in which i travel the world and get cheerfully lost

A couple years ago a friend alerted me to Google’s Chrome Experiments, a curious and interesting group of browser-based games and art projects. At the time there were maybe five or six hundred projects, and while I thought some of them were pretty cool and worth exploring, I was busy. So I bookmarked the URL and, as so often happens with stuff I bookmark, I promptly forgot all about it.

Maybe six months ago I heard that Chrome Experiments had reached the 1000 projects mark. That revived my interest. I found my old sadly neglected bookmark and began to noodle around, exploring the various projects at random until I stumbled upon a game called GeoGuessr — and basically pissed away all my free time for about a week. Maybe two weeks. Possibly three. Now I’m more moderate in my GeoGuessr time; I play once or twice a week — but the game still fascinates me.

geo estonia village

As the name suggests, it’s a game based on geography. The concept is simple. Using Google Maps’ Street View, the game drops you on a random street somewhere in the world. I use the term ‘street’ loosely, It might be an actual street. Or it might be a gravel road in a remote corner of the Ukraine, or an on-ramp of an Interstate Highway in the United States, or a dirt path along a newly planted field in Spain, or a back street in a mid-sized Brazilian city, or a boulevard in a major urban area in Russia, or in a suburban housing estate in Wales, or a secondary road in Croatia.

In fact, since the Google-cam can be worn as a backpack, Street View has expanded to include places not accessible to vehicles. I’ve found myself beginning a GeoGuessr game on a ski slope in Utah and on a hiking path to a Hindu temple in India.


The ostensible goal of the game is to use the visual cues and clues of your surroundings to determine your location. You ‘travel’ down roads in search of those cues and clues, then you make a guess about your location and mark it on a map  You accrue points based on how accurate your guess is. Each game has five rounds — five different geographical locations — and at the end, you’re given a total score.

That’s it. As I said, the concept of the game is simple. Part of the attraction, of course, is the puzzle aspect — trying to figure out where the hell you are. That’s fun. Frustrating fun, sometimes. Challenging fun. But still fun.

geo dirt road somewhere4

But for me, figuring out my location (and earning a high score) is secondary. What draws me repeatedly back to the game is the power of the unexpected. The GoogleCam isn’t just mapping streets; it’s also moving through the daily events of the world, and the world is jammed full of weird, absurd, profoundly beautiful, desperately sad, fascinating stuff. Roadside shrines to gods and memorials to victims of traffic accidents. Prostitutes plying their trade along the street. Mountains that come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Astonishing poverty. Exotic coastlines that make you think of pirates or castaways.

The randomness of GeoGuessr inserts you into unexpected locations where ordinary people are going about their ordinary daily lives. The reality of these lives — which are often radically different from my own — is fascinating. Kids playing stickball in the street. A young man meditating in a remote Hindu temple. A recent single-car accident in some remote road. A man walking by himself on some lonely stretch of road in northern Norway. A woman hitchhiking in South Africa. And the GoogleCam records it all with a completely dispassionate objectivity.

geo guy walking northern tip of Norway

I do enjoy the game aspects. There’s something fulfilling about being dropped at a random spot in the world and being able to locate that spot on a map within a few meters. Yet after I’ve figured out the location, I often continue to ramble around, intrigued by the ordinariness of life in other parts of the world.

I’ve begun to collect screen captures of bus stops. I’m thinking about collecting images of railroad crossings. And maybe bicycle riders. And people walking their dogs. These are things that are universal, and yet they’re all so very distinctive. The people waiting for a bus in South Africa probably have a lot in common for the people waiting for a bus in Russia. The cyclist in northern Spain probably has something in common with the cyclist in Australia, and the one on that mountain road in Utah.


Some of you who read this will be tempted to play GeoGuessr. Give into that temptation. You should be aware, though, that it’s an enormous time-suck. You’ll promise yourself you’ll only play for half an hour — but then you find yourself wondering what’s around the next corner, or over than next hill, or through that tunnel. You’ll wonder what that building is, and you’ll want to check out that overgrown cemetery, maybe follow that alleyway down toward the docks. So let me repeat this: it’s an enormous time-suck.

