d tried initially to incorporate Holtom’s peace symbol


into the interplay between the sun and bridge but ultimately couldn’t make it work, though the general idea appears in another design I threw together:


and also a tad in its sister:


Other symbolism is easy to read into the flag (e.g. the green hills are not only green from grass, but from SF’s commitment to “green technology”), especially w.r.t. various angles, proportions, and so on, but the aforementioned are what I’d mainly intended.

The colors of the flag, meanwhile, were chosen using “International Orange” (F04A00), as a base, which I then tossed into this color calculator to find suitable complements/triads/tetrads/analogues. Unfortunately, the end result was far too vivid for my tastes:


So I ran the whole thing through one of Photoshop’s vintage filters to get the final results above (after tweaking a few of the individual colors slightly).

It’s also important to ensure that something like this is still decently distinguishable to individuals with color blindness, so I ran the flag through the color blindness simulator found here. Some of the adjacent colors are particularly hard to tell under certain forms of color blindness, but generally the differences in lightness and darkness throughout different parts of the flag make the whole thing fairly resolvable. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement (e.g. in increasing light/dark contrast between adjacent colors):

(click here for a larger, less compressed GIF)

Finally, I was curious as to how it might look in person, but lacking the dedication to actually print the thing out myself, I followed a guide I’d found online to ‘shop the flag onto a flagpole:


Overall this was a fun diversion and I’m glad to have played around with it! I’m certainly no vexillographer or graphic designer (hell, I thought Milwaukee’s flag to be decent…), but I’m still decently satisfied with what I turned up, accordance with Kaye’s rules or no.