We’re halfway there

Since May 16, 2021 the Chicago Transit Authority has been rebuilding the North Side Main Line between Wilson and Thorndale. The project involves replacing a century-old embankment with a more modern concrete elevated structure. Since it’s a four-track line, they are able to keep running trains on the line by rebuilding two tracks at a time and keeping the other two in service. For the past two years the two eastern tracks were being rebuilt while the two western tracks were still in use. Last Friday, on July 28, 2023 at 10pm, the two rebuilt eastern tracks on the new structure entered service.

Back in 2021 when they opened the first round of temporary stations, I was one of the first people to board at the temporary stations (according to the station attendant, I was the second person to board at the temporary Bryn Mawr station). I also was the last passenger to board at Berwyn.

Last northbound train at the old Berwyn station
Last northbound train at Berwyn
Temporary southbound platform at Bryn Mawr looking north, immediately after opening
First temporary Bryn Mawr station

Fast forward to last Friday, it was time for the next round of temporary stations. I arrived at Wilson on the second to last northbound train on the western tracks. The train was delayed about 10 minutes due to needing to remove an unruly passenger, but in the end the issue was resolved and everything continued according to plan. I then was able to catch the first train to use the new tracks:

First northbound train on Track 4 for RPM Phase 1B at Wilson
First train to run on the new tracks!

I took that train all the way to Thorndale, catching a picture of the temporary Argyle station through the open door while stopped:

Phase 1B temporary Argyle station from the first northbound train
Argyle station from a northbound train

I then continued up to Thorndale, where I was lucky to catch a southbound train right there. I took that one stop south to Bryn Mawr and got off there, where it still stopped at the old temporary station:

Penultimate southbound train at Phase 1B temporary Bryn Mawr station
Second to last train to operate at the first temporary Bryn Mawr southbound station

I got off there and walked over to the new temporary station (which is southbound-only). I also snapped a picture of the original station (which was temporarily serving as the northbound-only platform):

Entrance at the old Bryn Mawr station at closing time
Original Bryn Mawr station, temporary serving as the northbound-only platform

I continued on to the new temporary station, which will be southbound-only. The construction crew asked me to wait until they could confirm that they had rerouted southbound trains via the new tracks. While waiting, I got a few pictures of the entrance:

Fare mezzanine at Phase 1B Bryn Mawr immediately prior to accepting the first passenger
Fare mezzanine at the second temporary Bryn Mawr station
Phase 1B temporary Bryn Mawr entrance on opening night
Entrance at the second temporary Bryn Mawr station

Eventually they confirmed I could enter, and I was the first passenger to board at that station.

Platform at Bryn Mawr, looking south on Phase 1B opening night
Platform at the second temporary Bryn Mawr station

It turned out one more southbound train was rerouted via the old tracks, but then after that the first southbound train arrived.

First southbound train at Phase 1B temporary Bryn Mawr station
First southbound train (and first train) at the second temporary Bryn Mawr station

I took it one stop to Argyle and got off there:

Northbound track at Phase 1B Argyle temporary station, looking north
Second temporary Argyle station

The current temporary Argyle station is an interesting configuration. For one thing, it’s not actually on Argyle street, it’s a block north between Foster and Winona. Also the track configuration is very interesting. They are building a pocket track north of Argyle for turning trains around before reaching Howard, and so far they have built the two mainline tracks and the pocket track. The platform is actually built on top of one of the mainline tracks, with southbound train stopping on the pocket track. This means southbound trains need to go over a crossover both north and south of the station.

I also snapped some photos of the entrances:

Northern Argyle Phase 1B temporary station entrance on opening night
Northern entrance (on Foster)
Southern Argyle Phase 1B temporary station entrance on opening night
Southern entrance (on Winona)

Even for CTA, these were pretty subdued entrances, but that’s to be expected for a station that will only be around for two years.

After photographing Argyle, I caught the next train home.

Overall I am very excited to see this all come together. The new tracks were much smoother than the original tracks and the structure looks way better. Now over the next two years they are going to do the same work to the two western tracks and also build new stations at Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr. We are reinvesting in our system and bringing it into the 21st century.

I should also mention I got unbelievably lucky with the weather. The whole time I was there, there was lightning all around, but somehow the rain held off until right after I got home.

