Puzzle Quest, and the USA alone

Unfortunately I’m going to have to disappoint you – I’m not actually going to write a review of Puzzle Quest here; there are plenty of good ones already out there. The one thing I will say is that the game ended far earlier than I imagined – it comes with a large, scrollable world map, and when I reached the final mission, at least half of it was unexplored. I was quite relieved though, as I’d already spent a good dozen hours playing it and was getting worried at the amount of time I was wasting (and yes, I call it wasting, because even though playing Bejeweled is sometimes fun, there are more interesting ways to have fun).

Up until the final mission, I’d sailed through the game, having discovered a strategy that would reliably defeat all opponents except in the unluckiest of games (wear the Firewalker’s Staff, then cast Hand of Powe twice, then Fireball on the densest collection of skulls you can find, in case you were interested). I assumed that the final mission would be tricky and require a few tries, but I’ve found it so overwhelmingly difficult that I’ve just given up. Your opponent in the mission, Lord Bane, frankly has spells so powerful that they break the game; the only way to beat him is to be extremely lucky. On one try, I almost succeeded, but even then I knew that it was a complete fluke. A disappointing end to an otherwise entertaining and impressively addictive game.

(Incidentally, I don’t think that the computer cheats in Puzzle Quest – I often had incredibly good luck in battles. But I do consider the setup of the final battle to be cheating.)

On a completely different note, there’s an interesting discussion going on at the Apolyton forums. What would happen if:

…in the blink of an eye the United States of America as it exists right now is placed on a imaginary Earth where humans have been extinct since the late stone age. To the Americans it seems like every country in the world has instantly reverted to a pristine natural state without any infrastructure or population and with undepleted resources. They have no instant explanation, but assume that with a few months of research they could realize they were dropped off on a alternative Earth.

Of course, this is a completely fantastical scenario, but it’s educational to speculate on because it reveals a lot of assumptions about America’s economy, military, politics, religion, ethnic groups, all sorts of issues. What would the military/industrial complex do without any enemies to fight? Would religious groups go to found new colonies? Would expatriates in the US want to re-establish their home countries? Could America retain high-technology (e.g. computer chips) without their factories in Asia? Does America grow enough food for itself, or will it suffer from lack of imports? If the US can’t rely on cheap labour in Asia to produce its goods, who can they use?

Sweet sweet corn

One of the things I love about going abroad is the fact that the food is always cheaper and better (at the same price) than London. Sure, London has good food – if you can afford the money and time to check it out. When you’re on holiday, not only does the rest of the entire planet offer cheaper food, but you have more time to appreciate it. So when I went to Toronto for a week, I sampled a rather large number of restaurants, pretty much all of which were good.

However, I’m a little sad that I only got to eat one ear of corn when I was out there. For reasons that are still unknown to me, corn in North America is far sweeter and tastier than our so-called ‘sweetcorn’ in the UK. I know for certain that most of the corn I eat in North America is grown fairly locally, whereas UK sweetcorn seems to come from all over the place, including England. But while I have never had a disappointing ear of corn in North America, I count myself astoundingly lucky if I have a decent bit of corn in England.

For some time – before I first travelled to the US – I thought that UK sweetcorn was how real corn tasted: not bad, but on reflection, not particularly sweet. This changed when I travelled. I then mused that perhaps the corn plants I’m eating are just a different species, or maybe the corn was harmed by the way it was transported.

Like a good scientist, I investigated the latter possibility only a few hours ago. In the interests of furthering human knowledge, I have published my findings below:

Is the taste of UK sweetcorn harmed by the way it is transported? (to be published in Nature 439:7208)

Introduction: Most sweetcorn in the UK is bought from supermarkets, who typically package their sweetcorn in film-wrapped packages that are likely to have been in transit for several days or even longer. They may have also undergone additional treatment during the packaging and transportation process, and other treatments associated with the mass production of food. In contrast, the sweetcorn the experimenter (Adrian) has tested in North America has typically been ‘raw’ ears of corn, unpackaged; this type is also available in the UK, but this experimenter has not tasted it.

This experiment will compare the taste of UK ‘raw’ corn to UK supermarket corn.

Hypothesis: The taste of sweetcorn is harmed by packaging, treatment and distribution processes associated with supermarkets, but not associated with ‘raw’ corn bought from healthy shops, etc.


