Review | Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole – Dr Allan Ropper and Dr Brian Burrell

Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole is a collection of medical stories from patients at the renowned Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Jointly written by neurologist Allan Ropper and neuroscience researcher Brian Burrell, the book melds Ropper’s perspective and experiences with Burrell’s extensive notes and related information.

“If (an aneurysm) reaches a critical size and form, it can burst open with the entire force of the body’s blood pressure. Blood then fills the spaces around the brain in a split second and causes a thunderbolt of a headache that no one forgets and many don’t survive.”

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Review | Tyler: Model 005

This is another tag-team review from me and Adoboros; he handled the controls of Tyler: Model 005, while I helped to solve the puzzles. This review has gameplay spoilers and minor story spoilers.

During its opening sequence Tyler: Model 005 (which I’ll shorten to TM5) presents itself as a charming puzzle-platformer with a sympathetic main character — dormant robot Tyler, who wakes up confused and amnesiac after an electrical surge.

Your job as the player is to explore the house which Tyler awakens inside and to figure out what’s going on, solving environmental puzzles to access more of the house and turn on more light sources. Tyler is tiny enough to hide inside a coffee cup, making even small rooms seem vast to him, so the game’s setting isn’t as cramped as you might expect from its description.

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Review | Borderlands : Game Of The Year Edition (2019)

Even though I’ve previously enjoyed playing Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (via co-op), I could never say the same about the original. In solo attempts, I would get stuck at about 10% campaign completion because I couldn’t navigate through the open world. Playing with friends often failed due to lag and frame rate issues. However, after two friends who adore the series both gave me rave reviews of Borderlands: Game Of The Year Edition, I joined them to try a co-op campaign again.

As there was already a Borderlands: Game Of The Year Edition in 2010, I found the name re-use illogical, especially as the 2010 release is still on sale. To avoid confusion, I’ll use Borderlands to mean the series/games in general, “the original Borderlands” to mean the 2009 release, and GOTY to mean the 2019 release. But that’s a minor issue, so I’ll get on to the actual game.

Because GOTY is a remaster rather than a remake, the core gameplay, mechanics and plot are left untouched. The story retains its sparse exposition, as well as its odd pace – it still idles for most of the game then jumps to its full intensity during the last half hour. But the impactful gunplay, chaotic elemental effects, irreverent dialogue and deranged enemies are just as entertaining as in the original Borderlands. Customising your character’s build in co-op to get full-team boosts and combine each player’s abilities allows lots of opportunities to experiment with setups and weapons (and plenty of comedy from Brick’s melee adventures).

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Review | The Swapper

Full disclosure: due to my ineptness at puzzle platformers, the helpful Adoboros handled puzzle-solving, while I watched and occasionally gave him useful ideas.

When launching The Swapper, the first thing I noticed was its atmosphere (pun not intended). It’s not horror-game-tense or oppressive. Instead it’s somber and melancholy, a tone I’m unused to seeing in games. The next thing I noticed was its uncommon style. Every location and character model was hand-made in clay then digitized through photographs to create a unique world. It’s diffcult to understand just how much work went in to crafting the game, especially as it runs at 60 frames per second.

The Swapper opens as a lone astronaut is ejected into space inside an escape pod. When the pod lands, you take control of the silent astronaut, and start to explore the doomed spaceship Theseus. The remaining crew are hiding in a sealed chamber, so your path is isolated and your exploration uninterrupted … until the scenery starts asking philosophical questions.

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Research Update | Publication

Today, I found a nice surprise in my email inbox – a notice that my journal article based on my MSc dissertation has finally been published. My article is freely available from its journal, Open Praxis, and my questionnaire is available to read (or use in your own projects) here.

I also had some interesting notifications on my usually-dormant Twitter account as a result of the journal tweeting out each new article in the current volume. Seeing a couple of “likes” from people who had attended my OER17 presentation was nice, especially as that was close to two years ago.

Completing my article is also helpful for me for another reason. I’ve wanted to talk about the process of research, and about academic publishing, on this site, but I didn’t want to do so until after I’d had at least some first-hand experience.

