Thursday, September 29, 2011

It Tolls for Thee

An early morning experiment in writing bad fiction, complete with the most overused and cliche 6-word opener of all time. Trigger warning for violence and suicide.

"It tolls for thee"

It was a dark and stormy noon as the distant bell tower finished its last stroke. He did not know where it was; it could be as far as Downtown or Needham, or perhaps the Mattapan church belt. It did not seem to matter which church it was anymore; after days of frustrating searching, he found that no bells within two miles could possibly play that pounding low song, haunted parody of a melody.

It was a deep sound channel, man, the hemp-soaked young man at the record store drawled to him. Like in the ocean, you know? Four years of “audio engineering” and he never learned to be professional. But the glorified roadie was all too correct. The tiny house at 38 Thorndike, it seemed, was just in the wrong place. Sound from that distant tower bounced off exactly from the wrong roofs and walls, combining at this improbable node and turning his modestly decorated living room into a hellish echo chamber fourteen times a day. On the hour, every hour, seven in the morning to eight at night, came that unearthly ringing. It stayed in his ears constantly, until he could barely tell whether it was real or imagined. Day or night, sun or rain, it was there.

Any sane man would have moved. Brought buyers in at half-past the hour and bought a house a few streets away. It was not that he was not physically strong enough; he was not yet a very old man. But this house was also the house where his wife had been. He was a practical man and did not believe in such things as ghosts, and yet he knew she was there. She was there in his head, in his memories. On at the threshold could he conjure the feeling of her tender lips; only in the cramped bedroom would her lusty smile surface in his brain. No, to leave this house would be to leave her – for the final time.

The ringing in his ears subsides for a moment, and he contemplates going outside for the first time in a week. If he could put her aside for an hour, then perhaps he could clear his head and-

And that that exact moment, the hedonistic thug on the other side of the thin clapboard wall chooses to power on his heavily distorted amplifier. His reaction is measured yet automatic, as if he has been mentally preparing for years. He reaches into an empty drawer and retrieves an ancient revolver. It is surprisingly heavy in his hands. He is unfamiliar with the heft; he has not touched except twice a year to blue the steel. From a yellowed cardboard box in the back of another drawer, he pulls out six small bullets a places them one at a time into their chambers. Click. Spin. Click. Spin. He knows exactly what will happen. In a few minutes, the hooligan will get bored of creating obnoxious screeches, and he will go to the corner store. He will walk down the sidewalk, directly in front of the man’s house. The man practices aiming, firing, turning the gun upwards. He spins the cylinder and stifles a laugh: he’s playing Russian Roulette with bullets in every chamber.

The low tones begin. It is one o’clock.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Allston Depot

Two of the most thought-provoking books I've read are Freakonomics and its sequel. Although they focus mostly on economic ideas, they also explore some unintended effects of public policy. Besides my human appreciation of irony, I find it fascinating to see how one thing can cause a chain of events. As a future engineer, it's important for me to see how one decision I make can have effects down the line.

Over the last century, engineering standards for trains have increased in a similar manner to how those for cars have increased. Just as manufacturers can no longer make Pintos that blow up when they get hit from behind, they can no longer make wooden trams or railroad cars that cannot survive a collision with an automobile. Today's modern light rail vehicles (colloquially, trams and trolleys), for example, are significantly heavier than the PCC streetcars that dominated during the 30s to the 70s. (The PCCs weighed just 35,000 to 42,000 pounds; 70s-era Boeing cars weight 67,000, and modern Type 8 trams weigh 85,000 pounds empty - and 130 passengers can add 20,000 more on top of that.)

Although fuel usage is not an issue for electric trams, weight can still be an issue. Should Green Line cars ever use the Pleasant Street Incline in South Boston again, the flyover ramps would have to be rebuild for the heavier modern cars. It is for this reason that the PCCs are still used on the Ashmont-Mattapan Line: the three bridges on the route would have to be rebuilt from scratch to accommodate the newer trams, and they would not be able to get an exemption to use lighter European trams because the line has grade crossings where a tram could conceivably hit a car. There's also no sense in abandoning reliable old cars when there's still a shortage of new cars.

