Subway Math and Geekery

August 31st, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

This afternoon, while riding the subway, I noticed an ad that the MTA has been running for some time now as part of its self-promoting “SubTalk” campaign. It reads:

In 1986, the subway and bus fare was $1. That’s $1.89 in 2008 dollars. Today, 30-day Unlimited Ride MetroCard brings the fare down to $1.17. Believe it.

Maybe I’m a crotchety windbag, or maybe the afternoon’s chatter with friends about the GRE mathematics section sparked something off, but I didn’t, as the ad implored me to, believe it. Assuming that the ad campaign was started before the subway fare increase earlier this year that raised the base fare to $2.25 from its previous $2, it seemed like the MTA was taking a pretty liberal view of how many times one would have to ride the subway or bus with their monthly MetroCard to bring their effective fare down by 30%.

(In case you’re not familiar with how the 30-day MetroCard works, you can pay a flat fee per month for unlimited use of the New York subway and local buses instead of the pay-per-ride fare)

Partly to prove that I could still actually do arithmetic and basic algebra (and render it in TeX), I scribbled out this calculation:

MTA Fare Math

I’m sure this broke all sorts of mathematical conventions, but p_m is the price of a 30-day card, p_r is the effective per-ride cost according to the MTA, and r, r_d, and r_w are rides per month, day, and week, respectively you’d need to make to get that price.

This assumes the 2008 30-day fare of $81. To get the purported $1.17 fare, you’d have to ride the subway or bus (not including free transfers) about 2.3 times per day, every day, or just over 16 times per week, for the entire 30-day period. I have no idea where the MTA got their data from, but I don’t know anyone who rides the subway that much.

Long Beach Island, or: How a zipcar trip can end in a tow truck ride

August 23rd, 2009 § 6 comments § permalink

The cast: Guy Dickinson and Patrick Stahl, two engineer-types from New York City.

The set-up: Their girlfriends are out of town at Disneyworld. What else to do but take a drive down the Jersey Shore to Long Beach Island, Pat’s erstwhile summer home and source of copious family memories? There’s a hurricane a few hundred miles off the East Coast which promises to produce impressive surf and maybe a storm or two. They book a zipcar rental for 3:30PM on Saturday, August 22nd.

The timeline:

3:30PM, 1090 Amsterdam Avenue, NYC: Pat and Guy arrive at the appointed parking garage to pick up the vehicle, a 2007 Volkswagen Jetta with about 45,000 miles on the clock. Pat’s zipcard lets them into the car without a hitch, and they hit the road.

3:35PM, West 107th Street: While Guy makes a quick stop for a bottle of water and his camera, Pat checks out the rest of the car. The trunk contains three umbrellas and a bed-sheet, all from previous renters. The car is otherwise in fine condition.

3:40PM, West Side Highway: Some ominous clouds over the George Washington Bridge suggest that this might be a spectacular trip indeed.

4:10PM, Garden State Parkway Southbound: Guy discovers a CD left in the car from a previous occupant. It is labelled “Rap/Spliff”. Alas, it refuses to play in the car’s CD player. Pat and Guy are stuck listening to classic rock.

4:21PM, Middlesex County, New Jersey: Pat and Guy stop at Cheesequake Rest Area, an intriguingly-named place. Later, Guy will be disappointed to discover that “Cheesequake” is merely a bad Anglicization of a Native American name, and not a reference to a giant, rumbling block of milk curd.

5:50PM, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: Pat and Guy arrive at their destination. Guy is nervous that the scene is too idyllic for hurricane-induced surf, however, after stepping onto the beach, it’s clear that there are at least six-foot waves. Despite frantic warnings from the local authorities, many surfers are trying to take advantage of the situation.

There really was a hurricane offshore.

There really was a hurricane offshore.

6:15PM: Watching the ocean from the sand is insufficient for Pat. He decides he must enter the ocean, again, despite frantic warnings from the authorities. Guy declines, citing his will to live.

6:17PM: Pat enters the ocean, abandoning his clothing and the contents of his pockets on the beach. Guy stays to stand watch.

6:30PM: Pat is struck by a giant wave, which knocks him off his feet. He decides to return to shore.

Pat is dwarfed by a wave, prompting his emergence shortly after

Pat is dwarfed by a wave, prompting his emergence shortly after

Pat emerges.

Pat emerges.

6:31PM: Pat gathers up his belongings, including the zipcard, a critical access token which allows his and Guy’s access to the vehicle. He attempts to hand Guy the card to keep it safe. Guy doesn’t realize he’s being handed anything. The card is dropped to the sand, unnoticed.

The bloody zipcard.

The bloody zipcard.

