Peripatetic Postcards

Virtual Pre-visitation

photo: Pedro Simões

Residing in Japan, one gets used to living on a time lag. For instance, baseball and (non-American) football are still working into the concept of free agency over here. The idea of private health insurance -- in the form of AFLAC -- hit it big on these shores about 4 years ago. And QVC-style teleshopping arrived in 2000, with the 24-hour variant hitting the airwaves in 2004. Speaking of "24", its inaugural season just debuted on Japanese cable -- as replacement for the just-completed third season of "The West Wing".

I am not sure that such cultural lag really ends up impoverishing anyone. And if one subscribes to the notion that any culture is good culture, then (since we're swimming in so much of it) life in the ReDot is simply ducky. On the other hand, there are certain topics that ought to be avoided during trans-continental correspondence (like: "hey, hey! Did you see the conclusion of The Sopranos last night?") if one doesn't wish to lose a friend or estrange a family member.

Given these longue delays it comes as no surprise that magazine hard copies tend to arrive weeks -- even months -- in arrears. I know, I should just get with the times and subscribe on-line, thereby living life virtually, but there is still something about holding paper in hand and flipping pages. No kidding. You might contend that this just betrays my conditioning as a '60s grade-schooler. But truly -- there's that tactile component that can't be discounted. Not to mention the sense of accomplishment and control that turning pages give off. And so, too, it's hard to websurf when sitting at a red light or on the commode.

One takes their sense of control where they can find it.

Anyway, that accounts for why I was sifting through a hard copy of PC World and also why that hard copy was of a PC World from June 12, 2006 which I had only just received in mid-July, 2007! Longue delay in the land of the ReDot. Indeed.

What I (finally) came across was this article. If you already know -- or else are not interested in learning on a lag -- then don't bother clicking the link, I'll just share: it was about web sites that let users personalize maps, thereby "shar(ing) the times and places of your life."

This is all in keeping with the trend toward "Web 2.0" which, if you don't know, can be thought of as this or that. A good overview can be found (of course) on Wikipedia, since Wikis are the greatest exemplars of Web 2.0. A real-life, in the flesh, lived application at work. So, in the case you do read that Wiki entry, be prepared to come to the end and say: ". . . well . . . duh".

Consider yourself warned.

They have been having conferences on Web 2.0 for three years now, and a position paper from last year's confab pretty much summarized the PC World article, offering:

There are several trends appearing in the industry now. Most obvious to consumers is the ability to view desired data on a map and the creation of new location-aware, social data . . . Users are more willing to share their data if they know that it can be used elsewhere when they (or others they grant rights to) desire.

The buzz from this year's gathering was captured on this blog. Among the most intriguing ideas, I thought, was GoogleEarth's move to add sound to map locations. At present it seems only to be the noise of humpback whales cooing and birds in African sanctuaries chirping, but imagine if, following the 2.0 credo, users could click on a spot on a map and upload New York cabbies cursing pedestrians on Broadway, or the sounds of the crowd during the final frenzied seconds of a basketball game at the HoosierDome, or sample the staccato order-taking in a Shanghai noodle shop, or overhear the furtive whispers of lovers in a dark corner of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Now that would be Web 2.0 growing up!

Speaking of the Jardin du Luxembourg, I am scheduled to be in Paris this week and that, coupled with the PC World chatter about social maps, got me to thinking. What could these maps tell me about the place I was slated to visit? Could they help me formulate a better plan? Would they be beneficial as a travel guide?

Well, I hopped on one of the sites listed in the article, They made me register which wasn't much of a thing, and then I was good to go. They had an "Explore" link, where I could punch in "Maps" and then specify "Paris" in the search function. From there I got the wild, messy, sprawling gamut -- just like life. 37 different user maps with everything from "66 Boulangeries" (viewed 132 times) to "10 Playgrounds" (viewed 280 times) to "14 Dive Bars" (viewed 595 times). There was a log of "Highlights from a Weekend in Paris" with 14 places listed, viewed 45 times; a listing of "53 Parisian Cinemas" (viewed 433 times); and "15 Summer Places" (whatever those might be . . . viewed 1,076 times). Don't be misled, not every entry was well-tracked. "Paris Shopping" listed 27 places, but was only viewed 17 times. And "Places I've lived" included 5 Places and only garnered 9 visits.