Adventures in cooking

Part of living by myself means I need to cook my own food. I’ve been able to cook decently to some extent for a long time, but I never had to cook every meal myself until living here in Chicago. I either lived with my parents, who did most of the cooking, or was in college, where I got most of my meals at the dining halls. Despite living as a single guy just out of college, I made sure to actually eat well and not just be reheating frozen meals all the time (I have had a total of one frozen meal, a Giordano’s frozen pizza, in the entire two months I’ve lived here so far). Here are some of my creations:

Waffles

Waffles
My waffle iron

Not exactly the most interesting, but I got a free waffle iron that someone in my building left in the laundry room with a sign saying “Free”. Waffles are one of the first things I ever learned how to cook, and they’re always a delicious classic. I don’t go for the cheap fake syrup either, I get real maple syrup. It’s worth the cost.

Chicago-style pizza

Yes, of course I need to make some Chicago-style pizza if I’m in Chicago. For the record, I also love New York-style pizza. But Chicago-style pizza has one key advantage: I can make it easily in a normal oven and don’t need to get it crazy hot for it to come out really good. I can cook one a Chicago-style pizza at 425 degrees and it comes out amazing. My first attempt followed the recipe in the Joy of Cooking:

My first Chicago-style pizza
My first Chicago-style pizza

Not bad for my first attempt. It came out tasting pretty good, but did leave some things to be desired. The crust was too fluffy, the cheese didn’t melt quite all the way (I used shredded mozzarella, and it still was definitely noticeable that it was shredded when I was eating it), and something just didn’t feel quite right. A few weeks later, I tried again using a recipe from King Arthur Flour:

My second Chicago-style pizza
A slice of my second Chicago-style pizza

This came out a lot better. There were a few important changes from the first time here. First, I used a different recipe for the dough specifically designed for this use, not a slightly modified version of standard pizza dough. This dough didn’t rise quite as much and was easier to stretch out, so it wasn’t as fluffy and provided the right outer edge for my pizza. Second, I used the stuffed pizza approach. I formed a bowl with the outer crust and placed sausage and cheese on as normal, but then I placed another layer of dough on top before putting the sauce on top, and topping it off with some Parmesan. Further, I used sliced mozzarella rather than shredded, and it made a big difference. in getting the right gooey texture for the cheese. Also, I topped it off with some grated Parmesan, which I didn’t do the first time. Finally, I made sure to coat the pan with butter before baking, which made a surprisingly big difference. I’m definitely going to try this again at some point, and probably keep it more or less the same as how I did it this time.

Challah

Ah, challah. A truly amazing bread. I grew up with challah every Friday night and always loved it, so I continued that tradition living independently. When I first moved here I had no yeast and yeast was not available at the grocery stores (seriously), so I was kind of out of luck. However, with some help from family and the internet, I was able to get some yeast shipped to me. Once I had that, I got to work. The first time I made challah was right when the yeast got here, which was mid-afternoon, limiting how much time the dough had to rise. The result was definitely not bad, but a little too dense and crumbly.

First challah

In subsequent weeks I would make the dough first thing in the morning and let it rise all day, giving a much fluffier result. Here are some from later weeks:

I definitely got some pretty good challahs (challot?) out of that. I’m still getting the braiding technique down, but regardless of how they looked they all tasted delicious. Also, leftover challah makes great toast, which is now my standard breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays.

Enchiladas

I also made some enchiladas using a family recipe I grew up eating. The key components are mole sauce, chicken, chicken broth, corn tortillas, and lots of cheese.

Lasagna

Chili

I don’t have any pictures of this one, but I made some good old-fashioned chili. I wasn’t all that imaginative with this one, and just put a few kinds of beans, some ground turkey, and a few spices in a pot. It was pretty good, though the flavor was kind of weak. Before I make this again I will make sure to get more spices so I can give this a stronger flavor.

Cookies

Ah, a classic, chocolate chip cookies. Easy to make, yet delicious. I made a whole batch of them, following the recipe here. In the past I’ve used the recipe on the Nestle chocolate chip package, but I wanted to see how other recipes were. I liked this one better, the cookies had a better texture and a slightly better flavor. I did make a slight tactical error though. I didn’t consider how many cookies the recipe made (about sixty) when compared to how many people would be eating them (one). Now, there are much worse problems (who doesn’t want a ton of cookies), but I did have to find a way to store them when I don’t have all that much tupperware. However, my grandparents sent me a bucket of popcorn a few weeks prior, so the bucket made a perfect cookie container:

The earlier batches were a bit undercooked and didn’t quite hold together, so I had a lot of cookie crumbles in that bucket. However, those crumbles still tasted good, and the later ones did hold together just fine.

