Monthly Archives: June 2010

How to Ride the Subway

Some people shun underground transit systems because:  1) they tend to be less scenic than street-level transportation; 2) they can occasionally force you into close proximity with strangers and whatever microbes they may be hosting; and 3) You’re trapped!  You’ll never get out!  The walls are closing in!

On the other hand, subways are:  1) a lot cheaper than taxis;  2) a way to avoid speaking to taxi drivers, many of whom seem to be plotting a murder; and 3) relatively harmless if you’ve had your vaccinations and have plenty of hand sanitizer.

Personally, I don’t mind subways.  In fact, I’ve found them to be the most efficient way to get around some metropolitan areas.  I’ve ridden them in perhaps a dozen cities, including the sprawling systems of Paris and London.  First-time visitors to any city can find underground transportation a daunting prospect, but let me use New York to illustrate some basic principles that you might find helpful.

Know where you are, and which way you want to go from there.  Let’s say you’re entering the subway at Columbus Circle (59th Street) and you want to visit the Empire State Building, which is at 34th Street.  On which side of the platform should you be standing?  You know you need to head south, but the signs in the subway don’t say “South”.  The direction of travel is shown as “Uptown” or “Downtown”; sometimes the signs will say “Queens” or “Brooklyn”.  Here’s the secret:  “Queens” equals “Uptown”; “Brooklyn” equals “Downtown”.  So if you’re at 59th, headed for 34th, you stand on the platform that is identified as “Downtown” or “Brooklyn”.  If you’re not sure you’re on the correct platform, you can always ask someone who is waiting for the train.  If they answer you, they’re probably from out of town, too.

Get a route map.  They are generally available in the station, and will come in handy; just don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk to study it.  Every New Yorker lives in a perpetual state of being ten minutes late to something important.  Obstacles are not tolerated, so try not to be one.  Step out of the river of pedestrians to consult your map.

Oh, and when you emerge from the subway after your ride, street level can present another challenge.  You may be a bit disoriented and wonder in which direction you should walk.  Here’s a mnemonic that might help:  “Evens go East”.  Most of the streets in Manhattan have one-way traffic; odd-numbered streets have traffic flowing in a westerly direction, while even-numbered streets go east.  If you emerge into daylight at, say, 50th Street, you see which way the cars are going and say, “ah, that must be east.”  This can save unnecessary steps.  And cursing.

Pay in advance.  That’s not really optional; you need a ticket to get through the turnstiles.  Some cities — Washington, D.C., and Vienna, among others — rely primarily on ticket vending machines.  The first one you try will be out of order, so be patient.  New York (and other cities) have toll booths where you can buy passage from a fellow human being.  The NYC toll is currently $2.25 per ride, but there are deals to be had:  A $20 purchase gives $23 worth of rides.  I knew a guy who would put $80 or more on his MetroCard.  As a colleague remarked, “I never really thought of a MetroCard as a form of investment.”

One other tip:  If you happen to be in New York on Halloween, go stand around in one of the bigger subway stations for a while.  Where else can you see a train pull in and dozens of people in superhero costumes get out?

Here’s Looking At You

There are sentences that sound like questions but really aren’t.  For example, this isn’t a sincere request for enlightenment:  “You aren’t planning to wear that, are you?”  That’s why I wasn’t sure how to respond when I was recently asked, “What’s so great about the Mona Lisa?”  Judging from context, though, it seemed to be said out of curiosity and not belligerence, so I rambled through an answer.  I hope I made some of the following points…

The Mona Lisa isn’t necessarily the best painting ever; there are some experts who say it isn’t even the best painting by Leonardo da Vinci.  A strong case can be made, however, that it is the most famous painting in the world.  And if it isn’t the very best ever, it’s still a masterpiece that had a profound influence on subsequent artists.

There are a lot of theories about who the woman in the picture is — one of the strangest suggests that Leonardo painted himself dressed as a woman.  The earliest explanation, from Giorgio Vasari’s biography (1550), is that the artist “undertook to execute for Francesco del Giocondo the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife.”  That’s why in Italy the painting is called La Gioconda, and in France it’s known as La Joconde.

In portraits painted prior to the early 1500s, you’ll notice that most of them were full length, and the subject was shown on his throne or in her castle, but not usually outdoors.  Leonardo broke those conventions when he began the Mona Lisa in 1503:  She is shown in closeup, so to speak — not full length.  Her arm is almost coming out of the picture, as if she’s resting it on the edge of a balcony.  But where could that balcony be?  To what building is it attached?  That’s impossible to say, because the background is a wild, fanciful landscape.  We are having a close encounter with someone in a location that appears to be a very long way from downtown Florence.