A virtual slap in the face, perhaps, but also a reminder that social mapping is, at root, "social"; it is collectively, not personally, defined, and its uses are determined mainly by collective notions of relevance and use value.

What are these maps like? And how helpful might they be? Well, the "Best Bakery in Paris" looks like this and carries the "supplementary" information: "Just the best baguettes you can get." Yeah . . . elucidating.

Speaking of enlightenment, click on the actual pushpin and you get . . . a longitude and latitude which . . . I don't know about you, but I find very much consistent with the way my brain tends to work as I traipse around a city. A fuller example might be "Joe Landannie's Paris" map, which looks like this. The points on the map are clickable links, which also are listed in the margin, so you can get a basic sense of the spots a user is plotting and also what those places might look like (assuming the links have something beyond coordinates listed!).

In the end, like all 2.0 endeavors, you are at the mercy of those you choose to throw in with. Whoever ends up in your social circle represents the brain power, the intitiative, imagination, and vision you end up able to call for an assist from. Kinda like Kobe trying to win with the current Laker squad. Good luck.

Looking at it that way, maybe Platial helped provide me with one more foothold up, but actually simply plugging "Paris" into Platial's search engine produced a sidebar link to this site, which probably had all the information I would ever need -- from maps to information on museums, tours, transportation, internet cafes, and nightlife.

Web 1.0 strikes back.

Another site mentioned in the PC World article was 43 Places. A search for "Paris, France" there turned up entries for "Embassy of France" in Washington, D.C., "Crepe de France" in Seattle, Washington, "Vie de France" in various U.S. and Japanese locations, and then a potpourri of "Paris"es: in Kentucky, Texas, Canada, and -- of all places -- France! On the "Paris, France" link there were 4,900 people who had contributed (as opposed to about 1 for the Kentucky locale), so intuition told me that that most likely was the place of my intention. What these contributors contributed, it turned out when I clicked into the link, was a slew of photos -- of monuments. places, and (my, the unbridled narcissism) themselves. The site separates the photos into categories: "popular", "browse" and "neighborhoods". The popular helped provide a really good idea of what the major attractions are in the city -- from Chartres to the Louvre to Les Invalides to L'Arc de Triomphe. But, viewing those shots -- and even though I've been to Paris before -- I was left with a sinking, cheated feeling. I realized that viewing other people's photos sort of takes the excitement out of the visitation. My God, is that what I do to you all the time on this blog when I post those "wait . . . you gotta see this shot"s?

Well, maybe I am over-reacting. There was a purpose behind this virtual tour. Pre-visitation. This was only a way of getting oriented, of becoming better organized; it wasn't to be an end in itself. The point of this exercise was not to actually experience the sights; it was to better prepare myself for what I might expect out on the streets -- the curve of the cobblestone, the sort of the shops, the lay of the land.

Thinking about it that way, if the plan is to use these social maps as a tour planner, then I would recommend 43 Places' neighborhood category. Get a good image installed so you aren't stumped in the flesh; but don't let your senses get trumped; your sense of spontaneity blocked.

One more site that PC World mentioned was PC World's pan was that this was a Europe-heavy site -- which, in the case of France -- still being a part of Europe the last time I checked -- meant that this ought not to be such a bad thing. But when I got over there I didn't feel like I even should have bothered. I am not sure if it was fatigue, my lack of gumption, or the site, itself, but it struck me as a sort of place-based "Facebook". I got this sort of vibe:

"Hey! Here's where I live."

"Oh and here's where I work."

"This is where I bought great brioche once three years ago."

"I like the kir at this joint. The jazz is passable."

Since it is mainly tagged by address, it is far from systematic. And without sitting down with a map and marshalling about 3 hours of energy, it would be hard to work that into a daily plan.

So in terms of where that leaves me in the face of my imminent departure, well . . . I would have to conclude that the idea of virtual previsitation is not very serviceable for peripatetics such as me. Sure, forming some kind of image in one's mind can be a helpful orienter, but until the Web 2.0 develops better tools or else a more elaborate social network in each physical location, then the best way to approach these trips is the old fashioned way: a modicum of information, a touch of grit, a healthy supply of spunk, a spot of serendipity, the willingness to ask questions and risk making a fool of oneself, a recognition that one does not know everything (possibly even anything . . . )

. . . and, of course, plenty of good humor.

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