Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Be Safe

Following my previous post, here are two very important safety tips.

1.  If someone falls onto the tracks, three things need to happen:

A.  The person needs to stay away from the third rail.  Most people know this.

B.  What is less well-known is that the person needs to walk along the tracks in the same direction that the train moves.  Only when he/she has reached the end of the platform should the person attempt to climb up onto the platform.  This is because the train is moving fast when it comes into the station but is moving very slowly by the time it reaches the end of the platform.  Once you reach the end of the platform, there is essentially no danger—the train stops by the time it gets that far anyway, and odds are the driver will stop far short of there once he sees someone on the tracks.  But the faster the train is moving, the more time it takes to stop, and so the less likely it is that the driver will be able to stop in time.  At least one person has died trying to climb the platform instead of walking along the tracks.  (Note:  the story I've linked to is really depressing, you may prefer not to read it.)

C.  People on the platform need to run toward the other end of the platform, the one where the train enters the station, and wave emphatically at the driver to stop.  Jump up and down, scream at the top of your lungs.

If everyone follows these steps, then it's unlikely for the person who fell onto the tracks to die.  Of course the person might be injured down there, and immobilized, and then it can be a tough decision whether someone should jump down and try to drag the injured person toward the end of the platform.  But that's a worst-case scenario, for most situations the key thing is to follow steps B and C above.

2.  If someone becomes violent on the subway car, or if someone becomes urgently ill, do not pull the emergency brake.  It would only result in several minutes of delay before help can arrive.  The key is to reach the next station as soon as possible.  The police might be waiting there, if they have been alerted (or medical professionals might be there if someone is sick).  But even if help isn't waiting, at least people can flee the attack or get the sick person off the train.  (Unless it is heading nearer to a hospital I guess, but realistically you probably want to get the person off the train and onto an ambulance.)  There was a knife attack on the subway in NYC, and the police were delayed because someone panicked and pulled the emergency brake.  (What do you know, another depressing story.)  Only pull the emergency brake if it is actually important to stop the train, which would be extremely rare.  (A good example, from the New York Times story I linked to:  someone is caught in a door and the train starts to move.)

Subways They Are a Porno

Some subway tips from James.  I'll start with etiquette and then include a few helpful tips.

1.  The first etiquette tip stems from the asymmetry between people heading away from a train and people heading toward it.  If you have just gotten off a train, and you are heading for the exit, a 15 second delay costs you 15 seconds.  If you are trying to board that train, then a 15 second delay costs you at least several minutes, and at some times of the day it can cost you as much as 20 minutes.

The result of this asymmetry is that it is improper to block incoming train passengers in your haste to leave the station.  If, for instance, there are roughly 4 "lanes of traffic" on a staircase leading to the train platform, the exiting people should take at most 2 of them, and strong consideration should be given to taking only 1 of them.  It's very selfish to save yourself 15 seconds at the cost of imposing several minutes of delay on someone else.  (Sometimes people exiting the station block all the lanes of traffic into the station, a serious moral error.)  The same goes for the turnstiles.  You must check to make sure no one is on the other side, waiting to get to the train platform, before you push your way out.

The rule reverses once the train's doors have closed, or once it's a foregone conclusion that they will close before people entering the station can get there.  In those circumstances, there is absolutely no hurry to get to the train platform, but people leaving the train platform may be in a hurry.  However, this is not nearly as sharp an asymmetry as the 15 seconds vs. several minutes asymmetry, so it's not as big a deal.

Final point:  sometimes people leaving one train are headed toward another train, and so they are also in a hurry.  However, unless they know that the other train is about to leave, then they shouldn't really be in a particular hurry—quite possibly when they reach the other platform, they will wait several minutes for a train anyway.  On the other hand, people crossing a platform to a train that is waiting on the other side generally have a rightful claim to priority.

2.  The second tip is really obvious and yet people flout it all the time.  If there is room in the middle of the train car, you are obligated to go stand there, away from the doors.  The only exception is if you are getting off at the next stop (in which case you have an obligation to move toward the door so as to expedite the process).  So my question for people who stand right by the subway door is:  Where do you get off?

3.  Train conductors are always in the same place on the train, and they try to stop the train at a particular point in the station, so that all the doors can be used.  To facilitate this, each platform has a sign facing the train with black-and-white diagonal stripes  (the sign is generally overhead but occasionally it is on the wall).  The conductor is actually supposed to point at this sign when the train stops, as a way of bringing to the conductor's attention whether the train is well positioned.

The relevance for you is that if you will be exiting at a particular station frequently, you can memorize the location of the exit relative to the black-and-white sign, and then you can position yourself correctly at any other station on the same train line by walking a uniform distance from the black-and-white sign.  So for instance, if the train station near your apartment has an exit 15 feet in front of the sign, then that is where you can stand at any other station along the same line, and when you exit the train you will be right at the turnstiles.  But before you go through those turnstiles, remember tip #1 above!

4.  Not really that helpful, but I've run a stopwatch app a few dozen times while waiting for trains, and I've found that the clocks telling you when the next train will arrive are quite accurate.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Read: The Handmaid's Tale

A few months ago I read The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  It is an interesting book, an in some ways prescient, as it envisions a world of declining fertility and environmental devastation.  In fact the book is downright dystopian.  Essentially, the world is becoming depopulated as ecological contamination reduces women's fertility.  A fundamentalist government has violently seized power and imposed a rigid social order based on Biblical teachings.

