Sunday, January 11, 2015


“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” 
~ Douglas Adams

I have an old Garmin GPS device in my car I generally only use when I'm already lost in downtown Portland (which used to happen every time I ventured down there, but lately I've been doing a bit better, especially when I take the bus). 

Despite my advanced degree in Computer Science (and former life as a computer scientist), I am and always have been a very special kind of technophobe.  That's precisely why I at least tried to do my share of work in "human factors" (the art of making people far less technophobic) because quite honestly most software is not designed with actual human beings in mind.  Thus technophobes are made, not born, and it's not their fault at all.

Everyone in Oregon recalls horrific stories of people lost in the mountains, blindly following navigational instructions down some minor logging road.  One couple was separated, and a woman lasted for weeks in her car, snowbound in the mountains, while her husband sadly froze to death trying to hike his way to help.

A couple of months ago, while picking up a client at a downtown hotel for an early morning meeting, my Garmin told me to turn right, I obediently obeyed, and I ended up on a bridge heading the opposite direction, over the river in the dark, then by the river an unfamiliar warehouse district, then b
ack across the river on one of the oldest bridges in Portland (a draw bridge that thankfully was not letting a boat through at the time).  There is really only one bridge in downtown Portland I actually know well (and now I know 3 ;-) ).  I used a second navigational device on my iPhone to find my way back, stopping more than once along the way to check the map (and don't ask me why I don't use my iPhone more often). 

Years ago, I will never forget driving in circles downtown while taking one of the brightest engineers at our company to an awards ceremony.  She had a PhD and was from India, an absolutely brilliant woman with multiple patents to her name.  The navigational device kept telling us to turn and to turn and to turn on a very rainy night on a very circuitous route.  Eventually, we both laughed, realizing technology had tricked and gotten the best of both of us (and it's even possible the results of one of her papers had been embedded in the device).  So we followed our instincts, parked the car and walked the rest of the way.

Yet another time, while heading to a big radio station downtown, not once, but on two different occasions spaced enough apart I forgot all about the first time, my silly Garmin told me to turn on the worst possible road of all, the "transit mall corridor" (in fact, this has happened yet another time outside the convention center).  When you don't know where your going, rarely drive downtown  and nobody is front of you, nothing is more scary than a transit mall corridor (except maybe one of the bridges) because at first you have no idea whether 1) you are actually supposed to be on that road at all (in some cities, you aren't),  2) which direction the traffic is heading (it always looks one-way the wrong way for some reason), 3) where the heck you are supposed to drive (when frazzled, it's surprising how confusing that can be, as there can be a bus lane next to a light rail lane) 4) did I just go through one of those awful downtown red light cameras or stop too far over the line? (I know of red light cameras in the suburbs that will penalize you for turning right on red without stopping completely behind the line before you turn, but the problem with those is you can't inch up to see if anyone is actually coming, so I usually decide not to turn at those intersections at all - except by accident downtown when a Garmin tells me to turn.)  and 5) please tell me the light rail, trolley, bus, both or all are not coming before I get a chance to get my wits about me and find the proper lane (or get off the road altogether if there is no proper lane).

Lately my ancient Garmin tells me my maps are out of date and usually displays a huge "?" (and since I only use it when I'm lost, I never have time to get the maps).  But every once in a while, when I actually know where it is I'm going, like when I choose not to turn down a transit mall corridor, what my Garmin tends to say is "Recalculating..."  It thinks it knows the route, but a now wiser me knows better.

In life, there are many times a seemingly unadventurous (yet surprisingly adventurous) soul like me will choose a special, custom route, even rambling and circuitous.  My friends might say I'm lost, the maps not yet available.  I have some idea of a destination (or at least what my destination ISN'T).  As for my navigational device?  It is actually my Heart, the best human factor of all.

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