Play it anyway.

i know what you’re thinking

It’s Monday and I have work to do. A lot of work. SO much work. I do NOT have time to noodle around on Teh Intertubes, avoiding all the very important work that needs doing. Seriously, I have an excess of work to do. If work to do was testosterone, I’d be Chuck Norris. I have work to do like Trump has hair — it’s an imposing, structurally improbable amount of work. The amount of work I have to do would intimidate a border collie.

It’s a lot of work, is what I’m saying. And I’d actually be doing all that work (I’m confident about this) except I somehow found myself (and I suspect I have a good reason for doing this) scanning some conservative websites (probably I was doing research, I bet) and I discovered that a LOT of conservatives are terribly upset about gay Doritos.

gay doritos2

Oh my sweet Jeebus on a waffle, gay Doritos, you guys! I had no idea gay Doritos even existed. I was gobsmacked. Who knew the constellation of snack foods extends to sexual preference? Gay Doritos! Okay, officially they’re called Rainbow Doritos, but c’mon people — ain’t nobody in Western society that thinks these chips are in any way representative of colorful meteorological phenomena. Nope, dude, these are most definitely gay Doritos. And like anything that could possibly be even remotely gay, conservatives have spent a LOT of time thinking about these chips.

The chips come in several colors. The green are homosexual, the pink are lesbian, and the purple ones are transgendered Doritos.

Trans chips, you guys! According to The American Thinker (and no, I’m not making that up; that’s an actual conservative site — though I think they they’re confused about the definition of ‘America’ and ‘thinking’), the purple chips only look purple but “actually feel yellow and demand the right to commingle in the snack bags that have only yellow ones.” In other words, the purple chips want to use the same bathrooms as yellow chips.

gay doritos3

Conservatives are really pissed off about this, on account of Doritos are an important element of the nutritious American conservative sports-related diet. How is any decent, god-fearing American heterosexual man supposed to enjoy watching two teams of sweaty men dressed in tight, bun-hugging uniforms grapple with each other if gay sex is forced down their throats in the form of their favorite snack food?

Also, think of the children!

Doritos are a product marketed to children, so they make the perfect gateway snack to introduce children to the joys of homosexuality.

Gay Doritos are a gateway snack, you guys! How could this happen in America? Blame noted Christian-hater and pervert-activist Dan Savage and his It Gets Better project. Real conservatives hate Savage, who has “called on Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee to do a certain love act on him” (okay, he said Carson and Huckabee should “suck my dick” but I’m not entirely convinced the invitation was sincere). Most of the world understands the It Gets Better project is attempting to prevent LGBT kids from killing themselves, but a lot of conservatives think the movement is probably secretly recruiting decent young hetero kids to get gay. Why else would they be flooding the snack food aisle of your local market with gay Doritos?

gay doritos

Well, okay, maybe they not actually flooding the snack food aisles. And okay, maybe gay Doritos aren’t even in your local market at all. And yeah, okay, maybe they’re not in any store. Okay, maybe the only way to buy gay Doritos is to deliberately point your browser to a specific website and order them. And okay, maybe you have to make a donation of at least US$10 in order to get them. But dammit, gay Doritos exist in the real world and conservatives intend to do something about it.

In fact, they intend to do two things about it. First, boycott!

“I think we need to boycott Pepsi and all related Frito-Lay products to deliver a message to Pepsi that if they are going to push gay propaganda on our kids, we are not going to give their products lip service any longer”

Lip service. I declare, sometimes I think these guys must be trolling us. They can’t be that fucking stupid — except, you know, they repeatedly demonstrate they’re that fucking stupid. The second thing they’re doing (and I swear, I am NOT making this up):

[W]e should push other companies to launch pro-heterosexual campaigns.  Perhaps we could persuade a hot dog maker and a hot dog bun company to do a joint effort promoting man-woman relationships. Until we try sexualizing food like the left does, we’ll never know.  And if we think like the left, we desperately need to find out.

