Bus Lanes or Light Rail for Mass Ave North of Harvard Square?

2016/02/09

One of the Boston-area transportation blogs I read recently had a post talking about the issues with Massachusetts Avenue—Mass Ave—in Cambridge north of Harvard Square.

They raised the good point that Mass Ave has a very different character north and south of Harvard Square. South of Harvard, and into Boston, it’s fairly narrow, like most of Cambridge’s streets, and I don’t really think that putting in dedicated bus lanes or light rail lanes is practical, which is part of why I’m in favor of a Mass Ave branch of the Red Line, from Andrew Square or JFK/UMass to Central Square. North of Harvard, though, the road becomes much more highway-like, even though it continues to go through fairly dense areas. The blog post suggests that bus lanes could be installed in the median of the road through Cambridge. This could be worthwhile, although the existence of the Davis and Porter Red Line stops make it less essential.

However, the wider, more suburban nature of Mass Ave continues at least as far north as Arlington Center. Which, it seems to me, provides a possible solution for the fact that the Red Line from Alewife to Concord along the old rail right-of-way that is now the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway was cancelled. While it would be wonderful to have the Red Line subway continue further north, the chances of getting heavy rail built there seem about nil. I’ve wondered if building light rail in the right-of-way could make sense instead, but doing so would have the downside of requiring a transfer at Alewife for essentially everyone—Alewife isn’t really a destination for anyone—and dealing with the NIMBY issues involved in building in what’s currently a very popular bike path.

I’m now wondering if dedicated median-running light rail from Arlington Center to Harvard Square along Mass Ave could make more sense? One would lose some time due to road interference, even with signal priority (which is a must), but it would also provide better service to the commercial districts along Mass Ave than service along the old rail right-of-way would. And running things in the median of Mass Ave down to Harvard would relocate the transfer to a station that is already a major destination and a major transfer site for buses to Boston and various places in Cambridge and Somerville. (There would be a convenient bus and Red Line transfer at Porter, too.) As a minor additional benefit, this would allow the Harvard Bus Tunnel to again serve light rail as well as buses….

Anyway, I’m curious if anyone has any opinions on this idea?

MOOCs, Roads, and Christine Ortiz; or Reasons I Hate the Techno-Elite

2016/02/02

A number of people have been really strongly encouraging me to start applying for “Real Jobs” now. I really do need to get a job that has some chance of being sustainable and letting me save for retirement and things, rather than making ends meet only because of assistance from my parents. Some have them have been encouraging me to apply for laboratory jobs, which I might be able to get, but find kind of terrifying. Others have been trying to get me to get a job in Prince George’s County Public Schools as a high school teacher. The whole thing has been incredibly stressful, though, and has mostly just succeeded in exacerbating my depression.

Honestly, I don’t know what I should do, or could get and hold a job doing. It does seem that one of the few things that I both enjoy doing and am good at is teaching. Where by teaching I mostly mean the classical sort of lecture-based classroom teaching. Tutoring, I am good at, too, but tutoring is also, I am coming to realize, a form of emotional labor I find stressful, at least when it consists of longer-term tutoring of the same students, who don’t necessarily want to learn. Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear to me that there is no potential for a career in this field, and that even if there was at present, the elites are doing their best to ensure that it will be destroyed quite soon.

The reality is that the elites—both techno-elites and a lot of political elites—seem to have decided that classroom instruction should be replaced by MOOCs and similar electronic replacements for classroom teaching. One of the higher education blogs I follow regularly recently reminded me of this by bringing up Christine Ortiz (the outgoing MIT Dean of Graduate Education)’s plan to found a new university that seems to be centered on the idea of eliminating classroom instruction. Her plan has a lot of holes in it, but that doesn’t change the fact that things are definitely going in the direction of looking for ways to eliminate classroom teachers. The computer people want it, because it gives them an opportunity to get rich while “disrupting” an industry they don’t like or respect. The political elites like it because they think it will save them money. And so it is going to happen. You think the current state of community college adjuncts sucks? Wait until they decide they can replace your teaching with online courses, and just hire a few of you as lower-paid tutors.

You think this won’t get expanded to high schools, and eliminate high school teaching as a career path? Why wouldn’t it? There is already a war on skilled high school teachers, led by organizations like Teach for America that claim that upper class amateurs who spend a couple of years fulfilling their “white man’s burden” in poor, inner-city schools before going on to high-paying careers in other fields can do a better job than actual professional teachers. (Of course, TFA’s real function is as a union-busting outfit. We can replace professionals with cheap temporary labor! Isn’t that a great money-saving plan?)

