Caltech Hacking Story: A Quiet Box for Ecclesiastes


After taking tour groups through Bridge, if people weren’t tired yet, an occasional last stop on a tunnel tour was the “Quiet Box”, on the roof of a nearby building. There were a number of roofs at Caltech that one could get on relatively easily, but the Quiet Box was notable both because it was particularly easy to sneak onto and because it was one of the highest roofs on campus and had a meter-tall parapet around a small square area only a couple meters across. The name came from the fact that if you ducked your head below the parapet, most of the noise of the city completely vanished and you had a view of the night sky with nothing else visible. It was occasionally a nice place to go up to to talk, and we often told additional stories to the frosh while sitting there. Once, several friends and I even brought sleeping bags up and spent the night camping there.

The first time I went to the Quiet Box was as part of a tour I was taken on as a prefrosh. At that time, it had another feature: the first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes was written on the walls in runes. This was completely gone by the first time I visited as a student, and I assumed that the walls must have been repainted. I developed a vague ambition to restore it, which was later expanded after discussion with some friends to a goal of writing sections from ancient texts of as many cultures as possible on the walls. We came up with a long list of passages and I begun by writing the beginning of the Popul Vuh in one corner. However, after a week or two, it became clear that the marker I’d used was already starting to fade from the sunlight and we gave up on the project as unworkable.

The New Carrollton Playground, 1990-2004 (Destruction)


As I said in my previous post about the New Carrollton Playground, I never took any photos of it while it was intact. However, when I came home from school one day in February 2004, my mom told me that they’d started demolishing the playground that morning without having given anyone warning that this was coming, and that about half of it was still standing. I rushed over that afternoon and took the following photos with my camera.

Meeting with Sylvia


I just met with Sylvia.  She said I can write a Master’s thesis and we agreed on a timeline and outline that sounds reasonable to me.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this actually works.  My plan is now basically to spend the next couple of months writing full-time, and then find a job once I can more firmly say to companies that I’m getting a Master’s.  Goal is to finish by start of July, but I’ll have to be on the September Degree List for it to work at all.

Caltech Tunnel Story: A Visit to Bridge


At the end of a steam tunnel tour, it was traditional to return to the outside world through a door that went directly from the tunnels to outdoors, rather than through a basement as most of them do, to create the maximum contrast between the hot and humid environment in the tunnels and the dry, chill Pasadena evening. The most convenient such exit was near Bridge, the old physics building, so it was natural to finish the tour by showing off a few interesting things in Bridge. This was generally done from the bottom up. Sadly, I don’t seem to have photos of most of these things: in putting together this series of blog posts I’ve generally been kind of surprised by the number of things at Caltech that I apparently never photographed despite definitely having intended to do so.

We generally began in the basement, where there was a storage cage that, among other things, contained Millikan’s original oil drop experiment apparatus, which got brought out for freshman physics lectures once a year to recreate the experiment for the freshman class. We then walked through the first floor corridor between East Bridge and West Bridge, where Kip Thorne displayed a number of bets he’d made with former students and famous physicists, including his particularly well known series of bets with Steven Hawking. I’m not sure when or how I first learned about these bets, but I was quite aware of them by the time I got to Caltech, so I was very excited to discover them there and always made a point of showing them to anyone I could. Sadly, when Professor Thorne retired during my senior year, he took the bets down.

Finally, it was generally worthwhile to visit the second floor of East Bridge, outside the entry to Bridge 201, the main physics lecture hall, to see a cloud chamber that was on display for passers-by to play with.

One final note on Bridge: the Caltech term for someone who spends all their time in their room, either studying alone or (more recently) playing video games is a “troll”. The purported origin of this is that there used to be rather popular study rooms in the basement of Bridge, so a “troll” was someone who spent all their time “under Bridge”, but I have no idea if this is true. Certainly, the study rooms weren’t there by the time I was at Caltech, and they hadn’t been there in recent memory, either.

The New Carrollton Playground, 1990-2004 (Construction)


I suspect this post and the follow-up that’s coming in a few days won’t be of much interest to those of you who aren’t from New Carrollton. However, these photos are important enough to me that I wanted to get them online, and I think I have a couple of readers who may care a lot.

When my parents visited Boston for Christmas in 2013, my mom gave me a wonderful gift: an envelope full of photos she’d rescued from a room that the New Carrollton Rec Council was being kicked out of. They were photos of the construction of the New Carrollton Playground, a huge community-built wooden playground that was about a quarter mile from my house and on the grounds of the elementary school I went to through fourth grade. It was built in 1990, around when I first started forming memories, and my parents were at least slightly involved in the construction. In fact, a couple of my earliest memories seem to be of the construction, though I’m not absolutely sure of that mapping.

In any case, it played a huge role in my childhood, as the one outdoor space my friends and I played in regularly, as somewhere we mapped our various fantasy worlds onto, and as somewhere that was significant in my mental understanding of “home”. The playground was torn down without public notice during my junior year of high school, and I never took any photos of it when it was intact, so having these photos means a lot to me. The following images are scans I made of them recently. I don’t know who any of the kids in them are—I’m sad to conclude that none of them are me—but the woman in red posing with the finished playground in the last couple of photos is Jan Burns, which makes me wonder if she may be the person responsible for having taken most of the photos.

