Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gizmos are great, except when they aren't

Every now and then the phone rings and the call sounds familiar. It'll be an installer from Lowes, or a truck driver from Grand Furniture, or the deliveryman from Costco, or maybe the FedEx motor freight driver.

And they have pretty much the same question: Where are you?
 Does this look like a road a delivery van would travel on?

It's especially important to people who make their livings finding you and giving you what you've paid for. One fellow pulled up in front of our house after coming up the wrong end of Belcher Mountain Road and having to work his way around some turns as tight as a paper clip.  He shut off the engine, rolled down the window and asked, "Mister, is there another way off this mountain?"  When I told him the Blue Ridge Parkway was just about three miles east and Black Ridge Road just a bit farther, he sighed. "You got to be kidding. I was on Black Ridge two hours ago, before the GPS lost its mind and told me to go down to Woolwine and up the east end of Belcher Mountain Road.

This farm is at the same place it's been for, oh, a century or so. But the problem is that people have lost their ability to read topographic maps or follow directions. They just want to trust the GPS and the computer.  Bad idea.

We learned about this years ago way down on the Neuse River, where we kept a 37-foot cutter with the latest Garmin chartplotter and a computer chip containing the latest maps.  When we ran aground in the river below New Bern, we realized that trusting the GPS also depended on our trusting that the chartmaker years ago put the channel on the correct side of the daymarkers.  But someone had fouled up, putting the channel about 30 feet southeast of where it ought to have been. It took us a while to work our way off the shoal and find the channel.

In the same fashion, the computer-based map services such as Mapquest and Google Maps depend on some mapmaker from long ago to have put the right things down on the topo maps. But neither of those computer services has a brain to ask such questions as: Can a tractor trailer maneuver around those hairpin turns?  Is that dotted line through the woods really a passable road? Is it wide enough for a delivery truck?  Is that dotted line even in the right place?

The answer we've found is sometimes no. Somebody fouled up the maps a long time ago, and the computer -- trusting the old input and without the ability to reason its way through reasonable questions -- assumes the old maps are right and that everything's okay.

A month or so ago an installer was coming out to measure for a new storm door. Well after the appointed hour he called from down in Woolwine.  "Lookahere," he said, "I'm trying to get up to your house and the computer says I'm just a couple of miles away, but I can't find Brammer Spur Road."

 No wonder. Brammer Spur Road isn't a passable road, not for traffic, anyway.  Sure, there's a paved Brammer Spur Road out of Woolwine that turns into a dirt farm road at the base of the mountain and then seems to peter out in the woods. But it's a rocky, rutted track for most of its length, in places well sunken andf badly eroded and narrow, a jeep trail that's passable by foot, horseback or ATV.  And it's blocked off at the Belcher Mountain end by the property owners who don't want folks gallivanting all over the mountainside on a road that is little more than an old trail.

The second problem is that some of the map services I've seen have confused Brammer Spur with another trail that runs along the Blue Ridge Escarpment a ways. It's the Connor Spur Road, but it hasn't been a passable road to motor traffic since Moses was in third grade.  We walked down it 20 years ago, occasionally losing sight of where the trail went, backtracking to find and follow the trail down the hill.  It too sometimes shows up on the computer maps as a passable road.  It isn't.

And the third problem is that even with all the sophisticated gizmos that can figure out latitude and longitude, the computer services can't seem to figure out exactly where we are.  They seem to think we're over near Barnie Day's property, when in fact we're about a mile east of there.

This ought to be easy to fix. But I've spent several hours trying to send email to Google and trying to use its online fix-a-mistake page.  No doubt I've made a mistake trying to use it properly.  Somehow we haven't connected.

But I have to give credit where it's due: the U.S. Postal Service doesn't have any trouble finding us. Whenever there's a bill to be paid, that notice will be on time and in the right box.

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