Category Archives: Routefinding

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.

How much is too much of a good thing?

What do you make of the commonplace notion that we only use 10 percent of our brains?  I have always taken it to mean that we could all afford to learn about 10 times as much stuff as we do before having any overload trouble. Too bad we seldom bother. Like most people, I watch for information that confirms my pre-existing notions, and Lo!  An article in The Economist about the link between genius, or savant syndrome and autism roughly confirmed my suspicion.

The movie “Rain Man” is a fair presentation of savant syndrome.  I had assumed that such savants are born, not made, but an element of the syndrome called RRBI, restrictive and repetitive behaviors and interests, must indeed be made, even if the inclination towards RRBI is inborn.

Malcolm Gladwell, in a book called “Outliers” which collated research done on outstanding people, suggested that anyone could become an expert in anything by practising for 10,000 hours. It would not be hard for an autistic individual to clock up that level of practice for the sort of skills, such as mathematical puzzles, that many neurotypicals would rapidly give up on.

So what happens when a neurotypical does clock up 10,000 hours?

There are, however, examples of people who seem very neurotypical indeed achieving savant-like skills through sheer diligence. Probably the most famous is that of London taxi drivers, who must master the Knowledge—ie, the location of 25,000 streets, and the quickest ways between them—to qualify for a licence.

The expert here is Eleanor Maguire of University College, London, who famously showed a few years ago that the shape of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in long-term learning, changes in London cabbies. Dr Maguire and her team have now turned their attention to how cabbies learn the Knowledge.

The prodigious geographical knowledge of the average cabbie is, indeed, savant-like. But Dr Maguire recently found that it comes at a cost. Cabbies, on average, are worse than random control subjects and—horror—also worse than bus drivers, at memory tests such as word-pairing. Surprisingly, that is also true of their general spatial memory. Nothing comes for nothing, it seems, and genius has its price.

25,000 streets, and no Manhattan-style grid to make it easy!  Plus, London cabbies must also know all hotels, theaters, museums, hospitals, shops, embassies and so much more. I love that they simply call it The Knowledge. 10,000 hours is about 3 1/2 years of 8 hour days.  Obtaining The Knowledge can be a four year project.

So now we know.  Spend 45 minutes a week reading maps. Look for places you have been.  Look for places you have heard of and might like to know more about or visit.  Think about new ways you could travel to work. What might be worth seeing along the way?  Who could you drop in on?  45 minutes a week.  You might get 2% of the way towards a situation where you have clogged up your mind to the point where your ability to do crosswords or learn to read music is slightly impaired.

Crowdsourcing in the non-virtual world

Tweenbots is a provocative and heartening work of art.

6 day old kittens

Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

path of robot

We see in a new way that low tech navigation is engaging and fun.  The project demonstrates

…the power of a simple technological object to create a complex network powered by human intelligence and asynchronous interactions. But of more interest to me was the fact that this ad-hoc crowdsourcing was driven primarily by human empathy for an anthropomorphized object.

The novel anthropomorphic object certainly gets attention and appeals to people’s playfulness, but I would argue that any human empathy it gives rise to is best thought of as directed at its presumably human creator!  Just imagine the emergency response were this object suspected of being anything but a toy, more or less, that nevertheless has some purpose and meaning for somebody.

I am greatly encouraged that even after a 8 years of fearmongering, no one called the bomb squad on the tweenbot.

Such sensibility and behavior are some of the things I love about about cities, especially New York.

A Walk in the Park

How did anyone manage a walk in the park before GPS was invented?

I am intrigued by the contrast between Letterboxing and Geocaching. tells us that

Geocaching (pronounced geo-cashing) is a worldwide game of hiding and seeking treasure. A geocacher can place a geocache in the world, pinpoint its location using GPS technology and then share the geocache’s existence and location online. Anyone with a GPS unit can then try to locate the geocache.

People love their high tech toys; I certainly approve of outdoor family adventures and online communities; and hey, the official Getting Started page does advise “Bring both a map and a compass.”  But it seems kinda thin.’s FAQ page goes on forever. For starters,

Letterboxing is an intriguing mix of treasure hunting, art, navigation, and exploring interesting, scenic, and sometimes remote places…
Someone hides a waterproof box somewhere (in a beautiful, interesting, or remote location) containing at least a logbook and a carved rubber stamp, and perhaps other goodies. The hider then usually writes directions to the box (called “clues” or “the map”), which can be straightforward, cryptic, or any degree in between. Often the clues involve map coordinates or compass bearings from landmarks, but they don’t have to. Selecting a location and writing the clues is one aspect of the art.

Before you seek out a letterbox, you should carve your own rubber stamp to stamp in the cached logbook.  Not cool to buy one, unless you have a really good reason why that store-bought rubber stamp is simply perfect for you.

Who needs cryptic clues when you can just enter the coordinates in your GPS?

I confess that I have never participated in either of these sports. So far, a walk in the woods or park has always been its own justification.  But I deeply admire the work some letterboxers put into their clues.

It did not take long to find this masterpiece of the genre.  GretchenF’s opus is a playful tribute to twelve beloved children’s books.  Plus, in a two hour, stroller friendly 2 mile walk you will be compelled to reflect upon nearly every statue and point of interest in Providence’s beautiful Roger Williams Park.  Such nice work I am posting about it even though you do not even need a map.

Smart Cyclists Converge

You know times are changing when you find yourself in a line of smoothly flowing traffic – of bicycles.  A line of only three, but still:  All were pedaling along in well practiced morning commute fashion, and not on a bike path, painted lane, or one of Providence’s less than totally helpful new Bike Routes.  They had converged on a zigzag route from the upper Hope Street area to downtown that neatly avoids traffic, minimizes hills, and is as short as any alternative.  Brewster St. > Summit Ave. > Ivy > Forest > Camp > Brown > Halsey > Congdon or Pratt.

The new signs denoting “Bike Route Downtown” as well as google maps (walking or by car) would have directed them straight down Hope to Angell, along with hundreds of cars and buses, and up past the charming Ladd Observatory which happens to be the highest elevation for miles around.

I like to see people thinking for themselves.  They might even have figured it out by looking at a plain old map.

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