Sunday, November 23, 2008


Heard about this project on NPR. "Worldmapper is a collection of world maps, where territories are re-sized on each map according to the subject of interest...The maps presented on this website are equal area cartograms, otherwise known as density-equalising maps. The cartogram re-sizes each territory according to the variable being mapped...The process of creating an equal area cartogram is not a trivial one, and has occupied researchers for decades. A recent development by Mark Newman and Michael Gastner (described in their paper, Gastner and Newman 2004) has led to the creation of this website. The process is essentially one of allowing population to flow-out from high-density to lower-density areas, and they used the linear diffusion method from elementary physics to model this process."

Michael T. Gastner and M. E. J. Newman (2004) Diffusion-based method for producing density equalizing maps Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 101, 7499-7504.


Wealth - purchasing power (2002)
Leading nations:
1. Luxembourg
2. Norway
3. Ireland
4. US
5. Denmar

HIV prevalence

"In 2003, the highest HIV prevalence was Swaziland, where 38%, or almost 4 in every 10 people aged 15 to 49 years,were HIV positive. All ten territories with the highest prevalence of HIV are in Central and Southeastern Africa."

Violent Deaths (2002)

Gotta love Europe when it comes to violence (or lack thereof). Stay away from Colombia. And from everything I've been hearing, the mafia and murderers of Juarez are trying to push Mexico up in the rankings. Dark humor, I know.

Odd fact that I didn't know: Norway is the 2nd leading exporter of crude petroleum to the world (#1 is Saudi Arabia - exporting 2x as much as anyone else).

Best feature of the website: for each map, you can make a printable PDF poster for your classroom/dorm/apartment/rebel base.

Friday, November 21, 2008

trippin' balls

From the ever-excellent, Married to the Sea. Thanks to FP for sending me these:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

memoir '44

I just returned from the annual Society for Neuroscience conference, held this year in DC. And while I should tell you about some of the science I saw there, I'd rather write about games today. Let's just say my brain is a little fried still from food/sleep deprivation and too much information.

My friend Paul and I have been getting together regularly to play an excellent World War II based boardgame called Memoir '44. It has received numerous glowing reviews within the gaming community, and for good reason. It's simple to teach and play, it successfully models some fundamental tactics of warfare, and it's a helluva lot of fun. My older brother was (and still is, to a certain extent) a hard-core wargamer (see Grognard). He lived off the depth and complexity of old Avalon Hill stand-bys, like Squad Leader and Afrika Korps. But these are not games you can introduce to your non-gaming buddy. I mean, we're talking 60-page rulebooks with lots of details about supply lines, troop morale, weather effects, etc. Memoir '44 is something you can teach to your 9-year old son on a rainy afternoon, and it's quick and short enough to hold attention in our ADHD generation.
The basic set comes with a playing board featuring the French countryside on one side, and a beach landing on the other. The two armies represent the Germans and Americans, although a few of the included scenarios have you play Brits instead of Joes. Each army is composed of three different unit types: infantry, tanks, and artillery. Each unit type possesses different movement, attack and defense parameters, which affect how you will use them during the game.

Each game represents an actual battle that took place during WWII. The rulebook includes over 15 of these battles, and you can find dozens of other scenarios online. A scenario print-up tells you how many troops are involved, where to place them at the beginning of the battle, what terrain is involved, and what the scenario objectives are. You goal is to obtain victory points (VP's), which you accrue every time you destroy an enemy troop. In some scenarios, you can also gain VP's by capturing and occupying certain hexes on the gameboard (e.g. a bridge).

To attack on an enemy unit, you first check line of sight to make sure there's no obstacle in your way (see image to right). You then make sure the enemy unit is in range (3 hexes for infantry and tanks, longer for artillery). Range also determines how many dice you get to roll, and the more dice you roll the higher your odds of killing your opponent. For example, an infantry unit in close assault (adjacent) to an enemy unit gets to roll 3 dice. Terrain defense bonuses can reduce this. You then roll the special Memoir '44 dice, and for every result that matches the unit type of the enemy you're attacking, you remove one individual troop. Infantry start with 4 troops per unit, so you'd have to eventually take out 4 infantry to gain a VP.

So in general Memoir '44 plays like this: you maneuver your units around the battlefield, rolling dice to attack your opponent, trying to kill and capture VP's at a faster rate than your opponent. This is fundamentally the essence of every wargame. There are, however, two additional factors that make Memoir '44 a standout experience.

The first is terrain. The game comes with a number of terrain hexes that you place on the gameboard, as per each scenario. Each type of terrain changes the rules a little, making tactical decisions more difficult and interesting. For example, when tanks fire into woods containing infantry, they reduce the number of dice they roll by 2. This means that if your opponent has any armor on the battefield, it would behoove you to keep your infantry out of the open fields. Units battling up hills reduce their attack dice by 1. Hills and woods block line of sight, but rivers do not. And so forth. There are a number of terrain rules to memorize, but the game also comes with some handy quick reference cards that you can keep on hand to remind yourself.

