Travels

This past week I missed what was probably my last chance this year for a week of bike commuting, because I spent much of it traveling instead — and, as I found out from the bike shop when I got home on Saturday, my rear wheel was cracked anyway, and it will take most of this week to order the replacement wheel and swap it in. (Oh well, good thing I’m going on another trip.)

Ostensibly the purpose of my travel was to see baseball games — back when I bought the tickets, late-season visits to Baltimore and Tampa seemed like an exciting prospect. I scheduled my Baltimore trip with enough time on the following day to still see the game if it got rained out — no need for that in Tampa since it’s a dome — with the theory that I could do some sightseeing if the weather cooperated. The Tampa trip, by contrast, was little more than fly in, pick up rental car, drive to hotel, drive to ballpark, drive back to hotel, return rental car, and fly home — all told I spent less than 20 hours in Tampa. (I did at least contemplate driving up the Gandy Causeway and going wading in the 88°F waters of Tampa Bay, but chose to read in my hotel room instead.)

The result of this is that I have now seen the Red Sox play at every AL East ballpark save one — and that will be remedied Wednesday night in the Bronx. But it reminded me, also, how little I care for traveling alone. On trips like this, I have an agenda, very little time or energy for doing anything spontaneous, and it costs rather more than I would prefer — but given the lack of anyone I might travel with there’s no alternative. This was really brought home to me on Thursday morning, the day after the game in Baltimore. I had a 5 PM flight out of Washington National, which left plenty of time to do other things, and so I figured I would drive back up to Baltimore (from my budget hotel in the Columbia area) and make my way to the Homewood Campus of Johns Hopkins University, and see just how much had changed in the 26½ years since I had last set foot there.

I found a parking garage (that’s a new thing for sure) and got out of the car to walk around. Much of the campus hasn’t changed all that much — a bit of construction on the building I still remember as Rowland Hall (renamed at the end of my year there), and a few new buildings, mostly in the southwest part of campus by the art museum. I was struck by the addition of security barriers in front of the freshman dorms — and of course I couldn’t get close enough to the entrance to my old dorm to even get a good picture (it was hidden behind a tree). I saw the dining hall where I ate all my meals, though, although it has certainly been transformed like food service on most campuses in the past decades. I saw a hot Asian dude clearly walking back to his dorm from some sort of athletic endeavor, and mused a bit on how, back in the day, I doubt I could have conceived of “hot dude” — that didn’t come until a few years later (I’ve told that story elsewhere). Ironically, I was wearing my Bi Pride t-shirt that day (it was quite warm in Baltimore, and anyway, it was Bi Visibility Week so I figured I had some obligation to be visible — but nobody noticed that I could tell). The language lab where I had worked (although not officially on “work-study”, which was a form of financial aid some students got) was of course completely gone, having been overtaken by technological changes in the past decade, but the whole building where it was located looked to have been gutted and had its insides replaced.

I was only at Hopkins for one year: after my freshman year, I was denied financial aid, and my parents weren’t rich enough even to get a loan (I was 17 and couldn’t borrow money in my own name, which I gather is now the done thing) so I had to withdraw, and half a year later transferred to UVM where I could get in-state tuition: although their computer science program was rather lacking, at least it was affordable for my parents. It’s sobering to contemplate how differently my life might have turned out, if I had been able to stay at Hopkins. Probably I would have at least tried to go on to grad school, although I’m not sure I would have been any good at it; perhaps I might have ended up on the faculty of some third-tier university somewhere. Maybe, in a residential setting far from home, I might have met someone to spend my life with. Who knows? (That was at least the year I became a baseball fan — the Orioles were, rather unexpectedly, good in 1989, and there was a lot of buzz about the pennant race. I would stick with the O’s for a while before latching on to the Expos — our “local” team in northern Vermont, and parent club of the local minor-league team — and then eventually moving to Boston and following the Red Sox.)

After my visit to Hopkins, it was an hour-plus drive down to my next stop, a return visit to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, the branch of the Air and Space Museum where all the really big exhibits are — including the space shuttle Discovery, brought there in exchange for the Enterprise when the shuttle program ended five years ago. A bit unfortunate that I ended up next to Dulles airport when my flight out was at National, and the traffic in Northern Virginia between the two is unremittingly awful at its best. So I had plenty of time to contemplate my experience earlier in the day, and how nice it would have been to be taking someone else — someone close — on my walk around campus, and indeed around Baltimore in general. (And that’s not even getting into the cost of the rental car and hotel!) But there is no such person, and at this rate may never be, which is a continuing source of sadness for me.