And for the optimists who like to claim that since the MOOC model provides a lower-quality education, it won’t win out, because the free market will make the best model prevail, since when is education a free market? There isn’t a free market in education in this country, except for the very privileged: there never has been, and there never will be. A good education is just too expensive for most people to afford. Primary and secondary education are largely government run, now with competition from government-funded charter schools, but the alternatives of private and parochial schools can’t afford to be an option for the majority of people, not if they want to spend enough money to provide traditional-style teaching and reasonable class sizes. Colleges, public and private, that serve the general public are heavily dependent on Federal financial aid and loan rules. They run their curricula—they have to run their curricula—in ways dictated by what the Department of Education thinks is acceptable for programs that will be eligible for this financial aid.

In both cases, it’s clear enough that there’s a huge movement to cut costs. When you combine this with techno-elitists who just want to disrupt things for the sake of disruption, it won’t be long before the two movements unite to decide that the correct way to provide all education is primarily online, with many fewer teachers. And even if the elite schools that can afford to ignore government subsidies decide not to follow suit, it won’t matter for the vast majority of students. Or for the vast majority of people like me, who might make good teachers but will never be able to find jobs as teachers.

That’s how change of this sort happens. Not because the invisible hand somehow judges what is more valuable more justly than we ever could. But when elites switch side from the old dispensation to the new. It follows how cities in the 1920’s very suddenly switched from regulation intended to protect traditional road users from cars to regulation intended to protect cars from being slowed down by traditional road users. It follows the history of urban development and redevelopment in this country, which was largely a matter of various elites deciding how cities “should” work, and then manipulating regulation and finance to ban anything else.

Digging Out and Other Troubles

2016/01/28

It’s been almost a week since I last posted here. Which, admittedly, isn’t that long by the standards of how long it often takes me to create posts. But, still, a lot has happened. The snow finally did stop falling on Saturday evening, which meant that much of Sunday was spent shoveling out the sidewalk and driveways of the building where I live. (It was so windy on Friday night that my shoveling on Friday was completely wasted.)

I was able to get dug out by Sunday evening, and College Park, where I live, did a good job of getting the streets clear by then. However, the rest of the County—including state roads—were cleared very slowly and public schools are still going to be closed tomorrow, a week after the snow started falling. This means I’ve lost a week of tutoring income—a sizable fraction of my income for the month—since all my tutoring appointments were cancelled.

In other annoying news, my bad luck with traffic accidents seems to be continuing. While I was driving down the freeway (US-50 to be exact) this morning on the way to teach a lab session at my community college, something—I’m not sure what, it looked like a strap of some sort, but it was clearly attached to something heavy—flew of the back of the flatbed truck in front of me and shattered my windshield. The windshield held in place, but it wasn’t just full of cracks, the inside of the car was showered in glass shards and dust. Luckily, I wasn’t injured, but the car was also in no shape to keep driving.

Unfortunately, since the truck changed lanes and sped up right after the accident, I wasn’t able to get its license plate number. I ended up driving to the next exit and parking, and spending almost two hours calling my parents, the insurance company, and the police, before figuring out what to do. Eventually, my parents were able to get me one of their other cars to drive to class, though I was an hour late. (I had been able to call ahead and warn them, so they were able to send a substitute in.) The situation is mostly resolved, though it is costing them a second $500 deductible to repair, on top of the deductible from the parking lot accident last week. This has certainly not been a good week for me as far as driving goes.

For the sake of including one last bit of good news in all this mess, I did at least manage to do some cooking this weekend. On Saturday, I made a lentil, sweet potato, collards, and kale stew and invited my neighbors over to eat some. They seemed to really enjoy it, and it was nice to get to talk to them a bit. I should try to have small-scale inviting-people-over-for-food events in the future.

Then, on Monday, I attempted something a bit more ambitious. I decided to attempt to make a Chinese-style stir-fry dish. I began by dicing two small onions and cutting a pound and a half of boneless chicken breast into flat strips an inch or two long, a quarter inch tall, and an eighth of an inch or less thick. (They probably should’ve been thinner, but wasn’t sure I could manage that.) Anyway, I stir-fried these in canola oil, two tablespoons of soy sauce, and enough turmeric to turn it slightly yellow until the meat looked cooked. In a separate pot, I used a vegetable steamer to steam a pound of de-stemmed collards for about fifteen minutes before stirring them into the stir-fry and adding a touch of chili powder. I continued stir-frying for about five minutes before serving with rice.

The resulting dish was very tasty, but it really didn’t produce much food for the amount of effort, even when served with a lot of rice.

