The Ten Largest US Cities in Each Census

2015/08/29
An animation showing the ten largest US cities by population in each census.

An animation showing the ten largest US cities by population in each census.

I was recently made aware of the animation at the start of this post, which shows the populations and locations of the ten largest US cities in each census. It reminded me of my attempt to plot the populations of the largest US cities over time a few years ago, and I thought that it would be of interest to people as well. Enjoy!

Now I just need a laser screwdriver!

2015/08/26

This afternoon, I finally turned in my Master’s thesis! I should be receiving a diploma in the mail some time in late September. Sadly, it probably won’t come with a laser screwdriver.

Reverse Thesis-Gut via Procrastination

2015/08/26

Content note: this post contains discussion of body weight and variations thereof.

Read the rest of this entry »

Three Very Interesting, Very Different Books

2015/08/23

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks—the last couple of months, honestly—working on writing my Master’s thesis. During that time, I’ve done my best to avoid having too many distractions, though I haven’t completely eliminated social interactions, and I also haven’t completely eliminated reading. Actually, I’ve read quite a lot in the last few weeks, as I’ve gotten too burnt out to focus on the writing as much as I should have. During that time, I’ve read three books that seem worth recommending to people, though I’m not sure how many people I know who would be interested in all three.

The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, by Zachary M. Schrag is, so far as I can tell, the definitive history of the building of the Washington Metro. I’m working on a series of blog posts summarizing it that will hopefully get posted next month. It’s not just interesting to me because I happen to live in and be from the Washington area, but because the Washington Metro is the only real case of the US building a high-quality, city-wide subway system entirely after World War II.

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, by Nick Lane is another book in his running series of books on mitochondria and how they’re responsible for everything. While a lot of the book did repeat things he’d discussed in previous books, there was enough new information and improved explanations that I enjoyed it. If you haven’t read his other books, you should definitely read this one, or if you can’t find a copy of it, the older one I wrote about last spring.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander is an illuminating if also depressing account of just how fucked up the American criminal justice system is. I don’t feel competent to try to summarize it, beyond that I hadn’t realized just how inconsistently a lot of laws—particularly drug laws—are enforced. And that while I knew that it’s essentially impossible to reintegrate into society with a felony conviction, I hadn’t grasped just how many different ways people with felony convictions are discriminated against.

Not-Very-Rapid Transit: A Ride on Baltimore’s Light Rail

2015/08/20

Earlier this week, I finally finished riding the Baltimore Light Rail. I was trying to meet a friend for lunch in Timonium, north of Baltimore, and thought it would save driving and be an interesting experience to park at the south end of the line, at the Cromwell station and take the light rail to Timonium. Unfortunately, the friend wasn’t able to make it due to traffic, but it did give me a chance to add the parts of the Baltimore light rail I hadn’t already ridden to my collection.

The ride was nice although, as the title of this post indicates, it wasn’t a very fast ride: the average speed of trains along the twenty-five-mile length of the route is about twenty-two miles an hour, in part due to the very slow passage through downtown, where the trains have to wait for stoplights and stations are especially closely spaced. In addition, the train frequency is fairly low: the midday weekday frequency on the main trunk is every fifteen minutes, and trains only come on the Cromwell, BWI, and Penn Station spurs every thirty minutes. It’s particularly sad given that the right-of-way that the light rail was built on was originally intended to be part of the six-line system planned for the Baltimore Metro Subway rapid transit system, of which only one line was actually built. Still, it’s an improvement, given that the line was originally built almost entirely single-tracked. (The northernmost bit and the BWI Airport spur still are, although they have two tracks at their terminal platforms.)

I was honestly surprised that the clientele was a bit whiter and less apparently poor than I expected of the public transit in a rather poor and quite black city with relatively low public transit usage. (They don’t charge for the park-and-ride lots, and there aren’t many of them—only two or three large ones with close to a thousand spots—but as far as I can tell they don’t come even close to filling up on weekdays. The one I used supposedly has about seven hundred spaces and was probably about a third full.) That said, it definitely was less white and well-off than the ridership of the DC Metro, which isn’t really surprising.

The line itself can be divided into three main sections: the urban core that runs from Camden Station to North Street, and includes a spur to Penn Station, the northern end, which runs from North Street to Hunt Valley, and the southern end, which runs from Camden Station to Linthicum and ends in two spurs, to Cromwell and BWI Airport. The downtown core travels very slowly due to stations every couple of blocks and having to stop at traffic lights, although it does have its own right-of-way. (It is a bit depressing just how run-down it is, though: clearly the light rail hasn’t spurred the local economy enough to keep the storefronts open, even.)

North of downtown, the light rail runs along the former right-of-way of the Northern Central Railway, which itself is roughly parallel to I-83 and largely in parkland until one reaches the Baltimore Beltway, I-695. The stations in this area generally feel suburban to exurban. Although not all of them have parking, it’s hard to imagine that many people walk to or from many of them. Eventually, the line passes—very slowly, due to sharp turns and being single-tracked—through a business park that looked very car oriented and then reaches Hunt Valley Town Centre, a very upscale mall that had signs everywhere warning “youth under age 17” of a 9pm curfew.