Engineering standards, particularly crashworthiness standards, also affect mainline rail operations. Speeds are limited on many lines because in order to run above 70 miles an hour though grade crossings, the first car must be a locomotive or unoccupied car. FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) rules require certain steel side beams for operation above 125 mph. These side beams are located right where fold-down stairs go, so the high-speed Acela has no stairs - and can only stop at high-level (4 feet high) platforms.

Heavy modern steel railroad cars also require more energy to slow down, and to speed up, than the light wooden cars of years past. Again, this poses little problem with electric locomotives (or self-propelled electric railcars), but only the Northeast Corridor plus (most of) the New York and all of the Philadelphia commuter lines are electrified. When, like Boston, all of your commuter lines are diesel locomotives hauling 4 to 8 cars, it is impractical to have stops less than about 2 miles apart. Although their are some exceptions (Melrose, Needham, and Dedham have 3 stops within 1.5 linear miles, and West Roxbury has a 4-stop cluster), the trend is for fewer, wider-spaced stops, particularly on the newer lines.

During the nadir of rail travel - from about 1950 to 1980 - many lines were abandoned, or service was reduced to starvation levels. To reduce maintenance costs and to save on fuel, many stations were closed even on active lines. The Worcester-Framingham Line, like others, saw a number of its stations closed, particularly in the inner belt. Stations at University (BU), Allston, Brighton, Faneuil, and Newton were closed, leaving the Allston-Brighton area devoid of good transit options and heavily car-dependent.

The Allston depot was built in 1887 by the Boston & Albany Railroad, replacing the 1868 "Cambridge Crossing" depot. Although it closed at an unknown date, it still stands where Cambridge Street crosses the Mass Pike. It was once Sports Depot restaurant; now it's Regina Pizzeria at the Depot. (It housed a steakhouse even when it was still operational.) I took a walk two weeks back, to explore Allston and to photograph the building. With permission from the manager, I took some shots. It's a fairly large building, and the first two are panoramas I stitched together.

Front view from Cambridge Street

Side view from Franklin Street

Side view from the pedestrian bridge over the tracks and Mass Pike. Note how the former platform area is now an enclosed dining area - a brilliant reuse.

The saga of Allston Depot is not yet over, though. CSX is leaving Beacon Park Yard (the large rail yard between BU and Harvard) and moving those operations to Worcester. This will permit the MBTA to run more trains on the Boston-Framingham segment with less freight interference. Harvard is calling for the establishment of a new stop in Allston, and money talks. If the MBTA can purchase the tracks in that area, then they may well remove or relocate one to make room for a platform. The favored site is under the Cambridge Street bridge - exactly where the stop was first located 143 years ago.

(First posted at Walking Boston, here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rebuilding Rama: done!

Two months ago, I started rebuilding Rama, one of my favorite rockets. This required a near-complete replacement of the motor mount and the cotton wadding that supports it, repairs to the body tube, and a new paint job.

I finished all the repairs before college, but it wasn't quite finished. On Sunday, when I was home for a few hours, I added the second coat of white paint.

It's not perfect, as the upper end of the body tube is still slightly crumpled, but it's far better-looking than before. The red writing on the body tube no longer shows through a single coat of paint. The clear acrylic fins, which I carefully masked, are barely visible against the body tube (as they should be). And, perhaps most importantly, it's ready for a lot more flying. The new 18mm motor mount has no engine block nor motor hook, so it can take any 18mm motors, including Aerotech 18/20 reloads, or even longer experimental loads.

Walking through Somerville and the North End

On last Tuesday evening, I went to a public meeting in Somerville. It took me one trolley, two buses, and a lot of walking to get to Somerville High School. That's an indication of the poor state of public transit in the area (I missed a bus at Lechmere, so my options were waiting 30 minutes for the next bus, or a mile's walk), which I'll touch on more later with the Green Line Extension.

