Comment overflow (temporarily) halted

After sorting through the overwhelming mass of spam comments I’ve been getting, I figured out that most of them were attached to one of two or three old posts — presumably posts with keywords or PageRank that the spammers liked. It didn’t look like closing comments on those was going to be a huge issue, so I did, and the comment level is back down to normal and I’m able to find and approve new legitimate commenters. I’ll probably keep doing that periodically to keep the volume level down, at least until I change hosts/upgrade WordPress and can install Akismet or some other actual effective spam-catcher.

So, sorry if I threw any of your comments away; try again if you were having issues and I should be able to approve you.

Ups and downs of the car-free life

I’ve had a post draft sitting in my WordPress box for a while about the ups and downs of bike commuting, because I wasn’t convinced I had anything substantive and new to say about that subject. Today I had an experience that integrates what I was trying to say into a larger context.

When I moved here three years ago, I went up to San Francisco one weekend in December to submit some applications to work at bookstores up there. One was in Union Square (Borders), and one was in Fisherman’s Wharf (Barnes & Noble). That B&N is quite near where my dad lives now, but at the time I had never been to that area.

I took Caltrain to Millbrae and transferred to BART, then got off at Powell and walked up to the Borders. When I came out, I tried to get on the cable car, because the cable car goes pretty much directly down to the B&N. However, I did not know that however directly it may go, it is (1) expensive, (2) slow, and (3) during the holiday season, impossible to board except at its origin point outside the BART station, because there are so many tourists in San Francisco trying to ride it. (1) turned out to be irrelevant since I couldn’t get on. I tried to figure out another way to get there, but this was before 311 and before I had a web-enabled phone, so it was really a bit hopeless. Finally, after a lot of waiting, walking, and confusion, I managed to get on the F Market somewhere around Embarcadero, got to the place, figured out how to get the F Market back, got on BART, and got home. I forget if I missed my connection in Millbrae too (which would have meant waiting an extra hour), but I wouldn’t be surprised. It was that kind of day.

In short, it was a transit hassle from beginning to end; it took eight hours and I accomplished two things which took about 1 hour, total.

Today wasn’t nearly as bad. I went to San Carlos for lunch on the 12:34 train, ate lunch with my friends, chatted at their house for a while, and headed out to REI about 4:45 to do some Christmas shopping. I know REI is a decent walk from their house (it’s about a mile). And I knew it was going to be raining on and off. So that part was okay, although I’d forgotten what a car-oriented nightmare the El Camino/Old County/Brittan/Industrial corridor is, lacking sidewalks on one side of Brittan and having eternally long light cycles with very limited pedestrian crossing times. But, whatever. I walked there in the rain and the gathering dark, got what I needed, and then realized, oh, bother, I don’t have a bag to carry this stuff. REI was not able to provide me with a plastic bag, even though it was raining. I guess it doesn’t occur to them that maybe some of their customers would like to, you know, walk home with their goods. In the rain. He offered to staple the bag shut; I accepted.

Then I realized on my way back that the train had just come, so if I walked back to the train station, it would be forty minutes (after the walk) until one came again. I had thought about taking the bus anyway, since the stop is closer. I crossed the street, reached the bus stop, and wend under the awning to check bus times (which are of course not posted on the stop — what do you think this is, San Francisco?!). Just as I got my phone out, I saw the bus coming and ran back to the stop, waving. The bus went right by, not even bothering to slow down and look to see if someone might be waiting.

Some colorful remarks about the bus driver, the transit agency, and the Silicon Valley transit system in general followed. I ended up back at the train station, entertaining myself with mobile internet until the train came.

REI makes good paper bags and everything stayed dry inside (the bag is however quite destroyed). I got home still dry, if chilly and hungry. And all is well.

In the process of experiencing the frustration of missing the bus, it occurred to me that it’s been a while since I had an experience like that. I really do pretty well most of the time, and I could have done better here — checked bus times in advance, kept an eye on the train schedule vs. my walking time, brought a bag.

A lot of the downsides of transit (and cycling too) come from not knowing the system fully. You really have to know what the buses are and where to get them, and which streets are good for riding. It’s not the default option, and so it requires a bit of extra effort. And in some cases, I think people who are encouraging others to become car-free forget to mention this. They play up the positive aspects of it: it’s relaxing, it’s good for the earth, it’s good for your health, it’s fun.

In truth, all the options have ups and downs; all of them have different tradeoffs. You just need to pick your favorite.