The second fatcor that individuates Memoir '44 is the Command Card. Each player starts the game with a number of these in hand (differing depending on the scenario). And each turn, you get to play one. This card determine which units you order, move and attack with that turn. The majority of Command cards limit to orders to one section of the battlefield: center, left or right flank. These boundaries are clearly delineated on the gameboard. So, for example, the "Probe" card in the following image allows you to move any two units on your right flank. "Attack" cards let you move 3 units, and "Assault" cards let you move all units in a particular section.

Since it usually takes several turns in a row to accomplish a particular tactical mission (destroy an enemy unit, clear out a defensive bunker, capture a town, etc.), you'll need several cards in hand that allow for orders on the same flank. But if all 4 of the cards in your hand allow for movement on the left flank, and you've got some units on your right flank that are getting pounded by the enemy, well.. you're shit out of luck. The Command cards are supposed to reflect the imperfect nature of battlefield communication. Even though you're the general and can see the operation as a whole, your troops cannot and sometimes you just can't get your orders to them when you need to. It's the Command card system that makes Memoir '44 a fun and challenging game. You need to work with what you've got, and as a game progresses, the tide of battle will turn from Axis to Allies and back again, because of a few lucky dice rolls and some terrible cards. Serious grognards may be turned off by the random nature of these factors, but it cannot be emphasized enough how much fun they add to the game.

Once you get hooked to the Memoir '44 system, be assured that there are a number of expansions you can waste your money on. Featured above is the Winter/Desert board and a scenario from the Eastern Front expansion, which adds in the Russian army to the fray. There's also an Air Pack that expands the air support options, a Pacific Theater expansion with a Japanese army, and most recently, a Mediterranean Theater expansion that formally brings in the British.

Overall, I really like Memoir '44 but you have to watch out for one thing. One's enjoyment of a particular game session rests largely on how well designed the scenario is. Some are better than others. And nearly all of them are unbalanced, on purpose. In other words, either the Allies or Axis will be favored (with more troops, more Command cards, better initial placement, etc.). If you're playing the underdog, you need to be prepared for a slightly more challenging, and possibly frustrating, experience. The way to resolve this imbalance, as stated by the game's designer Richard Borg, is for both players to play each side of a particular battle and add your scores together to determine a final victor. So if the Axis are favored in the battle for Paris and you're playing the Axis, you might beat your opponent 5 to 3. Then you switch sides, play again, and your opponent beats you 5 to 2. Your opponent wins overall, 8 to 7. Re-playing a scenario from the other side after you've presumably learned from your mistakes is an interesting exercise in taking battle lessons to heart.

Summary: rolling dice is always fun, but rolling dice to kill Nazis is fun X 10.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thursday, November 6, 2008

perry bible fellowship

The Perry Bible Fellowship by living genius, Nicholas Gurewitch. Some of my favorites (click on image for full-size):

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Sunday, November 2, 2008

latro in the mist

Apologies for the hiatus. Aili has been busy with schoolwork lately, and I've been dealing with a debilitating Windoze issue that has cut down my already pathetic productivity. And truth be told, I am also attempting to kick a serious and somewhat unexpected King's Bounty addiction. If it wasn't for those bastards over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I wouldn't have even known about the damn game.

But something new today. Periodically, people ask silly questions, like, "What's your favorite band?" or "Who's your favorite author?" Silly because for most people of taste and culture, it is a futile endeavor honing in on a penultimate musical or literary influence. A common response is, "It depends." In large part, it depends on what stage in life one references. For example, my answers to those two questions during the latter stages of high school would probably have been Pink Floyd and Orwell. In college, Tool and Marquez. Later, Radiohead & Kundera. Familiar names, all. For the past several years, however, I've been thoroughly taken and often obsessed with the works of Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe is often categorized as a science-fiction author, but the label doesn't do him justice. His science-fiction - such as the award-winning The Book of the New Sun series - is geared towards adults, not teens, and demands a certain work-ethic to read. His fantasy - such as The Wizard Knight - can only be fully appreciated if one possesses a mastery of folklore and mythology. Neil Gaiman has cited him to be among his favorite and most respected authors. In my mind, he certainly ranks as one of the greatest writers, regardless of genre, of our time.

If you wanted a single recommendation to start with, I'd probably suggest the Soldier series - the first two books are compiled in a single volume entitled Latro in the Mist. It is ostensibly a work of historical fiction, set in ancient Greece and based upon actual events that took place in 479 BCE. This is the year that the Persian empire, under the rule of Xerxes, invaded the Greek peninsula and were rebuffed at the famous battles of Thermopylae (source material for Miller's graphic novel, 300), Salamis, and Plataea. Our historical record of these events is drawn almost entirely from the Herodotos' The Histories. Wolfe appropriately dedicates Latro to Herodotos, and I am inspired to read The Histories sometime this winter.