While the BWI and BWI Business District stations were in the middle of an airport—apparently the BWI station is just below one end of the terminal, though I don’t recall ever seeing signs for it when I flew through BWI to get to and from California during my years at Caltech—the southern side of the line seemed a bit more potentially walkable than the northern half. The Cromwell station was in the middle of an industrial area—it was presumably located there because there was space for a park-and-ride and it was quite near an exit off I-97, which runs to Annapolis—but the rest of the line seemed to go through pre-War suburbs, with a mix of relatively dense single-family homes and commercial strips that had probably been quite walkable before being adapted for cars. I got the distinct impression that I was riding down an old interurban streetcar line through streetcar suburbs, and it turns out I was correct: this part of the line used to be part of the right-of-way of the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railway.

Microsoft Word and Appendices

2015/08/17

Three months ago, I wrote a blog post on my fight to figure out how to make the numbered section headings in my Master’s thesis work. After writing most of my thesis, using the “style”-based heading system described in that post, I discovered a new problem. There’s no good way to integrate appendices into that heading system.

The problem is that appendices are the same outline level as chapters, but they’re numbered differently from chapters. And, in some cases, they need to have subheadings in the same way chapters do, but these subheading numbers should reference the appendix. I.e.

  • Chapter I
    • I.1
    • I.2
  • Chapter II
    • II.1
    • II.2
  • Appendix A
    • A.1
    • A.2
  • Appendix B
    • B.1
    • B.2

However, it’s unclear how you can create two separate outline systems like this, one after another, in the document. It seems like you should be able to create a new set of styles for appendix headings and link these to a different of the six outline list options Word gives you than the regular headings. And, initially, this seems to work, it even causes the new headings to show up in the table of contents properly. However, it turns out that once you’ve created the new appendix outline lists, the original heading outline lists lose their numbering for some unclear reason.

I finally decided to give up on this and to instead just treat appendices as lower levels in the heading and outline list hierarchy. After the five heading styles I was using for my chapter headings, I used the remaining four heading styles Word provides—“Heading 6” through “Heading 9”—for appendices and three levels of subheading within them. I was able to configure these as lower levels in the same outline list hierarchy while making them physically look the same as the first four levels of it used for regular chapters. I also had to edit the associated table of contents headings—“TOC 6” through “TOC 9” so that they would look the same as the first four table of contents headings, and to edit the table of contents code so that it would show all nine levels.

The one remaining problem was figure numbers. Figures in my chapters are identified by the chapter number, a hyphen, and the number of the figure within the chapter, i.e. “Figure IV-4”. You can use a heading style other than “Heading 1” for the chapter number, but you have to use the same one throughout the document. This means that if I want the figures in my four chapters to be numbered right, the figures in the appendix will all be numbered “Figure IV-n” where n is a number continuing in the series used in Chapter IV, which doesn’t make any sense. I finally concluded that my best option was just to overwrite the automatic figure numbering in the appendices with the hard-coded figure numbers they should have. This is fine, but a bit of a hack, and it would be more annoying if I thought I was likely to have to rearrange these figures.

Status Update: Medicaid Runaround, Part Four

2015/08/15

After my experience earlier this week with trying and failing to achieve anything by going to the county social services office, I decided to try applying for Medicaid online. Surprisingly, I was actually able to fill everything out successfully, although the page where I had to describe my current (soon-to-expire) insurance was kind of a mess and required a bit of guesswork to figure out how to fill it out.

At the end, the online form claimed I had successfully applied, but that I would need to upload a document verifying my income. None of the documents it recommended were applicable to me, but since I’d been told at the social services office that I could sign an affidavit that I had no income, I decided to try going back there the next morning.

Surprisingly, this trip managed to go a lot better—partly because I knew what I was doing this time—and I was able to get into the right line to be let into the back room that had about a dozen computers for people to apply for healthcare. After waiting a bit, they provided me with the affidavit I needed to fill out and sign and they scanned it and uploaded it to my application. I was told that I would receive a Medicaid card in the mail in two weeks, but that I should have coverage starting now and that I could call a hotline to find out my member number. I tried calling it but was on hold until 5pm when the system hung up on me. I guess I’ll wait to see if I actually get the card and will report back when I’ve tried to use it.

Another Way Free Parking Inhibits Walking

2015/08/14

It’s common in urban planning circles to criticize free parking and requirements that stores provide parking for a variety of reasons. It raises the cost of real estate, while resulting in a subsidy to drivers at the expense (both directly by raising costs and indirectly by resulting in more car-oriented development) of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users: modes of transportation that are generally more environmentally friendly, less congestion-producing, and more available to low-income people.

Living in relatively car-dependent suburbia has brought to my attention yet another way free parking supplied by businesses can be harmful. Since the businesses are paying for the parking spaces, they want to make sure they are available for their customers, and generally ban anyone from parking there to go anywhere else. Even if one does shop at the business providing the parking, one generally can’t then walk off the lot to run a second errand nearby without moving one’s car. The result is that even when retail is clustered and relatively dense so that walking between several errands would be practical, it is essentially banned. Shoppers need to move their car between lots for each separate errand, increasing air pollution, congestion, and the risk of accidents as they turn in and out of traffic at unsignaled driveways. Furthermore, the need to drive to each errand separately reduces the incentive to combine trips in the first place, making it likely that even more unnecessary driving will result.

