How (Not) To Use Google Maps

Like it or not, a person sometimes has to visit IKEA. It can’t be avoided if you live in the modern world (unless you happen to live in New Zealand, a small country the Swedes are still looking for). It’s been years since I last roamed IKEA’s circuitous aisles, but there I was again today.

The last time I drove to our nearby IKEA was in the pre-smartphone era. Nearing my destination, I misinterpreted an oddly-placed highway sign and drove off in the wrong direction. That precipitated driving through a seemingly endless series of industrial parks and vacant lots in the vicinity of Newark’s airport. Not wanting to repeat that fiasco, I looked at Google Maps to find a safer route.

This is what Google Maps had to say about the best route through Newark to IKEA:

Drive from I-78 E to Newark. Take exit 57 from I-78 E.

Get on NJ-81 S in Elizabeth.

Continue on NJ-81 S to North Ave E. Take the North Ave East exit from NJ-81 S.

Continue on North Ave E. Drive to Ikea Dr.

I looked at the map, made a few notes and we were on our way. I’d considered letting my phone talk me through the trip, but why bother? Look at those directions! Besides, if we don’t use our brains to perform easy tasks, how will we be able to do hard things? (Although, scientifically speaking, I’m not sure there’s any connection.)

As you might expect, it wasn’t a smooth trip. The trouble started when I realized there were some variations on exit 57, such as 57-A and 57-B and north to this and south to that. The trouble soon got worse when there weren’t any signs directing me to NJ-81. There were plenty of signs with many, many destinations, but not one gave a hint about finding NJ-81.

Suffice it to say that we got to IKEA eventually, didn’t have to walk through the entire store and the trip home was uneventful. But I did think about sending Google some nicely-worded criticism. What good are instructions to get on NJ-81 if there aren’t any signs telling you where NJ-81 is?

Before giving  Google a piece of what’s left of my mind, however, I went back and looked at Google Maps’ directions, as well as the accompanying map. That’s when I decided to click on one of the little white dots scattered about on the road between I-78 and IKEA. Lo and behold! The little white dots bring up tiny windows with further instructions, such as:

Use the middle lane to keep left at the fork and follow signs for US-1 S/US-9 S.

Hey, that’s the kind of information I needed when I was trying to find IKEA!

Obviously, these little windows wouldn’t help anyone driving a car or printing out directions. That got me to click on a little gray “>” symbol next to one of the instructions I’d attempted to follow. Lo and behold again! Clicking on the “>” next to “Drive from I-78 E to Newark. Take exit 57 from I-78 E” revealed more detailed assistance:

Use the right lane to take exit 57 for New Jersey 21 N toward Newark Airport.

Use the middle lane to follow signs for Main Terminals/North Area/South Area.

Use the middle lane to keep left at the fork and follow signs for US-1 S/US-9 S.

In fact, clicking on the “>” next to “Get on NJ-81 S in Elizabeth” revealed an entire trip in itself:

Use the right lane to keep left.

Use the right lane to turn slightly right (signs for US-1 S/US-9 S).

Keep right.

Use the middle lane to keep left.

Continue straight.

Use the middle lane to take the ramp to NJ Turnpike/Interstate 95/Dowd Ave/North Ave/Elizabeth Seaport.

It’s certainly to Google’s credit that they provide such detailed directions and their directions almost always get you where you want to go. On the other hand, if I’d realized how challenging it is to get from, for example, I-78 to NJ-81 (my favorite instruction being “use the right lane to keep left”), I would have chosen a less interesting route.

In conclusion, therefore, I offer the following advice, which I should remember to follow myself:

  • When getting directions from Google Maps, click on the little “>” symbols in the list of directions or the little white dots on the map.
  • If the symbols or dots reveal a series of complicated instructions, look for a different route.
  • Turn on your damn phone when you don’t know where you’re going. Not wasting your brain power performing easy tasks will mean you’ll have more brain power for the hard things! (Although, scientifically speaking, that probably makes no sense at all.)
  • If that doesn’t work, shop online. 

After a Major Event, Life Goes On, But Surreptitiously

gnote1A major event? Yes, finally replacing my aging but handy Blackberry with a new Android smartphone (good-bye, Verizon, you bloodsuckers!).

Some might say it’s only a phone. It feels more like a lifestyle. You can’t do that anymore. Do this now. How do I do that? Guess! Or download an app. Which app? That app! Wait, what did I just do? I must have touched something. Oh, no!

Come on, why do you zoom in on Google Maps by pinching your fingers together instead of spreading them apart? Isn’t spreading them apart a more expansive gesture? And why can’t I spread my fingers apart in the prescribed way? It’s probably a genetic defect. Those of us who can easily carry out the correct two-finger spreading motion are now better-suited to getting around and finding mates. The rest of us will tend to stay put and die alone. If only I could remember the Alternate Zoom Technique:

In addition to pinching the screen to zoom, you can also double-tap on your map, hold, and then scroll down to zoom in, or scroll up to zoom out.

Coincidentally, the New York Times reported more from the Snowden Files today:

When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spy agencies have plotted how to lurk in the background to snatch data revealing the player’s location, age, sex and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.

In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been trying to exploit a basic byproduct of modern telecommunications: With each new generation of mobile phone technology, ever greater amounts of personal data pour onto networks where spies can pick it up….

[Among] the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from users’ smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day.

Fortunately, I don’t play with angry birds. But Google Maps is said to be one of the best sources of information for the intelligence agencies. The Times quotes a secret report from Britain’s G.C.H.Q. suggesting that “anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a G.C.H.Q. system”. Thank you. No problem.

We know that corporations collect whatever information they can about us. Now we know that the NSA and GCHQ are doing the same.

But assuming that we don’t want to stop using our phones or the internet and we can’t get our governments to stop this spying, we can take some solace in the fact that these people are collecting so much data, they don’t know what to do with it. Most of us will never stand out in the crowd.

However, if you happen to be planning a terrorist attack, or want to tell the President he or she is a jerk, you should definitely avoid Angry Birds. Or communicate the old-fashioned way: