Thursday, March 27, 2008

Keep the Buses Running on TIme!

I don't ask much from my city government. Fix the potholes, maybe a good recycling program, police and fire services. The other thing I want is buses that run on time. Or lease run predictably.

One concern of every municipality is public transit, particularly ridership. Cities want people to take the bus: it's good for traffic's good for the environment and maybe even good for social capital.

However, keeping public transit running on time never seems to be a priority for local politicians. I remember not so fondly when Willie Brown became mayor of San Francisco. In almost an instant the buses were running late or running inconsistently. It wasn't a surprise to see two or three number 39 buses backed up one right after the other.


Yesterday I experienced the same frustration. On my way home from work I wanted to take the number 20 bus. I called the scheduling line and was told of the next number 20 bus was in 16 minutes. So I decided to take another route via the number 72 bus. As soon as I climbed aboard the number 72 and the bus pulled away, a number 20 pulled in behind us. Being on the 72 I call to see when the number 4 bus was coming (I needed to transfer to this bus). I was told 19 minutes. Five minutes I got to my stop just in time to watch the number 4 bus pull in and out of its stop as there was nobody there. Had I known the number 4 bus would be there, I would have gotten off at a different stop and taken a back alley to get to the number 4. Even with all my waving and running, the bus driver didn't wait.

In the end, the experienced convinced me that the buses here are screwed up as well.

I don't think municipalities really realize how important public transit is to people. Local politicians tend to focus on the problem of traffic without ever really pushing for an efficient solution. Instead of talking about improving existing bus service, they talk about the need for light-rail train services or subway systems to be built. Here are my suggestions for improving public transit and, hence, reducing traffic.

  1. Cut the price of the bus ticket from $2 and change to $1. One coin. One loonie. It's easy convenient and quick. Moreover, this price change should increase ridership. There are some estimates of fare elasticity (i.e., the extent to which a change in the price of a bus ticket affect ridership) and they all seem to fall around -.4. This means that a 50% decline in the price of a bus ticket will increase ridership by approximately 20%.
  2. You can make up for the lost revenue by jacking up the cost of parking downtown. This will also encourage people to use public transit.
  3. Gasoline taxes are also effective way to increase ridership. One study estimates the gas price elasticity of ridership to be 0.3, meaning that a 10% increase in the price of gasoline would result in a 3% increase in ridership.
  4. Finally, and above all else, keep the buses running on time. Or at least predictably.

The issue for local governments when they consider public transit is how to pay for it. While providing public transit is costly, I believe they often forget that individuals make all sorts of trade-offs in their daily decision-making, and that riding the bus or taking a car is one of these trade-offs. An understanding of some basic economic ideas (like elasticity, like opportunity cost) should be introduced into these considerations regarding “keeping the buses running on time”.

Diagnosing Autism

Here's an interesting article from CNN, mainly for parents needing help getting a proper diagnosis of their children with respect to autistic behavior. I think the article is good, but worry sometime about the potential for over-reaction. In some sense, I worry the article makes it easy for parents to see "autism" as a label to explain certain behaviors that could be attributable to other causes.

Reading this article made me think of some other incidents I've experienced when autism makes the popular press:
  1. When The Curious Incident About the Dog in the Night came out, everyone recommended it to me. Some even asked if my son was like the kid in the book. I never read the book. At the time I was reading a lot of books for parents and clinical work on autism and therapy techniques. I couldn't handle reading about autism for fun. (Some people actually recommended it to me as a "fun read" since I had a son with autism.)
  2. Jenny McCarthy's book about her son is (from what I've been told) a quick and easy read. However, most parents who read the book then spend lots of time looking at various diets and other "non-traditional" approaches to treatment. While these are potential sources of benefits, my experience has been that the benefits from these are (for most individuals) on the margin of the greater benefits obtained through one-on-one therapy and interactions. My worry with this kind of book is that it suggests a "cure" for autism which may distract parents form the daily needs and regular therapy an autistic child requires. I think its important to remember that Jenny McCarthy has a lot of resources (i.e., money) which permitted her to give her son 24 hour support. Most parents don't have this and so must be perhaps more organized with their time in caring for their child. I know too many parents who have spend literally hours per day looking on the internet for the miracle diet or the silver-bullet of vitamins. This time probably could have been better spent with the child or taking care of oneself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ray Brown's slap technique

Here's a great video from YouTube of Ray Brown talking about the history of bass playing. Lots of players in the roots/rockabilly genres forget that jazz layers used slap techniques, refining them beyond their original incarnations. In this video (one of nine videos of Ray teaching a masters class) Ray talks about the history of playing technique and does some great slapping. Particularly interesting is the speed and smoothness of his slaps. I love the flow of his arm motion parallel to the strings.


Thursday, March 6, 2008

A New Band of Note

Well, I just found out that my nephew has a new band: They're called We Can't Grow Mustaches. Awesome. The only down side is that my nephew, alas, is a drummer.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Fans (?)

