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This is a theme that has bugged my first week on this adventure.  Before I left I knew I had a lot of map options across the ‘phone, tablet and small laptop that are my IT for the trip and I decided that I wouldn’t carry paper maps.  Now I’m wondering if that was a good decision and it’s got me thinking about the sort of “trial by IT” that seems to plague my modern life.  “She” is just one example but I think she’s a good one.

If I remember rightly a succubus was a devil in female form sent to tempt people away from the straight and narrow, an incubus was the male form.  I think they were sexy.  Well the female voice who reads out the instructions if you use the route planning options in Google maps isn’t sexy but she does repeatedly lead me astray but I find myself almost unable to resist her.  Here’s an example:

2016-08-10 22_20_51-Garmin Connect

I cycle in fine (top right) and am very near the bridge I need to continue my journey but for some reason the voice in my ear tells me to turn left.  Every obedient, I do so and there my problems start.  The road becomes a track and at the black circle I decide that the track has become so bad that I now recognise this as one of those occasions when she is trying to lead me into cycling hell and I backtrack cursing.  When I rejoin some sort of metalled road (where I take that 90° off the left) I scrutinise what I can see on the small ‘phone screen to work out how best to get back on track.  However, in route planning mode Google maps won’t let me zoom out much and to the extent that I can, the detail on the roads/tracks, which are pretty arbitrarily marked in Google maps, becomes useless and they become completely indistinguishable.  As a result I grudgingly accept her next suggestions but they each lead into two complete dead ends (the one was short and isn’t really visible on the screen grab above).  After that I give her up and decide that I will only use metalled roads and head in whatever northerly/westerly options they give me (which turns out to be NNE as you can see!)  I know that means I will hit the Loire and can get reoriented there.  Without knowing it on the day, I find myself pretty much on the road I was on when she led me astray, find the Loire, cross the bridge and from there on things were hunky dory and I could pretty much ignore her and follow the voie verte à vélo, i.e. the jolly green way for bikes.

I haven’t had a single day when I’ve used her when she has not seduced me in this way.  I’ve lost hours in her traps and have lost more hours more because I’ve become very wary of any turning that seems worrying and so I stop to check them on the screen. That blows any rhythm and can mean I’m checking turnings every few hundred metres.  However, checking doesn’t always work, as that example above shows.

Sometimes she is obviously just teasing: on a number of occasions she has said “in 200m turn left” and then “turn left” (presumably about 200m later though she’s not reliable on that) … only for there to be literally no turning, just field or sometimes an impenetrable hedge or wall or even on one occasion a good sized house.  It’s easy to ignore those.  Yesterday she gave the game away coming up to a junction by saying “turn right, 50m then U turn” all in one speech turn.  There was a plausible fork right in terms of metalled road but it felt geographically daft and I could see she too had realised she was talking nonsense and I could also she had been just joking and recommending a 100m as some sort of bit of fun.  I find it hard not to anthropomorphise her in this way but I know she’s just a voice on an algorithm.  Not a very good algorithm as things stand but certainly not someone with a sense of humour.

It’s not completely mad for me to anthropomorphise in this way as I think there really was a woman whose voice was recorded for some of this so she/it feels like a “she” to me.  However, of course there is no emotion: no change in volume, emphasis, no little giggle to indicate that she was just joking.  As the days passed I realised that it’s not all spliced recordings: there’s some voice synthesis going on.  That really didn’t become clear to me until I crossed the channel.  I had assumed that “she”, Jane perhaps, would be replaced by a French woman, Jeanne, but no: the same woman goes on but her French accent is, well, execrable.  There are occasional names that she clearly knows are French not English which get pronounced moderately well so “de Gaulle” does sound pretty much like an English speaker pronouncing “de goal”. (He comes up quite a bit as you’d expect, it’s funny sometimes when Winston Churchill or a Kennedy come up to spice things up and sound pretty natural pronounced in an English accent.)  However, she always pronounces “August” as the English month rather than what I’d expect: something more like “Ogoost” (with a hard “O”).  However, most of her French pronunciation really is dire.  How is it that a few words or syllables have been fixed but 95-99% haven’t?  Sometimes the system breaks down completely and she says “acute e” or “e accent acute” in the middle of something.

