Virtual Touring – Los Angeles

Virtual reality has begun to slowly descend, or infect depending on your point of view, our everyday lives. Mostly it’s a crude attempt, much like a baby tumbling and staggering about. But just wait: this baby will one day grow up and trample over us.

But rather go into a diatribe about technology, let’s talk about an interesting tool that the behemoth corporate giant Google offers through their Google Earth app: Street View. By dragging a human icon onto the satellite view, much like God plucking his servant Moses and placing him atop Mount Sinai to view his surroundings, it gives you a 360 degree view of anyplace that the ubiquitous surveillance vans have trans versed. And if you click on the road ahead, Google Earth will “drive” you to that destination. If you plan a route, you could theoretically do a virtual tour without leaving the comfort of your home.

LA virtual route

Having never been to LA, I thought it was an opportune adventure to map out a route and drive throughout LA and its environs. I also confess to being very ignorant of the various regions and neighborhoods. Ask me about lower Manhattan and I can guide you in a circuitous way. Ask me about LA and you’ll get a blank look. So, I did what I thought was my best to take in a random sampling of what LA would have to offer by road for someone exploring by way of the internet. And this is my log and what I discovered.

LAX arrival

6:58am – “Arrived” at LAX. Surprisingly the flight was like a second. I found myself outside the terminal at ground level and began my tour of the city. The air is climate controlled at 74 degrees inside my house and I have a steaming cup of coffee by my right side. The adventure begins.

7:25am – Taking the San Diego freeway to Hollywood. As I “drive”, I seem to be constantly following the same yellow school bus until north of E. Arbor Vitae Street, whereupon a 76 gas truck takes it place.

7:48am – Just south of the Santa Monica Freeway, the cars turn into some bizarre shapes. Have I had too much coffee, or not enough? Despite Google’s efforts to portray a realistic 360-degree view, sometimes images seem to twist and bend like some sci-fi scene.

Wilshire Blvd

8:20am – I turn onto Wilshire Blvd. By the US federal building, by a simple maneuver of the mouse I can almost experience many seasons in 1 click. Apparently the various images taken were at all different times and weather conditions. Reminds me of the Crowded House song “Four Seasons in One Day”.

Santa Monica

8:50am – You can tell a lot by just the stores and area you’re in. Along Santa Monica Blvd you can’t throw a wireless computer mouse without hitting either a Starbucks or Fitness Gym. Must be a safe area.

Santa Monica mural

Hollywood

9:15am – After driving along the Santa Monica Blvd I finally get to Hollywood and Vine, the epicenter of the tourist trap. I stop for a coffee at Starbucks (actually re-fill my own coffee from my machine, get back to my MacBook), and begin more exploring.

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9:20am – Are we there yet?

9:42am – Taking the Ventura Blvd just north of the Laurel Canyon.

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9:58am – Van Nuys seems to be an endless array of car dealerships and anything to do with the sacred vehicle of this city. The car is worshipped, praised, damned and abandoned when it runs it course. Until the electric car becomes mandatory, I feel this city would cease to exist if for some reason the rivers of gasoline dried up.

10:30am – In San Fernando I take the Golden State Freeway past Burbank back into LA. It flies back to me that a highway is a highway is a highway. I’ve driven across the many majestic highways of this great nation, and usually in rural areas you have such sights as the rolling hills of Tennessee, the pines of New England, the endless “South of the Border” billboards along 95, and other landmarks to keep you amused as the car speeds along. But on highways within major cities, except for the billboards for local TV stations or car dealerships, the scene is typically the same whether in LA or on the NJ Turnpike by exit 13: cars and trucks ensconced in a sea of concrete with no discernable features. I could take the San Fernando or Glen Oaks Blvd for a more scenic view, but the expeditious route of the highways is too tempting. Time. We race against time to save time and by doing so avoid the local scenery. With speed we lose flavor.

