Monthly Archives: December 2007

Now You’re Thinking with Portals

The Cake Is a LieWhen I first heard of Portal, it was through a single line reference to the game in an email someone sent to a group list, a sort of inside joke that instantly piqued my interest – “The cake is a lie.” I spent some time trying to figure out what this meant, and soon found the ending video for the game. 

After that I became a bit obsessed with the game.  I downloaded Portal wallpapers, I played through the entire platform-style flash game, I watched video walk throughs of every level of the actual game (with many encore performances of the final level), and I listened to the ending theme song “Still Alive” about forty-thousand times.  It got to the point where I’d walk around town and think about how much faster I could get around with portals, and what the most efficient routes would be.

Some have asked me why I don’t just buy The Orange Box and experience all that is Portal first hand.  The simple answer is that a multi-dimensional, fast-paced, FPS would probably not sit well with my vertigo.  I guess I’ve also sort of technically spoiled it by watching everything online.  In any case, it’s one of the most interesting games I’ve seen (though not played) in a while, and it’s nice to know that other reputable sources agree.


Posted by on December 31, 2007 in Entertainment


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The Apple and the Tree

I’m never going home for the holidays again.

Three weeks ago, my mother tells me about this party she’s been invited to the day after I’m coming into town.  It’s a charity event for local orphans or something.  Everyone brings a gift and gets in free.  A lot of cool people will be there.  I should bring something nice to wear.  My ears perk up and I go on the defensive.  “Mom, I’m fine with going to this party, and I can bring something nice to wear (are khakis OK?), but this is my vacation, and I don’t want this to become one of those painful gatherings where you’re constantly telling me to ‘look happy’ (like I know what that means), and that I’m ruining your relationships with your friends, alright?”.  This sets her off.  I should give her an f’ing break.  She’s trying to enjoy her holidays.  She’s a cancer survivor.  She just wants to do something nice for me. Can’t I do this one thing?  I back off.  Maybe I did jump the gun.

A couple weeks later, I’m staying in her new place.  She’s renting out a condo because the mortgage plus condo fees at her old place got too expensive.  But the buyer for her old place backed out at the last minute, and now she has one foot in each pot, an even tougher financial situation.  Things are stressful.  The new building is a quiet place with lots of older residents.  They’re old in the sense that they act old, not just older in the sense of being more than twice as old as I am.  They like their lifestyle, and I guess the landlord left quite an impression on my mom about being quiet in the hallways.  I am to remain absolutely silent within fifty feet of her door.

The party night comes, we get ready and leave her apartment.  I’m wearing my finest khakis.  We get on the elevator, and my mom just can’t resist – “Try to look like you’re having a good time, OK?”, she says.  Part of me wants to hold back, and give her a break, and just say “sure thing, Mom.”  The rest of me is pissed.  This is how I look.  I saw this coming weeks ago, and I don’t want to spend my vacation being told I’m somehow unhappy, you know, on the surface.  I can’t hold it back.  “Mom, I asked you not to do this.  I’m fine, this is how I look.  Please don’t spend all night trying to get me to be something I’m not.” 

She digs deeper.  “Well, you could have at least tried to look nice, combed your hair,”  as if I chose a ratty outfit and messed up my hair just to make her friends say nasty things about her behind her back.  All of a sudden, I’m twelve again, and what my Mom says matters a lot for some reason.  The exchange heats up. Eventually I can’t stand it and get off on the thirteenth floor.  From there I ignore my mother’s pleas to come back and duck into the stairway.  Within three minutes I’ve made my way to the bottom of the stairs and found a rear exit that brings me to the loading dock, which I jump off of before beginning my walk towards the main drag downtown.

My cell phone starts to rumble, and without looking I know it’s her.  I reluctantly answer, and she’s already yelling, something about how she’s going to be kicked out of the building if I’m running around the fire escapes, and that there’s cameras everywhere, and why can’t I just be “man enough” to come with her to the party.  That last one is enough for me to hang up, so I do.  She calls back in a couple minutes.  This time I tell her that I can go to the party if she can hold back on telling me how to act.  She yells something about how she already has a cab waiting and I should just tell her if I’m going to go or not, like I’m the one jerking her around here.  But it’s Christmastime, so I accept her dodge of my terms as an implicit agreement, and make my way to the front of her building, where she is waiting with a cab.  We don’t speak much on the way over.

Later that week, things cool off a bit, and we decide to go check out the indoor pool in Mom’s new building.  As we are waiting for the elevator, she realizes she has a styrofoam box full of leftover deep-dish pizza in her purse, because that’s where the ‘za belongs, in her purse, on the way to the pool.  She asks me to bring it back to the apartment and give it to my brother to put in the fridge – “but don’t knock too loud.”  I carry it back down the hall, and barely tap on the door three times with the big joint of my middle knuckle.  My brother approaches the door from the inside, and plays this game he likes where he asks “who is it?”, and won’t open the door until I answer, even though it’s obvious, and he can see me clearly through the peep-hole.  Since I’m not supposed to make noise, I just knock again, the same barely perceptible one-knuckled knock, three soft taps. 

I turn back down the hall towards the elevator to see my mother, shoulders slanted from the weight of her ridiculous purse, running down the hall with her arms up in the air.  She pushes me out of the way, and my brother is suddenly inclined to open the door once he sees her. As the door opens, she looks at me, and in a voice that’s part whisper, part enraged shout, but all venom, spits out “forget it I won’t go!”.  She tries to close the door on me (slowly, so as to not make a noise when it shuts), and I stop it with my shoe, totally bewildered, but not surprised.  She asks, in the same voice, “why do you try to ruin everything that is important to me?”.   She looks like she might cry, or start throwing things. I ignore her, and tell her that I need her keys to get into the pool.  She shoves them into my hands, the whole network of key-rings and 30-odd keys, and I start to remove the pool key from the tangled web.  The jingle of the keys in the hall re-infuriates her, and she grabs the keys back from me, removing the one I need from the ring and forcing it into my hand.  I move my foot and she (quietly) slams the door in my face.  I go to the pool.