6:39PM: Pat and Guy return to the car. “Open the car, will you?”, says Pat. “I don’t have the card, you do!” replies Guy. “But I gave you the card”, said Pat. “No, you didn’t.” Pat and Guy discover that neither of them has the card. Pat returns to the beach to attempt to locate it.

6:44PM: Pat declares defeat. A final, exhaustive search of pockets, shirts, and shoes reveals nothing. The zipcard is nowhere to be found.

6:45PM: The first call is placed to zipcar. Because the cars are all connected to zipcar’s central office, it should be feasible to unlock the car remotely. Pat explains the scenario, and the representative cheerily tells him that the car should now be unlocked. The car is not, in fact, unlocked. The zipcar representative cites “cellular reception issues” and puts Pat on hold while she figures out what to do next.

7:00PM: The zipcar representative informs Pat that they will need to send roadside assistance to let us back into the car. Some telephone shuffling occurs, and we are told to expect assistance to arrive in 30 minutes. Pat declares that he will eat his hat if the tow truck arrives in 30 minutes. Pat and Guy decide to wander over to the bay side of the island, where a sign informs them that they are not to disrobe, by order of the police department. Disappointed, they change their plans and head off in search of food, stopping at the first place they come to, Pinky Shrimp’s Seafood Company. They place an order for some shrimp and a crabcake sandwich and are told that there will be a one-hour wait for their food.

This sign was the only thing which prevented us from dropping our trousers.

This sign was the only thing which prevented us from dropping our trousers.

7:15PM: Pat heads back towards the car, while Guy purchases a six-pack of New Jersey Lager from the liquor store. It is brewed in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Strangely, this seems apropos. Guy returns to the car.

7:20PM: It is nearly dark. The only corrective lenses Pat has are his sunglasses, with his normal glasses locked in the car. Guy is appointed lookout for the tow truck. Beers are opened and surreptitiously drunk near the car.

It was getting dark.

It was getting dark.

7:40PM: The tow truck arrives. Pat is relieved not to have to eat his hat. Pat and Guy introduce themselves to Ray, of Stohrer’s towing. Ray is the most talkative person either of them have ever met. Pat explains the situation to Ray, who gets his tools ready to break into the car.

7:45PM: Ray successfully opens the car, which has the physical, non-zipcard car key in it.

7:45:30PM: Pat attempts to start the zipcar, which refuses to turn over.

7:45:31PM: Guy recalls a previous incident during a zipcar trip to Rhode Island, wherein the car failed to start because he’d forgotten to use the zipcard to unlock the doors. Apparently, the zipcard locking mechanism requires that the car be unlocked with the card before it will start. Guy explains this to Pat.

7:50PM: Pat places another call to zipcar to figure out what to do next. While he does this, Guy returns to Pinky Shrimp to retrieve their food.

8:00PM: Guy arrives back at the car with shrimp and crabcakes. Pat has been informed that the only way to get back to New York is to tow the car, since apparently there’s something wrong with the zipcard locking system. Distance to New York: 115 miles. A last-ditch attempt to salvage the situation by transferring the reservation to Guy’s name fails. Some logistical discussions between Ray, Ray’s dispatcher, Zipcar, and some agency named Road America ensue. All apparently agree that towing the car is the only option we have left. During this, Guy eats a dozen fried shrimp and feels much better.

8:20PM: The car is loaded onto the tow truck, and Guy and Pat jump into the truck cab. They are on the way home.

8:30PM: Ray, who had not been expecting to drive to 115 miles to Manhattan and back, decides to stop at his house for water. Pat and Guy take the opportunity to take stupid pictures of the car atop the tow truck.

8:45-11:00PM: Pat and Guy ride all the way back to the garage at 1090 Amsterdam Avenue where they picked up the car. Ray does not stop talking for a moment, regaling them with tales of his previous jobs, one of which he describes as a “shit engineer”, having something to do with cleaning effluent from sewer pipes. Ray shares his opinions on popular culture, television, news, coffee, and the economy. The trip passes quickly.

11:20PM: Pat and Guy and Ray arrive back at the garage. Ray calls the attendant to explain the situation. The attendant, clearly confused, simply replies, “OK, come in”, and rolls up the gate, not understanding that a full-size tow truck will not fit into the garage. Pat and Guy are nervous that attempting to explain to the attendant the state of the zipcar will become their problem.

11:20:30PM: The garage attendant opens the door to the front office, looks nervously out, then closes it again. Pat and Guy’s nervousness increases.

11:21PM: Pat and Guy retrieve their belongings from the car, and Ray tells them that he’ll handle the garage attendant. Relieved, Pat and Guy shake hands with Ray and run away before they can cause any more trouble.

11:40PM: Pat and Guy finish the remaining four New Jersey Lagers in the safety and comfort of Pat’s living room.