11:15am – The cat is gnawing at my foot, playing with the laces of my Converses. A small distraction while I take care of this passenger.

Alameda

11:50am – I take Alameda Street to cut through the congested center of LA, not knowing that this is an industrial megalopolis. Every city has its share of warehouses and truck depots. They are the kidneys of any city, moving wastes and by-products about for the function of a greater good. They’re not pretty, except maybe to the locals or in some Zen-like reflection.

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12:15pm – I’m discovering a unique feature about Street View. Sometimes, just sometimes, the visual is distorted and buildings appear as if melting on the digital screen. I’m reminded of the police building in Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” in which structures give a bizarre optical illusion: “It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing.”

Imperial Hwy

12:30 – Taking Imperial Highway as far east as I can in order to snake through the Brea Canyon. Like Grant’s Army slogging through the bayous of Louisiana for the Battle of Vicksburg, I plod along this endless road of strip malls, box stores, discount houses and such.

1:30pm – I take Valley Blvd to Fairplex Drive. I am now noticing the scenery of the San Jose Hills. Quite beautiful.

Foothill Blvd

2:15pm – At La Verne I take the Foothill Blvd to what Google Earth says is East Route 66. Having never set foot (or digital view) of this road, I only recall images and folklore of this famous stretch of highway that connected the realm of LA with the multitudes of those crossing America in search of the splendor of Hollywood and the charm of the Pacific Beaches. “Driving” along, I am saddened. This is not some unique folksy California charm but another endless stream of shopping malls and discount stores, connected along this path like some consumerist vinca vine. I know no one should wax poetic about the NJ Turnpike, but the Turnpike was never some glamorous girl that men turned heads to see. The Turnpike is the ironclad bureaucrat with the illusion of efficiency. Route 66 was the perky girl in high school you admired but then saw her at the 30-year reunion and breathed a sigh of relief you didn’t hitch your wagon to that road.

3:55pm – Taking Route 605 to Lower Azusa Road. Another highway. ‘nuf said.

7-11

4:15pm – Decided to take Peck Road south through El Monte. Norwalk Blvd trying to get as fast as possible to Huntington Beach and the ocean. Throughout this trip I’ve noticed a preponderance of 7-11 convenience stores. These creatures have become almost extinct in the northeast, having lost to the fierceness of the mighty Wa-Wa, much like the Neanderthals being pushed out of Europe 40,000 years ago. Also Jack-in-the-Boxes. They’re still around?

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5:05pm – Finally on Highway 1 – Pacific Coast Highway. Another road with a glorious tag which it wears around its neck. I’m sure the climate controlled air conditioning of my house does in no way supplant to warm breezes and the radiance of the “actual” sun.

5:40pm – On my way to Redondo Beach up to Santa Monica. Google will not allow me to “drive” onto the Santa Monica pier, so I’m left observing on the road. What a splendid place to spend the day it must seem.

5:55pm – Are we there yet?

6:00pm – Taking Sunset Blvd through the hills. A very nice area. The road is walled in by a series of hedges and palm tress. I can’t for a second believe that locals stick to the 35mph speed limit.

6:40pm – On the San Diego Freeway. Developing less of road rage and more of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

LAX depart

7:20pm – Finally “arrived” back at LAX. The flight back east was amazingly easy – no body searches, no shoe-less shuffle through TSA checkpoints. Just memories and time to walk away from this computer and call it a day.

Stadium Way

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Writer’s Block on the El Camino Real

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I’ve always enjoyed writing. And reading. It’s been a passion ever since I can remember. When I first entered college over 30 years ago I had the eager ambition to become a writer, or at least a journalist. But Dr. Resnick and my varied distractions, along with a severe slumping market for newspapers at the time put a screeching halt to that. Even though I took an alternate career path, I never gave up the desire to write.