Lemon Chicken

I made some lemon chicken as well, wanting to try something interesting. I used yet another recipe from the internet. That was delicious, but also probably the messiest meal I have ever made. I managed to get flour and cornstarch all over my kitchen, and this used a ridiculous amount of preparation dishes, and I only got two dinners out of it. Next time I make this, I will definitely make more, since for all the trouble it is I want it to last a while.

Burgers

To celebrate memorial day and then later independence day, I made burgers. Nothing particularly special about this, I just make a patty from ground beef and put it in the oven until it’s properly cooked, and add on some cheese at the end. Still, always a delicious option.

Blintzes

Cheese blintzes were surprisingly difficult. I used the recipe from the Joy of Cooking, and the first night it was kind of a disaster. The outer wrappers I made didn’t hold together, and then the filling was way too runny, getting all over the place. They tasted good, but probably half the filling didn’t actually stay in. This was a total mess in my kitchen.

With the leftover filling from the previous night, I gave it another shot. I made another batch of the wrapper batter, having already used all I made the previous night. The second night was definitely an improvement. I changed a few things up that made a big difference. First, do not be bashful in coating the pan with butter. It really does help crisp up the wrappers and hold the finished product together. Second, pour the batter directly from a pitcher instead of using a spoon. That made a big difference in how the wrappers turned out, since it was easier to pour the batter thinner and more evenly. Finally, make the filling the day before and keep it in the fridge since it will solidify somewhat. These held together much better and tasted amazing.

So I think I have been eating pretty well for a single guy in his 20s. I have a collection of recipes under my belt, and I’m always looking to learn more.

Graduated, moved, starting work soon, and a whole lot more

Wow, the past few weeks have been crazy. Quite a lot has happened. This was definitely not the scenario I imagined even a few months ago, but despite quite a whirlwind of things happening, I managed to make it work.

Graduating

Immediately after visiting Chicago to scope out apartments. I had to go back home for the remainder of the semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was lucky enough to be in among the least-affected classes. For the most part, we just continued doing what we were before (mostly a combination of lectures and projects) online.

One interesting twist was the component where I was teaching. I was a teaching assistant for Software Craftsmanship, and the primary component of my job was leading code reviews every week for students’ programming assignments.

Then, the graduation ceremony was pretty much a complete non-event. Some videos were posted, and we each got a slide. I’ll get my diploma in the mail in a few weeks. I managed to graduate Summa Cum Laude (for CWRU that means top 10% of my class), so that was good to see. They unfortunately removed my submission for my slide. I’m not sure why, since it wasn’t anything inappropriate or rude or anything. It was just a picture of me sitting with a cat in my lap and the line “It’s been a crazy four years”. Oh well.

Moving

I have now moved to Chicago! When on my apartment scouting trip earlier, I found one apartment that I knew was my best option. The apartment had basically everything: a good location close to the L, lots of room, on-site laundry, the property management gave me a good impression of how they handled things, and an additional small room that would be good for an office. As an added bonus, the tenants living there at the time I toured the unit had a cat, so I immediately knew this would be a good apartment to have my own cat (coming soon, I hope!) After I finished with apartment tours, I went to the property management office to apply in person, and a few days later got a call telling me I was approved.

Fast forward to May, with some (a lot of) help from my parents, we loaded my stuff into a van and drove up to Chicago. Before actually moving in, I snapped a few quick photos of the empty apartment to document what it looked like without my stuff:

The bedroom
The bathroom
Living room
Office
Kitchen

With that, we got to work unpacking everything. Most of the furniture was fairly easy. The bookshelf just had the shelves taken out, so we had to put those back. We also had to take the drawers out of the dresser to move it up the stairs. My desk required no modification at all. The one somewhat difficult thing was the bed, which we basically completely disassembled to fit into the van. However, being an Ikea bed, we were able to put it back together following the original instructions with minimal tools. Then we also unloaded my stuff, and went to Target to buy supplies and food. We finished the day with some Giordano’s pizza (deep dish, of course), a fitting welcome to Chicago. The leftover pizza then lasted me three more days.

With that, I had a place to live! Over the next few days, I got to work making this place look more like home, putting up decorations, cleaning out boxes, etc.

My living room
My bedroom with a bed in it (and a Chicago flag on the window)
My office (it was hard to get the lighting right on my phone due to the window)
Kitchen
Network supplies and Raspberry Pi in the living room

This definitely felt more like a home. However, I was still missing some real furniture. My living room table was a card table accompanied by a folding chair, and I had no couch. My grandparents came to the rescue for that problem and got me a table, two chairs, and a couch off Wayfair. After some assembly, I had a real living room:

Living room with a real table, chair, and couch

So with that, I have a home! No doubt this place will evolve as time goes on, but I’m pretty satisfied with how it turned out. I’m also really glad I ended up going for a slightly larger apartment, given that now I’m spending a lot more time here than I expected due to the stay-at-home order in Illinois.

