Friday, August 06, 2004

A new beginning...

The Setup

After close to 7 years at Microsoft, I thought it was time to go do something rather different. I'd been interested in biology/biotechnology for a while, so I ended up deciding to go back to school for a PhD in computational biology/bioinformatics. I got accepted into MIT's program in Computational and Systems Biology [] and so Christina and I moved to Boston. The premise of this blog is to chronicle the transition from a 'Softie to being a grad student, how Christina and I settle into building a new life out here and other stuff of that ilk [ie whatever the hell I want to write about].


Three things are certain in life: death, taxes and that moving sucks.
We've spent the last 2-3 weeks really experiencing that last bit about moving. In keeping with the, ahem, change in living circumstances [aka being broke], we went with the cheapest moving company we could find: ABF U-Pack. The gist of their service is pretty simple: they come drop off a 28-foot container in front of your old house, you pile all your stuff into it, they pick it up, put commercial freight into whatever space is left over in the container, drive it across the country, drop it off in front of your new house, you un-pile all the stuff, end of story. You're charged by how much space in linear feet you take up in the trailer, and at $200/foot, that gives you plenty of incentive to pile stuff as high as you can. What made that part suck was trying to pack everything we had into boxes and continuously finding more stuff that needed to be packed, leading to lots of exchanges like "Why are you packing item X ? You never use it" "Oh yeah, well, you packed item Y, and you never use that, so I get to pack item X"…

We spent a happy day, aided enormously by Christina's dad, packing the container and ended up cramming everything into 14 linear feet, which of course was more than the 10 feet they'd estimated [moving companies are kind of like software developers: they give you lowball estimates that need to be inflated by a fudge factor to get close to reality …]. After packing everything into the container and sending it off, we spent the next week and a half doing what I thought was equivalent to camping indoors – no furniture in the house, very few clothes, using plastic dishes etc. Now that I think about it more, though, it wasn't really much like camping at all – we had running water, indoor
plumbing, DirecTV, high-speed wireless internet access and a fridge. I don't think camping is much like that [as far as I know – I've never actually been camping …]. These last few days were stressful because, now that most of our stuff was gone, we had to do a bunch of "small" work items to get our place ready for our renters – painting, cleaning, taking things to the dump, finding more things that needed to get packed and shipped etc … it's always the last 20% that end up causing 80% of the stress, another similarity between moving and software development.

Two days before our departure we had a little farewell get-together for our friends at The Garage, a pool hall in Seattle, which was a lot of fun [and shame on all of you that said you'd be there but didn't make it ;-)]. Seeing so many of my friends all in one place made me realize that Seattle is basically "home" to me now, one that I'd like to return to. And the day before we left, Christina's parents organized a farewell BBQ at their friend's house over on Bainbridge Island, which was also cool – one of the highlights, for me at least, was going kayaking a bit [the house is right on Puget Sound] just before sunset, and getting a great view of the Olympics. Definitely a "Pacific Northwest" kind of moment.

The trip

I was a little stressed out about how the flight to Boston would go because not only did we have lots of luggage [close to 200 pounds, all told] but we also had to take our two cats along, as carry-on. When we've put them in moving vehicles [ie cars] in the past, they've been pretty upset about it and loudly commented on that fact by meowing incessantly. And not just the usual "Hey, I'm a cat, I'm miaowing" sort of miaow, but rather miaows of the "Long, low and mournful, as if my soul is being slowly sucked out of me through my tail" type. So, I was worried that we were in for six hours of this on a crowded plane. Another factor that had me worried was that we needed to take them out of their carriers in order to go through the X-ray machine at the airport, so I had visions of trying to hold on to a struggling cat while trying to not set off any metal detectors and in general avoid annoying the oh-so-friendly airport security people. And for those of you who have ever tried to hold a cat that doesn't want to be held, you know that 10 pounds of usually placid kitty can quickly become 10 pounds of scratching, clawing, twisting, mad-as-all-get-out hell cat. A little
bit of mad in a cat goes a long way …

To avoid precisely this sort of situation, Christina had spent some time looking into cat tranquilizers and we actually ended up getting some pills that were supposed to calm them down. The only problem was that these pills were large enough to give a horse a bit of pause if it tried to swallow them without water. We tried the usual tricks [ie mixing them into their food etc], but none of that worked – they just turned up their discerning, although slightly smushed, noses and walked right away from it. On the day before we were supposed to leave, Christina ran across some spray that was supposed to be based on cat pheromones and to help calm them, so we liberally doused their
carriers in that and hoped for the best.