Another departure from convention was Leonardo’s use of oil-based paint.  He was experimenting with a technique that is now called sfumato, an Italian word that basically means “smoky”.  Whether we call it smoky or misty or hazy, he was going for an effect in which forms merge into each other, eliminating sharp lines and creating gradations between light and shadow.  Five hundred years later our reaction may be, “yeah, I’ve seen that before,” but during the Renaissance, other artists saw what Leonardo did and exclaimed, “Cool!” (in Italian, of course).

Relatively few people got to see the Mona Lisa until the 19th century, and ironically, what secured the painting’s fame was its disappearance.  It was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 (see my post of 5/6/09).  That put her face in every newspaper; people in all parts of the world became familiar with La Gioconda‘s smile.

It’s that enigmatic countenance that sets her apart from other paintings.  What is her smile expressing:  Melancholy?  Flirtation?  Tenderness?  For me, it’s as if some unseen person has just said something outlandish; Mona and I are exchanging an amused glance while the windbag blathers on.  How about you — what do you think her smile conveys?  What’s so great about the Mona Lisa?

Do You Have This in Taupe?

They're a little stiff for the first few centuries, but once you get them broken in...

Everyone needs to have a dream, and when someone’s dream comes true, we all vicariously share in the thrill.  That’s why I couldn’t help but get a little choked up recently when I read that Diana Zardaryan, an Armenian doctoral student, had fulfilled her lifelong ambition.  “To find a shoe has always been my dream,” she told

The shoe Ms. Zardaryan and her colleagues found was not in an outlet store, but in a cave near the border Armenia shares with Iran.  Radiocarbon dating pegs the shoe’s age at around 5,600 years, making it the world’s oldest known leather shoe.  It is a single piece of cowhide, split down the middle, laced along the seams, and tanned with some kind of vegetable oil. 

Careful measurements by the archaeological team establish that it is a women’s size 7 (U.S.), and was worn on a right foot.  The left shoe is missing, but this does not necessarily give credence to the story of Cinderella.  The shoe is stuffed with grass, which the scientists speculate may have been insulation, or an early form of shoe tree.

If you care to read the study team’s report, it can be found at the website of the Public Library of Science, PLoS One.  A preview of the coma-inducing prose you’ll find there is the title of the piece, which is “First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands”.  The authors spell out the particulars of that shoe in excruciating detail, but don’t devote much attention to a couple of interesting sidelights from their find.

Noting that the shoe is remarkably well-preserved, the scientists mention in passing that it was found under a layer of hardened sheep dung that prevented the shoe from deteriorating.  That seems like a household tip that should be published in an advice column, doesn’t it?  “When putting items into long-term storage, encasing them in plastic or sheep dung will keep them almost like new!”

Another thing that caught my eye was how much junk the people who occupied that cave had accumulated.  In fact, the scientists have only examined a small portion of the cave, but they speculate that the main area was used for storage, while very little of it was used for living.  Just like 21st century homes, in other words.

In addition to the world’s oldest shoe, the inventory of stuff the ancients couldn’t bear to throw away includes some sort of winemaking equipment, a broken bowl, obsidian tools, three clay pots that contained human skulls, and a lot of back issues of National Geographic magazine.

Yes, I made up the National Geographic part.   But you have some stashed away in your home, don’t you?  And we all have shoes in our closets that have been there so long, they would only be attractive to scientists.  Which makes me wonder… when archaeologists go through our stuff thousands of years from now, what do we have stored away that will make their dream come true?

A Bunch of Know-It-Alls

Thomas Young, who would have been unbeatable on “Jeopardy!”

Back when I was in school, we only needed about twenty minutes a week to do our homework.  The current crop of fourth graders requires, on average, thirteen hours of study per day.  This is due to the so-called information explosion; some experts say that humankind’s collective knowledge doubles every fifteen years.  Others say it doubles every five years.  Some say it doubles every seventy-three days.  If you think I’m making this up, put “body of knowledge doubles every” into your search engine and see how many different answers you get.  The truth is, nobody knows how much knowledge we have.

If it’s doubling at some unknown rate, though, that suggests that there was a time in history when the entire body of knowledge was small enough to be contained in a single brain.  Cavemen just had to remember the recipe for fire, and not to mess with the giant lizards with sharp teeth.  Back then, knowledge hadn’t expanded to include things like the date of the Battle of Hastings (1066), Babe Ruth’s lifetime batting average (.342) and when Mother’s Day is celebrated (sometime in the spring, isn’t it?)

