I’m back in Boston now. My roommate Emily, whom I’ve lived with for two years, is moving out to start grad school at Carnegie Mellon. It’s sad to lose a roommate, but it’s also exciting to make new friends and start over new. My new roommate Caroline is moving in this weekend, and Dan (our third) is coming later this month. We’re all science Ph.D. students at the three major universities here, and also friendly people, so I think it’ll be a good time.


I’ve been spending my days at home, mostly, either writing my PQE or procrastinating and trying to get back to writing my PQE. Either way, there’s not much news to report.

Tomorrow I’m going up to New Hampshire to spend a day or two with my parents in the mountains. I like mountains, and I like my parents, so it should be fun.


I saw Dark Knight tonight, and to be honest, I was disappointed. I’m not sure why.

The actors were all top notch, yes, including Heath Ledger, but not only him. The screenwriting was perfect; no cheesy lines to make the actors cringe. The stuntwork and CGI were spotless, requiring not even the smallest suspension of disbelief. The plot had no obtrusive holes.

The problem is probably mostly mine. Somehow, I could sense before it started that I was not in the right frame of mind, and that feeling is the best sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I observed the movie, but I couldn’t get inside it. To avoid this problem, I recommend that you sleep well for at least two nights before watching Dark Knight

If I had to complain about some aspect of the movie, it would be the pacing. Perhaps as a consequence of the plot structure, Dark Knight lacks the classic tension-builds-to-climax shape used by everything from action movies to children’s comedies. Instead, the story has a lot of middle, with half a dozen major conflicts, and very little in the way of a satisfying ending. That might have been deliberate, to go with the thematic focus on disappointment, but I don’t have to like it.

Critical mass

Last night I went to Critical Mass for the first time. It’s a once-a-month bicycling event that happens in cities all over the world.

My interpretation of the concept is that roads are always dominated by cars, and the small number of bicyclists present do not have a substantial effect on the way that traffic moves. The result is that roads are basically unfriendly to bicyclists. However, we can imagine that if there were a sufficient density of bicyclists, the effective rules of the road would change, and becomes bicycle-dominated. Critical Mass creates this situation artificially, by gathering hundreds of bicyclists on a Friday afternoon to ride around the streets of Boston together. Although the term is borrowed from nuclear weaponry, the effect seems more like a phase transition, or two immiscible liquids.

The reality of Critical Mass is a good deal hairier. Just because cars don’t mix well into a huge crowd of cyclists doesn’t mean they won’t try, and so at every intersection a number of bicyclists stop and stand in front of oncoming traffic to prevent it from entering. The crowd is several blocks long and pedaling slowly, so traffic lights are simply not observed. There is no explicit leadership, and whoever is in front chooses the path, so the swarm may find itself in a poorly chosen location, like outside Fenway park just before a Red Sox-Yankees game. I wasn’t sure why anyone would lead the pack in that direction until I overheard an insightful remark from a nearby participant:

Some people come to Critical Mass to advocate in favor of bicycle-friendly streets. Some people come for the opportunity to ride, or for friendship, or for exercise, or as a political demonstration. Me, I come for the chance to be a real asshole.

Outside Fenway was also where a policeman yelled at one of my friends to stop, said “those are some pretty spokes; it would be a pity if something happened to them”, and then stuck his foot through the rear wheel, bending the spokes and skewing the wheel out of true. I noted at the time that had my friend not already been braking hard to comply, Critical Mass might quickly have been replaced by Critical Condition.

It was a relief when we broke off from the pack around Harvard Square to go get dinner at Cambridge Common. Unlike Critical Mass, I can recommend Cambridge Common without reservation. The food was tasty and not terribly overpriced, and they had an open table for six at peak time on a Friday night without any wait.


Last week I helped Simon take his microwave to his new apartment. My new roommate Caroline is coming in a week, and she’s bringing a replacement. That leaves a gap of a little over a week in which I do not have access to a microwave oven.

This is not a problem, really. Everything I used the microwave for I can just as easily do in the real oven, and it usually comes out tastier too. It’s amazingly slow, though, and the transition has caused me to reflect a little on the role of technology in my life. I think the last time I was without a microwave for this long I was staying in hotels on an international vacation. Excluding hotels, the last time was probably at Camp Shohola, when I was 13 years old (and all our food was made for us at the dining hall). I don’t think I’ve ever been simultaneously in the position of having to prepare food for myself and not having a microwave oven.

It’s not a problem, but every new experience is worth noting.


Dear Friends,

I have to finish the dreaded PQE. There can be no more fooling around. In its place, there will be only writing of the PQE. In principle, I don’t have a particular deadline, but I really want it be complete and polished by mid-August.

In an attempt to improve my focus and reduce distraction, I can’t hang out with you in our various online chatrooms anymore. I am working from home, and I can’t seem to get work done while I’m watching to see if anyone’s started an interesting argument or posted a witty link. I hope to be back in full force next month, but for the next few weeks I am taking a vacation from my social life.

At least, I’m attempting to. My roommate had a bunch of people over tonight, and so I played (and lost, terribly) a game of Robot Rampage (it’s a board game). I’ll probably still get sucked into fun social events as they occur… but there will be no more constant monitoring of the online status stream.

It’s PQE time.


My bootloader is all screwed up. Instead of showing me the kernel selection screen, grub throws me straight into the linux init. The init also shows some seriously bizarre fonts, and it isn’t until the kernel reloads the fonts that the screen becomes legible. I blame grub again; it must be doing something crazy-go-nuts with the video BIOS.

It looks like gentoo upgraded grub, and somehow I failed to notice. That’s a relief, I suppose. The alternative was crazy random disk corruption. I can probably just fix up grub.conf and it’ll all be good as new.

If I felt half as competent around bicycles as I do around computers, my bicycles would probably be in much better shape.


When thinking about rain, I have often ended up stuck at the same question: why doesn’t the water fall out of the sky all at once with a single tremendous SPLASH?


My friend Simon came by today to pick up his microwave and mail, and I offered to drive him back to his new apartment. This proved to be a total disaster. Despite following the instructions of my GPS, and even cross-referencing them against Google Maps on his iPhone, it took us at least an hour to drive the 5 miles between our houses. Most of that time was spent driving around in circles through the Big Dig area, getting on and off of I-93.

The problem, it turned out, is that Simon lives in East Boston, and to get there one has to take the 1A tunnel. This tunnel entrance is directly adjacent to the tunnel entrance to I-93 South. The instructions in both cases said “Take I-93 S ramp to 1A”, which we (the first two times) interpreted to mean that we had to get on I-93, and there would then be a ramp to 1A.

It turns out that the ramp leading to both tunnel entrances is called the “I-93 S ramp”, and you’re technically driving on it even if you never enter I-93. This is a failure of street naming.

In fairness, this ramp is about two blocks from the intersection of Atlantic Ave and Atlantic Ave, so this problem is not so rare.