The running man

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Near my hotel on the Plaça Imperial Tarraco in Tarragona, the indicators to tell pedestrians when they can cross the street have a countdown in seconds to the next green: a minute ticks by, the lights go yellow for the vehicular traffic at 6 seconds, then red at 3 seconds, and finally — 3, 2, 1, liftoff — the little green man is displayed and you can walk across. Only in Tarragona the little green man figure does not just pose in a walking sort of shape: he moves. Those little green arms and legs are working away: he seems to be race-walking. And that's not all: when there's only 7 seconds left, he begins to sprint.

The temptation to take this limb movement as iconic is irresistible, I find. I sprint across. Just as well: the vehicular traffic tends to start up and drive through the crossing about three seconds before the countdown for the green sprinting man hits zero.

Iconic representation is so powerful. Lots of people describe the Chinese writing system as iconic, or call the characters "pictograms". But they aren't iconic at all, except in a very few cases. The Chinese for "run" is pǎo, and the character is this:

Now, does that character in any way suggest to you that you should get your legs moving nineteen to the dozen? It does not. Chinese writing is not iconic; the characters are not little pictures. But the running green man of Tarragona pedestrian crossings is.

And now let me just add an update to record something that traffic-light nerds from all over have been emailing me about: the running green man seems to have been invented in Taiwan, and you can see him at street crossings there too. I wouldn't want you to think I am giving credit to the Spaniards for an invention hailing from the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu (Chinese Taipei).

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