When I got back from Tampa, I heard from my parents that they would not be able to join me in Helsinki next March, where I hoped to see the World Figure Skating Championships. Now I’m not sure if I will go, given both the painful memories that I still have of Finland and the prospect of doing it all alone; I’ll have to make a decision one way or the other fairly soon. It’s leaving me feeling more than a bit melancholy, hence this post. Meanwhile, I do have a trip planned to New York this coming week, and to Ottawa for a hockey game in October, but that really just reinforces the isolation. (I will at least be joined by a friend for the ball game in New York, although I don’t yet know if he has anything else planned for the following day when I’ll be at loose ends.)

Applications accepted, if you’re smart, cute, fit, and looking for someone to travel with. Bonus points if you’d care to visit Helsinki when it’s just barely spring and probably still snowy.

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Quote of the day

(A teacher in a sorcery school is giving an impromptu lecture:)

“Each of you may live a long time; each of you is of significant strength. You could do good, if you could judge all the consequences of what you might do. Yet the world is immense; a full understanding of the consequence is direly difficult to obtain, even should you live for thousands of years to see how what you have done works on the world, and yet good remains a judgement.”

“Act to avoid constraining the future; if you can, act to remove constraint from the future. This is a thing you can do, are able to do, to do together. Sorcerers are not made free of a need for their fellows; much of the lamentation of history derives from attempts to be safe despite that need.”

“Remember that the least constrained future anyone has yet managed prefers the rule of law to the whims of wizards.”

—Graydon Saunders, A Succession of Bad Days (2015), chapter 29

I’m of a mind that that last imperative could as well be directed at many of the people in Silicon Valley who are busily trying to remake the world in their own image.

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Advice for fantasy writers

Advice for fantasy writers, from a reader

(Originally published as a sequence of tweets in slightly different form.)

Let the story go where it needs to go. Don’t fill in too much of the background.

Remember that, if you’re successful, those characters are now living in other minds besides your own. Don’t make them do things that they wouldn’t do; always have a good reason that makes sense from your character’s point of view.

Leave some room for the reader’s imagination. Leave some room for the fanfic writers, too. (You don’t have to read any of it.)

Make a map, if you need it to get directions straight, but don’t publish it.

Stop when you can no longer keep enough of the story in your mind to know when you’re contradicting yourself.

But don’t be afraid (pace Bujold) to have a better idea.

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Peanut-butter cookies

This weekend I made peanut-butter cookies for the first time in years, probably decades. These were big peanut-butter cookies, over two inches in diameter, definitely one per serving, from Joanne Chang’s Flour (Chronicle Books, 2010; p. 114), so they’re not really like the peanut-butter cookies I grew up with. Which then set me to wondering where the cookies I remember my mother making actually did come from. They were thin, about an inch and a half in diameter, and dry and crumbly (in a good way that nicely compliments a tall glass of milk). I distinctly remember the dough being rolled into balls about an inch in diameter, which were then rolled in granulated sugar before being squashed with a fork to make the traditional cross-hatch pattern.

Tradition is an odd thing, of course. I’m always somewhat amused at “traditional” European and Asian foods that star New World ingredients — it makes me wonder just what food that product replaced in their diet — but of course many of our “traditional” American foods are much younger than even polenta or Caprese salad. Peanuts, as a distinctive American culinary item (let’s not get into satay), are pretty much an early-twentieth-century invention, thanks in large part to George Washington Carver, and peanut butter as a packaged convenience food can be easily dated to the 1920s. (Peter Pan, the first national brand, debuted in 1928.) The editors of The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion (Countryman Press, 2004) date the first actual peanut-butter cookie recipe (as opposed to a butter-cookie with crushed peanuts, as published by Carver) to 1930, and a recipe was included in the very first Joy of Cooking in 1932.