The protagonist, Latro, is a Roman mercenary fighting in the Greco-Persian wars. We meet him as he is recovering from a serious headwound suffered in battle that has left him with with a profound case of amnesia. He remembers nothing of his origins, and little of his own personality. Moreover, he cannot form new memories. He retains a trace of each day's events, but when he wakes each morning he is again a blank slate. He carries a scroll with him, upon which he writes much of what he does and sees. He has trained himself, to a degree, to read this upon waking each morning so that he knows where he is, what he is hoping to accomplish, and who his companions are.

"I must read this each morning when I rise, and write each day before it is too dark; thus it will become a habit. Though I forget that I am to do it, I will do it still." (p. 379)

What makes these novels both brilliant and difficult is that this diary is the text provided to you by Wolfe. In other words, Wolfe reveals the action of the novel through a series of diary entries written by a narrator often ignorant of what he has (or has not) revealed previously. Wolfe is famous for using unreliable narrators, who either lie, fail to provide important narrative details, or forget key events. The reader often learns of these plot-points via transcribed dialogue, usually phrased in the past tense. Thus, you often have to wait a hundred pages or so to figure out what happened exactly at the river in chapter 2. Some might consider this annoying, or trite, but I adore the style. Reading Wolfe is not a passive experience. He forces you to work diligently to piece together the plot and keep track of the protagonist's experiences.

"A black man is with me. He wears the skin of a spotted beast, and his spear is tipped with twisted horn. Sometimes he speaks, but if ever I knew his words, I have forgotten them all. When we met, he asked by signs if I had seen such men as he. I shook my head, and he seemed to understand. He peers at these letters I make with great interest." (p. 23)

Of course, Latro is no ordinary soldier. He is visited regularly by the gods and goddesses of Greece, and has clearly been chosen to follow a hero's fate. One often gets the sense that the pantheon of gods is moving the world around Latro, much like they did for Perseus or Hercules. Latro is noble and strong - an indominatable warrior and instinctive leader. His path shines before him. But it is also clear that some gods and goddesses wish him harm, or at least, hope to make his task (whatever it might be) more difficult.

Wolfe's novels are typically replete with mythological figures, religious events, and symbolic imagery that require careful consideration and interpretation. He rarely hands you plot points on a plate. Thus, when Latro meets a "golden giant" in the temple of the Shining God, you must infer that it is Apollo.

"'For them I am not here,' he said, answering a question I had not asked. His words were fair and smooth, like those of a seller who tells his customer that his good have been reserved for him alone. 'How can that be?' Even as he spoke, the others murmured and nodded, their eyes still on the prophetess.

'Only the solitary may see the gods,' the giant told me. 'For the rest, every god is the Unknown God.'

'Am I alone then?' I asked him.

'Do you behold me?'" (p. 29)

Instead of referring to "Spartans" in the text, Latro speaks of the "Rope-makers." Instead of saying "Xerxes," he says "Great King." It is up to you to figure out what these terms reference, and I often find myself with dictionaries, Bulfinch's, and Wikipedia open as I read Wolfe. The action of Latro is consistent and spellbinding- he journeys across Greece, meets kings & goddesses, befriends the Amazon queen Hippephode (yes, with a single breast), kills a werewolf, becomes enslaved, fights in numerous battles, and even competes in the Olympic Games. So you are willing to work because the story is so good; it is a labor of love to read Gene Wolfe. And after a few months of letting Latro settle, you re-read it and discover something new and wonderful again.

I am sure you know the feeling of trying (and failing) to explain your passion for something to somebody else. Wolfe's work holds a special place on my bookshelves and in my soul, and I dare say I have learned more from him than most teachers I have had. He is worth your while.

Here Latro sits in a temple of the Grain Goddess, waiting for a dream or an omen...

"Thus I am here, sitting with my back against a column and writing these words by the light of the declining sun. I have had a good deal of time to think this afternoon; and it seems to me that more than once I have felt the spirit of a house when I, a stranger, went into that house - though I cannot retrieve from the mist those times or those houses. A temple is the house of the god who dwells there, and so I open myself to this house of the Grain Goddess, hoping to know whether it is friendly to me.

There is nothing - or rather, there is only the sense of age. It is as if I sit with a woman so old she neither knows nor cares whether I am real or only some figment of her disordered mind, a shadow or a ghost. A fly may light upon a rock; but what does the rock, which has seen whole ages since the morning when gods strode from hill to hill, care for a fly, the creature of a summer?" (pp. 144-145)