Ordering postage stamps online

Since I hadn’t been in a store of any type for over two months, it had come to this: ordering stamps online.

My stash of stamps had sadly gone very low. It was all down to bad luck. I had been to the post office in order to get stamps on multiple occasions before the quarantine started in deadly earnest — in fact, I went just the very week before. But the post office on the Rice University campus leaves much to be desired. They hardly ever have nice stamps. They had an absolutely trash selection, so I just didn’t buy any. I thought, maybe I can go browse another post office. Before I had the chance, the quarantine struck.

So over the past two months, I have been using the Christmas wreaths stamps to send letters. This is not my style at all. The stamps must be in sync with the season, at least in normal times. But I was driven by desperation.

But finally, even the holiday stamps were running out, so I finally decided to order stamps online. I would have done this much earlier, but you have to create an account on the USPS website in order to order things. I don’t like creating accounts and having my name all over the place. It didn’t end up being that painful, though. You just go to usps.com and it doesn’t take long.

I placed the order on May 13. I got two books of stamps — one with the orchids, one with ‘Eid Mubarak’. Well, Eid has come and gone (May 24-25), and I still don’t have the stamps. I thought they’d just send them, nice and simple, from the local post office. But no! They sent them all the way from the Kansas City distribution center. I don’t know how necessary that was.

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I know everything is delayed right now, but just for your reference, the order wasn’t even processed until six days after I placed it, on May 19. Ever since May 22, the tracking status has said that the estimated time of delivery is the next day. But in reality, the shipment only arrived at my local USPS facility on May 23. It arrived in my town on May 25 (today). I guess I will get it tomorrow, but I won’t be surprised if not.

It cost $1.20 extra for the shipping. It was a $1.20 for shipping whether I ordered one booklet or two.

Update: the stamps did arrive on May 26, and they come very unnecessarily wrapped in both plastic protection and a cardstock support. It’s an awful lot of environmentally-wasteful packaging (not to mention the large envelop and the shipping emissions) for two thin books of stamps.

Bus #84 in Houston

I think bus #84 is my favorite in Houston. It goes to many comforting places: two movie theatres, the Ikea, and the Houston Arboretum.

To be fair, it doesn’t exactly go past the Ikea. It goes instead to the Northwest Transit Center. The Northwest Transit Center always struck me as a lonely, ugly, heartless spot. But then I discovered that you can walk — and there’s a sidewalk the whole way — to the Ikea from there in like 15 or 20 minutes. It’s so nice! And on the way to Ikea, you pass one of the movie theatres.

So you can get candy from Ikea, and look at all the furniture, and then go back and watch a movie and eat popcorn, all in one go, and without having to drive.

If it’s a super hot day, and you don’t want to walk 20 minutes to Ikea, just transfer to either bus #49 or #39 at the Northwest Transit Center. Those two buses will take you to Ikea in about 2 minutes (the third stop).

As long as you bought your bus ticket through a mobile app or through a “q-card”, you don’t have to worry about paying extra money for the transfer. In fact, you have three hours in which to make the transfer.

Before bus #84 gets to the Transit Center (its very last stop), it trudges through all these neighborhoods in Houston. I took that bus a couple of times in November. Some of the streets we passed through were lit up in a splendid burst of golden Christmas lights — it was magical.

After it leaves the city neighborhoods, bus #84 goes zooming out onto a freeway. This freeway is of course packed with cars, and in common Houston standards, is all an ugly succession of concrete pillars and dull asphalt and pollution. But do you know what this freeway is acting as a border to? To a nice, lovely piece of greenery in the city — a large plot of land — miles across and throughout, so I’m sure you could get lost in it and forget the city. This plot of green is made up of Memorial Park and the Houston Arboretum. I’m not exactly sure where one ends and the other begins, but if you get off on the right bus stop on the freeway, you just have to walk about 11 minutes down a side road, and you get to the Arboretum. It’s a “natural” arboretum — so it’s not full of manicured lawns and flowers. Instead, they’ve tried to recreate natural ecosystems — forests in one area, swamps in another. On Saturday mornings, you can get a free guided hike on one of the trails. So I just love the idea of first catching the bus there (so you don’t have to deal with a car or pollute), and then being dropped off on the side of the freeway, and then letting your footsteps take you from the din of traffic to the peace of the park (except not really, because the sound of the cars follows you there), and being all surrounded by nature and people who care enough to volunteer to show you around the trees.

