Thursday, April 16, 2009

Getting lost

I got crazy lost today, and have been thinking about why that was. What causes me to get lost? What happens to make me get more lost? What is the best way to get unlost? I discover that people suck at plotting routes. Existential ramifications are considered, including the sage teachings of my karate instructor at community college.

I got crazy lost today, going from Arlington to College Park by way of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. I have make this trip every other week since the end of January, so you'd think that I'd have it figured out by now. Not quite. Here's my actual route, or, as close of an approximation of it as I can reckon.

View Larger Map

I feel like Little Billy in the Family Circus. This trip was like a tarbaby; the worse things got, the worser they got.

Table 1: Route Comparison
RouteTime (min)
Google Maps 'Optimum' route33
I-66 to I-49539
George Washington Parkway45
Today's route (actual)110
Today's route (calculated)86

Table 1 shows the routes I normally take and their associated drive times, and contrasts them with the drive time I needed today. The Google Maps predicted time is ridiculous—there's no way that I could drive across Washington, DC in mid-day with that little traffic. I take the G-Dub, because, although it takes longer than the I-66 route, it's much prettier. It was raining today, and people drive stupid slow in the rain, and there was very bad traffic; this only partly explains the 24 minute difference between the actual and calculated time. The remainder of the difference is time spent stopped, trying to Google SMS directions or pumping gas. In total, this trip took more than twice as long as usual. Why?


I calculated the amount of time that each mistake that I made cost me by removing each mistake, one by one, from the map. This means that results given have an uncertainty of one minute, because Google Maps does not estimate drive times to a finer level of precision; this uncertainty is cumulative with that implicit in Google maps drive time calculations.

Table 2: Itemized cost of each mistake in minutes
MistakeTime (min)
Getting lost on the G-Dub5

River Road meandering total 14
Taking crazy left turn5
Going 3 miles9

Getting gas total14
Driving to gas station11
Went wrong way on 2953

University Boulevard total15
Missing the turn to Metzerott2
Not staying on University Boulevard3
Taking University Boulevard instead of Adelphi4
Taking Adelphi instead of Rt 16

Table 2 indicates the relative cost of each bad decision I made. Items in bold are the major bad decisions; in most cases, these bad decisions are broken down into smaller bad choices along the way.


I panicked. I mean, I wasn't hyperventilating or anything, but whenever things get tense, people, in general, make worse and worse decisions. I get lost getting onto the G-Dub, that's normal. I was low on gas, though, it was raining, and I was running a couple of minutes late for class.

At the start of the diversion at River Road, after having gone a few blocks, and not seeing any gas stations, I stopped, and tried to use Google SMS to get directions to a gas station; I've used it before. It found a gas station that Google claimed was nearby, but it didn't give me directions to it, it got confused. (I still don't know what the problem was there.) Anyway, instead of trying to get better directions, giving it the address of a nearby landmark, or turning around, and heading back the other way across the beltway, I made a crazy left turn, and then another.

This shows the power of using spreadsheets to track the minutiae of life. When I get lost, I normally sally forth, trying to find the quickest way to get back on the route, without wasting time backtracking. It appeared to me that that was a bad habit. However, that only cost me 3 minutes. What was very stupid was going three miles down River Road with no gas station in sight. I should have gone a block or two, then turned around if I didn't see one; it's normally harder to find a gas station farther from the exit. I would have learned the wrong lesson from this experience if I didn't go back and check a map and make a chart.

(In this case, it appears that I was spectacularly unlucky. At the point at which I'd made the crazy left turn, I was one mile away from gas stations in three directions. Had I gone right or straight at the first turn, or right, instead of left, at the next, I would have found a gas station, easily. I didn't know that, though.)

Another thing that confused me was the I-270 spur; until today, I didn't know that it existed. The gas station I found was in the middle of the triangle formed by I-270, the spur, and I-495. When I left the gas station, I was disoriented, and wound up going the wrong way on I-495. I would have needed knowledge of the area, or a map, to have avoided this wrong turn.

The dumbest mistake I made, though, was taking University Boulevard. This got me off of I-495 way too soon, so I was driving on slower roads and had to stop for traffic lights. Even if I had followed that route perfectly, this 'shortcut' would have had cost me 10 minutes more than usual.

The number one predictor for whether someone survives a plane crash, is if they read the safety card and listen to the safety talk at the start of the flight. (Having read it before that flight doesn't help.) The second predictor is military experience. 'Oh, I'm on fire, no big deal, I'm going to go to the exit.' I wouldn't have turned onto University Boulevard any other day, but I was so upset from running late that I tried one more thing different, and got myself even more delayed.


Lessons learned:

  • Check the gas gage at the start of each trip; I could have stopped for gas easily before leaving Arlington
  • Arlington needs better signage for getting onto the George Washington Parkway
  • When looking for a gas station, stop the car, and use Google SMS properly and carefully to get good results
  • Don't panic
  • Get a map and compass
  • Plot out optimum routes ahead of time; it's a lot quicker to compare routes on Google maps than it is while driving
  • Getting lost is actually pretty fun, and more educational than the class I missed
A lot of the problem was that I didn't realize what direction the roads in that area actually go until I studied a map carefully.

Google Maps is such a handy tool for figuring out the best way to get some place. I just plotted a few ways to get to my parents' house; the normal way I go takes seven minutes longer than taking I-895—I'll have to try that sometime. Not only that, but my parents often recommend taking back roads to get to their house, to avoid traffic. The thing is, these back roads take such a circuitous route that the route they often suggest takes six minutes longer than taking I-95. (The back roads are far more scenic, though.)

Human intuition for route plotting is normally pretty bad. It's terrible if we're not looking at a map. Even with a map, it's tough to objectively gage traffic and compensate for stoplights and varying speed limits. People, dads especially, are prone to swearing by weird routes. I think that this is because it makes people feel special to have discovered a secret shortcut, and they don't check to see how effective that shortcut actually is.

It is worthwhile to check Google Maps for the best route to places you go to regularly. It can save you a lot of time.

This isn't the most lost I've gotten. Sure, heading down River Road hoping I'd find a gas station was a stab in the dark, but building my life around belief in God was even more dangerous and risky, and potentially wasteful, because I was basing life decisions on less experience than I had with gas stations. I often find gas stations on highway exits. I haven't found God yet.

I've spent years of my life on dead-end relationships, trying to please people that I don't even know anymore. I've spent more than a third of my life in college, studying mechanical engineering, and I don't think that was necessarily a bad decision, but I think I would be happier if I were to have studied philosophy.

When I was in community college, I took a karate class as one of my gym electives. Master John Burdyck was our teacher; he normally taught karate at his own dojo out on Pulaski Highway. He had gone to law school, passed the bar, then realized that what he actually loved was martial arts; he hated law. He gave up on law altogether to teach karate, boxing, and kickboxing. Every few class sessions, he'd talk about how much he hated law and how he was only studying it because his parents told him to. He was clearly very happy teaching karate. It was hard work, he clearly worked long hours, but it was the hard work he wanted to do.

I just checked his webpage. His address isn't listed on Pulaski Highway in Maryland anymore; he gives one address for Florida, and another for Hollywood, California.


  1. Jon Barnes' Dad had directions for getting to Philadelphia without paying any tolls, which apparently include the direction "Make a U-Turn at the McDonalds"

  2. Alex, ur amazing!! The way u shaped that story (I feel bad of what happened to u :() made my day!!