Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tom Tom and Pancake Batter

I made pancakes a lot when I was kid. Along with grilled cheese sandwiches, oatmeal and eggs, pancakes are something a kid can actually cook, as opposed to merely defrost or toast or nuke in the microwave. So on a typical Saturday morning, I would take down the box of Bisquick, pull some eggs and milk out and start cooking. When I first started doing it, I was in a thrall to directions and instructions as much as I enjoyed the responsibility of cooking my own massive breakfast. You know, there's that chart on the back of the box and it tells you to use one egg and 1 1/4 cups of milk for 12 pancakes or whatever. I followed the instructions to the letter. But after a few Saturdays I learned that the instructions are wrong. They're always wrong. If you follow the instructions exactly you will make shitty pancakes every time. They may be shitty in a novel way, every time you make them. One batch will be too thin, and another will be too thick. One dry, one pasty.

Eventually I stopped following the directions. I'd concoct the batter based on the principle of just making it look right. Winging it, an eight year old in front of a hot stove. Fantastic freedom. Perfect pancakes.

This may be a leap, but one popular Christmas gift puts me in the mind of pancake-making: the car-bound Global Positioning Systems made by Garmin. I hate the very idea of these things. Last year I was working a job that frequently required me to take a car service to a printing plant in New Jersey. The drivers lived and died by the GPS. They never had any idea where they were. A computer told them what to do. The computer was often right in generalities, but always wrong on specifics. Streets that it thought were two-way, were one-way. Exits didn't exist, or the merge off the highway went left instead of right. I planned for a longer car ride than it should have taken.

Now I've said before that if a machine can do a job better than a human, then the machine should do the job. But we need to understand what the job is. Knowing where you are is a metaphysical issue. You can't boil it down to longitude, latitude, minutes and seconds. Knowing where you are in space and time means that you know how your immediate surroundings relate to the time and space that surrounds your surroundings. Rats can be trained to turn right or left when running through a maze at the command of a tone, just like humans can turn off the highway because Tom Tom told them to. But the rat doesn't know where he is, and if you use a GPS, neither do you.

I have only been truly lost a handful of times in my life. My definition of lost is this: you have no idea where you are, how you got there, or how you can get to the other place you had in mind when you left your point of origin. Once I was in a foreign city. It was late, I was drunk. All the riot gates on the stores had been pulled down. So the narrow streets which in the daytime were lined with distinct, recognizable shops, were now grey walls marked with the heiroglyphic scrawl of graffiti I couldn't read.

I couldn't speak the language to ask directions, and there was no one to ask anyway. It's a sickening feeling. It is also absolutely necessary.

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