Kendall Square Update


About a month ago, I posted a rant about changes to Kendall Square. I talked to jhawk about the post and he expressed doubt that the intent was to remove the Main Street median permanently, and suggested I look at the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority‘s minutes to find out what was going on with the Coop food court.

It took me a really long time to do so, but I eventually found a map of the Main Street redevelopment project on the Cambridge Department of Public Works website. It looks like the median removal is permanent, but they’re planning on putting in bulb-outs at the MBTA crosswalk to narrow the street a little there. I’m still not convinced this isn’t inferior to the original set-up, though.

It sounds as though the issue with the food court never reopening has largely been due to the Coop—whose tenant the food court apparently is—foot-dragging and wanting to increase the amount of floor space dedicated to its merchandise. They promised the CRA that the renovation would be finished soon a number of times: most recently, this January they claimed that they were moving forward on getting permits. It probably will eventually open, but I still doubt it will have anything affordable to people who aren’t tech workers.



I wrote this poem about a month and a half ago about a long-running metaphor I’ve had for my personality in terms of demonic possession. The thing is, my angry, chaotic evil side is still part of me, and a part I’m quite attached to, even when it hurts me.


Yes, doctor, I already knew about that:
that there’s dragon coiled in my stomach.
He rests his head on my heart when he’s content.

Quiet down, everything will be fine.

No, I’d rather leave him in there:
I asked you to heal me, not to cut out
my little reserve of hidden strength.

Please, let me handle this.

I don’t think you understand; maybe you can’t?
Have you ever been small and scared among a sea of troubles?
Sometimes it’s worth it to breathe borrowed fire,
even if it scorches your throat.



Back when I was still an MIT student, the Eldritch Kitty started squeeing about Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, by Nick Lane so loudly that I decided to get a copy from the MIT libraries to read. It in fact ended up being the last MIT library book I read. It was also an incredibly neat book. While I somewhat suspect the author of having an agenda—wanting to prove that mitochondria are responsible for essentially everything—I certainly learned a lot about biology that I hadn’t known. The book is divided up into a number of topics, each of which Lane explains in terms of mitochondria.

The best-known function of mitochondria, of course, is as as location in cells where food and oxygen are converted into energy.  This is usually explained as the production of ATP, the molecule that most cellular processes use as their basic fuel.  However, the process in mitochondria—and in bacteria, which perform respiration without mitochondria—actually fundamentally works by performing redox reactions that produce a proton gradient, and so an electric voltage, across a membrane.  In explaining this, Lane gives the first explanation for how a clay-based “metabolism-first” origin of life could have occurred that makes sense to me.  Essentially, the suggestion is that the earliest biochemistry involved electrical gradients forming across the boundaries of bubbles in sediment, and that the earliest life form replicated itself in this environment before eubacteria and archaea separately invented their chemically different cell membranes.

It is generally believed that eukaryotic life—cells that have nuclei and other membrane-bound organelles—obtained their mitochondria as a symbiotic relationship between an archaea-derived host and an endosymbiont eubacteria that became the ancestor of mitochondria.  Lane proposes that this step was actually the first step in the evolution of eukaryotes, before other eukaryotic traits such as nuclei and the ability to actively change the shape of the cell membrane to move or engulf food like an amoeba developed.  His argument takes two forms: first, that the only rare eukaryotes that have been discovered without mitochondria appear to have had mitochondria in the past and lost or repurposed them, and second, that developing these traits required higher energy production that could only be achieved via mitochondria.

As previously noted, cellular respiration involves the production of an electric potential across a membrane.  In both bacteria and archaea, the membrane in question is the outer membrane of the cell itself.  This puts a limit on the size and complexity of prokaryotic cells: since surface area goes up as the square of radius and volume as the cube, cells larger than a certain size will need additional internal membranes to perform enough respiration to meet their energy budget.

Furthermore, there may be a limit to the size of respiration surface that a single bacterial chromosome or eukaryotic nucleus can control.  Respiration involves a series of unusually high-energy reactions involving electron transport through a series of proteins.  An imbalance in locally available proteins may make  the electron transport chain back up, spewing toxic free radicals into the cell or mitochondrion.  Lane suggests that the reason that, although mitochondria have lost most of their genes, all mitochondria seem to have retained the genes for a few specific proteins essential to respiration is that this allows each mitochondrion to turn on and off synthesis of these proteins independently as needed for its local conditions.

Having argued that complex cells require mitochondria, Lane then goes on to argue that mitochondria are responsible for many other properties of eukaryotic life.  I don’t have the time to attempt to repeat all of his arguments here, but I do strongly recommend that you all read this book.


