Mea culpa: I can’t be an off-duty journalist

Is a journalist ever off-duty? I tend to think not — and yesterday I feel like I neglected my duty. It’s bugging me.

It was Memorial Day, I decided to go for a long bike ride to see the beach at Alameda. I needed the exercise, and the weather was perfect. I was enjoying myself greatly — but as I was biking back along Crown Beach in Alameda, I saw police, firefighters, and onlookers gathered. I asked what was happening, and they told me that a man was stranded offshore. A firefighter pointed out into the water, and I could see a head bobbing above the waves, about 150 feet out.

“It’s shallow out there, he’s standing,” said the firefighter. And indeed, the man didn’t seem to be struggling. But he wasn’t waving or shouting for help, either.

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Practical example of low-tech augmented reality: My phone’s camera

I was in Louisville, KY over the weekend, staying in an upper floor of the Galt House hotel, which offers an excellent view of the Ohio River.  In the wee hours last night, I awoke for a bit. I noticed that outside my window, I could see the bright blue lighted sign of a large office building. But my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. I could see the sign, but no matter how much I squinted I couldn’t make out the name declared by the sign.

This bugged me — and when stuff nags at my mind, even weird minor stuff, I have a hard time getting back to sleep. The hotel room was dark, and my eyeglasses were out of reach. I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. But my cell phone was within reach, on the bedside table. (It’s my main alarm clock.)

So I grabbed my phone and snapped a quick photo of the building with the blue sign. Then, looking at the phone on my phone’s screen, I could easily read: Central Bank.

sign on top of their downtown Louisville, KY building.

This satisfied my nagging curiosity, kind of like scratching an itch. I was soon back to sleep.

It occurs to me that this is a potentially significant use of augmented reality enabled by mobile devices — and the only “app” I needed was the software controlling my phone’s camera!

Most AR apps I’ve seen are kinda gimmicky or not very compelling. For instance, seeing local coupon offers overlaid on a camera app (which Junaio does), or local tweets similarly overlaid, hasn’t really thrilled me.

But being able to compensate for poor vision or a lack of information about what things are? That’s useful.

Now if only someone could do a similar service for audio that would automatically filter out noise in a train or bus station to tell you what the hell those announcers are really saying…

What could news look like? Cool visual tools

A picture is worth 10,000 words… especially if you can play with it! This week I’m in Los Angeles, where I’ll be leading a group presentation on online interactive and visual tools that can make news, stories, and context more vivid and compelling than ever. Also presenting are:

  • Mark S. Luckie, the multimedia journalist behind the killer blog He’s also associate producer for Weekly and former online producer for the Los Angeles Times and Contra Costa Times.
  • Don Wittekind, assistant professor in the visual communication sequence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Our session is part of American Tapestry: Covering a Changing America” — an event at the Knight Digital Media Center for the leaders of the News21 project. The participants are mostly journalism educators who use this project to give new journalists multimedia experience. Our goal in this session is to show them cutting-edge and unusual tools to spark their — and their students’ — imaginations.

Here’s what we’ll cover…
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Gigapan: Pictures you can really get into

Gigapan fragment, DC Union Station

Gigapan fragment, DC Union Station

Gigapan isn’t brand new, but it’s a fascinating visual tool that allows people to deeply explore panoramic photographs — and to collaboratively tell stories through pictures.

It’s part of Carnegie Mellon University’s Global Connection Project

What’s so cool about Gigapan?

  • Conveys a strong sense of place — almost a 3D feel
  • People can create their own experience with snapshots
  • Provide text or link context
  • Allows examination and discussion of details
  • Plays nice with Google Earth

I like Gigapan because it offers an experience sort of like this:

More about Gigapan…

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Flickr Comment Spam: Any Solutions?

A great photo by Wolfpix seems to have attracted a lot of obvious Flickr comment spam.

(UPDATE: Turns out the comments I’m complaining here are not comment spam — but man, they sure look like it. See Karoli’s comment below for an explanation.)

I love Flickr and other photo-sharing services. Not that I’m much of a photographer myself, but I love that Flickr makes it easy to designate and find Creative Commons-licensed images. I even have a Flickr CC search plugin on my Firefox search bar, and I use it daily. That’s because I prefer to include an illustrative image with every post. It just makes blogging more fun.

Whenever I use a CC-licensed image, I always comment back thank the owner and let them know I used it as an illustration, and where. I figure it’s the least I can do.

Because I leave lots of comments on Flickr to thank photographers for their CC-licensed images, I’ve been noticing lately though that comment spam seems to be picking up on Flickr. That’s a bummer.

Case in point: This morning I used this great duck picture by Wolpix to illustrate this E-Media Tidbits post by Steve Klein. When I went to leave my comment, I noticed many other comments that appear to be spam — they’re identical, except they’re left by different “users” — as if someone set up fake Flickr accounts for the purpose of leaving spam.

Spam in this environment especially sucks because it cuts off conversation and dilutes relevance.

What could Flickr do — or are they doing something I’m missing — to either prevent comment spam or discourage it by making it harder?

Lunar Eclipse, via Flickr

Cheetah100, via Flickr (CC license)
Last night’s total lunar eclipse.

Last night, after a day of mostly overcast skies in Boulder, CO, the clouds finally dissolved around 3am leaving a clear view of the total lunar eclipse. I was out in my driveway with my husband, who’d set up his whompous Meade LX 90 12-inch telescope, and was thrilled to see the moon “get eaten away” and turn blood red.

The most lyrical explanation I found of why the moon turns red during a total lunar eclipse is from this Science@NASA story: “With the Sun blocked, you might expect utter darkness, but no, the ground at your feet is aglow. Why? Look back up at Earth. The rim of the planet seems to be on fire. Around Earth’s circumference you see every sunrise and sunset in the world — all at once.”

I used that same explanation to my spellbound six-year-old neighbor, who (along with his mom) joined us at the scope for an unforgettable hour of viewing and discussion. He totally got it — including when I pointed at the ground to show him where the sun was: “Think through the earth,” I said. “OK, I can do that,” he replied seriously. He was quite taken with the eclipse.

Of course this morning I wanted to see photos of the eclipse from around the world, so I went to Flickr. I found lots of great photos from last night’s eclipse. Many of them include, in captions, people’s experiences of seeing this eclipse. Worth checking out. My very favorite is this one (you’ve gotta read the caption).

I’m finding that when something visually interesting happens, I tend to go straight to the photo-sharing sites to see first-hand independently produced images — often before I go to mainstream news coverage of the event. Especially with something like an eclipse.

The thing is, when you view an eclipse it’s generally a very personal experience. It’s not just looking out into space, but having a sense of where you are standing, and what the viewing conditions are there. It’s an intriguing personal connection with space — but it’s basically about two points in space.

In contrast, browsing Flickr the day after an eclipse lets you experience the eclipse through others’ eyes (well, at least their cameras) from wherever it was visible around the globe. This goes beyond the connecting of two mere points, and your perspective on the eclipse expands.

Worth a look.