As it turned out, the cats were actually not a problem, but I don't know whether that was because of the spray or because by the time we got on the plane, they were just plain too tired and scared in general to really kick up much of a fuss – their trauma started the day before because we put them into their carriers to take them on the ferry over to Christina's parents, confined them to a single room in Christina's parents house the night before we left, didn't feed them [to avoid unfortunate "accidents" while on the plane], woke up at 4 am in the morning to be able to take the 5:20 am ferry, put them in harnesses, put them back in their carriers, carried them through a crowded, noisy airport for a couple of hours and finally stuffed them underneath a seat for 8 hours. In other words, short of electrocuting them and setting them on fire, we'd done just about everything to them that would induce abject terror. If somebody had done the equivalent to me,
I think I would have done just what the cats seemed to do – surrender themselves to their fate and just sit in their carrier without making a peep. I do wonder whether we're in for some payback, though – when I tried petting them a bit while they were in their carriers on the plane, they seemed to make a point of turning their back on me, as if to say "You may have the upper hand now, but payback is going to be a bitch …"

Some other random observations on traveling with cats: I think it is utter bullshit that American Airlines charges $80/cat, for no apparent reason. They don't take up any extra space, the airline doesn't feed them … are we paying for the air they breathe ? That particular surcharge seems like a "Because we can, that's why" charge. Rat bastards.

Oh, and if you have an overheight [ie above 6'6"] vehicle, SeaTac is not a friendly airport. We found this out by dint of trying to find parking for Christina's parents VW Vanagon – the signs for overheight vehicle parking are extremely difficult to find, disappear after leading you about half a mile away from the airport and then when you finally find the parking spaces, they are really far from the terminal and there are no elevators or escalators to the terminal, just stairs.

The new place

We finally got to our new place around 6 pm on August 1st. Thankfully, we still like it, after picking it after only being in it for 15 minutes, 2 months ago =) . After a few hours of actually living here,
though, it's clear that there are a few things that need to be fixed, like - the fact that there are no outlets in either the living room or the bathroom [ok, so it's an old building, but, c'mon – no outlets in a living room ?]. There's a general paucity of outlets in all the rooms.
- our bathroom sink: not only is the enamel chipped and showing the rusting metal underneath, but it actually is so old that it has separate hot and cold water faucets, so the only way to get a mixture
of a specific temperature is to basically put the stopper in and fill it with a mixture of hot and cold water. "Mix to taste", indeed.
- Calling the amount of water coming out of our kitchen faucet a dribble [when it's fully turned on] is being charitable. The weird thing is that the "sprayer hose" in the same sink [I have no idea what
you call the extensible little hose that is part of kitchen sinks, sometimes part of the faucet, sometimes not, so I'll just call it the "sprayer hose"] spews out water like a fire hose. Maybe I'll spend some time rooting around underneath the sink to try to figure that one out [since I'm such a master handyman … not].

Also, the previous tenants were quite possibly Wookies ie very tall and hairy. How do I know this ? Elementary, my dear Watson: spurred by the slow drainage, Christina did a bit of "excavating" and pulled what must have been close to a pound of hair out of the sink and bathtub. Truly nasty. There are also hangers in the closets that seem to be intended for people well over 8 feet tall. Now, who or what is tall and hairy ? Answer: Chewbacca and other Wookies. QED.

I'm sure as time goes on, we'll find more things we need to fix, but overall, it's still a cool place.