Caltech Hacking Story: The Lloyd Tree and MIT

A photo of the Lloyd Tree I found online: I'm a bit embarrassed to find that I apparently never took a photo of it set up properly while I was at Caltech.

A photo of the Lloyd Tree I found online: I’m a bit embarrassed to find that I apparently never took a photo of it set up properly while I was at Caltech.

Lloyd House, one of the dorms at Caltech, has a tradition of turning Millikan, the tallest building on campus, into a Christmas tree by stringing lights from the top to the roof of the round board room that projects from one side of the building. The also put a large “L” covered in lights at the top instead of the traditional star or angel.

Around the time I came to Caltech, Blacker House was apparently in the habit of putting letters on the top of Millikan to spell a word but with a gap for an “L” missing. I was told that in fall 2004 they put “MO ES” up, leaving a space to turn it into “MOLES”, the demonym for residents of Blacker. In fall 2005, they put up the letters “C IT”, which could stand for the rarely used abbreviation for “California Institute of Technology”, mostly only seen on liquid nitrogen cylinders. However, before Lloyd could take it down to put up their tree, additional lights were added to change it into “MIT”.

We never did find out who’d made the change, but my assumption was always that it was Caltech grad students who’d gone to MIT for undergrad and figured out how to get onto Millikan roof, which was non-trivial. In any case, some Blacker frosh I knew responded by setting up a powerful projector to project “GNAHC” and a reversed image of the face of Tim Chang, the hated head of the housing office, under “MIT”. Later, they replaced “MIT” with “TTB”.

Two years later, in December 2007, Blacker decided to mess with the Lloyd Tree again. This time they strung the strings of lights differently, with them joined at the bottom and separate at the top. I don’t recall for sure, but presumably they waited for Lloyd to put up the tree and then rearranged Lloyd’s lights. In any case, it was a reference to Blacker’s tradition of hanging a Christmas tree upside down from the ceiling of their lounge each year.

Status Update: Welcome to Noonvale


As I mentioned in my last status update, this week I signed a one-year lease on an apartment in College Park. This is my first time renting from a private landlord, and also the first time I’ve had an apartment entirely to my self. It’s half of the second floor of an old (the landlord claims over a hundred years old) three-story house about half a mile from the University of Maryland and two blocks from the College Park Metro (Washington subway) and MARC (commuter rail to Washington and Baltimore) station. Well before I found it, back when I was still in Boston, I decided that Noonvale would be a good name for my apartment in Maryland, so that’s what I’ve named it.

I spent Thursday and Friday primarily going shopping with my mom to get supplies for the apartment, as well as a microwave (since it doesn’t come with one) and some chairs and lamps (since I don’t have any of those in storage in Boston). Until I go up to Boston next weekend to get the rest of my furniture, though, I’ll be sleeping on an air mattress I borrowed from the musical chemist. Speaking of which, I’ll be in Cambridge from Wednesday evening through Sunday morning next week, so if anyone wants to see me, let me know. In the meantime, I’m going to Philadelphia to see shawest, the Magic Russian, the Lieutenant, and some high school friends.

This evening, I went out to dinner with most of the other residents of the building (the one who lives upstairs is out of town), and they all seemed very nice. The other half of the second floor is being rented by a person who works with my dad at NASA Goddard, and the first floor is being rented by a married couple of University of Maryland math grad students.

Kendall Square Ranting


As you all have likely noticed, I’ve managed to become fairly upset about the whole concept of CS majors of late. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that they seem to be able to get ridiculous jobs right out of undergrad—the Official Theologian tells me that the going rate for a fresh MIT undergrad degree in CS for computer security work is $130,000/year right out of college—often to do work that’s destroying things I care about and industries where I might hope to get a job. That many of them make it very clear that they can’t understand that anyone else is in a different situation—I’ve lost a couple of friends because I couldn’t afford to eat lunch anywhere they considered acceptable—certainly doesn’t help.

However, the general environment of Kendall Square certainly hasn’t helped things. For one thing, there was a public roof garden adjacent to a food court associated with the main parking garage there. The food court closed down for “renovations” about a year and a half ago, and never reopened. At this point, they’ve stopped even advertising a reopening date. This is pretty annoying, given that it was the cheapest place to get food near campus (certainly cheaper than anywhere on campus), and it looks like, if it ever does reopen, it will reopen with restaurants I won’t be able to afford. Certainly, the new food places that have opened in Kendall are ridiculously expensive and out of a grad-student price range.

As for the roof garden, about two years ago, Google decided that they wanted to expand…right into it. So they did so, taking away about half the area of the garden to build a big glass box for their workers. And before they did this it was already much too crowded to find anywhere to sit at lunchtime when the weather was good; I’ve avoided going up there since except once to show Sir Grace when she visited, but I imagine that must’ve gotten much worse with half the seating removed. But, right after it opened, a Google employee I vaguely know came up to me in the post office to excitedly tell me how wonderful Google had made what they built in the roof garden. He didn’t seem to understand that the fact the space was no longer available to me might make me a bit less excited about it.