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Review | Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything – Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen

10 years ago, I took a GCSE history course on Medicine through Time, which was so engaging for me that I now credit it as part of why I ended up studying science communication. Since then, medical history has stayed as one of my cyclic background interests.

Quackery aims for a tone somewhere between a medical history textbook and a standard popular-science narrative, then strikes that note precisely throughout. It focuses on information about historical treatments, figures and ideas, rather than any autobiographical elements or personal narratives. Because Quackery is so consistent, it skirted the edge of monotony when I read much of the book in one sitting. However, the authors’ quick pace, and their frequent dry-humoured side notes and reactions, liven up the text.

“Edinburgh physician James Young Simpson was another nineteenth-century pioneer in anaesthesia. That is, if pioneering meant inhaling random substances with your colleagues, just to see what would happen.”

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Research Update | Revision #1

After submitting my article in September, I recently received my reviewer’s verdict. I had some revisions to do and two weeks to do them in, but now V2 of the article has been completed and re-submitted.

Luckily, most of the sections were satisfactory. My abstract needed some extra information, to which I initially thought “that’s impossible, I’ve only got 150 words!” However, I was wrong — my new abstract fits way more information into the limited space.

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Review | In the Land of Invented Languages – Arika Okrent

Although we use language in everything we do, we rarely need to wonder about how our languages could be improved. Even if we do, the thought of making a whole new language to fix those flaws seems ridiculous.

Language creators, from scientists to philanthropists to eccentric sociologists, take centre stage in “In The Land of Invented Languages”. The book makes sense of invented languages — languages developed by just one person — by explaining why some of those languages were developed and what the inventors were trying to achieve by creating new languages.

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Review | The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean

Biology is a conspicuous weak spot in my knowledge. My psychology education taught me a little about neurons, neurotransmitters, and brain structure. Beyond that, my main biological knowledge is trivia about platypi. So I read The Violinist’s Thumb less to learn about specific topics than to better understand how all these concepts of DNA, genes, cells and chromosomes related to each other.

The introduction sets up a powerful tension between the  scientific value gained by understanding DNA and the fears thrown up by confronting our genetic building blocks. From there, we discover the parallel stories of Gregor Mendel and Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated genes and DNA. Using these building blocks of genes, Kean leads readers towards larger structures such as chromosomes, viruses, humans, and human cultures.

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Review | Scientific Babel – Michael Gordin

This year, about 2.5 million scientific articles will be published. Roughly 90% of them will only exist in English. So how and why did English become the default language for scientific work? If that question interests you, you might appreciate Scientific Babel.

Scientific Babel is about the languages we use to create scientific knowledge, and how the “language of science” has changed over time. It’s partly a history of science, and partly a discussion of how languages and cultures rise and fall.

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Study Summary | To protect students who self-injure, focus on helping them manage emotions

Research from the University of Washington Medical School suggests how to improve treatments for college students struggling with non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). Treatments which develop people’s practical skill in managing emotions may be more effective than the current therapies that increase people’s confidence in their ability to cope with events.

The study involved 187 students with a history of self-injury. The students provided information about their experiences with NSSI, including the age at which they first self-injured and the reasons behind their self-injury.

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Review | Forza Horizon 4

If you’ve ever played a Forza Horizon game, the core of Forza Horizon 4 is pleasantly familiar. Its most important aspects — its cars and locations — are as impressive as you would expect. FH4 refines the classic Horizon open-world gameplay and extends it across even more environments, taking you from muddy cross-country treks to snowy hills and frozen lakes.

Showcase races, which place you against showstopper competitors like planes and hovercraft, also return. Although these are fun displays featuring ingenious opponents, the showcases occupy an awkward middle ground between a setpiece spectacle and a race. Showcase races are focused on putting you and your opponent in the right positions for dramatic jump scenes and conflict points, which detracts from their stated role as a race. I have a game clip of myself trailing a Showcase opponent yet suddenly being switched to first place as a race ended. It’s a minor gripe, but that kind of switching makes Showcases feel somewhat dishonest — I believe the Showcases would have been better if they were purely a spectacle, rather than being a mixture of race and setpiece.

