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.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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