Caltech Hacking History: A Steam Tunnel Tour from October 1962


I thought I’d finish my series of stories about the Caltech steam tunnels and hacks with an old article from the California Tech published slightly after the Cuban Missile Crisis that the Politician and I found while he was reading through its archives.

“Steam Tunnels Prove Useful to Techmen;
Lend Interest to Exchanges and Parties”
by Walt Deal

The war scare this week has once again focused the Techman’s attention on the steam tunnels. Everyone plans to get his girl and disappear into the tunnels until the radiation goes away. The steam tunnels, it is felt, would, or rather will, make excellent bomb shelters. Unfortunately, they won’t. Air leakage and collapse will make them hazardous, if not deadly. The geology building, advertised by the department as quake-proof, will be relatively safer.

However, the steam tunnels do have their uses, as many frosh will find out as they wend their soggy way from soggy food to classes in January, while their more knowledgeable compatriots travel fast and dry via the underground. After a few drenchings, the frosh will stop wondering why the campus east of Throop was built with no provision for shelter from rain and start using the steam tunnels.

Steam in Steam Tunnels?

The tunnels were originally built to carry steam, and a lot of hot air goes through them, some through the pipes. They run the length of the campus, branching off to Keck and the Grad Houses. One student-made tunnel reputedly led to the women’s room at the PCC Library, but it hs since been closed by ever-vigilant B&G.

There are two easily accessible entrances to the tunnels: one by the stairs between Throop and Kellogg, the other to the right before one goes east out of the Old Houses basement through the Fleming gameroom. The first involves climbing down a ladder about six feet, crawling over cables and pipes, opening an invisible door, and fumbling around for the light switch in the presence of 2300 volts. Needless to say, entrance is easier when a flashlight is used.

The second is much more accessible. Go through the Fleming gameroom to the basement, turn left, go in the door around the corner and to the left, and walk through the storeroom.

Turning right from Fleming, one can go to Ricketts and the Athenaeum. The Athenaeum exit exits into the basement, close to the pool room, which is convenient. Unfortunately, undergraduate presence in this area is frowned upon, so it is not wise to linger.

Just to the left of the Fleming entrance is the New Houses exit. Anyone who really wants to use it is advised to wear old clothes that wash easily.

Walking west along the tunnel, one next comes to the Winnett exit, which opens into the game room. At this point, an unshaven old geezer usually appears, begging for food and directions, swearing that he has been lost since 1939. Don’t believe him. He went in no earlier than 1952.

Building entrances

The next exits lead to both Guggenheim and Thomas, neither of which are friendly to after-hours visitations.

Next, to the right, is the tunnel leading to Keck, the future Beckman, B&G, and the Grad Houses. Don’t go under the Grad Houses, because the doors have very ingeniously been fitted with spring locks.

The main tunnel forks under Throop. At this point an exit to Throop leads to a storage closet. Branching off to either side are tunnels leading to the north and south sides of campus.

To the right, the tunnel leads to Dabney Hall, exiting at the foot of the stairs, Gates in the fan room by room 22, and Kerkhoff at several points in the basement. The tunnels are used for storage along here, not for disposal. To the left of the fork is the tunnel leading to Bridge and the Geo buildings. The entrance betwen Throop and Kellogg points here. Exiting at Bridge entails a filthy crawl and a lot of noise distinctly audible above, so it is not recommended.

Both Arms and Mudd have exits on corridors. The tunnel has a left fork at Arms, which leads to a locked door in Robinson.

Take a little time out and find out about the steam tunnels. They come in handy during the rainy season, and they’re fun to wander through during exchanges.

Status Update: Everything but Thesis-Writing


About a week ago, around the time of my last Status Update post, I finally finished unpacking in Noonvale. It’s been wonderful to have my own apartment again after months of living out of suitcases. I went grocery shopping and cooked a meal again—a vegetable, tofu, and turkey stir fry with help from the Landscape Architect—and have started to feel like I have a bit more of a normal life.

Unfortunately, this seems to have led to my doing everything but the one thing that it’s essential I work on right now: thesis-writing. I have managed to do many, many other things, though. For one, I finally had a first appointment with the therapist I needed to get as a condition of my medical leave from MIT. She seems fairly good and has a cat in her office—it slept through the appointment, though—but her office is out in the middle of nowhere, in the county seat.