Status Update: Medicaid Runaround, Part Three

2015/08/11

After putting it off for a month, yesterday I decided to make another try at applying for Medicaid, since my MIT insurance lapses in just three more weeks. I had a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon, but I thought that two-and-a-half hours would be enough time, so I got to the county social services office at 11:30am knowing I’d have to leave at 2:00pm. When I arrived, I was given a ticket with the number “M161” and told to wait until it was called. It soon became clear that there were a number of different queues depending on what you were there for: numbers starting with five or six letters were being announced on a loudspeaker and displayed on a screen. None of those letters was M, though, which began to concern me.

It is worth noting that the office was quite loud: besides the announcements of numbers, there were probably a hundred people in the room, about a third of them children, and many of whom were talking quite loudly. It was a quite distracting environment, so it wasn’t until around 12:30pm that I noticed that every twenty minutes or so, someone was coming out and calling for groups of numbers starting with D, a prefix that hadn’t ever been called on the loudspeaker. I started to wonder if perhaps someone was also calling out M numbers that way and I just hadn’t noticed: in a room where many people were standing or walking around because there weren’t enough chairs, and with as much background noise as there was, it would have been easy to miss.

At about 1:00pm, I finally had the guts to try to ask the person at the registration desk if my number had been called. They confirmed that Ms would be called in a group, but couldn’t tell me if M161 had been called. When I pointed out that it had been an hour and a half, they said that was normal: it would probably take at least that long to get through each group. Finally, at 1:30pm, a different person came out with a clipboard and called for “all numbers starting with M”. About twenty people got in line: I managed to make it to the front by walking quickly, but it was clear that they didn’t care what order our numbers were, we’d just be helped in the order we made it to the line. She told me that I’d been called in an earlier group, but tried to help me anyway.

I had a bit of trouble getting her to understand my situation, but she eventually confirmed that there was an affidavit I could fill out to say I didn’t have any income. She didn’t have it with her, though, she’d have to go in back to get it, so she told me to stand in a different line to wait. However, I couldn’t see where she was pointing and stood in the wrong line for fifteen minutes before finding the right one. When I got there, there were a dozen people in front of me and she still hadn’t gotten through more than half the line of people with M numbers, which meant that this new line hadn’t even started moving yet. I really had to pee, and it was clear I wouldn’t get through this line before 2:00pm, so I gave up and walked out. On my way out, I found out that I couldn’t even use the bathroom in the building the office was in: they were all locked and I would have had to get a key from an office. Who knows what line I would have had to stand in for that!?

In any case, the whole experience was exhausting, and it makes me wonder how people who actually have jobs manage to deal with the social services office: as it is, I’ve already spent more time on this than I can really afford with a thesis to write, and I expect to spend another three or four hours on it tomorrow. It’s rather a travesty how badly under-staffed the office seemed to be, not to mention the fact that residents trying to use it were treated so poorly: the whole having to stand in line to ask permission to use the bathroom thing really pissed me off.

Status Update: Chapter II is finished, thirty or so pages and two weeks more to go…

2015/08/08

Well, it took me over twice as long as I’d hoped, but I’ve finally finished Chapter II of my thesis. The chapter came out to be 33 pages long—just over Sylvia’s estimate of 30 pages—but there are also 50 pages of associated appendices. The thesis itself is now up to 276 pages and just over 62,000 words! I now expect it to be just over 300 pages when it’s finished, a nice round number.

My advisor still hasn’t sent me her second round of comments on Chapters III and IV: she tells me that she expects to finish them during the “boring parts” of the conference that she’ll be at for the next week. She’s having me hold off on sending her Chapter II until I get those comments, so I can integrate the changes she wants with the new chapter. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to get Chapter I written this week, though I’m not sure how ambitious that is. The Bird will be visiting me this evening through tomorrow evening, and I’m planning on spending Monday going to a doctor’s appointment and attempting to apply for Medicaid. I need to be done writing and making changes in two weeks, though, since two weeks from today, I’m taking a train up to Boston to turn the thing in.

In other news, the temperature has unfortunately started to creep back up after the respite we’ve just had of two days with highs of only 80 F. Yesterday, I wasted the nice weather by pacing in my apartment and trying to make myself write my thesis. On Wednesday, however, I managed to make myself go on a six-mile walk to Takoma Park, where I saw some odd street art and then took Metro back to College Park from the Takoma Metro station just over the border in DC. While I was waiting for the Red Line at Takoma, an older woman asked me what I was reading. It happened that I was in fact reading the definitive history of the DC Metro: The Great Society Subway, by Zachary Schrag. I showed her it, and she took a note of the title and author so she could try to find it at the DC Public Library. We ended up having a ten-minute conversation about the history of Metro—she grew up in DC, but had been away from the area for a while—while waiting for the train.


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