bus stops


You’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.
(Ken Kesey – The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

I’ve written about the GeoGuessr game before. It continues to be fun and challenging, and I still play once or twice a week. I find I’m approaching the game differently, though. I’m still always lost, of course, and trying to figure out where the hell I am — but now I’m also looking for recurring, universal scenes. Clothes hanging on outdoor clothes lines. Solitary cyclists riding down isolated roads. Couples walking, holding hands. Bus stops. A village in Latvia, a small town in west Texas, a city in Scandinavia — doesn’t matter. Folks still need to dry their laundry, they still hold hands, they still wait on the bus.

A bus stop in Norway

A bus stop in Norway

I’ve become particularly interested in bus stops — partly because they’re ubiquitous, partly because they’re the most democratic form of public transport. It’s true that, outside of major metropolitan areas, buses are most commonly used by the poor and working classes, but the bus stops for everybody — and you don’t need a reservation.

Near Stega Mala, Poland

Near Stega Mala, Poland

We can thank John Greenwood for that. In the early 19th century, Greenwood was a toll gate keeper on the Manchester-to-Liverpool turnpike. Yes, they actually had turnpikes back then — the monarchy built a few decent roads and charged travelers a fee to use them. The fees were collected at various points along the road, which were marked by a shelter and a pike stretched across the road. Once the fee was paid, the pike was turned and the travelers were able to continue. These turnpikes were mostly used by merchants who needed to transport their goods quickly, or by the merchant classes who could afford to book a seat on a coach. Ordinary people took ordinary roads, which were messier and more dangerous.

Near Boa Vista, Brazil

Near Boa Vista, Brazil

Greenwood changed all that in 1824; he bought a horse and a wagon and began the first mass transport service for ordinary folks. All they had to do was show up at the appointed spot at the appointed time (no reservation necessary) and pay a small fee to ride in the wagon. A similar service was developed two years later in the French city of Nantes. A retired military officer who’d built a heated bath house on the outskirts of the city devised a transport system for getting clients to and from the baths. His clients would gather at the Place du Commerce, outside a shop owned by a Monsieur Omnès, whose motto was  Omnès Omnibus — all for all. You can figure out the rest.

Outside of Arvik, Norway

Outside of Arvik, Norway

The concept of a bus network is fundamentally simple: a series of designated routes with consistent designated arrival/departure times and stable designated boarding locations with predetermined fees. It’s a predictable, reliable, efficient dynamical transportation system, and bus stops act as fixed point attractors. Riders know where to go and when to be there.

And yet it’s an incredibly elastic concept. The same basic approach can be molded to work anywhere under almost any condition. It works in the mountains, it works in the desert; it works in totalitarian nations, it works in democracies; it works in urban centers, it works in rural areas. Buses just make sense — so it’s not at all surprising to find bus stops scattered throughout the Google Street View universe.

Portstewart, Ireland

Portstewart, Ireland

What IS surprising, though, is the diversity of design. Some bus stops are elaborately designed structures, some are purely utilitarian; some have shelters to protect riders from the elements, some are merely wide spots in the road; some are meticulously cared for, some are trash magnets; some are designed to make the wait as comfortable as possible for the riders, some…well, aren’t.

Near Calilegua, Argentina

Near Calilegua, Argentina

Over the years I’ve become a fan of the bus. I often prefer to take the bus than drive. Of course, I have some advantages over most bus riders. I’m rarely in a hurry and I rarely have to be anywhere at any specific time, so I don’t mind if the bus ride is slow and stops often. The pace of a municipal bus suits me.

I enjoy looking out through the large bus windows. These days I find myself living in a rather dull, middle class, suburban neighborhood; the bus takes back through the sorts of poor, working class neighborhoods I grew up in. As a kid, I never felt there was anything interesting or beautiful about those neighborhoods. Now I see variety and diversity that’s entirely absent from where I live — variety in the people who live there, in the houses they live in, in the clothes they wear, in the level of life on the street. It makes me appreciate experiences I used to take for granted.

