Friday, September 30, 2011

science week: fuel efficiency

one of the environmental benefits of public transportation is fuel efficiency.  sure, the vehicles themselves use way more fuel per mile than cars and light trucks, but there are also a lot more passenger-miles being served.  if you want the in-depth physics of it, kinetic energy equations and all, david mackay wrote this book (completely free download) about it.

if you just want to know how to get more miles out of whatever it is you're driving, what amounts to a handy guide was just put out by some researchers at the university of michigan.  the biggest impacts you can have are driving a high-efficiency car, keeping it tuned up, avoiding traffic and making fewer hard starts and stops.  interestingly, choosing as hill-free and flat a route as possible makes a big difference too.

all that's interesting, but the real reason this otherwise not-so-well-written-paper makes a transit blog such as this one is that it emphasizes, once again, that driving alone is a terribly resource-intensive way to get around.  even accounting for all the late-night bus routes that barely have any people on them, the average passenger-mile on a bus uses about 25% less energy than a car (table 1) and trains about 50% less.  of course, this assumes that reducing energy use is, you know, important, which apparently isn't agreed upon.  that doesn't mean i won't still be smug about it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

science week: physics, csudh style

when i think of “blue line rider,” i don’t usually think of a particle physicist*.  however, i did stumble my way into a nice conversation with john price, head of the physics department of cal state dominguez hills.  i overheard him talking on the red line and though i’m not enough of a physicist to call myself one, i recognize when it’s the topic of conversation.  though john appeared to be getting ready to do some work (headphones in, linux netbook out) when i approached him on the blue line, he seemed happy to spread the gospel of science.

as department head, i’m guessing he spends a lot more time trying to get funding than he would like and it seemed to show in our conversation.  the main obstacles he faces revolve around a general lack of interest in science.  there’s this idea that if there isn’t some immediate use for the results of research, it’s not worth doing.  because of this, when he’s asked what will come of his work, he somewhat flippantly answers “nothing at all.”  he goes on to explain that of course he expects some good of it, but he can’t say what right now.  by way of example, he notes that the first tv wasn’t commercially available until the 1940s, but the physics required to build those tvs was understood in the 1860s.  obviously, no commercial venture can wait that long, so basic research such as his is highly dependent on government funding, where opposing science seems to be fashionable nowadays (at least at the federal level here in the states).

john’s actual work is to improve our understanding of the proton. he's an experimentalist, someone who puts the theoretical physicists' models to the test. he uses a particle accelerator to smash really small things at really high speeds. from these collisions, all sorts of interesting things can be learned, if only you can detect them.  he showed me a diagram of one detector he’s built, as well as one of a newer one he’s working on.  the particles he’s looking for tend to decay very rapidly and over a very short distance, so the new one has its detectors much closer to the actual collision.  it's worth noting that the detector itself is three stories tall.  even though the detectors are very close, they need a lot of equipment behind them in order to get meaningful data.

with the frustration of funding and the joy of discovery comes some fun  some tv shows actually hire consultants to validate the scientific principles in their shows.  john knows the guy “the big bang theory” hired (recently interviewed at wired) and actually noticed some mistakes.  in return, his friend got them to put john’s program’s name in the background of one episode.

unfortunately (at least for the conversation), we arrived at my stop.  i thought about how this enlightening conversation only came about as a result of pure chance, the result of people being in close proximity to one another.  if i knew anything about quantum mechanics, i’m sure a very poetic conclusion about stochastic behavior could be written here.  as it is, i’ll just say i felt like i hit my own personal lottery that day.

* -- john tells me he’s actually a nuclear physicist because he studies the nucleus of atoms, specifically the proton.  i chose to say “particle physicist” mainly to avoid alarmist language, but also because john himself said “same thing.”