The meeting was about the upcoming Lowering McGrath study, which is a really cool thing. They're going to take an ugly concrete viaduct from the 1950s, which carries Route 28 but divides Somerville, and transform it into an at-grade boulevard. It will facilitate pedestrian and bicycle access and unite the two sides of the city.

The meeting got out just past 8. Rather than take a bus, I decided to walk back to Boston. I wasn't sure I wanted to walk four miles (or more) through the unfamiliar street grid of Cambridge, so I headed for the North End. This route took me along a mile of Route 28, including much of the viaduct. It's a monstrosity, and it wasn't the best walking. The sidewalks - where there were sidewalks - were narrow, unlit, and often flooded.

In Somerville, I passed a building with several arched doorways that I though might have once been a trolley barn. The pictures I took were, sadly, dramatically underexposed. It turns out, though, that it is related to the history of the first elevated railway in Boston, a short-lived monorail. I hope to return soon and take pictures.

My journey took me over the Route 28 bridge under the Green Line's Lechmere viaduct. The viaduct is closed for construction at Science Park, but it still provided a fascinating photographic subject. The viaduct, which turns 100 next June, still contains some original catenary (overhead wire) poles:

Any view west from the bridge is blocked by the Museum of Science, but the hundred-foot arches of the viaduct provide wonderful framing for the Bunker Hill Bridge. (The Spaulding Hospital is on the right side of the bridge.)
I played with saturation on the top image. I love the artistic manipulations that digital photography permits.

From the Charles, I walked east on Nashua Street. My camera was still on night setting when I took this shot of a shuttle bus. It's not the quality I was seeking for Wikipedia, but instead I find a little artistic merit:

From much of the North End, the Bunker Hill bridge is visible above trees and buildings. The Big Dig was in many ways a colossal waste, but I love the bridge. Bridges are frequently beautiful - the same curves that make them strong are often aesthetically pleasing - and this is among the best. It is clean and white, resembling a pair of sailboats more than a freeway.

I walked down Causeway Street, behind North Station and TD Garden. The street was for almost a century covered by the Causeway Street elevated, yet just seven years after its removal few traces remain. Its remains, too, are a future photographic target for me.

At Government Center, after 3.3 miles of wandering, I finally gave in and boarded the T. I hoped to photograph the Brattle Loop, once a busy streetcar turnaround for cars from as far as Medford and Chelsea. Now it's usually empty, with the former platform visible to the thousands who pass through the station despite a wall that hides much of it. However, that night, it was occupied by spare Green Line trams.

(Crossposted from Walking Boston here)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I am a Feminist

I am a feminist, and I am a man. I do not see this as a contradiction. I am a man because that is who I am; I did not choose to be a man. I am a feminist because I chose to be a feminist, because I believe in the apparently radical idea that women are people. People, just people, exactly as men are people.

Some people tell me this is a contradiction. They say that a man cannot be a feminist, because feminism is about women, and I am not a woman. Or they say that it is silly to be a feminist, because I am not a woman, and giving women equality will not give me anything. I find this to be ridiculous: should I not believe in the equality of black people because I am not black, or not fight for gay people to marry simply because I am not gay?

I believe that equality is necessary on its own merits, that no person should be denied an equal chance because of something as trivial as because they happen to be female. I do not need to justify its benefit to me, because having a fair society is worth anything I can do. But even the silly arguments make me think. What does feminism bring to me? Can it be justified on a personal level, in addition to a global level? It maybe is not important that it can – but it can absolutely be justified on any level. I am a feminist because I think it is good, but I am also a feminist because it is good for me.

I am a feminist, because when I walk into my job, I will have the very best possible coworkers. They will have been chosen at every level for their ability and creativity, their rationality and brilliance. There will be women there, because maybe they will not have been told at five and ten and fifteen and eighteen and twenty-two that women don’t become engineers, that maybe they should become a nurse of a teacher instead, because that’s what women do. There will be women sitting in the fancy chairs, because we will have purged from our collective memory banks the idea that only men can make decisions.

