Derek Johnson Muses

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Why Economist Should Play Settlers of Catan

I was introduced to the game Settlers of Catan at a game night with some friends from church. The game instantly fascinated me, because of its complexity and how resources had the potential for different values based on which numbers were on top of them. I went home  and downloaded Catan to my iPod and got into it.

In the first game I’d played on the board with people, the experienced players tried to get a settlement on a region for each resource so they wouldn’t have to trade, and I mimicked this strategy in my first couple of computer games I didn’t win a game and walked away frustrated, but I noticed something: the value of a resource changes during the game. Ore, for example, isn’t valued much early the game, because everyone wants to build roads and settlements to avoid getting hemmed into one or two areas, so everyone wants to trade ore for brick and wood. But as the game goes on, players value ore more because they’re trying to get cities.

After I took a break and realized that my initial assessment was comprehensive enough. Trying to get a settlement on each resource was too hard and tiring, and even if you did, it wasn’t worth much if it was on a 2 or an 11 or a 12, numbers that aren’t rolled much.

I considered our present economy: who get the most value for their work? I’m not talking about workaholic lawyers and doctors; although their work is very valuable, they have to put in a lot of time to get that value. No, the most valuable people in our society are consultants, people who can come in and increase the average earning power of workaholics and companies with some tweaking and telling them which markets to pursue. Apply that principal to Catan, and I only needed to control one or two resources to win at the game.

I revised my initial take on how the resources changed throughout the game. When the players choose their first two settlements at the beginning of the game, all of the resources had an equal value. To be successful, I had to choose a place on the board where I would get one resource constantly and could flip that resource into whatever I needed. For example, I would put my first settlement on a port where sheep traded at 2:1, and my second settlement on two sheep regions. It doesn’t matter that the sheep aren’t a critical resource throughout the life of the game; as long as I could flip them at that rate, I could easily convert the sheep into whatever I needed.

So as I’ve played, I don’t bother making long roads across the board; I build more and more on main resource squares, especially if it’s on a 6 or an 8. If I get a city and settlement on one of those numbers, I can pretty much assume I’ll win the game.

There is a second secret I’ve found to succeeding at Catan: take what you’re given. If you end up taking wheat as your main resource and find yourself with two ore and two wheat a couple turns into the game, take an ore if someone else is willing to trade it and build a city. Don’t worry that you only have two settlements; ore’s going to get more expensive as the game goes along. Part of getting value is taking what people are willing to trade when they want to trade it. Say you can trade wood at 2:1 and it’s early in the game. If you don’t have a settlement on a sheep region, you’re better off taking a sheep anytime someone wants to trade it, even if it helps your neighbor at an inconvenient time. The game is about getting value whenever you can.

Any comers?

Road Notes: Back to Wisconsin and Dodging Biting Dogs

It was a bit exasperating to my psyche to go back to Wisconsin (even more so when a dog tried literally to bite me-keep reading), driving most of the same route to the same fields that I went to a month ago. But, I have some new experiences, so another edition of Road Notes. (First Edition and Sequel)

Plot in Spring Green is Shedding

Tuesday morning, I wake up in Dubuque, say goodbye to Tom and grab another punch for a free coffee. The morning clouds are laced by blue sun; it’s hazy and humid, but thankfully not a scorcher. When I get to the plot at Fennimore, I have to call our grower to double-check the location and find out the field I assumed was our test is not our test plot. The actual test plot is located in a place that is much more difficult to get to, along roughly graveled access road up-and-down an uneven plane. The plot itself is planted in a strip on a hill, and it’s going to be a long carry when I harvest the plants here.

Post-field, I head into Fennimore, intending find a library to e-mail some field notes to my father to make sure we are on the same page. I park the library parking lot, but see a bakery across the street, so I decide to support the local business. I don’t go in at first, but instead stand right outside the door to make sure they have WiFi. They do. The bakery is run by some conservative protestant women wearing homemade dresses and prayer-head coverings. I buy a pecan roll (incidently, “pecanroll” is the WiFi password). I e-mail my father, facebook a photo of the bakery to a friend of mine who’d love it (he does), and waste another twenty-minutes downloading podcasts, as if I haven’t already purchased two books on CD. Overall, the trip is a disaster.