Monday, September 26, 2011

science week: chemistry

unfortunately, the one picture i managed to get of this girl's tattoos before she got off the train makes figuring out what they are difficult.  i'm not much of a chemist to start with, but it looks like a benzene ring on the right there with a couple added hydroxides and maybe an ammonia.  not sure what all that adds up to.  that thing on the left, who knows?  a fullerene with dangly parts maybe?  or, this could all just be another way for the cool kids to pick on nerds for having interest in nerdy nerdiness.

whatever it is, all i can say is i admire such blatant displays of devotion to a topic that normally doesn't get any love, at least in the level of detail and as publicly as above*.  regardless, we may have come far enough to see "i ♥ nerds" t-shirts on mta trains (though only once so far), but i have yet to see an

"i ♥ 

despite how true it is--maybe because that molecule is bad for your ♥ (in case you're wondering just what the molecule is, try out this light reading).

* --  even if these aren't real chemicals and it is some sort of inside joke, it's so inside as to seem like a  public display of devotion.

Friday, September 23, 2011

two wrongs make what?

sometimes you wanna sleep on the train.  sometimes you don't.  sometimes you can't.  a little 2" cube was playin some tunes louder than the pa.  i open my eyes, a little annoyed at first.  then i realize the mta ain't got no sleeper cars.

apparently, to change the song on this "music angel," you have to pick up the cube in which the speaker is embedded.  once miss angel does this, the traincarful of people take note.

"is that where that's comin from?"
"does that take a memory chip?  it take a memory chip, don't it?"
"you got a charger for that too?"
"it sound good, don't it?"
"thought it was comin from up there."
"how'd they get that thing so small?"
"what's that called?"

little does miss angel know, the dam has burst.  a long, loud discussion about music, sound systems and how old public enemy is ensues.  ok, it wasn't that loud, but these folks needed to be heard above the din of the tracks and the tracks comin out the cube.

miss angel's playin her tunes so she can hear em.  these fools weren't about to keep her from that.  on go the headphones.  which means the cube itself falls silent.   she even keeps them on when the conversation stops.   which means i can try sleepin again.  except the train's come to my stop.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

skaters, pt 1

four score and seven years ago, when my feet first touched grip tape and i rolled my way to scars that took up half my leg on account of the asphalt getting in the way of my glorious (albeit unplanned) dismount from my deck, skateboarding was for surfers who had no water nearby, mostly skinny guys who all seemed to have flops, vans shoes, baggy shorts and oversize t-shirts.

i'm not a skateboard culture aficionado, but my casual observation from the world of l.a. transit seems to indicate skateboarding cuts across a lot more cultural lines than in my day.  here are a few of the folks i seen and, where relevant, a few words.  enjoy.

i wish i coulda gotten a better picture of the above guy's backpack.  it looked like he did some very cool artwork to make it his.

the skater above more or less embodies the skater of my youth, with one big exception: his bag.  well, that and his t-shirt is white and, though you can't see it in this photo, he has a world wildlife fund patch on his hat.

there's the cool backpack again.

without the skateboard, the long hair (ponytail not visible) and trader joe's bag full of groceries have me thinking this guy's more of a hippie than skater.  well, these days, you can be both.

the guy above (salvador, i think his name was) gets the biggest points for customization.  notice the gigantic (by skateboarding standards) wheels.  they let him glide right over cracks and rocks other skaters might have trouble with; and he told me he's even conquered a few nature trails.  such big wheels require a lot of risers on the trucks and he decided to shorten his board to get the overall weight down.

well, i hope to make this an ongoing series.  unlike "trash porn," which has a limited number of sites visible from the street, there'll probably always be another skater to photograph.  i will say that though much has changed, much remains the same.  skateboards are still principally for the young and, for the most part, boys.  and while there's a decent cross-section of subcultures, it's still mostly the marginalized.  but, then again, what do i know about what the youth considers marginal these days?

if anyone featured here wants to say a little more, please comment or email me at

Monday, September 19, 2011

coordinating accessorization

it was bound to happen. i don't notice any manicures for almost a year and--BAM--two in a week. already wrote about maryjanetalon. here's someone takin matching their accessories to a level i ain't never seen.

circle is not photoshopped (or, rather, gimped in my case). it's her compact with a mirror in the middle.
what's that they said in boomerang? "ya gots ta co-ord'in-ate. you don't stop with the mushroom shirt. you got to go don't stop with the mushroom belt. you gotta go on."

she got the orange and green manicure. but she didn't stop there. she went on. she got herself an orange and green scarf too. and i bet if it weren't so hot this particular day, she wouldn't'a stopped with the orange and green scarf. i bet she woulda had herself an orange and green sweater.  and if it were an occasion to really show off, she wouldn't'a stopped there.  she'd'a got herself an orange and green crown to top it all off.

what's that they say?  art imitates life or something?

