Men do, too, ask directions they ask computers


RECENTLY IT dawned on me that computers can help a fella out. When they are wired up and working correctly, computers can cough out stuff a guy needs to know, like how to dodge the traffic backup at the Tappan Zee Bridge and how to attack a zone defense.

I am probably the last Y chromosome carrier on the planet to figure this out. But a few weeks ago, while visiting my older brother and his family outside Boston, I watched in amazement as my 20-something nephews made the computer produce information on topics ranging from the price of skis to the fastest highways.

This wasn't the first time I had seen computers spit out information. But it was the first time I had seen them spit out anything I was interested in knowing.

I got one of my computer- facile nephews to map out our return trip home, the drive from Boston to Balti- more. The goal of this trip was the goal of all family car trips. Namely to get it over with as quickly as possible. That means dealing with that great slow-down zone known as New York City.

When faced with the two philosophies of how to handle Gotham -- run away or attack -- I have been in the run away camp. When driving up from Baltimore, as soon as Manhattan looms on the horizon, I jump into New Jersey. I scoot around the western flank of the city on the Garden State Parkway and cross the Hudson River at the Tappan Zee Bridge, well north of the huddled masses and the aggressive taxis.

When I travel this route, I compare my journey to a scene from a "King Kong" movie. The city traffic plays Kong, the powerful gorilla, and I play the part of a tiny, frightened bystander. The beast is sleeping, and as the drama plays out, I try to sneak around its periphery, escaping notice. At any minute, or any exit, the great beast can, without warning, rise up and clobber me.

Last month, on the drive up to Boston, I saw evidence of the power of the beast. After crossing the Tappan Zee and escaping toward Connecticut, I saw a massive backup on the other side of the highway where a construction project was under way. I could see that if on the trip home I tried to take my usual "hide from the beast" route, I would be crushed.

So up in Boston I got one of my nephews to ask his computer for advice on how to handle Gotham. It advised attacking. It plotted a route through the Hutchinson River and Cross County parkways, eventually dropping us at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge. Instead of scampering around the edges of Kong's peripheral vision, this route took us right between his legs.

I was nervous but I followed the computer's plan. It worked, at least until we got to the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, where at 5 on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, it took us about 30 minutes to move about half a mile. We almost made it through the city without the beast noticing. It toyed with us just as we were leaving Manhattan. But at rush hour on a weekday, no spot is free from Kong's wrath. I did not blame the computer; it had done its job.

Moreover, the computer printout gave me the kind of specific information -- the number of the exit I was supposed to take, the direction I was supposed to be headed -- that some of my human traveling companions have great difficulty providing.

I could see that using a computer to plot our trips could change the entire front-seat dialogue on family outings. There might not be any more heated debates about where to turn.

I was so pleased with my new pal, the computer, that when I got back to Baltimore I cozied up to the one we have at home. I soon found it was willing to take on the kind of questions that gnaw at a man during long winter nights. Questions like, What is a good offensive set to run against a zone defense? This is a question that I, as coach of my kid's recreational basketball team, have pondered for many winters. The other night, with some help from my 13 year old son, I came close to answering it.

We found a "coach's home page," and downloaded a program. When we clicked the mouse, all manner of diagrams began moving around the screen. Some of the diagrams moved off the screen. Most were well beyond my comprehension. But I have revisited that Web site many times and feel now that, thanks to my buddy the computer, I am on the path to knowledge.

I still have a long way to go. Yesterday, for instance, when I searched the Web for the supposedly sizzling Victoria's Secret lingerie show -- looking, of course, for gift ideas for the Mrs. for Valentine's Day -- all I could come up with was a picture of Lake Victoria in Australia.

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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