The Journey Home: The Shore Line to New York


Eventually, February came to an end and, with it, my month of saying goodbye to people in Boston. On the last Thursday of February, I met up with a friend for a breakfast of ice cream at Tosci’s and then took a commuter rail train to Providence to visit a friend who’s a med student at Brown and his boyfriend. I spent Thursday night in Providence and then they drove me to New Haven, where we had lunch with a Caltech friend who is finishing up her chemistry PhD at Yale, and was actually in the process of getting ready to move to Boston for a postdoc at Harvard. We had New Haven pizza for lunch—mashed potatoes on pizza turned out to be surprisingly tasty—and then I took a Metro-North commuter rail train to Grand Central Terminal to meet the Jawas.

In New York, the Jawa took me to their food co-op in Park Slope to buy groceries, after which we cooked a Polish dinner—sadly, I messed up the recipe for pierogi filling—for ourselves and a high school friend who is getting a PhD/MD at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx. (I admit to being a bit confused by what Einstein has to do with medicine or with New York.)

Chinese New Year in Boston


One of the last things I did in Boston—I actually delayed my departure by a week to fit it in—was to go to a Chinese New Year dumpling party that one of my high school friends, now a Harvard/MIT MD/PhD student in Boston organized. I’d gone to the party last year, when he hosted it in his kitchen, and it had been very tasty, if very crowded. This year, it was probably twice as large, but there was a lot more room because he’d rented the penthouse lounge of an apartment building along the Charles River. Once again, I really enjoyed the party: I just wish I hadn’t been about to leave town so I could have done a better job of staying in touch with some of the interesting people I met.

Since it was on the top floor of a rather tall building, I braved the cold weather to go out on the balcony and take some photos.

Route 1 Bus Headways


It is very convenient that Noonvale, as I’m calling my apartment in College Park, is only a couple of blocks from a Metrorail subway station. Unfortunately, while it’s also near one of the most frequent bus lines in PG County, the bus service here isn’t really very good, as might be expected, given this is suburbia. In particular, weekend service is only about hourly and doesn’t really exist in the evenings.

An additional problem, at least for me since I don’t have a smartphone, is that the buses that run up and down US 1 in PG County are divided up among four different routes (PG County’s “The Bus” route 17 and WMATA’s Metrobus routes 81, 83, and 86) that serve different parts of US 1 and detour onto other roads in different locations. I initially thought it might be useful to create a combined bus schedule for the different routes before realizing that this was an unreasonable project and that it would be more useful and practical to just make a chart of the headways along different parts of Route 1 at different times. Perhaps other people will find it useful as well.

Section of Route	Buses Serving
Rhode Island Ave [M] to	WMATA 81,82,83,86
Mt. Rainier Terminal	

Mount Rainier Terminal	PG 17
to East-West Highway	WMATA 81,83 (86 via PG Plaza [M] and back roads)

East-West Highway to	PG 17
Greenbelt Road		WMATA 81,83,86 (81 not via College Park [M])

Greenbelt Road		PG 17
to Cherry Hill Road	WMATA 86 (81,83 on RI Ave, 81 via Greenbelt [M])

PG 17 and WMATA 83 each run half-hourly and alternate on weekdays.
WMATA 86 runs hourly on weekdays coinciding roughly with PG 17.

WMATA 83 and WMATA 86 each run hourly on Saturday, with 15/45 min spacing.

WMATA 81 and WMATA 86 each run hourly on Sunday, coinciding within ten minutes. 
WMATA 81 doesn't stop at College Park [M], but does at Greenbelt [M].

Section of Route	Weekday Headways
RI Avenue [M] to	 5:00am to  6:00am -- 30 min (varies 20 min to 40 min)
Mt. Rainier Terminal	 6:00am to 11:00am -- 15 min (varies 10 min to 15 min)
			11:00am to  4:30pm -- 20 min (varies 15 min to 30 min)
			 4:30pm to  9:30pm -- 15 min (varies 10 min to 15 min)
			 9:30pm to 12:00am -- 30 min (varies 20 min to 40 min)

Mount Rainier Terminal	 5:30am to  7:30pm -- 15 min (varies 10 min to 20 min)
to East-West Highway	 7:30pm to 10:00pm -- 30 min (varies 25 min to 35 min)

East-West Highway to	 5:30am to  7:30pm -- 15 min (varies 10 min to 20 min)
Greenbelt Road		 7:30pm to 10:00pm -- 30 min (varies 25 min to 35 min)

Greenbelt Road		 5:30am to  7:30pm -- 30 min (varies 25 min to 35 min)
to Cherry Hill Road	 7:30pm to 10:00pm -- 60 min (varies 50 min to 70 min)

   Greenbelt Road	 5:30pm to 10:00pm -- 30 min (varies 25 min to 35 min)
   to Cherry Hill Road	
   via Rhode Island Ave	

Section of Route	Saturday Headways
Rhode Island Ave [M] to	 6:45am to  1:30am -- 30 min (varies 20 min to 40 min)
Mt. Rainier Terminal	

Mount Rainier Terminal	 8:30am to  9:00pm -- 60 min (doesn't vary)
to East-West Highway	

East-West Highway to	 8:30am to  9:00pm -- 45 min (varies 10 min to 60 min)
Greenbelt Road		

Greenbelt Road		 9:00am to  8:00pm -- 60 min (doesn't vary) 
to Cherry Hill Road	

   Greenbelt Road	 8:30am to  9:00pm -- 60 min (doesn't vary)
   to Cherry Hill Road	
   via Rhode Island Ave	

Section of Route	Sunday Headways
Rhode Island Ave [M] to	 6:45am to 12:00am -- 30 min (varies 20 min to 40 min)
Mt. Rainier Terminal	

Mount Rainier Terminal	 9:30am to  5:30pm -- 60 min (doesn't vary)
to East-West Highway	

East-West Highway to	 7:30am to  5:30pm -- 45 min (varies 10 min to 60 min)
Greenbelt Road		

Greenbelt Road		 7:30am to  5:30pm -- 60 min (doesn't vary)
to Cherry Hill Road	

   Greenbelt Road	 9:30am to  5:00pm -- 60 min (doesn't vary)
   to Cherry Hill Road	
   via Rhode Island Ave	

Status Update: An Accidental Walk Across DC


A lot has happened since my last “status update” post here. I suppose that that is mostly a consequence of my being lazy about making these posts. I’ll try to be a bit more regular about it in the future, but for now I’m just going to give you a quick recap of the last week and then a discussion of this weekend’s adventures.

Last weekend was pretty busy. On Saturday, I went to a number of EU members’ embassies’ open houses with the General and the Economist. On Sunday, I invited my mother over to my apartment for breakfast and then the Alaskan Geologist and the General and I went to the National Arboretum to see the azaleas and dogwoods in bloom there.

Last week was then spent doing a variety of things of various productivity levels. I didn’t succeed in getting very much of my thesis written, but I did make some progress. And I spent a lot of time learning how to use Microsoft Word better, which led to a lot of time being spent redoing much of the formatting in the already-hundred-page-long document.

I also had to deal with the fact that my pet mice seem to have gotten more territorial as they’ve gotten older. (They’re now about six months old.) A bit over a week ago, I discovered that one of them had a rather large wound on his back. I’m a bit confused about how he seems to have recovered so quickly from it—a similar-scaled wound on a human would probably send them into shock—but he’s recovered quite well now that I’ve gotten him a separate cage. I initially thought that his two brothers would still be fine sharing their cage, but I found some bloody scratches on one of them a few days ago and so moved him to a new cage, too. Hopefully they’ll be happier this way, though I’m kind of annoyed at having had to spend a whole bunch of money on separate cages because they decided they didn’t want to get along anymore.

This weekend’s main notable event was my accidentally walking across DC on Saturday. My original plan had been to take one of the Route One buses from my apartment to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, and to walk about three miles from there to Dupont Circle to meet a friend for lunch. However, when we got to Mount Rainier, just north of the DC border, Rhode Island Avenue was closed for a street festival as part of Mount Rainier Day. What was even more surprising about this is that they apparently hadn’t informed WMATA that they were closing the street: the bus had to wait while the driver informed the dispatcher that the street was closed and asked for directions. I decided to get out and walk, so I got to see a number of booths, most of which were selling jewelry or clothes, though one had a fortune-teller and a few had very tasty-smelling food. I then ended up having to wait ten or fifteen minutes for a parade to pass, which mostly consisted of a couple of high schools’ marching bands, including Parkdale, where I would have gone to high school if I hadn’t gotten into a magnet program, and a number of politicians handing out campaign literature even though it’s about a year until the next primary election. (General elections are mostly a formality for their districts: if you get the Democratic nomination you’re going to get the seat.)

Anyway, once I got past the parade I decided to keep walking down Rhode Island Avenue to the Metro station, which I expected to be a three mile walk as well. I initially thought I would then take the Red Line from there to Dupont Circle, but when I arrived I decided to keep walking, making it into a six-mile walk along Rhode Island Avenue NE and S Street NE and NW. It was an interesting walk, and a good example of how much richer and less run-down DC gets the further west you go. (It also gets less car-oriented, ironically. The places where the residents can probably least afford cars are also the ones that seem to most expect them to own them.)

Once I got to Dupont Circle, my friend and I went shopping and ended up making very tasty—but also very energy-dense—ravioli with marinara-and-ricotta sauce. After lunch and a bit of time looking at the view from the top of his building, we decided to walk to Georgetown and along the waterfront there, which was about two miles away. I then walked an additional mile across the Key Bridge to the Rosslyn Metro station, largely so I could say that I’d walked all the way across DC.



I’ve posted before about my friend Ember’s very cute rats. This winter, she branched out into cute non-rodents, including two snakes (a ball python and a corn snake) and two really cute ferrets. After seeing the ferrets on a couple of occasions, I decided that they deserved their own blog post. So, here you go. Cute mustelids!

With that much cuteness, who really needs captions?

Go to bed early, frosh! Ditch Day is tomorrow!


I do know that when you’re working on a large project you use staggering amounts of very strange things.  Like, for example, can you comprehend going through a liter of superglue, because I can now.  And you know you go through other sorts of things you don’t expect to burn through like, you know, a handful of 1/16-inch drill bits, or a hundred-twenty paperclips, or seventy-five feet of curled up phone cable.  But the things that really get me are the hundred-eighty bottle caps and the two 99-cent stores worth of cat toys.

— John Hasier, Blacker House Ditch Day Announcement in 2009

I’m not sure when Caltech Ditch Day actually is this year, but it could well be tomorrow. Or today: statistically, it’s likely to be within a week of today, anyway. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Ditch Day is one of Caltech’s few lasting campus-wide undergrad traditions. As I understand it, it dates back to before World War II when—in a manner more normal for American college ditch days, seniors organized a day in May to all ditch their classes and go to the beach. Annoyed underclassmen responded by pranking or “stacking” seniors’ rooms while they were away which, over time, led to seniors taking increasingly extreme measures to secure their rooms while they were away for the day.

At some point in the distant past—my impression is that it had happened by the 1960’s, but I don’t really know—Ditch Day evolved from an actual prank war into a massive ritual affair. Ditch Day became an Institute holiday, one of the six days a year undergrads got off, and seniors started to spend immense amounts of time creating elaborate scavenger hunts called “stacks” for underclassmen to complete. By the time I was at Tech, there were a wide variety of sorts of stacks, from off-campus adventures to logic puzzles to elaborately-plotted role-playing to “brute force” stacks consisting of actually forcing one’s way through a number of obstacles. The only real requirement was that they had to keep a group of underclassmen occupied from 8:00am to 5:00pm, though they also generally ended with a food bribe (often being taken out to dinner by the seniors responsible) in exchange for not “counter-stacking” or pranking the seniors’ rooms.

