Monthly Archives: February 2014

Ode to Platypuses!



A long, long time ago, back during the ever so distant days of high school, I performed in the annual school musical. Now, if any of you find picturing me in a musical to be different, please keep in mind that my roles were minimal, and having to memorize lines was no problem for me due to the dearth and sometimes nonexistence of lines for me to memorize. Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let us turn our attention to what I find truly epic and interesting. Since I went to a Catholic high school during my junior and senior years, we would always hold hands and pray in a gigantic circle before every performance. One of the more interesting prayers that we did was the platypus prayer.

While most of its details have now escaped my mind’s grasp, from what I can remember, the platypus prayer remarked on how odd platypuses are and how they seem to be hodgepodges of different body parts from numerous different animals. I do not remember how this was worked into the form of a prayer, but I do find it very interesting how humans view platypuses. Most of us see them as strange beings that are very alien to the world compared to all the other animals alive today, especially when compared to modern mammals. Europeans were amazed when they first encountered the platypus in 1798. When the first platypus specimen arrived in Britain, zoologist George Shaw thought that someone had sewn a duck’s beak onto some form of beaver-like animal.

george shaw


George Shaw

He even started to cut up the specimen with scissors in his search for stitches. Robin Williams even joked that God was stoned when He created the platypus.

robin williams

Robin Williams

However, all this is an illusion created by our own very egocentric minds. In reality, the world has been used to platypuses for 125 million years. The earliest known relative of the platypus is Teinolophos from Australia, followed by Steropodon from 110 million years ago in Australia.




As you can see in this reconstruction of Steropodon by paleoartist Nobu Tamura, the platypus form was already well developed even 110 million years ago. although odd, the platypus body plan is nothing new to this world. Meanwhile, we humans, the strange hairless bipedal apes who somehow manage to survive outside normal primate habitats, are the truly foreign creatures of this world, having been around for only 200,000 years, and at most only 8 million years if you include all bipedal primates. In fact, the modern platypus species itself has been around for 9 million years, already at least a million years older than even our earliest bipedal ancestors.

As my deliberation group learned this past Monday, being mostly Schreyer Scholars and Paterno Fellows, we are rather in a bubble, as we quickly found out when we realized that none of us knew anything about trade schools. In a way, all humans are in a bubble. We are so used to our own cultures, perceptions, experiences, and values that anything that falls outside of them, such as “strange” creatures such as platypuses, we immediately label as weird and view in a different light even if what’s “weird” has already been around for hundreds of millions of years longer than we have. This innate egocentricity is something that we should try our best to overcome while reminding ourselves that it also makes us all human and gives us all one common trait that we can feel united under.

Games Games Games Games Games



This past week saw the end of the wildly popular app/mobile game known as “Flappy Bird.” Ultimately, the app’s creator Dong Nguyen simply could not deal with the fact that his little game that he had intended for short relaxing breaks had become an addiction for many and such removed it from app stores. Nor could he cope with the sleep loss he suffered after the game saw huge success. While some may consider this quite a shame, it does not make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things considering the hugely vast number of games out there for us to play in today’s world where there is supposedly an app for everything.

flappy bird

But why do we play games? “Because they’re fun.” Fair enough, I suppose. But on a deeper, more instinctual and primal level, why do we play games? It is a question that not many have delved into. In order to investigate this question, we first have to define what a game is. In almost all cases, a game is an event where a player competes with one or more other players, a CPU (central processing unit, essentially the “brain” of your computer, your smart phone, your video game console, etc.), or some other opponent or obstacle in order to attain an end goal. In “Flappy Bird,” a player competes against the game’s level design and game mechanics in order to obtain as high a score as possible. In football, a player competes against the opposing team in order to score as many touchdowns, field goals, and/or two point conversions as possible. In chess, a player competes against another player in order to try to put the other player’s “king” piece in “checkmate.”

