October 11, 2004

Westward on the eastbound shuttle; or, what a long strange trip that would be

In his first post on the shuttle loops at UCSC, Geoff states:

The idea that you can distinguish a clockwise from a counter-clockwise circular loop by saying that one goes to the west and the other doesn't is more than just wrong, it's a screamingly obvious geometrical impossibility.

And in his second post, he concludes:

There is no guaranteed, unambiguous, intuitive way to say of a shuttle running a loop that it is in general running westward or eastward.

Even before Geoff conceded a wrinkle in his proposal to rename the shuttles "Clockwise" (formerly "Eastbound") and "Counterclockwise" (formerly "Westbound"), I thought back to my shuttle-riding days as an undergrad at UCSC 10-15 years ago. I don't recall myself or anyone else ever even stopping to think about the names of the "Westbound" vs. "Eastbound" shuttles. They just made sense, in exactly the way that Geoff's report of John Cowan's steering wheel analogy makes sense.* I offer here five more arguments that the "Westbound" and "Eastbound" shuttle names make sense -- possibly more sense than the alternatives that Geoff has positively entertained.

Argument 1. The Colleges.

UCSC is divided into 10 colleges (in my day, only 8). If you want to get from a college on the east side of campus (Crown, Merrill, Cowell, Stevenson) to a college on the west side (Kresge, Porter, Eight, Oakes), a Westbound shuttle takes significantly less time than an Eastbound one, which will go far south before coming back north to where the action is. (Ditto in the opposite direction, mutatis mutandis.)

Four potential objections, and how to counter them:

  1. What about going from one college to another on the same side of campus? On the east side there's no benefit to taking a shuttle from college to college -- it doesn't go up/down the hills that comprise most of the distance between them. On the west side, Kresge to/from Eight/Oakes is a hike worthy of a shuttle ride -- Oakes to Kresge, in particular, is largely uphill. Here we have a potential problem, since Kresge is further west than Oakes, but you take the Eastbound shuttle to get from Oakes to Kresge. But it's obvious that Kresge lies along the shortest shuttle path between Oakes and the indisputably east-side colleges, Oakes is closer to UCSC's West Entrance, and so on. No problem.
  2. The two new colleges (Nine and Ten) are kind of in the middle. First of all, you don't shuttle between Nine and Ten. Otherwise, you have the east colleges to the east of you and the west colleges to the west of you. No problem.
  3. Do students really identify with the colleges? Over time, the college system at UCSC has lost some of its significance (centralization of adminstration, establishment of departments), but each college still has its own dorms, dining hall, classrooms and offices, general education requirements, architecture, ambience, academic and social reputation, and so on. Judging from my own experience at UCSC and from what I see of the similar college system we have at UCSD, most undergrads do identify pretty strongly with their colleges.
  4. Not everyone is shuttling from college to college; there are major classroom buildings, libraries, the health center, the bookstore, student services, etc. You have to learn where these places are and how to get to them at some point. Not all of them are accessible with this shuttle anyway. Will "Clockwise" vs. "Counterclockwise" or "Outer Loop" vs. "Inner Loop" really help? Get used to it.

Argument 2. Top heaviness.

While UCSC's Main Entrance is at the southern ("bottom") end of the loop, the overwhelming bulk of campus buildings themselves are on the northern ("top") end, facilitating the understanding of the steering wheel analogy. (In case you haven't yet, see the map.)

Argument 3. West = Left = Counterclockwise, East = Right = Clockwise.

John Cowan noted that "left" and "right" are conceptually linked with "counterclockwise" and "clockwise", respectively, and with "west" and "east", respectively. By transitivity, Cowan argues, there's a conceptual link between, e.g., "clockwise" and "east". But there is an even more direct link in the case of the shuttle loop, because it isn't circular -- there are turns. Every major turn made in the westbound/counterclockwise direction is a left, and every major turn made in the eastbound/clockwise direction is a right.

Of course, this assumes that you allow (as Geoff may not) that there's a conceptual link between e.g. "east" and "right" in the first place. Cowan says this is "based on the notion that north = top"; instead of "top" I would say "straight ahead", but it amounts to the same thing.

Argument 4. External evidence.

The steering wheel isn't the only possible basis for Cowan's analogy. Key locks are another. I don't think an instruction to turn a key left or right is very confusing; right is clockwise, left is counterclockwise. Even if you think that a prototypical lock is on one side or the other of a door and that we may thus conceptualize a prototypical key-turn as "away" (= unlocked) or "toward" (= locked) the door jamb, you still need "top" as a reference point for this distinction, on which see Argument 3 just above. (And note how disorienting it is when someone has installed a lock upside down.)

