Tag Archives: Google Maps

A New York State of Find

Maybe it is a fact of life in the city – every person is in it to win it, to coin an overused phrase. Something about population density, and compression of spirit as well as space: too little for too many, everyone grabbing and pushing and protective of what they have. It has always seemed to me that once people spread out physically and psychically that there follows a more relaxed attitude – allowing someone to not only breathe but to be more willing to share the air. And this expansion does not mean ¼-acre lots in the suburbs, because there have been extremely intense battles over property boundaries and other lines drawn on those subdivided plots, too.

At the other extreme is how genuinely helpful people can be who live in places of great distances, where towns are 50-100 miles apart. Anyone who has crisscrossed the west and southwest and has had vehicle breakdowns knows that folks in vast landscapes are aware that aiding a stranger is a necessity, a tit-for-tat act of karmic insurance for the inevitability of their own mechanical failure and fate. Helping is a way of existence and survival in a sparsely populated place. Without the generosity of fellow travelers, we would all end up like the bleached bones in a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is a very different mindset of shared, rather than proprietary, neutral space, but also a more empathetic understanding of the inherent dangers and a willingness to pool resources in a spot where there are so few at hand.

Admittedly, all this generalizing does not preclude there being greedy bastards out west and generous spirits in East Coast cities. But it can color one’s thinking and expectations about places. So, imagine our surprise when we recently encountered three acts of kindness in one twenty-four hour period in upstate New York. This isn’t meant to cast any aspersions on New York state, but it is and was a surprising triad of events, perhaps another ploy to make us fall even deeper for this region. Part of this happy experience is the unexpectedness of it, which, as we have said, can be a component of arslocii. In this instance, though, it is a placeness achieved through human connection, of people extending themselves for the purpose of aiding you in achieving your goals; no questions asked – like really good parents. Only they are strangers.

The day began with a dead tail light as we were headed out to cover some distance. Luckily, there was a Ford dealership near the Thruway in a spot not too far from where we were, and not too much out of our way. Three things: their service department was open on Saturday morning, which this was; their parts department (also open) had our particular bulb; and the three or four mechanics on duty seemed underwhelmed by the volume of repairs. We were shuttled into the Quick Lane, which must be like the fast lane for when your car isn’t moving. The tail light cover was removed, one of us went to the parts counter and purchased the bulb, and the new one was installed and working in about two minutes’ time. Quick Lane. Then: No charge. Really? Their reply was, simply, for us to enjoy our day. Come to think of it, about the West – I was once swindled by greedy bastards in Arizona for some shock absorbers my car didn’t need. Here I am, 100 miles from New York City where, by centrifugal force alone, unsavory New Yorkers could be easily flung into my path. But, no: quick, courteous service … and no charge. That was the beginning of the day. I could have settled for just that.

Now that our Google maps were completely worthless because we were no longer starting out at the beginning or even from the same direction, we improvised to try to reconnect with our route. And, naturally, without directions in sequence (and their directions always lacking any kind of context), our distances were completely worthless. And, then, even right turns and left turns became meaningless and confusing, because we were not starting at point A, and we knew in our hearts that we were without any ability to locate point C. So, we stopped to ask for help – at an ambulance company. Emergency services would know how to find every place, we assumed, no matter how rural. The ambulance driver had no idea where this place was we were going to, to our chagrin. But he did have a very fancy GPS device that he spoke the address into and, presto, we had directions from this point that was not on our Google maps. His kindness was that he didn’t have to do that for us, but he could and he did.

Back on the road with Google maps once we connected with our destination, we were on our way again. No problem now, smooth sailing. Except for one thing – a frickin’ detour through Newburgh. And the worst part of this was that either we were experiencing deja vu, or we had been caught up in this same detour a couple of years before. We remembered it all: the turns, the landmarks, the overload of traffic being rerouted, and also the fact that the detour signs disappear without getting you back to the road you really wanted in the first place. And, suddenly, just like the last time we were there, we were utterly lost. For a while we thought we could recover from this but it grew gradually apparent, as we found ourselves on rural roads once again, that we didn’t have a clue where we were (thanks again, Google Maps – I mean, if a detour has been ongoing for a few years, wouldn’t you think they might have mapped that, too?). The space between things was expanding and we had to yell “uncle!” once again. This time it was a very unbusy car-repair or tire shop in the center of what seemed to us as nowhere.

Since it was a very male kind of establishment, the male of our party went inside. It was an even more unbusy place than the Ford service had been, with a few folks sitting in the back talking – about their lack of business, presumably – although it seemed almost conspiratorial, questionable, strange even. Directions were asked and a woman who was among the group jumped up and said, “It’s too confusing if I tell you, just follow me.” Astonishing, yes. Even more astonishing is that we drove behind her for at least 15 miles before she honked and pointed to our desired route as she turned off the highway. Awesome! Talk about going above and beyond. And you would especially not expect that kind of help from a place that in all appearances seemed like either a front for some illegal off-track betting ring, or a group that was discussing how to get rid of the body. And just like that, a fifteen mile escort to a recognizable road.

What a day! It was filled with good Samaritans and their kind acts of turning a sense of being out of place into placeness.