The Cottage Bakery in Fennimore

This time, I decide to go straight north out of Fennimore instead of taking US Highway 18. Choosing a county road over US 61, which goes only a handful of miles to the west, it is finally cemented in my head that using county roads to navigate the Wisconsin hills just isn’t worth the hassle, especially when you’re slowing down for the Amish, which I do thrice.

Advancing to the town of Blue River on the Wisconsin River, I wonder what most of America would think if they knew that their milk came from dairies in the rotten wooden barns I’m passing. Blue River reminds me of Stapelhurst. Like every American town of 400 or less, it has too many buildings meant for businesses. From Highway 60 east, I get a spectacular view of the Wisconsin, which is dotted with sandbars, but nowhere near as shallow as the Platte.

Post-plot inspection (this one will be much easier to harvest than Fennimore), I drive into Spring Green and eat lunch at The Kitchen at Arcadia Books, the high-class bookshop/coffee shop I passed by last trip. The shop is built for light (light blue walls, varnished wood) and brandishes several old covers of The New Yorker on its walls. Ironic for southwest Wisconsin; must get Chicagoans out her for the Shakespeare festival.

 

Burn up through the valley to Mauston, where I stop at an Evangelical Christian coffee shop on the square. I’m drawn to the art in their windows, but I order a latte with a shot as well. They’re closing, so I head off and make a wrong turn as I try to get on the interstate and have to go back around the construction in town. Even though I-94 goes at an angle, only Wisconsin Highway 82 has an exit. 58 does not.

Most interesting vehicle I encounter on the way to Colfax is a F-350 with a trailer, North Carolina plates, and N.C. State plate on the front. Colfax is on the end of a dry spell, and our stuff there doesn’t look great, although it’s still July. On the way back down, I stop for dinner at Moe’s Almost Famous Diner, a 1950’a style place that I should have known values environment over food. The waitress is unengaged, tells me where to sit, is late taking my order and in bringing me the check, resulting in her tip getting dock. The food is really bad too, and I drive down to Tomah disappointed. Checking into the Super 8, the guy in front of me speaks with a Canadian accent, so I assume he’s driving the vehicle with Winnipeg Jets plates in the parking lot.

Tuesday morning, I wake up and, forgetting my lesson from the Cottage Bakery, waste a lot of time trying unsuccesfully to sync my iPod to my laptop. Our plot in Tomah has some insect damage but looks okay otherwise. As I get back to my truck, I met one of our plot’s farmers, introduce myself, and give him my card. We chat for a minute about the lack of rain, and I head out.

A couple miles east of Tomah, there’s a roadblock due to a bridge that’s out. I’m out in the middle of cranberry country and national forests, which means a long detour if I decide to take country roads. I consult my GPS and figure it’s worth the risk to go country roads. It pays off: I only have to drive eight or ten miles around, and I’m back on Wisconsin Highway 21.

Pond on the way

After viewing our field by Coloma, I stop for lunch at the Culver’s in Portage and trying to prove I’m classy, I find a lake and eat lunch in front of a bunch of swimming kids. Swing through downtown, cross the river, and I’m back on I-39.

I arrive at our plot in Arlington circa 12:30. It’s right next to a house, so I figure I should knock there first to let the people know I’m there. When I pull in the driveway, a dog comes up barking. I decide to ignore him, as I do all barking dogs, but he comes up beside me and bits a hole in my pant leg. (Praise the Lord I choose to put on long pants today.) Rattled, I head back to the cab of my truck without knocking on the door and without getting bit again. I debate what to do for a second, but then someone comes driving up the lane from the behind one of the barns. We speak to each other through our respective truck cabs; I don’t tell him about the dog bite, and he instructs me to drive to the field at the end of the lane I’m on. I do, and sit sheepishly in the cab for a few minutes while the dog continues to bark. Eventually, I cautiously get out and head into the field. The dog doesn’t follow me. I’m a bit relieved when I see that most of the crop here has been lost to drought, meaning I won’t have to go here again.

The dying plot

I take a county road (this one actually is straight) down to Sun Prairie, an upscale Madison suburb where I search for a place to buy scissors to cut off the dog rip in my pants. I don’t mess around and tell myself to stop at the first store I see, which turns out to be a Dollar General. No one stares at me when I go to buy the $2 scissors and a Gatorade, or when I come out and stand at the open door of my truck cutting my cargo pants into shorts. Thankfully, these pants were about shot anyway. On my way out of the shopping center where I bought the scissors, I make a failed attempt to jump on McDonald’s WiFi from there parking lot.