In my time, counter-stacking was largely a legend: I only know of one instance of it actually being performed—someone’s mattress was moved to their dorm’s roof when their stack ran out of activities around noon—but a more serious threat was that any senior caught on campus between 8:00am and 5:00pm would be duct-taped to a tree. Because of the need to keep stacks running while staying off campus—and because putting together a good stack was a huge amount of work, many seniors relied on alums, called “ghosts”, to help assemble and operate their stacks.

When I was at Tech, it was also canonical that “Ditch Day is always tomorrow”. To help maintain this belief, the seniors in a given House would run “fake Ditch Days” a couple of times a year. These usually began with ritualized announcements the night before of what stacks would be running, and the seniors pounding on everyone’s door to wake underclassmen up at 7:30am, just like they would on actual Ditch Day. There were then short “fake stacks” that usually lasted an hour or so before ending with a declaration that Ditch Day was really tomorrow. The rate and quality of the fake stacks tended to increase up until a campus-wide fake Ditch Day a week or so before the real thing in May.

Related to the requirement that Ditch Day always be “tomorrow” was the rather odd understanding Caltech students tended to have of when people were promoted from one year to the next.

  • Prefrosh become frosh (freshmen) when the Fleming Cannon fires to signal that House assignments have been posted at the end of Rotation.
  • Since the seniors need someone to say “Go to bed early, Frosh! Ditch Day is tomorrow!” to, there must always be frosh, so frosh don’t become smores (sophomores) until the next year’s prefrosh become frosh.
  • Since there are no requirements that there be smores or juniors, smores become juniors when the Fleming Cannon fires at graduation.
  • Since seniors usually only stack once, and there always needs to be someone to run Ditch Day tomorrow, juniors become seniors when the Fleming Cannon fires at 5:00pm on Ditch Day to signal the end of stacks.
  • Since they’ve already stacked, the seniors become ghosts when the juniors become seniors.
  • Finally, ghosts become alums when the Fleming Cannon fires at graduation. They’re still called “ghosts” if they return to help with future Ditch Days, though. And fifth- and sixgth- year students are generally called “super-seniors”, not “ghosts” except when Ditch Day is being discussed.

Now that you’ve read all of that, I thought I’d provide some photos from my Ditch Day stack. At the Internet’s suggestion—although she had dropped out a year-and-a-half earlier, she came back to stack with what would have been her graduating class—she, the Broken Frosh, the Papist, and I did a Princess Bride-themed stack. It was a joint stack between Blacker and Dabney—most stacks only advertise to underclassmen in one House—so we didn’t use either House’s ghost pool, instead assembling our own pool of people associated with the Tesseract free alley: Odin and the Tall Geologist (both of whom were JPL employees), the Short Geologist (who was a super-senior), and the Historian (who was a Cal State LA student working as an undergrad researcher for Warren Brown, a popular history prof). We also had Warren Brown and Harry Gray, a popular chemistry prof, serve as actors in the stack (as the Royal Librarian and Miracle Max, respectively), though when Ditch Day was rescheduled at the last minute due to tragic events on campus, Harry wasn’t able to make the new date and had to have grad students substitute for him.

Since I couldn’t be on campus to photograph the stack myself, I gave the underclassmen disposable film cameras to see what they’d take pictures of. Some of the photos follow. After the stack was done, we gave them a bribe of a Polish dinner. Or at least that was the plan: in practice it was me very slowly frying homemade pierogi after having been awake for three days straight.