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A Map of the World

Back in the early days of the Web, its biggest selling point (in a giant cloud of delectable intellectual seductions and complete boneheaded and hedonistic time-wasters) was its capacity to provide news and opinion, and updates of same, in words and pictures (later, of the moving kind), instantly, constantly. For an information junkie, it was the mother lode of resources, on-demand updatedness, and enough headline skimming for one to absorb and then project the appearance of knowingness. It was great fun, bouncing from story to story, site to site, seeing more, gaining aspects, having a panoply of voices informing (and misinforming) one’s own.

But, then, with all this news available, people started to do a strange thing: limiting their scope. Through the use of aggregator algorithms, readers were able to shut out all news except those they specified: You could tell the program or site that all you wanted to see was, say, business news, or sports news, and what was provided for you was just that and nothing more. And that ability to determine line of sight when it came to being informed, that specialization, changed everything: it changed how knowledgeable we were as a people (less broadly so); it changed our view of the world (more narrowly so); and it began the end of newspapers, which could not personally aggregate and segregate focused news for each individual reader.

And, for a news junkie, that was the shocker: Why would you want to know less – that is, more about a few things but less about everything else? Why filter out the greater world? The paradigm of newspaper reading was that of a journey, through space and time; one in which you followed paths to destinations that you wanted to get to (jumping from Page One to Page 12, for instance), but by doing so it became one in which you also bumped into things you didn’t know you might, fascinating, illuminating, even life-changing things. That little story on Page 12, at the bottom, was likely the one you remembered all day and told people about at the water cooler.

In what is described as our hectic world and hurly-burly lives, we feel the need to shave off precious seconds of wasted time by cutting to the chase – bypassing the rose and coffee smells – and by doing so what we have lost is chance and the lucky accident … serendipity, or, perhaps, fate. And by the way we use the Internet for our news instead of the locational, processual, processional walk through a newspaper, the placeness of it all is gone, too, as well as the art of mastering the maneuvering through and understanding of that placeness. We get information, but, somehow, we haven’t earned it. Getting to specifics is our one goal – everything else is just the fly-over.

And so it is, in terms of placeness, ironically, in the way we now figure out our travel plans. The journey has been removed from map reading, and the placeness has been excised from the finding.

We here at arslocii have been trying, the past few days, to plot out a car trip of several hundreds of miles, across a half-dozen states, in little more than a handful of days. One of us – the one most intoxicated by the Internet (okay, okay, that would be the male version of the animal) – is charting the course using Google Maps, a generally  excellent service combining fine mapping with the kind of GPS-ish, turn-here-then-there directions once limited to MapQuest. The other of us is doing it the old-fashion way: the several years’ old Rand McNally road atlas. (Do they actually make them new, or do they all roll off the presses somehow old?) Actually, it’s copyright 1998. Google is as current as … well, more current than 1998.

Using Google Maps, one is speedily propelled to desired locations, and distances between these desired locations are instantaneously calculated. The program seems to understand, a bit eerily, where you might be headed based on where you’re starting from: as you type in the first few letters of your next stop, a drop-down menu suggests possibilities and, almost invariably, the first option offered is the one you were looking for. Impressive and ingenious, there is a sureness about it, a feeling of authority – with a speed that is winning. It’s not quite magical, but it is quite remarkable. And fun – like an arcade game, but with a point.

And yet … there’s something wrong there.

Although Google Maps finds the town you want with all due haste, it is like the news aggregating programs: key spots, and all the rest is fly-over. Plus, the paradigm of travel is obliterated: using the book-form atlas, one is compelled to search – to “travel” – to find one’s way through the pages and what is on each page. The user, goes to an index at the back of the book, runs his eyes down a long, small-type list of towns and cities – already we’re traveling – finds the locale he wants and notes that on the map on Page 18 he can find his destination at something designated as “E-16.” Flip pages to get to the proper map, find the number 16 along the bottom of the page, place your finger on it and proceed to slip that finger vertically until it reaches the horizontal E axis, and then search within the defined rectangular area, filled with names and dots and red and yellow road lines, for the site you seek – all the while “traveling” through hamlets you’ve never heard of and burghs with odd or storied names, over blue creeks and through green state parks and by historical markers, actually touching them, all on your path to the name and dot that you want. Processual, processional, a simulacrum of real travel, the chance of seeing something you didn’t know was there. Serendipity. Placeness. Art. Slower? Sure. Less elegant? Certainly. More “human”? Definitely.

(And let’s not forget the creases and tears, the pen marks and spilled-food stains, on the pages once or most used – Google Maps screens provide no similar triggers to nostalgia and happiness, to memories of getting there, getting lost, getting angry, getting giggly, getting experience. Google Maps is new each time; the road atlas is a fellow wayfarer who, through many trips, sat on our lap and looked out the windshield with us.)

And more paradigm shattering: When you type in a town name into Google Map’s search, you are taken right to it, and have to move outward from it to find out where you are – to determine the context. With the Rand McNally, you start away from the goal and slowly move in its direction … just like real traveling, going from the general to the specific, from a loose set of parameters to a point.

Traveling, especially by car, is a pilgrimage of personal discovery in which the road experience is as pertinent as the arrival at Mecca. So is the planning portion: “Here’s where I start, here’s where I end up … and look at all that stuff we’ll pass through in-between.” All that stuff is what makes it all worthwhile.

As in geometry, a line is a series of points. So is traveling, and travel planning (and, don’t get me started, life itself): not a “Star Trek” beaming up, but a going towards, place by place by place.

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