While I stop in Marshall to use their sterile peach library’s WiFi and call my Dad, I tweet about the irony of their being towns named Waterloo and Watertown within twenty miles of each other.

After examining the plot (excellent stand in spite of the heat), I drive into Watertown and take a leisurely break at Tribeca, a book/coffee shop with an upstairs that has a view of downtown Watertown. After working on an HL column on Rex Burkhead, I stroll down town to the river which must give Watertown its name. A bunch of teenagers roam the streets, and I wonder if their bored here during the summer.

Watertown

As I drive north out of Watertown, my dad texts me that the plot in Fox Lake has been abandoned and I won’t have to go there. I drive relieved through the wretched roundabout to get to Wisconsin Highway 26, relieved a stop has been eliminated.

I spend the night at what used to be the AmerInn in Waupun. The hotel is now called Borders for some reason, and a bunch of road crews are staying there. I’m exhausted, so I got to the one restaurant that’s close that I like: Culver’s, for the second time today. Later, I go back for ice cream.

I wake up at four and can’t get back to sleep. I work on my Husker Locker column, getting to the body of the work. I still manage to leave late and get to the first Omro plot at 8:40. The second plot takes me a while to find, but it’s by an abandoned school. The two plots (four miles apart) are works in contrast: the first is completely healthy, the second will be abandoned because of drought and weeds. Relieved, I drive back to Omro and waste some time browsing a thrift store.

A Day in My Life…

A while ago, my fellow blogger Eirinn (who you should all follow) wrote a merry post that outlined every thing she did in a day. That really inspired to write a similar post, and after a couple of months, the idea felt perfect for this past Easter Monday.

6:13 My consciousness hums for the first time since last night; I see a wisp of light from outside coming through the window outside, and I hear my parents bustling around downstairs.

7:23 Actually come around.

7:26 Get out of bed, use the bathroom, dress in ratty work clothes, and come downstairs to find my mother engaged in a pre-dawn nap.

7:31 Heat up milk to pour over my natural foods version of shredded wheat. Breakfasts takes me five minutes, during which a read a page or two of Laura Rider’s Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton, a Wisconsin author if there ever was one. I have committed myself not to look at my computer or IPod screen until noon.

7:46 Make coffee; my current brew is an indulgence, Cream City Blend, a signature of Stone Creek Coffee, a chain from Milwaukee that I feel in love with in college and wish was in Omaha or Lincoln.

8:15 Today, I am planting 26 cold samples my father has brought me. I get out six kimpak prep trays, only to find I haven’t made the marking sticks for the trays. So I have to put the prepped trays back in the cold chamber (they can only be out of the cold chamber for 45 minutes). First half of the morning, I do all the sticks and plant 12 samples. I listen to half of an ESPN: First Draft podcast (Kiper and McShay’s back and forth), two segments of an Issues, Etc. podcast (Pastor Will Weedon on the Easter hymn “Ride on, Ride on in Majesty”), and then The Herd on ESPN Radio.

9:45 I don’t like taking breaks before I’m halfway down, but if I start another set, my head will be going numb toward the end of it.

9:50 Snack on a banana and pace a bit. I don’t read, I don’t check facebook or e-mail. Just hanging loose.

10:00 Start back on the remaining 14 samples, listening to my playlist from late last summer (The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young”, The Fray’s “Heartbeat” are the signature tracks), and turn The Herd back on at 10:30, in time to hear Adam Schefter come on and talk NFL.

11:30 Finish with work and head into shower. To rid myself of the horrid scent of wet corn plant and seed lab, I pour on the Axe body wash.

12:05 When I get out of the shower, mom is making omelets for her and dad and offers to make  me one. Thus lunch is an omelet with two cheeses, the last of an oatmeal like cereal that mom made, and toast with crab apple jelly. I’m not eating meat, and I assume it will catch up to me around 3. While eating, I allow myself to go online and check stuff.

12:30 My parents leave for Lincoln to go to my Dad’s dentist appointment, and I settle down for some solid Facebook and e-mail time .

1:00 My mother calls; she has arrived at the dentist’s office in Lincoln and has forgotten the guide book for the diet my dad and she are on. I agree to bring and plan to leave in five minutes.