That’s SO fucking stupid that I had to stop what I was doing and 1) bang my head against the desk and 2) check to make sure American Thinker is not a spoof site. You guys, it’s not a spoof site!

gay doritos4

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m going to give ten of my hard-earned dollars to It Gets Better and buy a bag of gay Doritos and have them delivered to Kim Davis at her office. You guys ought to be ashamed of yourselves for thinking that. It would be silly to send gay Doritos to:

Kim Davis
Clerk of Court
600 West Main Street Room 102
Morehead, KY 40351


queen of the monkey house

I keep reading that Carly Fiorina won the most recent GOP presidential candidate debate. And I keep asking myself two questions. First, what does it mean to ‘win’ a debate when all the candidates are liars, frauds, or buffoons? Does it mean you’ve out-lied, out-frauded, or out-buffooned the others? The second question I ask myself is this: who gives a rat’s ass who won or lost the GOP debate?

Because here’s the thing — every day it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Republican party lost its damn mind. They’ve either abandoned reality or they’ve somehow become untethered from it. The GOP used to be a party of principled conservatives. Sure, they had the usual scattering of rascals and double-dealing asshats that occupy every political party — but they were actually interested in governing. Then they became more concerned with ideological purity than governance, and eventually evolved into the current party of delusional thinkers. They’re no longer driven by principle or even ideology; they’re driven by pure belief.

This is not Tinkerbell

This is not Tinkerbell

Let’s face it, belief by itself is a pretty shitty foundation for policy. The fact is, it’s pretty easy to have false beliefs — beliefs based on incomplete information, or flawed information, or inaccurate information. Here’s an example. Until recently, I shared the common belief that sharks don’t get cancer. It turns out there’s plenty of evidence to indicate sharks are, in fact, subject to cancer just like every other creature.

Rational people (and I like to think of myself as a rational person), when presented with evidence that contradicts their beliefs, adjust their beliefs to incorporate the new evidence. I now accept that sharks get cancer. I’m not particularly happy about it, because sharks are cool — but I accept it as reality. A persistent false belief held in contradiction to sound, testable evidence and factual reality is a delusion.

If belief, by itself, is a shitty foundation for policy, then policy driven by delusion is a total fucking disaster. And that brings me back to Carly Fiorina, today’s Queen of the Monkey House. Every article I’ve seen that claims she ‘won’ the last debate includes a reference to her impassioned denunciation of Planned Parenthood.

“As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain. This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up in and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”

That’s some dramatic shit, right there. It’s total fiction, but it’s dramatic. Fiorina says she saw that video with her own surgically-enhanced eyes. But nobody has been able to find any video showing anything at all like that. It doesn’t exist.

Think about this for a moment. Carly Fiorina ‘won’ the debate by passionately denouncing a women’s health care organization for engaging in acts they don’t do, based on having seen a video that doesn’t exist. That’s delusional.

This is not Tinkerbell either.

This is not Tinkerbell either.

The modern Republican party is the Party of Delusion. More than half of Republicans believe President Obama is a Muslim. Up to 70% of Republicans think climate change is a hoax. Two-thirds don’t believe in evolution. A third to a half think vaccines cause autism. Almost half of Republicans believe weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. A third of Republicans expressed belief that the Jade Helm military exercise was an Obama conspiracy to — well, there’s no real consensus about the purpose of the conspiracy, but dammit they’re sure that Muslim sumbitch was up to something.

Reality is a cold, heartless motherfucker. It doesn’t respect faith or belief. No matter how many times you click your heels and repeat There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, you’re not going to open your eyes and find yourself in Kansas. No matter how hard you clap your hands or how sincerely you believe in fairies, you’re not going to save Tinkerbell. The reality is Kansas a fucking economic disaster because of Republican policies — and if you want to save Tink your best bet is to get her enrolled in Obamacare.

And no, this is not Tinkerbell either.

And no, this is not Tinkerbell either.

You can maybe win a debate by passionately defending your delusions, but it’s no way to run a county.

Editorial Note: Since we’re talking about reality here, it should be noted that Tinkerbell was NOT the shapely little sprite you see in the Disney cartoons. Barrie described her as being “slightly inclined to embonpoint.” In other words, she was plump and bosomy. Facts is facts, people. Accept it.