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Houston Arboretum

My only complaint about bus #84 is that it comes by only every 30 minutes on weekends. I had to take another bus to get to the Buffalo Speedway intersection where I could board bus #84. Sometimes, the first bus arrived like a minute after bus #84 had already whizzed through. So I’d have to wait a whole ‘nother half hour until the next one arrived.

Sometimes bus #84 is late getting to the stop at Buffalo Speedway. When that happens, the bus driver goes a little beserk, speeding through town, and somehow incredibly managing to arrive at the Northwest Transit Center right on the dot of the top of the hour, or the half hour, so you can run to your transfer bus before they all depart.

One more nice thing about the Transit Center: from it, you can catch a bus all the way out to Hammerly. It’s as far out as the buses go in the northwest direction of Houston, if you ride the bus to the end of its line before it turns back to the Transit Center. You end up in a place that still is all commercial and filled with zooming traffic; but there’s also tracts of trees, and it’s a little quieter. It just feels a little more soft and secluded than Houston proper.

 

Why you should definitely not fly from Houston to LA

To get from Houston to Los Angeles by trains, there is no need to ever switch trains or any hassle like that: all you do is take one single train, the Sunset Limited. And I think you should almost definitely take the train, and not fly, because it’s a cute train; and it’s nice scenery; and it’s more convenient; and better for the environment; and flying isn’t actually going to save you that much time!

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Sunrise over a river in the Texas desert. View courtesy of the Sunset Limited.

So first, the cute train. I thought it was very cute. There’s little curtains on the windows. The carriages are two stories. You have plenty of room in your seat. I’ve been on this train twice and it wasn’t crowded either time, so hopefully no one will be bumping into you. You can visit the observation car, and the dining car, and the cafe. The train rocks you gently all night long.

 

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Our big, not so pretty, not so sanitary, slightly grimy, yet still endearing and sweetheart-ish train going out west.

The scenery: I don’t normally try to say anything nice about Texas, but the desert scenes were quite nice. The sun rising over the desert rivers was lovely. I had never seen this part of the country before, I had no idea what it would look like. I saw El Paso and Tuscon, Arizona. I saw over the border into Mexico. It was all fascinating to see.

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I think those mountains are in Mexico. We were really close to the border a lot of the way.

Convenience: instead of taking an hour-and-a-half bus ride to the airports in Houston, I just rode the light-rail and then a bus to the Amtrak station. In all, it took about 30 minutes. Plus, the bus took me right through downtown Houston. It was Christmas time, and I saw all the pretty Christmas lights that were up. There were blocks and blocks of golden light glowing in the black night, hovering over all the trees, from city square to city square. And from the Amtrak station there was a view out on all the skyscrapers of the city, all lit up, and even the Ferris wheel by the aquarium. Same with arriving in Los Angeles. We arrived smack in the downtown. I’ve never been to LAX but of course, as everyone else, I’ve heard it’s awful, and far from the city, and you probably don’t want to deal with it.

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Leaving downtown Houston on a Wednesday night in December.
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Arriving in downtown Los Angeles before dawn on Friday morning.