1:30 Leave for Lincoln after thirty minutes of running the house and gathering unimportant crap that I probably won’t use but might need. (I’m still eight years old.) When I get four blocks from my house, I find that I don’t have the diet guide book that I’m supposed to bring to my mother. I head back to the house to get the book, and after I’m back in the car, my mother calls me again.

1:35 Given that I’m turned around, I now set out to drive the round-about way. Late and listening to “Rumor Has It” on the radio, I get angry when I get stuck behind a gold Cadillac driven by an old person. Flipping the car off (I know), I circle back to the main route, only to re-encounter the Cadillac while it waits to turn into the hospital and holds me up again.

1:52 Get to the light at Fletcher and Highway 34 by the highlands and call my mom; she says they’ll be a while and that I should come straight to the dentist’s office. Could have just taken the Interstate.

1:55 Get off the I-180 at Cornhusker; contemplating taking Cornhusker until I can branch off on Holdredge, then decide to follow Sun Valley to North 10th and get onto Vine. Of course, there isn’t a direct way to Vine from 10th, and end up downtown where the I-180 ends. To try to justify my inefficient route, I take P over to 17th, to then go down to Capitol. This makes no difference.

2:07 I get to the dentists in an office plaza north of the crossroads of 40th, Normal, and South Streets. Mom compensates me for my gas and talks to me about work for roughly twenty minutes.

2:28 Leaving the dentist, I decide that my car is running funny and I should fill up on gas (although the real problem is likely that I need an oil change). I get gas at the Fast Mart on 33rd and A, which happens to be on the corner across from a Valentino’s where worked for two months almost seven years ago.

2:30 When I go into use the bathroom, an older gentleman holds the door open for me on my way out and says “you’re welcome” to me as if I should be ashamed of myself for not saying “thank you”, which I do on my way in. (Hey, I just happened to be in the right position for you to hold the door for an extra half second; if I had been two seconds ahead of you, I would have held the door and been grateful if you hadn’t said anything.) On my way back out, I make a conscientious effort to go out the other side door, but the man has already left.

2:32 Not wanting the trip to Lincoln to be a waste, I go to the Starbucks on 33rd and O, order a green tea smoothie, and set to work on catching up on my e-mail. The place is full, and people are coming and going. I sit on the half-couch, half-chair thing and type to my heart’s content.

3:35 Leaving Starbucks, afternoon traffic has picked up, and it takes me a while to get through downtown. I decide to go to Pioneer’s Park to take my afternoon walk

4:00 I park next a gray Bronco-like vehicle in my favorite parking lot in the middle of the park and hit the trail; millions of kids are out here playing, along with female joggers. I walk along the stream and let my thought peculate.

4:35 Leave the park.

4:53 Stop at the truck stop just of the Northwest 48th Street exit to buy something to drink; settle on two 16 oz. pops for two dollars (root beer and Sierra Mist).

4:58 Blast on to I-80 and blaze for home.

5:26 Get home and make a list of things people I still need to contact.

6:00 Begin to make supper. Mom has left two soup mixes, so break some roast beef out of the freezer and open up the vegetable mix. I dirty an extra pot when I underestimate how big the batch will be. (A blog post on this soup “adventure” is coming.)

7:00 I turn on How I Met Your Mother, the show whose original episodes I look forward to the most. The soup finishes up at 7:10, and I balance eating it with tweeting about #HIMYM.

7:30 Watch 2 Broke Girls while I wash and put away dishes and food. Girls has the best set up of any show that’s come out this year, other than maybe Up All Night.

8:00 Exhausted from standing in the kitchen for better part of the last two hours, I sit and game on my IPod while watching other shows on my computer, instead of doing the things on my list.

9:30 I turn off my computer with the intent of going to bed for Men’s Bible Study at 6:30 tomorrow. Instead I decide to put away some more dishes and fold the laundry that’s been sitting in the basket for several days.

10:30 Prior to going to bed, I fake scan the book next to me for a page or two, then stop kidding myself and turn out the light.

Overtime

6:03 After waking up around 4:30, I decide that I should sleep as late as I can before having to head out. When I see 6:03 on the clock, I’m tempted to go back to sleep, but I know I’ll regret it if I do. I intend to take a five minute shower, and set up my IPod to time myself. My shower last a typical ten minutes. Even still, I somehow manage to show up to Bible study on time.

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