Thursday, April 10, 2014

The map -- even an interactive Google one -- is STILL not the territory.

It remains true: "The map is not the territory".  Even though the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival's interactive Google Map, easily accessible on my mobile phone, helps me target my viewing and find what is in bloom right now -- this Good Thing is a personal slippery slope. On one hand, the map is very useful to me, given that I'm committing to enjoy the spring this year. However, I need to keep the above resonant quote in mind, since my primary computer now lives in my pocket and stays on all the time.  Peering at my screen -- searching for specific trees -- sometimes defeats my purpose. I ignore the rest of the pink and white forest surrounding me every time I walk out my door.

This time of year, Vancouver is vibrant with blossoming trees. For those planning an outing, however, there is a practical problem about finding trees at their peak. Different varieties or "cultivars" bloom at different times. One day you'd be gasping at a pink forest and a couple of days later, groaning in disappointment at a pink gutter. It used to take lots of experience and luck to find the best trees.

Not any more, thanks to the innovation of a "Cherry Blossom Map". In 2006, the first Cherry Blossom Festival produced a paper map which showed not only the locations of the best groves and streets, but also predicted when they would be in full bloom. Since the Festival was new, it was almost as hard to locate hard copies of the maps as it was to find trees where the blossoms hadn't blown down yet. However, the maps were available to be downloaded from their website.

My friend Chris and I took part, the next year, in another Festival Event, the  Haiku Invitational Contest. To maximize inspiration, we decided to take our cameras out and write our poems as we drove around. I used a black-and-white printout of the map, stuffed in my pocket and soggy from the pouring rain.

We timed our 2007 expedition for the first "Shutdown Day". A Wikipedia article describes the event as: "Shutdown Day is a global Internet experiment whose purpose is to get people to think about how their lives have changed with the increasing use of the home computer, and whether or not any good things are being lost because of this.[1] The concept of the Shutdown Day project is to simply shutdown one's computer for one whole day each year, and become involved in other activities: outdoors, nature, sports, fun stuff with friends and family, just to remind yourself that there is a real world beyond the computer screen." 

I was already writing this blog, which explored a similar theme, so during both springs of 2007-2008 I wrote a number of postings about Shutdown Day that you'll find in the index on the right. I re-read them myself last night, and watched my video again, embedded below. This bit of time-travelling has provided a literal "heads up" for me, right now, today.

Thanks to our Haiku project, Chris and I were among those that went back online (at midnight) and reported "Can" after successfully making it through a whole day without using our computers. Ironically, seven years later, I would now be one of the ones ticking the "Cannot" box. My smart phone never gets powered down. Here's an example of the difference this has made in my life.

It's a real improvement that the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Map has morphed into an interactive custom Google Map which gives you directions to the "Best Blooms NOW" in over 1,300 locations. Any user can upload more locations of more trees and photos as they come into bloom, and comment in a forum. The screenshot below zooms into the trees which have been reported within a few blocks of my house.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that for me now, in 2014, a cherry blossom poetry-writing expedition would involve a disproportionate amount of time walking blindly, hunched over my smart phone, reading the information about the location of the trees and watching the progress of the little blue dot that represents myself.  The spirit of Shutdown Day suggests that, once in the general area, it could be fun to just wing it and look around. Cherry trees in full bloom might not be all that hard to spot with the naked eye -- they are those big, fragrant pink and white things.

Here is the video "Alternative Uses for Your Laptop", which launched the original Shutdown Day. This year the theme of the  Festival's haiku activities is "meet your neighbour". It is time for me get out there and write another haiku.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Oops…Should have held onto my VHS player.

I'm having belated second thoughts about having gotten rid of my clunky dust-magnet VHS player and the massively heavy monitor. It seemed a good idea at the time, when I lugged them to the electronics recycling depot last year. My logic was that, from now on, anything I wanted to watch would be available on DVD. My second assumption was that, if I ever wanted to watch a VHS tape, I could find somebody else's place to watch it. Wrong on both counts.