Time: the plane will not save you much time! I’ve worked this out. See, you get on the Sunset Limited in Houston at 7 pm, you spend the next day entirely on the train, and then you get to Los Angeles at 5:30 in the morning. It is a two-night and one-day trip. Well, during those two nights, you’re just going to sleep, and hopefully, you were planning to sleep even if you’d stayed at home, so that doesn’t really count as time lost. The only real time to consider is the full day on the train. In my opinion, this is pretty much exactly how much time you’d spend if you took the plane. If you take the plane, you have to get to the airport 2 hours in advance. The airport is probably an hour or more away from where you live, plus once you get to LA, let’s say (counting traffic) that the airport is two hours from where you’re trying to go. That adds three more hours. Also, you have the stress of airport security and all the crowds and the blinding lights, and the carbon emissions, and most likely, you won’t have a direct flight. You’ll have a lay-over somewhere. Even if you did not have a lay-over, there’s a big chance the plane will be late, and even if the plane wasn’t late, this whole sequence of events will still take you all day to get from Houston to LA. So you really might as well just take the train! No security, no angry people, and you can pretty much bring as much luggage as you can manage to carry.

Construct3D: Making animations with real-life puppets

I saw a really cool talk the other day. It was the keynote on the opening night of the Construct3D conference. The speaker was Brian McLean from a movie company called Laika. They are in Portland, Oregon.

Now, I’d never heard of that company before, but they’ve won some Oscars, and been nominated for more. So I got to meet and talk to a person who has an Oscar. Pretty cool.

This company makes stop-motion animation. I didn’t know what this was until when I saw “Chicken Run”, the movie. Actually, I watched the movie a few times, and later on someone told me it was made through stop-motion animation, and explained what that meant. That you’re not creating characters on a computer program. But instead you have actual little clay figures. And you can move and bend them. And every time in the movie when anything moves at all, it means that they stopped the camera, had someone lean into the hand-made scenery where all the characters are perched, and move the characters’ hand or eyebrow or a tree branch by hand.

This process sounded so spine-chillingly and nerve-upendingly time-consuming and long that at first I was sure I had misheard, but that’s exactly how it works!

Any case, I have never watched any of the 5 films that Laika has made, but I’ve heard of some of them at least. The one I had heard of was Coraline. Now that I’ve met one of the people involved in making them, I’m going to try to watch it.

With Laika, they don’t make their little character puppets using clay or ceramics. Instead, they 3D print their characters — at least, they 3D print their characters’ faces. And since at every moment in a movie when a character is on camera they want the character’s face to have an expression perfectly suited for that moment, they end up printing tens of thousands of faces. And then these faces can be snapped onto the character’s head.

Indeed, this takes a long time! The speaker told us it takes them 4 to 5 years to make a movie. But, it’s apparently not as expensive as 3D computer animation. He said that it cost Pixar something like $150 million to make Toy Story, while LAIKA spent $60 million on their last movie, The Missing Link. I’d like to watch that one, too.

But, then when it comes time to release the movies in the theatre, not a lot of people go watch them. I know the feeling! So they don’t actually make all their money back. Instead, they are bankrolled by the son of the founder or head of Nike!

The speaker had brought some of the actual movie puppets with him … and some of the snappable, 3D printed faces. It was super cool.

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Real puppets and 3D-printed faces from LAIKA
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Brian McLean from LAIKA and his puppets

My poster at Construct3D

There’s a “makerspace” conference that’s been around for 3 years now. It started first back in 2017. This year, it was held at Rice, and I got to go to it. I presented a poster at it. It’s called Construct3D.

The Makerspace is where you have cool things like laser cutters and 3D printers and paints and sewing machines, and a wood shop, and iron smelting (or some sort of metal work). I love it all!

Here was my poster: what do you think? I’m trying to develop a lesson for my work at Rice that involves laser-cut blocks.

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My poster at Construct3D

Of course, during the poster session, I was as usual left standing forlornly by my poster to which hardly anyone walked up, I was just all alone.

This was also the most intense poster session I was ever part of. Standing by your poster, and having little chats with passers-by, wasn’t the main feature. Instead, they had all of us poster-people go stand in the center of the big room; and then they had a guy with a microphone; and then we had to give a minute-long speech about our poster in front of everyone else at the conference. Each had our own turn. Well, I introduced my poster, and apparently I flunked the ordeal, cause no one wanted to come talk to me later.