I love street photography. I love the energy of it. I love the unplanned immediacy of street photography. I love the connection between the photographer and what’s taking place within the frame, and I love the connection between the viewer and the image itself. When you look at a good street photo, the photographer disappears — it feels as if it’s just you and what’s happening in the photo, unfiltered by any photographer. I love street photography.

Wait, let me amend that — I love street photography when it’s done well. But here are a couple of true things: first, it’s really difficult to do it well. And second, it’s even more difficult to do it well with consistency. Good street photography is hard. Bad street photography, on the other hand, is incredibly easy.

I should also point out that although I love street photography, I’m not a street photographer. I sometimes shoot photographs on the street (though I’m more likely to shoot in alleys), but street photography isn’t entirely about location. It’s about the ways people inhabit and move through public spaces. Most of the photographs I shoot in public spaces are urban landscapes. If there are people in the photographs, they’re incidental.

acting blind

That said, I often see good street photographic moments when I’m out noodling around. I’m a completely fucking brilliant mental street photographer. But brilliant mental street photography doesn’t translate to the camera. It’s one thing to see a street moment and think ‘There — that’s it.’ It’s entirely another thing to anticipate that moment, put yourself in the right spot, and have your camera ready to shoot it. That’s one of the reasons I’m not a street photographer. I’m just not willing to walk around with a camera always at hand, ready to snatch that exact moment when everything comes into alignment.

But last week, as I was wandering around downtown, it occurred to me that I do always have a camera at hand. My smartphone. It’s not a great camera, but so what? It’s quiet and unobtrusive, which is pretty important for street work. I have an app called Lenka that shoots basic black-and-white images. This clearly isn’t the optimal arrangement for street photography, but it’s what I had with me. You have to work within your limitations.

I set the app to allow me to take a photo by pressing the volume button on my phone (so I wouldn’t have to fuss about with using the phone as a viewfinder) and went off try some street. Almost immediately, I came across a small group of folks learning to be blind. The headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind is located downtown, and I assume that’s why we so often see a group of blindfolded people with canes being escorted around town. I took a couple of shots without looking.

the hub


They weren’t great photos, but they were enough to encourage me to keep trying. I wandered around, saw some interesting folks, took some shots. I tried not to focus too much on people who looked interesting, because those were mostly folks who were marginalized because of addiction or abuse or weight or some other social condition. I tried to look for visually interesting situations instead.

Then I ran into this old drunk guy.

old drunk sitting

He immediately panhandled me, asking for spare change. I don’t carry much money; I use a debit card for everything. The only cash I had was a couple of twenties. So I told him I didn’t have any change — and I surreptitiously took his photo without looking. Shameful behavior on my part. Doubly shameful in that the photo was blurry.

The guy grinned and offered to take a twenty, which was a nice move on his part. It made me like him enough that I wanted to give him something. I told him I was heading for the drug store across the street and down the block, but if he was around when I came back that way, I’d hand over a little something — and I surreptitiously took his photo again. Still without looking; still shameful. This time the photo was badly exposed.

old drunk panhandling

So I went to the drug store, bought a cupcake for myself and a chicken salad sandwich for the old drunk guy. When I came out of the store, the ODG was hobbling across the street with his walker. I’d told him I was going to give him something and dammit, he was going to make sure I didn’t forget. I gave him the sandwich and a couple of bucks (and yes, I knew he’d spend the money on booze). Again, I surreptitiously took his photo. Again, it didn’t turn out well; badly expose and blurry.

That’s what you get for shooting without looking, I suppose.



Having done my part to support the local alcoholic community, I kept on wandering and shooting. Every so often I’d stop and find a place to sit and chimp the photos. Most of them were bad. Some were really bad. But mostly I was okay with them. If nothing else, I was learning to get the framing right. Mostly. Partly. That’s hard to do when you’re shooting from the hip.