Getting our stuff

Our stuff arrived a couple of days after we got here. The tricky bit about actually getting it into our apartment was that Boston doesn't allow parking a 28-foot container in a public street for 24+ hours
[which is what happened when they picked up our stuff in Seattle] – when I called the relevant city department's office, the lady I talked to actually laughed at me when I said that I wanted to do that. So we had to do what's called a "live unload", where you basically get 1 hour to unload all your stuff while the driver waits with the truck; every 15 minutes over the hour costs you $28. Again, lots of incentive to move pretty damn quickly and limit the financial downside. I figured all this out a few weeks before we moved, so I hired 3 folks to help us move, which turned out to be a godsend.

The container actually arrived at the beginning of the 2-hour block they'd given me, even before the people I'd hired showed up. However, there were a couple "minor" glitches – there was nowhere for the truck driver to park, and there was no ramp in the container [which is about 4 feet off the ground] to use while unloading [despite the fact that I'd talked to the folks several times to make sure that a ramp was supplied]. So the truck driver had to double-park his 40-foot rig in a
relatively busy public street while we scrambled to get everything off the truck in an hour, without a ramp. We actually made it in 45 minutes – I've never lifted that much stuff that quickly in my entire
life, and I sincerely hope that I never have to do so again. After we'd gotten everything off, we had to move it all up to our 3rd-floor apartment, with no elevator, and stairs that went up at about 60-70 degrees, in 90-degree heat and high humidity. Talk about a fun job …

After more huffing and puffing, we got that done too; total time elapsed from when the truck pulled up till all the stuff was in our apartment: 2 hours. That's gotta be some sort of record  Couple of funny incidents: apparently, the folks who were helping with the move were rather upset at the number of books we had and kept asking Christina whether we were setting up a library; one of them also hit on her, though this last bit was complicated somewhat by the fact that he was about 2 inches shorter than her and his idea of a pick-up line was "mujeres beaauuutiful".

Other random observations:
- our cats are beginning to have a hunted [and haunted] look about them, as their world keeps changing every day, with random people stomping through the apartment, loud noises, continuously being locked in a room etc. It must be a bit like being in an M. Night Shyamalan movie. I think if we keep this up a few more days, they're going to simply have a heart attack and fall over. Must minimize stress on the poor little critters.
- There's a street in downtown Boston, right outside some pretty ritzy apartments and a fancy gym, that seems to be populated mostly by heroin addicts. We walked by as one woman was shooting up in broad daylight. I didn't know that they were heroin addicts specifically, as opposed to general addicts, until Christina informed that you could always tell heroin addicts because they were so calm. I guess if you're going to have a street full of junkies, you might as well have the calm type …
- Boston is hot and muggy. Very hot, very muggy, very blech.
- Our stove is, uhm, interesting. It's ancient … it's so old, I think my grandmother would have called it an "artifact from many generations ago" … it has a huge pipe going up to what is presumably a chimney, an oven, a toaster, a broiler and a warming pan, as well as 4 gas burners [2 of which are mysteriously off-center from the holes in the grate, still haven't figured that one out]. Lighting it is pretty much impossible to do with a match unless you really like singed fingers, and the pilot light is an exposed flame. I'm already not really comfortable with the idea of a pilot light ie an always-on flame, in my apartment, so when you couple that with the fact that this one is exposed and we seem to have zero smoke detectors in the apartment, you get what seems like a recipe for disaster. Old is cool and all, but there's a limit to how authentic I want to get. [In the meantime, I've been informed that the stove is "cool" and a "collector's item", qualities which apparently redeem it. I'm just a barbarian, I guess]
- We got our landlord to paint our bathroom sink [see above], which also led to a funny incident. He apparently has a standard guy that he hires to do this sort of stuff, so he brought him along and then left him here while he went to buy paint. It took ages for him to come back, and in the meantime the paint guy had to heed the call of nature, so he basically made himself at home, without even asking – copped a squat in our bathroom, with a newspaper, no less. We found this out when we wanted to use the bathroom and the door was locked and we heard him frantically flushing and scrubbing the toilet when we knocked. I guess when you gotta go, you gotta go …

So, we're here, we have all our stuff, now we can really start settling in.