I’ve done this before, just walking away from my family when I can’t take it anymore. My peers usually chastise me for this behavior. “They’re your family,” they say, “you should go easy on them.” Even as I type this out, I can hear voices saying “was that really so bad?” It’s hard to explain, because there are decades of history that lead to these confrontations, more than I can summarize at a backyard barbecue, or in a single blog post. So I write this story not with the attitude that I did the right thing (I don’t know whether I did), but rather just to say ‘this is what happened’. I suppose it’s hard to stay objective on the one topic that still ticks me off to the point where I feel I’m being irrational. I don’t want to antagonize her.  She is old.  She is a cancer survivor.  She really does have a lot on her plate.  The holidays are probably extra stressful. But why should I be so patient with someone who I only know through the accident of birth? When is our familial debt paid off enough that we can start asking for respect? More importantly, will this behavior repeat itself with me and my children?

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Posted by on December 30, 2007 in Garbage In, Garbage Out


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Nathan Petrelli Controls Worlds

This post contains spoilers from the second season finale of Heroes.

I have a secret theory about Nathan Petrelli on Heroes. I think his ability extends beyond the power of flight.

Let’s see what Nathan has going for him:

  • He can fly, and seems to have better control over his abilities than anyone else in the series (with the possible exception of Micah Sanders).
  • He’s the son of two Company founders.
  • He’s brother to Peter Petrelli, ostensibly the most powerful evolved human in the series.
  • He has at least one child with abilities (Claire).
  • In one version of the future, he actually did become president of the United States (although Sylar secretly took his place at some point).
  • In both Season One and Season Two, at the climactic moment of the finale, in the instant where the fate of humanity hung in the balance, he took action that saved the world.
  • Both times that Nathan was the lynch pin in saving the world, he played that role when other characters had been to the future, and seen that we were doomed. He changed the course of a future that had already been independently verified.
  • The Company chose him to save the world after the impending destruction of New York City (as the strong leader who could unite the country).

The final two points are perhaps the most important. There’s something special about Nathan. The Company could have chosen anyone to be their front-man in the Oval Office, but they chose him. They went as far as telling him that it was his destiny. Sure, he had a bit of legacy with his parents being company founders, but he didn’t receive any special training, and his self-propelled flight certainly doesn’t help him lead any better.

So why did they choose Nathan? And why was Nathan a necessary ingredient to save the world in both seasons? I think there’s an unspoken subtext to his character, which is that he has the ability to change destinies. It sounds a bit campy, but if you think about the influence he has had, and the way the Company planned to use his influence, it makes sense. And the power to alter destiny is similar to the ability to overcome gravity, if our destiny is in fact to be bound to the Earth. It’s certainly not any more far-fetched than Maya’s “poison emission” ability, and this wouldn’t be the first time that a hero who can fly is shown to have the power to change the future.

Kristen tells me that this theory is “too thinky for prime-time drama”, and the fact that Nathan was shot multiple times in the finale does not bode well for an expansion on his abilities, but I think my interpretation fleshes things out nicely because it allows the timelines of the series to be internally consistent. I’m hoping he’ll make a miraculous comeback (hey – I’d definitely prefer to see him come back rather than Noah Bennet) and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.


Posted by on December 10, 2007 in Entertainment


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Inquiry Based Blogging

Fracas’s sequel to her award winning story reminds me that it’s been a year since I placed in the same contest with a post proposing a blog focused on Inquiry Based Learning in Systems Biology.

My blogging has ended up being a lot less about science than I had originally intended. I thought I’d write more about my own research, but feel that I never have anything to say about it. I thought I’d read cool articles and post summaries here, but I have enough trouble reading them without having to write about them. Needless to say, I never did make a collaborative blog for those interested in systems biology, but it was not for lack of interest.

I’m going to make a point of trying to post more sciencey topics here in the future.

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Posted by on December 9, 2007 in Alchemy


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Winning the Love, but Losing the Break-Up

heart_only_interlocked.jpgWe all know that love is a weapon. Accordingly, in the 160th Issue of the Warrior of Light Newsletter, Paulo Cohelo outlines a convention for treating those wounded in love. It’s a short set of rules analogous to the Geneva Conventions, except that it pertains to those wounded by love rather than by weapons.

Most of the “articles” of this convention describe how we should behave when we are hurt in interpersonal relationships, rather than how we should behave if we hurt someone else. For example:

Article 4 – In the case of light wounds, herein classified as small treacheries, fulminating passions that are short-lived, passing sexual disinterest, the medicine called Pardon should be applied generously and quickly. Once this medicine has been applied, one should never reconsider one’s decision, not even once, and the theme must be completely forgotten and never used as an argument in a fight or in a moment of hatred.

The Geneva Conventions primarily govern the humanitarian treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war (or more broadly, the enemy), so my intuition says that to extend the analogy these conventions of love should govern the treatment of your partner (or ex-partner), and perhaps their friends or family, after you have hurt them. But my intuition assumes that your partner is the one being hurt, that they are the “enemy”, and I don’t think Cohelo makes this assumption.

Rather, he describes how you should behave when you are wounded. The logical conclusion is that the pain you feel when hurt by love is self-inflicted, and a convention for how to cope with and manage such a terrible self-inflicted wound is a brilliant idea.


Posted by on December 5, 2007 in Garbage In, Garbage Out


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