Advice on the Future of this Blog?

2015/07/29

Hello all!

I assume you read my blog at least occasionally, since you’re reading this post. Maybe you’ve only recently discovered it—if so, you should look in the archives, there’s some neat stuff there—or maybe you’ve been reading it for the over six years that I’ve been writing it. Anyway, I’m fast approaching a point where I am going to have to make some big decisions about its future, and I would appreciate any advice you have. There are really two separate issues to consider:

First of all, when I started this blog, it was largely an attempt to keep my friends from Caltech updated on what I was doing in grad school. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, and I picked WordPress as a platform largely because I couldn’t figure out how to make a new blog on Blogger when my Google account was already linked to another blog, a group blog that the Colourful Linguist and the Dog and I set up and then quickly abandoned. It has worked fairly well for that purpose, I think, though being able to upload video files would occasionally be useful, as the Caltech UGCS server I’ve been using for that gets less and less reliable. But I’ve also started to write less-personal, more polished posts on topics such as transit and science.

While I was a grad student it didn’t really matter that these posts were intermixed, but now that I’ve dropped out of grad school, I need to consider anything that could be the basis of a job, even a part-time one. Some of my more professional posts could serve as samples of my writing, or evidence of my teaching ability, and it might make sense for me to post them online in a location where I could bring them to people’s attention without linking them to my more personal posts. As a result, I’m starting to think it might make sense to split things into two separate blogs: a personal one and a professional one. I’m also wondering whether the professional one should be configured as a website rather than a blog, though in that case I would need to figure out how to handle web hosting for it.

The second issue that is coming to the fore is that the free WordPress subscription I’ve been using has a limit of three gigabytes of storage space. I am now very close to that limit: I can upload about fifty more photos, maybe a hundred if I keep them small, before I run out of space. It used to be that WordPress would sell you a storage upgrade for $20/year, but I can no longer find any evidence of that: it looks like my only option if I want more storage space on this blog is to pay them $99/year for a more general upgrade that would also come with my own domain name and other features.

If it wasn’t for the first issue, I might just go with the $99/year upgrade, but as someone who’s unemployed and expects to struggle to make ends meet even when I can find some work, I really can’t afford that. Especially when just abandoning this blog and starting a new free one is an option. In addition, I recently discovered that WordPress’s export tool doesn’t allow you to export files you’ve uploaded. While I do keep copies of all my photos and files on my own computer, I don’t really like the level of lock-in this produces: it would be an insane amount of work to recreate all my uploads and links on a new platform and I just wouldn’t do it most likely.

Given all this, I have some questions for my readers:

  1. What do you think of the idea of splitting my content into two separate blogs: one personal and one professional?
  2. If I split my content, should the professional one be a blog, or should I integrate it into a professional website of some sort? (For that matter, should the personal one be a website somehow? That seems less useful, but maybe?)
  3. What are your thoughts on platforms? Should I keep using WordPress, or should I switch to something where I have more control? If the latter, do you have recommendations? I don’t trust UGCS in the long term and since I’m not a SIPB member I can’t count on MIT web hosting in the long term, either.
  4. I know that many of you are rich, at least by my standards. Would anyone be interested in donating money, either to upgrade this blog or to pay for some sort of hosting and domain name option for its replacement or replacements?

Fireworks in Columbia, Maryland

2015/07/27

My original Fourth of July plan for this year was to go to my mom’s family’s family reunion, “The Sparkle”, in Toledo. However, I was far enough behind on my thesis that I didn’t feel comfortable taking the better part of a week off to drive up to Toledo with my parents, so I decided to stay in DC and work on my thesis. I figured this would also let me see the Washington, DC fireworks, which I’d never seen before, since my family always went to see relatives for the Fourth of July and I’d never actually been in the DC area for the holiday.

Unfortunately, my plan of working on my thesis over the Fourth of July didn’t pan out—I was lazy and failed to make any progress on it while my parents were out of town—but I did at least make some progress on blog posts and emails and things were sitting on my to-do list. I also ended up not seeing the fireworks in downtown DC, though at least that wasn’t due to laziness. At the last minute, I found out that several of my friends from out of town were in the Baltimore suburbs with relatives for the holiday, and they suggested that we meet up to see fireworks. Since I didn’t want to go to downtown Baltimore and they didn’t want to come into downtown DC, we decided to meet up halfway to see the fireworks in a suburban community in between Baltimore and DC: Columbia, Maryland.

Columbia is somewhere that my family never really went when I was growing up. It’s quite far away, and was mostly a place I thought of as full of very rich white people. (Apparently it in fact very rich, but only about fifty percent white.) That said, it is somewhere with a somewhat interesting history, though a quite short one. It was established in the 1960s as a planned community intended to be a model for a new sort of city. The developers intended to create a complete city with an industrial district as well as residences, but they did so with the flaws of mid-Twentieth Century urban planning. The whole area is entirely car-dependent and consists of cul-de-sacs off major arterial roads that lack sidewalks. (Even in the Town Center neighborhood, home to Columbia Mall and the development along Lake Kittamaqundi where we saw the fireworks is lacking in sidewalks along the major roads. Furthermore, it was organized based on a model of government services provided by private organizations. The “city” was never incorporated as a municipality; instead, the hundred-thousand-person community is governed by a homeowners’ association, with all of the problems associated with that.

Anyway, some photos of Columbia Town Center…

…and of the fireworks.

Status Update: 50,000 Words!

2015/07/26

The last week or two has been fairly busy with meeting up with friends. Still, I’ve managed to make some progress on my thesis. Last Monday, I finally sent Sylvia my changes to Chapters Three and Four in response to her comments. I haven’t gotten a reply from her, and have no idea if she’s even looked at them, but after a couple of days of procrastination, I’ve managed to get started on Chapter Two. In the last three days, I’ve written about twelve pages; probably a third of the final length of the chapter. I’d like to get Chapter Two done by the end of the month, but I’m not entirely sure whether that’s possible. This morning, though, I broke through what was a somewhat important mental milestone for me: my thesis is now over ten thousand words long! That means that it counts as a novel by the standards of NaNoWriMo!

Admittedly, I haven’t gotten that much done today since this morning. I’ve been sneezing a lot this weekend for some reason and I ended up going on a five-mile walk early in the morning because I was sneezing too much to sleep or work, but I figured it was the best opportunity to get to walk in reasonably comfortable weather. (It was in the 70’s F; I still sweated through my shirt. I always sweat through my shirt.) I was a bit surprised by just how many rabbits I saw everywhere: apparently there are more of them than I realized around here, and they’re mostly active at night?

Upper Marlboro: A Visit to the County Seat

2015/07/24

Despite growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, I’ve virtually never had any reason to visit the county seat, Upper Marlboro. Despite the fact that it is the county seat in a state where county governments are often more important than municipal governments, Upper Marlboro is a bit of a rural backwater surrounded by a mix of farmland and exurban housing developments.

The town and its status as county seat date back to the early Eighteenth Century, when Prince George’s County was a collection of tobacco plantations with a population density higher to the south, where the rivers were wider and more navigable. Upper Marlboro was built as a tobacco port on the Western Branch of the Patuxent River, which is no longer navigable due to sedimentation and erosion. Today, the county’s population is centered much further to the north and west, around the Washington Beltway and the highways leading between Baltimore and Washington, and the economy is much more suburban than rural. However, the county seat remains in this small town of about seven hundred people with only one major street, a quarter-mile strip of lunch restaurants and bail bond and legal offices. Because of its governmental importance, the county’s bus network does run two routes between Upper Marlboro and Metro stations in the more populous part of the county. However, the buses run quite infrequently—hourly or less at midday—and take about an hour to reach the town.

The Memoirs of Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

2015/07/21

As many of you have probably noticed, I have not been reading much fiction recently, especially for someone who spent the past five years as an officer of the MIT Science Fiction Society. However, a friend recently did convince me to read a new fantasy series that I’ve been enjoying quite a lot. (Unfortunately, I have no idea who recommended it, but I’m hoping they’ll see this and let me know.) The series in question is the Memoirs of Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan, which so far consists of three volumes—A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, and Voyage of the Basilisk—with a fourth coming out next year.

The Memoirs of Lady Trent fall into the recent pattern of Regency and Victorian fantasy along with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and the Temeraire books, but unlike Susanna Clarke and Naomi Novik, Marie Brennan has created an entire world strongly reminiscent of Nineteenth Century Earth, rather than simply shoehorning magic and a few fantastical elements of history into a world that is otherwise a bit unreasonably familiar. This solves the issue that it’s kind of hard to believe that the state of the world, technology, politics, and culture would be essentially unchanged (at least in Europe) in a world where magic or dragons exist. (In particular, it avoids Novik’s awkward assumption that European culture would be completely unaffected by dragons, but other societies would be significantly different because of them.)