Stuff I’ve been doing in the meantime

I had a fairly long gap between when I moved and when work will start, so I have done a bunch of different things in the meantime with all the free time I had. It felt weird being completely done with school, but nice to have all the free time. I have done the common things like watching TV and playing video games (in particular Wii Sports), but also some other things.

For exercise, I still am avoiding running on pavement due to my Achilles, and there aren’t really any good non-paved places around here to run that I’m aware of. Also, all the gyms are closed as part of the COVID-19 prevention measures. Thus, I settled on biking outside. After spending five months on the elliptical, being outside and moving again was a great feeling. The lakefront trail is closed since the amount of people that used it posed a hazard for COVID-19, so I had to find alternate routes. My primary route so far has been the North Shore Channel Trail up to Skokie and Evanston, but I also recently found that going further east into Evanston and Wilmette (via Northwestern) is a good route. I biked downtown once too (via Broadway, which has bike lanes for much of its length) for some photos, to date the only time I’ve been downtown since I moved here.

I have not yet been on the L, which is a bummer given how much of a transit enthusiast I am. Still, I know that the public health of Chicago is more important than my hobbies, so I’m avoiding the L to give more room for the people who really need it. All my supply needs are within walking distance (Jewel-Osco for groceries and Target for most other things), and I haven’t quite started work yet, so there really isn’t much reason for me to be taking public transportation for now. Once things calm down some, I’ll continue my exploration of the city. I have no plans to leave Chicago, so I have plenty of time to do this.

One of my projects in the meantime was the Arrow programming language, available on GitHub, and I will make another post about Arrow and the story behind it soon.

In all, despite the craziness going on everywhere, I think I’m doing well as I can right now. I can’t wait to start work, and in time as things settle down I’ll get to experience more of the city.

Stuck at home

Like virtually every other college student in the United States, I got sent home as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and will be taking part in remote classes for the remainder of the semester. After finishing my apartment search, I headed back to Cleveland on Friday and immediately got to packing my stuff. Then, on Sunday I headed back home to Durham, where I will be for the rest of the semester. I likely will not be back to Cleveland again except for visiting friends and hopefully the cross-country alumni meet. It was a bit tough saying goodbye so quickly, since I was before operating on the assumption I would remain on campus with my friends until graduation, so I would be able to hang out with them until the end and we all could say goodbye at the end, but knowing when it was. Instead, I met with some of them one last time at Mitchell’s Ice Cream (which is now also closed), and then first thing the next morning headed out. We’re all still keeping in contact, but it’s not the same. I also had a few more things I wanted to get pictures of, but I guess that was not meant to be. It so happened that my last photo was filling in a missing photo from my post about the changes to the public transportation in Cleveland:

Track 10 construction work at Tower City
Track 10 reconstruction at Tower City

The first week of remote classes is going as well as I can hope. The situation is obviously not ideal for anyone, but we’re getting by. My classes are mostly using Zoom, which seems to be standing up to the likely unprecedented load without any problems I can notice. Since my classes are mostly lecture and project based, I’m in a better situation than the people in classes that are more discussion or lab based, so I’m basically just watching lectures from home instead of in person.

Life at home meanwhile is somewhat boring. I am taking a fairly light courseload for my final semester, so I already had a fair amount of free time back at CWRU. Now that most of the other things I was doing that take my time aren’t happening anymore, I have a lot more free time. Other than schoolwork, I’m also working on other projects, exercising, and making sure to walk outside a lot since the weather is beautiful down in NC.

I somehow managed to time the apartment hunt perfectly. While I was in Chicago, there were virtually no restrictions and it was more or less businesses as usual. Almost immediately after I left, the COVID-19 countermeasures began, which would have probably made apartment hunting much more difficult if not impossible.

Moving to Chicago will be interesting. Assuming interstate travel isn’t banned, I’ll be moving in early May. I have an awesome apartment, which is especially good now that I’ll likely be spending a lot of time there, likely including working from home for some period of time. Time will tell I guess. I also had a lot of plans to explore various things around Chicago and other nearby cities starting this summer, but those will have to be put on hold. Fortunately, I have plenty of time to do all this once this pandemic is over, even if it takes a long time, since I have no plans to leave Chicago.

