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.

On Biking in New York

June 30th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

When I was about seven years old, I took the National Cycling Proficiency Course. It was a six-week program which taught you how to ride your bike safely on the road, offered through my primary school. On the third or fourth week, once we had demonstrated that we could stop, start, and turn left and right around cones arranged in the playground, the instructors led us out in groups of two or three onto the road to let us practice hand signals and turning on a real street. Our route took us in a short loop around the school, which involved turning right across oncoming traffic (remember, this was the UK) from the moderately-busy street that ran through the village. Of course, this involves stopping toward the center of the road and waiting for a gap in traffic big enough to make the turn safely. When it came to be my turn, I dutifully stopped to make the appointed right turn, right hand stuck out to indicate my action. As I was waiting there, a fire engine with lights and sirens blazing crested the hill just in front of me, and came tearing by at full tilt, inches from my outstretched hand. Somehow I managed to pull myself together enough to make the turn before I wilted into a quivering mass on the curb.

At the conclusion of the course, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents award me a handsome enamel pin and an official-looking certificate which would entitle me, should I choose, to ride my bicycle to school and back.

Similar experiences are to be had daily, I’ve found, on the streets of Manhattan. Except nobody gives you a pin for your troubles. With much gratitude to Pat, I’ve recently acquired a used but quite-functional mountain bike, and I’ve been commuting to work on it for about a month now. Though I’m far from a seasoned veteran at New York bike commuting, here are a few thoughts for anyone who’s thinking about giving it a shot:

1) Wear a bloody helmet, and install some flashy lights for the evenings.

Even if you’re only riding on bike paths or bike lanes. In my relatively short time riding around the city I’ve had some close calls and seen even closer ones. Sure, you get helmet hair, but it’s better than the alternative. Also, nobody can see you in the dark unless you have lights. Install some; I found some on eBay for $7. This should be intuitive.

2) Assume all other road users are on a mission to knock you off your bike, and act accordingly.

This includes police cars, buses, little old ladies crossing the street, parents pushing strollers, and other bicyclists. For some reason, nobody thinks to look for a bicycle at a crosswalk, when changing lanes, making a turn, et cetera. Assume you can’t be seen, or if you have, assume the driver/pedestrian/hipster-in-crosswalk doesn’t care. Look behind you, on both sides, before changing lanes. Ring your bell, shout, scream, and make a fuss if someone’s about to pull out or walk in front of you. Pull over if you have to. Be ready to stop quickly at all times. And for god’s sake don’t listen to your iPod on your bike.

3) Obey traffic laws

This dovetails nicely into #2. It makes you a much harder target to hit, and should you be obeying traffic laws, feel free to occupy the moral high ground when other road users attempt to kill you. Or yell, swear and/or flash dirty looks at other said road user. Your choice. Oh, and don’t wuss out and ride on the sidewalk. It’s illegal, and signifantly more dangerous given the amount of pedestrians milling about (who, don’t forget, are out to kill you).

4) Don’t get doored

I refer you again to #2. The danger from drivers does not end when the driver has taken the keys from the ignition. In fact, the oblivious driver is still unlikely to check for oncoming bicycles when he opens his car door into the bike lane. Give parked cars at least four feet lest you find out what it’s like to wear a car door internally. Be particularly wary of stopped taxis, as their passengers don’t even have to pay for the door if you break it, and don’t even have a mirror to look into before stepping out.

5) Bring a change of clothes to work

Or at least a clean shirt. Your colleagues will thank you.

6) Rock the 1980s pant-leg-rolled up look

It keeps your pant leg out of your bike chain. This will not only keep your trousers clean, it will prevent the dangerous scenario of pulling your chain off the chainwheel mid-ride because your errant pant leg got snarled up in it. You could also find a pant clip if you’re that sort of person. Or wear shorts. But if you wear bike shorts to work, please don’t come to my office. I don’t need to see that.

7) Buy a decent lock

I suggest a beefy chain and/or a beefy U-Lock. The Kryptonite brand seems to the the gold standard. An $80 lock is much cheaper than a new bike. If you have quick-release components, lock them up or take them with you. There are pages and pages on locking technique. For an good, yet irreverent video on the topic, I suggest this one by Streetsblog.