Sweetcorn bought from ‘Fresh & Wild’ (wholly owned by ‘Whole Foods Market’)
Heating panel

Method: The green bits on the sweetcorn were removed. The sweetcorn was split in two, in order to fit it in the pot, and then both halves were submerged in water. The pot was placed on the heating panel and a pinch of salt added. Heat was applied until the water began to boil. This heat was maintained for three to four minutes, until which point the sweetcorn was removed from the pot and left to cool for five minutes. Before eating, margarine and salt was applied.

Results: From a qualitative perspective, the sweetcorn tasted significant less sweet and ‘tasty’ than North American corn. It tasted essentially the same as supermarket-bought sweetcorn, although perhaps slightly better due to the method of cooking.

Discussion: It appears that UK corn is significantly worse than North American corn, no matter where it is bought from or how it is distributed. However, the sample size in this experiment is small (n=1) and it is possible that there are other sources of sweetcorn in the UK that are better. Even so, it would be expected that a retailer such as ‘Fresh & Wild’ would source tasty corn, meaning that if tasty corn is indeed available in the UK, it is baffling that F&W would not sell it.

Conclusion: Based on the very small sample size of this experiment, it seems that it is not possible to get ‘good’ corn in the UK. Still, additional investigation is required. Increasing the sample size and acquiring different sources of corn is vital. Secondly, it is advisable that the experimenter travels back to North America to perform additional taste tests on their corn. Funding for this travel will be applied for to UK research councils in the near future.

Cheers vs boos

Something I’ve noticed from watching clips of the rallies held by Bush and Kerry on BBC News is that there is far more booing in Bush’s rallies then there are in Kerry’s. Obviously I’m going with a very unscientific sample here, but when Bush slates Kerry in a speech, his audience often break out into shouts and boos. However, I cannot recall a single speech of Kerry’s where the audience responded with anything but cheering. Maybe this is a result of the clips the BBC have shown; maybe this is an indication of the different attitudes held by the supporters of the two parties.

The world sighs

Two conversations with intelligent American undergraduates I know:

Them: So how far away is Wales then?
Me: About two or three hours.
Them: Will we get a passport stamp when we go?


Me: Get a what?
Them: A passport stamp. It’s a different country, right?
Me: Well, yes, in a historical sense, but no in any other useful sense.
Them: But I got a stamp when I went to Ireland!
Me: That’s because it’s not in the United Kingdom.
Them: Yes it is.
Me: No it isn’t, that’s Northern Ireland.
Them: Ahhhhhh.
Me: Anyway, no, you won’t get a stamp in Wales, or in Scotland.
Them: They have their own languages though, right?
Me: Yeesssss. I suppose.

And today…

Me: Check out this photo, pretty cool, huh?
Him: So it’s Tony Blair looking in a mirror-
Me: A door.
Him: At his reflection. What’s the door?
Me: Number 10.
Him: Where’s that?


Me: Number 10, Downing Street. You know what that is, right?
Him: Yeah, of course I do. Okay, no, I don’t. But I think I’ve heard of it.
Me: It’s the seat of the government, like the White House! Where the Prime Minister works!
Him: Ooohhhh, that number 10.

It’s not quite so bad as the, ‘So, do they have donuts in England?’ I once heard (in Canada, in fairness) but it’s close. I really shouldn’t criticise though, ignorance can be found in all countries.

The Invasion

The light in the sky is different these days, stronger and more persistent. Wind sweeps through the streets and the weather can change faster than a footstep, transforming the air from a muggy heat to a crisp freshness. The almost-transient population of Oxford undergraduates migrated away to warmer climes weeks ago, and now they have been replaced by an altogether more sinister posse. The Invasion of the Americans has begun, just like it does every summer.

If you walk down any street in central Oxford for five minutes, you are guaranteed to cross paths with a gaggle of young Americans, and even if you couldn’t hear their voices (which you certainly would do) you’d still be able to spot them. There isn’t a single defining characteristic of these Americans, but rather a combination of characteristics. They travel in groups – just like other tourists – but they tend to be larger groups and more numerous. They wear American clothing – just like all the European tourists – but theirs is in some vague sense more ‘up to date’. During the early afternoon and evening, they invariably carry large quantities of fast food, which I have to confess isn’t a characteristic shared by others but then you can’t rely on this one all the time.

