Happy Feast of Liberation from the Archosaur Yoke


Happy Feast of Liberation from the Archosaur Yoke!

On this day, we feast on turkey—the largest archosaur we can easily obtain and cook—to celebrate our ancestors’ liberation from over a hundred million years of the oppressive tyranny of the archosaur overlords.

Our therapsid ancestors were the first to take steps towards warm-bloodedness, long before the first archosaurs walked the earth. But after the great catastrophe two hundred and fifty million years ago decimated them, and the archosaur menace first rose up to seize the Earth. For over a hundred million years, the archosaurs dominated the planet, and our ancestors were forced to hide underground and in the underbrush, coming out only at night. This long period hiding in the dark cost them two of the four color-receptive cone cells of their ancestors and, to this day, most of our mammalian kin cannot see the color red. In memory of what the archosaurs took from our ancestors, we eat colorful foods—sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and so on—along with the flesh of a turkey on this day.

Sixty-five million years ago, our people’s liberation came at last, when the archosaur oppressors were overthrown. Still, some survived and tried to regain power. Tireless bird-watchers must always surveil and track the movements and behaviors of the remaining archosaurs, lest they rise again.

I’m Teaching Science and I’m Still Alive


The question of how much longer I can keep it up, however, is still open. I’m currently spending about sixty hours a week on work and work-related travel: I tutor high school students for about fifteen hours each week, spend another fifteen hours each week driving to their houses—they are quite spread out and they all want me to come to them—and I’m spending another roughly thirty hours a week on work related to adjuncting and the hour-each-way commute to the community college. As a result, I’m getting pretty worn out and stressed out. Particularly since I haven’t had that much time for social things, and have generally been feeling quite lonely here. The class I’m teaching is half finished—we had the midterm this week—which means I’ll be switching from trying to get them up to speed on math to teaching them some physics. Hopefully the math will stick, even though we had to go through material painfully fast. I don’t really expect this half of the semester to be any less work, but at least it means that in four weeks I’ll start having a bit more free time. (I’ll also start having even less income, though.)

As it is, I don’t think I’m breaking even on income, especially if you take into account how much financial support I’m getting from my parents. However, I also don’t have the energy or time to really figure out another job option, so I’m hoping that I can get the community college to hire me for the spring semester, too, and that I can continue with my tutoring clients. My hope is that I can last through one more semester and have free time somehow to do the job-searching I haven’t been managing to do this semester. Not that I really know what I want to do. Unfortunately, teaching is not a viable option, and I’m really not convinced I want to be a lab technician after my experiences at MIT, even though my dad and other people keep pushing me to. However, those do sound like the two main things I’m qualified for.

Christmas is Cancelled


Unfortunately, given the state of both my finances and my schedule at the moment, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas (or at least, my previously-planned Christmas-related activities) are cancelled for this year. Specifically, this means two things: I won’t be sending out holiday letters to all of my friends like I have for the last decade, and I won’t be traveling to New York and Boston to see friends for Christmas like I’d previously hoped. The reasons for this are twofold.

First of all, I just don’t have the time. Between tutoring, dealing with medical insurance messes, and preparing materials for the class that I’m teaching at Anne Arundel Community College, I have very little free time, and a lot of what I have needs to get spent on chores or other short-term necessities. I certainly don’t have time for the major amount of work that is involved in writing two hundred individual letters and signing two hundred individual cards and getting them all sent out. Likewise, I really don’t have the time or energy to put together a trip plan, which would need to happen right away, given how travel costs go up in December. And I suspect that by the end of my semester, in mid-December, I’m going to have such a long backlog of deferred chores and such that I won’t be in any state to travel, anyway.

Leaving aside the time issue, the other reality is that I really can’t afford it, financially speaking. It’s honestly hard to figure out what my income is at this point, especially given the uncertainties of how much of it healthcare and taxes will eat. However, I’m definitely making less a month than when I was a grad student, and that’s not taking into account that I’ll be unemployed for half of December because all my students will be on winter break. It’s not just that, though, it’s that I was unemployed for eight months this year and burned most of my savings in doing so, and that I have no idea whether I’ll get another adjunct appointment for the spring, or what will happen to me at all come summer. Given all of this, I really can’t afford to throw away the several hundred dollars a Boston trip would cost on doing something enjoyable. Likewise, the three hundred or so dollars that my usual card-writing habits cost aren’t an expense I can justify.

So, as much as I miss all of my Boston and New York friends, I’m afraid I’m not going to get to see you any time soon. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to afford the time and money for a trip up there, but you shouldn’t count on it any time soon. I do have a few unused Christmas cards in my stationary drawer, though, so I’ll probably send out a few cards at the last minute, but they’re going to be prioritized for people who’ve sent me letters recently.

