Sunday, February 28, 2010

Snow Days

The next part of Subway Map will be next week. Sorry. I've been sick all week, and I need some thinking time before I write the good ones. But something like this one I'm doing now: ha.

I wrote in Winterlong about how happy I was to shovel all the snow in one go without getting tired, because it meant all the exercise I've been getting has made me stronger. If only Nature could leave me to my fantasies. But no. Friday I had to shovel 14 inches again, and this time all I could do before resting was the walk from the house to the street. I will make the following excuses:

1. I was sick. I'd woken up several times in the night with a sore throat. I was weakened by disease. Whine whine, poor me. Does that work for you? If not:

2. It was the Wrong Kind of Snow.

The tough coughed as he ploughed through the dough.

Someone mentioned my spelling of snowplough in Winterlong. I know it's archaic in the United States. I like the obfuscation of it. It says snowpluff, doesn't it? But we know better.

It reminds me of the time Helen and I went to see Windsor Castle while we were in London. There are two ways to go by rail. Since we were staying not far from Paddington station we took the route from there, which requires changing to a branch line at Slough. I wondered if I would need to mention Slough when I bought the tickets. I was willing to give it a go and was deciding which pronunciation to try. By chance when we got there an announcement was being made about a train leaving in ten minutes that stopped at Slough, so I didn't need to guess. It turned out it rhymes with plough.

The town has been much maligned over the years, and I will avoid joking about it myself only because we couldn't see any of it from the railway besides ugly commercial buildings. John Betjeman, named much later Poet Laureate, wrote in 1937, "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough / It isn't fit for humans now". That's a bit much for a town to bear. But it shows that he knew how to pronounce it.

What came to my mind then was the phrase Slough of Despond. That's not a good association. But that slough rhymes with through, so it may be a totally different word.

What comes to my mind now is that Slough was the fictional site of The Office. That's probably not good either. 

I thought of a lame pronunciation joke I heard many years ago, and I have tracked it down. I don't know why some things stick in my head from childhood, or whenever this was. Here is the oldest reference I could find on the net.

In a letter to the editor of Time magazine, published November 2, 1929, Robert Withington of Northampton, Mass, wrote:


Mr. Gallagher's letter (TIME, Nov. 18, p. 8) suggests the story of the American who had been constantly corrected in his pronunciation of English proper names, until his patience was well-nigh exhausted: his English friend happening to refer to Niagara Falls, the American was prompt to correct him. "No, no," he said, "at home we pronounce it Niffles."

And Mr Withington makes no claim to originating the joke. I wonder how old it is. Before long it will attributed to Mark Twain.

Look. Snow.

I cleared the walk, went inside and found the camera, and here it is with a few minutes' accumulation.

The wet snow really stuck to the evergreens.

This was later on, when some blue sky began to appear. I like the colors in this one.

Next time: Subway Map II.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Subway Map I

Subway Map I: Simplicity

Railway Map, London Transport, 1936, by H C Beck. A few revisions down from his groundbreaking 1933 design.

Back in 1995, before today's middle school kids were born, I drew a New York subway diagram based on the model of the London Underground diagram originally conceived by H C Beck. It's topologically correct but geographically distorted.

I restricted lines to vertical, horizontal, and 45 degree diagonal, as on the London diagram. For reasons I can't explain I found it pleasing to show all stations with the same symbol, circles, instead of using both ticks and circles.

The very great virtue of Beck's diagram is its simplicity. Almost everything is clear as soon as you look at it. The legend only helps with details. That's good design. I wanted to get that into my diagram.

I thought I'd tell you some of what I think about when designing it.

Simple lines for London

First of all, there's something I cannot fix. The simplicity of the London diagram comes in part from the system itself being simpler. The general trend in London is for each Line to operate separately, with easy transfers across the platform to other Lines ; the general trend in New York is toward interline routings involving merges and splits, with relatively inconvenient transfers.

In saying this I exaggerate the differences. So do the maps.

A glance at the classic London diagram (below) shows you only three interline areas: the Circle Line ; the Piccadilly and Metropolitan in the northwest ; and the District and Metropolitan in the east.