A New Semester and a Blizzard

2016/01/23

I really should post to this more often. And perhaps someday I will. But at present, it just doesn’t seem that likely: I seem to alternate between being too depressed to, too busy to, and too interested in spending my “free” time doing more fun things to. It’s been long enough that I should probably check in, though.

My winter break was nice, by which I mostly mean it was horribly unproductive. I had a long list of things I had wanted to get done, but I mostly just ignored it and spent my time trying to be as social as possible, because I felt so lonely and isolated after last semester. (I really hope I can have more in-person human contact this spring than I did last fall, but I don’t really know if that’s viable.) I got to meet up with some high school and college friends who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and who were in the DC area to visit relatives. I also got to see The Force Awakens with some local friends, and I got to have a huge, nine-hour dumpling-making party that many friends came to. And I engaged in a number of email conversations, too.

Unfortunately, this means that I didn’t work much on more useful things. I did update my personal website and LinkedIn profile, which may be useful if I make an effort to apply for new jobs this semester. Which I should, as I’m not sure how much longer my current “academic hobo” lifestyle can be sustained. Not that I really know what I could look for. I also didn’t work on preparing for my new teaching semester, which is worrying, given that I’m teaching two classes this semester, and I suspect that that is going to make my workload significantly worse than it was last semester.

I’m teaching a lab section of “Physical Science I” for three hours on Thursdays. Fortunately, all the content for the course has already been created, but I have been struggling a bit to make sure that I understand all of the rules and requirements for the class and make sure I implement them properly: the complications of teaching a lab section where all the labs are supposed to be interchangeable. I had the first session this Thursday, and it went quite well, and the students finished things a bit ahead of schedule. (There were also less of them than on the roster—15 rather than 21—which may mean that I’ll have a bit less grading to do.) It was also weird having them all shout “professor” to get my attention: I feel like I don’t really deserve the title, as much as I covet it.

The other class I’m teaching is a lecture section of General Chemistry. It’s the Saturday college section, so I have one three-hour section each week, the first of which would have been today if the school wasn’t closed due to snow. For this class, there are a lot of rules that I have to follow, especially about the material I’m covering, but I’m responsible for producing all the content: problem sets, exams (including the final), answer keys, lectures, and any handouts I want to give the students. I’m hoping that I can keep this from turning into the exhausting mess that lecture notes and answer keys last semester were, but we will see. I’m pretty nervous about how the class will go.

Unfortunately, while the semester has started, I’m still not really where I should be in terms of preparation. And things in general have been pretty stressful lately. Yesterday, I got into a parking lot accident—partly catalyzed by a crowd of cars trying to find parking spaces surrounding me while I tried to park my parents’ SUV in a tight space—and managed to scratch a BMW as well as putting a scratch and big dent into the door of my parent’s new SUV. I’m really scared of how they may react to this, but they haven’t been too scary so far. It didn’t help that I was in the parking lot trying to meet up with a friend and talking to her just made me feel much more miserable about everything, especially when she started lecturing me on why I needed to be more optimistic.

Since then, we’ve gotten several feet of snow. I spent a couple hours last night shoveling snow and managed to get about six inches of snow off the sidewalks and driveways here—we have a huge amount of space to shovel—but by morning it was covered in over a foot. It’s still coming down and I’ve basically given up on giving it another try until tomorrow, though I got some of the other people in my building to help with redoing the front walk at least. I should be spending this weekend putting together problem sets, but so far I haven’t. I hope I can manage to do so after my Skype tutoring appointment this evening.

Snow and Fluid Dynamics

2016/01/18

I’m sorry I haven’t blogged much lately. Things have been very busy, and not nearly productive enough, but I’ve been surviving. I hope to manage to write more things soon but, for the moment, I just have an anecdote from driving through heavy snow flurries on the way to an appointment yesterday.

I noticed that, although the rate of the falling snow was pretty constant, I needed windshield wipers on when stopped or travelling at a low speed, but once I reached about 40 miles per hour, no snow hit my windshield anymore, and when I was able to maintain this speed I could turn off the wipers for multiple minutes without any snow. I assume that this is a fluid dynamics effect, and that I was going fast enough to produce a cushion of air that deflected the snow. Presumably, at an even higher speed, the effect would also block rain droplets. However, I know far too little about fluid dynamics to elaborate further.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

2015/12/21

This has been a very busy weekend, despite my not having actually done much productive during it. I seem to be catching up on doing social things after feeling so lonely and isolated for the last couple of months. Unfortunately, though, there actually are some chores that I need to manage to get done.

