Attention conservation notice: about 8,500 words about me and what I did for the past ten years, what I previously wrote about that, and how I feel in hindsight. Minimally edited, rather disjointed, and jumps around in time a lot to follow various threads of attention. If you are my father, please stop reading here, it’s extremely uncomfortable to have you looking over my shoulder like this.
It’s time for one of those big rollover-of-the-odometer New Year’s celebrations, and like a lot of other people, I decided that I would write an essay about what happened in my decade. This sort of introspective piece is something I’ve done before — one of my very earliest posts, back in January of 2014, was a musing about growing older as an introvert — but in all honesty, other than that one, these sorts of posts attract very little engagement and none of that especially helpful to whatever subject I’ve been trying to work out for myself. I feel very similarly about my Twitter presence: the things I actually want to engage with my followers on either pass unnoticed or receive entirely unhelpful comments, whereas I get decent engagement when I respond to the thoughts of someone else. So this is an attempt to sum up what’s happened to me since shortly after I turned 37, and parts of it are going to be very personal, but I’m now somewhat inured to the fact that the only people who react in any way are likely to be people I wish hadn’t read it.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a good episodic memory; most of what I can remember distinctly as events is simply too mortifying then and now to relate in a public forum. However, I started this blog in the summer of 2013, so I have at least one good corpus of my own writing to help scaffold this post in some of the places my own memory is not so reliable. The first part of the decade, pre-blog, is really, really hazy: I know what was going on in the broader world, but events in my life are not necessarily so easy to connect to the real world. But as the decade opened, I am pretty sure about a few things.
In January, 2010, I had just turned 37 years old, and the country was nearly two years into the Obama presidency. There was still a sense of hope; we in Massachusetts heard about those “tea party” things, but after the 2008 elections it was clear that our fellow Americans weren’t that ignorant and racist, were they? I, on the other hand, was incredibly lonely and really fat, under medical treatment for pre-diabetes and hypertension. It was beginning to become clear that some of the choices I had made early in the millennium — to stay in the Boston area, yes, but to buy a condo out in the car-dominated suburbs far from anyone I might connect with socially and forty minutes’ drive from anything interesting — were really starting to hurt, and the suspicion grew that the lack of companionship might be permanent. My parents had moved to Massachusetts a few years previously (from California and Rhode Island; they had been living apart for employment reasons), but one Sunday dinner a week really does not make up for the lack of shared experiences.
One of my only friends was and is Scott Fybush, who is now fairly well known as a radio historian, consultant, and station broker. We first met shortly after I moved to Boston in 1994 — at the time he was a news writer for WBZ (1030 AM) — and while he got married and moved back to his home town of Rochester, N.Y., a few years later, we had stayed in touch and did nearly annual week-long road trips starting in 1998. By 2011, these trips were becoming more difficult to schedule; my work was becoming more tied to the MIT academic calendar, to reduce disruptions, and Scott had his own obligations to his growing family as well as professional obligations to attend various trade shows and conventions. It appears that the last time we did a “Big Trip” was in 2011, when we actually had two of them: one in February to see a Space Shuttle launch and Spring Training in Florida, and another in April before the annual National Association of Broadcasters trade show. In 2012, we had a few shorter trips but no Big Trip, but the tradition resumed just once, in 2013, when we did a trip to Minnesota in conjunction with a convention of one of the hobbyist radio clubs. I’m able to piece most of this back together by looking at old and mostly unpublished photo galleries, named at the time but never edited or described for publication. (I hope some of this material will eventually make it onto my SmugMug site because much of it is now of historical interest.) When I got back from that 2013 trip to Minnesota, I redecorated my bedroom, without a doubt the most expensive project I had done on the condo since I bought it twelve years earlier — and in more ways that than, the summer of 2013 seems to have been a real turning point for me — but I’m getting a bit ahead of the story.
Sometime in the early-to-mid-2000s, I had bought a low-end Vision Fitness stationary bike, and parked it in my living room in front of the TV. For the first several years that I owned it, I barely used it, and it just sat there, accusatory, while I continued to gain weight after my second hospitalization and the subsequent three months of recovery. But something snapped in the early part of this decade — I’m not sure what exactly did it, but I suspect it was the very real prospect of full-blown diabetes, a lifetime of medication and finger pricks, and eventual loss of my eyesight — and I somehow found the wherewithal to throw myself on the stationary bike for an hour a day, every day, and my weight actually stabilized. (Still in the “obese” category according to my physician, but 25 pounds below my historic maximum was something of a victory, although it wasn’t yet within the ballpark of “feeling good” either in the abstract or specifically about myself.) I wish I understood how I managed that, because I could sorely use some help in that regard now. (Again, there’s that lack of companionship — uninformed comments from strangers or even physically distant friends aren’t helpful.)