But the diagram hides some complexity. The Northern Line has two routes through the city center and three northern terminals, but the diagram makes no attempt to show you the train routings through this mini-system. It does not clarify routings on the District Line either. Additionally, a branch of the District Line and the northern part of the Bakerloo Line share track with national railways, something only hinted at by the diagram's indication of connecting railway services.

I don't object to the hidden information. You don't need to know that level of detail to plan a journey. You can find out at the station whether you will need to change trains.

In the last few decades, the Underground map has become more complex. New construction added the Jubilee Line and Docklands Light Railway, and conversion of former railway services to rapid transit added the Overground lines. The former Metropolitan Railway, the oldest and largest Line, was split into two colors, but so far the District and Northern hold firm.

The diagram at one time showed part-time services with a different style of line. Even before you check the map legend, it told you there's something a little off about the service, which is the main thing to realize. You could still show up at the station and find out what, when you get there.

Diagram of Lines, London Transport, 1970, by Paul E Garbutt. After a few years of non-Beck maps, Garbutt brought back good design principles in 1964. Both Beck and Garbutt worked for the Underground but developed the diagrams in their spare time, not as a work assignment. The only major changes since 1936 were the Central Line extensions east and west and the Victoria Line.

Tube Map, London Transport, 2001, designer not stated. Basically Garbutt's design with changes to accommodate new routes, most notably the several Docklands Light Railway routes in the southeast, and the North London Railway.

Complicated lines for New York

The abundance of interline services in New York means we are forced to run multiple colors on many sections of line. The best we can do is try a little of the "details don't matter" fudging done on the Northern and District mini-systems, to reduce the instances of it.

Official New York maps up to 1967 took hiding details to an extreme: just three colors. The IRT, BMT, and IND systems had been separately operated up to 1940, and as late as 1967 there was minimal interline routing between the three. Three colors worked well for the diagram.

A new connecting link that opened that year combined the BMT and IND systems to an extent that caused rethinking of the diagram color scheme. I wouldn't say it required rethinking. But retaining the BMT and IND colors based on Manhattan mainline routings would have led to many two-color route segments in Brooklyn. Why this was not acceptable is both psychological and political in nature.

At any rate the diagram adopted in 1967 was the antithesis to tradition, assigning a colored line to every letter and number marker. A large number of route segments now carried two to four colors. The system suddenly looked bewilderingly complex on the diagram.

It's important to realize that the changes involved not only the diagram but station signage and even the names of routes. The old names IRT, BMT, and IND were dropped, and replaced by... nothing really. People are forced to used terms like "the 1, 2, 3 line" and listen to announcements like "the 4 train is running on the 2 line".

I think the new graphic design broke cardinal rules of simplicity and clarity. As I said before, there's a level of detail you don't need to know on the diagram. New York has not yet fully recovered from the mistake.

Some sanity was restored in 1979 with the current style of map. Revision again involved changes in signage as well. Routes were visually simplified by using colors for the Manhattan mainlines. But the logical step of assigning names to the colors was not taken, so we still have the unofficial makeshift "1, 2, 3 line" instead of the "Seventh Avenue Line", and station and directional signs all have to use symbols showing train markers. The map itself was a return to a distorted geographic map rather than a diagram.

Subway Map and Guide, New York City Transit Authority, 1967, designed by George Salomon in 1958 and revised by others. Beck's principles adapted to New York: three line colors, route names given in boxes, free transfers highlighted in yellow, and symbols for express and local stations.

Subway Map and Guide, New York City Transit Authority, 1967. The first edition of an ugly, cluttered diagram that lasted only five years. Colors for each train marker (but not unique colors). Stations are shown as boxes containing the train marker letters and numbers. Diagonals are mostly at 45 degrees, but the designer gave up on it in a few places. Some part-time services are shown by dashed lines, but not all.

New York Subway Guide, New York City Transit Authority, 1972, by Massimo Vignelli. Bold lines, including a phenomenal black border. There is still some confusion about level of detail: each train marker now has a unique color, but now there's nothing about part-time operation and part-time express running.