Evolution of photography

I first got my feet wet with regards to photography in about eleventh grade. My first time going out by myself with a camera was on the Los Angeles Metro. I was meeting some family at LACMA while coming from Beverly Hills, so I arranged that I would get dropped off at Culver City, take the Expo Line (now alternately known as the E line) to 7th Street/Metro Center, then transfer to the Purple Line (now also known as the D line), take that out to Wilshire/Western, then meet everyone else there, and we’d drive the rest of way to LACMA, at Wilshire/Fairfax (which will be on the line in a few years, but definitely not in 2013).

Along the trip, I just took pictures of basically anything and everything, not really bothering to pay attention to my subject matter or the quality of the photos. I knew nothing about photography other than you point the camera at something and hit the button. I didn’t even have a camera of my own, I borrowed someone else’s. Here is a sampling of a few photos I took:

The interior of my train
The station sign (through the open door of my train)
The platform at Culver City
My train after ending its run at 7th Street/Metro Center
An out-of-service train waiting on the relay tracks at 7th Street/Metro Center (the tracks end at a wall behind that train, though this will change with the Regional Connector project)
My Purple Line train relaying at Wilshire/Western, which I later posted on Wikipedia as the headline photo for the article about that station since no platform photos were there at the time, and as of the time I write this post, it still is
The mezzanine level looking towards the escalator
Me (in the black fleece and shorts) posing in front of the station sign pylon

That was my first foray into photography. Obviously, those weren’t exactly the world’s best photos, but that’s what got me started.

Cleveland and Chicago, Round 1

Later on, in February 2015, I toured colleges in the Midwestern United States, specifically Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve (which I ended up attending), and Northwestern. This was my second opportunity to try a bit of railroad photography. In Cleveland, I wanted to explore a new transit system, so I took the Red Line from Cedar/University to Tower City to grab lunch there. I forgot to ask to borrow a camera for this one, so I got my pictures with a cell phone. I got some pictures along the way there too:

Red Line train relaying on the stub track at Tower City
Eastbound track at Tower City

Later on, after my tour of Northwestern, I ran from there to Millennium Station (about 13 miles) for my long run that week, and then then took the South Shore Line back to South Bend (where I was staying). Once I got to Millennium Station, I took some more pictures while waiting for my train:

Part of the station concourse
Two South Shore Line trains
A waiting Metra train

Travels in 2016

I traveled some along the way (still using borrowed cameras), to places like Boston…

Back Bay NEC platforms 12
Northeast Corridor platforms at Back Bay
Blue Line train at Government Center 2
Newly renovated Government Center station
Looking Inbound from Assembly 2
Then-new Assembly Square station

…and New York City…

Two NJT trains at NY Penn Station
New York Penn Station (two New Jersey Transit trains)
Looking eastbound from the Newark Airport Rail Station
Newark Airport rail station

My own camera

Then, as I graduated high school, I got my own camera, a Canon Powershot G9X, about the size of a deck of cards. I definitely got familiar with that camera over the next few years. Back in Los Angeles in the summer of 2016, I had my first real rodeo with that camera:

Entrance to 7th Street/Metro Center
The entrance to 7th Street/Metro Center
Platform at Westwood/Rancho Park 1
Platform at Westwood/Rancho Park, which had opened since my last trip to Los Angeles
Two trains at Pico
Pico station
Looking towards the bumper block at Downtown Santa Monica
Downtown Santa Monica Station

Cleveland, Round 2: a whole new city

Then, after that summer was over, I started college at CWRU. I immediately set out to get pictures of all the train station around Cleveland. Here are some of my preliminary efforts:

Little Italy-University Circle Platform looking inbound 2
Home sweet home, the Little Italy station
Cedar-University headhouse
The Cedar-University Station
Inbound train at E. 105th - Quincy
A train at East 105th-Quincy, showing how the platform is too short for the full length of the train (this has been fixed in the meantime)

Speaking of Tower City, I revisited that station. They were performing maintenance on one of the tracks, so they opened a station on one of the non-revenue tracks:

Eastbound platform at Tower City looking west 3
A somewhat-better picture of the Red Line platform at Tower City
Red/Waterfront temporary platform at Tower City 1
Temporary platform at Tower City
Turnstiles at temporary Tower City platform
Temporary turnstiles at Tower City

Definitely some progress was made in the meantime. I was able to better choose subject matter and get it in the frame. The quality was also better, with the pictures being clearer and better focused. However, the alignment was still pretty haphazard, with a lot of the pictures not level at all. I also didn’t really appreciate the importance of lighting just yet.