After a 15-year layoff (occasioned by my loss of access to Canadian TV), I had started watching the Olympics again in 2008. By the time of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, there were enough NBC-owned channels in my cable bundle that I could watch events that Americans weren’t expected to win, and for the 2012 Olympics in London there was even live streaming access to the unedited international feeds on my new laptop. These really helped to reinforce my time on the stationary bike: I could record events on my DVR or hook my laptop up to the TV and watch something interesting on the TV when the NHL took a break for the Olympics or the Red Sox were playing poorly. Granted that a lot of the interest was beefcake — especially for diving and gymnastics (OMG those hot, flexible, muscular dudes!!!) or beach volleyball (oh wow those tall sweaty women in bikinis!) — but I also revived my interest in a lot of international sports that I had deliberately put on the back burner when forced to endure NBC’s patronizing, jingoistic coverage. Comcast was an investor in something called “Universal Sports”, which was eventually discontinued but replaced in the cable lineup by a US version of “Olympic Channel”, so I could actually record these sports on my TiVo and watch them later, sometimes months later, as a reward for getting on the stationary bike. (The “reward” bit didn’t last, sadly.)
After a number of my colleagues left the group under rather acrimonious circumstances, in early March of 2012 I signed up for a Twitter account, initially with the hope of keeping track of those former colleagues and what they were up to when I no longer had them nearby to bounce ideas off of. I have always flatly refused to use Facebook or even have an account there, but Twitter’s publish/subscribe model seemed somewhat less Orwellian than Facebook (and so it was later revealed to be, but this was long before Cambridge Analytica and other scandals). I didn’t end up using Twitter in quite the way I had expected: I became a high-volume consumer and producer of tweets — thanks to a command-line client I can determine that I’ve received, although not necessarily read, nearly 10 million tweets, and after analyzing my personal Twitter data dump I can say with more specificity that I’ve actually made about 12,450 original tweets. (This count, unlike the public Twitter profile tweet count, excludes replies and retweets, which don’t count as “original” in my book.)
While the 2012 Olympics were going on in London — and wow did that seem hopeful to watch the Brits doing well in the aftermath of the financial crisis — my office had what I think was our first ever celebration for Sysadmin Day. The whole lab was invited, and I think we got about 200 people to squeeze down into our lunch/meeting space and eat cake and ice cream. I got to talking to a sporty grad student who I rather fancied about the Olympics and what events I was watching, and I managed to dreadfully embarrass myself. In the aftermath, I started to wonder, as I was approaching 40, if there was any way I could meet people outside of the office. I had learned that my then officemate had met her husband on OkCupid, so I signed up for an account, answered all the questions, but never had a mutual match with anyone and found the overall expectations to be well beyond what my introvert social brain was capable of enduring. (In particular, the expectation at that time — this was before Tinder was really a thing, and most mobile dating apps were intimately tied to Facebook — was that guys would send messages to thousands of women asking to meet at a bar or coffee shop, and maybe one would respond. I simply couldn’t endure writing to all those people, and apparently a lot of other guys had the same problem, because most of the women’s profiles had comments about how they would ignore thoughtless, copy-and-paste introductory messages.) I gave up on that within a couple of years, although I still occasionally log in to my account, to see how bad it still is.
In November, 2013, the USENIX Large Installation System Administration conference, the one industry conference I regularly attend, was held at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. I ran into another attendee who I didn’t recognize but who recognized me (which is the normal state of affairs, I have a very poor memory for faces as well as life events); I believe it was David Parter but that’s my mushy unreliable memory talking. In any event, he thought the reason people didn’t recognize him was that he had lost a lot of weight, and out of shame I went along with this explanation; I learned that he had been using a smartphone food-tracking app, MyFitnessPal, and had found it helpful in meeting his weight-loss goals, particularly thanks to its food database and flexibility (i.e., it wasn’t written for people who only eat standardized fast food and microwave dinners). When I got back home from the conference, I installed the app on my phone and started using it — and it was immediately clear that I was eating much, much more than I thought, and consequently, much more than I should have been to actually lose weight after accounting for the exercise I was forcing myself to do.
Over the next 18 months, I lost 115 pounds. By April, 2015, I was feeling self-confident enough that I was willing to be seen outside in athletic-cut garments, and I took my old Cannondale touring bike to REI to have it overhauled, so I could actually ride outside. On Sunday, April 12, 2015, I put on my brand-new outdoor cycling kit, got on my 24-year-old bike, and taught myself how to escape from my new clipless pedals without falling over in the middle of the road. Before long I was riding 10–12 miles nearly every morning, while still keeping up with my daily 70-minute workout late every evening. I bought a Garmin cyclecomputer early on, and with its help, developed a number of what I still think of as “my” cycling routes. Having built up my confidence doing local rides in the 25–40-mile range, on July 3 I rode all the way to the office, ate lunch in Cambridge, and then rode back home — a 42-mile round trip. If I could somehow figure out a schedule and find some place to shower other than the disgusting shower in the basement men’s room of our building, I could plausibly consider bike commuting. Meanwhile, my doctor gave me a clean bill of health, took me off all my medications and monitoring, and said he’d never seen a case like mine before.
