Notes from Charlie

This is a slightly rambling multi-topic discusssion of my recent mass transit experiences back in Boston


Using the new RFID (radio frequency identification)-based CharlieCard is pretty cool, actually. RFID technology is great for this application--I've found that I don't even need to take the card out of my wallet: I just bump my wallet against the contact pad on the bus/turnstile, and it registers. Indy pointed out that you can see the lump in the card where the chip is probably located--I was considering clipping it out, and sewing it into the sleeve of my jacket, so I could just wave my arm over the pad when getting on the bus. Pretty geeky, yeah.

I think some people have privacy concerns about RFID tags--are people trying to track you as you're walking down the street? But as far as I can tell, it seems like the range is pretty limited. So unless people are walking around whacking everyone on the ass with electronic probes, I'm not going to bother putting my card in a metallicized bag.

The MBTA is pushing people towards these cards--the subway and bus fares are slightly discounted using these plastic RFID cards vs. the paper magnetic stripe cards ($1.70 vs. $2.00, and $1.25 vs. $1.50). Also, the transfer system works pretty smoothly--I got on the 77 bus a few blocks after getting off the Red Line at Porter, and the reader read "$0.00 Transfer"--sweet! Also, I think that when I went from the bus to the subway, it charged me only 45 cents, but I could be wrong. Also, now being forced to take the bus, I'm pretty psyched that these cards speed up bus boarding, at least a little bit, reducing total trip time.

The Bus

Being up in Arlington, I'm completely bus-dependent now--I've used the 77 to Harvard via Mass Ave, 79 to Alewife, and 80 to Lechmere. It's not that horrible--I'm glad I can just leave the car in the driveway and not deal with parking in town, and I'm planning on using it for my commute to the office in Porter. But to The Residents of Arlington from the 1970's who decided the Red Line Extension into Arlington was a Bad Thing: screw you, you short-sighted NIMBYist yutzes (two words: Davis Square). The back story, for example, as told on some blog I found while searching for "arlington red line extension":

The original plan in the 70s for the Red Line extension beyond Harvard was to go to Route 128 via Arlington, Arlington Heights and Lexington, presumably via what is now the Minuteman Bikeway. However, the money from the Feds would only pay for the Arlington part. Arlington fought against it due to concerns about increased traffic and development around the terminus, worries about those criminals and vagrants coming from the city to cause trouble, and general NIMBYism. Terminating at Alewife ended up being a decent compromise in retrospect, considering how successful it is. Also, it’s likely that more people use the Minuteman today than would ever ride the Red Line.

Yeah, I'll admit I'm a huge fan of the Minuteman Trail. And I could see major problems if they built the Albert-Speer-school-of-architecture Alewife Station/parking garage (a.k.a. "East Berlin Revival Style") anywhere but a desolate plot of industrial land (out on 128, perhaps?). But having Arlington included in Red Line land (with the subway running under the Minuteman Trail right-of-way) would have been nice.

[Edit: looks like that's what the plan was, according to this website:]

If the Red Line was to be extended it would probably be in a cut and cover tunnel under the Minuteman Bike Path. Most people wanted the Red Line to terminate somewhere around Route 128 and I share this feeling. Originally the idea was to have the line go all the way to Hanscom Airport. This could still be done with a station on Route 128 but another idea is to have the line head north and east to Burlington with a stop in North Lexington and Route 128. This would make more sense seeing there is a large mall in Burlington and Route 3 is right next to it.

Bus Rapid Transit

I had some interesting discussions/arguments with my advisor about Bus Rapid Transit--he is a huge fan, and I am completely opposed to it, given that every instance I have seen is a case of trying to do a light-rail-equivalent on the cheap (or responding to calls for transit in name only) and failing--e.g., the Silver Line. A pretty compelling discussion is on the Wikipedia page. In contrast, my advisor very rarely takes mass transit in Canada, but has spent a lot of time in Europe. There, he found that it works very well, when they have such features as dedicated busways (bus-only) and off-board fare collection (faster boarding). It is his belief that by eliminating the cost of the rail infrastructure, it reduces the overall costs enough that service frequency will be higher. Maybe in Europe, but everything I've seen on this continent points to, "screw you, you don't get rail, here's a bus instead, and you're gonna like it." Also, one important North-America-specific problem with bus rapid transit, which seems pretty unsolvable:

BRT suffers from the serious image problem of buses. Quite often buses of any kind are far less attractive to "choice" riders; i.e., riders who could take transit or drive automobiles but prefer transit for certain trips because of perceived amenities of speed, convenience and/or comfort often found in light rail and subway systems. Bus systems suffer not only from poorer speed and ride quality, but from the perception of buses as a social accommodation — a means of transportation used by those who have no other choice, called "transit dependent." ...