The first versions of my diagram did not show the markers at all, and all versions give names in the legend to the colored lines. I added the letter and number markers in 1999, but I still think it looks cleaner without them.

New York Subways and nearby railroad lines by Joseph Brennan, 1997. The first New York diagram showing also the New Jersey rapid transit lines and the inner portions of mainline railroads. The colors are the subway line colors of 1979, plus colors unique to my diagram for PATH and the Newark City Subway.

There's something else they don't have in London that complicates all New York diagrams and maps: express and local trains. But there's a lot to say about how to handle that, so let's wait till next time.

London Tube Maps are reduced from A History of the London Tube Maps by Clive Billson. Go there to see many more examples. The current London diagram is on the web at the Transport for London site (the name of the current operator).

I scanned the two New York 1967 maps from my collection. The scan of the 1972 map was contributed to by Henry Szablicki and Brian Hilley. My 1997 diagram is reduced from the electronic original. The current New York map is on the web at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority site.

If you like subway maps, be sure to get the book Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden (Penguin Books, 2007). Go ahead. The online bookstores are open right now. You will be happy.

Continued in Subway Map II.

Next time: Subway Map II.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I waited for you winterlong.
You seem to be where I belong.
It's all illusion anyway.

— Neil Young, "Winterlong"

I think "winter long" should be two words, Neil.

Winter in New Jersey. February 10, 2010, 4:50 pm, in a snowstorm.


It's been a month, so it's time to say it. Runner Girl is gone.

The last time she ran past me was January 13. That was a Wednesday. Then I got a cold or flu thing and did not go to work the next two days. And since then it's been four full weeks without a single sighting.

It could be she's running at a different time. But I imagine she has left town. I imagine her last day was that Friday, and I missed it. I didn't know. I imagine she was going to say something on Friday and it would have gone like this.

I turn when I hear her coming up behind me. She gives me that little wave. I know by now that it's to avoid breaking stride.

"Bye. I'm moving away this weekend."

"What? You're part of my morning routine! What will I do?" She passes me as I say it. She turns her head to the side so I can hear her last words.

"You'll get over it, Joe B."

"Well... Bye! Good luck!" I'm calling that out that to the back of her head as she runs off into her future.

And I would be sad for a minute and a half. I'd be thinking there's still Dog Guy, but he's not always there right on time. I guess he has to go when the big dog is ready. Only one person I see on my walk to the station is punctual enough to be part of the routine. One person I saw on my walk.

After a minute and a half, something she said would sink in. Joe B?!

That's how I imagine things. Drama. Emotion. Mystery.


So, we had one heck of a snowstorm on Wednesday. It was going to be the Blizzard of 2010 (and that is pronounced twenty ten), but something about it didn't last long enough to qualify. It was still the Nor'easter of 2010. Fourteen inches of the white stuff.

Let me tell you something that made my day. When we've had a good snowfall, what I've done in the past is shovel the walk from the house to the street, and then start in on the packed snow left by the town's snowplough at the end of the driveway. Doing that much would get me to where I'm tired, so I'd go inside and sit for about fifteen minutes, and then I'd be ready to go back out and finish the driveway to the front of the car. I thought the little break was the right thing to do. There's no reason to kill myself. It's not much of a delay.

Now hold that thought, because I need to back up for a moment. I was going to tell you about running sometime. Maybe I will later on. Back in June I wrote about taking long walks. As the cold weather approached I decided to shorten the time I was outside by running part of it.

I ran a half a mile the first time I tried. That was great. I never ran a half a mile in my life. I couldn't run five hundred feet in May. Once I knew I could do a half a mile, once I'd done that a few times, I started stretching it out bit by bit. I used Gmap Pedometer to locate the tenth-mile marks, and I did six tenths and then seven tenths.

One thing I found out was that the first tenth is the hardest. I usually get a sinking feeling that I can't do this today, I'm not getting enough air, I should be nice to myself. But it has something to do with increasing my metabolic rate, because if I run through that nonsense, it passes and I feel fine. Then I just run, and my mind wanders like it did when I walked. I told myself most of the Summer of '69 story while running, before I wrote it down. Jane Doe too.