DVD's on a protected shelf
There's a funny story about a couple who offered to assist a burglar in carrying their stuff out to his van, if he'd take their VHS tape collection, too. This didn't seem so far fetched when I arrived at the holding shelves of the Vancouver Central Library to pick up the only copy, on VHS, of an obscure mid-nineties NFB documentary called "Just Watch Me" about the dream, during the Trudeau years, of a bilingual Canada. Trudeau 1.0, that is.

VHS tapes might someday enjoy a vinyl-style revival. But my first surprise was that they currently don't seem to warrant much respect. I borrow DVD's frequently, and the Holds department keeps them protected by the barrier of the librarian's desk.  I assumed my VHS was being held back there, too. But she pointed me to the open shelves, where the honour system rules. I guess experience has shown that unscrupulous patrons give in to the temptation to grab somebody else's reserved DVD. However my VHS tape, like the books, was shielded by nothing more than an elastic and a slip of paper with my name on it.  
No need to protect a VHS

A much bigger surprise came when I walked my tape over to the Information Desk for directions to one of the library's public-access VHS players and monitors. They have acres of public-access computers, but my question stumped her (not an easy thing to do with someone in her position). She spent some time on the phone confirming that I was out of luck. "Our family is holding onto our VHS system in our crawl space," she commented. But I don't think that this was the offer of a loan. 

The Central Library loans VHS tapes,
but has nowhere to watch them
So now I have till December 22 to find a spot where I can watch my documentary. As someone interested in the impact of rapid technological change, it is an intriguing challenge.

If I don't resolve this dilemma within 3 weeks, I'll try to renew the VHS. Theoretically, this won't be an issue, since the poor thing has not even proven itself to be DVD-worthy. But,if somebody else has requested it, the library won't let me keep it for another round. However, if someone else wants to borrow it, won't that mean that I've stumbled across a kindred spirit? That would mean there are TWO of us in Western Canada who are still, 45 years later, working on the Quixotic plan to become bilingual for philosophical reasons! Maybe that next borrower will let me come over and watch it at their place.

Friday, November 29, 2013

NY Times Critic's Pick - "When I Walk" - film by AXSmap creator Jason DaSilva

Jason and Alice at their wedding

Here is a link to the NY Times online movie review of "When I Walk". The article "Filmmaker Chronicles His Battle With Illness" appeared in the print edition on October 25, 2013.

Jason sent me the link when I emailed him to let him know that Bill Morrow has now surveyed two blocks of his neighbourhood's business district, East Hastings Street, and has contributed 44 reviews to the AXSmap.  Bill is still on the road -- even as we speak he's rolling through another block. Jason is also still on the road, doing outreach for the film that Bill and I saw together at VIFF, and which kicked off Bill's decision to do what he could to support the mapping project.

See my posting yesterday, and also in September, for more information about our collaboration.  Bill and I are colleagues in Quirk-e, a seniors' writing collective hosted by the Britannia Community Centre in Vancouver. One of the "live the dream" aspects of my community-engaged art practice is that I collaborate in creative projects with "COABC's" -- people who came of age before computers. By giving face-to-face tech support, I feel I can be a bridge onto the internet for the important contributions by seniors and others who are being marginalized through lack of access.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bill Morrow rates the accessibility of his neighbourhood for AXSmap

Bill Morrow 
The AXSmap project, initiated by Jason Da Silva, a documentary filmmaker who also has MS, rates commercial establishments regarding their accessibilty to people with disabilities. In late September, after meeting him at our Emily Carr alumni reunion, I participated in one of his "mapping days" to launch the project in Vancouver. Jason has created a "Yelp style" online review site, intended to get people to take some time during their daily rounds to comment on how their local businesses are meeting their needs.

Since then I've been collaborating with my friend and writing colleague, Bill Morrow, who uses a scooter. He offered to become a reviewer after we saw a screening of Jason's documentary film "When I Walk" at the Vancouver Film Festival. Soon Bill brought me a typed list ranking 27 stores, restaurants, medical and financial places on a single block in his Vancouver East Side neighbourhood.

