Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - HAL

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

I thought you’d be interested in yesterday’s morning commute. I got to Castro station a little late – at around 9:10 and I thought that the commute to work would be simple since rush hour was surely over.  Imagine my surprise when I found a platform that was completely full. People were spilling back to the stairs. The daring were jockeying for position on the yellow strip, apparently anticipating the imminent arrival of a train.
Eventually, a two-car L arrived and we huddled masses surged to the train. Some 40 minutes later, we hobbled into Civic Center, where we sat at the west end of the platform. A grumble erupted. The crowd, already irritated grew irate. 

Finally, our driver, silent until now, made an announcement. “The computer is controlling the train. The doors in the back won’t open.”

Nathaniel, did you ever see the move 2001: A Space Odyssey? If you have, you would know that an evil computer named HAL takes over a space ship. The situation was ripe for a joke, but it JUST WASN’T FUNNY. We were stuck, crowded, late, and IN THE STATION. Nobody laughed. Nobody made HAL jokes. Instead, people began shouting, “Open the f-ing doors.” It got heated, Nathaniel. 

After a couple of minutes, the driver agreed to come and manually open the door. He warned us that he’d only open the front door, and that he’d only hold it open for a minute so if we were to get off, we had to do so fast.

We exited the train like so many Chilean miners, anxious to breath the air.

Outside, we found sardine-can F-trains and packed buses making their way up Market Street on impromptu Express routes. Puzzled tourists wondered if they’d ever get to Fisherman’s Wharf. Disgruntled passengers wondered if they’d ever get to work. 

I walked the five blocks to my office, formulating an algebraic equation that might be able to calculate the economic impact of the morning’s screwed up commute. 

X = the average wage of each worker
Y = the average productivity of each worker
A = the hourly expenditure of each tourist at Fisherman’s Wharf
B = the likelihood that any given tourist will choose to go to Chicago or New York or Boston or LA, for goodness sake. (Because all of these cities have functional and reliable public transit systems.)
60 cars per hour, each ½ hour late = 30 hours for the three hours of morning commute, or 90 hours.
Each car carries 100 people, 75% of whom are workers and 25% of whom are tourists.

90*(75 (50 xy) + 25(A/B)) = Impact

Nathaniel, I’m no math genius. But if you plug in $20/hour and $35/hour productivity for workers, and $35/hour spending on tourists and even just a 25% likelihood that they’re not coming back, that means that impact of the “computer controlling the train” is $1,669,410. And that’s just for one morning.
Based on your own salary, or even that of one of your drivers, I think you’d agree with me that these numbers are on the conservative side. And my equation is rudimentary. 

A computer like HAL could probably get a better equation, but he’s got better things to do. Like maybe control the train.

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