I played head games for the first few weeks. I'll just run the half a mile, I told myself, and then I can decide whether to do more. I always did more, but I didn't have to commit in advance to what seemed an insurmountable distance.

A day came when I got to the eight tenths mark and I still didn't want to stop. So I didn't. I went for what I guessed was two tenths more. I stopped at an intersection so that I would be able later to measure what I had done. Oy! It was 0.975 of a mile! That's about 13o feet short! If I had run across that street and past two houses, I'd have had it!

That's what I did the next day, and in fact I went a few houses farther because I found a place where the word SCHOOL is painted in the road to warn drivers. I use that now as my finish line. And I don't need the head games. I know I can do that mile.

Remember the snow? I am really digressing here. To make a long story short, I now run that mile, walk ten minutes, and run a second mile. The second one comes easier. But it's been so damned cold for two months now that I just cannot get myself out every day. It's not fun when it's so cold. All I am doing is maintaining my current ability and current weight, and waiting winter long for better weather. It's making me crazy.

OK, so, there I was Thursday morning. I went out to shovel ten inches deep off the walk, two feet of packed snow from the end of the driveway, and fourteen inches behind the car and all around it, and after that I would need to knock a foot of snow off the car and shovel that away.

Here's the thing I wanted to tell you. This time I didn't stop in the middle of the job. It's not that I was trying to prove anything. I just didn't feel tired. In fact as I worked my way into the driveway I was starting to get that really nice happy feeling I get from running. I came back into the house feeling great.

But I'd be feeling even more great if the snow would stop— we're getting more Monday night!— and if the morning air would be above freezing. That's all I ask.


On Wednesday I stepped out around eight in the morning and took some tree pictures from right outside the front door. You know you can click them to make them larger. Give them a minute. You'll like these.

I went out again just before five in the afternoon and took more trees. The cloud cover and the late hour made everything grey. At this time I also got the street view you saw up at the top. The young family with the dog and the sled just happened to be right there near the gas light, so what could I do?

The storm was over on Thursday. I did the shovelling I mentioned around eight, and then I drove to town feeling all happy and strong and got myself some fresh bagels for breakfast. Nice. The sun came out bright that morning and warmed things up.

Isn't it great how clear and sunny it can be after a big storm? After lunch I stepped out without a coat or shoes to grab a few more pictures. It was so nice out I walked all the way down to the street in my bare feet. The last one here is looking straight up at the blue sky.


That's all I've got. It was pretty bloggy this time, wasn't it?

I have a good idea for a short series but it involves me walking around and looking at things outside and taking some photographs, so it's going to wait just a little. Instead there's an indoor project I can tell you about.

Next time: Subway Map.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


While Helen and Megan and I were staying in York, England, back in 2002, we took a trip north to Doune, Scotland, to see the castle that played a major role in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

We're all fans of the movie. I remember us making Megan watch it on DVD— meaning we started to play it while she was nested in the living room couch and she did not get up. She had the usual skepticism of all teenagers about something her parental units liked. In the opening sequence, when the clip-clop sound proved to be a servant with coconut halves and not a horse, she took a slight interest, but it was when the serfs in the field took a Marxist stance on the divine right of kings that I could see the unspoken WTF forming on her lips. And that was all it took.

The trip was my suggestion. I had a few reasons for it besides the movie. I like castles. And I wanted to get us out into the countryside.

We went by train up the East Coast Main Line. Here's a train leaving York for the north, a few days later. Why don't we have stations like this? Look at that roof, and for cryin' out loud, they built the whole thing on a big curve!

As we passed through Newcastle I wished I had thought of bringing a couple of lumps of coal with me, so that I could step out onto the platform and leave them there or perhaps even hand them to somebody.

Where the line hugged the coast, we could see the legendary Holy Island, Lindisfarne. It would be great if I had taken a photograph of it, but I was saving the film for later.

At Berwick-upon-Tweed (pronounced Berrick) we crossed over the River Tweed on a viaduct called the Royal Border Bridge and not, I am sorry to say, the Tweed Viaduct. That's right, I am making an obscure reference to an incident in New York transportation history.