Norumbega Tower


Two and a half years ago, I discovered that a Harvard professor in the late Nineteenth Century devoted his later years to convincing the world that Boston was the site of the legendary Norse settlement called “Vinland”. A bit later, I found a book in a used bookstore that detailed where one could go and see the “Norse ruins” in Boston, and what streetcars to take to see them. However, while I’d planned for a couple of years to organize a bike trip out to Norumbega Tower, the large stone tower the professor built to mark what he claimed was the site of a Norse city and fort, I never did manage to do so.

Conveniently, though, it turned out that the storage locker I rented to hold the contents of my apartment until I found a new apartment in Maryland was only a couple of miles from Norumbega Tower. I decided to take advantage of the fact I’d rented a Zipcar to take on last batch of stuff to storage before I headed south to stop by and take some photos of the tower.

Numbering, Headings, and Styles in Microsoft Word


Having spent the last twenty-four hours or so fighting with Microsoft Word’s outline numbering systems, I have plenty of negative opinions of Word and of my advisor’s insistence that my Master’s thesis be written in it. However, I think I’ve also finally figured out how to deal with it so that I can make the subject headings in my thesis—which has five levels of depth—work, and also have bulleted lists inside some of the paragraphs.

After spending quite a while fighting with Word and getting nothing but stranger and stranger bugs, I finally found this PDF which helped me understand some of the weird ways in which Word handles lists.

The basic discovery I made from reading this is that Word handles numbering in a number of different, contradictory ways. One of these ways—and the default one if you just try to format selected text as a list—is to create a list template. The problem with this is that it’s possible for what appear to be two different lists to be the same list with a “reset count” marker in the middle, and some random non-list text between them. It doesn’t sound like there’s any easy way to tell whether this is happening in a given case, and it means that changes to one list may change others, while it may be hard to add a new line to an extant list instead of creating a new list by accident.

It gets even worse if you want to use the “outline list” feature to create numbered headings and subheadings for a large document, like the two-hundred-page thesis I’m writing. You now have the same set of issues, but multiplied by the number of heading levels you use—I used five—and everything turns into spaghetti. I ended up having to just kill all of the numbering formatting in my thesis (already over a hundred pages long) in order to undo the mess I had. I then spent yesterday redoing all of this numbering from scratch via a better method.

The best way, and the one I eventually adopted, to handle numbering is to use numbering associated with “styles”. I’d previously never really understood how styles worked in Word, and had largely ignored them. However, it seems that they’re basically sets of defined formatting that you can enforce on any text you give the style to. One of the sorts of formatting that you can define for a style is being part of a given list template at a given level of hierarchy.

In my case, this meant that I was able to fix the Heading 1 through Heading 5 styles to all be at the same level within the same list template, and by making sure that anything that was supposed to be a section heading was in the appropriate one of those styles, I could make sure that it was numbered property.

One complication that this introduces is that styles are also used by Word’s feature for generating tables of contents. That feature creates an entry in the table of contents for each paragraph that is in one of the Heading styles. The problem is that there are a couple of sections in my thesis—the acknowledgements, the lists of tables and figures, and so on—that should be in the table of contents as though they’re top-level sections (heading 1, like chapters), but don’t get included in the chapter numbering. To resolve this, I created another style called “heading 0″ (the name doesn’t matter) that was based on the “heading 1″ style with the numbering removed. Since it was based on a heading style, the table of contents tool treated it as though it was an instance of that style, even though it didn’t have the numbering that style would otherwise have.

Anyway, I would highly recommend the “Word MVP” website for anyone who is being forced to do complicated things in Word by a professor or other overly powerful person.

Saying Goodbye in Boston


Since I stayed in Boston for around a month after I decided to leave MIT, I had a lot of time to say goodbye to people there slowly. My advisor tried to get me to spend my time training the postdoc who replaced me and working on a user manual for the Big Machine. However, I also spent a lot of time trying to wrap up my six years of life at MIT and in Boston. A big part of this, of course, was finishing up work at MITSFS and handing things off to CN, my successor as Skinner, and her Star Chamber of ZEK (Vice), COE (Lady High Embezzler), and LAM (Onseck and Thunderbunny).

