Virtual vacations

22 05 2010

As I type this, my cable Internet access is down for the count. Unfortunately my former backup ISP has wised up and password-protected their router, so I’m pecking my post into the notes field of a fake address book entry so I can sync it up on my iPhone.

Besides sucking, this also cuts me off from what I viewed as my last “resort,” if you will: the Virtual Vacation. Call me pathetic, call me what you will. But when I feel the need to travel and can’t, jumping on Google Maps and streetview is probably the closest I’ll get.

You might wonder why I don’t, you know, just go somewhere. Or, just learn to wallow happily in my faux-misery mudhole. The answer is, I have a vacation planned in early June and, well, life is too short to let it slide by. I also just bought a fairly expensive camera to take on future trips. I’m happy about this investment but also have to be prudent about my dollars. And, I have activities planned this weekend, and some fairly ambitious travel plans later in the year, and some anxiety about anything but the minimal amount of planning (due to the unpredictable nature of my job and lifestyle). So I’m not necessarily complaining or anything, I just want to be able to sample all that life has to offer.

When you’ve got gadget lust and wanderlust at the same time, sometimes you have to make compromises. And so, the geography major in me jumps at the opportunity to take an interdisciplinary approach to escapism. That is, using my computer and other modern technology to experience the highways and byways of my country, as well as the cultures of the world. It’s kind of exciting, and has the benefit of plenty of context and never really getting lost. You are truly free to go places you wouldn’t otherwise go and discover dream destinations you never knew you wanted to see.

It’s comforting to know that I’m actually not the only person who does this. I read a story in the New York Times detailing how two friends — caught in the throes of wanderlust — got together and pretended their mice and keyboards were the dashboard of a car. Streetview became the vehicle by which they took a road trip on their screens. They actually made a viral video bloggy-thingy about it that includes their dialogue and observations of the “roadside attractions” seen via streetview, which, the article wisely observes, aren’t that much different from what you might say on a real road trip.

My mind was a little blown in that moment, not so much in the earth-shattering way, but more in the synchronous way. I totally *get* what they are trying to accomplish, as well as the implications of it all. That and the interesting phenomenon of one-minute online sensory vacations, kind of got the wheels spinning in my brainz.

To what degree can you experience a place without actually going there? And how accurate is your research versus the reality? I’m trying not to *go there* in terms of virtual reality and holodecks and simulations, but that’s somewhere in there, too. I propose an exercise: Plan a virtual vacation in as much detail as possible before an actual visit, and then actually go there and see how it stacks up.

Just to get a little weirder on you: There’s a possibility that taking a virtual vacation before a real visit could have profound implications on your actual viewpoint when you go. And there’s also the possibility that taking a virtual vacation could be just as fulfilling as a real vacation, since one could argue that even “reality” as we know it is constructed from perceptions. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard explored the simulated nature of perceived reality in his diatribe, er, treatise, Simulacra and Simulation. He basically argues that reality as we know it is to some degree symbolic, and that the simulacrum (symbol) is increasingly trumping that which it symbolizes — and I know that’s oversimplifying things.

From a scientific perspective, I can’t help but think we’re just a mass of atoms and particles and whatnot, organized somehow via energy and sculpted by the hands of the deity of your choice. What purpose does travel serve then? And is going somewhere — an inherently symbolic experience — truly different than simulating it? Well *of course* you say, traveling to another place is a fulfilling experience for the sights, smells, activities and interactions with other human beings. Is it? I would tend to agree with you, but I think it’s something interesting to think about, particularly when life gets in the way.

Back to earth now. The takeaway from all this early-morning thinking I’m doing is that there is a ton of value in trying to construct an image of a place, only to tear it down by actually going there. You get more out of the whole experience than the sum of the two stages of analysis, because there is a certain synthesis that takes place during the transition. And even if you don’t ultimately end up visiting a place — perhaps the virtual vacation helped you avert disaster, or you just can’t get around to visiting this place, ever — these short escapist journeys undertaken with mouse and keyboard can be quite valuable. Regardless of their accuracy and depth, they’re their own kind of vacation in and of themselves and can let you go places that you would never get to go otherwise.

