Category Archives: GPS folly

UPS drivers know where they are going…


…the old fashioned way.

UPS is prime example of a huge company that is data-drivenly ruthless in pursuit of efficiency. Crashes are extremely inefficient, so any strategy that prevents even a few of those adds up fast for them.

Everyone knows how packages are constantly scanned and tracked. Less visibly, the device the driver carries and the trucks themselves bristle with sensors that transmit positions and movements, even the opening and closing of doors. All this data is crunched in order to strictly supervise drivers and to constantly evaluate and improve methods and policies. It is not the kind of work environment I personally prefer, but I have no doubt they are very good at what they are doing.

So, UPS drivers must be beneficiaries of a state-of-the-art navigation system, right? Of course they are! There is no GPS screen. There are no turn by turn directions. Drivers are strictly prohibited from using their own phones for navigation. The company that micromanages everything it wants to, that could easily install the world’s most advanced wayfinding technology in their trucks has crunched the numbers and decided that safety and efficiency are maximized when drivers simply learn their routes and know their way around.

She really oughtta sue…


Sue the driver, OK, but even I had to wonder about this. My first reaction was in line with the widespread ridicule and disbelief, but after some thought, I wish good luck to a woman who is suing Google because she was injured on a dangerous highway in Park City Utah while following Google Maps walking directions.

In the old days, no one would have thought to sue Rand McNally after an incident like this.  But claims beyond any that paper maps ever made are being made, tacitly as well as explicitly, by high tech navigation.  The suit gains some merit because Google omits the “Use Caution…” disclaimer on the mobile device version of their walking directions website.  But more importantly, who is responsible for the blind faith in Google Maps that the plaintiff, and millions of other people have adopted?  Can Google demonstrate some ongoing dismay that such faith exists?  What have they done about it?  Should the sometimes visible disclaimer be enough to get them off the hook?  What deliberate actions have they taken, through public relations and their carefully nurtured image of omniscience and civic responsibility, to promote the idea “Why hassle with an old fashioned map and thinking for yourself when you can just click and go?”

I am not yet saying she ought to win the suit, but I do hope a trial becomes an opportunity to air these issues.  Should Google get to enjoy the benefits of the people’s faith in their servces while denying they have done anything to foster it?  Where else does the faith come from?

a dangerous walk

a dangerous walk

Any paper street map, or even a look at the Google map that disregards the suggested route, reveals to an actual map reader a route that is slightly longer but follows non-arterial streets for more of its length.  Nevertheless there appears to be no way Lauren Rosenberg could have traveled where she wanted to go without walking at least an eighth of a mile or so on the deadly 4 lane highway.

Here is who she has not sued, but I wish she would, and win big:  Whoever thought it was OK to build a place where it is impossible to walk somewhere half an hour away without placing oneself in a lethal situation.  That is the opposite of any place I would consider worthy of having the word “Park,” or “City” in its name.

Who needs street signs anyway?


GPS has almost killed street maps. That won’t be the end of it!

Slate asks about the future of street signs “Does the advent of GPS mean we’ll no longer need them?”

I say: who’s we?

At least the article quotes an academic expert saying what I figured out running a map store all these years:

… the technology gets us where we need to go without teaching us anything: It’s not very good at “making us smarter about places.”

Skeptical nods like that, and a mention of bad GPS advice episodes, (which are, of course, being swiftly mopped up) do not begin to balance out the article’s Nothing-Can-Stop-Progress technophilia. If you read it, make sure to read the comments for perspective.

No one is looking at a big cost-benefit picture, some kind of greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number assessment of all this assumed progress. In the article, a booster of technology-for-all predicts

…Years from now, when a state can see that most of its population relies on satellite navigation, will it want to spent as much money maintaining signs that serve the minority of users—likely poor and elderly ones—who don’t?