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Review | Spec Ops: The Line

Last week, I finally played Spec Ops: The Line (only 6 years late!). I’d heard about its ambitious, ethically challenging story, but I’d tried to avoid spoilers. Going into the game, I knew one thing; I would have to make choices that I wouldn’t want to make.

I was expecting tough choices from The Line. However, I wasn’t expecting false choices. The Line contains a mid-game scene where protagonist Walker (and by extension, the player) is treated as if they can choose between two actions, even though the game mechanics allow only one. In the next dilemma, the game lets you continue assuming that only one choice is possible; this time, you could have done something else.

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EGX 2018

After enjoying my visit to Insomnia63 last month, I was looking forwards to visiting similar events in future. However, I wasn’t expecting the chance to attend another one quite so quickly. On Sunday I went to the final day of EGX 2018, alongside two of my friends. Danny, aka Adoboros, has also written up his thoughts on EGX here if you want to read them.

The Arena

As Insomnia took place so recently, and in the same building as EGX, I instantly noticed the visual contrast between the two events. While EGX had a similar number amount of stands, it appeared less visually cluttered and more organised. Its fairly dimmed lighting made navigation easier by allowing colourful stands and lights to stand out. From an audio perspective, EGX also had fairly good sound balancing, where loud displays didn’t spill over into quieter displays too often.

Finally, the ratio of game displays to merchandise displays was weighted far more in favour of gaming at EGX. Merchandise was given a fair space, but games were front and centre.

The Games

I can’t go to a games expo and not mention the games, so here we go. The first game I tried was Soul Calibur 6. I’ve previously enjoyed Soul Calibur 2, 4, and 5, so I had a fairly good idea of the newest instalment might be like. SC6 delivered everything you would expect from a 3D fighter – fluidly-animated character models battling in beautifully rendered backgrounds, accompanied by flashy weapon effects. It slightly refined and polished every part of SC5 …. However, that’s all it did. To me, SC6 felt like an update rather than a new game. The only gameplay difference I saw was an increased use of dramatic slow-motion hits and special attacks which took away my camera control. For me, that was a negative change. It increased spectacle and drama, but at the expense of player control.

Then, I played Team Sonic Racing. The core aspects of arcade racing, drifting to gain boost, and using item pickups to take out opponents were all present, and they felt just as satisfying as they did in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. The ability to trade items also seemed helpful. With my play time limited to one race, I couldn’t get much information about the team interactions, or how much strategic play the team ultimate mechanic may offer.TSR is enjoyable, and I appreciate that Sumo Digital are building a more co-operative racing game, given that previous attempts at this style, like Onrush, have struggled.

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Review | Onrush

The ingredients of Onrush are simple. Start with the frenzied speed and crashes of Burnout: Revenge, and mix in the co-operative objectives of Overwatch. Add cartoonish, Fortnite-styled character models and emotes, then finish with cosmetic loot boxes.

Onrush is a co-operative racing combat game, where players succeed by carrying out team-based objectives. It promises relentless speed and chaotic battles. It vows to keep you in the action at all times. So, how does Onrush achieve the goal of continual speed? And what does it feel like to play?

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Research Update | Submitting my research article

Yesterday, I finally pushed the big green “Submit” button on the research article that I’ve been working on sporadically for nearly two years. Pressing that button provided a relief, though an anticlimatic one; seeing years of my life summed up in a file just 46kb small felt more painful than joyous.

But for now I’ve done what I can, and I need to wait for the journal staff to give their verdict. However, that could be a slow process. When I and two other students helped with another study during our undergraduate degree, it wasn’t fully published until three years later. Hopefully my paper won’t need too many revisions, but I’m not naive enough to think it will be waved through unchanged.

I’m glad to have completed a version of the paper, and I’m fairly happy with my work. So far, I’m annoyed about only one aspect. As part of studying science communication, and from my own interests, I’ve read quite a bit about the failure points of academic writing — how it can be jargon-laden,  hard to read, and artificially exclusive.  I’ve read about how to make academic writing more lively and well-crafted, and how to make it better do its job of communicating. After diving into this new topic, I wanted to try out those new techniques and approaches. But in the end I stuck with the conventional approach, the passive, impersonal “view from nowhere”.