Bill's list of ratings for the first block
As you can see from earlier postings to this blog, I take an interest in supporting people to get over the humps, in regard to using digital technology. So when Bill asked me to work with him by uploading his reviews, I was happy to register in his name and do the entries online. Soon a cluster of coloured icons by "W. Morrow" were popping up on in a single block of the main commercial street of his Vancouver East Side neighbourhood.

For example, if you follow this link to the website and search by a category such as "restaurants" in the "2500 East Hastings, Vancouver, BC" area, you will find a number of possible choices. Restaurants with coloured icons have been rated out of a possible score of five - the orange ones are "3" and greens are "5" regarding doorways and washrooms. Grey icons are restaurants which haven't yet received an AXSmap review.
Search results showing an overview

A drill down on a restaurant shows details
Bill has now completed the next block on the street, and soon I expect to be adding more reviews. Accessing the Internet -- either to contribute or to read the reviews -- is problematic for Bill, as well as for many of his fellow seniors who belong to the "COABC" (Came of Age Before Computers) demographic. However he has been able to do a technological work-around by enlisting my support.  In doing so, he is making a concrete contribution, saving time and frustration for his mobility-challenged neighbours of all ages.

Curious about how the reviewing process works? Here is a video:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Making "Moves" towards fitness. One step at a time (and counting them all!)

I've been trying to follow through on a new (and belated) intention to find ways to get more activity into my daily life. I liked the simple concept of focusing on walking 10,000 steps every day.  This seemed a natural fit for me, since I'm in my early sixties, don't  have a car, and enjoy the experience of "drifting" through my city. Once I found that counting out loud didn't work, I started searching for some kind of pedometer.

I gave some thought as to what I was looking for.  This was going to be all about getting a habit that would be working for me whether or not I was paying attention.  Most of the steps we take are not about "getting activity" but about just moving around from "A to B". It's gratifying to see how many steps you take before you leave the house in the morning.  So I wanted a pedometer which would give me credit for every step, without my having to remember to turn it on when I started doing serious walking. Also, the daily nature of my goal meant I wanted to start fresh every day, and needed my device to reset to zero at midnight on its own. I wanted one with a memory. This wasn't about competition with others, but it would make it interesting if I could assemble some history for myself.

When I went shopping, I found that pedometer devices cost a lot more than I expected. Also I realized that, even if I found one I could afford that just kept ticking over on its own, I would need to remember to wear it all the time if I wanted to capture those stray steps that added up to my day's activity. Then a friend reminded me that I am probably already carrying my smart phone around every waking hour. Ever since I stopped using a watch, I carry it in my pocket, even if I'm not using it for communication. So I started to research pedometer applications for Smart Phones. I was disappointed with the first pedometer application that I tried, which seemed geared to people doing sports, and needed to be turned on whenever I started doing a significant walk, since it framed it as a form of workout. It also relied on its own social networking site to provide motivation. Not for me.

Further research brought me to the "Moves", a free "activity tracking" application for iPhone and Android devices.  It fulfilled the above wish list. In addition, it gives me a choice of looking at my activity in terms of calories burned, time spent walking, and distance, as well as in absolute steps. If I were to add cycling and running to my activity, it would automatically start recording those too, as distinct activities. Movement in a vehicle also gets on the map under the generic name "transport", but it is clear that you aren't getting any exercise benefit from that!

"Moves" works through a GPS based "storyline" map which the website describes as an "automatic diary of your life".  I find that this is a powerful, highly focused, form of bio-feedback about what is working for me in terms of the set of small choices that end up making a day. Every time I update throughout the day I not only get a reading of how many steps I've accumulated so far, but also what I did (or didn't) do to achieve them. By comparing my activities on different days, I get useful information about what I am really doing to achieve the overall goal. I'm amazed at how engaged I am in achieving the "carrot" of the congratulatory message I receive first thing in the morning after I reach a new all-time record number of steps. And over time I'm walking more, without feeling I've been subjected to any "stick".

