Never Ask a Mathematician for Directions
I spent my formative years in a very rural county. Roads didn’t have names, or at least they didn’t have road name signs.
In college, my urban friends used to claim that if you asked someone in my hometown for directions, they’d say:
Go about a half mile, and turn left at Old Man Johnson’s farm. Then take a right at the huckleberry tree.
That very well may be true, but it’s no worse than the directions you might be given by a mathematician:
Well, you’re facing the wrong way, so do a reflection about this cross street. Go about 0.628397154 miles, then rotate π/2 radians and travel orthogonally to your previous vector for 600 light-nanoseconds. But they’ve got radar on that road, so keep your speed between 72 and 43 miles per hour. Turn left, and you should reach your destination in 2.4 minutes ± 0.3%, if you maintain an average speed of 46.8 mph.
Now, that’s bad. But at least I could understand all of it. Which is more than I can say for the directions that Google Maps provided yesterday. Traveling through the suburbs near Washington, DC, I had just crossed MacArthur Boulevard, and I was heading southwest on Arizona Avenue. As you can see from the screenshot below, Google Maps was suggesting that I turn right on Carolina Place, right on Galena Place, right on Dorsett Place, and then left on Arizona. In essence, it suggested that I reverse direction to take a 10-mile, 45-minute route.
I ignored that suggestion. Instead, I stayed on Arizona Avenue with the intention of turning right onto Canal Road in a quarter-mile. Just as I passed Carolina Place, Google Maps said that it was “Rerouting…,” and within 15 seconds, it confirmed that I had made the correct choice:
By ignoring Google Maps, I shaved 3.8 miles and 23 minutes from my commute.
My speculation is that Google Maps attempts to avoid my chosen route because it follows Canal Road, which parallels the C&O Canal National Historic Park; it requires me to cross Chain Bridge, which offers a beautiful view of the Potomac River; and it then winds through an affluent neighborhood, where I can feel safe on tree-lined streets with elegant homes. Honestly, who would choose that when Google Maps is offering double the travel time and an opportunity to drive on the beltway?
I once asked Google Maps which highway I should take to California. It replied…
Oh, yeah. Root 66.
The logic employed by Google Maps reminds me of a college friend…
He would always accelerate when coming to an intersection, race through it, and then brake on the other side. I asked him why he went so fast through intersections. He replied, “Well, statistics show that more accidents happen at intersections, so I try to spend less time there.”