Baltimore Penn Station and Transit


I recently came across this post about the common complaints that Baltimore Penn Station is “in the middle of nowhere”. I really wish I had more time to think out and research a reply to this, but I really don’t. It does remind me just how little I actually understand Baltimore’s geography, though: I really need to find a way to explore the city more. My first reaction is to suspect that the “middle of nowhere” complaint is at least partly because the sort of people who complain about this—at least where Urbanist types hear it—are well-off, white, often suburbanite people who are most interested in access to the tourist district around Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, which are right next to Camden Station but far from Penn Station.

However, there’s another major, and less politically charged, possibility. Regardless of its physical location, Baltimore Penn Station is awkwardly connected to Baltimore’s street grid—because it’s partly cut off by a freeway, I-83—and badly connected to Baltimore’s rail transit. Although it does have its own light rail station—conveniently located on one of the platforms—the station is on a spur that only runs between it and Camden Station, requiring transfers even if you want to go further north or south along the main line. And transfers are a pain given how low-frequency the Baltimore light rail is. Besides that, though, the spur only has half-hourly service (even at rush hour!): hardly convenient if your train to Penn Station arrives a few minutes after a light rail vehicle leaves. And, worse, the spur’s service stops early: 11:30pm on Mondays through Saturdays, when the rest of the light rail has service until 1:30am. And only until 8:30pm on Sundays, when the rest of the line runs until 9:30pm.

Halloween and a Terrapin O’Lantern

The terrapin Jack O'Lantern I made this year.

The terrapin Jack O’Lantern I made this year.

I really didn’t have much time to worry about Halloween this year: I’ve been having a very busy and stressful October. However, my parents bought me a pumpkin when they went to a pumpkin patch last weekend (without me; I was busy trying to get course materials prepared), and I figured I really ought to make a Jack O’Lantern. I didn’t just want to make a face, though, and didn’t really think about what to make until it was 5pm on Halloween and I needed to get carving. I ended up deciding on making a terrapin, for some mixture of reasons involving it being the mascot of the University of Maryland (I live about a mile from their campus.) and my having a fairly strong association between Hermes and Halloween (He’s a trickster, psychopomp, and patron of travelers and theives!) and “it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer”.

I think that the result came out fairly well, and my downstairs neighbor complemented me on it. I stayed outside from 6:30pm to 8:00pm with a bag of candy in case any trick-or-treaters showed up, but none did. So now I have a lot of candy to try to make myself take a couple of months to eat…

Gentrifier Ice Cream South of the Freeways


One of my Boston friends was in DC yesterday to visit people she knew before going to a conference in Baltimore. Since Friday is the one day when I don’t have regular tutoring or teaching commitments, I was able to head into the District to meet up with her in the afternoon. She suggested that we meet up by the Waterfront Metro station and walk to an ice cream shop called Ice Cream Jubilee, that has apparently gotten reviewed as “the best ice cream shop in DC”. Given that I grew up in the area, and can’t think of any ice cream places that make their own ice cream, while I know of several in Boston, it’s possible that this is a reasonable claim. Certainly, the salty apple cinnamon ice cream I had was really tasty.

That said, the interesting part of this story isn’t really the ice cream, it’s the fact that I got to visit a part of the District I’d never been to before. Although I grew up inside the Beltway, my family did not go into the District very often when I was growing up, and when we did it was mostly to go to the museums and monuments along the Mall, or to a few other specific locations, like the National Geographic Museum in Farragut Square, the National Zoo on Connecticut Avenue, and the National Arboretum on Bladensburg Road. Since moving back to the area, I’ve occasionally walked or driven through the northern parts of DC north of the original Washington city limits because they’re a convenient path between places in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. But, just as I’ve never had much reason to go south of Central Avenue in Prince George’s County, I’ve never really had a reason to visit the southern parts of the District. In particular, I’d never been to the oddly isolated southernmost part of the original City of Washington, located in the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac and separated from the west of Washington-west-of-the-Anacostia by a huge wall of freeways.

This urban island is technically divided into two neighborhoods: the Southwest Waterfront and Navy Yard. Both have rather unusual histories. The Southwest Waterfront is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the District, but it is also the one area of the District that suffered the most severely from the urban renewal of the 1950’s. As a result, much of the neighborhood seemed to be a monoculture of Brutalist apartment buildings and cul-de-sacs where streets had been made to not connect to break up the walkable grid. Between this, and the elevated freeways towering just to the north (this is also the only part of the District to have suffered from mid-Twentieth Century urban freeway building), it was quite a strange experience. Interestingly, though, at least part of the area seems to be being redeveloped. There is a clearly very new Safeway grocery store next to the Waterfront Metro station and large areas just south of the freeways seemed to have been cleared and turned into construction sites.

