How to Accidentally Make a Non-newtonian Fluid in your Kitchen

This week was another with the mandolin. After learning just how deep into my flesh I have to go to reveal my knuckle bone*, I decided I would take my friend’s advice and start using a kevlar glove. Here is my kevlar glove.IMG_20170507_074504068

You can see around the edges where it’s already beginning to show signs of damage from the merciless mandolin. It’s not as hard to grip as you would think, and I can go really fast now that I’m not worried about my safety.

In any case, I’ve been making hashbrowns for Alice. After I soaked the grated sweet potatoes I left the water for a while.IMG_20170507_074422517.jpgAlice, who does the dishes, found a goopy white substance at the bottom.

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I believe that this is sweet potato starch and water, a close cousin to the corn starch and water that together make oobleck. I wasn’t able to make my unintentional oobleck do anything exciting, but for those of you who have not heard of oobleck, it is a fluid whose viscosity changes depending on the forces acting upon it. Here is a informational video.

*This is hyperbole

Julian’s

I was visiting my family and we were in a bookstore. When she was halfway down the aisle with my sister, my mother looked back and said to my father and me, “why don’t you all go to the men’s store?”

“What is the men’s store?” I thought. It sounded like someplace I wouldn’t want to take my father.

Thankfully, a “men’s store” is just a store for men’s clothing. It turns out my parents got a gift certificate to a place called Julian’s in a silent auction. The gift certificate was $200. I jokingly suggested that we might be able to get two ties for that much.IMG_20170429_122623269.jpg

As it turned out, we would be able to get one tie ($125). Another and we’d be over budget. IMG_20170429_122632903_HDR.jpg

I looked at the shirts and saw one I liked. It was $150. We wondered how we’d use up the rest of the gift card, and the clerk said we could get a “pocket square” for roughly $50.

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A “pocket square,” the clerk explained, is a piece of cloth that one folds and places in one’s shirt pocket. Presumably for fashion purposes. He cheerfully demonstrated.

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Photo used with permission

I looked in my shirt pocket and saw that I had my drinking straw from the meal I’d eaten an hour before. My dad decided to buy a tie pin, for keeping one’s tie from flapping around in windy weather, to use up the last $50.

In the end, the medium size of the shirt was too small for me and the large was too large, so we decided to find a more socialite friend who might make better use of this gift card.

My Mandolin and Sweet Potato Jerky

I bought a mandolin. A mandolin is a kitchen tool for making regular-sized slices of vegetables easily.IMG_20170423_101445951.jpg

Naturally, I decided I would make sweet potato potato chips with my mandolin. IMG_20170422_184320902.jpg

This turned out easier said than done. Even with a recipe and three tries, my sweet potato chips, which are supposed to be crispy and tasty, were instead crisp and burnt. This turned out to have to do with where I placed them in the oven. They burned when I put them lower in the oven, so I moved the lower grate up. I also turned the heat down to 200 degrees from 250. My oven could be hotter than it claims to be. This is not uncommon.IMG_20170423_082217923.jpg

This gave me “chips” that were tasty, but not crispy. They’re kind of chewy, but definitely tasty. I’m going to call them sweet potato jerky and serve them to my friends at D&D today.IMG_20170423_085049119.jpg

A more unambiguous success includes roast vegetables a la mandolin. Notice the wavy cuts on some of the vegetables. IMG_20170422_184105045.jpg

I cooked it with marinated tofu and a sauce of olive oil, soy sauce, scuppernong wine, apple cider vinegar, and lemon juice and served it on quinoa for a popular lunch.IMG_20170422_184554604.jpg

Asymmetric Information in D&D

The key element of a Dungeons and Dragons game is the party. Seldom does a dungeon master run an entire campaign for just one person. A cooperative group of players is central to the game since its founding, and is so entrenched that when a player doesn’t want to cooperate, things can go very badly even outside the game itself.

But that can make for a dull story. Imagine if the Lord of the Rings had no Boromir, a friend turned foe by the evil power of the One Ring only to be later redeemed. NPCs can serve this purpose handily, but it’s harder to get player characters to change alliances and fight with one another.