My next big breakthrough was in alignment, when I went out to Lee-Van Aken. I realized I could line up the camera with reference lines in the picture (in this case I used the power poles), and as a result my pictures were actually consistently level.

Both platforms at Lee-Van Aken
Lee-Van Aken: a level picture!
Outbound platform at Drexmore from south end
Drexmore Station
Stokes-Windermere station
Stokes-Windermere Station

I also got to apply these skills elsewhere traveling to Charlotte for a day…

Both platforms at 3rd Street-Convention Center from north end
Platforms at 3rd Street-Convention Center in Charlotte

…and New York City again…

(7)/<7> Platform at 34th Street - Hudson Yards
34th Street-Hudson Yards
Looking up the escalator at 34th Street - Hudson Yards
Escalator at 34th Street-Hudson Yards
Downtown (A) platform at Dyckman Street
Dyckman Street (IND Eighth Avenue Line)

…and Los Angeles again…

Western end of the platform at Expo/Sepulveda
Expo/Sepulveda platform
Train at Hollywood/Highland
Hollywood/Highland platform

Around this time, I also got interested in taking pictures of buildings in addition to transit systems.

Downtown Los Angeles from City Hall observation deck
Downtown Los Angeles skyline
Lower Manhattan Skyline from Staten Island Ferry 2
Lower Manhattan skyline

With that, I felt much more confident in my photography skills. I had definitely seen some improvement, my pictures were clearer and more level. Still, I was missing some things.

The start to 2018: Lighting

The next big improvement in my photography was lighting. Before I didn’t really even think about sunny or cloudy, or where the light sources were indoors. As a result, the colors often didn’t look quite like I wanted or the wrong objects were emphasized. With a renewed emphasis on lighting, I continued my work. In the winter of 2017-2018, I went to San Francisco, with my first vacation that had a really high emphasis on photography:

San Franciso skyline from Mission Dolores Park
San Francisco skyline
Light from above at Glen Park
Glen Park station
Mezzanine at 24th Street Mission from elevator end
24th Street Mission Station Mezzanine
Middle of the platform at Powell Street
Powell Street platform
Inbound platform at Castro
Castro platform
San Bruno platform from north end
San Bruno platform

The improvements definitely showed themselves in San Francisco. Having a photography-oriented trip also was a good opportunity to see for myself what worked and what didn’t. With that, I felt much more confident going forwards. I continued my photography along Cleveland and other places I went. I did my first internship at TransEnterix that following summer as well. Since I didn’t want to take any time off work, my travel opportunities were somewhat limited, just going back to Charlotte for a day (this time trying to aim for a sunnier day) and taking an afternoon trip to Raleigh. However, I had a few days between my last day at the internship and when I had to get back to school, so I took advantage of that to take a quick trip to Washington, DC.

One train waiting at Huntington
Train waiting at Huntington
Back of a Blue Line train at Crystal City
Train at Crystal City
Trains on both levels at Rosslyn
Trains at Rosslyn
Long escalator at Rosslyn 2
Escalator at Rosslyn
United States Capitol Building
Capitol Building (I went to DC, I had to get this one)

After DC, I felt pretty solid in my abilities. I definitely had the alignment thing down, and I was getting a lot better at lighting.

Richmond and Philadelphia

My next big photo adventure was a day trip to Richmond, Virginia in late 2018. I picked a day with perfectly clear skies, and basically spent all day walking around the city with my camera taking pictures of anything and everything that interested me:

Downtown Richmond skyline
Richmond skyline during the day
Downtown Richmond at night
Richmond skyline at night

With those two pictures, I began to feel that the limiting factor in my pictures was my camera and no longer the user. In particular, for the nighttime shot, I was having trouble getting the focus where I needed (my camera didn’t have any options beyond five meters other than “infinite distance”) as well as the lighting settings. I also was starting to use manual mode, which was really cumbersome on that camera. I took a mental note that a new camera was in order. Still, I continued on with what I had, and later on went to Philadelphia:

Philadelphia Skyline from South Street Bridge
Philadelphia skyline
Track 2 at Jefferson Station
Jefferson Station
Ridge Spur platform at Fairmount
Fairmount Ridge Spur platform
Northbound express track at Girard
Express tracks at Girard
Tracks at 13th Street Station
Tracks at 13th Street Station

I really gained an appreciation for lighting after this trip. I only had one sunny day, the first one (and I got there late in the day, so I was only really able to get that one skyline photo). I also learned that SEPTA, in contrast to many other subway systems, is very well lit. This made photography much easier and let me get higher quality pictures.