On Friday evening, I went downtown with some friends to see the National Christmas Tree. Most of them had never seen it before, as they aren’t from the area, and they seemed to mostly like it. I was disappointed that the huge yule log wasn’t there this year, though I suppose they may have cut it for environmental reasons. (It turns out that they didn’t: they just cut it because they rearranged the set-up and the fire pit they’d been using was no longer conveniently located.) Afterwards, we went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I came into the movie already knowing that I wasn’t going to consider it canonical, because Disney rebooted the post-Return of the Jedi continuity when they decided to make the film. I don’t really blame them for doing so: I’m not convinced they could make a good movie—and a popular one—out of Heir to the Empire. But, for me, that’s always going to be the canonical timeline. You see, unlike most Star Wars fans, I didn’t get into it because of the movies, or the video games. When I was growing up, I wasn’t really allowed to watch movies very often, or play video games ever. However, I read a huge amount of science fiction, and my exposure to Star Wars came from the Bantam Books-era Star Wars novels of the 1990’s. These novels were essentially forced out of the official timeline by the Prequel Trilogy of movies: although they are largely set after the Battle of Endor, they reference events during the rise of the Empire and Clone Wars that are quite different from the ones Lucas described in the prequels. However, they do a much better job of replicating the “feel” of the original Star Wars movies than the darker tone of more recent novels, and they essentially defined my understanding of the Star Wars universe.

At this point, I’m going to start talking about my thoughts on The Force Awakens. Be warned that spoilers follow!

Despite the fact that I don’t consider the Disney timeline to be the “real” canonical timeline for Star Wars, I was really impressed with the movie. I think that it did a much better job than the Prequel Trilogy—or the more recent novels—of recapturing the feel of the Original Trilogy and the Bantam Books novels. I’m not really exactly sure how to explain this sort of feel, beyond that it seemed to have more of an exciting, heroic feel while also not taking itself to seriously, rather than the darker “high tragedy” that Lucas’ prequels tried and spectacularly failed to be. But, while the movie’s politics honestly didn’t make that much sense—I really couldn’t figure out what the distinction between the “Resistance” and the “New Republic” is supposed to be, especially since the New Republic supposedly has its own fleet, and I couldn’t figure out why destroying the current home of the Republic Senate would’ve knocked the whole fleet out of action, too—it didn’t really seem to matter because they weren’t an important focus of the movie.

Furthermore, given that this movie is kind of intended as a reboot that introduces a new setting and set of characters, an important point in its favor was that I really liked the new characters and the way they were introduced with respect to the older characters. Finn, the reformed stormtrooper, seemed to have a good combination of guts and self-uncertainty, and looks like he will have a lot of interesting development to come. In the meantime, though, he was quite neat and bad-ass. Not as bad-ass as Rey, the heroine, though, who was utterly incredible. It looks as though she’s going to be the most powerful Force user we’ve ever seen: not only did she pull off incredible flying after stealing the Falcon, despite never having flown a spaceship before, but she—with basically no training—figured out very quickly how to use a variety of Force powers in a way that even Luke and Anakin didn’t manage. They managed to make it very clear that she was a—maybe the—leading character, and that she wasn’t going to take bossing around from anyone. She even managed to impress Han Solo with her mechanical skill enough that he tried to hire her as crew. And the fact that, at the end, she seemed to have sort of inherited the Falcon from him struck me as very appropriate.

I also felt like the movie did a good job of having things that mirrored bits from the earlier media in the Star Wars universe. Their willingness to kill off Han Solo was a good sign that they do intend to hand over the series to the newer characters, and his death was a rather appropriate mirror of Obi-Wan’s death in A New Hope, given that he died trying to reason with Darth Vader’s successor and grandson. (And, well, Harrison Ford had asked for a hero’s death in Return of the Jedi, so I suppose it was appropriate that he be the one to die.) Rey’s flying at the beginning of the movie did remind me of Luke’s teenager-hood exploit of flying through impossibly tight rock formations. And finally, it seemed very appropriate to me that she seems to have inherited Luke’s first lightsaber, the one he lost at Cloud City. Not so much because of its connections to him, or to Anakin, but because it’s also Mara Jade’s lightsaber. She is probably the Expanded Universe character that fans were most disappointed to lose in the reboot, in particular given the shortage of female characters who are warriors and Force users instead of just politicians. So I feel like having Rey inherit the lightsaber that Jade inherited from Luke in The Last Command was in part a way to offer her as a replacement for Mara Jade.

The Yule Log, the Rec Council, and the Library Board?