But the conference was so cool! I learned and saw and heard and thought. The speakers were amazing. I’m going to write a post about three of them for my next pieces.

Here’s some pictures from my Makerspace times back in Chapel Hill:

Other stuff I made in the Makerspace:

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My first lesson in the Makerspace. We were on the sewing machines. We made a little pouch 🙂

 

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A lovely view from one of the science libraries in Chapel Hill. I’ll bet these were made in the Makerspace.

 

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An open house at the Makerspace. The kids were delighted. They’re looking down into the laser cutter, cutting away. I used that machine a lot!
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Some of the stickers I made with the vinyl cutter!

 

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A card I made from laser-cut shapes and words.

And finally, I don’t think have a picture of it, but I went to a Makerspace workshop in Chapel Hill where we soldered some metal and light bulbs and sticks, and we made a Harry Potter “lumos” wand! I didn’t even know what it meant to solder before that!

Public transportation in Houston

Everyone says public transportation in Houston is horrible.

I’ve lived there now for a few months, without a car, and it’s not as bad as everyone makes out. There’s some real positives, in fact — but there also are some real drawbacks.

I’d say the biggest drawback is that you really cannot get out into the suburbs, at all. If you go to Chicago, or Philadelphia, or New York, or San Francisco, or Washington D.C., you can take a train or a metro quite far out of the city. For example, if you’re in Chicago, you can take a local train out to Wheaton College (27 miles away), or the cute little town of Glen Ellyn. If you’re in D.C., you can take the metro to New Carrollton (okay, fine, that’s only 12 miles away, not that far.) If you’re in Philadelphia, you can take the trains and buses out to Ursinus College (30 miles away, and very cute), or out to the quaint town of Doylestown (almost 35 miles away, although it’s debatable whether it’s actually all that quaint.)

In Houston, sadly, you can’t do any of that. There’s no local trains taking you out of the city. There’s just some buses. For example, you can take the bus to the suburb of Cypress, which is about 30 miles away. Now this is all fine and dandy and totally great, EXCEPT, these buses only run Monday through Friday, only during commuting hours. So you can’t go to Cypress on the weekends, at all, via public transportation. And if you’re in Cypress, you can’t head for the city. This is true for all the surrounding settlements around Houston. You can’t go to Sam Houston National Forest, north of the city; you can’t get to Bear Creek Pioneers Park, to the west. Just suppose you’d really like to get to the suburb of Pasadena, for a Christmas market; well, you can’t. Or you want to go to visit someone in the suburb of Sugarland. Can’t do that, either. You’re just stuck in the city. The only direction slightly accessible is to the southeast, towards the seacoast, as you can get a bus to Galveston.

I used to live in Philadelphia. The city was somehow just more manageable than Houston. I biked all over the place. I wouldn’t probably bike there today, having lost my youthful fantasy of invincibility since then; but it was doable. Most of the streets are set out on a grid, most of the streets have sidewalks, most of the streets connect simply and easily to each other. It might take you two hours, but you can definitely get from one side of the city to the other. Not so in Houston. When I compare back to Philadelphia, Houston feels like one big freeway. Freeway here and freeway there — even if you wanted to bike, how are you going to manage it when everything connected by freeway?

Just another note on that commuter bus that goes to Cypress: its sole destination is a park-and-ride lot in Cypress. That’s it. So everyone else gets off the bus and just goes to grab their car and drive home; but if you don’t have a car waiting for you, then you either are going to walk to circles around the park-and-ride lot, or you are going to have to call for a Lyft to get to your final destination, wherever that is in Cypress. There’s no other bus at the park-and-ride lot to take you anywhere. It sucks.

Given all of this, if you want to live in Houston without a car, then you need to live pretty close to your work, for two reasons: 1) if you live in the suburbs, then there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get to work on the buses; and 2) if you live in the city, but, say, 5 miles away from your job, there’s a good possibility that the buses will take an hour to get you to work. So good luck with that!