I’ve always been an admirer of essays. I prefer the skill of passing down observations and recollections of wisdom (or at least perceived wisdoms) down on paper (or rather hard drives). I’ve never gravitated towards fiction. They say that everyone has a novel in them. For me, that’d probably be the case only if I ingested one – paper, binder, glue and all.

I also feel that if it’s worth putting down on page, it should be something worthwhile. I don’t want to become a blogger who just regurgitates things for the simple act of being able to generate large quantities of words, because I can. I’m a citizen of social media, but I’m also not one to just post statuses for the sake of constantly telling the world every waking moment. (“Just went to the bank” “Hot one today” “Saw the same cat wandering outside – LOL”)

Anyway, I had this idea of writing an amusing piece about navigating through LA by way of Google Earth’s Street View. I’ve travelled close by, but never actually been in the City of Angels, so I thought I’d be interesting to describe what it’d be like to do a “virtual drive” having never left the comfort of my home. The problem was, I just could never get the time or energy to break this logjam known as Writer’s Block.

When I was in school, and had a deadline to post a piece I’d usually have something ready, but there were times when my inertia would overwhelm me, plus that devil on my shoulder who’d entice me into some wild diversion, and then I’d have to vomit something on paper for my journalism professor. But writing articles for a blog is something different. For me it’s a wondrous expression, but doesn’t pay my bills. Work unfortunately does, and work of late has been demanding and time consuming. And of course life – which has a way of getting in the way of, well, life.

So here I am, preparing to write an essay about virtual travel. It’s just that I seem to be stuck on the El Camino Real at rush hour and trying to find a way to get this traffic moving. I see the cars inching ahead and there’s hope. Even writing about Writer’s Block is a way to get this traffic flowing. I started my virtual journey yesterday and hope to have something soon. As soon as this traffic gets moving.

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Futbol Flopping

So, when was it that we as a civilization were endeared to making success by faking misfortune? Was there a high-water mark that hard work, dedication and “nose to the grind stone” was surpassed by showmanship and exaggeration of injustice? If so, I must’ve missed it whilst I was busy engrossed with my head down working tough jobs for meager wages and trying to better myself. I digress….

I’m sure to earn a lot of scorn, and maybe get a small bit of praise for the following. I am not nor have I ever played the game of soccer. Except once in the late 80s in Mississippi at an Air Force Base. At the time we had these British and Irish gents enlisted in the USAF. I’m not sure they still have this program, but at the time someone from the UK could serve in the US military and earn citizenship. Anyway, we had a series of “football” games on Saturdays in which their prowess and skills clearly outshone mine. But it was all in good spirits and no flopping broke out.

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I’m sure by now most people are aware of the art of flopping. Basically, it’s the melodramatic display an athlete takes when pushed or physically challenged. This “malingering” to gain an advantage has some historical precedents, but it’s about the same con we take to work on the sorrow of others.

http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2014/06/30/140630ta_talk_paumgarten

Like most Americans, I don’t dislike soccer, but also don’t take the same rabid fervor to follow every aspect, stat and angle of the game. I just don’t see the same religious dedication to details as one that can recite the ERA of top baseball pitchers of the MLB or the mundane facts of Fantasy Football as one who follows the NY Red Bulls or the LA Galaxy. But like most of us who run furiously to catch up to the accelerating bandwagon of the World Cup, I watch with an attention span that has an expiration shelf life of about 3 or 4 weeks.

So, it was my surprise to see top athletes from around the globe fall in apparent ersatz injury. I’m not saying these athletes don’t experience pain. For God’s sake, just the physical skills necessary to play at such a level are amazing. But when I see someone get bumped, then fall down on the pitch and writhe in such agony as to mimic the death scene of Sgt. Elias in the movie Platoon, then instantaneously bounce up and run at full force as if nothing happened…..

