Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mapquest v Google Maps

I've been a Mapquest user for years. But I'm being converted to the extra freaky Google Maps because I can search for something nearby where I want to wind up, then actually find my destination on the map, *mark it* and get directions to the more precise location. I'm not saying Mapquest won't allow this, but I was unable to stumble across how to do it.

I got directions to my friend's parents' house out in the desert. It feels like it takes 6 years to drive there, but really, it's about 90 minutes. Go to the glass studio, head north another 7 miles, then exit through the mountain passes and go another 40 miles. Turn right off the freeway, make a left after the Lowes, and then a right. Couldn't be simpler. But the addresses in Lancaster are bizarre. Street K, Avenue Q, and whatnot then subdivide these into M-12 and N-13. Mapquest didn't want to help me figure out the specifics.

Turns out I Google-mapped the address last Christmas because it was still in my memory cache. I hit a wrong button because the computer is responding slowly today, and the street view popped up. Yep. That's their minivan, in their front driveway. So I checked out the view, looking for points of interest. (There are none in Lancaster from what I can tell.) Then it took me stepwise backward through the directions with the street view. When I got a couple turns back, I clicked down the road view until I found the Lowes. Then I checked for visual cues near the freeway exit. Cool tool. Powerful. Frightening.

I'm one of those people who believes that guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people. Every useful tool, and some less useful things, can be used for good or ill, and likely as a weapon. Every time I'm searched for knives before boarding a plane I think about how long it takes to twist my free can of soda in two to get two jagged cutting blades. Or how one could mess with someone's vision shooting shaken soda at them. Or how one could use a shoelace or bra strap as a garrote. And I wonder anew at why they bother searching for pocketknives.

There's a weird mentality about useful tools. Some tools are clearly so overwhelmingly dangerous in the hands of the average user that they must be restricted for the common good. Some require training but have wide adoption, like automobiles. There are other tools which are commonly seen or used as weapons, but for which there are innumerable functional uses, which are much less dangerous than cars, but which are banned for air travel, like pocket knives. I carry one intermittently because they're danged useful, but I don't want to lose it at the airport. Yet pocket knives are relatively safe in terms of how easy it is for the average user to seriously hurt someone with it. If you have someone who is deft with personal injury via pocketknife, they probably don't need the pocketknife. By that point the restriction is useless, so really it's just taking a useful tool out of responsible hands.

Which brings me to safety strategy.

For the average person, it's enough to deter crimes of opportunity. Your neighborhood can dictate which opportunities are most likely. Some neighborhoods are generally safe enough to leave doors and windows open most of the time. In some this can be done part of the time. Some are actively dangerous at any time. One adapts to the local threat level. For me, I lock car doors and windows (also keeps out spiders), lock my condo doors and windows, and try to be alert when walking somewhere alone. That's pretty much enough. Reasonable measures against low threat means unlikely to be a crime victim. Not impossible, but unlikely.

But if someone is targeting me or you specifically, it's extremely hard to provide sufficient protection against the threats. This is why we have the Secret Service providing multi-person round the clock details on each of their clients. It's not enough to lock the doors, one must also rent the hotel rooms above and below, clear out local airspace, use dummy cars, bulletproof glass... and still there are large risks. One of the bravest things I ever seen someone do? Obama standing in front of crowds of a hundred thousand people, out there in front of God and everybody, before the election, and speaking. Seriously. A hundred thousand people can love him, but one crackpot can ruin everything.

Why am I going here just before thanksgiving? Because Google Maps is one of those nebulous, frightening things which my search just reminded me. I'm sure 98% of people use it for good. Probably more. They probably don't think it's dangerous just as they don't consider their car to be the deadly weapon that it is. I fear what this does in the hands of someone who really has it in for you. And the Air Force base that was so easy to spot on the map last year is hush-hush this year, so the google folk are cluing in too. Still and all, it's harder than ever to hide.

Fortunately, most of us don't need to hide and don't have people coming after us. I want to keep living in a world where that is true. I believe that cooperation is more likely to lead to long term survival than power struggles. I also believe that more information in the hands of many is generally safer than less information or restriction on information. But it's hard to reconcile this belief with the creepiness of a street level into my friends' window.

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