Friday, September 16, 2011


i kept meaning to do a follow-up to my first fashion post, but never really got around to it.  well, seeing the following on the train forced me to.

i couldn't easily get a picture of the other foot, but i noticed upon glancing back while getting off at my stop that it featured the same pedicure.  i'm pretty sure this lady couldn't fly.  but if she could, i'm sure these nails would have served the need for hunting small rodents better than, say, my toenails.  what's weird is i don't think these nails were even in the top three reasons she drew people's attention.

first, her bikini top (or strapless bra, i couldn't really tell) was covering up her topside more than her clothes.  second, she absolutely reeked of pot (i was informed later it was relatively high-grade, but i can't attest to that).  third, every 30 seconds or so, she just burst into laughter, the kind whose spasms send out guttural "g" sounds.

i know she probably made most people uncomfortable, but i have a hard time believing any of them enjoy themselves that much over the course of an entire week.  so, who's the big winner?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

the power of plants

i've long thought that nurturing relationships with plants was an undervalued activity.  if you look around, a whole lot of things you use come from plants (wood, rubber, most fabrics, etc).  and i suppose the most important thing plants provide you (oxygen) can't even be seen.  the ladies in the picture below became friends (if only for a train ride) over the gigantic green spear you see there.

i'm pretty sure said spear is an aloe plant and these women had quite an animated conversation about its various uses.  and while the aloe may not help the lady holding it be forever 21, i'd be hard-pressed to believe it's hurtin things any.

Monday, September 12, 2011

confidence ...

she has it*.

* -- it's funnier if you say it in your head the way the guy in this video says "opulence, i has it." and yes, i believe that is a lauren conrad book.

Friday, September 9, 2011

big poles, big transformers

our electricity infrastructure has become such a pervasive part of our urban landscape that underground comic artist robert crumb needed a whole notebook of photographs to remind him to put them in his drawings. electrical lines overhead, the poles that hold them up, the transformers that make the energy usable and the electrical boxes both on the street and on the buildings, among other things, just kind of blend into the background for most of us. 

from the blue line, you can see that for some people, thinking about all this stuff is a full-time job.  the above picture is of a yard where the big poles reside before they're put in use for all of us to hang our yard sale and lost dog signs from.  this particular morning, i got to see the big crane moving some of the poles.  below are some really big transformers, similar to the ones that get mounted on the poles, but probably for a sub-station or industrial building.

and here are some people on a completely different section of the blue line training to be linemen.  i wonder if any of them know that glen campbell song.

i suppose it's only fitting that all this stuff is viewable from an electrified train.  it is all of these people and this stuff that keeps us moving on our journeys and, like our junk, it's better to see it where you use it so you can understand how things fit together.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

alien invasion (or trash porn, pt 5)

i always knew the flats of lincoln heights housed some failed experiments of hill folk on mt washington.  i always knew their aspirations for leaving the mount were thwarted and they discarded all reminders of such things with the only people they felt safe with.  but i'm on to them now.  i know their plans for reaching another galaxy never materialized and they thought the flatlanders were too stupid to ever realize what they had their hands on.  but it's clear now.  just look.

the people on the hill may be in the background there in the upper right, but their discarded ship is not forgotten.  it's right in the lower left corner, stuck in a junkyard they didn't think anyone would see.  no wonder they opposed the gold line.  we blamed it on nimbyism then, but it's obvious now they just didn't want their space ship exposed for the world to see.  too late!