This got me wondering at what point our species reached brain overload.  I reasoned that there must have been someone who was the last person who knew everything there was to know.  Turns out that there are several claimants to that honor.  There are three books with the title The Last Man Who Knew Everything — and they’re about three different guys.

One was a German named Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who was an expert on music, Egyptology, and botany.  He did studies of volcanoes and fossils; he also taught Hebrew and mathematics in Rome.  He knew a great deal about virtually every formal discipline… but rumor has it he couldn’t do a decent cha-cha-cha to save his life.

Another Last Man to Know Everything was Thomas Young (1773-1829).  He made discoveries in the fields of physiology, optics, musical harmonies, and compared grammar and vocabulary of 400 languages.  Young wrote many entries in early editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica.  That’s more impressive than A.J. Jacobs, the author and subject of a book called The Know-It-All.  He merely read every volume of Encyclopædia Britannica.

The third Last Man was Joseph Leidy (1823-1891).  Among other things, he was a paleontologist and a professor of anatomy.  Leidy probably wasn’t really the Last Man to Know Everything, but he was the first man to use a microscope to solve a murder.

There are other men who deserve consideration:  Ja’far al Sadiq (702-765) was an Arabian astronomer, physician, and writer who knew a lot of things about a lot of things.  What about Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who was not only a painter, but an engineer, a geologist, an anatomist?  A Chinese genius named Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) was an astronomer and agricultural scientist of the late Ming Dynasty; he helped in the translation of such western texts as Euclid’s Elements.  And of course Xu had mastered chopsticks before most Europeans even knew there were such things.

In case you have room in your brain for one more tiny bit of knowledge, a person like any of these — someone who has great learning in several fields of study — is known as a polymath.  Whoops!  I guess that was one fact too many; your head just exploded.  Sorry about that.


Every culture has its own standards of what is considered appropriate behavior; what is acceptable in one place can be an appalling lack of manners somewhere else.  Even in the United States, which abandoned manners a generation or so ago, gentlemen are still expected to wear shirts while attending religious services. 

Other countries have their own rules of etiquette:  It is a cultural taboo in India to touch someone else’s head.   In Egypt, don’t sit with your legs crossed — it is considered an insult to show the sole of your shoe.  And if you’re a visitor to French Polynesia, don’t do what I did.

Tahiti is the most famous of the so-called Society Islands, which include Bora Bora, Moorea, and the lesser-known Raiatea — which is where we happened to be when I committed my faux pas.  Our hosts, who live there part time, had been invited to attend a show featuring traditional Tahitian dancing.  We were the only “outsiders” among the people who crowded into the town’s gymnasium for the event.

One of the local leaders who had befriended Jim (our host) presented us with leis and introduced the members of his group, including his wife.  As you may know, it is a custom in these islands to cheek-kiss when greeting someone of the opposite sex.  What you may not know — unfortunately, I didn’t — is that there is a very specific protocol observed during this ritual.  Oh, I knew that a French kiss wasn’t appropriate even though this was French Polynesia, but beyond that I was pretty much clueless.

For the record, it goes like this:  right cheek first, then left cheek — and no touching!  Well, as the wife of the local big shot leaned in to kiss my right cheek, I mistakenly went for her left — she zigged, I zagged.  The result was that I landed a kiss pretty squarely on her nose.  To make matters worse, I violated the “no touching” rule when I tried to regain my balance by putting my hand on her shoulder.  Approximately her shoulder.  Let’s just say my hand inadvertently landed in the vicinity of her shoulder.

I don’t think the chief’s wife had ever had an acting lesson in her life, but she did a marvelous job of portraying shock.  Meanwhile, with my limited French I couldn’t come up with enough words to express my embarrassment and beg her forgiveness.  The fact that I wasn’t dragged out and thrown to the sharks is testament to the sweet nature of Raiatea’s inhabitants.  

At the feast we had the following day, they showed there were no hard feelings by presenting my wife with a foot from the pig that had been roasted for the occasion.  They said it was a big honor — kind of like getting the drumstick on Thanksgiving, I guess.  Sally smiled and nodded and said, “merci beau coup,” realizing that there was no way she could toss it in the trash without offending them.  She took a few bites, pretending to enjoy it.  The islanders giggled delightedly as they watched her eat it… and it just now occurs to me that the pig-foot “honor” may have been revenge for my ham-handedness.