One issue is well-defined moral dichotomy, which to some extent I have already discussed. Another part of the matter is that information is necessarily shared between all players. If the dungeon master tells a player what his or her character is seeing, all players hear. When crowded around a small game table, inconspicuously getting around this may be easier said than done.

It’s not impossible, though. If you pass a note to a player, other players will see that you’ve passed a note, but not the contents. If you write a text message, they will hear the ‘ping,’ but won’t know what has been communicated. These are only good for simple messages, as few players are willing to wait while their DM types out a page of details on his or her phone.

For more in-depth privileged communication, I recommend what I refer to as a “Special Session.” A special session is a session of a campaign devoted entirely to one member of a party. Generally this can happen while the other party members are asleep or after another excuse to split one player off. I have run special sessions in person and on Google Docs, exchanging DM descriptions and player actions in text rather than through speech. In the latter case it can even take place over a number of days, although it must end before the regular party comes together again, or the story might not be able to accommodate the separated player participating with the rest of the group.

I have tried a few of these methods with exciting results. For one example, I have a druid in my party who can understand spider talk, so I send him texts of everything the spiders around his druid are saying. Colleen elected to tell none of her friends what her arachnid friends were telling her, much to the rest of the party’s chagrin. Another character had a midnight meeting with an NPC who begged permission to kill another NPC party member, a zombie, whose very existence she felt was against her God Pelor. This led to a dramatic, improvised sequence in which the party debated whether to kill the ostensibly friendly zombie, and eventually Tom the Monk succeeded in converting the zombie to himself be a follower of Pelor. This substantially changed the plot going forward onto a track that I had not previously considered. A third pious character received a message from his god during prayer (an email from me) and spoke in elaborate fantasy detail of his experience of the message to the other party members. Other private communications are still playing out. Some of my players read this blog, so I won’t go into detail.

To be fair, I should note that some dungeon masters would prefer to avoid rather than encourage party infighting. for some groups it will ruin the evening. In my case so far people are enjoying the special attention that they receive as part of getting privileged knowledge. I am enjoying seeing what they do with it. I cannot recommend strongly enough to any DMs looking to add more spice to a D&D game that they should try and add some information asymmetry. It’s well worth the effort.

“Get Out’s” Plot Makes no Sense, but Watch it anyway

I was recently told by a fellow writer that it’s ok to sacrifice your concept to make a good scene. I’m not sure I agree with him, but the idea of maintaining readers expectations well enough that they can overlook holes in your story is a good one. Covering over an inconsistency with a joke is not beneath even such well-regarded filmmakers as Joss Whedon. In the Avengers, he explains how Bruce Banner, who famously becomes the Hulk when he can’t control his anger becomes the Hulk at will. “I’m always angry” as an explanation elucidates nothing but with charm and wit keeps the audience satisfied enough to lead into the next CGI-drenched action sequence.

To say that Jordan Peele’s new horror film “Get Out” comes highly reviewed is an understatement. It gets a 99% on the Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer (Whedon’s Avengers gets a 92%), and with good reason. In addition to being compelling, hilarious, and of course frightening, it offers social commentary of depth beyond what one would expect from the genre. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in horror movies or race relations. Spoilers follow.

When he visits the home of his white girlfriend’s parents, the protagonist Chris finds much more than he bargained for – specifically that his entire relationship is part of the plot to literally steal black bodies for the use of white people. The mystery is slowly revealed over the course of the movie as the bizarre behavior of the black people at the estate begins to boil over, but ultimately the explanation does not mesh with all of what we have seen leading up to it.

The fact that the man and woman who turn out to be the grandparents of the household spend the whole time acting like servants is relatively easily explained – they are pretending for the benefit of the guests. This leaves questions of why, especially if they can’t do a better job of pretending, they don’t just stay at a hotel for a while, but it’s good enough to pass muster. This mysterious unexplained theme of servitude, however, continues in the young black man who visits with his much older white wife. At one point in the conversation he states that he feels compelled to spend all of his time at home doing housework, a clear and creepy nod to slavery, but one that does not fit with the concept of white people taking the bodies of blacks to gain new abilities or live longer.