This normally may not disturb me except that I am acutely aware of the story of Bert Trautmann. You see, Bert was a German POW in WWII who stayed in England and played soccer. Bert was the goalie for Manchester City in England’s prestigious Football Association (FA) cup final in 1956 against Birmingham City. In the last portion of the game, an opposing player collides into Bert with his knee on Bert’s neck. Bert is knocked out flat but is revived and assumes his position in the net, playing all the while his one hand caressing his sore neck. He actually stopped a key goal and eventually Manchester won the FA cup. Afterwards, Bert complains but soldiers on to meet Queen Elizabeth at the closing ceremony. Three days later it was discovered that the knee-neck collision actually resulted in the dislocation of 5 vertebrae in his neck, one of which cracked in half, potentially being fatal. I can only imagine what Bert Trautmann would say about the flopping antics of the World Cup if he were alive today (actually he died on July 19th 2013).

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Trautmann

Flopping exists. Flopping has always existed in one form or another. But have we rewarded flopping in our society? I can’t imagine Tom Joad (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grapes_of_Wrath) falling down in pain in the fields of Weedpatch Camp to elicit sympathy from local sheriffs. But then again, if they had YouTube in the Depression, his antics may have gone viral, ensuring him of his 15 minutes of fame.

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Travelling by Google Maps – Lower East Side Manhattan

“Ain’t nothing like the real thing baby, ain’t nothing like the real thing. I play the game, a fantasy. I pretend I’m not in reality.” – Marvin Gaye

Screen Shot Greenwich Village

Now I’ve travelled around the world and have set foot in 6 of the world’s continents. Some of the places have been simply majestic while others where a lucid blur of bewilderment. Being a New Jersey native, my adventures to New York City were slow at the start. I began, as most tourists do, with the obvious: the bright lights and sensory overload of Mid-town and Times Square. But once you get past the amazement of the cacophony of sounds and over-stimulation of neon lights, you notice, slowly but gradually until it overwhelms you the pungent smells and oppressive crowding (not to mention the crass commercialization). Disclaimer: I still love New York.

Eventually, like some moon fighting the gravity of its orbit, I ventured further and further away from the center of this universe. I began to explore the wonders of Central Park (where else can you be in a city of over 8 million people yet feel the solitude and peace of nature?). My wanderings would then take me to Chelsea, Union Square, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, the Bowery, SoHo, Bronx, Brooklyn, et al. Over the years, and the many years, I would take the weekends for a Walk-about, sometimes with no rhyme, reason or destination to discover more and more places, always finding new adventures and niches of history and culture tucked away in some non-descript place yet seeped with such mysteries and links to layers and layers of the past. Take Greenwich Village, for example. One street may be the epicenter for powerful protests and riots in the 60s for civil rights, and then 20 years earlier be the same place where Bob Dylan and the foundation of folk music percolated, and yet 20 years earlier saw the likes of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway among others, and years before that the likes of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, just as an example. There are parts of New York that act as a home that gets rented out by pillars of American literature, music and politics, passed on like some celebrated baton using the geography as the base.

So, what does this have to do with Google Earth? Well, I’ve always wanted to explore the likes of Cherry Street along the lower East Side. According to a fabulous book called “The Gangs of New York” by Herbert Asbury (published in 1927), the lower East Side was THE heart of Manhattan in the beginning of America. It was the location of the very first Executive Mansion of the President of the US, George Washington. Naturally, with the echoes of history in my mind I wanted to explore this place.

First, I should’ve been keyed in to what this place had become when I realized that NY’s MTA has no stops in that area. Walking tours tend to avoid this region. I’ve always wanted to see what Cherry Street had to offer, but could never find a reason or time to witness it, until I did a virtual walk with Google Earth.