Last night (28th of February 2008) started as one of those gigs and musicians hate. We were playing rockabilly/honky-tonk and, at first, the crowd seemed to like the music: dancing, applause after each song. However, by the time the second set started we were hated. A few groups of tourists had come in and approached the band with requests for funk, reggae, Nirvana, Three Weeks ‘till Tuesday (our one of those bands). Finally, one guy in a down jacket (Why do you wear down jacket in a club?) requested Johnny Cash but wanted it played with a funk beat. (I'm not even sure what that means.)

Not that we were particularly playing for these guys, but we play Johnny Cash, without the funk beat. As we started to play the song, or guitar player walked up to the mic and said "We're going to play Johnny Cash for the guy here in the life jacket," referring to the guy’s down jacket. Basically, for the rest of the set were getting ready for a fight.

It's a hard gig when the crowd doesn't like you. It's harder when they're drunk and want to physically hurt you.

For the rest of the second set, no applause. No dancing. Just scowls. Near the end of the set the drunken tourists of note got up and did some strange 1980s looking dance. Something Molly Ringwald would've done in the Breakfast Club. I think they were trying (a high school sort of way) to make fun of us. (I don't mean to be condescending, it’s just how you would make fun of a band in high school: dancing away you think reflects poorly on them. If I was still in high school or have the IQ of a bowling ball, I would have been offended. OK, now on being condescending.)

Fortunately (I guess) the group of tourists in question each did 14 shots of Jagermeister. (On their web site, Jagermeister promotes responsible drinking. Maybe they meant responsible binge drinking?)

Somewhere between the second and third sets, the tourists of note disappeared. A bouncer told me he threw out two of them for getting a fight with each other. A server told me the one of them got sick and the girl’s bathroom. (I should mention, they were all guys.) Maybe it was just the presence of these guys, but the third set had dancing, applause, and smiles on the faces of all. In the end it was a fun gig, although I think we were a little disappointed that are revving up for a fight was for naught.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Taking Care of Your Hands 2

In a previous post I wrote about taking care of my hands. I would like to write briefly about a few things I've learned about slapping with respect to caring for your hands.

There seems to be a myth out there that you really have to pull hard on your strings to get a good sound. That's not the case: yes you need to pull the string, no you don't need a lot of distance from the fingerboard to get the desired slap. Instead, only use the tips of your fingers and pull enough just to get the string to rebound off the fingerboard. In terms of caring for your hands, your fingertips are already "padded" in the sense that the skin there is stronger than on the rest of your fingers. As a result, using your fingertips avoids injuring the fleshy part of your fingers on the insides of your knuckles. (I've seen some people literally curl their fingers around the string and get stress cuts all the way down their fingers.) By using your fingertips, you also obtain a smooth motion in which the hand pulls away and the string naturally rolls off the pads on your fingertips, slapping against the fingerboard.

Yes you will get blisters doing this. I think that’s just the nature of slapping on an upright bass. The trick though is trying to minimize any serious damage while at the same using a part of your hand that is relatively quick to callus.

The other advantage of using your fingertips and not hitting too hard is that you are less likely to smack your fingers into the fingerboard. Some players I know get these nasty breaks in their skin where it looks like their fingernails are separating from their fingers. We've all heard the stories about some stodgy teacher wrapping her students’ fingertips with a ruler. That's exactly what you're doing each time your fingertips ram into the fingerboard as a result from an overzealous and slightly miscalculated slap.

The basic lesson on caring for your hands while slapping: don't have to slap hard and you don't need to use a lot of finger on the strings. Hope this helps.

Taking Care of Your Hands 1

It seems that at almost every gig, someone asks to see my hands. I think they wonder how destroyed my hands are after an evening of slapping. Years ago, I played with the psychobilly band. After every gig with that band, the fingertips on my right hand looked like hamburger meat. Sometimes during a set, I would pour super glue on them. Sometimes I'd wipe the bloody hand across my shirt. All in the name of punk rock. (I met my wife while playing with that band. She used to come to gigs with an array of first aid items. In part, she won my heart by fixing my fingers.)

Now, I take better care of my hands. People (mainly other players) ask me if I have any tips on taking care of your hands. Here are a few:

  1. I put Burt’s Bees hand salve on a night, particularly when my hands have taken a beating at a gig. It's pretty greasy. I try to let my hands soak up the moisture while I sleep.
  2. During the day, I put lotion on my hands. I know it sounds namby-pamby, but Burt's Bees makes an almond milk lotion that is pretty great.
  3. If I do get a cut or split in my finger, I use liquid skin to seal it. I used to use Super Glue. One problem with Super Glue is that it can form crystals that actually make the cut worse. Also, it usually takes part of your skin with it when it comes off. That said, it will do in a pinch and it's easy to find at almost any store in any town.
  4. Wear gloves to protect your hands on cold days and nights. I often put on lotion and then my gloves, again protecting my hands and giving them time to soak up the moisture.
  5. When I get a blister, I lance it with a sterilized needle after a gig (usually at home). I know it's not the best, but in my experience it speeds up the healing process and allows you to keep playing. It seems to me the worst thing you can do is have a blister pop while slapping on your strings. Aside from making a mess, you're exposed to a lot more germs.

Next time, I'll write a little bit about right hand technique (if you can call anything that I do a "technique") with respect to taking care of your hands.