But look at the definition of a game again. Based on that definition, is not life also a game? In life, does not one also compete with one or more other “players” (competitors in the job market, other students in class, etc.) and obstacles in order to attain an end goal (financial security, a dream job, the highest grade in the class, etc.)? If we assume that the answer to this question is indeed yes, then it soon becomes very clear that life is a very terrible game that few would actually pay money for. In life, we do not know how the decisions we make now will affect is in the future and how well they will lead us on or off the path to attaining our end goal. Even worse, life is full of so many random variables that it is very difficult to predict where life is going to take us and how we should act to circumvent the obstacles we encounter in life.

However, in “Flappy Bird,” one knows immediately if their actions will reward them with success or failure. One does not have to wait several decades to see whether or not they “won” the game (we will define winning here as reaching a particular high score that is up to the player’s discretion). And since “Flappy Bird” runs on a set game engine with set game mechanics and coding, there are a lot fewer unpredictable variables one has to worry about when playing “Flappy Bird.”

In the end, this is why we play games. Life is one big game that spans (hopefully) decades, and one never knows how close they are to “winning” the game. As such, games provide us a way to simulate the competitive nature of life while having instant or rapid results to our actions and limitations on how random variables can affect us. This simulation of life that is both easier and more immediately pleasing helps us to cope with the stresses of real life and remind ourselves that life too “is just a game.” So the next time you play any game, remind yourself that if you can beat it, then life should be no problem for you.

“Blood, Guts, and Video Games”*

Unless you live under a rock, you are probably familiar with the popularity of video games in modern day society. However, the video games you are probably familiar with are likely very different from the kind older folks grew up playing. One big difference is the level of mature content present on-screen. In recent years, numerous games have attracted quite a lot of controversy over their presentation of violence, sexual situations, substance abuse, and other such sensitive topics. Arguably the one that media rambles most about is violence.


Violence has generally always been a part of video games, in one form or another. In one of the earliest video games, Donkey Kong (you can play it here:, the protagonist you control can be killed by flames, heavy objects bouncing around the screen, a fall to his death, failure to complete the game on time, or the eponymous giant gorilla Donkey Kong.

donkey kong 1981


Donkey Kong (1981)

While death is not necessary to show that one has failed in a video game, it certainly helps to establish the concept well and easily and so it was and generally still is the most readily chosen option for representing failure in a video game. However, due to limited technology at the time, early depictions of death were cartoonish and simple and did not raise any fuss.


Controversy over video game violence first started with the 1976 game Death Race.

death race 1976


Death Race (1976)

In this game, you run over innocent pedestrians to score points. Although the graphics are too simple to be realistic at all (pedestrians are merely rendered as stick figures), the very concept of running over innocent pedestrians in a video game unsurprisingly provoked the more sensitive in society. In 1982, the game Texas Chainsaw Massacre allowed players to kill innocent civilians, this time with slightly improved but still simplistic graphics and no blood, but unlike Death Race, no real controversy was raised.



Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1982)

It appeared that just six years of games and a link to a popular film allowed Texas Chainsaw Massacre to get away with killing innocent civilians.


In 1986, the presence of actual blood and gore first appeared and (not surprisingly) attracted a lot of attention. The game Chiller provided players with an utter and very bloody torture simulator, and many arcades refused to support the game.

chiller 1986


Chiller (1986)

By 1987, the game Death Wish III failed to attract any attention for allowing players to use a rocket launcher to turn both enemies and prostitutes into bloody piles, as violent shooter games with action movie connections or at the least the spirit of an action movie had already become the norm.

death wish iii


Death Wish III (1987)

The 1987 game Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior did raise attention though for depicting brutal combat and decapitation.


Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior (1987)

Keep in mind the video games at this time were still viewed as children’s playthings.


By 1988, new technology allowed for more realistic depiction of violence. The 32-bit (which was quite revolutionary at the time) video game Narc allowed players to blow human enemies into bloody bits, but the attack dogs in the game only shrink down and run away when shot.



Narc (1988)

In many recent Call of Duty games, players kill dogs in realistic and bloody manner, but yet no one seems to bat an eye.



Breaking a dog’s neck in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)

This would not be the first time that society is seen having relatively strange and ironic standards for what is considered decent.