Going back to my childhood memories, there was only one cookbook specifically dedicated to cookies or even bakery generally in our house, that I can recall anyway: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies — and there’s no peanut-butter-cookie recipe in it (I have that copy now, and I checked to be sure). My mother almost certainly made the version of the Joy recipe; she owned (and still uses) the 1974 edition, and if I look at my own copy of Joy-74, the recipe on page 709 bears most of the hallmarks of my childhood memory: small cookies, made by flattening balls of dough with a fork. The stated yield seems a bit off: Rombauer and Becker claim 60 cookies from a recipe that uses only a cup of peanut butter and half a cup (8 tbl) of “butter or shortening” (betting my mother used margarine, rather than either one, at least in the early ’80s when that was the done thing). But the overall proportions are not that different from the recipe I made. The King Arthur people, surprisingly, specify very different proportions: they use only shortening, a whole cup of it, and double the sugar, eggs, soda, and flour, while holding the peanut butter constant at a cup.

This made me curious enough to look at my copy of the widely-reviled Ethan Becker 1997 edition of Joy. Joy-97’s recipe for “Classic Peanut Butter Cookies” (p. 831) is completely different yet again, but for the shaping instructions (which are much more detailed than previous editions). This one adds baking powder, in substantial quantity, vegetable oil, and lots of vanilla, and substitutes confectioner’s sugar for the usual granulated sugar, while reducing the butter and peanut-butter quantities and adding an egg yolk, with a stated yield of 36 somewhat larger 2½-inch cookies. The old recipe returned, without comment, in the 75th anniversary edition, and Ethan Becker’s “Classic” formula disappeared without a trace. (The version of the old recipe in Joy-07 slightly reduces the quantity of butter and does not suggest shortening, but is otherwise identical in formula and presentation to the Joy-74.)

So here are the four formulas side-by-side:

Ingredient Rombauer (Joy-76) Becker (Joy-97) King Arthur Chang (Flour)
Flour 1 to 1½ cups (120–180 g) 2½ cups (300 g) 3 cups (360 g) 375 g
Salt ½ tsp ¼ tsp ½ tsp 1 tsp (kosher)
Baking soda ½ tsp ½ tsp 2 tsp 1 tsp
Baking powder 1¼ tsp
Butter ½ cup (110 g) 12 tbl (170 g) 1 cup (225 g)
Shortening 6½ oz (180 g)
Peanut butter 1 cup (260 g) 2/3 cup (175 g) 1 cup (260 g) 1¾ cups (450 g)
Vegetable oil ¼ cup (60 ml)
Granulated sugar ½ cup (100 g) 1 cup (200 g) 1 cup (200 g)
Confectioner’s sugar 1/3 cup (mass unknown)
Brown sugar ½ cup (110 g) 1 cup (220 g) 1 cup (220 g) (dark) 1 cup (220 g)
Egg 1 whole 1 whole plus 1 yolk 2 whole 2 whole
Vanilla extract ½ tsp 2½ tsp 1 tsp 1 tsp
Yield “About sixty 1½-inch cookies” “About 3 dozen 2½-inch cookies” “4½ dozen cookies” “About 24 cookies”

Getting back to Chang’s recipe, which started me down this trail, it follows her usual procedure for creaming-method cookies: mix the dough, refrigerate overnight, portion with a disher, squash, and bake at 350°F (175°C) until golden brown around the edges. Chang deviates from expectations in only one step: she waits to add the peanut butter until after the butter-sugar-egg mixture is fully emulsified.

I didn’t take pictures this time — after a while it gets a bit tiresome when most stages in the process don’t look any different from one recipe to the next — but I can tell you that this recipe makes substantially larger dough balls than the other recipes of Chang’s I’ve done this summer. Based on the stated yield, I determined a portion size of 65 grams, or about 18% larger than the other recipes (which came in at 55 g); I found that a #20 disher was almost exactly the right size but still ended up adjusting most portions after scaling (because I’m fussy like that). For the peanut butter, I used Teddie, a locally-packed “natural” brand (no stabilizers, just peanuts and salt).

