Wednesday, April 9, 2014

History and Navigation Adventures in Techie-Land

Officer Mac of the Sunnyvale, CA Police Department

It doesn't get much more awash in tech than here in Mountain View, California. This afternoon I visited the Computer History Museum - an obligatory stop when you make the rounds here. Aside from the expected reminders of how fast tech moves (I saw an Osborne 1,  the earliest portable computer, weighing in at a mere 23.5 lbs in its carrying case, a carrying case I hauled proudly around in the days when I didn't worry about yanking out my spine or popping a rotator cuff), I learned some unexpected fun facts that even many of my super techie friends and colleagues might not know.

Did you know that punched cards were critical to the compilation of the British Atlas of Flora and Fauna, published by the Botanical Society of the British Isles in 1962? Data was compiled on 40 column punch cards and then used to create distribution maps. The maps were printed as dots on maps that covered the entire British Isles. Those maps, as well as some of the original cards, are on display in the museum.

Officer Mac was created by 21st Century Robotics (a US company) and in 1985 was known to visit schools as a goodwill ambassador for the  police department. Officer Mac, who was as tall as some adults, was operated by remote control. He showed public safety videos. But here's the really good part: Officer Mac (A ROBOT!) was used as a nonthreatening counselor to abused children. I really wished there had been more information to read about how this was done and how well it worked.

Have you ever heard of Barbera Stephenson? I hadn't. An engineering graduate of MIT, she was hired by Digital Equipment Corporation in 1961 as their first female engineer. There was a nice quote on the wall about how she dealt with the many men who were at  first unbelieving and then astounded to encounter her. She'd start politely rattling off the technical information they were looking for and then they'd react as if they had encountered a new life form.

Outside of my museum visit, and clearly in the giggle department, is my interaction with Google's navigation system this week. Here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a few short miles from Google Central, I have had more quirky encounters with their navigation system than anywhere else in the country. As soon as I entered Mountain View the navigation started having trouble with street names. This morning for example, as I exited the driveway, the polite authoritative voice told me to TURN LEFT. Well, turning left was clearly going to go the long way around the block. So I turned right.

A few minutes later, as I encountered the first large intersection, the navigation told me to TURN RIGHT, naming a road that was clearly not the road in front of me. Now, in case you think that navigation was smarter than me, you would be wrong, for I had (as always) done a manual check of where I was going prior to getting into the car. Knowing where I was (a mere 2 blocks from my starting point) I turned right. Perhaps navigation was miffed. Because from then on: no more street names. For the rest of the day I was instructed to TURN LEFT or TURN RIGHT or GO STRAIGHT or CONTINUE without any identifiers or distances. When navigation ordered me to MAKE A U-TURN a split second after turning into the right most lane of a very busy multi-lane street, I could swear I detected a note of smug self-satisfaction.

Strange things like this have been going on for days. Last weekend, as I drove south on Interstate 880 towards Mtn. View, navigation authoritatively instructed me to take one of the exits, go around the block and get back on the freeway. I knew that exiting was in error, but I was in no hurry, and curious to see what the system was up to. So I made the very short diversion through an empty office park before continuing on my way.

Is there a Bermuda Triangle effect at work here? Either that or my navigation system is malfunctioning. Nah...