Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Talk GPS to me, baby

There are many things to worry about in life, but I have a special concern for people who have asked me for travel directions as I jog about the neighborhood.

Of course, I always try to be helpful to those who stop their cars and ask trustingly where they can find such-and-such a street. I tell them the best I can, pointing in various directions, as intuition - but not necessarily knowledge - guides me.

And off they go, all cheery and thankful, never to be seen again. My worry is this: Are they still out there somewhere? Are their lives unfolding as a series of strange vistas as they try to get back on the right road?

Because no sooner do they drive off than the thought comes to me: Darn, I should have told them to turn right, not left, at the post office.

On the road to ruin, where they have found themselves through my unwitting guidance, I fear they say, many days into their wanderings with their cheerfulness long departed: "Cursed be that bald man who led us astray. May he be doomed to work as a miserable scribe inciting joyless enemies."

This would explain a few things.

But it is a brave new world and technology is available so that today no one has to depend on well-intentioned but clueless joggers.

Instead, the modern driver can employ an automotive navigation system that declares how to get to such-and-such a street without a problem. That is, if the lady with the robotic voice is in the mood to cooperate.

As one who isn't great at directions (see above) and who married a woman who needed a map to get down the aisle, the Henry family decided that regularly being lost, while an aid to seeing more of the country, was growing a bit old. So we recently took the leap and got a car with a GPS system.

The instructions would have us believe that satellites beam down the car's position and the system uses stored data to give the directions. Perhaps so, but I have my doubts. The directions lady is very stubborn. She does not seem to react well after she tells us to turn left in 400 yards and we turn right. Is it my imagination or is that a note of peevishness in her voice?

I have come to think the lady giving us directions is a real person, perhaps living in another country where the locals are employed to help Americans navigate their lives in various ways. She is always strictly courteous but her formal tones do not suggest a warm and engaging personality. I think you could meet a more frisky person at a Christmas party for funeral directors.

For the longest time, the directions lady would try and redirect us back home no matter what route we were taking. It was as if she looked at the family profile and decided that for the good of everybody, it would be better if such dolts were not out on the roads.

Eventually, we wore her down and she at last consented to give directions for where we wanted to go. Just the other day, however, she took us to our destination but, upon arrival, added a couple of other destinations for good measure.

My friend Doug, who is currently visiting from Australia, tells me that these systems come with two settings - scold and nonscold, and all I have to do is to find the nonscold button and the directions lady will change her tune. The trouble with Aussies, however, is that you never know when they are joking.

I do know that some systems allow different accents. You can get a directions lady with an English accent ("I say, sorry to be such a bother, but it would be awfully nice if you turned left in 400 yards" ) or even an Australian voice ("Cripes, you missed the turn, you big galah!"). Our directions lady speaks standard American - or does she? In the call centers of the outsourced world, they are well-schooled in accents. I suppose there must be directions gentlemen too, but the systems always seem to have women telling us what to do. No surprise there, half the population says. Quite right, says the other half.

It appears that such navigation systems are the greatest boon to civilization since sliced bread and bottled beer. But they pose the eternal question: Whatever did we do before? Well, we were lost, of course, and we couldn't make a cell phone call to complain about it either.

Yet somehow we struggled along - just like those poor motorists who took directions from a bald jogger. OK, I'm sorry already.

Reg Henry is deputy editorial page editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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