If you didn’t notice this inconsistency, that’s the brilliance of excellent storytelling. A story’s plot does not need to add up logically to be impactful. The themes of the movie were not all in service to the plot, and they came together to make something much more than a simple horror film. If you haven’t seen “Get Out,” don’t expect all the subtle hints and images to add up to a plot. They add up to something that is so much more.

No Organized Party

On the way to the county Democratic convention, my Lyft driver told me about how Obamacare had hurt her and her family. For one reason or another, after the law passed her insurance through her husband’s employer saw an increase in deductible from $1,500 to $10,000 per year. Medicare told her she was not eligible when she tried to get support for her autistic children’s physical therapy. I had little reason to believe that the Koch brothers were now planting fake Lyft drivers to lie about Obamacare, so I had to take her story at face value.

The first three quarters of the convention was voting for people I’d never heard of.  The most important decision involved a choice between a man and a woman. “He’s going to do what’s right and not what’s wrong,” said the proponents of the man, to which the woman’s supporters replied, “She’s a woman!” To be fair, the actual candidates said a little more. The man said he was going to re-establish the Democrats as the big-tent party,  which impressed me at first. When I said I would vote for him, a woman next to me snapped “no glass ceiling for you.” As his speech went on, he failed to expound on what he meant by big-tent, though. I worried he meant going more conservative instead of reaching out to help and listen to the poor of all colors Bernie Sanders style. The woman described a laundry list of strategies to get better organized and reach out to voters, which I appreciated for its clarity, so I voted for her. She won.

Next was a series of elections with only one candidate. After that was an election where we were to select seventy-eight people. There was a sheet of instructions telling us how to vote. We were to carefully maximize the diversity in each district. The couple beside me diligently filled it out like a logic problem, using the provided list of what proportions of people were in each district and carefully meeting the criteria of the attached sheet. I wanted more progressives, so I voted for the two people who explicitly listed themselves as progressive and didn’t bother with the rest.

At lunchtime I learned that the Young Democrats never received my order and believed I had just given them $15 just for whatever they felt like ordering themselves. Frustrating, but the generic sandwiches were fine.

The last segment of the convention was by far the best. We had a collection of resolutions to vote for. At each resolution, anyone could vote to pull it for corrections or to remove entirely, or a silent room would leave it as part of our official list to be sent to the district level. One man said to pull the statement against the death penalty, but when he saw the arguments that accompanied it he said they were convincing and backed down. One man pulled a number of different resolutions just to fix their grammar. At one point he called for the removal of text claiming that North Carolina had always stood against oppression of all kinds, as it simply wasn’t true. All of his amendments passed without opposition.

Even though it was trying at first, overall I was happy to have attended the convention. I didn’t affect much change this time, but next year I will be better prepared to draft and submit my own resolutions and stand on the floor to make statements. It does feel like this is a level at which an individual can make a difference.

The Nerd is the Word

Have you heard?

My co-worker told me that recently he went to a comic convention and saw in broad daylight a man dressed as Superman making out with a conventionally attractive woman dressed as Wonder Woman. This astounded him because when he was a child,

  1. To dress up as superman was not known to attract women.
  2. It would be difficult at a comic convention to find a woman, let alone impress one.

He also told me he liked to play D&D, but he had to be private about it because his church had declared it a product of Satan. His D&D did not include any women.

You can imagine his reaction when I told him my church’s minister Sasha had led several games of D&D and invited me to start a new campaign for a group of attenders, mostly young women. In fact, she invited me to lead many more campaigns than I possibly have time for.

Maybe it isn’t news, but D&D is more mainstream than it’s ever been, attempts to suppress Harry Potter as the Devil’s work have been completely unsuccessful, and Hollywood sometimes seems to have more people dressed as superheroes than dressed in regular clothes. Oh, and the leaders of the most powerful companies in the world are computer geeks. It seems tragic to me that any nerd had to live in a time where this was not the case.

It's about whatever I say it's about