What Are Subway Conductors Always Pointing At?

YouTube
YouTube

When New Yorkers are waiting to board a train, most of their energy is focused on elbowing their way into the car as fast as possible. But if they were to take their time, they might notice something peculiar: after pulling into the station, a subway conductor will always point his or her finger out the window. This isn't something conductors do for fun or out of superstition: The repetitive gesture is a safety precaution, and when you follow their finger you'll see they're always pointing at the same thing.

Halfway down every subway platform in New York City there's a black-and-white-striped bar of wood that's hung in a very important spot. When this indication board, or "zebra board," is lined up perfectly with the conductor's window, that tells them it's safe to open the doors. Any further back and the rear of the train could be stuck in the tunnel—same goes for the front end if it stops too far past the board.

Because opening the doors without a platform to step onto is such a serious concern, conductors are required to point at the sign every time to show that they've stopped at the right spot. Four years ago, an MTA conductor explained the procedure in a Reddit AMA:

"They don't trust us to just look, so required procedure is to point to it at every station before we open the doors. The absolute biggest violation a conductor can make is opening the doors where there isn't a platform. If that ever happens, the first thing supervision is going to ask you is 'Did you point to the board?'"

Zebra boards first began appearing in subway stations around World War I. In earlier systems, one conductor was positioned between every two cars to operate their doors individually. New technology made it possible to open all the doors on a train at once, and the MTA switched to having one conductor in the center of each train. The striped boards have been used as a handy reference point ever since, but it wasn't until 1996 that the MTA began requiring conductors to point at them.

This rule didn't originate in New York, but on the other side of the globe in Japan. Japanese train conductors use pointing to acknowledge many different factors throughout the journey, including speed indicators and upcoming wayside signals. But when you see conductors making the motion in New York, they're almost always pointing to the same object. As the pranksters in the video below discovered a few years ago, this level of consistency can be exploited to have some goofy fun.

All images courtesy of YouTube.

Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

nito100/iStock via Getty Images
nito100/iStock via Getty Images

There’s no one explanation for how Halloween costumes originated. Much like the holiday itself, the practice of dressing up is the result of a hodgepodge of traditions from around the world.

Many historians suspect that the tradition has some basis in the Celtic festival of Samhain (also called Calan Gaeaf in Wales). Celebrated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain marks the official start of winter—known to the Celts as the “dark season.” During Samhain, “the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That wasn’t a comfort to the ancient Celts, who believed their deities were prone to playing tricks on human worshippers. Many festival participants disguised themselves as animals or beasts, hoping to hide from malevolent spirits who might bring them misfortune.

Move forward a few centuries and the modern-day practice of dressing up and trick-or-treating has its roots in the European custom of “mumming and guising.” Mummers would dress up in costumes, often woven from straw, and perform plays and songs for neighbors in exchange for food. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought that tradition to North America, where it later morphed into what we now know as trick-or-treating.

Halloween costumes didn’t experience their true heyday until the mid-1900s, though. For that, you can thank New York City entrepreneurs Ben and Nat Cooper, who started a company producing pop culture-themed costumes at a low cost. Ben Cooper, Inc., found a niche in helping kids become the characters they admired from television and comic books, often purchasing merchandising rights before said characters ever became popular. Due in no small part to the Cooper family’s innovation, Halloween costumes became an accessible and even necessary part of holiday festivities.

Today, Halloween costumes are big business. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend about $3.2 billion on costumes this year (of that, about half a billion will go to costuming pets). You have to wonder what the ancient Celts would have thought about today’s Halloween costumes.

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What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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