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Insomnia 63 Gaming Festival

This weekend I had the brand new experience of going to the Insomnia Gaming Festival. Having never been to any gaming events or tournaments, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I had a full weekend ticket, so I was there from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon.

As families often attend over just Saturday and Sunday, Friday was a fairly quiet introduction to the festival environment. We were able to get our bearings and explore the arena, and we could try all but the largest activities without queuing.

Layout and Content

The front of the arena hall was dominated by upcoming AAA games such as The Division 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, FIFA 19, and Marvel’s Spider-Man. A large Nintendo Switch zone, with playable pre-release and already-released games plus live stage shows, was hugely popular all weekend. A major sponsor was Belong by GAME: they provided a gaming space of ~80 PCs, which were used for pre-booked team tournaments and impromptu public tournaments.

Part of the Belong gaming space.

Much of the arena was reserved for people with bring-your-own-console tickets, rather than for publicly-accessible gaming. However, there was a retro gaming space with arcade and pinball machines,  older consoles such as the PS1, original Xbox, Gamecube, and Dreamcast, plus Japanese music games with peripherals I’ve never seen before. Other activities included a tabletop gaming zone, a laser maze, and an emerging sport called Flightball which was essentially Rocket League with drones.

PC parts manufactures such as Corsair and Razer were also present, but one glaring exception was Microsoft. There were no Xbox One consoles and no Xbox or Microsoft stands anywhere in the festival. The most visible game was Fortnite, to a surprising degree. A dedicated Fortnite zone was always busy, as was the small Battle Royale zone, yet every other playable space also contained Fortnite setups. Also, an entire merchandise stall was dedicated to plushy llamas.

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IQ | What does someone’s IQ say about them?

I previously talked about how scores on an IQ test are developed, and what they mean mathematically. Now, I’ll look at what they can mean for individuals.

IQ scores can be seen as the mind equivalent of BMI scores. Although both numbers can provide useful information when averaged across large groups, they shouldn’t be used to directly compare individuals, or used to sum up a person in one statistic. BMI can be helpful for an average-height and middling-framed Western person, but it is near-useless for athletes, who will often score as overweight or obese due to their increased muscle mass. Similarly, IQ measurements may be an accurate representation for a neurotypical person who is familiar with Western education systems and standardized testing. But they are not an accurate summation for people with neurodevelopmental disorders, or people who aren’t used to standardised tests and solving problems in a room with a stranger.

3) IQ tests cannot always measure someone’s ability accurately. Health conditions and neurological differences result in people having uneven patterns of ability, which confuse IQ tests.

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IQ | How do IQ tests work?

The Intelligence Quotient- or IQ- is one of the most popular subjects in psychology. Yet despite us often using IQ as a shorthand for intelligence, and even using it to define others, misconceptions about IQ are often louder than explanations.

So how do IQ tests work, and what does an IQ score mean?

1) An IQ test does not directly measure your ability. It uses maths to estimate your ability in relation to other people.

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Language and Duolingo

I went to a secondary school which at the time emphasised language teaching. Students were encouraged to take two different language GCSEs – one in Year 10, and one in Year 11. My class had Italian, then French.

Even though I had completed 4 years of French by the end of secondary school, I never clicked with the language. As I learn most readily through reading and writing, I found the gaps between spoken and written French confusing. So while the written side of GCSE French came easily to me, trying to speak in French was frustrating.

Italian was far more enjoyable –  the logical connections between how words are pronounced and spelt made the language easier for me to understand. I enjoyed the language so much that I’ve repeatedly considered revisiting it.

At the moment, I’m practicing using Duolingo and Tinycards. I have a 109 day streak on Duolingo right now, which is probably the longest I’ve ever consistently done something. However, this isn’t 109 days of full attention. I have used streak freezes to skip some days, while I’ve also had “bare-minimum” days where I just repeated early lessons to fulfill my streak instead of actively trying to learn. But I’d estimate that at least 80 days have been legitimate.

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