Tunnel Vision Navigation

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.

internet mapping directions
It's convenient to print out the directions from an internet mapping program. But if you don't take the map too, then you're totally lost if you make a single mistake.
Google Maps
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?
Them: Connecticut
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 ...

U.S. 20 (the northern route shown here) goes to the same places as Interstate 90, but takes a lot longer to do so.
Google Maps
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.

15 thoughts on “Tunnel Vision Navigation

  1. Beau

    The same should be said for GPS assistants that “tell” you where to go. I’ve heard more than one story about people ending up hundreds of miles from where they were supposed to be.
    I personally prefer the old fashion paper maps. It’s fun to sit down and figure out which route to take.

  2. James Grose

    I agree, relying way too much on GPS assistants, especially faulty ones can be a really big problem. Unfortunately most people nowadays do not know how to read and interpet maps, especially road maps, and relate them to what they see around them. Most people unfortunately let GPS devices do the thinking for them, and that can be a real dangerous problem, especially if the GPS device is error prone. NEVER, absolutely, NEVER totally rely on a GPS device when traveling, and to anyone who reads this, please take the time and learn how to read and interpet a map, because someday that skill could save you alot of trouble, and possibly even your life.

  3. Andy

    I see you’re going to expand on this but as a geographer and an astronomer I see the strong parallel between understanding how to read a map, orient and locate yourself, and how to read a celestial chart, orient and navigate. If you use a computer to blindly get yourself from ‘a’ to ‘b’ without understanding (or even seeing) how you get there and what interesting things may be on the way, you lose out hugely in your understanding and enjoyment of the landscape or the sky. I’d recommend doing Sue French’s ‘Deep Sky Wonders’ tours without a computer-controlled telescope (if you own one) every bit as much as I’d recommend walking the hills or driving A to B with just a map and compass.

  4. Dieter Kreuer

    I’m probably one of the last amateur astronomers on Earth who got himself a goto telescope, but it made such a big difference since I bought it earlier this year. I was not doing much observing in the past few years, only casual strolling through the skies. And always watching the same objects like M13, h/chi Per, M57, M31 etc. It was just too tiresome to starhop to new and faint objects during my brief observing sessions. Never had prepared those evenings properly.

    I was stunned by the power of my goto mount. I could type in Neptune, and bang, there it was, shiny blue in the eyepiece. It has a tour that showed me many objects I had never heard about like the Swan nebula or the blinking planetary. I could just try out Messier numbers randomly and then let myself get surprised by what shows up in the eyepiece. Only now am I starting to make copies of Sue French’s articles and to explore all the objects described by her. Also, I have to learn a lot of new star names for aligning the mount on my balcony, which gives me access to only half of the sky. Ever heard of a star called Sadalsuud?

    It may be well true that I’m often not too much aware of where the scope is pointing exactly and how I wold have gotten there without a battery, but goto really opened a new sky for me. Just like my GPS allows me to drive around in alien cities as if I had been living there my whole life. But I always have a set of maps with me (both when observing and driving!), just in case.

  5. Paul McBride

    Long interested in positional analysis, I purchased a GPS unit to determine positions for occultation timings. Having already determined a position for reporting, I was happy that the GPS reported a position within the limits of observability. Later I drove a few long trips using the GPS mapping program as a backup for my wifes map navigation. Hertz on board GPS units were highly useful due to the voice instructions. We called her Mable. She saved us many times in difficult interchange situations. However on the last trip from mid-continent to the east coast, We chose to rely only on the maps. I think I prefer that method as it seems safer. The distraction of the GPS can get one killed on the highway.
    I haven’t tried geocaching, but may take it up one day. Interesting article there. Oh! I did purchase a sextant last time I went to sea. I still use it at the pond to measure elevations of stars.

  6. Dieter Kreuer

    It’s certainly true that reading a GPS device can distract the driver and cause serious accidents. However, so can reading a printed map or a Google maps printout while driving! I would even say, a GPS device mounted with a suction holder to the windscreen and giving additional vocal directions distracts less than a map held to steering wheel or lying on the co-driver’s seat (unless you have an actual co-driver giving the directions!). In Europe, where streets are not geometrically laid out and well tagged with names as in the US, even looking around to find the correct turn may be a distraction, which is lowered a lot by using a GPS.

    But yes, there are stories of people misinterpreting GPS directions and ending up on railroad tracks, on subway pedestrian entrances(confusing them with the entrance of a parking garage) and even down ferry ramps into rivers. And very often trucks that get stuck in front of bridges or tunnels on streets much too small for them. So, checking a map additionally before the trip is certainly not a bad idea.

    To get back on topic, the same is true for watching the skies. Tony’s point is certainly that some people use their goto scope without the slightest idea how to get around in the skies, which is a valid argument, every amateur astronomer should learn the constellations, star names of bright stars and locations of the most important sky splendours. I too have done so for more than 30 years, but I’m really thankful that goto now enables me to spend most of the time with watching my desired target rather than finding my way to it.