While many BRT systems utilize state-of-the-art buses that differ substantially from traditional buses, light rail systems are perceived of still having a higher travel quality. Some put it bluntly as "a bus is still a bus". Routes that have been converted from BRT to light rail have often seen very large ridership gains.

Like I said, Red Line. Oh well.

One final note--I wandered into a blog called Charlie on the MBTA--it seems to be some type of MBTA ombudsman/information/complaint department. A pretty interesting read, and it seems like the person/people in charge of it are pretty responsive.

Each week, on our program...

Last night, A, Guy, Judy, and I went to see the This American Life 2007 Tour, recorded on stage at the Boston Opera House. The segments were performed by Sarah Vowell, Jonathan Goldstein, and Dan Savage.

It was a wonderful couple of hours of smiling, laughing, and, well, seeing the magic of TAL being created. For instance, they even ended the live show with the credits, and "...management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says..." [quote from story]--even better yet, the sound techs didn't have the mike on for the first take, so Glass had to say, "..take two," followed by the lead-in, and then the quote (read there by Sarah Vowell).

In case you're curious, the episode we saw will be broadcast on Saturday, March 17th (on WBUR, at least).

They had some video segments of the the upcoming television version of TAL on Showtime, as well an interview with the director, Chris Wilcha. He nervously/jokingly observed that he is in a lose-lose situation. He will either become known as "the guy who destroyed TAL by putting it on TV," or the show will be a great success, and Ira Glass will get all the credit. A bit like being an engineer, actually (i.e., the only engineers anyone remembers are the ones attached to some major disaster).

Two personal notes after seeing the show:

Being back in Boston = teh r0x0r. I realize these might seem like small things to most of you, but I really appreciate that: (1) this show came to the town I'm living in, (2) I can convince some friends to go see it with me, (3) I can have dinner at Diva before the show with one of them, and (4) I can get to the whole shebang via bus and subway.

Oh yeah, second thing: Sarah Vowell = teh sexy (okay, maybe I'm weird that way, but funny women are awesome).


A Few Random Funnies

When I was moving in, JMD and I did a pantry purge. Check out this awesome botulism-riffic can of sauerkraut! Mmmmm... anaerobes....

Also, Jen and JMD have both been in full-on knit/crochet mode, and they recently (without planning it!) respectively made a stuffed lamb, and a lion. So, for those of you who are interested in the biblical end-of-times, done in yarn:

Actually, according to some web searching, it seems like the whole thing about the lion lying down with the lamb is a misquotation: Although the phrase of “the lion shall lie down with the lamb” is one of the more popular quotes from the Bible, it’s really misquoted. In the King James version, it’s the wolf that dwells with the lamb, and it’s a leopard that lies down with a kid, and “the calf and the young lion and the fatling together.” (Isaiah 11:6)

An Update, an Update...

I realize that I have not posted in about two weeks now; part of this is that my life has been pretty boring (y'know--theese sleep eat drink dream). Also, I suffer from guilt whenever I have the energy to sit down at a keyboard, and don't do thesis writing/edits. However, I've managed to tear myself away for a little while to post an update here...

  • Thesis: I've actually been making pretty decent progress on the thesis for the past two weeks. I've finished off a chapter, did edits on several others, uploaded them to my advisor, and incorporated comments on two other chapters. My plan is to finish the introduction and conclusion this week or so (basically, the end of the draft)--progress is graphed below (current page count around 260--ugh):

    The long gap in November-December was when I was doing the simulation work for Chapter 8; the January gap was my month of conference paper + packing/moving out of the country.
  • Domestic: I've continued to organize the kitchen to my parameters--so far, without me & JMD exploding at each other. Added an outlet and moved the appliances around--there's now a few nice clear stretches of countertop (see my notes about being a 'counter space fascist.')

    As a general note on kitchen organization, I think that having a microwave on a regular countertop is a painful waste of space. First of all, there's no reason that it needs to be at that height, so you're negating your ability to do prep/staging on that surface. Second, microwaves are about 16" deep, vs. a 24" deep countertop. Can't store anything in front of it, or behind it (access). And stuff next to it blocks the vents. I'm a much bigger fan of having the microwave up (e.g., at eye level, like in fast food restaurant prep areas, or a commercial restaurant grill/salamander), or down (underneath the counter). Anyway, I've been taking care of a good chunk of the cooking, given that I'm working from home right now--as JMD has noted. That part has been fun.
  • Social: I've been a bit lame about getting out and seeing folks, now that I'm back in town. JMD and I did go up to visit Bird & Jen in NH this weekend--a fun day trip.