or it's just another piece of junked artwork.  alien conspiracy or junked art.  i'm not really sure which, but one of them made me take this picture and share it with you.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

some policy wonkery

the brookings institution just put out this transit analysis.  it's worth a read if the general topic of transit policy interests you.  i know for most, it don't, so the main takeaways are there are a lot of transit riders in l.a., they are well-served by the various transit agencies in both coverage and service frequency and the average commute-time could use some improvement.  the details follow.

l.a. ain't really known for its transit commuters.  and yet, "Metro areas with a high number of transit commuters, such as Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Philadelphia, also stand out for having small per capita carbon emissions due to transportation compared with more car-dependent areas such as Nashville and Oklahoma City."  it's official, l.a. has lots of transit users.  i'd want some independent verification of the carbon emissions thing, but l.a. is no longer in the "more car-dependent" category.

as the city that created sprawl, there's a pretty strong notion that it's hard to find a bus or train stop in l.a., but that notion is just plain wrong.  "Transit coverage is highest in Western metro areas such as Honolulu and Los Angeles, and lowest in Southern metro areas such as Chattanooga and Greenville."  in fact, l.a. ranks second in both coverage and service frequency.  in the above map (click to enlarge), dark blue means there is coverage, light blue means there isn't.  i had to break it up by income (low on the left, high on the right) to avoid a solid mass of dark blue.  mid income isn't shown, so not all areas are represented.

what l.a. could improve upon, however, is trip time.  out of 100 metro areas, l.a.'s 25.6% is ranked 69th in percentage of jobs accessible in under 90 minutes.  in the above map (click to enlarge), dark areas can be reached within 30 minutes and light areas can be reached in under 90 minutes.  everything in between takes from 30-75 minutes. the left map uses downtown as a starting location (gray box, union station roughly).  the right uses the westside as a starting location (santa monica and the 405 roughly).

despite l.a.'s 69th place ranking, based on sheer number of jobs the average worker has access to within a 90 minute transit commute, l.a. is second.  in other words, a lot of jobs are really far, but there is no shortage of jobs that are really close.  also, despite l.a.'s seemingly low ranking, "Notably, Chicago and Philadelphia—home to two of the oldest and best-known transit networks nationwide—rank lower on job access via transit than Houston and Los Angeles, both of which are known as auto-dominated metro areas."

one last little tidbit from the report: "Only one of 64 transit agencies surveyed recently reported that it has not had to reduce service or increase fares in response to larger fiscal challenges."  there's been a lot of noise about mta doing this, but it seems budgetary pressures are being felt all around.

one last little tidbit for the nerds: "To make the full range of data behind this report more accessible and actionable, Brookings developed an online tool that enables users to examine the detailed results of this analysis."  i found it at, where i generated all of the maps in this post.

of course, this is just one study and its particular idiosyncrasies are going to bias the conclusions some way, some how.  one addition i would like to see is "transit effectiveness," something along the lines of the ratio of average commute time driving alone in a car to average commute time on transit.  nonetheless, it's good to have some validation that the l.a. transit system actually performs as well as i've been telling everyone.

i know i've had a lot of news/policy posts of late, crowding out my usual "things you probably wouldn't see anywhere but the train" posts.  but i've got a soft spot for abstract policy discussions, so all i can do is hope the wonkery didn't put too many people to sleep.

Friday, September 2, 2011

ack ack ugckluh

it always seems like a good idea to put trains along freeways.  it makes planning a train trip almost the same as planning a driving trip.  once i started riding the green line on a regular basis, it became clear that this is a good idea on paper only.  the two pictures below show just one of the reasons why.

very few people i've ever ridden in a car with keep the windows open on the freeway.  maybe it's because the wind is just too strong, but it also shields passengers from the concentration of pollution that forms from the sheer volume of traffic on a freeway.  unfortunately, when standing on a train platform, there is no option to roll up the window.

there are other reasons having a train running down the middle of a freeway makes for a bad passenger experience.  the rumbling and noise of the cars makes it hard to relax and even think.  freeways' separation from pedestrian traffic adds another layer of complexity to getting on and off the platform.  and, worst of all, stations tend to be located where freeway exits are, not such pedestrian friendly spots.  on the other hand, the trains do get to run a lot faster, apparently fast enough to make an athens services truck smoke.