After a couple of digressions into hard-core observing targets (which some people might argue is my proper domain), let me continue my discussion of the tunnel vision induced by flashlights — and how it can serve as a metaphor for life.Some months ago, I was buying milk and gas at Stewart's in New Lebanon, NY, my country hometown. A car pulled up and asked how to get to Route 8 — a question that knocked me cold, as it were, because there are a bunch of Route 8s, and none are especially close to New Lebanon. The conversation proceeded:
Me: Route 8 in what state?
Me:Where are you coming from?
Them: Syracuse, NY
Me:: How did you wind up here?
Turns out they had consulted an internet mapping program, and it told them to get on Interstate 90, stay on it for a really long time, get off on U.S. 20, then take a right on Rt. 8. All of which is exactly correct, but ...What they didn't realize is that I-90 is basically the modern version of old Route 20, the road from Boston to Chicago. The two roads crisscross repeatedly. They had gotten off at the first interchange, in East Greenbush, NY, instead of the correct one, in Lee, MA. And since they had only printed out the directions, and had no map whatsoever, they were then utterly and totally lost. They would indeed have gotten to the right place eventually by following Route 20 — if they stayed alert to the fact that it makes multiple right-angle turns — but they would have lost well over an hour in the process.
The moral of this story is not that you should avoid computer mapping services. On the contrary, I find Google Maps in particular quite liberating. I'm always looking for new ways to get from point A to point B, and Google Maps lets you alter its chosen route by "pulling" it to different intermediate points. That's no big deal in and of itself, but what is a big deal is that it will add up the mileage for each route in a split-second. You can do that with a convenientional road map, too, but it's a very time-consuming and error-prone process.
As Humpty Dumpty says, it's all a question of which is to be the master. If you take the easy way, following the computer's advice blindly, then you will never have any idea how origin and destination are connected, where you are at any moment along the trip, and what to do if anything unexpected happens. But if you use the computer as an aid rather than a crutch, then it becomes life-enhancing rather than crippling.
This has obvious application to astronomical observing strategies in the age of modern electronics. But I'll come to that in another blog.