    After lunch, Jen and JMD went out shopping at TJ Maxx, while Bird and I went to Home Depot, and then installed a toilet. Oh yeah--then Jen made dinner. Next up on gender stereotype theater... However, there's a great quote from Click & Clack along these lines that I have to share:

    The truth is, men communicate better when they're grunting and groaning. Most men think—deep down inside—that sharing their feelings makes them sissies. And they don't want to be sissies. So they figure if they're torquing head bolts and repacking wheel bearings, who could possibly question their manhood? So under the hood, they feel free to share their true feelings about things. In fact, if you listen carefully under the hood of a car, you can usually hear two men talking about fear, vulnerability, acceptance, and pure love.

    But my social life is not totally lame. I'm hanging out with some coworkers tonight. And tomorrow, I am going to a live filming/recording of This American Life live in Boston (with Judy, A, & Guy).
  • Work: I have actually committed to heading back to work in a week. I'm actually a bit psyched to get back into the swing of things--and to have a net income, for a change. The office is just outside of Porter Square--a short bus ride down there (or bike ride, once the Minuteman Trail thaws). I have the top floor office reserved for me--pretty friggin' sweet:


22 Hour Party People

This weekend was packed with social activity: I felt like I had been welcomed home by my collective community. It was, in every way, completely wonderful (but also pretty exhausting).

First of all, out-of-towners came to visit: Perlick took the bus up from NYC; also, Jofish and his girlfriend Julie road tripped in from Ithaca. We met on Saturday to have lunch together at Brehznev's--a short hop from the Greyhound terminal where P. arrived. This was followed by tEp Initiation... er, Initialization...

Insert peldge into drive B: for initialization. Initializing. . . . Initialization successful.

I got to hang out with an assortment of alumni who showed up (including Deb Ghosh, with his wife and son!), and met many of the undergrads.

This was followed by partying like rock stars (ok, well, vaguely like rock stars?..) into the wee hours with Perlick, Jofish, Julie, & Indy. Not quite vicious hangover territory, but close.

Sunday was coffee hour at JMD's pla... hey wait, it's my place too now! Woot!

Like most coffee hours, people arrived in various waves, so the socializing pretty much lasted from 11:22 AM through making dinner. Many thanks to all of you who stopped by--it was great to see you!

What Utter Rot...

a.k.a., fun with composting

Another important step for making a place feel like home is to get the compost pile up and running. After living with a compost bin for over two years, it feels fundamentally wrong to throw vegetable trimmings into a plastic bag, to get mummified in a landfill.

It's pretty neat that the state of Massachusetts subsidizes the distribution of compost bins: for instance I bought one from the town for $30 ($95 retail price). Of course, it is in their self-interest to reduce the waste stream, assuming the bins that they sell get used.

The model they sell is called the New Age Composter; formerly the Brave New™ Composter (Not that I think their current name is that good, but I guess their focus groups said that the old name makes them think of the distopian approach to composting...)

Incidentally, Assembles in 10 min without tools was a crock of shit in my considered opinion. Some requisite items for assembling the upper cone included vise grip pliers, clamps, and an ample supply of foul language. And staking the bin down to the frozen ground required a cordless drill and a 12" masonry bit.

The Wikipedia article on composting has a pretty good description on how to run a compost pile, including a section on the differences between 'hot' and 'cold' composting:

Cold composting is the type of composting done in most domestic garden compost bins where temperatures never reach above 30°C (86°F). Cold composting is typically people placing their kitchen scraps in the garden compost bin and forgetting about them. (oops... sounds about like what I did in Canada)

In this circumstance, a garden compost bin becomes a storage container for scraps and has a very high moisture content which means it turns quite anaerobic and smelly. This type of composting generates significant adverse green house gas emissions. (again, oops...)

When composting this way, a gardener can improve the process by adding some wood chip or small pieces of bark, leaves, twigs or a combination of these materials through the mixture. This material helps to improve drainage and airflow.

Well, at least in this installation, I have access to dry leaves and garden implements, so I'll balance the green/brown (nitrogen/carbon) mix a bit better.


Settling In...

I realized that I haven't given an update on my moving-in process; the last major post was on my Ithaca-Boston drive. To summarize: the movers showed up on Monday, and did a quick offload of my stuff into my former company's garage (i.e., storage). The process went pretty smoothly; they were done in a bit more than an hour. I recovered some vital items, including my desktop computer and toolboxes. A JMD is provided for scale:

As for the remainder of this week, I've been setting up my room in preparation for getting my ass in gear and writing again. Fortunately, there were a set of shelves in the basement that I had cleverly recovered from Pemberton's basement, just for this use (thanks, Bird!).

Tools are organized and ready to go in the basement. Priorities, y'know.

I'm planning on punting a bit more, putting together some basement organization [Edit: like this!]