The application works by using GPS to measure location, as well as the accelerometer in the phone which measures pace and counts the jiggles in your pocket as your body moves. It will continue working as long as your phone is turned on, unless you go into the application settings and turn the tracking function off. Then it stops recording your steps till you re-enable it, showing the period of unrecorded activity as a blank "Moves off" section on your Storyline. I've chosen to leave it on all the time, and to enter the names of the locations I've stopped, such as the "Salmon 'n' Bannock" restaurant in the illustration, rather than leave the designation unidentified as something like "Place in Kitsilano". After all, the approximate location of a "place" could be found by a jealous spouse (if I had one), since tapping on the storyline shows the underlying actual route, shown on a street map.

I did spend some time on the Moves website, reading the Privacy Policy (linked here) and asking myself whether it adequately addressed my concerns regarding what it refers to as my "Personally Identifiable Information (PII)". I'm sort of surprised that I'm so comfortable with having data being recorded about every step I take, given my general attitude of resistance to the increasing reach of the Internet into our lives. I value the perspective I have from my "Came of Age Before Computers" view of both sides of the Digital Divide.  In embracing "Moves", am I beginning to prescribe to the theory that the banality of my life, and the sheer size of the metadata that would need to be sifted (even if I were that interesting) is enough of a protection? From whom?  I laugh, but also wince, at the ironic "Proof that Google is God" posted by the tongue-in-cheek "Church of Google"  Maybe "They" have just found my price, in that I really, really, really want a no-brainer tool to help me to get into better shape. For free.

 Here is a link to the "Moves" site where you can research it yourself. I welcome any comments.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Bury Your Dead" and Experimental Travelling: following fictional footsteps through real streets

Last spring, in May 2013, I came up with a playful framework for my solo vacation.  Using simple investigatory tools -- a book and a yellow highlighter pen -- I tracked one of my favorite fictional characters, Inspector Gamache, through the streets of Old Quebec City as he solved a mystery there. Then I used two Internet applications -- Google Maps and Trip Advisor -- to document and share my experience. A good example of using technology to amplify a very traditional reading experience.
Gamache mused at
the murder victim's odd
street address

As an article in Wikipedia explains: "Experimental tourism is a novel approach to tourism in which visitors do not visit the ordinary tourist attractions (or, at least not with the ordinary approach), but allow whim to guide them. It is an alternative form of tourism in which destinations are chosen not on their standard touristic merit but on the basis of an idea or experiment. It often involves elements of humor, serendipity and chance."

I'd come to love the "Inspector Gamache" series by the Montreal writer, Louise Penny, through my book club. The other members insisted that I get past my prejudice against murder mysteries by reading one of hers. I was immediately hooked by her ongoing storyline and characters - not to mention that she is Canadian. I'm not alone. Her latest book, the ninth of the series, debuted this fall at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

The sixth of her books, "Bury Your Dead", is set very concretely in the same neighbourhood in Old Quebec where I lived for a summer back in the seventies. I was taking an immersion french course at Laval and had sublet a garret (complete with low doors and geranium window boxes) from a girl I met in a laundromat. Thirty years later, as I read the book last winter, I recognized names of streets I knew. From my midnight armchair in Vancouver, I went through the book again, using my iPhone to call up Google Map's Street View and look at the streets and locations Penny named in the book. With Street View I could look around, and realized that I'd lived close to Chez Temporel. I visualized Gamache sitting at a table there, looking out at that same street.
Chez Temporel in Street View

When I noticed that there was a youth hostel a block from the Scene of the Crime, my vague desire -- for taking another kick at the French-language can-- became a plan.

My first morning in Quebec City was spent drinking my own bowl of cafe au lait in Chez Temporel, going through the book to plotting a path to visit the specific locations in chronological order.  I then drifted through the narrow streets, surrounded by tourists, but experiencing the city through the filter of the story.