My mother was working for a small bicycle manufacturer at the time (in a corporate finance role), and she responded to my progress by encouraging me to test-ride some of her company’s bikes so that I might buy one for myself using her employee discount; I went to one of the few local retail shops that carried them and fell in love with an exceedingly expensive racing bike, which I went on to buy when the next model year’s bikes were shipped from China. I got the new bike in August, 2015, and absolutely loved it, but I still wasn’t ready to bike commute — but I was, it seems, ready to stop devoting eight hours a week to the stationary bike. After I hit 160 that June, my weight started to go up and I’ve gained 20 lb/year consistently ever since. Now it’s maddening, dispiriting, but early on, I just figured I was actually putting on some muscle now that I was actually riding in a variable-resistance setting, not just my fixed-resistance stationary bike. There are so many confounds — I’ll get into another one in a moment — but I have to wonder to what extent going off the medication was responsible for the weight gain: my calorie budget never increased, and I at least thought I was being pretty disciplined logging food and exercise in MyFitnessPal, because comparing the activity records in Garmin Connect with the graph of my body weight it’s pretty clear that I started gaining weight almost immediately after I stopped taking the medication, whereas I didn’t cut back on my stationary bike until the spring of 2016, by which time I had already regained ten pounds.
I signed up with the MIT Cycling Club and joined a few group rides a year (although not from the official start point, which would involve getting up far, far too early), and even led a group ride once. During the spring of 2016, by asking around I was able to find out that the men’s shower facilities at the fitness center at work would likely be acceptable to me, and in May I joined MIT Fitness just for the ability to shower and have a locker near my office — the following month, I started bike commuting. It was very difficult at first, because even with Daylight Saving Time, sunset is too early to bike home safely at my regular hours — I had to figure out how to shift my wake-sleep cycle two hours earlier, and my work schedule one hour earlier, to be able to leave work 90 minutes before sunset. As the sunset receded after the solstice, I had to get up even earlier, and by late September determined to just leave work an hour early and finish up after I got home. This schedule worked out when the weather was consistent and predictable — I think the first summer I tried there was a serious drought — but the severe schedule whipsaw when weather was unsettled meant that there were numerous fine days when I just couldn’t wake up early enough to ride, and likewise wet days when it wouldn’t be practical to resume my stationary bike routine because I’d have to go to bed before midnight. Despite all that, in my first year of ownership, I rode the new bike 3,000 miles, with weekend rides even in the winter when it was warm enough for the roads to be snow-and-ice-free.
As for that other confound: somehow, and rather to my surprise, I became a food blogger in 2014. I started this blog in 2013, mostly because I wanted to publish opinion essays a lot like this one, which couldn’t fit in 140-character and as-yet-unthreaded Twitter, and as I explained in my very first post I had become convinced that outsourcing the administration was the only practical way to have a blog and maintain the interactive social features that were then still considered important without undertaking an enormous amount of pointless make-work. In the very beginning, I posted mainly about topics that were already significant focuses of my attention: books and publishing, computing and computer networking (which is, after all, what pays the bills), extended quotations from writing that really struck a chord with me, and broadcast media. But as an outgrowth of my book habit — I have more than 1,500 physical books in my personal library — I had ended up with a surfeit of unexamined cookbooks, close to a hundred in all, and I felt embarrassed that I had spent all this money acquiring food porn. Most of the books I had bought on the basis of their photography or their subject matter, but I almost never actually used any of them for proper food preparation.
So starting nearly from the beginning of the blog, I used WordPress’s “pages” feature to add static pages of what I called “recipe pointers” — the result of scanning every single cookbook in my possession for potentially interesting recipes and writing down the bibliographic reference so that I might be reminded to try them some day. I made these public because they might be useful to someone else, too. Around the same time, I started to write about recipes I was encountering online, and about cooking I was doing for the big holiday set-piece dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas. With my weight going down surprisingly steadily, I was becoming more and more confident that MyFitnessPal was working out, and while MFP’s recipe editor wasn’t exactly easy to use, I became comfortable with entering everything I cooked or baked into it. Having done the data-entry work, and with my camera equipment sitting otherwise idle when I wasn’t going on radio tours, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to start writing up my experiences as photo essays for the blog. And I had all these recipes that I wanted to try! As a result, in 2014 — while I was losing two pounds a week! — I was making, photographing, and writing a new recipe nearly every weekend. I began to organize these posts under the rubric of “Other people’s recipes” (always very clear to credit the original author and not to copy their instructions), and even started writing about some of my own recipes, not that I have many.