Sudovice, Slovakia

Sudovice, Slovakia

Among the Hopi and Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest there’s a creation legend involving Grandmother Spider. She existed in the world before it became the world. Before there were places. She spun a web that spanned the entirety of the incipient universe. It connected everything that was to exist, thereby creating — and linking — all places.

She’d have been a great bus driver.

Rural South Africa

Rural South Africa


in which i travel the world and get cheerfully lost

A couple years ago a friend alerted me to Google’s Chrome Experiments, a curious and interesting group of browser-based games and art projects. At the time there were maybe five or six hundred projects, and while I thought some of them were pretty cool and worth exploring, I was busy. So I bookmarked the URL and, as so often happens with stuff I bookmark, I promptly forgot all about it.

Maybe six months ago I heard that Chrome Experiments had reached the 1000 projects mark. That revived my interest. I found my old sadly neglected bookmark and began to noodle around, exploring the various projects at random until I stumbled upon a game called GeoGuessr — and basically pissed away all my free time for about a week. Maybe two weeks. Possibly three. Now I’m more moderate in my GeoGuessr time; I play once or twice a week — but the game still fascinates me.

geo estonia village

As the name suggests, it’s a game based on geography. The concept is simple. Using Google Maps’ Street View, the game drops you on a random street somewhere in the world. I use the term ‘street’ loosely, It might be an actual street. Or it might be a gravel road in a remote corner of the Ukraine, or an on-ramp of an Interstate Highway in the United States, or a dirt path along a newly planted field in Spain, or a back street in a mid-sized Brazilian city, or a boulevard in a major urban area in Russia, or in a suburban housing estate in Wales, or a secondary road in Croatia.

In fact, since the Google-cam can be worn as a backpack, Street View has expanded to include places not accessible to vehicles. I’ve found myself beginning a GeoGuessr game on a ski slope in Utah and on a hiking path to a Hindu temple in India.


The ostensible goal of the game is to use the visual cues and clues of your surroundings to determine your location. You ‘travel’ down roads in search of those cues and clues, then you make a guess about your location and mark it on a map  You accrue points based on how accurate your guess is. Each game has five rounds — five different geographical locations — and at the end, you’re given a total score.

That’s it. As I said, the concept of the game is simple. Part of the attraction, of course, is the puzzle aspect — trying to figure out where the hell you are. That’s fun. Frustrating fun, sometimes. Challenging fun. But still fun.

geo dirt road somewhere4

But for me, figuring out my location (and earning a high score) is secondary. What draws me repeatedly back to the game is the power of the unexpected. The GoogleCam isn’t just mapping streets; it’s also moving through the daily events of the world, and the world is jammed full of weird, absurd, profoundly beautiful, desperately sad, fascinating stuff. Roadside shrines to gods and memorials to victims of traffic accidents. Prostitutes plying their trade along the street. Mountains that come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Astonishing poverty. Exotic coastlines that make you think of pirates or castaways.

The randomness of GeoGuessr inserts you into unexpected locations where ordinary people are going about their ordinary daily lives. The reality of these lives — which are often radically different from my own — is fascinating. Kids playing stickball in the street. A young man meditating in a remote Hindu temple. A recent single-car accident in some remote road. A man walking by himself on some lonely stretch of road in northern Norway. A woman hitchhiking in South Africa. And the GoogleCam records it all with a completely dispassionate objectivity.

geo guy walking northern tip of Norway

I do enjoy the game aspects. There’s something fulfilling about being dropped at a random spot in the world and being able to locate that spot on a map within a few meters. Yet after I’ve figured out the location, I often continue to ramble around, intrigued by the ordinariness of life in other parts of the world.

I’ve begun to collect screen captures of bus stops. I’m thinking about collecting images of railroad crossings. And maybe bicycle riders. And people walking their dogs. These are things that are universal, and yet they’re all so very distinctive. The people waiting for a bus in South Africa probably have a lot in common for the people waiting for a bus in Russia. The cyclist in northern Spain probably has something in common with the cyclist in Australia, and the one on that mountain road in Utah.


