Thursday, September 27, 2007

Editing Miranda

Greetings, lawmakers.

When was the last time democracy had a makeover? Arguably, there hasn't been a big change to the way Americans govern themselves for 200 years. Well, except maybe allowing black people to vote in 1969 and women in 1920; OK maybe there have been some 20th-century improvements in terms of who can vote. However, in almost every one of today's democracies, the only governmental venue where the electorate at large expresses their views is at the polling station.

The Checkbox Menace

Yes or no questions can distort your position. Don't believe me? Try:

Does your wife know you have a mistress?
Elections so far allow only really coarse-grained opinions to pass from the people to the law. Politicians don't have a monopoly on good policy ideas, ergo there are some great ideas floating around which will never see the light of day as long as votes are the only way to influence laws.

Until now, this restriction of opinions has been necessary to keep procedures streamlined: there's been no way of having an intelligent exchange of opinions with 200 million voters. Until now?

Kiwi Wiki

That's right, the New Zealand government has opened up a wiki site where they let you draft the law. Its power so far is only advisory (I think that's wise, at least for now), but it allows good ideas and intelligent debate to percolate up from the people without the government doing a thing (apart from setting up MediaWiki or some such).

I'll be interested to see what comes of the New Zealand experiment. Does anyone below care to register their predictions as to if this will be fabulous or a flop?

Keep on wikin',


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rail Blues

Greetings, Takers of the A-train,

Last night I went to a show in the big city. As you know, I don't own a car, so I took a subway car back, and noticed how very odd it was that about 100 rich patrons waited with me for over 20 minutes for a train. (My metropolitan area has notoriously infrequent trains, especially at night.) It got me wondering: how crazy is it (financially) to run trains infrequently at night?

Extra Costs

It's easy to say "Let's just run trains every minute," but the whole reason why public transit systems work is that many people going the same way can use just one vehicle and driver. Let's figure out the cost of splitting one infrequent but long subway trains into two shorter trains.

If the run lasts two hours and the driver costs $40/hour (including overhead, training, etc.) the personnel expense is $80. The necessary force (hence electricity cost) of pushing an additional train front through the air can be calculated using:

F = .5 A D p v^2,

where A is the area of the train front, D is a drag coefficient (usually about .25 for aerodynamic shapes), p is the density of the medium and v is the speed. Using A D = 4 m^2, p = 2kg/m^3, v = 20 m/s, electricity costs $.15/kWh and the distance traveled is 100 km, we see the extra energy costs is a measly $7. Let's round up and say an extra $100 would be needed to run an extra train.

Extra Benefits

So, how much shorter a commute would there be if an extra train came? The trains come every 24 minutes, and by the time a train came last night there were over 100 people waiting at my station and over 100 at the next station (the two busiest, mind you); let's lowball the estimate and say 250 people would be able to catch a train on average 6 minutes sooner if train frequency were doubled. Doubling train frequency means 25 commuter hours would have been saved at a cost of $100 to the system: $.40 per passenger or $4/hour of passenger time saved.

However, increasing service might increase ridership, so it's possible that the extra train would (at least partially) pay for itself. Increasing ridership eases burdens on parking and roads too; public transit is overall a good bargain.


It's time commuters got vocal about being willing to pay a fair amount for their time that gets wasted by sluggish schedules. I wish we'd get a consistent metric of how much our time is worth, and use it to make policy decisions. Check out my post on machine wages for equivalent cost-time comparisons; this concept may evolve into a wiki page soon.

Keep on track!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Life in the Slow Lane

Greetings, road warriors.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
-- William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

This post is about commuting; specifically why I refuse to do long commutes. I don't really understand why people put up with long commuting. Some of my coworkers get up at 4 AM to get to work on time (8 AM), twice a day wasting in traffic more time than it takes to travel by train from Rome to Naples. Where do I start with the problems here? That kind of squandering of human life is so egregious that I don't even know where to start to try to attack it: res ipsa loquitor! If that res still isn't very loquacious, read on!

In an earlier post, I quantified how much you pay labor-saving machines for each hour of chores they save you; here I'm going to figure out how much you're paying yourself to live in a cheap neighborhood and commute to a good job.

Tinned Nation

On average last year, Americans spent 50 minutes per work day commuting to and from their jobs; mostly in a sitting position within oversized metallic cans on wheels. However, like the aforementioned coworkers, over 3.4 million Americans spent more than three hours per day commuting to work. If these extreme commuters value their time at $25/hour and work 20 days per month, they're spending $1500 of their time every month for the privilege of living where it's cheap. Unless housing is drastically more expensive where they work, it's just not worth their time.

Leisure sucker

Commuting is more than just a monetary problem, however: the less free time you have the more precious it becomes. If you're awake 16 hours a day, work 8 hours and spend 2 hours keeping the household together that leaves just 6 hours of discretionary free time per day. If three hours is sucked up in commuting, you have half the time to pursue self-development.

Greeks to the Rescue?

Aristotle thought the best division of waking hours was to spend 6 hours working, 6 hours resting and 6 hours pursuing some leisured activity: being creative and exercising parts of your body and intellect for the shear joy of it. The 8-hour work day already overbalances this ancient ideal; why tip it further into job-is-everything territory?

Personally I'm dismayed with the fact that the remainder of peoples' time usually has to go towards wakeful resting (like watching the tube), and not the active creation of interesting life, tradition and culture. I want life to be more participatory: we should be having a good time with the freeboard that going to work gives, if the work itself isn't fun (a harsh reality I'm trying to avoid).

Staying Un-Canned

What are some ways to keep our commuting hours down? How about the following for a start;
leave comments if you have more ideas.

  • Arrange to spend one day a week telecommuting (if possible)
  • Use a home office
  • Rent an apartment close to your job (and price out the time cost of your commute if you live far from your job - you might consider moving then)
  • Live/work arrangements are also great
I hope I'm going to be able to dodge nasty commutes. We'll have to see if that's going to be possible.

Take care, and stay out those cars as much as possible!