In the summer of 2014, I decided to organize a group chocolate tasting at work, with a different set of fancy chocolates every week and single-blind ratings by whichever panel members were able to meet; of course I wrote those up for the blog, too, although we also had a work wiki where I was keeping track of all of the products and the ratings. The success of that project — which broadened my limited social circle by quite a bit — led me to do a pumpkin-pie festival (with evaluations) in October of that year, and I followed that up two months later with a fun holiday baking event, both for the whole lab. In summer of 2015, I took a week off of work to ride every morning and then bake brownies every afternoon, with the result being the highly successful “Browniefest”. But after doing all the organizational work for the chocolate tasting and nearly all the baking for three major events, I was feeling a bit burned out on the format, and decided that I’d happily bake for the whole lab again if and only if someone else organized and found enough other participants to spread the load around. No one ever did (although quite a few people have asked “Are you going to do that again?”) and so these events have passed into both CSAIL’s and my personal rear-view mirrors.
I continued posting recipe write-ups at a rapid clip through the summer of 2016, but with very little evidence of interest or audience engagement, and with my weight continuing to increase without a clear explanation, I became demoralized and over time stopped cooking many new recipes, stopped buying cookbooks, and just didn’t have the enthusiasm to dedicate an entire evening to a photo essay about food. The series came to an end (at least so far) this year with a single write-up, published back in May. All told, after reviewing the data, I posted 206 articles about food — most of them recipe write-ups.
One of the other factors involved in my reduced baking activity gets down to that lack of companionship again. While my lab-wide events in 2014 greatly expanded my (very limited) social circle, the vast majority of people I ever meet are graduate students — who are in general a minimum of 15 years younger than me, often closer to 20. And of course grad students graduate and leave MIT; only very rarely can they get hired (for good ethics and diversity reasons) and even less frequently would they want to. Essentially all the people I met and stayed in contact with after those events are gone now, except research scientists Sue Felshin and Boris Katz, who were the most reliable attendees of my chocolate tasting series. I’ll still occasionally drop by Sue’s office and share a new chocolate I’ve found (and flame about the MBTA), and there are one or two people I’ve met since who can sometimes be enticed to try something I’ve baked, but it’s become much more difficult to reliably give away food to people, which is a necessary precondition to most of my baking projects. (Because most recipes make at least a dozen servings, and with my weight once again out of control I simply can’t have that much of anything baked at home where I could easily eat it, since I live alone and thus have nobody to either share or model good behavior.)
By 2016 it was becoming clear that my interest in and time for the radio hobby had waned substantially. At heart, what I found interesting was not the long days driving across cornfields in Iowa and wheat fields in the Dakotas, it was really the physical historic sites and artifacts of one of the 20th century’s most significant technologies. But the consolidation of the 90s and 2000s had greatly diminished the level of interest I could muster in current radio programming — my last airchecking for legal IDs appears to have been the Bay Area in February, 2016 — and the facilities themselves, except for the oldest stations under the most stable ownership, are now so generically modern as to maintain little interest. So as Scott’s travel schedule changed, I had less interest in adjusting my schedule to accommodate, and now we only see each other a few times a year, when chance or conspiracy brings us to the same city for a few days.
For my part, I was also becoming much more sensitive to the perilous position the world is in with regard to climate change, and I resolved to limit my “purposeless” travel: I was (and am) still willing to travel, long distances even, but not without a specific, perishable, external impetus to do so — a sporting event, or some major structure that was opening, or closing, or a conference or convention — a reason to travel to a specific place and time, not just travel for its own sake. As someone who is stuck living in the suburbs for the foreseeable future, cutting back on travel that doesn’t directly serve a specific, time-limited desire seems like the least I should do. I was willing to, and did, take overnight flights halfway across the country to see a hockey game, but a week driving around to see things that (a) weren’t especially interesting in their own right, and (b) would still be there some other time when I had a better reason to travel, didn’t seem to be worth the energy whether chemical or metaphorical. (In retrospect, Scott and I were extremely lucky — and Scott more than I — that so many historically important broadcast facilities, from Columbia Square to the Empire State Building, were still around and accessible to those who were interested enough to ask the right people for a tour, back in our decade-and-a-half of travels from 1998 to 2013.)