Within Google Earth, this feature of Street View brings you right down into a virtual panoramic show. As a kid in the 60s, all I had were Nat Geo magazines and encyclopedias to discover what was outside in the great unknown (and books, and 3 TV stations…). Obviously, we all know that the Armies of Google have traversed through most cities with their NSA-like vans capturing images at the street level. I finally decided to do a virtual street tour of Cherry Street from the comfort of my home to see what I was missing. And I missed not that much. It seems that the lower East Side, north of the Brooklyn Bridge is nice, but very non-descript. Rows and rows of apartment buildings and Chinese restaurants but none of the unique flavor and history one would expect from this part of town. So, in the end, using the internet and Google Earth, I saved myself from a trip to see something I had over-hyped in my mind.

Screen Shot Cherry Street1

Screen Shot Cherry Street2

Will Google Earth destroy spontaneous and adventuresome travel, or be another tool to prepare the traveller. Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

Epilogue: Once I started travelling by Google Earth (Street View), I decided to “visit” a city I had always wanted to see but never got close to: LA (3 days in Riverside doesn’t cut it). I did a virtual tour throughout most of the city and came away with a new perspective. These results are for a future blog.

Screen Shot El Camino Real

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Flowers and Gardens in New York City (NY Botanical Gardens)

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When one travels, you have to take into account the equation of risk and reward. The “risk” comes in many shapes, sizes and flavors. The risk may be the obvious: personal safety, disease, and/or loss of financial gain. Risk can also and usually be more mundane, in that the time and energy you expended may not be worth the effort. How many times have you embarked on a trip with maximum effort and little gain? How many birthday parties, barbeques or even concerts have you gone to and then afterwards, in a sincere moment of self-reflection say to yourself, “well, that was a complete waste of my time.”

The reward on the other hand, can be as varied as the personal capital invested. Was that trip to Chicago REALLY worth it? They say you make your own adventure, but that entity known as fate, she has a say in how it goes down as well. This is all very heady stuff for the following photos, but in this case we had placed the New York Botanical Gardens as on our “must see” list of things. I refrain from using the well-worn term ‘bucket list’ (damn! I just used it). Travelling through the Bronx certainly qualifies in the risk column, (a colleague who’s from that area best described it as “sketchy”) but when you get to see the wonders of the gardens, the reward is certainly worth the effort. If you love horticulture, it is very close to Nirvana. Even if you only slightly adore nature it will lift your spirits and is well worth the travelling risk.

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Flying the Flag

swiflags

The following is an accurate, true story of a vignette of my travels. It’s a story of pride and hubris that inflicts all mankind, whether we care to or not. I promise it’s only slightly embellished, but the spices of this need not detract from the overall flavor of the meal.

After the tragedy of 9-11 the world was in shock of the magnitude of horror and in solidarity with those victimized. At the time I was deployed with the US military in a foreign land, and in the days following the local nationals who worked in the mess hall wore paper patches emblazed with “We are With You” safety pinned to their chests, part of this in solidarity and part to say in an indiscreet way “it wasn’t me” to avoid any wild xenophobic hysteria.

When I arrived back in the States I was quickly dispatched to the headquarters of US Central Command for a new assignment with follow-on instructions waiting. In the days following 9-11, a coalition of nations sent their troops – their best and brightest to serve at the headquarters, part out of diplomatic arm-twisting and part out of military necessity (verdict still pending). The USCENTCOM Coalition compound was quickly becoming a military Hoover Ville with trailers upon trailers of foreign military work centers occupying a fenced in area. As more and more nations rushed to join the fight against terrorism, the logistics of housing this sprawling Levittown of trailers became a challenge. If this compound were truly a US military endeavor, regulations, hierarchy, tradition and irrational reasoning would settle it rather easy. But now a new angle had to be considered, which was the delicate art of diplomacy.

In my first few days at USCENTCOM, I became acquainted with some ‘kiwis’, New Zealanders. I knew of New Zealand, I heard of New Zealand, but I never worked side by side for weeks on by with a kiwi. New Zealanders sound like Australians but Heavens above they are NOT Australians! There is a difference. If a German from the outskirts of Munich meets someone from Toronto they may make mistake him or her for an American, but the Toronto citizen will adamantly state they are Canadian! To the unaided eye, it may seem not a big difference but please don’t insult Canadians, or New Zealanders for that matter. Beef may seem all the same but there’s a huge difference between prime rib and tenderloin.