2015/12/18

Tonight, I participated in a tradition in my home town that I never expected to have anything to do with again.  Back when I was an epsilon, the New Carrollton Rec Council used to organize a camp fire with Christmas carols and a visit from Santa on an evening in December called the Yule Log, and my mom and I always attended it.  I think it was mostly adults then, but there were a number of other kids.  I mostly recall bringing a set of handbells I had every year and ringing them loudly during “Jingle Bells,” and really enjoying getting to toast marshmallows and have hot chocolate.

At some point, probably around when I was in middle school, it stopped happening.  I’m not really sure why, but the Rec Council—as well as a bunch of other volunteer groups in the city—kind of fell apart around that time, due to people moving away or getting old and not being replaced.

While I was away in Boston for grad school, my mom and Jane, the mom of my childhood best friend, got involved in what was left of the Rec Council and made an effort to restart the Yule Log.  I was never in town for it, though, and never expected to be.  This year, though, I of course was.  And the tutoring student I was supposed to be tutoring this evening cancelled at the last minute, meaning that I had the evening free and was able to go!

I ended up having a wonderful time, though that came more from talking to people than from the fire and singing and food.  I talked a bit to some of my parents’ friends, as well as to Mayor Hanko (who has been mayor of New Carrollton for more than half of the city’s existence).  I spent some time looking at old historical documents in the Weinbach Building—the building where the Rec Council stores their supplies, and where the Yule Log was held—and found some interesting things about the history of the construction of the New Carrollton Playground.  (Apparently it was built on 4-8 April 1990 and 900 residents were involved.)  And I talked a lot to Jane about the Rec Council and the county library system and the problems with it that she’s seen from her involvement in the Friends of the New Carrollton Library.

Apparently there are three open seats on the Library Board of Trustees, and she encouraged me to submit an application to be on the board.  I think I’m actually going to do so: it sounds like it would be interesting, and perhaps it would allow me to help fight their decision to significantly reduce the number of books because “electronic resources are the wave of the future.”  I have no idea if I have any chance of getting on the board, but we’ll see.

Winter “Break”

2015/12/12

The introductory physics class I was teaching this semester finally finished this week. It was an exhausting semester, and the class took a lot more time and effort than I’d been anticipating, partly because I ended up preparing something like eighty pages of lecture hand-outs for the students. I hope that they actually found them beneficial enough to be worth the effort I put into them. It was kind of neat to get to design the curriculum and class entirely on my own, but also a bit depressing, because the students had very bad math backgrounds (most of them had never seen trig before, and some of them didn’t really have a good grasp of algebra one). I ended up spending half the eight-week class just teaching them math before trying to get as much physics in in the last four weeks as I could. Still, I didn’t manage to cover all of the things I would have liked to get covered, unfortunately. We got through Newtonian mechanics and I managed to derive circular orbits, but I was unable to mention energy or momentum at all. There was just no time.

The semester was quite exhausting, between the teaching and the tutoring of high school students, which has been taking up my whole evenings on weeknights, making it really hard for me to find any time to ever see friends. (Especially since they all seem to always have weekend plans.) I’ve been kind of lonely, so I really hope that I’ll manage to get to see more people in the next few weeks, because they’ll have time off work for Christmas or will be visiting the DC area over Christmas.

In any case, though, I also need to spend the time that will be freed up by not teaching on a lot of chores. In particular, I need to get my estimated taxes figured out and paid, and I need to figure out how to document my income to the Maryland Health Connector so they don’t cut off my insurance. (That said insurance costs $320/month even after the Obamacare subsidies is unfortunate but is America.) I also need to do a bunch of apartment-cleaning tasks and fix up the professional website I was working on back in September. And I have promised MITSFS that I would put together a new issue of their fanzine, so I hope to work on that.

I should clarify that it won’t be a complete break: except for one week between Christmas and New Year’s, I expect I’ll be seeing my tutoring clients as usual. Which is good, because it means I’ll still be making money, but means this won’t really be a break. As of yet, I have no idea if the community college is going to hire me again for the spring, but hopefully I’ll get a couple of course offers in the next week or two. I’m a bit intimidated by the idea of another semester like this last one, but I don’t think I really have any other reasonable choices.

Mailing Address and Holiday Cards

2015/12/07

I seem to be a day late to wish you all a happy Feast of St. Nicholas the Heretic-Slapper, but I figured I would repost my mailing address, just in case anyone wants to send me holiday cards.

PO Box 1205
Greenbelt, MD 20768
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

As for my own part, I hope to send some holiday cards out this year, but it’s only going to be a few, not the huge number I’ve sent out in the past. Sadly, I have neither the funds nor the time and energy to continue that tradition…maybe next year?

Happy Feast of Liberation from the Archosaur Yoke

2015/11/26

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.


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