Thursday, February 09, 2017


Sometimes, a dashboard GPS works great. Sometimes, it sucks balls.

After leaving my Seoul National gig, I cabbed over to Itaewon, that wretched hive of scum and villainy, to buy some cumin, naan, and other materials necessary to make gyros for tomorrow's office lunch. It's my ritual to take a cab back from Itaewon to Daecheong Station, mainly because I'm lazy and don't want to lug groceries on the long subway ride. You pay extra for a cab because you're paying for a measure of privacy and comfort, but normally, you don't expect to pay through the nose for a regular ride.*

I fell asleep partway through the ride to my place, but I could see, once I woke up, that the cabbie—who had punched my destination into his GPS—had gotten himself lost. We were somewhere in Gangnam, on the back streets, going in random circles and ignoring one-way signs painted on the asphalt. Too tired to feel stressed, I looked at the meter, saw I was already a few dollars over what this ride would normally cost (even in rush hour), and quietly shook my head. The cabbie was in his seventies; yelling at him when he already knew he was lost wouldn't help the situation.

Initially, I had mentally praised the cabbie for using the GPS. Most Seoul cabbies have these navigation devices on their dashboards, but those same cabbies tend to be old-school drivers, too proud to rely on GPS and preferring to fly by the seat of the pants. This cabbie, in his seventies (the average age of a Seoul cabbie is, incredibly, sixty), was humble enough to refer to his GPS when he didn't recognize the name of the station I mentioned, so I tipped my invisible hat to him. Turned out his GPS had other plans; it led us on a wild-goose chase of random and useless back-street turns, which is how we ended up in the ruelles of Gangnam.

I'm deducing that the GPS was at fault, more than the driver, because when we did finally straighten out, I saw the GPS go nuts when we were half a kilometer from our destination. It tried to direct the cabbie to a neighborhood away from where I lived, way off to the right, so I had to tell the cabbie to go straight. It could also be, however, that the cabbie had gotten in trouble while I was sleeping by ignoring the GPS when it had been giving legitimate directions. I did see the cabbie ignore the device a time or two, so really, it's impossible to know how much of this mess was the cabbie's fault and how much was the GPS's.

We eventually got to my apartment building; I guided the driver during the final leg. My fare was W19,000—a good bit more expensive than the usual W13,000. "Expensive ride," I joked as I was leaving the cab. The driver chuckled but said nothing in return. He knew what I was referring to.

A dashboard GPS can be a godsend as long as the map data are up to date and the real-time navigation system is quirk-free. But add some quirks and some out-of-date maps, and you've got a recipe for anger and frustration. I can see why some people refuse to rely on GPS: not only are you allowing your own common-sense-based navigational skills go flabby, you're also putting your life in the hands of an inanimate object. But when a GPS device works, it works amazingly, undeniably well. Many have commented on how GPS navigation is proof positive that Einsteinian relativity is valid: for real-time navigation to work, minute instances of time dilation need to be accounted for: the satellites whipping by overhead at 14,000 kilometers per hour are moving through space and time differently from those of us here below—and the satellites in the GPS network have Einsteinian issues relative to each other as well. The whole thing is quite elegant and incredible, and generally speaking, I trust GPSes to deliver—yes, despite tonight's fiasco.

*You might also be paying for speed because a cab goes directly to your destination instead of stopping at every subway station, but how fast a cab is depends greatly on traffic conditions. At some point, you have to ask yourself whether stopping at every traffic light is any better than stopping at every subway station.

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