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07 Oktober 2004 @ 12:56
The arbitrariness of the loop  

According to Ogden Nash, the buses to Scranton travel in pairs, but at UCSC, according to Geoff Pullum, the buses travel in loops. As you might expect, roughly half of the buses that circumvolve the campus are deasil buses, and the other half are withershins buses. What bothers Geoff is the way in which these routes are labelled:

On the shuttle buses is a sign warning cyclists that the crucial bike racks on the fronts of the buses are found "only on westbound Loop shuttles."

What in heaven's name can they mean? [...] 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 not just wrong, it's a screamingly obvious geometrical impossibility.

Mark Liberman riffs on this in the erudite manner you might expect, pointing out a few other cases in which conventional or official direction names utterly fail to correspond to geographical reality, and he even brings all this back to linguistics by proposing an analogy with the structuralist phonology of Jakobson and Trubetzkoy. (By the way, there are more conflicting road signs where the one to the left came from, although there doesn't seem to be an example of the four-directional holy grail.)

What I'd like to do, though, is point out that it is not a "geometrical impossibility" to describe a loop as "westbound." It happens to be a geographical impossibility at UCSC, but that's just a consequence of the location of the campus.

From the PDF files of the bus maps, it seems likely that, at UCSC, "westbound" means "withershins." I say this because the other bus route shown in the PDF file travels an irregular but non-loopy east-west path, which overlaps the loop route, and it's headed west when its path coincides with that of the counter-clockwise loop bus. That means that all we need to do to make sense of the "westbound" designation is to assume that the Music Center is at the South Pole.1 Voilà: clockwise == east, and counter-clockwise == west. The assumption is false, of course, but, after all, the magnetic poles of the Earth move around a bit (last I looked, magnetic north was somewhere in the vicinity of Bathurst Island), and so we use arbitrarily designated stand-ins, for the useful purpose of making our parallels of latitude stay put when we navigate. Many cities have a notional "north" that's aligned with their street grids but a few degrees off of true north; we just need to say that UCSC has a notional "south" that points this way. Or, if truth in bus-route designations is paramount, the obvious solution is to move the campus to Antarctica.

Update: In a followup post entitled "Loopy defenses of the shuttle bus sign," Geoff Pullum reports that Fernando Pereira offers a (more topologically sophisticated) demonstration that there can be such a thing as a "westbound" loop. (I don't mind having been trumped in geekiness; I'm still unreasonably pleased with myself for having been able to use the phrase deasil buses in the first pararaph of this post.)

1. Or, if I'm wrong about which way is "westbound," the North Pole. (This alternative might lead to the use of Santa Cruz as an eggcorn for Santa Claus.)

"That Anne Girl": Pussyfootabenn on 8. Oktober, 2004 20:31 (UTC)
Funny post, thanks.

There's a piece of freeway near Oakland, CA, that, on one side, is simultanously labelled "I-580 West" and "I-80 East" (the other side being I-580 East and I-80 West). The stretch of freeway in question runs north-south.

Now that I'm in DC, I have to deal with the Beltway. It's labelled "Inner Loop" and "Outer Loop."
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 8. Oktober, 2004 22:20 (UTC)

"Inner Loop" and "Outer Loop" sound like pretty good labels. As long as you can manage to remember which side of the road to drive on, you can always work out which way each one goes....

(Anonym) on 8. Oktober, 2004 20:43 (UTC)
Anna Phor
The clockwise buses have the bike racks, because they go west from the terminus -- which is at the main entrance. I assume. I'll bet they printed the signage for the stationary sign at the entrance and then just copied it verbatim on to the front of the bus.

Far more puzzling to me is how in the name of all that is holy did they manage to climb Ben Lomond and end up in Santa Cruz.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 8. Oktober, 2004 22:18 (UTC)
Re: Anna Phor

Okay, so if the deasil buses are the ones with the bike racks, that means we'd better make the Music Center the North Pole. I've never been to Santa Cruz (although I've visited its Oxonian cognate), so I tried to guess which was which from the maps alone.

Good question about Ben Lomond, though. I wonder which bus takes the high road and which bus takes the low one?