“In Chinatown, in the dark window of a herbalist, she thought she saw it on a sign among ideographs. But the streetlight was dim. Later, on a sidewalk, she saw two of them in chalk, 20 feet apart. Between them a complicated array of boxes, some with letters, some with numbers. A kids’ games? Places on a map, dates from a secret history? She copied the diagram in her memo book.”
— from The Crying of Lot 49
“And they could be anything?” said Harry. “They could be old tin cans, or, I dunno, empty potion bottles…?”
“You are thinking of Portkeys, Harry, which must be ordinary objects, easy to overlook.”
— from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
So what are these protractors all about?
Because of the numbers, locations and colors, almost everyone assumes they mean something. The theories can be clumped into two categories: marks and clues.
The mark camp believes the protractors are a symbol, of a graffiti artist, or a gang, or a secret society. They place less importance on the individual details — the numbers and the colors — than on the overall existence of the protractors. They take the macro view.
They believe there will be 360 protractors, one for each degree of a circle. Or they believe there will be 365 protractors, one for each day of the year. Or they believe the protractors symbolize something (the shape of a bridge) or represent something (New Urbanism). Or they believe the entire effort is a gimmick, a grass roots campaign to garner publicity or an art project — many have suggested a CMU art project, in particular.
Or they believe it’s a trick. This is the nihilist view: that it all means nothing at all.
Among this group there is no a consensus about whether the protractors are benevolent or malevolent, safe or dangerous, meant to be found or meant to stay hidden.
The clue camp believes all of this is leading somewhere. They search for patterns in the numbers, the locations, the colors and the order. They try to guess the location of unfound protractors based on the location of found protractors. They believe the protractors are Connect-the-Dots that will spell a word or form a picture or lead to some treasure. They believe that No. 1 will reveal answers. They believe it is a Scavanger Hunt of sorts. In general, the clue camp believes the protractors are a force for good.
The two camps are not static, either. The symbolists suggest patterns and the searchers posit theories. I waffle between the two camps almost daily. Sometimes I’m sure it means something and sometimes I think its all a big dumb joke. The two camps seem to agree on one thing: they both believe the Grand Protractor is “on to” this ongoing search.
What’s more interesting to me is how it feels to search for the protractors. How exciting it is to find one and how curious it is to find one that breaks the pattern. I expected this would be like a Soduko, increasingly easier as it goes along, but each new protractor only complicates thing. Why are there two No 82s and two No. 185s? Why do No. 118 through No. 124 follow a logical route when No. 170 through No. 180 zigzag all over? Why are the numbers written in different handwriting? Why are they different colors? Are protractors continuing to appear, or have new finds been hiding in plain sight all along? Why are they crossing the Allegheny River but not crossing Fifth Avenue?
Searching for the protractors also requires extreme focus on your surroundings. It is the ultimate anti-car project. The protractors are almost impossible to spot while driving, certainly not without endangering yourself and others. Even on foot, they require much snooping and doubling back and poking around all four sides of static objects. I’ve walked many miles around Pittsburgh, always on the lookout for interesting things, but I’ve never enjoyed it more than I have over the past month. Whether intentional or not, these protractors are a celebration of the vibrant sidewalk life of the East End.