Tom Purcell, 1/9/2008 [Archive]

Moving In The Right Direction

Moving in the Right Direction

By Tom Purcell

Hey, good buddy, I'm finally headed in the right direction -- and so is the rest of humanity.

I got a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device for Christmas. It's amazing what the thing can do.

Not only does it allow me to search for a restaurant, store or any place nearby, it provides phone numbers and addresses. Then a female voice tells me exactly where to drive (I think they use a female because a male might not consult the GPS folks for directions).

GPS technology dates back to 1957. U.S. scientists were warily monitoring Sputnik 1 -- the world's first satellite, which was sent into space by the Soviets -- when they stumbled onto something unexpected.

As Sputnik approached their location, the frequency of its radio signal increased. As it moved farther away, its frequency decreased. This effect is known as the Doppler shift. Scientists were able to use this information to determine Sputnik 1's location in space.

But they also immediately concluded something else: They could use satellite signals to determine specific locations on the ground.

Since then the government has been perfecting the GPS concept. Our current system is composed of 24 satellites that orbit the Earth. Thanks to a directive Ronald Reagan signed in 1983, GPS, upon its completion, was to be made available to civilians.

And since the GPS system was enhanced and modernized in 2005, civilians have been using it like mad. Any fellow with a handheld GPS receiver can quickly determine his longitude, latitude and altitude -- and, more important, where the nearest pizza joint is.

Which gives humanity plenty of reason to be hopeful about the future.

Look, 25 years ago when my family drove to the beach every summer, we had only one way to seek directions on the highway: my trusty CB radio. My handle was "Trail Blazer," good buddy.

Why did we have a CB in our car? Because of solid-state transistor technology, an innovation from the 1950s that replaced the old vacuum-tube technology. Solid-state transistors allowed CBs to be made smaller and cheaper, which is how a 12-year-old kid called Trail Blazer could afford one.

The CB saved my family on more than one occasion. The truckers helped us keep an eye out for Smokey. And when we needed crucial information, I'd pick up the mike and say, "We're at the 64-mile marker headed east on the turnpike. How far to the nearest bathroom!"

Now we have GPS devices that know exactly where we are and where we need to go. For less than a couple hundred bucks, any old fool has nearly as much navigational capacity as the U.S. military did last time it went into Iraq.

If you're not amazed by that, you should be. I'm 45. I still marvel at the technology advances that have occurred in my lifetime.

In 1985 I worked for a high-tech firm and had access to one of the first portable computers in existence. It was the size of a large suitcase and had very little computing capacity.

Today, I sit in a coffee shop pecking away on a small laptop computer. It has more computing capacity than a mainframe machine did 30 years ago -- one that took up a whole city block.

I use my cell phone to call anybody around the globe. My computer, via a broadband cellular modem, is continually connected to the Internet. I'm able to access and share reams of information with people all over the planet.

And if I need to find any location anywhere on Earth, I just consult my handheld GPS device.

I'm puzzled by folks who see only gloom and doom when it is such an amazing time to be alive. I can't imagine how many more advances we'll make in the next 25 years, but they're coming. We're going to solve a lot of problems.

I'll bet we'll look back to our current problems and laugh at how they once kept us up at night.

Know what I mean, good buddy?

Tom Purcell is a humor columnist nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons. For comments to Tom, please email him at

RESTRICTIONS: 'Tom Purcell's column may not be reprinted in general circulation print media in Pennsylvania's Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties. It may appear only in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its sister publications."

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