On my way into work in February, 2016, I passed a billboard which would make a lasting change in the content of this blog and how I would occupy much of my personal time. The World Figure Skating Championships were being held in Boston that March, and there were still tickets available for sale. I had been watching the skating at the last couple of Winter Olympics, but I really hadn’t watched any of the other competitions since I had lived on the mountain with my parents in the 1980s and watchws mostly Canadian television because we couldn’t get ABC or PBS. (I’m suddenly stuck trying to remember who did figure-skating commentary for the CBC after Toller Cranston, it was a couple of Canadian pairs skaters but I’ve forgotten their names and that’s really embarrassing. If I still had a working VHS transport, I have videotapes from the 1988 Calgary Olympics that I could probably play back and be reminded.) It took me a little while to make the connection between “hey, this is something interesting to watch on my tiny little television” and “hey, you should go and see this in person like you do baseball and hockey” — and by that time only a few of the events had any tickets left for sale, but I did take time off from work to go and see a couple of the events at the Garden. (I don’t recall which exact ones and I didn’t bring my camera to the arena, but I remember having a great time seeing those jumps and spins in person.)
I bought the printed program when I was at the 2016 Worlds, and I saw a full-page advertisement for the next year’s championships, in Helsinki. Because the Winter Olympics are held in February, before the World Championships which are in March, the 2017 Worlds were a qualifying event for the 2018 Olympics and would see more athletes from more different countries than usually travel to the world championships. I checked the terms and conditions, and it seemed that there were surprisingly few restrictions on fan photography — mostly just the usual prohibition on flashes — so if I went I could even comprehensively document my experience. (Onerous photography restrictions are what kept me from later attending the Gymnastics World Championships when they were held in Boston a few years later, although I understand with so many little girls competing they have a legitimate desire to prevent pervy guys from making photo galleries of underage athletes.)
I had ~complicated~ feelings about going to Finland. In 1988–89, I was an exchange student in Finland, mostly in North Savonia, attending a school in a rural area that has since been annexed to the city of Kuopio. It did not end well, and very nearly flattened my self-confidence, particularly when it came to speaking other languages. (It also practically demolished my former competence in French, up to then decent enough to carry on a conversation, thanks to a year off from study and practice.) But 2017 was the centenary of the Finnish Republic, and the state had offered generous subsidies to get major international events hosted in Helsinki that year. In addition to the World Figure Skating Championships in March, there was also the World Science Fiction Convention in August, which I had always wanted to try despite my embarrassment over my limited reading (and indifference to film and comics) in the field. At first I thought that I could only do one, and the skating would be a lot less uncomfortable since I could just go there and watch and take lots of pictures without having to really interact with anybody. So I went ahead and made plans for March, bought an all-event pass to Worlds as soon as tickets went on sale, and once advance bookings opened up, found a reasonable air itinerary (with a 20-hour stopover in Reykjavík) and a reasonably priced hotel with easy public transport access to the arena.
When I finally got to Helsinki, I found that — while my scattered remnant knowledge of Finnish helped decipher signs and menus — the overall level of English usage and competence in the capital had vastly increased since 1988. In shops, restaurants, public transport, and elsewhere, English had for all practical purposes overtaken Swedish (an actual official national language) as the country’s second language. There were far more immigrants, and more visible minorities, and I never had occasion to even attempt to speak a word of Finnish. (I was frankly fearful that doing so would give a much greater impression of competence than I actually had, and the vast majority of my vocabulary had long since fled — there’s not much need in day-to-day conversation for “Viisi kalaa ui vedessä” (five fish are swimming in the water).)
The skating was an amazing experience, even if I ended up spending nearly all of every day indoors and ate mainly fast food from the concession stands — I chronicled Worlds in a series of blog posts here, several published in real time, but was somewhat stymied by the poor fit of a WordPress blog to presenting photo galleries. But my experience of public transport in Helsinki was a true revelation. The hotel I had chosen to stay for the week was the Radisson Blu in Hietalahti, overlooking the west harbor and within a short walk of three tram lines. The public figure skating events took place at Hartwall Arena in Pasila, a commercial-industrial district centered on a former railyard that was rapidly being redeveloped. One of the tram lines went all the way to Pasila (and in fact terminated there) but I quickly realized that the commuter rail would take me there much faster, and thanks to HSL’s integrated fare structure, I could take the tram to Helsinki Central Station and transfer to the commuter train at no additional cost on my multi-day, all-modes transit pass. Even with the transfer time and having to walk from the tram stop across the street and through the train station, there were trains departing every five minutes or less and all I had to do was look at the departures display to see which track the next one was departing on.
When I got back home, I finished up my photos of the figure skating and started to figure out what I wanted to do with the other pictures I took. I had taken some broadcasting-related pictures as well — Finland’s state broadcaster Yleisradio and commercial channel MTV3 had major facilities in Ilmala, a short walk along the pedestrian paths east of the arena — but I continued to be struck by my experience of a high-functioning (extraordinarily usable by American standards) public transit system. This eventually left to a series of three blog posts, “Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki” (1 2 3), and I still absolutely believe that title with every fiber of my being. There could be few better uses of my state taxes than to send the entire upper management of the MBTA and MassDOT, for example, to Helsinki for a week with the proviso that they were not allowed to use a private car or taxi for the entire trip, and make them come back with proposed legislation to increase transit mode share.
