Noticing slopes of tracks between subway stations

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About 178 cities around the world, in 56 countries, have subway systems.  Dozens of airports also have underground train systems connecting concourses and terminals.  Go to any of these cities, any of these airports, and ride the subway, and if you pay close attention you will notice that if two stations are at about the same elevation, there will almost always be a contour like what you see in the figure.  The train departs from station A and goes down a short decline.  Then the track might be completely level for some distance along the path from one station to the next.  Then shortly before arriving at station B, the track goes up a short incline and comes to rest in station B.  

Why is there always a decline at A and an incline at B?  Why does the track dip down and come back up? Continue reading “Noticing slopes of tracks between subway stations”

Tenterhooks, or how the Hobson’s choice came out

Maybe some readers of the blog have been on tenterhooks for the past two days, hoping to hear what meal I was eventually offered yesterday on my return flight from Maryland (blog article Hobson’s choice) after attending the sixteen annual Patent Cooperation Treaty Advisory Group Working Breakfast sponsored by the World Intellectual Property Organization. The answer follows. Continue reading “Tenterhooks, or how the Hobson’s choice came out”

Poor quality writing and its consequences

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Poor quality writing usually only has modest consequences.  In a bookstore, the consequence might be that the customer who considered buying a book puts it down and does not purchase it.  In a teaching document, the consequence might be that the document does not explain things as well as might be desired, and the reader might have to read it twice to get its meaning.

Consider, though, the possible consequence of poor quality writing in an emergency sign in a public building.  Here, the writer apparently had a goal of letting deaf persons know how to know that there is an alarm:


The insertion of “looks like” needlessly adds a qualification that makes the reader wonder something like this:

Well, I wonder why they said this?  I guess it is not actually a strobe light but in some way it merely “looks like” a strobe light.  Do they mean that it is shaped like a strobe light or is encased in a clear plastic lens like a strobe light but is otherwise in some important way different from an actual strobe light?

I respectfully suggest that the writer could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by coming out and saying it rather than beating around the bush:


Better yet, the writer could have skipped completely any assumption that the reader already was familiar with strobe lights or, more particularly, that the reader knows what a strobe light “looks like”.  The writer probably really should simply have said


We can also look at the sentence:


Once again I suggest the reader is unnecessarily forced to second-guess along these lines:

Okay, so I am hearing a horn.  It cannot be the alarm, because they said the alarm merely “sounds like” a horn rather than saying that the alarm “is” a horn.  So I wonder what is being communicated by this horn?  

Better would have been to say:


or better yet:


How would you have worded such a sign?  Please post a comment below.

Bad signage at Chicago Union Station

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I recently had reason to connect from one Amtrak train to another at Chicago’s Union Station.  The type of ticket that I was traveling on gave me access to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge in that train station.  My layover was about five hours so I was really looking forward to finding this lounge and taking it easy for a while.  I disembarked from the first train (the California Zephyr from Denver) and found a helpful map (at right).  And promptly got misdirected. Continue reading “Bad signage at Chicago Union Station”

A nice airport amenity – free phone calls

a nice airport amenity
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In the early 1980s, “shoulder surfing” was practiced near public pay phones to steal calling card digits and make long distance calls.  In those days, the wary traveler would cup his or her hand around the pay phone keypad so that others could not see the calling card number being keyed in.

How times have changed, as we are reminded by this nice airport amenity — a public telephone offering free calls to any telephone number in the US.  What do you suppose it costs the airport to provide this amenity?   Continue reading “A nice airport amenity – free phone calls”