The poor and elderly are only part of it. By the time the taxpayers can enjoy that big street-sign dividend, the heedless rush to get the latest gizmos (remember, these are no more of a one time purchase than paper maps) into everyone’s hands will have, collectively, cost a lot more than paper maps and decent street signs would have. What will we really have gained?

A dumber populace.

Google’s (or someone’s) ability to sell geotagged eyeballs to advertisers lucratively enhanced.

Totally invasive, all encompassing police state surveillance technology in place, just waiting to be abused.

Plus, I guarantee: In a city where emergency responders no longer know their way around because they depend on electronic navigation, things will go wrong (hoocouldanode?) and there will be preventable deaths.

GPS to the rescue?


Lives depend on emergency responders arriving as promptly as possible. But what do we really need to spend to obtain a sufficient level of navigational technology on fire trucks and ambulances?

The conclusions to be drawn from the possibly avoidable death of Tom Gallagher in Queens NY are not as obvious as the NY Post or many of the commenters on this colorful local blog seem to think.

Tom Gallagher, 69, a retired stationary engineer for Fordham University, was in his bedroom at his Little Neck home on Van Nostrand Court just after 10 p.m. Monday when he lost consciousness, his distraught family said.

While his son tried to revive him, firefighters rushing to his aid drove by his cul de sac several times without spotting the entrance.

Their rig was not equipped with GPS or electronic maps — which are not installed in any FDNY or EMS vehicles.

Instead, they relied on a 2005 Hagstrom map they keep on their dashboard.

Oh snap.  Might as well have dispatched a donkey cart loaded with leeches and bottles of Lydia Pinkham’s tonic.

I was not there with that driver.  I do wonder whether they radioed the dispatcher “Where the heck is this Van Nostrand Court?” and if so, what happened.  Could someone at the office have checked the properly updated wall map, gone online, called the family back for clarification or perhaps asked someone at the scene to step outside and flag down the ambulance?  (I am so old I remember being taught to stand and wait by the call box!)

I would allocate at least some blame to what looks to be a vanity address:

Google Street View of Van Nostrand Court

Google Street View of Van Nostrand Court


Van Nostrand Court does not look like a city street to me and I guess it did not look like like one to the responders either. It looks like a driveway. Perhaps the plaque in the gatepost, unreadable in the photo, names it, but there does not appear to be the kind of street sign anyone would be looking for when looking for a named street. If the official address of this little court was “52 Glenwood Street” and the responders had been dispatched to it, they would have rolled right in. Could this be the embodiment of the developer’s assumption that “Everybody who needs to find this little private street will be able to follow their GPS?”

It is much too easy to think that since this person may not have died had new navigational technology been in use, the technology has become a must. According to one commenter, “A decent system with an external antenna is only $300 and can be properly installed and hardwired by any shmuck with a cordless drill, crimping tool, grommet and some silicone sealer in an hour.” First of all, it would hardly be responsible for the city to let “schmucks” install discount-store electronics on emergency response equipment. Appropriately expert installation of heavy duty equipment on hundreds or thousands of vehicles, followed by inevitable repairs and maintenance would be an enormous expense. Most importantly, the irate taxpayers who populate comment threads should be glad their city knows darn well that even with the latest GPS system on every vehicle, something will go terribly wrong about as often as it does without the gizmos. They should be be relieved to know that firefighters and EMTs are still being hired from the ranks of people literate and generally competent enough to find their way by reading maps.

The printed map business has declined disastrously. Maps are getting harder to find, many publishers have gone out of business, and the survivors are hard pressed to maintain update schedules and editing standards. Advertising and general love for the latest gadgetry has convinced many people that printed maps are obsolete.

Save your “If onlys” for the saddest detail of all: The 2005 map. The 2009 edition of the $4.99 Hagstrom Map of Queens correctly shows Van Nostrand Court in Little Neck although the name was not added to the alphabetical index. We can never know if Mr. Gallagher would have been saved for $4.99, let alone $300, or $30,000,000.

I do not know what I could possibly say to comfort the Gallagher family. I am terribly sorry for their loss.