By 1992, CD-ROMs were all the rage. The 1992 game Night Trap featured live action video and was not particularly gory but led to cries for censorship for its realistic depiction of violence against women.

night trap

Night Trap (1992)

Also in 1992, the game Mortal Kombat was released.

mortal kombat


Mortal Kombat (1992)

The depiction of bloody fighting and brutal killing moves often featuring decapitation or dismemberment led to lawsuits attempting to censor or strictly regulate the game. Nevertheless, the series has continued to be popular and released its latest game in 2011, which was banned in Australia, Germany, and South Korea for its violence. Mortal Kombat’s controversy led to the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), who now put a rating on all games. Since some of the ratings restrict purchase of games to those 17 or 18 and over, this ended the view that video games were merely children’s playthings, and now games could be free to be ever more violent without the worry of attracting attention.


In one of the more notable instances of video game controversy, the 1993 first person shooter (FPS) game Doom attracted a lot of attention for supposedly causing violent behavior in and serving as a “training ground” for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the murderers behind the 1999 Columbine massacre.



Doom (1993)

For a time, people were scared of FPSs and feared that they may be turning kids into violent killers. In 2011, similar fears were raised after Anders Behring Breivik went on a terrorism rampage in Norway that left 77 dead. Breivik supposedly used the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as training for his acts of terrorism, and Norway subsequently banned 2011’s two most popular FPS games Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 from even being released in the country.



Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)


Battlefield 3 (2011)


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011)

After 2012’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the National Rifle Association (NRA) tried to blame video games for turning gamers into violent killers once again. This time though, few bought this claim as being true, as the proliferation of FPS games in recent years (the 2010 game Call of Duty: Black Ops was at one point in one out of every eight American homes) has destroyed any sense of credibility in the idea that they are corrupting gamers’ minds.


Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010)


Returning to the 1990s, the 1995 game Phantasmagoria featured bloody depictions of live actors meeting bloody ends.



Phantasmagoria (1995)

The game was banned in Australia, and many retailers refused to sell it. In 1997, the next major controversy surrounding video games arrived in the form of Carmageddon, which allowed players to run over pedestrians to score points again, this time in far more realistic (relatively for the 1990s) and bloody detail.



Carmageddon (1997)

The outcry led to the game being altered to running over green blooded zombies in the UK and robots in Germany. The troublesome nature of killing civilians in a video game transcends the limits of time. The Grand Theft Auto series has attracted plenty of attention since its 1997 inception for allowing players to casually commit random and reckless acts of violence such as killing prostitutes and taking their money afterward, as a common joke/meme goes.


Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)


The next millennium brought with it new ways to raise ire. The 2002 game Postal 2 allowed players to control a psychopath killing civilians and even allowed the player to urinate on the dead bodies.

postal 2


Postal 2 (2002)

The 2003 game Manhunt created arguable the most controversy in recent years by allowing players to play as a death row inmate forced to creatively kill for a snuff film (a film featuring actual people dying), leading to bans in multiple countries.



Manhunt (2003)

Since Manhunt, common bloody violence in video games has become more accepted and no longer causes the controversy it once did. In 2005 though, Resident Evil 4 did raise some attention for depicting the player dying by decapitation via chainsaw.

resident evil 4


Resident Evil 4 (2005)

Finally, the most recent major controversy surrounding video game violence arose in 2009, with the “No Russian” mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 attracting a lot of outrage for allowing players to massacre a whole airport full of innocent civilians.

no russian


“No Russian” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)

Some biased sources even falsely accused the game of rewarding players with points for massacring the civilians. Ironically, the game never even tells players to kill the civilians. In the mission, the player takes the role of an undercover agent spying from within a terrorist organization. The other terrorists alongside the player happily and liberally massacre civilians, but the player him/herself is never actually told to do so.


Earlier this year, the game Call of Duty: Ghosts was discovered to have files coding for “weed camo,” which would allow the player to put images of cannabis leaves all over their gun.

weed camo


“Weed Camo” from Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013)

This was likely left out of the game to avoid raising controversy. This is rather strange and ironic. The game rewards players for shooting people in the head; yet controversy is over pictures of cannabis being put on a gun. This shows how far we have come in terms of accepting depictions of violence in video games. Gone are the days where running over stick figure civilians caused concern, and today’s video games usually feature liberal displays of blood and brutality without concern for negative public reaction. Sure, every once in a while, controversy will be raised, but if history has taught us anything, it is that anything considered controversial now will be a common part of popular culture within a few years or decades.