During the early days of this Hoover Ville trailer park, I’m told by very reliable sources that one nation (RUMINT has it it was the Poles) decided to erect a flagpole outside their trailer and proudly displayed the Polish national flag, the first country to do so, and obviously without clearance. Immediately the next day, another nation (again, RUMINT), the Italians, felt slighted and THEY erected a flagpole and flew the tri-color of green-white-red. These flags were prominently displayed and not too long afterward the contagion of national pride spread throughout the camp. In a matter of days the Hungarian, Canadian, New Zealander and other national flags began sprouting up like dandelions after a warm summer rainstorm.

But even better, each nation decided to fly THEIR flag with an even HIGHER flagpole, to out-do their compatriots. Flagpoles began rising higher and even higher in a cascading effect of hubris. In days, this Tower of Babel began to become an unwieldy diplomatic mess.

“So what happened”? I asked my source. “Well, eventually someone of highest rank came through and issued an edict that all flags had to be of a certain height” was the response. Military policy and regulation had come in and issued a sense of reality. Yahweh decided that He had enough and obliterated the Tower of Babel in Babylonia. USCENTCOM used bureaucracy to limit this tower to a certain height, and that was that.

After this initial rush of hubris, the open display of pride, at least for the flags, was tempered. There’d be other forms of national pride in this trailer park of international military assistance in the weeks ahead, but at least in this initial “raising the flag” in the opening days, common sense prevailed, at least for a short moment.

And that is the truth.

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Discourse on Technology – Giving Your Life Away to ‘Her’ (or HAL)

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I know I must’ve said this once before, but standing atop a mountain ridge gives one a distinct advantage to see from up high both sides of the mountain. Being born before the tsunami of the Information Age also gives one a clear reflection of what life was like before intrusive technology. I feel that being born only on one side of the mountain or more aptly, in the midst of the hurricane, one only knows the hurricane.

In modern times, writers, philosophers, artists and scientists have been enamored with the thought of creating a “machine” that can think like us, do our bidding (those tedious “honey-do” chores) and be our companions. We since deemed this ‘life’ as Artificial Intelligence. According to Futurists, this Rubicon will be crossed in a mere 38 years (or even sooner).

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/12/06/science/20111206-technology-timeline.html?_r=0

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We seem racing towards this goal to create a being that will emulate and serve us. The intentions are good, as is a certain road according to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, or Virgil, or even Samuel Johnson. Look it up.

But when we create this AI-self, what will we ask it to do? According to some writers, machines and technology, which was supposed to free us up with an abundance of leisure time, has instead multi-tasked us to the point where we’re drowning in a sea of things to do. (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2014/05/26/140526crbo_books_kolbert?currentPage=all) Will then, this AI-self be our savior to free us of our menial tasks? In the movie ‘Her’, an AI Operating System comes to the rescue of the main character in both the mundane chores of scheduling appointments as well as the emotional rescue of his life. We trust Her, not realizing that ‘she’ was made in our image – which includes EVERYTHING about the human character. Be careful of what you wish for…

HER

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And of course, in the movie ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ the HAL 9000 computer had been given complete control of the Discovery One spaceship. HAL is ultimately given a moral dilemma and makes his decision. How does one exactly write the code for morality into a machine? And which version of morality?

This may all seem like futuristic sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. But is it? How much have we already given control over to something that will do the things we don’t have the time or the effort to be bothered with? Will our laziness and willingness to “let ‘someone’ else do it” be our undoing? As someone born before the Information Tsunami, I predict it will slowly creep into our lives like some kudzu vine and over time ‘just be there – as it always has’. I wonder if Siri dreams of electric sheep?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Do_Androids_Dream_of_Electric_Sheep%3F

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