Think of the Children


Adults can easily dismiss the danger that “Technology is making us stupid.”  Maybe you used to fuss semi-competently with maps, got lost now and then, and now you are glad that your cell phone can provide directions.  What is the problem?  You did not get stupider, your life got easier.  Well, adults consistently fail to consider how differently certain problems can manifest themselves in that dimly remembered country they once inhabited: Childhood.

A fifth grade teacher recently told me that not one child in her room could tell time from an analog clock.  Their homes have only digital clocks on TV recorders, microwave ovens, clock radios and the like.  Experts and editorialists everywhere wring their hands about “Why can’t Johnny do fractions?”  There is your answer.  Incredibly, a fifth grade teacher confronts blank space where you might expect rudimentary notions of quarter, half and whole to preexist. If you are reading this, chances are by age 10 you could make it to dinner on time if your mother told you it would be at a “quarter past.”  Your familiarity with that pie shaped area between the big hand and the 12 made your fifth grade teacher’s job a whole lot easier.

Taking the kids for a hike or just out on a drive?  Let the GPS be for emergencies only!  Those minds will not develop unless they get practice observing and memorizing landmarks, guessing and testing distances and travel times, comparing routes and struggling to make the connection between the the territory and the map.  The ability to absorb abstract information and apply it in the real world, an ability you may take for granted, can be gained in no other way.

Drive the car not the GPS


Articles questioning the abandonment of printed maps and atlases seem easier to find in British media.  I think American newspapers are too reluctant to print anything that contradicts the messages of major advertisers.

All the google ads surrounding the above linked article in the Daily Mail are for GPSs.  Do those ad buyers know or care?  This is admittedly less extreme than seeing ads for airlines beside an article about a plane crash that happens to contain a key phrase like “Caribbean vacation.”  Still I wonder:  Does all that caution pay off if the papers get too boring?

Choosing spatial impairment


Something I ought to learn more about is how blind people navigate a city.  Do they develop impressive spatial intelligence?  Is it strictly a matter of obtaining and following step by step directions?  Does it depend?

A customer (this guy is sticking by old fashioned maps to get around) told a story about his daughter.  She landed a new job, entered the address into her GPS device and drove to work.  She drove to work every day for two months.  On the morning her GPS malfunctioned, she could not find her way to work.

Losing my sight is easier to imagine than being in the fix that woman was in.  No one (I think) chooses to become blind, yet people everywhere are choosing to abandon the ability to direct their own physical movement through… well, do we have a word for what isn’t cyberspace?  Oh yeah, space.  aka Reality.

GPS gets a real world test


Here is the kind of story I might invent, but no need, this one is true.

Readers Digest organized a 989 mile, three car race with twelve obscure waypoints across Britain.  One team had to rely on satnav (as GPS is  called Over There), one team had road maps, and one team had to stop for directions.

Which team had the most fun?  Thanks to those of us who were raised to be self reliant and not importune others unless absolutely necessary, the average person is not yet weary of being asked for directions. Indeed, when a stranger asks for directions nearly everyone puffs with local pride, eager to help.  There may be no better way to initiate an amusing chat and learn firsthand about people and places as we travel!  I should do it more often.

Which team came away with marvelous souvenirs of their unique adventure?  Those maps, perhaps a little dogeared and marked with pencil or highlighter will always awaken memories and make them easier to share.  Whether those travelers want to return to an inviting little spot they had to hurry past, or resolve forever to avoid a certain district, the means will be at hand.  If the trip is to be repeated, the team that studied the maps will be best able to apply what they learned toward evaluating alternate routes to shave time, choose nicer scenery or any combination of goals.

The GPS team came in last, did not get to meet any local characters, and will have trouble remembering where they saw what.

The team without maps won the race.  That’s OK.  The lesson is:  Read maps AND get out of your car and talk to people. You will arrive first (if you want to) and gain lasting enrichment from your travels.

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