Chicago, Round 2

Over spring break that year, I traveled to Chicago. I returned to Millennium Station, and my new photos were definitely an improvement:

Waiting area at Millennium Station
Concourse at Millennium Station
Metra track at Millennium Station
Metra track at Millennium Station

I also got many pictures of the L:

Stairs to Red Line at Jackson
Jackson Blue Line platform
Platform at Harold Washington Library at night
Harold Washington Library platform
Elevated train stopped at Roosevelt
Train stopped at Roosevelt

I also got some pictures of buildings and stuff…

Chicago skyline from Adler Planetarium
The Chicago skyline
Tracks into Downtown Chicago from Museum Campus/11th Street Station
Metra Electric District tracks with Downtown Chicago in the background

That ended up being my last major expedition with my Canon. I had a few minor ones later on, including a brief trip back to Charlotte, a quick trip to Downtown Durham, as well as a trip to Greensboro, which turned out to be my last expedition with that camera:

Greensboro skyline from the Amtrak station
Greensboro skyline

Transition to a new camera, Atlanta, and beyond

Then, I got a new, more powerful camera: an Olympus E-M10. To take it out for a test drive, I took some pictures around Durham:

21C and One City Center
The two tallest buildings in Downtown Durham

The camera felt way more powerful than my previous one. It took me a while to get used to all its features and how to use them, but I knew this was a major step forwards. In the middle of the summer, I took a solo trip to Atlanta, and that is still to date my most successful photography expedition:

Downtown Atlanta skyline at night
Downtown Atlanta skyline at night
Midtown Atlanta skyline from I-85 and 17th Street
Midtown Atlanta skyline
Westbound train at Dome-GWCC
Dome-GWCC
Backs of two trains at North Springs
North Springs
Vine City platform
Vine City
Platform at Peachtree Center
Peachtree Center Station
Five Points lower level northbound track
Five Points Red/Gold Line (lower level) platform

I definitely was still getting the hang of the whole exposure/ISO/F-stop thing, as evidenced by the lighting in some of these photos. Still, these photos were clearer than anything I had done before, and I felt much more in control. It was also awesome traveling solo for photography, which gave me a ton of practice.

For my final fall break I decided to travel to Pittsburgh with a friend. It was only for a few days, but I still had plenty of opportunities for photography:

Pittsburgh daytime skyline from Grandview Overlook
Pittsburgh skyline during the day
Nighttime skyline of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh skyline at night
Outbound track at Steel Plaza
Steel Plaza station
Outbound train at North Side
North Side Station
Cathedral of Learning
Cathedral of Learning

I had gotten a better feel for all the settings on my camera this time, so my pictures came out looking more or less how I wanted them.

I also traveled to Los Angeles and San Diego in the winter of 2019-2020, which I have already talked about in another post.

So, since I took up photography, my skills have improved dramatically. It wasn’t a sudden shift, but something that happened over time. I’m moving to Chicago soon, and that will give me a whole new city to explore. I look forward to what I find there, and hope my skills continue to improve. The future holds exciting things, and I can’t wait to see (and photograph) what they are.

Reflections on the Scratch Wiki

I have been a major figure on the Scratch Wiki for a long time, though since coming to college I have been much less active due to other commitments. I first joined the Wiki on March 9, 2012, and have gained a lot of experiences in my time there.

My Beginnings on the Wiki

I first joined the Wiki in 2012 as a regular editor back in the days of Scratch 1.4, with my main intention just being to improve the article on Mod Share (a project on which I was a developer at the time). I made my necessary edits, and then also started editing other articles where I saw potential for improvement. I remained in that capacity for a while, until the release of Scratch 2.0.

Scratch 2.0 and user registration

When Scratch 2.0 was released, the existing account registration system (which depended on a user verification API in Scratch 1.4) no longer functioned. The Scratch Team announced that at some future date they would implement OAuth to allow other websites to link their account systems to Scratch’s, but did not give any specific date to expect it. Meanwhile, over at Mod Share, we had the same problem, also depending on that API. After discussing the situation with LS97 (the other Mod Share developer), we figured the best solution would be to verify users by having them comment a verification code on a project and then checking if they posted the comment. Once the system was successfully implemented on Mod Share (my code quality has improved since then, I promise), I contacted the Scratch Team asking if they would like me to implement a similar system on the Wiki. They ended up agreeing, so I got my hands dirty with developing a MediaWiki extension. I ended up modifying an existing extension, ConfirmAccount by Aaron Schulz, adding the comment verification to it (GitHub link). This allowed the Wiki to maintain the existing system of requiring users to request accounts while verifying (automatically) that users requested accounts corresponding to their Scratch accounts. As part of the implementation, I was given a new title, Experienced Wikian (developed specifically as a result of this new extension). In a nutshell, I had elevated privileges over normal users (most importantly being able to process account requests), but was below an administrator.