My last complaint has more to do with the evils of the car-owning class than the code-writing class, but it still falls into the general category of annoyance at the rich. The section of Main Street that passes through Kendall Square used to have a brick median down the middle, with one lane and one parking lane on each side: a through lane on the side going towards the Longfellow Bridge and a lane that was really only used as a taxi stand on the side going away from the Longfellow Bridge. Since the Kendall T station, like many old cut-and-cover T stations, doesn’t have a mezzanine, one needs to cross the street both to get to the businesses on the other side and to the other side of the T station.

Having a median made all this street crossing much easier and safer: it calmed and slowed down traffic, and made it trivial to cross half-way. This last fall, however, Cambridge seems to have decided that it was too inconvenient for the car-owning class, so they tore out the median and widened the legs, encouraging faster traffic in what is an essentially pedestrian area and making the street significantly harder and more intimidating to cross. Because those who can afford cars are, of course, more important than anyone else.

Caltech Hacking Story: Don’t Panic!

The fully-deployed "Don't Panic" sign.

The fully-deployed “Don’t Panic!” sign.

While the “BoC Ninjas” prank I mentioned in an earlier post was kind of a disaster, I did do one prank at Caltech that I was actually proud of. At some point during Frosh year, I was exploring the steam tunnels with the Fish and he showed me how to get into the Bridge 201 lecture hall—the main physics lecture hall at Caltech, where the Feynman Lectures were given, and where freshman physics is taught—by climbing a utility shaft and how to get into the ceiling of the lecture hall. I later showed the Bird how to do this and we found a small trap door in the ceiling directly above the center of the lecture table at the front of the hall. We decided that it would be a wonderful idea to lower something from the trap door in the middle of a lecture as a prank.

We finally settled on a large banner reading “Don’t Panic!” to be lowered during the first freshman physics lecture of the year, and the Bird designed a timer system consisting of some Lego and part of an alarm clock that would lower the banner and then raise it at a predetermined time while I designed and drew the banner itself. Before deploying it, though, we checked with the professor to make sure he didn’t mind the interruption of his lecture, and he said we couldn’t do it during his class. The prank ended up getting delayed until the first freshman physics lecture of third term, the first term that freshmen take on grades, and it did end up working quite well and being quite amusing to the frosh, I gather.

Status Update: New Address and New Apartment


First of all, I should make sure you all know that I have a new mailing address.  Letters and parcels can reach me at:

DW Rowlands
PO Box 1205
Greenbelt, MD 20768

There’s still time to be the first person I get a letter from here!

As for news that’s more interesting to those of you who don’t like sending paper mail, I finally found an apartment!  As embarrassed as I am by the idea of finding things through personal connections, I found out about it through one of my dad’s co-workers who lives in the same building.  I’ll be living in a one-bedroom apartment that’s been carved out of a huge hundred-year-old house in College Park, Maryland, a couple of blocks from the College Park station on the WMATA Green Line and MARC Camden Line. It’s also very near the College Park Trolley Trail, a bike trail that runs along an old streetcar right-of-way along Rhode Island Avenue.

I do worry about how expensive it is: it was the cheapest one-bedroom or studio I could find, but the area has gotten rather more expensive since I grew up, and it is more than I’d been hoping to spend.  Perhaps I ought to have just given up and found random roommates on Craigslist, but that sounded scary and I am really excited about having control of my living space for the first time.  It will be nice to be able to use my living room more and keep books there and so on without having to worry about roommates.  Fundamentally, I just don’t like sharing my personal space with people, which is unfortunate, given how much cheaper it is to do so.

Anyway, besides apartment-hunting, I haven’t really done that much interesting since my last “Status Update” post.  I did schedule a trip back up to Boston to pick up my stuff: I’ll arrive there on the evening of Wednesday, 25 March and leave with my dad and a U-Haul truck on the afternoon of Sunday, 29 March.  I also scheduled a trip to Philadelphia this weekend to see some friends there.  It’ll be a short tip, with me arriving at 1:30pm on Saturday and leaving at 4:30pm on Sunday.  Let me know if you’d like to meet up with me on either of these trips!

Last week was kind of kind of unproductive, honestly.  I’d intended to get lots of useful things done, but I mostly spent my time sleeping too much, writing lots of letters, and exploring.  On Wednesday I went downtown in the afternoon, walked a few miles through parts of the city I hadn’t really seen before—mostly the business district and Embassy Row—and went to the birthday party of a blog I like. (If you look closely at the third photo in that post, you’ll see me just next to someone holding up a camera.) Sadly, I didn’t really manage to meet anyone there.

I did, however, meet a really neat chemistry grad student at a Pi Day party the Economist held on Saturday at his apartment in the District. I made the Bird’s family’s Black Forest cake pie recipe again (using the Economist’s kitchen, since I still don’t have one), and people really liked it. Most of the party consisted of me, the General, and this grad student discussing just how much chemistry grad school sucks, which does seem to be a common topic of conversation among chemists.

Hopefully this week will be more productive: I need to get a lot of stuff done, including making sure I’ll have internet in my new apartment!


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