To get to Ice Cream Jubilee, we had to walk west across South Capitol Street into Navy Yard, the other neighborhood south of the freeways and north of the Anacostia. This area was once largely taken up by the Washington Navy Yard. However, while it still exists, the Navy Yard has shrunk significantly in the last half-century, and the area became first a decaying industrial neighborhood and now a prime spot for redevelopment, particularly given its proximity to a Metro station, downtown jobs, and the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium. I had vaguely been aware of this, but I was still kind of surprised by just how much the neighborhood liked like Kendall Square in Cambridge, except for having a more rectilinear street grid. Essentially, every lot was either a construction site or a ten- or fifteen- story building built in the same, rather ugly, Modernist style. And all of the commercial buildings seemed to be really fancy restaurants or other amenities for gentrifiers. This includes Ice Cream Jubilee. For some reason, I’d expected an old neighborhood ice cream shop like Tosci’s in Cambridge. Instead, the business is apparently only two years old, founded by a former political appointee from the Department of Homeland Security, and in a brand new and kind of ugly glass building. The ice cream wasn’t that horribly expensive, at least, though it was more expensive than Tosci’s, and not something I would want to pay for regularly even not counting the subway fare to get there. But I was a bit shocked by the degree to which the whole neighborhood appeared to be a combination of housing for and a playground for rich people.

Chicken-Vegetable Soup and Slow-Cooker Tagine


Today should have been spent writing lecture notes for my intro physics class. Instead, I ended up spending most of it cooking. At least this means that my freezer is now largely full of leftovers, so I should have a decent amount of at least somewhat healthy food to eat for the next few weeks without spending more time on cooking.

On a whim, I decided to make this slow-cooker recipe for tagine—a North African stew that the Economist introduced me to last month—after seeing it suggested by a friend on Facebook. I’d already been planning a huge, four-gallon pot of chicken vegetable soup using a bunch of produce (collard greens, sweet potatoes, celery, carrots, and green beans) that I got from a Latin American supermarket in Langley Crossroads, so I ended up making both, and both ended up coming out reasonably well. The one disappointment was my attempt to make egg noodles with rye flour. I’ve had good luck in the past with a ratio of 1 cup flour to 1 egg to 1 tablespoon water when using white wheat flour. However, using whole-grain rye flour, the flavor was off and the texture was horrible, so I ended up throwing out all the noodles instead of packing up the soup with noodles, which was rather disappointing.

Capacitors for Wireless Streetcars


Dromeda recently brought this article on newly built capacitor-powered streetcars in China to my attention. While I’d heard capacitor power discussed as one way for the DC Streetcar system to avoid issues with the regulations banning overhead wires in the old L’Enfant City part of DC, I’d gotten the impression that the technology was too immature to really work, so I’m impressed to hear that it’s apparently working there.

Honestly, though, I think the claims that this will be a huge cost savings are fairly overblown: stringing wires is a fairly small part of the cost of light rail construction, especially if you intend to give the light rail its own right-of-way or dedicated lanes, which are essentially necessary if you want to have it move at a reasonable speed in many environments.

I also thought that the attempts to compare capacitor-powered streetcars to subway construction was a bit ridiculous. Building grade-separated rapid transit is a lot more expensive than building any sort of streetcar, but you also get a much higher quality result: both in terms of much higher total passenger capacity and in terms of much faster travel that has a better chance of reasonably competing with cars.

Anyway, I have my doubts that there is much real benefit to avoiding overhead power, except for in the few cities that have entrenched laws banning it. (DC is a particularly bad case, because the ban on overhead wires in the original L’Enfant City requires an act of Congress to change.) Overhead wires work quite well in the many cities that—unlike the US—didn’t destroy their streetcar networks in the mid-Twentieth Century, and no one seriously complains that the aesthetics of, for example, historic Medieval downtowns in European cities are ruined by streetcar wires.

As a side note, one case that I do wonder if this could be useful for is allowing EMUs to run on commuter rail routes that can’t be electrified because the freight companies that own the rights-of-way won’t allow it, since overhead wires might interfere with their ability to run double-stacked freight containers. The range is presumably quite limited, but the situations where running single or short trains of EMUs are most valuable are for frequent, frequent-stop service on the parts of rail lines that run through older, more transit-friendly inner-ring suburbs. I’d love to see EMUs stopping every half-mile to mile on the MARC Camden Line between DC and Laurel and the MARC Brunswick Line between DC and Gaithersburg, not to mention the VRE tracks south to Alexandria, which MARC is already intending to extend service onto. Unfortunately, these lines are all owned by CSX, which is unlikely to allow them to be electrified even if MARC would pay the costs, because they want to run double-high containers and are currently improving the Union Station freight bypass tunnel in DC (the Virginia Avenue tunnel) to allow them to pass through.

PHY 011 Will Be Running!