Some of you who read this will be tempted to play GeoGuessr. Give into that temptation. You should be aware, though, that it’s an enormous time-suck. You’ll promise yourself you’ll only play for half an hour — but then you find yourself wondering what’s around the next corner, or over than next hill, or through that tunnel. You’ll wonder what that building is, and you’ll want to check out that overgrown cemetery, maybe follow that alleyway down toward the docks. So let me repeat this: it’s an enormous time-suck.

Play it anyway.

i kinda don’t hate facebook

Yeah, Facebook. You hate it. Everybody hates it. It’s a timesink, an annoying distraction, a bog of pointless announcements and idiotic quizzes, a morass of maudlin appeals for support from people you barely know (or don’t know at all), a fixed point attractor for every cute cat video ever made (and usually made badly), a wasteland of recipes you’ll never make and articles you’ll never read. Facebook is an utter and complete waste of bandwidth. Everybody agrees. I agree as well.

Except I don’t. Not really. Oh, I complain about Facebook, but the fact is I rather enjoy it. Every day — every single goddamned day — there are at least half a dozen different posts on Facebook that I find worthwhile. Or more than worthwhile. I find posts that make me think, that connect me to ideas and places and people and things I find fascinating, that give me information I want or need, that amuse me or delight me. And yes, yes of course, there are lots of posts that annoy the hell out of me. Sentimental pap, or faux inspirational quotations, or stupid hateful stuff about Obama, or stuff about…I don’t know…cars. Or basketball. But every single day, for me the good stuff on Facebook outweighs the annoying stuff.

For example, this morning on Facebook an Irish photographer, John Baucher, alerted me to the work of an Arizona-born artist (David Emitt Adams) who uses the wet-plate collodion process to create powerful  and photographs of the desert on old discarded tin cans found in the desert. It’s the perfect melding of subject and medium, as well as a profound statement about the effect of humankind on the environment. Adams says,

“I have never known this landscape without the forgotten debris of urban sprawl. Today, the notion of land untouched by the hand of man is so foreign it might as well be make-believe.”

David Emitt Adams


And this morning on Facebook, Barış Kılıçbay, a Turkish scholar, shared a short video edited by Jacob Swinney, in which the first and final frames of several films are shown side-by-side. It sounds simple and obvious, but it’s actually surprisingly sophisticated and compelling. It offers some real insight into how a narrative is — or should be — deliberately structured.


And this morning on Facebook the Des Moines Bike Collective posted a video about the Idaho Stop and showed me a photograph of an 83-year-old woman who’d stopped by the shop for help fixing a chain on her bike. The collective regularly posts information about cycling and how various urban areas are working to make cycling safer and more convenient. They also frequently feature local folks who are doing cool bike-related stuff.

bike collective - janet


And just now on Facebook, British science blogger Elise Andrew (who runs the brilliant I Fucking Love Science page) posted a link to an interactive exercise in speculative zombie epidemiology. By inputting a couple of variables (such as the kill-to-bite ratio and zombie velocity) and picking a location for Zombie Patient Zero to appear, you can follow the pattern and rate of a zombie epidemic in the U.S.

That dark area in the Midwest? That shows how in two weeks, a single zombie in Des Moines capable of walking less than one mile per hour and infecting 85% of the people it bit would have spread the infection far and fast enough to envelope both Minneapolis and Chicago. Who wouldn’t want to know that?

zombie infection rate


I don’t any of these people, really. I’ve never met John Baucher, though we occasionally correspond and we communicate frequently on Facebook. I have no idea how I came to know Barış Kılıçbay — through a friend, or a friend of a friend. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is that our small interactions on Facebook have occasionally made my day more interesting. I’m not a member of the Des Moines Bike Collective, but I know they’re a force of good in the community and two or three times a week they inform me about something bicycle-ish I’d otherwise never learn. And I only know Elise Andrew through IFLS, but she’s expanded my understanding in dozens of science-related fields.

My point, if you can call it that, is that although Facebook really is horrible, it’s also really pretty terrific. If you like zombies. And bikes. And movies. And wet collodion tin can photography.