  7. Anthony Barreiro

    I’m still using a manual altazimuth mount for my little telescope, and either a road atlas or printed google maps in my little car. I’m not going to get gps in the car anytime soon because I don’t need it. But as I consider getting a new and bigger telescope, I am considering the pros and cons of a goto mount vs. an equatorial mount with a clock drive. Dieter Kreuer’s entry above, “Navigating the Skies”, suggests a wise middle path: learn as much as you can with a manually driven telescope, and then when you have reached the limits of what you can do manually, upgrade to goto. Thanks Dieter. [Paragraph break] And thank you Tony for a thought-provoking series of essays on visual observing. I’m looking forward to seeing where you go with this subject.

  8. Anthony Barreiro

    I’m still using a manual altazimuth mount for my little telescope, and either a road atlas or printed google maps in my little car. I’m not going to get gps in the car anytime soon because I don’t need it. But as I consider getting a new and bigger telescope, I am considering the pros and cons of a goto mount vs. an equatorial mount with a clock drive. Dieter Kreuer’s entry above, “Navigating the Skies”, suggests a wise middle path: learn as much as you can with a manually driven telescope, and then when you have reached the limits of what you can do manually, upgrade to goto. Thanks Dieter. [Paragraph break] And thank you Tony for a thought-provoking series of essays on visual observing. I’m looking forward to seeing where you go with this subject.

  9. Alison

    In the words of Tom Lewis’s “Marching Inland”:
    “[Columbus] kept on sailing to the West until he ran aground,
    He thought he’d found the Indies but he’d found the U.S.A.,
    I know some navigators who can still do that today.” …
    Good grief… it amazes me how navigationally challenged some people are. Listening blindly to GPS and not knowing how to use a paper map is another example of gadgets dumbing down our society. Sure, they have their uses. But paper maps (or, ok, maps PRINTED off Google) show you where you are, and don’t present the problem of electronic glitches…

  10. Wally

    Most people are using online resources for everything.

    The two-source rule I was taught long ago is dead.

    The simple step of buying a REAL atlas or map and always checking it and keeping it in your car on a trip is (apparently) dead.

    (Yes, online and GPS maps can present addresses on the wrong side of a town, in the wrong state, etc.)

    Everytime a new i(fill in your branding here) device comes out it’ll get worse.

    Believe me.

    Thia applies to ALL areas of life not just driving and astronomy.

  11. Wally

    Most people are using online resources for everything.

    The two-source rule I was taught long ago is dead.

    The simple step of buying a REAL atlas or map and always checking it and keeping it in your car on a trip is (apparently) dead.

    (Yes, online and GPS maps can present addresses on the wrong side of a town, in the wrong state, etc.)

    Everytime a new i(fill in your branding here) device comes out it’ll get worse.

    Believe me.

    Thia applies to ALL areas of life not just driving and astronomy.

  12. James Grose

    I agree about the similarities between reading maps and star charts. I for one do know how to read and interpet a printed star chart, for it isn’t any different than reading and interpeting an ordinary map. I do own a telescope w/ a clock drive, but no go to capability, for I like the challenge of actually searching for a faint fuzzy in the sky versus letting an automated go to setup do all the work, and the added benefit is getting to know the geography of the night sky intimately, and nothing in the world or should I say, the universe could ever replace that. As for blindly relying on gadgets, not a good idea. There is nothing wrong w/ using them, except when you blindly rely on them, then that becomes a real problem. It is a good idea to maintain old school methods, for there will be times when things like GPS go down, and if you do not have the old school skill of reading a printed map or a star chart, you will have problems.

  13. Hugh Whelan

    Their is a certain moralistic tone to those who look down on GOTO scopes. The line, I think I heard at a recent star party is: “astronomy with a GOTO is like doing a marathon by driving a car” However I am with Dieter Kreuer: if you have more interest in observing than tradition, there is great benefit to the 21st century. No one flies a airplane without electronics anymore; while it’s nice to think the US Navy still uses sextants — they don’t. No serious research astronomer would forgo use of electronics/computers available to them. Insisting on ignoring the 21st century is a good way to keep the younger generation who use electronics every day from developing an interest in astronomy.

  14. Hardy Pottinger

    I mainly use a GPS in my car to tell me where I am if there are no road signs and how to get back to a road on the map if I’m off the main roads. I’ve found they really aren’t good long distance navigators and frequently want me to go on routes I don’t want to take.
    I also prefer using my ‘old’ dobsonian for most viewing but I purchased a small grab-and-go goto (ETX70) a couple of years ago to use at my very light poluted winter residence where there just aren’t very many naked eye stars to navigate the old dobsonian. I still wouldn’t trust the goto to know where it’s pointed though and keep a copy of the S&T pocket sky atlas handy. Nothing like a road map!

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