I am a feminist, because I will have sex with a woman, and I will know that we are having sex because we want to have sex with each other. It will be good sex, because she will have been taught that her body is good and she can enjoy it, and that sex is good and she can enjoy it too. I will not worry that she would rather be having sex with a woman, or with no one, or with someone else entirely – because she will not feel a pressure to ignore her feelings and have sex with a man – and I will know that we are having sex because she happens to want sex. She will not feel shamed by society for having sex, even if she has sex with other people too, or if she gets birth control so that she does not have to have a baby.

I am a feminist, because I will watch movies, and I will watch television, and I will watch strong female characters. Except I will not even think of this, because strong female characters will be so normal I will not notice them, because they will not be an anomaly any more. I will watch these women have jobs and hobbies and talk to each other about things besides men, because that is how women act in real life. 

I am a feminist, because I will hold doors for people. I will not worry about being expected to open doors for women simply because they are women, and I will not worry about insulting a woman’s strength by opening a door for her. I will open doors for people because it is basic human kindness, and I will be able to open doors for all people.

A note: this was originally written about 2:30 in the morning a few nights back. It's an amalgam of several nights of thought. It's written in a bit of an idiosyncratic style, I realize, and I refuse to have it any other way.

(Originally posted by me at Walking Boston.

New Blog: Walking Boston

Having received permission from my professor to do so, I will be hosting my Honors College blog posts primarily on Blogger, at When I crosspost items, I will link the copy to the original.


So, Blogger recently changed the design settings. Among other changes, you can now choose a favicon - the tiny square image that displays next to the title in the browser tab.

I like this, because I read a lot of blogs, and sometimes I have 30 or 40 tabs open. If I (or you) want to find mine, it's now easy: just find the tiny radioactivity symbol.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I'm back!

Cross-posting between blogs should begin tomorrow. Sorry for the delay; the other software is buggier than Blogger. I lost a 500-word post the other day... only to replace it with an 1130-word opus about walking around Boston.

And I've been editing Wikipedia quite a bit. In fact, with two consecutive edits today (uploading a nice geographic map of the former A Branch (more on that later), and then putting it into the relevant article), I hit two milestones: 2000 edits on Wikipedia (since July 2006) and 1500 edits (including uploads) on Commons (since December 2010).

Friday, September 9, 2011


For my Honors writing course at BU, I am required to keep a personal blog, with at least 12,000 words over the next 14 weeks to get full credit. Some material there will be of pertinent interest here, particularly posts about the history of Boston and the MBTA. Most of my "Ruins of the T" material will be crossposted to both (with my professor's permission).

In which I take a walk

Normally, I'm an indoors person. Don't get me wrong, I love nature, but I spend many of my waking hours on my laptop, comfortably protected from the weather. Plus, I spent the first eighteen years of my life in suburban Connecticut, in a small neighborhood. It's not a terribly exciting place to walk around, and there's no sidewalks on the main road if I want to go further. I also can't go out past sunset, because no one else is about so the natural assumption would be that I was up to no good. There's a nice woods behind my house, but it's not a good place to walk after dark either due to the sometimes twisty and uneven trails.

But now, I'm in Boston, which has the useful trait of being a fairly large and rather safe city. There are hundreds of streets to walk down with sights galore: buildings, a rather impressive river, lots of people, and of course trains (active subway and commuter rail, and abandoned infrastructure). I feel safe walking around most of the city, even at night; the areas near BU (Cambridge, Fenway-Kenmore, Back Bay, and Brookline) are all good safe areas.

So, I've taken to walking, both to class (even though I could catch the BU shuttle bus for a few blocks) and just for fun. The BU Campus is 1.5 miles from Kenmore to Packard's Corner, and there's lots of fun stuff a similar distance away. Brookline in particular is a nice place for strolling.

Today, I had a few errands to run. I walked up Commonwealth Avenue to the student union, then back down to Kenmore Square. I decided to walk to the Back Bay Best Buy (actually next to Hynes) to get an ink cartridge for my printer. I took the long way to Mass Ave, via Beacon Street and Charlesgate East. At Charlesgate, between Storrow Drive and an access ramp, there's a random house:

It stands alone among the Muddy River and a mix of rusting highway ramps. It's too far from the Green Line to be an old headhouse or vent (like the emergency exit on the corner of Charlesgate East and Newbury Street), and it doesn't seem to be occupied. Perhaps it's a fancy maintenance shed. Whatever it is, it's mostly covered in Ivy.