Back to earth now. The takeaway from all this early-morning thinking I’m doing is that there is a ton of value in trying to construct an image of a place, only to tear it down by actually going there. You get more out of the whole experience than the sum of the two stages of analysis, because there is a certain synthesis that takes place during the transition. And even if you don’t ultimately end up visiting a place — perhaps the virtual vacation helped you avert disaster, or you just can’t get around to visiting this place, ever — these short escapist journeys undertaken with mouse and keyboard can be quite valuable. Regardless of their accuracy and depth, they’re their own kind of vacation in and of themselves and can let you go places that you would never get to go otherwise.

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365 Hats Trailer!

6 02 2010


365 Hats Trailer

Originally uploaded by N-Sai

I’ve just put out the trailer for the 365 Hats project. Going through this process has been lots of fun. As you may gather, this project has been more about being creative than adhering to strict rules. I’ve violated pretty much every principle I started with, but at the same time, I’ve also stuck better to the plan than I expected I would. A few notes/lessons learned through the process:

  • This is nutz, baby. Nutz. But so much fun.
  • My definition of a “hat” is somewhat loose in many cases, but that’s OK. It’s all creativity.
  • I don’t need to OWN the hat. A few of these were “found” in the environment.
  • Some of the hats are handmade or improvised.
  • The vast majority of the hats are actual hats that I own.
  • Headbands, bows and the like count as hats for the sake of simplicity.
  • I got a late start at dailymugshot. I’ll be posting a link to that soon, thanks to a pointer from a coworker.
  • Currently the images are stored in a Picasa Web Album, which allows me a lot of freedom to upload in batches and change photos in and out.
  • In some cases I’ve had to bend or break the time interval rules due to breaking news at my day job (Haiti coverage for example).
  • The only strict rule I’m setting is that I must upload at once per week (multiple images from that week are OK, individual daily posts are ideal) and that I must have 365 different hat or headgear arrangements by the end of 2010.
  • Multiple poses/shots with the same hat are ideal because it allows me to animate the scene. I may do some videos, too, just to mix things up a bit.
  • Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a few days ahead in my photo-taking. I’m trying to stash those aside and stay in pace.
  • It’s super-awesomer if the hat has some meaning for the events of that day.

Overally, I’m surprised at how fun and not-tedious this process has been. While I haven’t been able to do updates every single day that I’ve been doing this, I’ve stuck with it through most of the thick and thin moments that have come along, and there’s been quite a bit to distract from my resolve. In many cases my hats or headgear match up with current events so that helps. I can document the day by showing what hat I am wearing.

View high-quality version on YouTube if you like. The video clip here is from Flickr.

So the big question is, WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? ARE YOU INSANE? Well I’m doing it mainly because it’s fun and because it will be something I can look back on at the end of the year. It will be something simply awesome and fun. And, it gives me a chance to play around and experiment with new ideas and technology and software. In short, it’s just a lot of awesome. I do wear a lot of hats in this world and sometimes it’s nice to just do something fun.

PRODUCTION NOTES: All the photos shown here were taken with an iPhone or with Photo Booth on my MacBook. Visual arrangement for this piece was done on free video editor HyperEngine-AV v. 1.5. I experimented with iMovie but found it too limiting in some respects and far superior in other ways. Overall, I’m finding that a combined approach of HyperEngine-AV and iMovie may be the way to go unless I spring for Final Cut at home. More to come on that. The music is an exported GarageBand sound clip.





365 hats in 2010: Cheesehead trucker hat

5 01 2010

This entry announces a fun project that I hope will turn into something cool at the end of the year. I’ll be chronicling the year in hats by uploading one (or two or whatever) photo per day to a special Picasa album set up specifically for this purpose.

When I run out of hats, I’ll have to get creative to find headgear. In my humble opinion, that’s when the fun will truly begin. Not that my hat collection isn’t fun.

For example, the photo at right shows a cheesehead ballcap/trucker hat obtained during a trip to Madison WI a few years back. The benefit of this hat vs. a traditional cheesehead is it’s a little less cumbersome, while at the same time being a little more subversive.

Hat date: January 3, 2010. And that’s me backlit in shadows. Never let your light source be behind you. But, in this case it kind of works.

I can’t claim to have completely invented this concept, but I hope to put my own spin on things. It’s been done by many others and the inspiration here is a few of the projects I’ve seen in the course of my work, as well as a few more on YouTube. It’s been done, but I thought I might as well do it, too.





Fall is here. Now to figure out a costume.

