October 12, 2004

Down the gopher poll

With all due respect to both Geoff and the gophers, I feel compelled to join Eric in defense of TAPS. And partly on linguistic grounds, no less.

I suspect that Eric's right about the reasons why "eastward" and "westward" seem so natural in the context of UCSC geography: the inhabited part of the campus is considerably top-heavy, and the time when the direction of the shuttle matters most is in getting from one college to another. East-bound loops are the quickest way to get from west campus to east campus, and vice versa for the west-bound loops. (If your goal is to get down to the base of campus, on the part of the route that involves most of the north/south and counter-nominal east/west action, then any shuttle will do—though admittedly you'll have a slower and curvier ride if you go the long way.) Furthermore, getting from college to college is probably considered by TAPS to be the "primary" function of the shuttles. In fact, their own description emphasizes the "cross-campus" aspect (which I take to mean between colleges), while at the same time exhibiting doubt that people will understand the relation between the "main campus" (at the top) and the lower section on Hagar Drive:

Loop buses run both directions through campus, at 7–minute intervals. Cross–campus trips take as little as 20 minutes on the Loop! Loop buses do not enter Quarry Plaza; Loop buses enter the East Remote parking lot when northbound (travelling uphill) on Hagar Drive.

Naturally, no one going from Crown to Kresge cares about more subtle issues like which way the gophers are facing, whether the bus is planning on turning around after they get off, or what would happen if you snoozed and stayed on for an entire loop which wearing a GPS tracking device.

Geoff does care about subtle issues, though.

It is one of the things that makes him a great scholar, after all. He wants things to be named as accurately as possible. (Maybe he worries that outsiders might think that the campus is filled with ignorant or delusional people. Maybe he worries that one morning when he is sleepy or preoccupied, they will trick him into accidentally getting on the wrong shuttle.) But I think he is being overly harsh on the TAPS folks, by asking them to uphold a superhuman standard. Humans have limited perspective, and limited brain capacity, and better things to worry about. Not only does it take enormous thought (and several Language Log posts) to settle on a name that isn't misleading in one way or another, but once you do, few will understand it.  If there's no communicative payoff anyway, why not stick to something that's intuitive, even if you can't defend (or even explain) it?

But that was the practical defense. Now for the linguistic one. In recognition of the fact that routes are, well, intrinsically relational things, and suffer from all the problems that Geoff has pointed out, it seems that they are frequently named with the following convention: pick some salient spot along the route, and name it according to where the bus/train/mule/jitney would take most immediately you if you got on at that spot. I conjecture that at UCSC, the salient spot is Science Hill (about two-thirds of the way to the west along the roughly east-west portion of McLaughlin Drive). My evidence comes from (1) the fact that this is where the greatest number of students seem to get off in the morning, and on in the afternoon, and (2) this is where Santa Cruz Metro bus schedules print their "turn-around" times at. (It's also the only part of campus up there that isn't residential, so using it as a reference point avoids any claims of Orientalism among fervid partisans of east or west colleges.)

This same line of reasoning is why, when I am in downtown Boston, I must sometimes hop an "inbound" subway train to head back out to Cambridge. (I am already "in", but in this case the designated turning spot is Park Street). North/south and east/west street directions in cities almost always have this flavor, too: North becomes south at 1st St, east becomes west at Main St, and so on. We could use more subtle approaches, like finding the true geographic midpoint, or doing studies to pick the point with the greatest traffic flow, but the fact is that these defining points are conventionally determined by where the biggest buildings are, or the most opportunities to transfer, or by some accident of history. If we weren't allowed to pick arbitrary, conventionalized vantage points, then we'd never even be able have words like clockwise (which would mean something quite different if you're the clock, or the number 6).

Previous posts have already pointed out that the east/west designation depends on a particular vantage point, and that the point is one that makes sense to human riders. (Sorry, gophers. You can eat the lines that provide internet to the campus in revenge if you want, but it won't make you any more influential, linguistically.)  Geoff, wanting absolute truth, was not swayed. But what he seems to have overlooked is that all naming is, at some level, conventional and arbitrary. As Mark points out, he should be glad that they at least picked names that reveal the opposing nature of the two Loops. And now that I work on a campus that was evidently not designed with humans in mind, I can add that he should be glad that at least it makes sense somewhere—to humans, not to gophers.

First postscript, even before Geoff has debunked:

It is worth noting that the Santa Cruz Metro also runs buses in both directions, but they sidestep the naming issue entirely. Buses 10, 12, 16, and 20 follow the westbound/counter-clockwise/outer loop, while 13, 15, and 19 follow the eastbound/clockwise/inner loop. According to the list of routes, the last three are simply called "Reverse". It's contrastive, and true at every point along the route. But also utterly uninformative.

Second postscript, also before Geoff has debunked:

I agree that the suggestion of "outer" and "inner" loops is brilliant for getting around the loops problem, but unfortunately, it would cause a different problem: there are already Core and Perimeter routes, which aren't loops (they stop and turn around). As a phonologist, I'm troubled by the potential loss of contrast between "outer" and "perimeter".


Posted by Adam Albright at October 12, 2004 12:35 AM