Furthermore, in my opinion, Brennan does quite a good job of creating cultures that seem familiar and yet different. For example, the dominant religion of her Europe analogue seems to be modeled of of Temple Judaism, though much of the specific terminology is a bit different. She’s an anthropologist by training and seems to have done her research on the West African cultures that form the model for the societies visited in the second book. I thought the portrayal was reasonable and respectful, though I’d appreciate comments from people with more experience in determining whether such things are problematic. In any case, I found the world building as interesting as the dragons, and wish that we got a bit more background—though we do get a lot—and perhaps a full world map. My only concern with the world building is one bit of the second book that seems to indicate that there are plans for a hydroelectric dam, although I haven’t seen any other evidence of electricity existing at the time the stories occur.

I hope more of my friends will read these books soon so I’ll have people to discuss them with. So far, I know at least one person has started the series and enjoyed it.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

2015/07/18

At the end of the Papist’s and the Library Frosh’s visit to DC, we went to a Sunday morning Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a huge Catholic church in Northeast DC. It was the first Mass I’d been to since my grandmother’s funeral twelve years ago, as well as being my first visit to the Basilica and to the Catholic University campus. (I actually took several classes for college credit from Catholic U in high school, but they were taught at my high school so I never had reason to go to campus.)

The inside of the Basilica was quite beautiful.

There were also a lot of side chapels, almost all dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In particular, I found the ones dedicated to the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, the patron of Poland, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico and a likely syncretism of an Aztec goddess, particularly interesting.

Status Update: Medicaid Runaround, Part 2

2015/07/16

I haven’t actually made it back to the Medicaid office to try to find out details about signing up for Medicaid. This is partly because I’m behind on my thesis and would feel bad spending a number of hours on dealing with Medicaid while I’ve made no thesis progress. It’s also because my sleep cycle is a bit broken and I’ve been waking up around noon, which isn’t exactly optimal for going to a government office that closes at 2pm, especially when you expect you’ll spend several hours waiting your turn once you’re there. I hope to make it there next week, but in the meantime, I’ve been working on finding out which if any of the Medicaid managed care options in Maryland my various doctors will accept.

The good news is that my therapist—the one with a cat in her office—does accept Medicaid. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist that I’m also seeing (MIT wasn’t happy with just a therapist for me to be readmitted.) only accepts it if I’m also getting therapy from their office: I have no idea why this is, but I assume that would mean giving up the other therapy I’m getting, which seems unwise, since I’m quite happy with my current therapist.

The really annoying news is that my primary care physician, despite being through a local community health clinic, won’t accept any of the Medicaid options in Maryland. I’ve managed to move my next appointment with him, which was in November, to 10 August, so at least I can get a checkup and a referral to someone who will accept Medicaid. I’m confused by this, since I’d expect the person with a community health clinic to be the most likely to accept Medicaid, and annoyed, because I really don’t want to have to go through all the inconvenience and paperwork of changing doctors again.

A Papist, a Library Frosh, and a Broken Frosh Visit DC

2015/07/15

Back in late June, the Papist visited from Memphis, the Library frosh visited from Toledo, and the Broken Frosh visited from Boston all in the same weekend. It was convenient timing, particularly given that the Broken Frosh’s trip was only planned at the very last minute. We ended up doing quite a lot of sight-seeing, as well as a lot of making efforts to make sure they got to meet everyone in DC who was interested in seeing them. I managed to get a cold while they were in town, so I didn’t have the energy to go along on all their trips, but I went on quite a few. On Friday, we went downtown to see the Library of Congress (I unfortunately couldn’t go in because I’d forgotten I was carrying a knife) and have lunch with a Catholic blogger that the Papist was internet-friends with. Then the Papist took a train to Baltimore to visit some relatives while I led the rest of our group by bus to the National Arboretum. (I’d never actually taken a bus there before. It turned out to be relatively easy, at least on a weekday when the buses are running frequently.)

On Saturday, we spent quite a while in the Air and Space Museum, then walked down the Mall to the Washington Monument and White House, and had dinner at a Dominican restaurant in Columbia eights. It was a kind of exhausting trip, especially given the hot weather.