Much of the action takes place in an old library, the Literary and Historical Society (also known as the Morrin Centre). When I talked to the volunteer librarian, she said that I was not the only "Penny Person" to arrive on pilgrimage and get excited at seeing the real old leather couch, described in the book, where Gamache spent time observing and solving the mystery.
Gamache's couch in the reading room

And as it turns out, I wasn't even alone in my "walking tour" idea. A few weeks later, as this article and radio clip on the CBC site describes a local tourism company began offering one too.

Lucky me, that I did a DIY walking tour, before the official one was launched. Before I left Quebec I contributed my own review and photos of the library to the travel advice website "Trip Advisor". I also did a cartographical art project, making my own personal Google Map of the sites I found and the related story excerpts. Although it works pretty well with a laptop-size screen, there isn't enough real-estate on the screen of my smart phone to get past the text to the pins on the map. So my recommendation to experimental travellers reading this posting is this:  Grab their own paperback and highlighter, buy a plane ticket, and head for that window table at Chez Temporel.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

AXSmap volunteers upload reviews about Wheelchair accessibility

Today I took part in AXS Map's first Vancouver community mapping day, doing Yelp-style reviews about the degree of wheelchair accessibility being offered by some stores and restaurants. We were helping to test an application being developed by Jason Da Silva, an independent film maker and activist (and fellow Emily Carr alumnus). The above 1 1/2 minute video describes the project.

Jason lives and works in New York City. He started this mapping project as a positive, useful response to the frustration of trying to live an ordinary life using a scooter in a place with few public services that are truly wheel-chair accessible. He visualized a tool that would save him time by telling him whether or not he could get in a door before he found himself blocked by a couple of stairs. Working with Google Maps he invites people to contribute Yelp-style reviews that filter the range of available establishments for accessibility. Stars are assigned regarding washrooms and ease of access from the street, and reviewers can also choose to comment further.

I had a good time, seeing my familiar territory with a new perspective, in the company of Ray, another volunteer reviewer, and Tom, who was capturing us on video.

It didn't take us long to drop in and upload reviews on almost a dozen establishments on Granville Island. I was glad that I could recommend the GI Gelato and Coffee shop, for more than their Sugar-free Raspberry!

This is just the beginning of the mapping process in Vancouver, as well as other cities in North America. If you would like to sign up to become a reviewer, follow this link to the AXS Map website

Jason is also here at VIFF, the Vancouver International Film Festival, to screen his award winning film "When I Walk", about his life with MS. Here is the 2 1/2 minute trailer.

Art in the Face of Dementia

My dad, Fred, is the star and cameraman of this video, "Tipperary", made in 2009. Dad died the following year, but he showed up tonight at the Emily Carr Alumni Reunion, along with the dad of my conversational companion. We were talking about how we were using skills we learned at art school to find a creative response to the daily, relentless good-byes associated with losing a parent to Dementia.

Even though he was already deeply affected by dementia, I invited my dad to my 2008 Emily Carr graduation ceremony. By doing so in his own life, he had been my inspiration to take the plunge and quit my job so that I could finally go to art school while there was still time left in my life to enjoy the benefits. Dad and I got lots of family support so that we could share my big moment. My sister and her husband shepherded Dad off his plane and stayed by him the whole weekend. It was only later that they told me that most of the time Dad wasn't aware that he was in Vancouver. I was given the best seats in the house -- the box right over the stage -- but nobody got more than two tickets. So my son, David, did double duty as my photographer as well as taking care of dad. Sadly, there are very few unblurred photos of walk across the stage, since my dad kept elbowing David and exclaiming (loudly) "There she is! There she is!"

Reunions are a time to reflect, and this is my five-year mark. I feel privileged to have been able to live the dream that I was cooking up while working on this blog as my grad project. I visualized myself as a Community Artist, using the digital media technical skills I'd acquired to support elders in creating projects that were meaningful to them. I've not only been doing this, but also do my own work as part of a collective, Quirk-e (Queer Imaging and Riting Kollective of Elders). I now am writing and performing, as well as continuing with video and photography. When I stand up there and emote, I imagine Fred elbowing some angel and saying "That's my daughter!"