17 10 2009



Hard-knock life

Originally uploaded by N-Sai

The weekend before this current one, I went with coworkers to a corn maze in North Georgia. We had to go through and find the photos of pumpkins. If we matched all the pictures to the pictures on the cards we were given at the start, indicated by writing down the name of the pumpkin, we could get ice cream at the end. The maze itself was easily exited, but we did have to go through and find the things. And, you know, get into the fall spirit. Another thing we did was take pictures of kittens and cats a-go-go, such as the one in the photo. The kittens were very tiny and the mother had an eye problem. Still cute.

We also saw some falls for the fall in the Tallulah Gorge state park. I read that it was at one point a top tourist attraction in the South. The visitor center was nice, as was the view and the nice almost-changed leaf-peeping experience. We didn’t find much to eat, however, and went back to the ATL to fill our famished bellies, exhausted from climbing all those freaking stairs down to see the suspension bridge and the water.

Now I’m mulling my Halloween plans (more travel? I must be nutzy) and what I’m going to costume myself as. I posted a bunch of themes on Facebook and have even more now: some kind of two-party political thing with donkey and elephant parts, Mod Squad, Clockwork Orange, lolcat, fairy with giant wins, tooth fairy, The Economy, modernist art, postmodernism, a hippie, Michael jackson, Kanye West, Balloon Girl, Internet Meme-a-palooza (crasher squirrel, Kanye, lolcats, you name it), a computer, an iPhone, a Google phone, the Twitter bird, a fail whale, a scrabble board, a keyboard, a social network, something from Alice in Wonderland, omg I don’t even know what I could be. Mom even suggested the Mona Lisa and I was intrigued at what could be done with that. There is no limit to my imagination, only to my artistic abilities and wherewithal.





Sunday schedule

25 07 2009

I’m planning my schedule RIGHT NOW on the Internet access enabled plane ride over. My belly is full of pretzels, cookies (yes, pretzels and cookies), and cherry Coke (yes, Cherry Coke, on a plane, with refills) and I’m in the right frame of mind. Saturday is up in the air. I don’t have a ticket, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily going to stop me. 🙂

Sunday, I do have a ticket. It’s a short day, so we have to make it count.

Subject to change at any time, below are the programs that I’m eyeing to attend. Of course it won’t be possible to attend them all, but I think I’ll get a well-rounded day.

10:00 a.m.: Tie between Comic-Con film school (postproduction) and the Dr. Who panel. Also Phineas & Ferb.

11:00 a.m.: Lots of great stuff including Women of Marvel, American Dad and Emily the Strange. Also some cartoon voices.

11:30 a.m.: Newspaper editorial cartoonists. I’d love to go to this, but don’t think I”ll make it.

Noon: Random stuff. Good time for lunch.

12:30: Scooby Doo

12:45: Marvel video games? Some recognizable names on that one…

1:00: Ghost Whisperer stars panel will have a few big-shots. Expecting hard time getting in.

1:00 alternate: Comics in Museums

2:00: Future of HP *or* BBC America (Being Human/Torchwood)

2:30: Ethnographic analysis of Comic-Con attendees

3:00: Starship Smackdown

3:30: 501st costuming

4:00: Buffy the Musical





Andy Warhol was a bit generous

29 03 2009

Rain, rain, rain, there you go again, messin’ up my plans
Ruinin’ my day of fun best as you can
I think it’s fair to say that I’m not your biggest fan
But I always make do in these gray hours, best as I can.

ONE of my favorite new rainy-day activities is 12seconds.tv, a new site that we are using. You get 12 seconds, not 15 minutes, of fame. That is, if the community likes what you do. For me, I feel like if I’m going to ask other people to submit videos, I sure as heck had better be submitting videos, too. So submit I do, and I’ve had a modicum of success. It’s good to know what it feels like to submit your work and be part of an active community. Hopefully this experience will help me do better at my job. Also, hey, the site is lots of fun to use and I really enjoy trying to stretch myself and see if I can respond to the silly and thought-provoking challenges. Good times!

Here are some notable pieces I’ve done so far:

So check it out. Also, Muse rules. Oh how I love your sweet sounds.





Waiting for the world to change

28 03 2009

I guess the frustrations that I’m feeling (and the world collectively is feeling) about the state of newspapers, journalism education, media literacy and academia have got to come to a head sometime. Maybe now. The tensions have always been there, and this bad economy is merely the tipping point that will catalyze further change.