Then into Scotland. It was a longer journey than I had realized. I knew the travel times from looking it all up before we left, but I must not have thought enough about it. I'm glad we went, though.

I think we left York about 8:30, reached Edinburgh at 11:00, just two and a half hours, and then another 50 minutes on a local train brought us to Stirling. The local train had windows that could open, a welcome relief to us Americans with our crazy ideas of fresh air, instead of the usual British stuffiness. But a young Scottish woman got on and closed the one window that was open a crack. We decided not to create an international incident.

At Stirling, it was time to eat before we continued on our way. I checked where the bus station was, for later, and then we walked into the town proper to find something. In was in a pub, name forgotten, as I was considering the brews on tap, that the Scottish barmaid suggested that what I would like was a pint of "Old Speckled Hen". It was good. So was the food.

Here's a view of Stirling railway station. Look at those mountains.

There's an hourly bus service from Stirling Bus Station to Doune, and travel time is about a half hour. After leaving Stirling the bus runs mostly through fields and woods on a two-lane main road.

But just before Doune, we get a little peek at the industrial revolution in Scotland, as the bus turns off the main road to take a brief loop into a village called Deanston. It's a street of grey stone rowhouses, and a large grey stone distillery.

And then, we're over the River Teith and into Doune, where the bus once again loops one block off the main road to reach the bus stop in the heart of town.

Here's what you see from the bus stop. We're going to turn left at the monument. Doesn't this look great? I wonder how old these buildings are. And look how clean it is.

We're walking down the street. It looks we got there at 1:30. Look at the D A Calder business with the sign painted right on the stone. The next place, with red trim, is a pub, and I think the green sign beyond the church is another one. I would love to pass through a place like this regularly. It uplifts the soul.

Just a few blocks farther, it's the edge of town. The road gets narrower, and... really. How do they do this? Look at the detail on the houses! And that little bridge up ahead! How do they get people to collaborate on such a beautiful built environment? Is it the malt whisky?

Over the bridge and a few hundred feet more: it's... Castle Doune!

There are many castles in Britain that are larger and more intact. So why come here? Monty Python are responsible for many of the visitors. See here for a few stills and the backstory of why they used this one castle for so many scenes.

There are so many interior photos better than mine all over the web, and I hate just yelling "me too", but I have to put some here, don't I?

The Camelot song—

Castle Anthrax—

Possibly the window in the scene before the wedding—

The wedding scene was in the open space enclosed by the castle walls—

You can go up to the castle roof, if you don't mind some scary stairs. Helen and Megan didn't want to go up, but I did.

Here's Doune, seen from the roof. You can see how the buildings are all huddled together. The same population here in the States would probably be sprawled out over all the open land you can see here.

Looking east, Doune at our back. Cows and mountains. Hardly a building in sight. The only clue to this being and old and populated country is how carefully the fields and stands of trees are laid out. There is no wasted land.

Looking west, Doune just out of view to the right. That's the River Teith and the Brig o' Doune that we came over on the bus.

All right, you've got me. I think they just call it the Teith Bridge. That might be funny to orthodontists. But the Scots call this kind of structure a brig, and it's at Doune, so, come on, it's not a big lie I'm telling you.

The ride back was long and tiring. By good fortune the local train pulled into Edinburgh just minutes ahead of a train to York, a connection I didn't expect to make. That saved us almost an hour, and we ate a late supper in York.

We saw a lot more on our two-week Tour de Britain, and maybe I'll pick out something else for you one of these days. You never know.

Postscript: Years later, to my joy bottles of "Old Speckled Hen" appeared in the local wine and beer shop. The label on the back of the bottle explains that it is not an ancient brew, but dates only to 1979 when it was created the 50th anniversary of the MG car company. The name comes from a paint-spattered car they kept in the factory that was known as the Owld Speckled Un. The quotation marks around "Old Speckled Hen" thus signify that, as Lewis Carroll might have appreciated, the bitter is named for what the car's name was called.

Next time: Winterlong.