The bedroom decor is an interesting reminder that a lot of my Stuff is not really necessary for a place to feel like a comfortable home. I'm pretty much ok with this (at least temporarily) stripped-down lifestyle. However, I wonder if I will start thinking of my bedroom as the "thesis cell"--solitary confinement for writing, a la The Bet by Chekov (however, fifteen years is way beyond what I'm planning).

I'm also psychologically settling into this new situation and new location pretty well. I love the part of town I'm in--five minutes from the town center; Indian food store, CVS, and Starbuck's a miniscule walk away; post office, hardware store, and supermarket a little further. I picked out a few restaurants that I want to try out, on a wander around town. I have loads of people to see, now that I've returned to town--I'll start planning that over this weekend.

I think I can allow myself one more day to futz around and get myself situated before delving back into thesis-land. Two more chapters, and incorporating edits on two other chapters. I'm not looking forward to it, but I'm sure that once my brain is back in gear, things will start to get moving.

Ain't Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang...

One of the vital things to make life livable in a new location is to get the net connection up and running. My desktop is in my bedroom on the second floor, and running cable throughout the house from JMD's router in the living room wasn't really an option. Off to Nerd World! (a.k.a. MicroCenter--actually, their sign is currently for MIC O CEN ER). I bought a desktop 802.11g card; hardware installation went just fine.

However, U5 set up the network to be as secure as possible--don't broadcast SSID, WPA password, etc. It's so effective, that even when you have the WPA password and login access to the router, you can't hack into the network!

The biggest problem I ran into was this:

Hrm... the provided WPA password is 64 characters. I tried all sorts of workarounds--truncating the password on the beginning or end, turning on broadcast SSID, looking up online hexadecimal to ASCII converters, etc. Finally, I came up with a primitive but effective trick. Log into the router, and make the WPA key 62 characters by deleting the last two letters. Worked like a champ.

Also, JMD has an unused PCMCIA (which is short for "people can't memorize computer industry acronyms") 802.11g card, so all machines in the house are now running at high speed... thus the title of the post (in case that wasn't obvious).

Just in time for 802.11n to become the expected default networking protocol. Oh well.


Fun with the Fridge

As I was putting some navel oranges into the fridge, the convenient spot was in the box of clementines. This inspired a bit of caption-writing:

Ugh. They should really make them buy two seats. It’s really just so unfair to the rest of us…


Trip Home, Part II (Ithaca-Boston)

I'm back in Boston now; this is being written from JMD's couch, with a very placid purring cat next to me.

Today's trip was relative uneventful. The day started with brunch in Ithaca at Cafe DeWitt, with Jofish and friends (including cyberlyra and inkandpen)--I think it's become my favorite way to start the day before I drive away, during these visits. Many thanks to Jofish for his hospitality, as always.

Weather was cold and clear. A shot from the Castleton-on-Hudson bridge (really tall Hudson River crossing on the New York State Throughway; rail bridge next to it):

Made it to the Massachusetts border during daylight hours. Speaking of which, I keep on meaning to visit Mass MoCA, but North Adams isn't really far away enough to be a good overnight stopping point.

I amused myself that my first stop in MA was at Bread & Circus Whole Foods, to pick up some apples, carrots, cereal, and takeout sushi. Sometimes, I wonder if I ever actually left this place.

Anyway, need to unpack the car, and meet my moving truck on Monday.

The Trip Home (KW-Ithaca)

Just wanted to let everyone know that day one of driving (KW to Ithaca/Jofish's) went just fine. I actually felt a huge wave of relief dribble over me when I crossed the border, because:

  • I actually overstayed my Canadian study permit by two days (expired at the end of January). Fortunately, you're only dealing with U.S. Customs on the way over, so they had no interest in that fact. But I rolled out of there singing, "It's! No! Fun! Being an illegal alien..."
  • I was a little worried about the fact that I was moving back to the US on this trip--my moving company led me to believe that they had taken care of everything, but I was worried I'd get raked over the coals with, "What is the value of the household and personal effects that you are re-importing to the United States?" "Where's your Form 3299 – Declaration For Free Entry of Unaccompanied Articles?" "What, you didn't submit that to your moving company?!?" [snap of rubber glove]. In reality, it was a 30-second transaction, just getting waved through. Sometimes, it's reassuring to be crossing the border to the country that's supposed to let you back in.
  • My not-quite-kosher car insurance situation (car registered at JMD's) would have required some creative explanation if I got into an accident in Canada. Getting into a wreck stateside would be a bit easier to resolve (on a road trip, etc). That part was a relief.

Road conditions were a bit sloppy, but they didn't slow me down terribly.

This was followed by a lovely evening seeing Jofish and many of his wonderful Ithaca friends; Jofish put together some dinner, and I made the fireball-spouting bananas Foster, as promised. We're heading out to brunch now. Looks like nice cold clear weather for the Ithaca-Boston drive today. See you Boston folks soon!