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By Joel Klebanoff

The Road Not Taken (Nor Given)

Douglas Adams wrote a humorous two-and-a-half-book series of novels about the fictional Dirk Gently and his holistic detective agency. (On the suggestion of Adams' estate, Adams' editor lovingly published, under the title The Salmon of Doubt, the half book along with other material found on Adams' computer after his death.) Dirk Gently used an interesting navigation technique when he was lost. Rather than consulting a map, his strategy was, to quote from Adams' book The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, "to find a car, or the nearest equivalent, which looks as if it knows where it's going and follow it. I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often end up somewhere that I needed to be." If you're depending on a map from one of the Web-based services, it seems that, 2% of the time, Gently's method might not be such a bad navigation method after all.

This week's topic was recommended by a reader, Stormy Eggert, who responded to my request (actually, it was more like a desperate plea) for suggestions of technology-related issues I should rant about here. In her email, she wrote that one of her current pet peeves is the discrepancies and errors that occur in the maps and directions provided by some of the popular mapping Web sites, such as Yahoo! Maps and MapQuest. She's used those services to get step-by-step driving directions and has found that the results sometimes included streets that are misnamed or non-existent. In one particular instance, the route she was given through Toledo was very wrong. She reported that "There was a whole section of missing directions. Luckily, I realized before I got too far off track and I stopped to ask for directions, but it was certainly unpleasant and unexpected."

As an aside, I should mention that I'd never heard the name "Stormy" before she emailed me. Embarrassingly, I had to email her back to ask whether it was the name of a male or a female. I needed to know so I could use the correct personal pronoun in this article. In retrospect, on rereading her note, I realize that I should have known right away that Stormy is a female, because none of us guys would have ever stopped to ask for directions. I'm convinced it's a genetic thing. My theory is that something in the Y chromosome inhibits us.

My second confession is that I've never run into the online map problem that Stormy described. I attribute that to one or a combination of three factors. First, there's probably a large element of luck involved. Second, I live downtown and work out of my home. I get nervous outside of downtown areas, so I'm usually able to walk or take the subway wherever I go and have little need for maps. Third, I have no life, so, again, I have little need for maps.

Because I have no personal experience with this problem, I asked Stormy if she could provide me with an example. Without too much looking, she found one. Stormy directed me to the differing MapQuest and Yahoo! Maps directions from the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. If you ever find yourself at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and you want to get to Cedar Point quickly, use MapQuest. It says you'll get there in three hours, 58 minutes versus four hours, 22 minutes for Yahoo! (Damn, I hate that name. I really didn't want to put an exclamation point at the end of that sentence.)

As another digression from my main topic, who the hell do these guys think they're kidding? Three hours and 58 minutes? It's like the airlines. When you book a ticket, they tell you that your flight will be arriving at 4:23. Yeah, right. Why can't they be honest and admit that the best they can say with any confidence is that the flight will be arriving 4:30ish, unless, of course, you're flying on a day of the week ending in the letter "y," in which case they'll get you to your destination whenever the hell they feel like getting you there. Three hours and 58 minutes? Give me a break! One more red light than normal and it's going to be three hours and 59 minutes. And if there's a traffic accident, you can forget about those time estimates altogether, particularly if your car has become locomotion-challenged as a result of being in the thick of it.

If you're looking for the shortest distance, rather than the shortest time, use the Yahoo! route. It's 243.9 miles versus 249.54 for MapQuest. There they go again with their absolutely ridiculous false precision. A few extra lane changes on the highway and you're going to be driving more than an extra 0.01 miles, making it 249.55 or 249.56 miles, rather than 249.54 miles. Does anyone with more than a pea-sized brain care about that much precision on a driving trip?

At first I thought that MapQuest might have provided the fastest time while Yahoo! provided the shortest route. If so, that could explain the difference. Fortunately, MapQuest offers a few options as to how it plots the route. To test my theory, I asked it to provide the shortest distance rather than its default, which is the shortest time. That came up with a route that was almost 20 miles shorter than Yahoo! (You decide whether the 20 miles justifies the exclamation point that time.) MapQuest also had a couple of other options: avoiding tolls and avoiding highways. I tried every combination and permutation, but I still couldn't come up with a route that was the same distance as the one provided by Yahoo! What's up with these guys? Maybe one or both of them own some private roads that the other one's not allowed to use because, otherwise, the best route should be the same no matter which service you choose.

It's somewhat troubling that at least one—and maybe more—of the online mapping services are clueless when it comes to telling you the best way to get to your destination, but that's not as bad as the problem that Stormy originally wrote to me about, which was directions that contain non-existent streets and directions that are wrong in some other vital way. I was curious about how prevalent this problem is, so I searched on Google and found a June 28, 2005, New York Times article. It reported that, according to someone from the American Association of Geographers, roughly one in 50 computer-generated directions are wrong. The article went on to include some personal accounts of just that sort of problem. This brings me back to the point I made in my opening paragraph. Approximately 2% of the time, Dirk Gently's method of navigation would not be much worse than the directions you get from Web-based mapping services.

I recently attended the 2006 edition of an annual Lifelong Learning Day that the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management puts on for its alumni. When I was a student there, it was called the University of Toronto Faculty of Management, but that was before a very generous person who, you will not be surprised to learn, goes by the name of Joseph L. Rotman, decided to dump a truckload of money onto the school. The theme of this year's Lifelong Learning Day was, "CREATIVITY: 21st Century Capital." (Stick with me. I will eventually steer my literary vehicle away from this little diversion and back to the original rant.)

One of the speakers, Margaret Boden, founding dean and research professor of cognitive science at the University of Sussex, gave a talk titled "The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms." She said, among other things, that we all have mental maps and that one path to creativity is to find ways to change those maps. (Hmm, this looks like a promising course. I think I might be heading in the right direction with this paragraph.) She used a more tangible analogy to illustrate her point. Sometimes, when we're on a journey in our car, an unexpected circumstance, such as a detour due to road construction or an accident, diverts us from the route we plotted on our roadmap before setting out. (There we are! Whew. I was more than a little worried that I might not find my way back to my topic.) On that diversion, we might stumble on a quaint little down that we hadn't visited or even known about before and never would have seen were it not for the diversion, but which quite enchants us and possibly even alters our life in something more than a casual way.

That got me thinking, which is not an easy thing to do. These online map services have been wasting their time trying to earn revenue by placing banner and text ads beside their maps. Cities and towns are always looking for ways to draw in tourist dollars. Why not sell them the promise of intentional errors that will bring people to the municipality's amazing tourist attractions like the National Toenail Clipper Museum. (One of the things that scares me is that there probably is some town, somewhere, that actually does have a toenail clipper museum.) The intentional misdirection for profit idea is a rather clever one, isn't it? In fact, maybe that's what they've been doing to Stormy. You're probably wondering why you weren't smart enough to think of that idea yourself. Well, that's why I'm in marketing and you're not. (By the way, it's only a coincidence that my first degree, not the MBA from The Rotman School, carries the initials BS. Honest.)

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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