The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

September 24, 2007

Tech, GP: GPS better than pocket-sized engineer

Way back, almost in another life, I worked for the D&H Railway.

I was what was known as a "fireman." In other words, sometimes I ran the trains over the railroad between the Capital District and Binghamton.

If I had worked there many more years, I would have probably become an engineer, but I traveled another track down a newspaper career instead.

Not being a full-fledged engineer, I always had a real engineer, usually old and with a lot of experience, with me to guide me. I paid attention to him (they were all "hims" in those days). Train wrecks are an awful thing to be responsible for.

Something that always amazed me was the way that all the engineers quite literally knew every inch of rail between here and there. Here was usually a couple hundred miles from there.

Every hill and hump, every sag, and every siding. The location of every signal light and whistle post was ingrained in their memories, to say nothing of the kids who lived along the track and needed a special little "toot-toot" of the horn.

That measure of knowledge of physical terrain was simply astounding to me.

It still is.

But now, I’ve got a new toy, which puts them to shame.

It’s a portable GPS device, or "portable navigator."

It’s small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, yet it knows all the roads, and places along them, in the U.S. and Canada.

It has a display that shows you as a little pointer, which moves along the roads as you drive. Watching the screen is OK, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to do that and drive at the same time.

Which brings me to the best part.

It talks to me. Indeed, it actually has a voice and talks. I enter the address of my destination into it, and it tells me which way to go. "In a half mile, bear right onto route 17C," then later "in two-tenths of a mile, bear right onto route 17C," and as the exit appears, "bear right onto route 17C."

It takes the fear out of driving somewhere you’re not familiar with. It’s made everyone smile when I show them how it works. It’s like having an experienced engineer bending over your shoulder, telling you what to do as the train rolls down the track.

You don’t even have to look at it, actually. Just keep listening.

Now, to be truthful, this technology is not news. These devices have been available for several years, at least.

What is news is that the technology has matured enough by now to work well, and be really reliable and easy to use, and most importantly _ it’s now affordable.

That last point is what’s made all the difference. A technology may be wonderful, but irrelevant to most people if it’s beyond their reach.

That’s the story about GPS receivers. They’ve been out there a long time, but if you wanted one as an option in your new car, it would add $1,000 or so to the price. Handheld portable units were only slightly less. That makes you stop and wonder if you really want it.

What I’m writing about is a portable GPS device, which fits into a shirt pocket, and can be used by you, or your significant other, your son or your daughter or your friend, each in their own vehicle. You can just share it, giving it to whoever needs to use it.

I got mine for about $300. I think the technology has reached a price point where it’s pretty much available to most anyone now. This, in a nutshell, is what makes it news.

One last thing. A big "thank you" to my neighbor John Stankiewicz, who recently brought this whole thing to my attention. Both us boys now have new toys.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at