From there, I walked across the Harvard Bridge and through MIT on Massachusetts Avenue. At Central Square, I took the stairway down into the T and filled up my Charliecard. I considered walking back to BU via Cambridgeport and the BU Bridge, but that would be another 3 to 4 miles back to Hynes, so instead I boarded the Red Line inbound. At Park Street I changed to the Green Line, on an extremely crowded tram. I squeezed my way out at Hynes and strode into the Best Buy.... only to learn that they did not have the ink cartridge I sought. I went back to my dorm via Newbury Street and Bay State Road, using the convenient pedestrian underpass at Kenmore station to safely cross under Commonwealth.

Still, it was a great walk. The weather was finally clearing up after three dreary days, and the view from the middle of the Charles was spectacular. My total walk was about 3.7 miles including the bit coming back from Hynes, which is probably more than I walked all summer. Thanks to all this walking, I'm hungrier than I was when sedentary. I anticipate moving to a four-meals-a-day schedule within a week or two.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Boston at Night

I've taken to carrying a camera around everywhere I go in Boston. It's five years old and only 3 megapixels (the same as my cell phone), but it's making me notice things I normally wouldn't, and it's very exciting having a city to photograph. (I lived for 18 years in a cowtown, okay? Not a bad place, but not many people or buildings.)

It was raining tonight at the first BU Astronomy Society meeting, but we went out on the 6th floor roof of the College of Arts and Sciences anyway. My pictures were blurry, badly lit, and out of focus, but I had some fun with them anyway.

Cambridge, with accidental camera wiggle:

Cambridge, with digital brightness manipulation:

Lights on Commonwealth Avenue, digitally saturated:

Walking back between the brownstones on Bay State Avenue:

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ruins of the T: An introduction

I'm now in Boston, which means this blog is getting a bit of a thematic change. I can't work on rockets right now, but I am in a city that has lots of my other geeky obsession: trains.

The MBTA operates a systems of buses, trackless trolleys, light rail and heavy rail subway and surface lines, and mainline commuter rail. Amtrak operates 4 passenger services out of Boston, and CSX hauls freight.

But there's a lot more that doesn't run anymore. The Boston Elevated Railway, Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway, MTA / MBTA, and many smaller systems ran streetcars everywhere in Eastern Masachusetts, of which just four lines* plus a heritage line remain. Countless rail lines (Central Massachusetts Railway and others) and branches (dozens off the existing commuter system alone) have dropped service or been abandoned, leaving stations, bridges, and rights-of-way behind. (To say nothing of old stations on active lines.) There's a huge amount of ruins - everything from staircases leading to platforms that no longer exist, to whole tunnels and stations behind brick walls.

Much of it can be seen. A lot is on the surface, on the streets of Boston and in surrounding towns. A few things can only be seen beneath the surface, like the unused turnaround loop at Government Center. I plan to go out and photograph as much as I can. Much can be seen already on Google Maps Street View.

Here's a map of what I plan to visit and already have. Links to pictures go up as I upload them to Blogger and Commons.

View Random (mostly old) MBTA bits in a larger map

*Green Line B, C, and E branches, plus the Ashmont-Mattapan Line. The Green Line D branch was formerly commuter rail and only became a trolley line in 1959.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In Boston

I am now in Boston at BU!

...and now I'm going to sleep.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reynolds / Washburne 2012

Don't like the Democrats or Republicans? Want a real independent in 2012? Then vote for the Browncoats. Captain Malcolm Reynolds for President. Zoe Alleyne Washburne for Vice President. They aim to misbehave.

It's a digitized, colorized, and vectorized version of this poster that I made back in March.

The original vector version (this is a smaller jpeg) is high enough quality to use as a poster up to 24x36 inches without loss of quality. Let me know if you want a copy.