Becoming more active

With my role in implementing the account request system, I became much more active on the Wiki. I processed the majority of account requests to the Wiki for a while, and also was fairly active in maintaining the quality of the articles as well as the community. As time went on, the other active staff members mostly moved on to other things, and I became a de facto leader.

Moving On

As I started college, I knew I wouldn’t have as much time for the Wiki as I did before. I continued to help in the capacity I could, but knew time was coming to pass on the reins to someone else. I am proud to report that the Wiki still continues on and is going strong.

Transferring Ownership

In the winter 2018, the Wiki was officially transferred from Scratch Team ownership to being an independent project. This gave us a lot more freedom, especially the ability to install extensions and otherwise modify configuration ourselves as well as more moderation powers (specifically blocking users). While before all of these requests had to go through the Scratch Team which often took a while, now we could act unilaterally as necessary. In this time, many software improvements were made and all of the Wikis in different languages became part of a single ecosystem.

Thoughts

To this day, the Wiki continues to be an active community maintaining high-quality articles describing Scratch. To have continued this through over a decade and through several rounds of leaders is a testament to the spirit of the project.

I have certainly learned a lot over my time on the Wiki. It is a very unique kind of project, maintaining fairly high quality standards while largely being maintained by people in the 10-15 year old range. The most important lesson I learned was the importance of remaining calm and civil. One core policy of the Wiki is assuming good faith. In essence, that means that unless there’s obvious evidence to the contrary, assume that a user’s actions were made with an intent to help, or at at the very least, without the intention to harm the Wiki. Thus, while it is easy to endlessly criticize users for violations of Wiki guidelines, such as making articles about users, editing others’ userpages, creating duplicate pages, among a million other things, it was more important to help them. Almost every user (including myself) received a talk page message in their first few edits explaining that one of their edits had been undone or a page deleted because of some violation of Wiki guidelines. Rather than treating that as a warning, it was important to treat those as opportunities for improvement. In fact, I wanted to encourage users to be bold with their edits, since the best way to learn is by doing.

We also managed to maintain a semi-democratic system on the Wiki that has worked surprisingly well. The guidelines explicitly state that the Wiki is a collaborative effort, and we did our best to maintain that. I viewed my job (most of the time) as facilitating a discussion rather than making a decision myself. While I did have the final say, I rarely invoked that and instead went off of community consensus and established guidelines (which were also largely community-developed). Whenever possible, I tried to act as a normal editor rather than an administrator or authority figure (the one significant exception being in handling account requests, where that wasn’t really possible).

We did have a number of incidents on the Wiki, but compared to most other online communities they were fairly uncommon. I attribute this to a few things:

  • High barrier to entry: users had to submit an account request to join, and in that request they had to put forth a significant amount of effort (see the next paragraph)
  • High level of commitment: the community was based on maintaining high-quality articles, so most users who were not committed to that left on their own
  • Collaborative effort: we all were working towards a common goal and helped each other out wherever possible

Evolution of the Account Request System

The account request system changed dramatically throughout my time on the Wiki. When I first joined, the system essentially just required users to somehow describe how they would help on the Wiki. We then changed the system somewhat to require that users name specific articles they would improve and how they would improve those articles. Still, many requests did not meet the requirements, and we had little success in changing the requirements to join in such a way that more people would read them fully.

Eventually, Turkey3 had the idea of radically changing the account request system in a way that would be clearer. Instead of requiring users to search through the Wiki, we required them to look through an example article with a number of mistakes and then provide suggestions on both what mistakes to fix and also what they would add to the article. The quality of requests generally increased after that point, and we have maintained that system ever since.

Conclusion

As I continue on my journey in life, I am very proud of the work I did for the Scratch Wiki. I am also extremely proud of all the contributors who have helped maintain the project and continue to do so. It is an extremely valuable resource for helping kids learn Scratch and also helping more advanced users expand their capabilities. It also serves as a place for the Scratch community to collectively store its knowledge, even as individual members come and go, allowing anyone to learn about ideas that no active user may be able to help with.