Taking shortcuts when following driving instructions doesn’t always pay off


Many years ago, I had to pick up a package from the local UPS distribution center. This was back in the old days, before everybody had a GPS with turn-by-turn navigation. In the uphill-both-ways era, the way you figured out how to get somewhere was to pull out a map printed on paper and plot your strategy unassisted.

Armed with my homemade directions to the UPS distribution center, a granola bar, and a signal flare to assist search-and-rescue in locating me, I set out on my quest.

As luck would have it, I chose to set out on my journey early in the morning, just as the UPS trucks arose from their slumber and set out in search of food, or whatever it is they do in the morning. As I got within a few miles of the distribution center, I saw a stream of brown trucks coming toward me.

"What luck!" I thought to myself, nibbling on a granola bar. I don't need to consult the directions I scribbled down. I can just follow the UPS trucks back to their lair!

This plan worked great. The convoy of UPS trucks continued without a break, allowing me to trace their path backward, like a schoolboy following an ant trail.

Or at least the plan worked great until I reached the source: The UPS loading dock and a gate with the sign Authorized vehicles only.

Oops.

(I managed to find the customer entrance by going around the block. So this plan sort-of worked after all.)

Comments (28)
  1. Boris says:

    I don’t see any problems here; after all, you yourself have said that programming is usually a matter of snapping blocks together. Block 1 led you to an entrance, Block 2 led you to the right one. You also stuck to the public APIs by stopping at the “Authorized vehicles” sign and going around the block.

    1. Jon says:

      But he relied on undocumented behaviour, (i.e. relying on the expectation that the customer entrance is always around the block from the loading dock entrance.)

      1. Boris says:

        The orthodox solution would be to look up the address in the Yellow Pages and plot the route on the city map, then pay close attention to any signs. However, Raymond was spontaneously trying to create something new here, an improvised guidance system based on taking a guess, adjusting for the result then caching the location for future reference, all the while relying on UPS’s public signage on public roads, with no expectation that they’d need to match Raymond’s expectations, either now or in the future.

        I sympathize because I do that all the time: pay attention to what I’m doing in a particular environment and think if there is any way to automate parts thereof, or work around any temporary limitations. Software design without software, basically.

    2. smf says:

      I recently had a similar experience and due to the main entrance being hidden inside the car park of a store and a one way system that prevents you from blindly driving round the block, block 2 was an order of magnitude harder than block 1. The problem here was that the GPS couldn’t make sense of the address either.

  2. Harrison says:

    UPS’s “Minimal Left Turns” policy would make following UPS trucks back to their source a lot more inefficient.

  3. Was this “many years ago” also the time when one had to ask “what is UPS?” with a quizzical expression on his face? i.e. before Wikipedia came to being?

  4. Electron Shepherd says:

    “As I got within a few miles of the distribution center, I saw a stream of brown trucks coming toward me.”

    Since I would have been heading (hopefully) towards the depot, I would have assumed the convoy was *leaving* the depot, fully laden, to make their deliveries, and that following them would have been a really bad idea.

    1. Tim P. says:

      That is exactly what he assumed. “The convoy of UPS trucks continued without a break, allowing me to trace their path backward” to their source, the depot.

    2. HK says:

      “to trace their path backward”

    3. Medinoc says:

      Which is why Raymond followed the stream up instead of following the trucks themselves.

      1. Medinoc says:

        Damn, too many ninjas and I posted without being logged in…

      2. Medinoc says:

        No wait, looks like you can’t edit comments even if you posted them while logged in.

  5. Yukkuri says:

    I have to admire the chutzpah it takes to give your package delivery company a name that is the sound you make when you drop something.

    1. Boris says:

      No, that would be “oops”. ‘Ups’ is just the sound of ‘up’ with an ‘s’, as in “(someone’s) ups and downs” – that is, if you _really_ wanted to pronounce it as a word, incorrectly, as opposed to the correct acronym pronunciation.

      The more likely association is “uninterruptible power supply”.

      1. Karellen says:

        I’ve always pronounced UPS (the company) with a “u” as in “pudding”[0], somewhere between the “oo” sound of “oops” and the “uh” sound of “ups”. That makes the pronunciation close enough to “oops” to still allow the joke to work, while not making it too forced.

        [0] At least, in my (mostly) English home counties accent.

        1. Neil says:

          I always just say “You Pee Ess”. UPS are the initials for United Parcel Service.

      2. HdS says:

        The german word “ups”, means the same as “oops” in english.

      3. Lennart says:

        Fun Fact: “Ups!” is german for “Oops!”, though I never made that association myself (as a German. We don’t see that much UPS anyway)

  6. Was really hoping to read another terrible tale about the trials and tribulations of getting games to work on Windows 95, then realized it’s a new month. :-(

  7. cheong00 says:

    This reminds me of a recent forum post that, a student is using GPS map on his/her phone to locate the school holding his/her public exam. The GPS lead the student to another school that is at the side of the original target, but with like 100M vertical distance because the schools are located on a hill.

    Fortunately the student come early, so he/she called a taxi to travel 10 minutes up the winding road to there.

  8. Cesar says:

    I fully expected the story to end with a one-way street. Where I live, a grid of one-way streets (with alternating directions) is a common design.

    1. French Guy says:

      That would still allow for going around the block, though, or am I mistaken?

      1. Boris says:

        I’m not a driver, but I assume any planner would be smart enough not to allow access from a public road into a section where the turn can only be made by passing through an “authorized vehicles only” gate?

        1. French Guy says:

          The staff access could be on a private road (it doesn’t have to be, depending on the neighbors), but the access for the public (which was Raymond’s goal) should definitely be accessible from the public roads.

          1. Boris says:

            Yes, but if you drive into into the staff access road by mistake, you should be able to get out as well, without it becoming a one-way street ending at “Authorized vehicles only” and a bunch of angry UPS vehicles behind you? I’m wondering if that is what Cesar was getting at.

          2. French Guy says:

            No sane planner would make a dead end one-way. I find it more probable that Cesar meant that, at some point, reversing the trucks’ route would lead Raymond to a one-way street the trucks were coming out of.

        2. jgh says:

          You’ve never been to Washington(*) Southbound Services and taken the wrong turn into the goods yard. I had to very cautiously drive the wrong way back up a one-way to escape.
          (*)The English one.

          Raymond essentially used Newton-Raphson to get to the YewPeeEss depot.

  9. David F says:

    I had a temp job at a big UPS facility in NYC in the ’80s. I thought, since I was working at UPS and needed to send a package, that the easiest thing to do was just take it with me into the office. No. It’s very easy to take things into a UPS facility and very difficult to get them back out. I had to talk to two levels of security with my manager, and then we had to get two managers to walk me out of the facility and to the retail office that was at the other end of the block. And I was told in no uncertain terms never to bring any packages into the office again.

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