*Credit for the title goes to Stuart Brown (2014)

A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

Earlier this week on Monday in class, I had brought up the topic of phrenology during our most interesting and lively discussion on ethos, pathos, and logos, and how they fit within an “ideal speech situation,” as Juergen Habermas would call it. For those who do not recall what I said, phrenology is the pseudo-scientific study of the human skull and mapping it out with the belief that certain characteristics of certain parts of the skull have particular implications. The example that I had brought up in class came from the 2012 film “Django Unchained” (If you have not yet seen this film, I highly recommend you do so sometime).

django unchained

In the film, a Caucasian male tries to claim that bumps on the skull or lack thereof signify Caucasians such as the astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei to be naturally brilliant and Africans such as the numerous slaves seen throughout the film to be naturally submissive.



(Galileo Galilei)

I had brought up this point to show that logos is not always the most important factor in an ideal speech situation, particularly in response to Kyle’s metaphor featuring the chariot with the white horse representing reason and the black horse representing unbridled and raw instinctive emotion. Kyle reaction to my mention of phrenology clearly showed his feeling of repugnance toward the pseudoscience.

Race has been a factor in human history since we started becoming people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It has of course been the cause of major amounts of conflict, violence, and division throughout the millennia. It is a sad truth about humanity that we often like to pretend is behind us or that we can at least hide from sight. However, hiding human division from sight is a lot harder than it sounds. Even with the Berlin wall now torn down, the divide between East and West Berlin can still be seen clearly from space.

berlin lightbulb division

The decades of Soviet domination over East Berlin mean that today East Berliners still use different light bulbs from West Berliners, and this creates a very visible division when viewed from space. The border between India and Pakistan can also clearly be seen from space, as artificial lighting signals attempts to control the flow of people and commodities between the two countries.


Historian Will Durant once said, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.” If aliens are viewing the Earth from space right now, it is sad to know that they could likely see these divisions that we have set up among us. Perhaps they might feel that we deserve to be conquered if all we have done is tear ourselves apart. However, as astronaut Ron Garan pointed out here (, when he saw the border between India and Pakistan illuminated in the night sky from space, he also realized what unites us: “We can look down and realize that we are all riding through the Universe together on this spaceship we call Earth, that we are all interconnected, that we are all in this together, that we are all family.”

ron garan

(Ron Garan)

We are united in more ways than you might realize. Simply by being Eurasian (if anyone in our class is not Eurasian, I am sorry for forgetting about you), we all have one to four percent of our DNA contributed through our ancestors breeding with Neanderthals.

neanderthal model

(Model of a Neanderthal man)

Native people throughout Southeast Asia, Melanesia, and Australia all have four to six percent of their DNA contributed through ancestral breeding with the Denisovans, a more recently discovered extinct form of humans that lived throughout Eurasia. A Furthermore, analysis of our mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) (for all you non-science folks out there, mDNA is DNA that specifically is inherited from our mothers only) shows that we (as in every modern human who has ever lived) can all trace our ancestry back to a single woman living in African 200,000 years ago. Actually, based on mathematical calculations of family trees, if you go back even to just the time of the Roman Empire, there should be at least one person on Earth at that time who is related to every human alive on Earth today. Furthermore, that person was likely Taiwanese, seeing as how the island was a major trading port at the time.

Seeing as how we were all born in the 1990s (or, in the case of Kyle, 1980s), it can be easy to forget sometimes how divided we humans truly are. Sometimes a single photo from space is all you need to remember this unfortunate truth about humanity. Yet let us not dwell too much on what divides us but instead focus more on what unites us. We are all human, our ancestries intertwining if you go back just millennia in time, and our DNA more similar than any 19th century phrenologist could ever have imagined. So while conflict is a daily part of society, we ought to not let it cloud our view of the true unity that holds us all together.