Nutrition

The nutrition numbers for such large cookies, with so much fat in them, are a little bit of a fright. But if you’ve ever eaten one of those giant convenience-store peanut-butter cookies (which are all too often terrible), this gives you some idea how many calories they have.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 cookie (65 g uncooked)
Servings per recipe: 24
Amount per serving
Calories 537 Calories from fat 317
% Daily Value
Total Fat 36​g 56%
 Saturated Fat 9​g 46%
Trans Fat 0​g
Cholesterol 35​mg 12%
Sodium 338​mg 14%
Total Carbohydrate 42​g 14%
 Dietary fiber 4​g 16%
 Sugars 21​g
Proteins 13​g 27%
Vitamin A 6%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 4%
Iron 9%
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Recipe super-quick take: Joanne Chang’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

So, pretty much every bakery has to have an oatmeal-raisin cookie formula, for catering orders if nothing else. And Joanne Chang’s recipe from Flour (Chronicle Books, 2010; p. 112) is not all that much different from the one you might find on the Quaker Oats cylinder: butter, sugar, eggs, flour, oats, raisins, soda, salt, and spices. Chang’s spice choice was noticeable to more than one of my tasters at work: she uses a quarter-teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg in addition to the more common cinnamon. I thought they were pretty good myself, but couldn’t really distinguish them from any other homemade oatmeal-raisin cookie. I don’t really have a whole lot else to say about this recipe (I’ve already done half a dozen cookie recipes this year and even the photos don’t add much), so I’m just going to leave it at the nutritional analysis. These are not bad in that department, certainly lower in fat and calories, and higher in fiber, than anything with chocolate in it.

I scooped these cookies out with a #24 disher, adjusted by scale to a target size of 55 grams raw dough per cookie to make the yield work out as suggested. I think Flour Bakery makes them slightly bigger.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 cookie (55 g uncooked)
Servings per recipe: 24
Amount per serving
Calories 240 Calories from fat 70
% Daily Value
Total Fat 8​g 13%
 Saturated Fat 5​g 24%
Trans Fat 0​g
Cholesterol 35​mg 12%
Sodium 107​mg 4%
Total Carbohydrate 36​g 12%
 Dietary fiber 2​g 6%
 Sugars 23​g
Proteins 3​g 6%
Vitamin A 6%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 1%
Iron 4%
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Go buy these books

I first became aware of Graydon Saunders many years ago, through the intercession of (or perhaps collaboration with) Welsh-Canadian fantasy writer Jo Walton. While it was as a poet that I knew him, he apparently works in IT (specifically document-processing technologies) and over the past few years he has been writing some extraordinarily good novels in an interesting fantasy setting. It’s got collective farms, the French republican calendar, and implausibly capable magic for a world which actually seems to have real science (they know about rare-earth metals and evolution) and technology: engineered magical artifacts power most of the economy, from boat motors to metalwork to the military. He doesn’t have a traditional publisher (not clear why) so it’s all self-published, DRM-free, multi-platform ebooks. (I guess working on document-processing technology makes that easier than for some authors!) The third book, Safely You Deliver was published last spring (I’m just now getting around to reading it), with the tag line “Egalitarian heroic fantasy. Family, social awkwardness, and a unicorn.”

In any event, run, do not walk, to your favorite ebook platform and buy copies of the first three books. Links at his blog. (Oh, by the way, it’s an open-ended series, so expect to be left wanting more. The first novel, The March North reads well as a stand-alone book; there are no infodumps or “As you know, Bob” passages and most of the backstory is left as an exercise for the reader — some of it becomes clearer in subsequent books. Book 2, A Succession of Bad Days, goes into how sorcerers are trained, and how Parliament keeps tabs on them.)

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Taking stock: a summer of bike commuting

In 2015, I had one fitness goal (beyond just continuing to lose weight): to ride from home to my office, eat lunch there, and ride back home. It quickly turned out that I wasn’t exactly aiming very high — it’s under 42 miles round-trip — and I managed to do this before July 4 last year. I didn’t really have any other goals in mind other than burning calories and losing weight, and I was a bit disturbed when, at almost exactly the same time, my weight-loss trend line turned around and I started gaining weight again. (I’ve gained about 20 lbs since then and I still don’t have an explanation.) After three years of stationary-bike training, it was a great relief to spend more of my exercise time outside, and I soon decided that if I got a 14-mile ride before going into work in the morning, I could drop my evening stationary-bike routine from 70 minutes a day to 45. With the help of my Garmin Edge I was able to develop a few regular routes around my town for morning rides, as well as longer rides for weekends; I developed a habit of eating lunch at Nashoba Brook Bakery in West Concord (32 miles r/t) most Saturdays.