8) Enjoy yourself

I’ve found that commuting by bike makes the 30 minutes between home and work something other than dead time where I zone out and sip coffee on the train. I like that sometimes, but I always feel much more ready to actually do work when I arrive by bike. If you’re finding yourself exhausted and sweaty when you arrive, slow down. Take in the view. What’s the rush?

On Twitter.

May 10th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

Last Friday, Alex and I went to the keynote speech and alumni reception of “Blowing up the Brand“, a conference put on by our old department at NYU, partially to say hello to some old professors and bum a few free drinks from the University. The keynote, given by Rob Walker of The New York Times Magazine‘s “Consumed” column, focused on how one can, and whether one should, think of oneself as a brand. The genesis of Mr. Walker’s remarks was a question posed to him at a conference some months ago, wherein he suggested, off-handedly, that one ought to think of oneself as a brand in order to market oneself in–I think–the employment marketplace. His speech delved into the consequences of this for personal life and, to some degree, civil society in general.

However, what struck me most about the talk, was how often–especially during Q&A–the topic turned to Twitter, the social network and online communication tool du jour. Questions went something like “What do you think of x marketing campaign on Twitter?” “Can you think of any company using Twitter effectively?” “Marketing consultants say you have to be on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, is this true?”

The questions, and their answers, indicated a greater truth than the effectiveness of any given usage of Twitter: Nobody knows how to use Twitter. Absolutely nobody. Sure, there might be interesting individual usages of Twitter that integrate with a billboard in Times Square, or through which customer service representatives respond to complaints. But nobody has a very good idea of how one ought to use this new tool. It got me wondering: what’s different about Twitter when compared with the last big online hit, say, Facebook. My thoughts go something like this:

Twitter is searchable

This is a pretty big deal. Facebook is only searchable insofar as individual users allow you to search their names or selected metadata. Twitter is full-text indexed for all its users’ content (except those users who have closed their updates to the world). What’s more, it’s not natively categorized. Sure, there are a few attempts to get users to include metadata in their posts, like hashtags, but when posts are only 160 characters long, there’s not much space for anything other than the most distilled content you can cram into one. Twitter does make arbitrary-text searching easy and fast, though, so a given company can easy find the latest instances of “Comcast” or “Skittles”, and use that data in some other application.

Twitter is conversational

Twitter engenders public discourse in 160-byte chunks. Find a post you agree with/disagree with/love/want to roundly excoriate? Reply @to_the_user and you can, instantly, in public. The only thing is that there are no conversation threads, like on a message board, no “Reply All” as in email, just your own voice added to the multitude. Combined with searching, this is a new way to get an idea of the general zeitgeist on a particular topic.

Twitter encourages integration

Twitter feeds and searches can be exported in XML and integrated into any application you like, from the simple (witness the twitter feed on this page), to the complicated (a billboard in Times Square that responds to tweets). Facebook and MySpace don’t allow for such fast data export and re-use over their global populations of users.

Yet, with all that, there is no specific, canonical usage of Twitter. Twitter is somewhat unique in that it is simply a tool for moving data around and searching and slicing it in interesting ways, then shipping it off to be used elsewhere. On the small, user-scale, that could be a few friends talking about where they’re going for drinks via text message. On a global scale, it could be used to pin down a global conversation about a product, service, company, politician, and so on. There are no rules, just a loose framework. Every company with a marketing budget is, apparently, trying to figure out how to use the tool to its best effect, but, to date, don’t seem to have come up with a consensus. This shouldn’t be surprising; it’s like asking “how do I use the Postal Service?” You use it however it’s useful–do you want to send a package, a letter, do direct mail, register with the Selective Service, or contact a pen pal? The postal service does all of that. Twitter is just a mechanism for moving data — it can be used as effectively as one wishes. The sooner marketing consultants realize this, the better.

Photo on SFist

April 7th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Hey, cool, a picture I took this weekend was featured on