As a result of all the travel around DC, I got to see some interesting bits of Metro repairs, as well as finally seeing the DC Streetcars being tested.

The Billy Goat Trail

2015/07/12

About a month ago, the Dog drove down from Princeton for a weekend to visit me. It was a nice visit, and included some walking around my neighborhood, dinner at the New Carrollton Pool with my parents, a trip to see museums downtown, and a trip to a Caltech alumni event. However, the main activity of his visit was a hike on the Billy Goat Trail along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal at Great Falls. We hiked Section A of the trail upstream, from Old Anglers Inn north. The trail was very rocky and involved a lot of bouldering. Although it was a quite short walk distance-wise, it took us about an hour and a half and I was quite out-of-breath most of the time. Not to mention quite drenched with sweat the whole time, but since it was in the nineties and humid, that’s not really that surprising.

Before we walked back south to the parking lot along the canal towpath, we walked along the boardwalks out to Olmsted Island to see an overlook over the falls.

Status Update: Medicaid Runaround, Part One

2015/07/10

Today was the first day in what looks to be a long and painful runaround to get medical insurance once my MIT insurance lapses at the end of August. My parents had been trying to convince me to extend that insurance under COBRA, though it’s not clear to me that I would have been able to afford to do so. Today, I called several numbers at MIT and eventually confirmed that I’m not actually eligible for COBRA, even though I had insurance through MIT that MIT paid for as part of my stipend as a grad student. You see, grad students don’t count as employees, even if they’re paid for their work, so I’m not eligible for COBRA coverage in the same way I’m not eligible for unemployment benefits. (Not that most of my friends seem willing to believe that. Americans really love to believe that their safety net covers everyone.)

This means that my only real healthcare option is to apply for Medicaid. Since Maryland accepted the Medicaid expansion that’s part of Obamacare, anyone with an income of under 133% of the poverty line—about $15,000/year—is eligible for Medicaid. Meanwhile, people are only eligible for subsidies to buy insurance on the Obamacare exchanges if their income is greater than 133% of the poverty line. Since I’m currently unemployed and have no income, Medicaid is my only option.

The problem, as I’ve heard from a friend who recently applied for Medicaid in Maryland, is that to apply you need to supply a lot of documentation that in my situation just doesn’t exist. They want “employer and income information”, and give paystubs and tax forms as examples. Of course, since I’m unemployed, I have none of these…although my most recent (2014) tax return does show me making well above 133% of the poverty line, since I was a grad student getting a stipend until the end of January. She recommended that I go talk to someone in person about it, because the online forms broke badly when she tried to use them.

I looked on the Maryland government websites about healthcare and found out that if I wanted to talk to someone in person, I had two options, the Maryland Department of Social Services and the Maryland Department of Health Resources. Both of their offices were in the Largo area, and according to the information I could find online, were open until 5:00pm on weekdays.

I tried the Department of Social Services at the address listed online, and found someone at the front desk who told me that they couldn’t help me, but that there was a branch office in Hyattsville (five or ten miles away, but actually closer to where I live) that could and that was open until 5:00pm. I decided to try the Department of Health Resources first, though, since it was closer to where I currently was. There, they told me that they couldn’t help me, but that there was another office in the area that could. I went there, and found out that they were only open until 3:30pm for Medicaid issues (but open until 5:00pm for everything else). It was 3:45pm, so I decided to try the Hyattsville office of the Department of Social Services. I got lost on the way there, so I didn’t make it there until 4:30pm, but they were still open. Unfortunately, after standing in line for a bit, I found out that they are open until 5:00pm as I’d been told, but they’re only open for Medicaid things until 2:00pm. So I get to try going there on Monday morning to find out what else will be wrong.

I ended up wasting about three hours today on this, much of it waiting in traffic in hot weather. (I didn’t want to waste gas on air conditioning. See “unemployed”.) I can’t imagine how much more impossible this would be to deal with without a car (all of the offices I had to go to except the Hyattsville one are basically inaccessible on foot or by transit). Or if one had a day job one had to be at, given that the offices in question seem to only be open from 8:00am-2:00pm and 8:00am-3:30pm and only on weekdays, even if you manage to find out what office to go to, which it seems you have to go to other offices in person to do.

Needless to say, I didn’t make any progress on my thesis today.


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