I was able to keep this up well into December last year, and also joined some MIT Cycling Club weekend rides (63 miles round-trip for the Harvard ride if I join them in Concord), but it was clear that I had reached something of a plateau. So this year, my goal was to commute to work by bike whenever feasible — and thanks to the drought, it’s been warm (occasionally too warm) and dry for most of the summer. There were two issues that I had to resolve: where to wash and change when arriving and leaving work, and how I was going to carry my clothes, toiletries, shoes, etc. Our building has a rather scuzzy employee shower in the basement that I wasn’t too keen on, but there’s also a fitness center (in a nominally separate building that happens to be attached to ours) if I was willing to pay a substantial fee. After having a look at the shower in the basement, which I had used a few times before, I decided that it was worth the $400 to buy a fitness membership — which also solved part of my luggage problem, as my membership came with a locker rental, allowing me to leave shampoo, comb, sunscreen, and shoes close to the office, rather than having to lug them back and forth (let alone subjecting my officemate to the smell of sweaty cycling kit all day long).

There was still the matter of carrying my work clothing, and the occasional baked goods, to and from the office. I have two bikes: an old Cannondale touring bike (from back in the days when bikes were actually made in the U.S.), and a brand-new racing bike. Now I am totally not a racer, but my mother was working for the manufacturer at the time, and before she retired I wanted to take the opportunity to get the nicest bike I could possibly justify at a steep discount. The old Cannondale is made of aluminum, and in fact already has a pannier rack on it, because I actually used it for touring with my parents back in the early ’90s (I told you it was old). The racing bike, like all fancy bikes these days, is made of carbon fiber, and not only does it not take panniers (on a racing bike? seriously?) there is no way to mount anything at all beyond a water bottle and a tiny under-seat bag. On the other hand, the racing bike is vastly more fun, not to mention more comfortable, to ride, so it was inevitable that I’d have to solve the carrying problem by putting everything on my back.

My fitness membership was scheduled to start June 1, and that was in fact the first day I did the whole thing by bike. Although my routes to and from work are almost totally different (sharing less than three miles total), both come in at 20.8 miles, so my daily round-trip was 41.6 miles or about 1,200 kcal of energy expenditure. This is almost exactly the same distance as my commute by car, over different roads yet again, and time-wise has been pretty consistently around 83 minutes each (with the fastest being 78 minutes on day with a big tailwind, and the slowest being 87 minutes into a monster headwind). Astonishingly, this is much less variability than doing it by car, which at the “off-peak” times I usually travel can still vary from 35 to 55 minutes. Over the 63 work days from June 1 to August 31, I actually managed to do this a total of 32 times — and in retrospect I could surely have done it at least another 15 days — for a total of 1,331 miles. (With that kind of distance, you’d be correct to suppose that some of those non-riding days were due to mechanical problems rather than weather!)

In order to make this work, I had to make a few adjustments to my schedule. Most important is the matter of daylight. Sunset around Boston in June is well after 8 PM, but by the end of August it’s approaching 7 PM, and by October it will be 6 PM. Normally I work 11–7, but my schedule is flexible, so for much of the summer I was able to make it 10–6 on bike-commuting days (which has caused a bit of confusion among co-workers not knowing when to schedule meetings). Since I’m doing all this riding on a racing bike — with no reflectors and only a minimal, barely visible flashing taillight — I really want to be home well before sunset, and that has meant adjusting my departure time a few minutes earlier every day throughout August; I had to trade time in the office for more work-from-home time, but I felt it was worth it to maintain that 1,200-kcal daily activity level without spending an hour on the stationary bike. Following the sunset has one unfortunate consequence: unlike in June, when the sun was effectively overhead for my entire homebound commute, in August the sun has been fairly low in the southwestern sky — and my route home lines up almost directly with the path of the sunset, meaning no shortage of panic stops when I’m blinded by the sun and can’t see the cars stopped ahead of me. It has also meant that more of my bike ride overlaps the very heavy rush periods that I originally set up my work schedule fifteen years ago to avoid.

The drivers have been polite, for the most part. This whole summer I’ve only had someone try to run me off the road four times — three of those times it was the same jackass construction contractor, over the course of about two miles of Beacon Street in Brookline earlier this week. One reason for the lower variability in travel times, for sure, has been a cyclist’s ability to bypass traffic jams while riding on the shoulder or in a marked bike lane; much more of my travel time on the bike depends specifically on my capabilities (particular hill-climbing, which I’m still terrible at). Given reasonable estimates of time spent commuting by either mode, doing it by bike takes about an hour and a half longer, total, each day, than by car — but if you account for the time I was spending on the stationary bike (and the associated warm-up/cool-down time) it’s pretty nearly a wash.