As most people should know now, I have no particular beef against Americans, and sure, I detest tourists in Oxford but frankly that’s just part of life here than I’ve come to a wearying acceptance with. But this invasion I describe isn’t about American tourists. It’s about American students.

It turns out that every summer, huge numbers of American high schoolers and college students – I estimate at least a thousand – fly the wrong away across the Atlantic and converge upon Oxford to, I suppose, take some classes, soak up the legendary Oxford atmosphere and have some fun (and not necessarily in that order). Free from the constraints of their parents and absurd drinking laws, they spill out onto the streets and into cafes, ice cream parlours, bars and restaurants. Strangely enough, they don’t tend to go into pubs, a fact I attribute to a little-known genetic aversion the North Americans have to authentic ale (much like the fair folks’ aversion to iron).

Happily ensconced in their familiar-but-different social haunts, they proceed to take full advantage of being in a different country by meeting as many of their fellow countrymen as possible and regaling them with stories about their colleges back home and swapping precious tidbits of Oxford lore, e.g., “Oh my gawd! Did you see those guys over the road wearing those clothes? I found out that they always get dressed up for exams! That’s so cool! We’d never do that at home!”

As you can imagine, all of this loud enthusiasm grates heavily on the already deeply cynical graduate population whose emotions have long been burned away into a twisted husk of thesis-writing flatness. Not only are we daily confronted with groups of A&F and Gap-wearing teenagers insouciantly lounging around our ice cream parlour, but we have to deal with the knowledge that in the coming weeks, it will only get worse, not better. I can only hope that in between providing McDonalds with a temporary spike in profits and liberating our cafes, they are actually gaining something important and useful out of their expensive time in Oxford other than the right to say, “Yeah, I studied in Oxford over the summer.”

He Was A Crook

He Was A Crook – Hunter S. Thompson’s damning eulogy for his arch-enemy, Richard Nixon. “Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together. Nixon laughed when I told him this. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

The Atlantic Tax

Those who are used to comparing the prices of items on the Internet will have encountered the Atlantic Tax. This is what I call the stunningly large difference in price of almost anything between the US and the UK; on average, I think I could buy any consumer electronics item in the US for a quarter less than I could here. With the dollar as weak as it is now, the tax is at an all-time high. In fact, at the rate it’s going, you won’t need a calculator to work out $/� currency conversions, you’ll just be able to divide by two.

A lesser-known but equally infuriating victim of the Atlantic Tax are magazine subscriptions. Two of the three magazines that I would consider subscribing to – Wired and Scientific American – cost over double here what they do in the US (the third one is The Economist, but that’s printed over here so it’s OK). Granted, Wired and SciAm are printed in the US so you have to consider shipping costs, but can’t these guys figure out some other way of getting their magazines into the hands of European readers? Or at least, if they can’t figure that out, reduce the cost of online subscriptions? Being at Oxford, I can access most journals for free online, but the interface is usually difficult and raises the barrier of entry.

It’s just yet another reason to get those next generation electronic book readers out to market as soon as possible. As for the consumer electronics (and everything else) the only solution is to move to the US, which is a rather more drastic solution than most people would be willing to consider.


I have long wanted to see a movie – any movie – in which the audience applauds at the end. I’ve always thought I’d have to go to America to do this since they are certainly more unrestrained than the English, but at the end of watching Return of the King in London on the premiere, there was a short yet touchingly honest spread of applause after the final scene. In England, it was as good as a standing ovation.


Support For New York-Style Smoking Ban – the results of a MORI poll conducted in the UK on whether we should have a smoking ban. One question: is it standard in America to have smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants, and if so, do they work well? I can’t remember from my previous visits.

Calling you

Why is it the case that on Orange, you can call any number in the USA at any time of the day for 15p/minute, while it costs 35p/minute to make calls to anyone in the UK at peak time?

This only applies for the popular Everyday 50 tariff, but I suspect it’s still cheaper to call the USA than the UK on a number of other tariffs. Very strange, and of course, very irritating.

Another thing – it used to be the case that mobile phone coverage and prices in the USA were far worse than the UK. On my recent visits, the situation has reversed; while the USA still uses the ridiculous practice of charging you for calls you receive, the price of the packages is more competitive than the UK. Oh well… hopefully things will be shaken up when 3G finally takes hold here and voice over IP is used.