The book is narrated by its anti-hero, a woman known as Offred (meaning "of Fred").  Her name reflects the fact that she has been assigned to a household led by a man named Fred.  She is an adjunct to the family—her role is to bear a child for Fred (his wife is no longer fertile).  This sort of arrangement was developed because, as a result of extensive pollution, women's fertility has been reduced to a relatively brief window of time.  The government has developed a complicated social system to replace the sexual anarchy that prevailed during Offred's youth, a sexual anarchy that (in addition to being degrading for women, who were treated as sex objects) would rapidly have led to the extinction of mankind.  Meanwhile the government has launched an ambitious program to clean up the pollution and restore the earth to health.  The government's methods are no doubt ruthless, but they are both necessary and effective.  The best analogy is probably General Sherman's famous march to the sea, which was unflinching and at times cruel, but which was abundantly justified by its clear-eyed focus on a higher moral imperative:  crushing the Confederacy and ending slavery forever.

Atwood's decision to present this struggle for humanity through the jaundiced viewpoint of Offred is an experimental approach that works surprisingly well.  Self-pitying and ungrateful, Offred takes every opportunity to undermine society's efforts at self-preservation.  But because the story adopts her background assumptions and beliefs, her choices are presented as natural, even defensible.  The result is a deep kind of dramatic irony:  intellectually, the reader knows that Offred's self-indulgent behavior is morally unacceptable, but all of the book's emotional force pushes in the other direction.  Imagine a story narrated by a Union soldier who deserts his unit at a crucial moment, making the preservation of slavery more likely—that is essentially the type of story that Atwood is telling.  Offred is a selfish hedonist who arrogates to herself the power to decide whether humanity will survive, but of course she cloaks this disgusting behavior in the language of freedom and autonomy.  It is only at the end of the book, when Offred betrays her family and flees her responsibilities, that we see her for what she is, and the book's logical and sentimental dimensions come into alignment.  (An epilogue reveals that the government's efforts at environmental restoration have been so successful that society has returned to a less regimented structure.  The book, we learn, consists of an oral history recorded by Offred and studied by historians in a future world—a world made possible by the very government that "oppressed" Offred.)

By taking this unusual approach, Atwood forces us to rethink our unexamined beliefs about feminism, freedom, and human dignity.  She so successfully captures the mindset of a parasitic narcissist like Offred that a careless reader might actually view her, perversely, as the book's hero.  Atwood tips her hand, though, in her depiction of Offred's mother, a vocal feminist whose unwillingness to curb her own selfish behavior leaves her lonely and bitter.  In this way, Atwood suggests that true feminism cannot ignore the role of the family and of procreation in creating a good world and a decent society, not just for women but for all of us.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Stop Writing Poems!

"Celestial Bodies"

In no sense is the moon a nighttime thing.
Except only this:
We care less for beauty than for the source of light.
During the day we care only for the sun
But at night, the moon's softer glow holds sway.

It is a fact that the moon comes out at night.
But it is a fact about us, not about the sky.
The worship of power, the triumph of youth
The way love fades away when sex recedes:
The fault, dear Brutus . . .

Sunday, October 20, 2013

An Apparently Well-Chosen Nobel

I think one way to look at genius is that it is the ability to recognize non-trade-offs where others see only trade-offs.  Another way to put it is that genius involves the ability to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable things.  Or maybe yet another way to put it is that it may be relatively easy to optimize on one or two dimensions, whereas it takes genius to optimize several dimensions simultaneously.  For most people, to do better along dimensions a, b, and c, you have to do worse along dimensions x, y, and z.  When someone threads the needle, so that you can't imagine any improvements on any dimension, we recognize genius at work.

What got me started on this line of thought is Alice Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," a short story that is spare in its description of feelings, and yet plumbs emotions more deeply and adroitly than almost anything else I've read.  It is also utterly realistic—the characters especially feel incredibly real to me—and yet it is pitch-perfect on an emotional level.  In fact it excels on so many levels that it seems impossible.  How can a writer keep so many balls in the air at once?

Other examples along these lines are "The Wire" (which has unrealistic plot elements but still feels vividly real) and Anna Karenina.

Another Poem?!?


I am like a god to this oatmeal.
I pour in the cold milk and push it around with my spoon,
Opening up little channels for the milk to reach the hot oatmeal at the bottom,
Trying to preserve rich veins of brown sugar - not mixed too evenly.

Seawater plunging into lava-lined caverns.
Rain hissing on bare primeval landscapes
Not yet eroded to smoothness.

I will it, and it is done.
For mine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

Friday, October 18, 2013

I Wrote Another Poem

"Life's Work"

When you are growing up,
You pile ambition on top of ambition.
Like a stack of bricks.

And when you are an adult
You must destroy the pile
By grinding it away
Using only your teeth.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A Little Night Poem

A pen just dispenses ink,
But a pencil consumes itself.

It wears you out, this making and erasing.
Once you have spilt yourself out on the paper,
You excise the parts of you that don't work anymore.

And then you go back to work,
Shorter at both ends.