The end result of that one trip was that I unexpectedly became a transit activist, and that has been the vast majority of the content on this blog since. I also took a look at the at-a-glance for Worldcon 75 (the 75th World Science Fiction Convention) and discovered that the venue for that event was the Messukeskus (convention center) immediately adjacent to Hartwall Arena and Pasila station — and my experience getting around Helsinki for Worlds made me feel comfortable enough that I decided to go back in August for Worldcon. I had never gone to any science-fiction convention, ever, so it’s a bit weird that my first one would be a Worldcon, and a Worldcon in another country at that, but sometimes things work out that way, and the fact that it was the 75th Worldcon gave it some interest above and beyond the usual. And frankly, Helsinki felt pretty comfortable — I was even beginning to feel like I could live there, especially after the depression and anxiety consequent to the 2016 elections, so long as I was independently wealthy or at least had a job at one of the universities — although I probably couldn’t manage it without actually marrying a Finn first, which seems like a tall order.
I also decided that the figure skating was fun enough in itself, and that my financial situation was robust enough, that I wanted to go to Worlds regularly — but it would be a lot more fun if I had some companionship on the trip. Unfortunately, I still didn’t (and don’t) know anyone who would fit the bill, certainly not to the extent of sharing a hotel room. But I decided that I would go to Milan in 2018, because at a minimum it would be much more affordable than attending the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and many of the Olympians would be ending their seasons if not their careers at Worlds. For lack of a better option, I decided to ask my by-then-fully-retired parents if they were interested in going, and they were. Even better, they had done a lot more travel in Europe than I had and were adept at finding lodging deals through vacation-rental services rather than hotels, so we could share an apartment rather than staying in a hotel. Given the lack of good airline connections to Milan from Boston, I decided for that trip that I would fly to Geneva instead and take the train to and from Milan — with a stopover in the car-free ski-resort village of Zermatt on the way back. The 2018 Worldcon was going to be in the Bay Area, and few things excite less than spending four days in San Jose in August, even if it’s mostly indoors. But Worldcon site selection is voted on and announced two years in advance, so while I was in Helsinki in August 2017, I learned that the 2019 Worldcon would be held in Dublin, and one of my favorite authors, the American-Irish fantasy writer Diane Duane, would be among the guests of honor — so I immediately bought a membership and started making plans to visit Dublin. Likewise, I knew that the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships would be in Saitama, Japan, which was muchfarther than I wanted to travel, especially alone, so I would be looking forward to the 2020 Worlds in Montreal. (The 2020 Worldcon is in New Zealand, which again is beyond my limit for traveling — I would have to take two entire weeks off to make it worth doing, and while I can can take that much vacation, August is not a good time for me to be gone that long. I’ve already bought a full membership for the 2021 Worldcon in Washington, D.C., which I can get to in under three hours and is in the same time zone.)
Anyway, my parents and I had a great time in Milan, despite the apartment rental they found being very inconveniently located relative to the arena where the figure skating was at, so we mostly had to take a hire car to and from. My parents were much more eager than I was to get out of the arena to eat “real food” — even in Italy the concession stand food isn’t good or healthy — and after I headed back to Geneva via Zermatt, they joined up with my Aunt Diane and Uncle Bob and spent another week in Italy doing whatever it is that retirees do in wine country. At some point, hopefully I’ll upload my photos from Italy and Switzerland to my new SmugMug gallery so other people can see them too.
Skipping back to 2017 for a moment, I decided to do a couple of other, less-travel-intensive, winter sports events — both in November. First was the IBSF Bobsled and Skeleton World Cup race at Lake Placid; like with the World Figure Skating Championships, this was an Olympic qualifying event so teams that didn’t normally make it to the North American stops on the World Cup would be sending teams in order to earn points towards the very limited Olympic athlete quotas in the sports. The second was the post-Thanksgiving women’s slalom at Killington, only a few hours’ drive away, and the first FIS Alpine World Cup event to be held in the eastern US in decades. I had a great deal of fun at the IBSF event, and as I’ve said here a number of times before (including last week) the atmosphere is really great and there’s a lot of close interaction with the athletes in a way that there isn’t with the more popular sports. The skiing, by contrast, was a lot less fun: tickets to sit and shiver in the stands were expensive and in any case sold out, so the only place to watch was standing and shivering on the bottom part of the hill — and for a whole bunch of reasons including the size of the crowds and the much greater fame of one American skier in particular, there is essentially no unmanaged interaction interaction between fans and athletes. I didn’t even try to take pictures of the skiing; it would not have served any purpose to do so. Ski racing thus goes on my list of “sporting events that are actually much better on television than in person”, even if I have to endure the endless “suck up to Shiffrin’s publicist” job on NBC for the next decade.