Which brings me to my biggest issue: having gotten into this routine, and fairly comfortable with it, I am finding departures from it exceedingly difficult to maintain — and I’m going to have to as the sunset inches ever earlier, if I don’t want to gain even more weight. I’ve gotten very accustomed to that extra 1,200 kcal of dietary headroom each day, but on the other hand I’ve also found it much more difficult to go back to my “old” routine on days when I haven’t been able to bike-commute, whether due to the weather, travel, or mechanical problems. (Even the “old” routine would only have given me about 900 kcal, but that’s still something, and given where I work, maintaining my dietary target of 1680 net kcal is nearly impossible without substantial cardio exercise.) I haven’t lost any weight over the past three months; in fact, I’ve probably gained a few pounds. I hope that at least some of this gain is muscle mass, but I have no way to tell (and even if I had a way to measure that, I don’t have any baseline to compare it with).

The other thing I got into this summer, thanks mainly to MeetUp, is the world of social cycling clubs. The MIT Cycling Club is very much a racing club, although they do tolerate oldster hangers-on like me going along on their training rides; since it’s a student activity, most of the students are gone for the summer, and those that aren’t belong to one of numerous local racing teams to keep in training. (The collegiate road racing season is the spring; cyclocross is early autumn and MTB season is late autumn into early winter.) But there’s more to cycling than just racing, and I learned about several local social clubs for cyclists that do organized rides pretty much every weekend that the weather allows. I was hoping this Labor Day long weekend to do about 185 miles, mostly with the Charles River Wheelmen, the area’s oldest cycling club, but now it’s looking like a washout is likely for at least two of the three days. I haven’t actually joined any of these clubs yet, but that may be something for next year, when (having been made aware of them) I’ll know to check the calendar for fun rides that start closer to me that the Student Center.

Another issue for me has been maintaining a reasonable sleep schedule. A number of the days when I could have bike-commuted and didn’t were a result of waking up at the first alarm still extremely tired — much more tired, in fact, than I had felt seven hours previously, tossing in bed trying to get to sleep. My regular work schedule (on days when I didn’t go for a morning ride) would have me getting up at 9:45 to be in by 11:00, which meant that I could be up until 1:30 or 2:00 AM without sleep deprivation — but getting up at 7:30 AM hasn’t left me sufficiently tired at 11:30 or midnight when I would theoretically need to get to bed for a proper sleep schedule. As a result, what I’ve found instead is that I can go for three or four days straight on only six hours of sleep, but then it catches up to me and I essentially have to sleep in. (This is part of the reason I have had so much trouble with resuming the old exercise schedule on wet/hot/unfavorable days: to leave enough time to digest dinner before starting exercise, and then enough time to cool down before going to bed, doesn’t allow for going to bed much before 1 AM, which in turn isn’t really compatible with getting up at 7:30 AM!) In theory, if I could get to bed at the unheard-of-early hour of 11 PM, I would have a chance at shifting my schedule even earlier and continuing to bike-commute through to October.

My challenge for the rest of this year is going to be to figure out how to maintain this level of activity, or something approaching it, once the early sunset (and end of daylight-saving time, should I last that long) makes bike commuting impractical. My fitness center membership runs through the end of November, so I should probably research the services they offer (beyond the locker room!) and see if I can get some more value out of my sunk costs.

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Apple Country Century

If you live in the Greater Boston area, perhaps you’ve noticed the odd symbols — sometimes half a dozen of them — spray-painted on the shoulder at some intersections. They often look like letters, circles, or chevrons, and often have circles, arrows, or spikes on them. You may have thought they were some sort of gang code (in Sudbury?!), or utility-locator markings (“Dig Safe”).

That is not what they are.

These markings are painted by area cycling clubs to mark the turns (and non-turns) on the rides they organize. The marking is rotated to indicate the direction of the turn before each major intersection, and then after the intersection a “confirmation” marking lets riders know that they are still headed the right way. Many of these rides share big chunks of their routes — there are only a few good ways in or out of some of the most popular destinations, like Harvard, the Concord Visitor Center, Dover, and Carlisle — and use the same route year after year, so it doesn’t take long for a large number of “arrows” to accumulate at the important turns in these routes.