Ah well, she and I have an odd relationship and I will do a page of map examples of where she has led me astray at some point.  The worst so far was leaving Giverny where she led me up a track that became something out of “The princess bride”: vile swamps and a wood where I expected to meet “Rodents of Unusual Size”:

2016-08-08 14.48.44

I did manage, just, to make my way alongside that pit on the left but by then I was pushing the bike and there wasn’t much room for me and it … oh, and there were nettles and I’m some were “Nettles of Unusual Size”.  I could hear a road nearby when the track finally pretty much gave up and became a nettle farm and I pushed the bike up a more than 45° slope to try to get out without retracing several km of track … only to find the road completely inaccessible behind a tall fence.  I retraced my steps cursing.

OK.  So this has reminded me of a much loved family film and making me mock my own quest.  Should I be muttering “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!” when things get tough?  See if you know the film, if you don’t, go and watch it but in a happy, silly mood:

Actually, this has got me wondering about my, perhaps our general, societal, relationship with IT.  Over the last ten years or so what was a very good relationship I had with IT has come to be perpetually dogged by things that just won’t work, things I really need to work and feel I ought to be able to fix but fail to fix.  “She” is a good example. In principle, the combination of GPS and digitised maps and route planning algorithms should be brilliant and I know that huge transport companies rely on them to plan distribution routes for their lorries and vans.  However, sorting that out for pushbikes hasn’t happened yet as far as I can see.  I find myself with a two route planning programmes/apps other than Google maps but one simply doesn’t understand the idea of travel by pushbike and the other gives me no option to change its choice nor will it show me more than the first few hundred metres it’s recommending.  They’re out.  I have ViewRanger which gives me very detailed and brilliant maps of France but only lets me download them and so have them responsive while on the bike through a very clumsy system, oh, and it doesn’t do route planning.

I have found some things specifically for bike riders, for example there are the voies vertes but the website for that seems to seize up trying to resize for ‘phone or tablet for me so what should be perfect isn’t.  Other bike things I’ve tried so far seem to rely on me planning my own route which would be fine if I wanted to spend an hour or more using the various maps for every day.  I think we really have a funny relationship with IT now and I think the succubus analogy isn’t all wrong.  If I had thought my pilgrimage would release me from these temptations and enslavements, I would have been very wrong.  What it is doing is giving me some time to ponder the effects and contrast them with the beautiful simplicity of just spinning the pedals when you do know where you’re going and can read it from roadsigns as you go.





  1. Hi Chris: Are you using a compass (digital, magnetic, nasal)? I ask because you seem to have a good sense of direction, such that when ‘she’ takes you somewhere she shouldn’t have, you soon come to realise. Some people, perhaps you, I think me, seem to have an inbuilt sense of direction, bit like a homing pigeon. Others report being clueless about their bearings.

    Is direction sensing an innate ability, of the ‘wiring’? Is it learned from knowing about signals, like moss grows on the north side of trees (in this hemisphere), sun position + the time, etc? Will Ms Google Succubus do away with such sensing and nature-reading skills? It will be interesting to see whether you get to know ‘her’ IT foibles better over time and modify your responses to her accordingly, and whether greater familiarity with the light, colouring and features of France then Spain increase your sense of location and direction.

    The omission of contour lines on the digital maps (that I’ve seen) confuses me. Digital lacks the sense of ‘others walked here before’ and eyed it up that went into mapping. Are they mapped from maps or satellite or…?

    All this isn’t helped by planners and road builders. They mislead us and defy our directional instincts by making us go north in order to head south, for example, because a building or necessary configuration of routes gets in the way. Path selection and route choice seems to be quite a field of study (Ms Google in helpful mode). But life is not a straight road…

    And aren’t the desire to follow, succumbing to temptation, raising objections, losing the way, encountering obstructions and false guides the stuff of every pilgrim’s journey…? Go well.

  2. Ever obedient? Retirement hasn’t changed you that much, surely!

    • Pah! I’ll be coming back to that comment-with-only-a-subject-line thamitheen. And don’t think I don’t know who you are, only one person, well apart from my family, could ever intimate that I’m anything but obedient … to a fault!

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