In addition, from Thursday evening through Saturday afternoon, I had a couple of visitors from MIT staying with me. We went to Langley Park to get Salvadoran food: I’d never been there before, but it’s apparently the largest Salvadoran community in the US. The food was certainly very tasty, and better than the Latin American food that you can get in Boston. We also went to downtown DC to see the cherry blossoms, which was quite fun, and to the National Arboretum.

On Saturday evening, my family went out to a “blue-collar seafood” restaurant for my dad’s birthday and then had pumpkin pie for dessert. On Sunday evening, Odin, who recently moved to the Baltimore area, stopped by to visit me on his way back from seeing the cherry blossoms. And Monday managed to get devoured by dealing with tax issues: it turned out that Maryland had lost my paper tax return and I had to redo it electronically in a hurry.

On Tuesday I finally started actually working on my thesis. So far, this has mostly just involved converting the Big Machine manual that I’ve already written from LaTeX to Microsoft Word. Unfortunately, Sylvia is insisting that my thesis be in Word, and figuring out how to get all of the formatting to work write has been incredibly slow and painful. At least it is finally progressing.

Caltech Hacking History: The Steam Tunnels


Three-and-a-half years ago, I posted a number of links to the archives of the California Tech that were relevant to some aspects of Caltech culture. I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize some of the history discussed in them and that I’ve found from other sources.

Finding actual articles on the steam tunnels was hard, but there were a few.  It seems that by 1962, Ricketts was already in the habit of leading guests to Apache—their house’s big annual party—into the South Houses through the steam tunnels, and that students traveling through them to class to avoid rain was fairly common.  At that time, some students were speculating that the tunnels might make good fallout shelters, but more serious students were of the opinion that they’d be a deathtrap.  In 1966, though, Pasadena Civil Defense stockpiled supplies in the tunnels near the Ath and depended on the Honor Code to keep them safe.  Also in 1966, a Ricketts member posted a notice in the Tech that people could contact him to buy tunnel maps.  This seemed a bit strange to me, given that in my day, there was a strong tradition that one must never make a map of the steam tunnels.

In 1980, there’s a column of some sort by Chuck Nichols, the famous Darb who lived in the steam tunnels for two years and was the inspiration for Laslo in _Real Genius_.  He acknowledges the taboo against tunnel maps and refrains from giving a walk-through, but comments on various locations.  He says that some “cool tunnels” exist along with the hot ones (but this was long before the End was built), and he seems to mean things in the SAC, the space behind the walls in the Synchrotron Lab, and “hyperspace”–he uses the term–in both the South and North houses.  “Eat Noodles” and “Imp Nix” are specifically mentioned as common tunnel graffiti.  (Perhaps the latter indicates a Dabney tunnel sign predating “DEI”?)  The Robinson Pit is mentioned, along with specific sections of the tunnels, and something called the  “Room With No Entrance” that I’ve never heard of in a lawn mower shed near Robinson.

Mesopotamian and Roman Recipes


An article about onions that the Bouncy Linguist sent me some time ago mentioned that onions are mentioned in Bronze Age Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets containing recipes. Some exploring from this led me to a few of these recipes. I’d be sort of curious to attempt them one of these days, mostly out of historical interest. If anyone else does or has, I’d appreciate it if they’d tell me how they came out?

That same blog turned out to have a few posts of ancient Roman recipes, which might also be interesting to try out:

Caltech Hacking History: The Fleming Cannon


Three-and-a-half years ago, I posted a number of links to the archives of the California Tech that were relevant to some aspects of Caltech culture. I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize some of the history discussed in them and that I’ve found from other sources.

A photo I took of the Fleming Cannon when I was a prefrosh.

A photo I took of the Fleming Cannon when I was a prefrosh.

That Fleming House at Caltech owns a cannon seems to be fairly well known these days.  After all, even at MIT, where Caltech is mostly a vague rumor from a strange desert land, hackers knew enough about it to bother to steal it.  It was also one of the five officially “non-RFable” (i.e. non-prankable) items on campus by Inter-House Committee policies, along with the Fleming lounge and dining hall drapes, the Blacker tapestry (a tapestry from the 18th century that hangs in their dining hall), the “Page President” (actually, a specific poster of Nixon that belonged to a student in the 1970’s and hasn’t been on campus since, it was added to make fun of Fleming for having insisted on the policy in the first place), and the Lloyd gong (a large gong added to the list in the 1990’s after its previous iteration was stolen and never returned).  While I was at Tech, the general understanding was that Flems had stolen it from a military high school in the area repeatedly in the 1960’s until the high school, which had decided its military image was becoming inconvenient with anti-Vietnam protests becoming more serious, decided to just give it to them so that they’d stop stealing it.

