Never assume the French make sense

In World War II, prior to the Normandy invasion, the Allies sent planes with cameras over France to take photos of the countryside.  This was important and dangerous intelligence-gathering which provided invaluable information to the Generals planning the attack, but it had a few drawbacks.

The Normandy countryside is full of hedgerows.  (Americans would probably call them bushes, hedges or shrubs.)  The English, when looking at the photos, assumed these hedgerows were like the ones in their country, i.e., a couple of feet high.  But the French hedgerows were ten feet tall, two or three feet deep and thick enough that they were impossible to push through with anything that wasn’t a tank.  And the planners of the Allied invasion had no idea, because the photos they used were taken by cameras looking down from directly overhead.

Why do I bring this up?  Because Google Maps tried to kill me.

My last day after over a decade

I am writing this from the desktop of a space I have occupied for nine years, in a building I have worked in for eleven years.  My office is moving today to a location about twenty-five miles away.  (The towns, if you wish to look, are Medford and Norwood.)  For the past four years I’ve biked to the office– 4.2 miles from my front door– about nine months out of the year.  The commute to the new office is 17.7 miles.

I’m totally going to do this.

Trial run

Google Maps is one of the most useful infuriating things I have ever used.  Let’s begin with the online version, which has a wonderful Bicycle Route option that I will never, ever try and use again ever.  The option is wonderful if you’re going on a jaunty little tour of the local public parks, have a lot of free time, and are built out of spare parts of Lance Armstrong.  Otherwise?

The first time I plotted the route it gave me a path that was 18.9 miles.  It had directions on it like “Left on Left Street” because it was sending me along roads that did not have names.  The algorithm is apparently weighted in this order:

  1. get the cyclist to the nearest bike path at all costs
  2. if there is no path, take the shortest route possible, even if this means zig-zagging through a neighborhood, because cyclists love stopping every fifteen feet
  3. make sure the directions are much too complicated with entirely too many turns on it to be memorized, because cyclists love navigating via printed paper maps

I figured out point #1 early on and adjusted the map accordingly.  It turned out Google wanted me to go way the hell in to Boston just to hook up with a four mile public park.  When I eliminated that park and made a few other adjustments I got the path down to 17.2 miles.

And then I discovered the real consequence of #2: Google Maps thinks the Earth is flat.

Hell is littered with hills

You may be thinking, “but Gene, I can see the contour maps when I go to Google.”  Yes you can.  But the algorithm clearly ignores these.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t consider the three mile path with the forty degree incline preferable to the four mile path that goes around that incline.  “Just go over the hedgerow,” said Google Maps.

And then I got lost.

Part of the problem here is that after carefully studying my route on the printouts I made from Google Maps I then left the printouts at home.  But I don’t honestly know how I would have fared with them, given where they were sending me and how complicated the directions were in the first place.

But I had a backup plan, which was the Google Maps application on my iPhone.  Unfortunately, and for reasons that I’m unclear on, the bicycle option doesn’t exist in the iPhone app.

Still, it could tell me where I was and how to get where I was going, provided I was walking there.

There is such a thing as too exact

Google Maps is overly-obsessed with exactness.  Example: say I’m heading straight along a road we’ll call HellOnEarth.  According to Maps, in 3/10ths of a mile I’m supposed to take a “slight left” onto a street we’ll call SatanicMotherfuck.  So upon reaching SatanicMotherfuck, I take a slight left accordingly.  

When I look at my phone again to determine how far along SatanicMotherfuck I am supposed to go before doing something else I discover that I’m supposed to still be on HellOnEarth.  It turns out that a teeny tiny portion of SatanicMotherfuck actually intersected HellOnEarth, and the “slight left” was an infinitesimal involuntary muscle twitch of a left turn when kissing the perimeter of a rotary.

This happened to me at least three times.

But I did get there

It took me about two hours, and I died twice, but I got there.  And then I took a good long look at the map again, cursed Google about fifteen more times, and headed back.

The whole trip there, I kept getting directed to Washington Street, which I thought was kind of weird since before I began my trips along HellOnEarth, SatanicMotherfuck and the Arborway, I had left a street called Washington Street.  Was it the same Washington Street?  Of course it was; my entire side jaunt to locate parks I never found and along “short cuts” that are only short cuts in the sense that Everest is a more efficient way into China could have been avoided if I had just stayed along perfectly straight, only-one-hill-to-speak-of Washington Street.

And so this is what I will be doing, possibly starting next week.  The route is 17.7 miles long, wonderfully dull, and should take me about 100 minutes to complete.  (This is how long the train would take to get me there, by the way.)

I will probably die several times, and there is an outside chance that if I do not die, I will not be cogent enough to write persuasively.  Fortunately, the blog tour is coming up next month, so I don’t have to do a lot of writing.

Also, and this is fortunate, I don’t really use my brain at work.

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