Misleading Sign Leads Students Amiss

The Infamous Signpost.
Washington, DC. A new American University campus landmark has unintentionally misdirected unsuspecting students, with potentially disastrous consequences. The landmark, a signpost showing the way to several international destinations, was erected by the American University Study Abroad office when it moved to new accommodations on the west end of campus. Unfortunately, most of the signs point in completely wrong directions. For example, the marker for Mexico City points nearly due north. Any traveler who tries to follow that sign will be led badly off course -- Mexico City is south and west from American University's Washington DC location. Apparently, the faulty signpost is to blame for the disappearance of two student tour groups headed for Mexico City and Berlin.

The Study Abroad office at American University confirmed yesterday that neither group had reached its destination, and that the groups were now presumed to be lost. At a hastily called news conference, Study Abroad director Dr. Margaret Dumont and Security Chief R. T. Firefly described the university's search efforts, and asked for the assistance of "all people of good will" in locating the missing students. Dumont assured concerned parents, families, and the campus community that "everything that can be done is being done," and urging calm, called for patience while university authorities "sort this out."

During the news conference, no mention was made of the errant signpost, but the Discrete Observer has learned that it is being blamed for the disappearance of the student groups. The signpost points the way to Mexico City, Berlin, and various other international destinations, showing the distance to each.

Inexplicably, the arrows to these destinations are wildly inaccurate. A source within the Study Abroad office could not specify how the arrows had been positioned, speculating that they were attached to the sign post on an "aesthetic" basis. "We never thought anyone would actually try to navigate according to those signs," the source said.

Apparently, the Study Abroad office had an early indication of potential trouble when a study group bound for Beijing arrived instead in Tokyo. In that instance, the direction of the signpost arrow for Beijing was only off by a few degrees. Unfortunately, this geographical error for the Beijing trip was not traced to its source, and officials only later learned that the error originated with the signpost.

For the Mexico City group, the situation was far worse. The proper direction from Washington, DC to Mexico City is southwesterly, at 231 degrees, or 51 degrees west of due south. Unaccountably, the Study Abroad signpost directs unwary travelers to head nearly due north to reach Mexico City.

Probable Location of Students.

Assuming the students traveled the correct distance, 1882 miles, they would have landed somewhere in Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island, Canada. Park authorities have been alerted and a search is underway.

The Berlin group may face an even more dangerous fate. If they followed the signpost's directions, they traveled 4177 miles southwest, missing the correct heading of 44.5 degrees east of north by nearly 180 degrees. That would have put them in the Pacific Ocean, several hundred miles off the coast of South America. A search has been instituted, but is hampered by rough seas, and the absence of cell telephone coverage in the immediate vicinity.

Further complicating matters is uncertainty about the actual route the students might have followed. Explained American University Adjunct Professor of Geography Douglas Corrigan III, "it comes down to whether they traveled as the crow flies, or steered by compass." In the first case, traveling in a straight line, the students would have followed a great circle on the globe of the Earth. But on that sort of course, the traveler's heading is constantly changing. In contrast, steering by a constant compass heading puts the traveler on what is called a rhumb line or loxodrome. For short distances the two routes are not very far apart. But for the missing Berlin bound students, this uncertainty about route translates into several hundred miles difference in their predicted locations.

Officials at American University promised to provide regular updates on the cases of the missing students groups.In the meantime, they are reexamining procedures for directing international study students. When asked whether there were any plans to alter the signpost, however, university spokespersons declined to comment.