I really haven’t said a whole lot about what was going on at work over this decade, for good reason: nothing much has been going on. I saved the lab a lot of money by figuring out how to turn donated equipment into high-performance file servers, starting in 2012, and as a backhanded reward, nearly all of the interesting parts of my job have basically been crowded out by file-server operations ever since. I did a two-part series on the original server architecture here on the blog back in 2013 (part 1, part 2), and I’ve mostly avoided talking about it since then because it’s not actually interesting to me, never mind anyone else. (I’m in the process of retiring those original servers now.) Right at the beginning of the fall term in 2014, I had a badly designed “feature” of most IPv6 stacks cause a network meltdown; I had to pull an all-nighter and spend way too much time talking to Juniper technical support to figure out how to “fix” it, and I wrote about that, too — which has consistently been the most visited single post on this blog ever since, thanks to links from Hacker News and elsewhere. Somehow they continue to give me raises, although I’m basically topped out in my pay band now and have neither prospects of nor interest in moving into management, which would be the only advancement path so long as I stay with MIT.
My job, such as I would like it to be, really doesn’t exist anywhere else outside of maybe USC’s Information Sciences Institute in Marina Del Rey, so career prospects are pretty slim without a major change in direction (and probably a great deal of investment in training, because the Real World is no longer anything like the world I live in now — but it’s also a lot less interesting unless you work for one of the three-ish companies that now own all of everyone else’s infrastructure). I don’t really mind this that much; I’m not one of those people who looks at work as the defining aspect of my identity. Work to me is how the bills get paid so that I can do what interests me, and so if it’s a bit frustrating at times — or even if they’re trying to take away the interesting work to leave me more time for the boring parts — I try to take it in stride. During the prior decade, I invested way too much of my personal identity in my job, and I found myself both emotionally and financially disadvantaged as a result, so I resolved that I would take a healthier view and just do the job without getting so caught up in what the job actually was.
After more than a year of soaking in the stress hormones thanks to the despicable bigot my fellow citizens voted not to put in the White House, I decided in 2018 that my financial situation was sufficiently clear — especially with no travel planned after Milan in March — that I would start putting more significant money into political campaign contributions. With my personality, the last thing that I wanted to do was actually get personally involved in campaigns, which are clear “introverts need not apply” zones, but since I had money that I wasn’t planning to spend otherwise, I could certainly do my best to fight the fascist takeover of our federal government. I was particularly motivated by the efforts of Maciej Ceglowski, owner of the bookmarking service Pinboard, both to raise money for Democratic House candidates with real potential who had been dismissed by the national DCCC organization as “unwinnable” and to raise the level of campaign information security skills and awareness in light of the foreign intrusions into 2016 campaigns. I think I ended up giving a few thousand dollars in the 2018 cycle — far from “maxing out” but an order of magnitude more than I had ever spent before on any political activity.
At the same time, I was stepping up direct advocacy on transit improvements, particularly to our failing 1850s-era commuter rail service — because cutting back long-distance travel is one thing, but if I and my neighbors could actually stop driving to work every day that would be a much more significant effort to avert the climate catastrophe. The commuter rail service here is poorly managed and has entirely failed to learn the lessons of 1960s Japan and 1970s France and Germany, never mind the 2000s in anywhere with competent administration, and as a result it is simply inadequate to meet the needs of our region. It’s not really even fit for purpose in the one market it does attempt to serve, middle-class 9–5 office workers with jobs in downtown Boston, never mind shift workers, those who have children in school or daycare, or those who don’t work in the Back Bay or the Financial District. I began lobbying my state senator, Karen Spilka, but this didn’t seem to have much of an effect despite talking on the phone and exchanging emails with one of her aides. She was elected President of the Senate shortly thereafter, and I decided to concentrate my lobbying on other places: first and foremost the MBTA board, whose weekly meetings I began taking time off from work to attend and comment at, and more recently my state representative Jack Lewis. I’ve now amassed a fairly substantial record of testimony calling out the board and the MBTA management for their short-sightedness, some of which I’ve posted here. As a private citizen, when TransitMatters released their Regional Rail plan, I got on board immediately as it reflected many of the important lessons I had taken home from Helsinki in 2017, starting with 100% level boarding, full electrification, full fare integration, and frequency, frequency, frequency.