This means that you probably want to live no more than two to three miles away from your job to make the commute reasonable; and that kind of limits you to the parts of town where the rents are highest.

So where can you get to in Houston? Well, there is a very nice light-rail system, and this will take you to downtown Houston, to Rice University, and to the northern and southern parts of the city. There are also buses that can take you to the movie theatre and Ikea (about an hour — as a reference, in Philly, I could bike to the Ikea. It was a bit of a stressful bike ride, but I managed). You can also take the bus to Trader Joe’s pretty easily (if you’re starting at Rice), and to a Barnes and Noble. You can get to the big cluster of museums (some of which are very nice) near the center of the city, and you can get to Herman Park, which is a green oasis with a lake and boats and trees. I have also been able to get to eye doctors, dentists, and regular doctor appointments.

One time, I took a bus north to get to a free museum. I got off the bus stop and I had to walk for a few blocks west. My steps took me right through a university I’d never heard of, and they were hosting an Italian festival I’d also never heard of. So I saw both the festival and the university, and the free museum. On my way back, I arrived at the bus stop just as the bus zoomed off. Feeling grumpy, I decided I didn’t want to wait for the next bus, so I started walking back south. I walked one block, and I came upon the most delicious lovely library ever! So I just ducked in there while waiting for the next bus (there was another bus stop right outside). Occasionally, someone with mental problems starts yelling at me on the light rail platform or on the bus, but so far, nothing violent has happened. Sometimes, I get a little nervous because it’s dark out, and I’ll be waiting for a transfer between buses at some bus stop in the middle of the city, and I’ll be bracing myself for something to happen; but then after all, it ends up feeling quite safe.

At each bus stop, you can also text a number, and a text will come back letting you know when to expect the next bus. Sometimes, it will say 5 minutes; but then 5 minutes come and go, and there’s no bus, and so you text again, and this time it says 3 minutes. And sometimes you text and it says 20 minutes; so you browse around inside a store, and because you didn’t keep texting, you didn’t realize that the bus was speeding up and after all, the bus comes in 18 minutes and you miss it.

You can also get to the airports. To get to the smaller airport, you take the light-rail all the way south, and then you take a long bus ride. I did this once. I got yelled at by the people in the airport: don’t you know the buses aren’t safe, ma’am, you don’t want to get onboard those. Excuse me, what do you think I’ve been doing all this time?

To get to the larger, international airport, you take the light rail downtown, and then you take an even longer bus ride. You know what’s funny about that bus to the international airport? It is called an “express” bus … but somehow, it’s got over 60 stops, and takes an hour to get to the airport, and goes through all these neighborhoods. But okay.

The nicest part of the public transportation in Houston is that your ticket only costs $1.25. This is the same cost of a bus in the no-one’s-heard-of-it town of Concord, North Carolina. Can you believe it? Except the Houston tickets are even better, because your ticket there is valid for 3 hours. You can ride on as many buses and light rails as you want within that 3 hour period. In most other places, a ticket just gets you a ride and a single transfer — and in Concord, there’s all these ornery rules and conditions limiting the type of transfer you can muster.

So given the nice price, and given that I was able to get to the movie theatre and Ikea and the Amtrak train station and to go see the downtown Christmas lights, I was thinking, oh, the public transportation in Houston isn’t so bad after all. It gets a bad rap unnecessarily. Also, I should add that many of the buses are quite frequent — sometimes every 15 minutes — and usually my transfer waiting time between buses aren’t that long — and the light rail sometimes comes by every 5 minutes. I was thinking of all this, and thinking, I guess the public transportation in Houston deserves some respect.

But then I went to Chicago just before Christmas. I went to Chicago on cross-country trains. And while I was there, I took the local trains all the way from downtown Chicago to a far-away suburb. While sitting on nice, tidy, local train, it finally struck me: this is what’s missing from Houston. You really can’t go anywhere outside the city without a car. And then I started remembering a bit more of when I lived in Philadelphia, and how much of the city was accessible, and more and more I am starting to see the difference in mobility.