I found out last week that PHY 011, the class I signed up to teach at Anne Arundel Community College, will in fact be running. It had been very uncertain up until the last minute, because in theory the class needed ten students to run, but only seven had signed up. However, the department got special permission from the dean to let it run anyway, because it’s a remedial class and they really wanted to be sure that those students would be able to take it before taking non-remedial physics classes in the spring. This means that I need to get started on writing lectures so that I can have as much as possible ready to print out tomorrow in preparation for the first lecture on Tuesday.

A lot of you have asked what exactly the course is on. It’s actually half background math—which I really hope the students will have seen some of before, because I’m going to have to go through it fairly fast to get through it in four weeks—and half introductory mechanics, largely just ballistic motion. While almost everything else about the class, including the grading scheme, is up to me, the textbooks used were pre-selected, and the college has copies of them to be signed out to students. For the first half, we’re using the first part of Math for Basic Electronics by Grob, and for the second half we’re using the first part of the first volume of College Physics by Serway. Interestingly, if I recall correctly, Serway was also the text used for practical track physics at Caltech, although this confuses me, since I would have assumed that was calculus-based and this class certainly isn’t. The schedule I included in my syllabus is reproduced below.




Date Reading

To Be Done



Lecture Topic
1 Tues

20 Oct

Syllabus Review and Book Sign-Out;

Algebra I Review

2 Thurs

22 Oct

Grob 8

Grob 9

Solving Linear Equations;
3 Tues

27 Oct

Grob 4

Grob 5

Grob 6

HW 1 Powers and Roots; Powers of Ten;


4 Thurs

29 Oct

Grob 11

Grob 7



5 Tues

3 Nov

Serway 1 HW 2 Metric System; Unit Conversions;

Dimensional Analysis

6 Thurs

5 Nov

Grob 9

Grob 10

Systems of Linear Equations;

Quadratic Equations;

7 Tues

10 Nov

First Exam

Review Packet

HW 3 Review for First Exam
8 Thurs

12 Nov

9 Tues.

17 Nov

Serway 2 HW 4 Motion in One Dimension
10 Thurs

19 Nov

Serway 3 Vectors
11 Tues

24 Nov

Serway 3 HW 5 Motion in Two Dimensions

26 Nov

12 Tues.

1 Dec

Serway 4 HW 6 Newton’s Laws of Motion
13 Thurs.

3 Dec

Serway 4 Newton’s Laws of Motion
14 Tues.

8 Dec

Second Exam

Review Packet

HW 7 Review for Second Exam
15 Thurs

10 Dec



Thoughts On a Friend’s Blog Post on Being in One’s Twenties


My friend Ember recently started a blog writing about her experiences with depression and being a grad student at MIT. She’s a good writer, and I’ve found some of her posts to be quite thought-provoking. In particular, I really liked her most recent post, on being twenty-something and in grad school, and wanted to write up some of my thoughts on it.

I think I interacted with the MIT undergrads—the “natives”—more
than just about any other grad student while I was there. Honestly,
I’m still not entirely sure what I think of them. I certainly always
felt like an outsider, and I think it contributed a lot to my sense of
social isolation when most of my friends in Boston were undergrads who
all had social lives I couldn’t really be part of. Although it wasn’t
just the undergrads: “cruft”, the alums who hang around the undergrads
constantly, also seemed to fit in and be welcome a lot more than me: I
got the impression that there was some sort of expected life cycle, of
undergrad and then getting a job in Boston and never leaving the
social circle, and you couldn’t really be welcome as an outsider who
didn’t arrive as a frosh.

Other than the issue of them just being a closed social group, though,
I felt like the main issues I had with trying to socialize with the
undergrads were that they had a very different career path in mind
than me—they all seemed to think of becoming a rich programmer as
the only possible path in life anyone might want—and they just
seemed to have more time and energy for everything. And the time and
energy to do the sorts of things that naturally lead to forming closer
friendships, like staying up all night working with people on things.
Which I guess is not entirely different than her point about feeling
insubstantial in comparison?

As for grad students, my experience with them was largely basically
the same as hers. They just…seem too different for there to be any
connection between me and them. That said, I’m not sure that it’s
actually that they’ve changed, that they’ve lost interest in geeky
things other than their work, so much as that maybe they were always
more normal than us to begin with? Certainly, I feel like a lot of my
college friends haven’t lost those interests, even though they’re in
grad school and some of them now have PhDs. If nothing else, I can
promise that I don’t think I’m sliding into the
home-repairs-and-babies model of adulthood. I do want to have a
stable job so I can stop worrying about future finances so much, but
I’m hoping that doesn’t mean I’ll have to turn into a Real Adult.
Though I do worry a bit about whether I’ll actually have the time and
energy to keep up with much other than work.


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