That brings me nearly up to 2019. Obviously, I was gratified with the 2018 midterm election results, although most of the candidates I supported did not win. I went back to the IBSF World Cup in Lake Placid, which for the 2018–19 season was in February, 2019, and did so again for the 2019–20 season jut this past month (although for reasons I only attended the skeleton races). After a budget shortfall at work in the spring, I pushed hard to get our group doing better long-term planning, especially since I’m the one responsible for poerating a majority of the hardware for which we need to budget replacement costs and on call if it fails.
But beyond that it was a very difficult year. I’m still lonely af, with no prospect for any improvement and more of the people I sort-of know and like from work either graduating and leaving town or preparing to do so, especially Marzyeh and Tristan who both left in the summer of 2018 (she’s now on the faculty at Toronto and he went to work for a Seattle tech company). My one sliver of companionship — just in the minimal sense of being able to sit with people in a no-pressure setting and talk about things other than work, not any real social or personal connection — is the weekly graduate-student beer night, and I don’t even drink. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to gain weight at 20 pounds a year, and the whole year I had practically no energy at all — I only managed to bike commute three days during the entire summer, and I barely did any more riding at home, either, a far cry from the 3,000 miles of a few years previously. Most of my cycling kit doesn’t even fit me any more, and after my first bike commute in late May, I got severe heel pain that after a week sent me to Urgent Care, where the doctor told me to stay off the bike for another two weeks and take a thousand milligrams a day of naproxen; while the pain went away, my will to get up early in the morning and throw myself on the bike never really recovered.
I could wish that my trip to the 2019 Worldcon in Dublin in August had been a bright spot, but between the travel disruptions and the logistical issues at the two Worldcon venues, about the best I can say was that I finally did get to meet Diane Duane, if only for a few minutes, and got her to sign a book for me. If there’s one real highlight of 2019, it was the MBTA Control Board finally voting in November to proceed with a “transformation” of rail service, based on a small part of the Regional Rail plan. It’s baby steps, and a number of elected officials are already downplaying the necessity of modernization, including our photo-op Republican governor, Charlie Baker, and, disappointingly, Democratic state senator Will Brownsberger, who had been a member of the Rail Vision committee.
What of the the new decade, now that we’re firmly in it? I’ll continue to lobby for a serious response to the climate emergency, including increasing fuel taxes, taking road space away from cars, and sensibly decarbonizing public transportation by electrifying bus and commuter-rail services using proven overhead catenary power distribution. I’ll advocate for restoring passenger rail service on the Agricultural Branch, too, because there’s a whole swath of this region that isn’t adequately served by commuter rail despite having an active rail line that could bring thousands more passengers out of their cars. And I’ll be making campaign contributions to the candidates I believe can best restore sanity after four years of the Orange Menace and his neo-fascist enablers. As for myself? I still need to figure out a way to lose weight again, so I can look myself in the mirror without disgust. I need to find a way to boost my energy levels, too, so that I can actually get back on the bike and enjoy myself outside again. It sure would be nice if I could meet someone interesting somehow, but the door on that has been closing for several years now and it seems as hopeless as ever.
Since I’m posting this here, I wanted to end this with a couple of summaries of the decade (well, six-plus years) of blogging on this URL. I got a WordPress export of all the blog posts, and used some scripts and a lot of manual effort to extract a few interesting bits from the data. (I wish I could do the same thing for my Twitter feed, but 12,000 tweets is way too much to analyze with the Mk.1 eyeball!) First is the posting frequency by year:
|2013 (3 mos.)
The trend here is really clear: writing the sort of blog posts that I’m most interested in writing takes a lot of effort, and if it’s going to totally uncompensated — not even the minimal sort of “engagement” that the social features of WordPress.com allow for — then I’m not going to be much inclined to put that effort in. The slight bump in 2017 is almost entirely due to sporting events where I made the blog sort of substitute for a proper photo gallery, because I still hadn’t found a photo gallery system that I was comfortable with. Much of what I posted in late 2018 and in 2019 was transit advocacy, and several of those posts were really just verbatim recitations of comments I had made to MassDOT, to the MBTA board, or to my state legislators.
I looked at my posts by category as well — mostly recategorizing on the basis of post titles rather than the WordPress categories you see below each post, because those have changed over time — and came up with the following:
|Books & Publishing
|Food & Cooking
|Law, Politics & Economics
|Sex & Gender
|Transportation planning / MBTA / MassDOT
The smallest categories are a real surprise, because they reflect the things I originally thought this blog was going to be about; those were the things that I had been interested in for much of the prior decade, and those were the subjects that I spent a lot of time editing Wikipedia (and Wikiquote!) to improve coverage of. But it turned out that, other than travel and electoral politics, they weren’t subjects that I’d be devoting a substantial amount of time to in this decade.
Finally, my book recommendation of the decade: read Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal novels. Seriously. Even if you think you don’t like fantasy, or don’t like military fiction.