Me with my Star Chamber.  From left-to-right, LAM (Vice and Thunderbunny), me (President and Skinner), COE (Lady High Embezzler), CN (Onseck), and ZEK (Chancellor).

Me with my Star Chamber. From left-to-right, LAM (Vice and Thunderbunny), me (President and Skinner), COE (Lady High Embezzler), CN (Onseck), and ZEK (Chancellor).

I did my best to meet up with as many friends individually as I could, to go for walks, cook together, or just get dinner.

I also organized two going-away mobs to Mary Chung’s, since it was impossible to find a time that everyone who wanted to come could make.

And, as I’d been promising for some time, I finally organized a mob to Cafe Polonia, the only Polish restaurant in Boston.

Another important part of my going-away experience was playing in my last Guild LARP. I hadn’t played in a LARP since January 2012, and I hadn’t intended to ever do so again, but when the Puppetmaster scheduled the inaugural run of her third Cthulhu-themed game in my last couple of weeks in Boston, I decided I had to play. It was too bad that I was so exhausted from moving that I fell asleep mid-game.

Finally, one of my high school friends, who is in Boston doing a Harvard MD and MIT PhD, invited me to a huge Chinese New Year party he was having in the penthouse of an apartment building along the Charles. I actually ended up delaying my return home by a week to be able to attend, which was just as well, since it gave me a bit more time to deal with other things, too.

Saying goodbye to a friend from Maryland right before returning to Maryland.

Saying goodbye to a friend from Maryland right before returning to Maryland.

MITSFS Mergatory II


Roughly two years ago, in the January of AW’s term as Skinner, MITSFS had it’s largest work party in recent memory, “Mergatory”. Largely organized by ZEK, we consolidated the formerly-separate circulating fiction and reserve fiction collections into one single circulating fiction collection. This involved handling and sorting every fiction book in the library, on the order of 40,000 volumes. It took two full days and left the Instrumentality of the library exhausted for months.

Mergatory was a huge success, but it didn’t actually finish the work of rearranging the library to focus our limited space on circulating collections that people might actually check out and read. Our reference and comic books were still largely reserve and were sorted into somewhat arcane and obsolete categories inconsistent with the new shelf-codes we’d established for novels and anthologies. Furthermore, there wasn’t actually room for all the anthologies to fit on the shelves, and anthologies with editors near the start of the alphabet were boxed.

Since before I became Skinner, I’d wanted to do something about rearranging the remainder of the collection. In addition, since at least the end of AW’s Skinnership, there had been plans to put bookshelves along the back windows of the library, one of the last places left to add bookshelves in the already well-overcrowded space. MITSFS’s unexpected move of its storage annex to a larger room last winter put plans for the additional work this would require on hold for a bit, but when I took over as Skinner last May, one of my major goals was to try to get this unfinished business put to rest.

Over the course of the fall, ZEK and I put together plans for a rearrangement of the remainder of the library, and I figured out places we could order shelving and put in orders for a rather large amount of stationary and rolling (for the back windows, since the ventilation units along them need to be accessible) shelving. With help from KKB and WDS, we did shelf code changes on most of the books that needed to be reorganized ahead of time. However, we still needed an all-day work party during IAP to assemble and install the new shelves and rearrange the physical locations of the books. By the time the work party happened, I’d already promised my advisor that I would resign as Skinner by the end of the month to spend more time on research—I wouldn’t decide that I was leaving MIT until the following week—so the work party sort of became an ending to my time running MITSFS. With it, I’d managed to complete most of the unfinished business of the previous several Skinners—though sadly some things never did get dealt with, mostly involving magazines—so that my successor could start her own set of projects with a clean slate.


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