Today I rode the 75-mile short-turn version of Nashoba Valley PedalersApple Country Century, an annual, supported century ride through some of the most scenic parts of Middlesex County, past numerous apple orchards in Stow, Harvard, Littleton, Ayer, and Groton. This ride’s “arrow” looks like a capital “N” with an arrowhead on the rightmost stroke — almost exactly like the “N” in the Nordica logo. For a long time on my rides in MetroWest I puzzled over this marking on the side of the road — clearly it couldn’t be indicating “north”, and there would be no need for such an indicator anyway! But now I know, because I have followed that marking for 75 miles (albeit occasionally wondering if I somehow missed an arrow and got off the track).

You can see more details of the actual route on my cycling pages.

As I drove home after the ride, I couldn’t help but wonder: with all of these rides following consistent routes year after year, doesn’t that argue for some sort of consistent, state-sponsored bicycle route marking? The state already spends a large amount of money on bicycle facilities; surely it wouldn’t take too much effort to survey local cycling organizations to determine important and popular routes and actually establish official numbered cycle routes along them, with proper signage that doesn’t have to be repainted every year? That way, cyclists would have a better indicator of good cycling routes even in the absence of an organized ride, and drivers and local residents would also be made more aware of the cyclists in their midst. This is more important, I would think, on roads that are not already numbered state routes for automobiles; many times cyclists will deliberately avoid those routes because of the heavy, high-speed traffic they carry.

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Blogging status update

One or two of you may have noticed that I’ve not posted very much lately. Mostly this is because I’ve been bike commuting, which means I can only bring small things into work (not carrying a cake or pie in my backpack on a bumpy 20-mile ride!), but also I’ve been doing some recipes I’ve already written about, and see no need to write up again. (One embarrassing example this weekend was Joanne Chang’s “Chocolate Chunk Cookies”, from Flour, which I did two years ago but failed to note in the book, so I added it to my schedule again despite not having been happy with how they turned out!)

At my latitude we’re presently losing two minutes of daylight every day, so bike commuting will shortly become impractical and I’ll be getting back to my regular routine. Perhaps I’ll even finish the list I have oh-so-cleverly titled “Spring Baking” before next spring rolls around.

While I’m at it, kudos to the Town of Wellesley for managing to repave a one-mile stretch of Washington St. (Route 16) in two weeks, when most other towns would still have the scarified pavement exposed and making life dangerous for cyclists after two months or more.

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With a sigh and a tear…

The most awesome person in the world disappeared from my life this week, in all probability for good. It may be claiming a bit much to say that she was ever really in my life; while she was certainly in my mind a great deal over the past six years, I doubt she ever gave an unprompted thought for me. It will probably not take much time for me to fall out of touch once I am no longer in regular face-to-face contact, as has happened with nearly every other acquaintance of my entire life, and it’s exceedingly unlikely I will ever again meet anyone so amazing. (And if somehow I should meet someone like that, given the circles I move in, the social and cultural gulf between us is likely to be even vaster and less conceivable to bridge.) I baked a cake for her party a few weeks ago, and spoke to her once more, just briefly, as she prepared to take her leave. To spare her the embarrassment, years hence, from the Web’s unblinking eye, I am deliberately not giving her name. I hope the rest of her life turns out well, and that she have the sort of career and family situation that she will find satisfying.

It is, I suppose, the story of my life: meet fantastic smart people with whom I share no social connection, briefly inhabit the same office building, and then have them complete their studies and vanish, never to be seen again, all the while I grow older and the social distance between me and everyone else in my life, which has never been close — not even in those life phases when people are alleged to make the social connections that define the rest of their lives — grows ever greater. Even the very few people I’ve managed to keep in touch with in the absence regular face-to-face contact — who I could count on the fingers of one hand — seem more distant today than ever.

I do not know where this leads; I never have. There have been so many turnings in my life, choices made that might have led to very different outcomes, that cannot be taken back now. The likeliest result, it seems, is that I shall die alone, lonely and little-remembered, in about four decades’ time, having left nothing behind, no family, no lasting artifacts, no reason to be remembered beyond the vast trail of data that all of us are now depositing in the server farms of the world. I am neither rich, nor famous, nor powerful, and the only situations where I regularly come into contact with new people are now dominated by people two decades my junior, who are unlikely to see me as anything more than the provider of a technical service, paid for by their employer.

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