If you cycle, you may get tired, sweaty, and dirty. You might get a flat or have a mechanical issue. You have to pay attention to traffic. If you take transit, you might miss your train or bus, or it might be late or break down; you might have to walk a long way (again getting tired, sweaty, and dirty). Someone else on your train or bus might be smelly or loud. It might take a long time. If you drive, you might get stuck in traffic, and you have to pay attention to traffic. Your car might break down.

If you cycle, you stay in good shape and relieve stress through exercise; you can avoid the worst of the traffic. If you take transit, you don’t have to worry about paying attention (it might take a while longer but you can work or read); you usually stay clean; you get some exercise by walking. If you drive, you get to stay warm and dry, choose your own schedule, and get where you’re going pretty quickly. You can bring stuff with you easily, and quickly run errands (as long as you can find parking).

What you decide to do depends on which downsides you don’t mind, and which upsides you like most, as well as whether the area you live in is more friendly to cars (big streets, lots of parking lots) or transit (narrow streets, density, limited parking). And how good you are at mitigating the downsides. With transit and cycling, if you devote some time to learning and planning your routes, and figure out systems for staying or getting clean and dry carrying cargo, you’re pretty set. You can combine the two for a better commute, if that works. It takes time to work out the kinks, and sometimes you have days where it just doesn’t work, whether it’s your own fault or the system’s. And it’s very frustrating.

In the end, it’s kind of like those bulk bins of candy at the supermarket: pick your favorite mix.

Ending the 101

In other goal-related news, I decided last night that I’m ending my 101 in 1001 (which should go until November 9, 2009).

Why?

When I started the 101 in Febuary 2007, I was in something of a life funk. I’d been doing the same basic thing for almost a year — same job, same apartment, same social life. It was good as far as it went, but something wasn’t quite working. I figured I’d give myself a motivation to try new things, as well as do some things I knew needed doing, and see if I could figure out what was missing or not working.

Almost two years later, I did figure out what wasn’t working, and my life is drastically different, but mostly because of things I decided to do that were only tangentially related to the 101. I don’t regret setting it up, because it did push me into a mode where I was trying new things, and therefore trying other, different new things was possible. And I did do some neat and needed things — I’m particularly proud of completing goal #25, which was to visit 10 Bay Area regional parks; I started it in March of that year with Sam McDonald County Park and finished this fall with Purissima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve (that’s one new park roughly every two months!). I started contributing to my 401k, volunteered for Bike to Work Day and other SVBC activities, baked birthday treats for work, visited some great places, found a dentist and a doctor, and made pizza on my own.

But many of the remaining goals are more in the spirit of “things I think would be good/interesting to do” than “things I really want to do”, like the transit daytrips and reading lists, while other things I’ve done are things I would have put on the 101 if only I’d known at the time: Waves to Wine, blueberry pie, jigsaw puzzles.

The list will continue to be a great source of future activities for me when I’m looking for something new. But I don’t want to be comprehensively guided by it; I want to be more focused on the things I see as really key and really rewarding. So I’m taking it off the table — for now.

The loose ends, still fraying

I was reading an old post of mine from my LiveJournal, Oops, the loose end fell out again. Coincidentally, I read it just after reading a post by a LiveJournal friend about her goals for 2009.

I usually don’t start thinking about my goals for the next year until after Christmas, but the two posts together really brought home for me that this problem with loose ends is still a major issue for me, and that it might be a good candidate for a 2009 goal.

One reason is that this came up at work recently. We’ve tried a couple more systems since that old post, and my reaction to all of them has been pretty much the same: it seems like they should be helpful, and in concept I think they’re cool, but I just don’t use them. This isn’t necessarily good for me, and may not be good for my coworkers either, since the system might help us all more if I would use it.

Another reason is that my personal life has changed a lot and gotten more complex over the last year, to a point where I feel like I need more “overhead” (reflection, organization) time to handle it well than I previously did, but I have less, and I don’t have much in the way of new ‘improvised’ systems to help yet. I say ‘improvised’ in the sense that I create and change them in response to some kind of perceived failure event, like a missed payment or commitment, or the apartment reaching a state of emergency. This is how I mostly run my life right now; my systems continue to work pretty well, but they don’t catch all the loose ends, and the ends are still out there, fraying.

The economic downturn stuff also contributes: watching my spending is of greater importance since my salary isn’t keeping up with the rising costs of some of my purchases. I also missed two payments this fall because my systems failed: an email didn’t arrive (darn you Comcast), a paper ended up in a stack instead of in front of me.