It’s almost cliche now but Clay Shirky’s article about the uncertainty and possible troubles ahead (thinking the “unthinkable” so to speak) is a pretty sobering view of the challenges ahead. I’d like to think that things won’t be quite that bad, but we can definitely expect that things may never be the same. When I was studying journalism and walking the hallowed halls of academia, I always felt a little uneasy. Sort of like I was traveling back in time and not really in step with what was going on outside the newsroom and journalism classroom. (Granted, they were trying as hard as they could, and none of us really had the answer. We’re still learning.)

Especially in light of what you can see happening now, I can certainly relate to Shirky’s concept of being a “barking madman” about the future, although I can hardly blame my contemporaries for resisting in a time when finances weren’t so dire and there wasn’t such a stark division between success and failure. But going into college, I was terribly undecided and uninspired whenever I examined the reams and reams of schools and majors at my university. I simultaneously wanted to everything and nothing. So little information about what to do with information.

The job I do now didn’t exist then, and I couldn’t have conceived of it as I sat at desks listening to old war stories of reporting about criminals and city councils. Sure, we discussed the Web and experimented with it and did internships and made online magazines, but we viewed it with a certain distant reverence and simultaneous grateful pity toward the people making it happen. “Web producer” jobs at that time weren’t terribly exciting — little more than shuffling content from print to online. We knew that was the future, but we had horrific visions of being reduced to moles working odd hours to cut and paste someone else’s stories — nearly going blind from wading through a sea of poorly conceived HTML tags.

Overall, I am thrilled with the education I got. It steered me where I needed to go. But I got lucky, too, and I wonder if the time has come for everyone to think differently about things. (It’s not just me wondering.)

I remember how we used to think back then. Focus on the basics and then the technology will fall into place afterward. Turns out things are changing so fast that the basics themselves have changed.

What about the future? We all knew deep down the current newspaper model was unsustainable. I’m surprised it worked as long as it did. Are people really going to pay for what is essentially old and outdated news that wastes trees, when they can get the same thing for free? I love reading a newspaper and being able to hold it in my hand, but I don’t like dealing with the waste of paper or the mass of it, and I don’t want to pay for it every day. And this idea that newspapers should withhold news until the morning… that worked then, but what about now, when the rumor mill is so much more active? It will only be more so in the future. Sure, the “hold-for-release” concept has its appeal and its need, but for crucial information and breaking news, old news is no news.

Some folks from the now-beleaguered East Valley Tribune, once heralded as a great Phoenix-area paper, are trying to start online-only publications. Same with people who left the shuttered Rocky Mountain News. Lots of people are starting up as citizen journalists, and will be doing it. Heck, dealing with that stuff is my job now. Could we have imagined that someone like me would make a living like this just a few years ago? I never would have fathomed and yet here we are.

So… we’re certain now that the future is uncertain and people won’t have the big conglomerations that we once had. Things are going to be individually driven. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The question is, if it’s not your full-time job, will you have time to do the reporting? Will your employer allow you to be a reporter and can you maintain the distance required? Who’s going to keep an eye on City Hall?

From my limited experience doing traditional news reporting, I recall attempting to gain respect from sources and the community (and my editors) by building a sense of trust among people and having good relationships with area stakeholders. That’s not a whole lot different from what I’ve seen while experimenting with social media. You build a following on one of these sites by captivating interest, putting in work and reciprocating with other members. In other words, you “join the conversation,” one of the most overused phrases ever as of late. But that ain’t no bull.

Conversation and community give you something that content cannot. One important thing Shirky notes is that people on Usenet were making copies of Dave Barry’s work back when the Internet started, and publishers’ immediate guttural reaction was to attempt to stop the sharing and stifle human nature. It is human nature to want to share and even to take another’s idea and spread it around both because you like the idea and because you want a piece of that attention for yourself. In short, trying to fight this urge is counterproductive.

Content is reproducible in many cases, but you cannot take a human interaction or experience and replicate it.

At the same time, you well know that people tend to develop great interest in certain kinds of content and high levels of traffic can go to these places. Sites are very good at delivering this content. So this can be capitalized upon and even discussed. If you are the source of this discussion, all the better. But chances are you won’t be, given how information is shared at light speed. Take, for example the idea of people Twittering while in the middle of a plane crash. You can’t beat the speed of that.

What it comes down to is a complex dance not unlike to two awkward birds preparing to mate — not so much audience-performer but more like different voices talking to one another. At least, that’s what my college experiences eventually taught me.