The Tech archives cover the history of the cannon fairly well, which isn’t surprising since its presence on campus was always sort of public knowledge, and since it was important to the Flems, at least, since its arrival.  The cannon was cast by the French for the Franco-Prussian War, but completed after the war, given to the US for some reason, later re-bored to fit American shells for use during the Spanish-American War, but again completed too late to be used.  It then got given or sold to Southwestern Academy, a (possibly originally military) high school in San Marino and fell into disrepair.

In 1972, Southwestern Academy was no longer a military high school and felt that having a cannon was a liability to their image, so they offered it for free to anyone who would cart it away.  Fleming got permission to take it and decided to haze their frosh by instructing them to “steal” it, not telling them that they had permission.  They fitted new wheels to it, as the ones on it at the time were too decayed to be used, and brought it to Caltech.

Over the next three years, Flems got it back into firing condition and Harvey Mudd students tried and failed to steal it twice, but in 1975 Fleming reacted to a Lloyd prank in a way that upset administration enough that they insisted on returning the cannon.  In 1981, the Flems apparently negotiated with administration and the Southwestern Academy to be allowed to take the cannon back.  It seems possible that this agreement has something to do with the origin of the IHC’s policy on non-RFable objects, though that suggests that the “Page President” story is incorrect in some details.  In any case, in 1986, Harvey Mudd students stole the canon, Fleming tried unsuccessfully to get it back several times, and then an agreement between the two schools’ administrations got the cannon returned and got Harvey Mudd to make it an expellable offense to try to steal the cannon.

2014 Trip to DC: Walking from TR to FDR


After I walked to Rosslyn, I met up with several Caltech friends (the General and the Economist), a high school friend (the Unitarian), an MIT friend, and two of her friends to go for a walk on Theodore Roosevelt Island. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Roosevelt Island—not to be confused with the similarly named island in New York—is a small forested island in the Potomac River roughly west of Georgetown. Although it is part of DC, it’s only accessible via a footbridge from Virginia near the Rosslyn WMATA station. The island is covered with a number of nice hiking trails, and in its center there is a large memorial to Theodore Roosevelt with a larger-than-life statue of him shaking his fist, but without a big stick.

After we finished walking around the Island, we decided we wanted to walk more and that it would be appropriate to walk across the Potomac to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial on the Tidal Basin. We walked along a bike path on the Virginia bank of the river to the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

We then visited the Lincoln Memorial and passed by the Korean War Memorial and the rather obscure District of Columbia World War I Memorial.

Along the Tidal Basin, we stopped to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which I’d never seen before, since it only opened a few years ago. We then walked through the FDR memorial as dark fell.

By the time we walked back from the Tidal Basin across the Mall to the Federal Triangle WMATA station, it was quite dark, but the weather was still surprisingly nice for October.

Status Update: Travel, Protest, Travel, and Unpacking


This is going to be short, but I figured I owed you guys something, since it’s been several weeks since I’ve posted a status update.

  • The second-to-last weekend of March, I went on a trip to Philadelphia by Greyhound. It was a short trip, but went fairly well. On Saturday, I wandered around downtown with some MIT friends and then went to Delaware to visit the Magic Russian. On Sunday, the Magic Russian and her wife took me to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, which was quite neat. There will be a couple of posts of photos from this trip at some point, hopefully soon.
  • The Tuesday after that trip, I went to my first protest in DC, an anti-circumcision protest on the Capitol lawn. It was a neat experience, and I’m a little impressed with myself for having had the guts to go. There will be photos of that, too.
  • I then spent the rest of that week and the following weekend in Boston, meeting with all the friends there I could find on short notice, seeing my advisor and getting permission to write a Master’s thesis (I really need to start writing!), and collecting all the stuff I’d left there to take back to DC in a UHaul truck. My dad flew up to Boston on Sunday morning, we loaded the truck on Sunday afternoon, and he then immediately drove it for ten-and-a-half hours, arriving in DC at 2:30am.
  • While I was in Boston, Ember convinced me to adopt three pet mice from her. They’re quite cute, and so far they don’t seem to mind living with a deranged lemur.
  • We unloaded the truck that Monday, and since then I’ve been working on slowly unpacking things in Noonvale. It’s been a much longer job than I expected, largely because I’ve been lazier than I expected. I’m hoping that today I can finally consider it done, especially since the Landscape Architect came over last night to cook dinner with me.


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