I think I’d like to spend some of 2009 working on figuring out what things I want to be doing, and setting up systems to help me do those things; systems I can be comfortable spending time with because I know how they are supposed to work and what they are helping me do. I suspect it’ll be a long and gradual process of trial and error, and I can only hope it’ll have a worthwhile result.

SKS Raceblade fenders

The Terry website, when I bought Meg (and still — also, wow, it costs $750 now?!), said that there is enough wheel/brake clearance to allow the installation of fenders. I’m honestly not sure what Terry was thinking of when they wrote that, because although there is more wheel/brake clearance than a normal road bike, every full fender install set I’ve seen requires quite a bit more clearance than they give. I was skeptical of the claim to begin with since they use dual-pivot caliper brakes instead of cantilever brakes, and they don’t usually have much clearance.

Mike’s Bikes, however, stocks road bike fenders from SKS called “Raceblade” that attach to the rear seat stays and front fork using rubber straps. Unfortunately the kind they stock are too thin for Meg, whose tires are 700x32c (good for commuting), not 700x23c. So I had to special-order them. Most of the websites that come up when you search also only have the smaller ones, except Excel Sports.

But they are totally worth it. I’ve only done one ride with them so far, but they install easily and work well. The rubber straps are easy to put on and adjust, but stay put unless traumatized. The instructions show you how to position the fender correctly heightwise (for enough wheel clearance) and then adjust the metal/plastic holders so that it’s also positioned just behind the brake. The only challenging bit is that sliding the holders along the fender is a bit tough at first until you figure out how it works.

I thought a some grit would still come off because of the clearance between the front of the fender and the brake, but it doesn’t really (although some reviews say it does — maybe it depends on geometry, or maybe my bag is catching the dirt…). The only downside is that the brake gets wet and gritty because it has no protection between it and the wheel, where full-length fender installs protect the brake as well. But…Terry decided not to allow that, so, I’ll do what I can. Poor Meg though…her white frame is very dirty now!

Autoanthropology

But what would be so awful, I asked each of my informants, about a brief friendly chat with a fellow commuter? This was clearly regarded as an exceptionally stupid question. Obviously, the problem with actually speaking to a fellow commuter was that if you did it once, you might be expected to do it again — and again, and again: having acknowledged the person’s existence, you could not go back to pretending that they did not exist, and you could end up having to exchange polite words with them every day. You would almost certainly have nothing in common, so these conversations would be highly awkward and embarrassing. Or else you would have to find ways of avoiding the person — standing at the other end of the platform, for example, or hiding behind the coffee kiosk, and deliberately choosing a different compartment on the train, which would be rude and equally embarrassing. The whole thing would become a nightmare; it didn’t bear thinking about.

–Kate Fox, Watching the English

Back to happier news

Language Log extols Edinburgh Uni’s results in the UK’s RAE

“But with these figures out, even these shy people will have to admit, if pressed, that if you want to study in the biggest language sciences community in the U.K., and the best one as judged by volume of work judged to be of world-leading quality, it looks like you should make plans to head for Edinburgh.”

As a graduate, all I can say is, heck yeah.

Does anyone have Staythesame.gov yet?

I haven’t generally been extremely hopeful about Obama as president as far as “Change” goes — my feelings tend more to the “intelligent, self-reflective, moderately liberal guy? okay, that sounds pretty good” sort — but I am fairly disappointed that he’s appointing a Secretary of Energy who thinks the problems are on the supply side and can be solved by technology, and a Secretary of Agriculture who thinks that…surprise…the problems can be solved by technology (bio, in this case). Technology is terrific, but we’re facing some pretty major problems, and I would like to see the new administration thinking about new, not old, ways to solve them.

It’s good that Chu is a scientist! Really! But…it’s not that good that he thinks that if only we can make more energy, it’s not important that we’re using so much.

And it’s really not good that Vilsack loves ethanol and Monsanto.

Edit: And.

Sigh.

Sun-kissed frost

When I left the house this morning, an hour earlier than usual, it was bright but not light: the sun had risen, but wasn’t yet shining directly onto the roads and buildings. The air was crisp and cold, the sky pale blue and orange, the hills clear and purple, the clouds a golden mass on the eastern horizon. The moon, although no longer full, was still large and bright overhead. A thin layer of frost decorated grass, leaves, cars, and rooftops. Just as I reached the train station, the sun began kissing the treetops, illuminating the later stages of California trees’ extended but inconsistent love affair with fall color.

Days like this remind me of the winters I grew up in — cold, dry, and sharp; invigorating and refreshing. They’re days I’m very glad to be alive in this world.