Posts filed under “General Knowledge”


A Red Line car on the Red Line in Beechview when the Red Line was running on the Red Line.

Dear Dr. Boli: Why did I just see a Red Line car on the Blue Line in Overbrook? I mean, you expect to see the Silver Line on the Blue Line, and sometimes the Red, Silver, and Blue Lines on the Brown Line, but why the Red Line on the Blue Line? Is this a sign of the End Times? —Sincerely, The Rev. Albatross Tarn, Countdown Assembly of God Church Congregation, Overbrook.

Dear Sir: Your question gives us an opportunity to explore the deepest workings of the bureaucratic mind as it interacts with the 163 years of encrusted streetcar tradition in Pittsburgh. Bring a compass, climbing tackle, blasting caps, and a ukulele, and we shall begin our descent.

The general rule is that the Red Line begins at Overbrook Junction and winds under Mount Lebanon, through the back yards of Dormont, and down the main street of Beechview, finally joining the Blue and Silver Lines at South Hills Junction to go through the Transit Tunnel and then to the subway downtown. However, a fair number of the inbound Red Line trips actually originate farther out at South Hills Village (because the car barn is there) and follow the Blue Line until the two lines diverge at Overbrook Junction; and likewise a number of the outbound trips go past Overbrook Junction and continue to South Hills Village.

A few days ago, some shifting was detected in the long viaduct that carries the Red Line and the South Busway (the Yellow Line on the maps) over the Saw Mill Run valley. For certain historical reasons, Pittsburghers are in a mood to worry about bridges at the moment. Till the bridge is repaired, the inner half of the Red Line is closed from Potomac on in to South Hills Junction. Rail shuttles run from Overbrook Junction to Potomac, and bus shuttles through Beechview to downtown.

So far that probably makes perfect sense to you. However, there are still the Red Line trips that originate or end at South Hills Village. These are now diverted over the Blue Line. For the entire route, they follow the Blue Line stop for stop. There is nothing but the words “Red Line” on the front of the trolley to distinguish them from Blue Line trips. They are, however, still Red Line trips by nature. It is true that, from the passenger’s point of view, they have nothing at all to do with the Red Line. The naive passenger thinks that what makes a Red Line car is the fact that, sooner or later, it travels on the Red Line. The trained bureaucrat, however, sees through to the true εἶδος of each trip, and understands that, even if the Red Line is temporarily closed, even if the Red Line were to be wiped off the map by map-wiping weevils, cars that set out from South Hills Village at the times set aside for Red Line trips are still Red Line cars. This is why you will be seeing Red Line cars running through Overbrook until that viaduct is put back together properly.


Dr. Boli is compiling a list of words that literary, cultural, and political critics are ordered not to use in his presence any longer—an Index Verborum Prohibitorum, as he calls it. The penalty for violating these injunctions will be severe: it will be nothing less than knowing that Dr. Boli has stopped reading your article at the exact point where the prohibited word appeared. However profound your thought, however clever your expression of it, he will read no more of it, because the prohibited word has kicked him out.

We have already mentioned the word transgressive, which has the honorable first place in the Index. And today’s prohibited word is


Why “identity?” Let us look at a smattering of quotations from a single article in a university newspaper:

ISU Theatre explores questions of identity, community through “Iowa Odyssey (or How We Got to Here)”

ISU Theatre’s “Iowa Odyssey (or How We Got to Here),” a unique, locally sourced theatre collaboration about identity, community and hope, opens Friday, April 26 at Fisher Theater.…

Last fall the production’s student advance team began interviewing Ames community members and ISU students, faculty and staff about their experiences of culture, identity and immigration.…

We’re exploring how the question of identity and where we come from shapes how we can build a community together.…

…explore how stories passed down through generations create belonging and identity.…

Advance team member Bethmari Marquez Barreto, a junior animal ecology and performing arts major from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, said she felt a responsibility to use her identities as an artist and multicultural student to bring attention to an important social issue.…

What does it take to shape a person? What is identity? What is diversity? How do people perceive these traits and qualities of the people?…

The story tells us that the university’s theater group is mounting some sort of production about various abstractions—“identity, community and hope.” Perhaps a Greek chorus impersonates “Community,” with one solitary figure stage right representing “Identity,” until “Hope” comes along and beans him with her anchor. It probably makes for riveting theater, but Dr. Boli has decided to save his money and buy tickets to a Noel Coward play instead. And by the way, when he heard the phrase “animal ecology and performing arts major,” Dr. Boli immediately imagined that this ambitious junior must be studying lion-taming.

The problem with the word “identity” in these contexts is the same as the problem with nearly every other word that will appear in the Index. It is an abstraction that has been abstracted so much that it has become meaningless. What do you answer if some lion-taming college junior taking a poll asks you how you perceive someone’s identity? The proper response to such a question could only be something like this: “Sober, I see one of him. Drunk, I see two.” Dr. Boli imagines the sturdy midwestern farmers of the Ames area telling each other, “Don’t answer the door for the next couple days. Them college kids are going round asking people about their experiences of identity again.”

But if we cannot speak of “questions of identity,” then how can we talk about these things at all? The answer is the same for every word in the Index: Say what you mean. This is going to take some effort, because it will involve figuring out what you mean before you say it, and these abstractions are useful precisely because they spare us the effort of meaning anything. Thinking is more work than typing.

Nevertheless, if you wish to hold Dr. Boli’s attention, you must put in some effort and think before you type. Of course the question of whether Dr. Boli is reading your article may not concern you; in fact, in reading some of these articles, it occurs to Dr. Boli that the question of whether anyone was actually reading was not prominent in the authors’ minds. If you are writing merely to fulfill an obligation to type a certain number of words before you knock off for the afternoon, then by all means use as many meaningless abstractions as you like. The more the better, since they make the words roll effortlessly off the keyboard. But if it is your intention to communicate a thought, do not use the word “identity.” It is broken.


Do not say “experience” when you mean software or program, because at this very moment your customer is warming up his sarcastic voice and preparing to say, “Oh, it’s an experience all right.”


Why would I add any other spices if I’ve already put in allspice?

Where do New Caledonian crows live?

How can I determine my favorite color?

What was the Enlightenment and how did I miss it?

Where did they put Düsseldorf?

Is a rondeau funnier than a sonnet?

If I adopt a Russian wolfhound, do I have to learn Russian?

Which comic-book hero didn’t have a tragic backstory?

Was James Joyce on drugs or what?

Is violating the Geneva Convention really all that bad?


Dear Dr. Boli: I was telling one of my friends that I was thinking of trading in my husband for a more recent model, and she said that she and her husband had an “open marriage.” So I smiled politely and changed the subject, because I didn’t want to admit that I had no idea what she was talking about. But now it’s bugging me. What does it mean when people say they have an “open marriage”? —Sincerely, Mrs. James K. Polk Brenneman (for now).

Dear Madam: It means anyone can walk into their house and do the laundry, mend the porch rail, take out the trash, wash dishes, and do the other things married people have to do every day. It may sound dreary to you, but some people enjoy that sort of thing.