Argument 5. The proposed alternatives are more confusing.

Of course, your judgment/experience may differ, but I have to stop and think about "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" -- not because I picture myself as a gopher, but because I really do feel that I have to conjure up a clock face and map it on to whatever it is (the shuttle loop, in this case). Understanding "westbound" and "eastbound" correctly is effortless by comparison.

Peter Maydell's suggestion (as reported in the "Note added later" at the bottom of Geoff's third post) that "mentioning three stops along the route will unambiguously identify it" also requires more processing than I think is necessary in the case of "westbound" vs. "eastbound". Bertilo Wennergren's "Inner Loop" vs. "Outer Loop" distinction is interesting, but again I think that the conceptual links leading to an understanding of "westbound" and "eastbound" are less complex than those needed to map knowledge of driving rules onto campus shuttle routes. (And why put folks from left-hand-side-driving societies, not to mention 18-year-olds who have probably had a fake ID longer than they've had a driver license, at a disadvantage?)

So, would I advocate keeping the shuttle names as-is (or "as-are")? Not that I have a stake in it -- this issue is entirely between Geoff and TAPS, as far as I'm concerned -- but yes, on the basis of the above, I think I would. Geoff is right, of course, that the above alternatives to "westbound" and "eastbound" have the distinct advantage of actually being accurate, but I would say that arriving at that realization involves more conceptual processing -- a claim I base entirely on personal introspection and intuitive conviction.

Whatever names are used, though, are probably going to be internalized by regular shuttle bus riders as typical unanalyzed proper names. New and irregular shuttle bus riders will have to puzzle things out a little no matter what, so any nonarbitrary naming system is as good as another. Institutional inertia seems like a good enough reason to leave well enough alone.

Update: October 11 2004 9:00am PDT

Geoff writes to note a serious problem:

The Loop is new. In your day it made sense to talk about eastbound and westbound: they stopped and turned around at the West Remote and at the Main Entrance. The Loop doesn't: it goes out the gate and round and back in, marking out a complete closed curve that never comes back the way it went. An Outer Loop shuttle NEVER at any time travels on the inner side of the road loop. The shuttles you remember always did: after going from Science Hill to the West Remote via College VIII they came back along the same piece of road in the opposite direction from College VIII and Science Hill. So although you have a useful observation or two, you've sort of missed the point.

Geoff's right. My memories of being an undergrad (or, of riding the campus shuttles as an undergrad) have deceived me. Still, I am comforted by the fact that none of my five arguments were dependent on this deception -- only my opening statement that I didn't recall being confused by the shuttle names. So, while it's true that I have absolutely no way of really knowing whether or not I would be (or rather, would have been) confused by the names of the Loop shuttles when confronted with them in real life, I'm fairly confident I wouldn't have been-- my intuitions about them at a distance were correct, and my five arguments remain unassailed (for now, anyway).

I do admit a potentially serious problem for at least one of my arguments: individual variation. My wife Karen and I once debated about how clear an instruction to turn a key "to the left" is -- the steering wheel analogy didn't help much there. (By the way, I argued that "left" means "counterclockwise"; Karen argued that "left" is simply ambiguous.)

More recently, Karen and I installed some ceiling fans in our house. Most contemporary ceiling fans have a switch that toggles between clockwise and counterclockwise motion; the counterclockwise direction pushes air down (for getting a breeze in warmer months) and the clockwise direction draws air up (which in turn pushes the warmer air down in colder months). (Which direction achieves which effect technically depends on the angle of the fan blades, but "counterclockwise in summer" and "clockwise in winter" appears to be an industry standard.)

When we were done with the installation and the time came to set the switch, Karen and I temporarily disagreed on which setting constituted counterclockwise motion. I took the person's eye view of the situation, looking up at the installed ceiling fan and imagining that it was a clock face. Karen took the bird's eye view, looking down from the ceiling. My interpretation, of course, was the one that provided the breeze and thus prevailed.

Although I'm still thrown by Karen's bird's eye view perspective on the ceiling fan, I think that individual differences in perspective are not likely in the case of the shuttle loop -- Geoff's gopher's eye view problem notwithstanding. But it's still intuitively clear to me that thinking about "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" (or "inner" and "outer") is more demanding than thinking about "eastbound" and "westbound". It's just too bad that won't work in the case of the ceiling fan.

* The careful reader may have noticed that, just as carefully, Geoff neglected to note that John Cowan's common-sense theory makes the right prediction while Fernando Pereira's topology-intensive alternative makes the wrong one. back.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at October 11, 2004 03:13 AM