The light was getting increasingly harsh, the shadows were radical — great conditions for urban landscape photos, but not what you’d call street-friendly if you’re relying on shooting blind with a smartphone. Almost everything I shot was badly (or weirdly) exposed.

cyclist in shadow

I decided to end the experiment. I knew a nice, quiet, dark space nearby (okay, let’s just call it a tavern), so I headed there for a cool drink and a chance to evaluate the photos. On the way there I came across the old drunk guy again. He’d taken off his shoes, put them in the basket of his walker (along with the uneaten chicken salad sandwich), and laid himself out on a public bench for a nap. Or to sleep it off.

And hey, I took his photograph one more time. Shameless again.

stll drunk

I learned four things from the experiment. First, I’m not a good street photographer. I’m okay with that. I’m not a rotten street photographer either. I can improve. If I decide to. Second, street work has a moral component. In the U.S. you pretty much have the right to photograph anything and anybody in the public arena. Doesn’t mean you should, though. Third, if you have a moral discussion with yourself before you shoot a photo, you’ll probably lose the shot.

Earlier I mentioned I tried not to focus too much on people who only looked interesting, because they tended to be folks who were marginalized in some way. Shooting photos of those folks would (or easily could) be exploitative — even if that wasn’t my intent, and even if I never showed the images to anybody. It would, in effect, be turning them into props; it would not be treating them as people.

There was a specific moment during the day I made a rule for myself. Shoot first, decide later if the photograph was ethical. Here’s how I came by that rule. I saw another drunk guy. The old man I’d met earlier was clearly an alcoholic, but he seemed pretty self-aware of his condition. He was friendly, with a sort of style and charm about him. He was clearly intoxicated, but not sloppy drunk. He was a sad case, but he was in control of himself and I liked him.

The other drunk guy was probably in his late 20s. He was staggering drunk. Oblivious to the world drunk. Slobbering and probably in dubious control of his bladder drunk. High school drunk. There was nothing likable or charming or self-aware about him. I could feel compassion for him and his situation, but I still recognized he was pretty disgusting. And he was heading up the sidewalk toward the public library.

young drunk


I hurried to catch up. I didn’t feel any need or desire to photograph the guy himself, but I thought it might be interesting to photograph the reactions of the people he met in the library. I took a single shot when a library patron came out of the library as the drunk guy approached. And then I thought it would be cruel to photograph those reactions; it would be demeaning to the drunk guy himself, and to the people he encountered. The photos wouldn’t be about anything but condemnation for a man who had some serious problems.

So I turned off my phone and put it in my pocket. I felt I’d made the right decision when, as these two guys approached each other, the library patron looked completely repelled. But as they got closer the library guy’s face shifted from loathing to concern. He stopped and spoke to the drunk guy; I couldn’t hear, but I assume he was asking if the drunk guy was okay. The drunk guy just lifted a hand — maybe in acknowledgement, maybe in denial, maybe a suggestion that the library guy should mind his own business, I don’t know — and he just kept zombie-shuffling toward the library.

I’d turned my camera off. I missed that shot. It had the potential to be a truly good street photo. It was a strangely non-judgmental moment. Almost sweet, on the part of the library patron. And that’s then I decided shoot first; decide its value later.

I said I learned four things from the experiment. Here’s the fourth: a sincere attempt at street photography (for me, at any rate) is oddly dissociative. It’s a combination of being very aware of yourself and the world around you, yet being somewhat removed from it. Until — and this is the freaky part — until you see the elements of a photo possibly coming together. At that point you become intensely aware. Of everything. The light, the geometry of the background, the spatial relationships of what’s in the frame, and you start plotting vectors of interception — where it’s all going to come together and where you need to be at that point to shoot the photograph. And it’s both exciting and terribly frustrating because oftentimes you’re also hyper-aware that you’re almost certainly NOT going to be in the right spot at the right moment and you’re going to miss the shot.

I love street photography — when it’s done well. I doubt I’ll ever be terribly good at it, but I’ll periodically continue the experiment. If nothing else, it’s great fun.


Okay, let’s address this ‘po-faced’ issue, shall we? I’ve been using this perfectly good term in conversation all week (well, for years actually, but much more often in this last week or so), and I declare, every time I use it people look at me like I’ve suddenly begun speaking Urdu.

I haven’t been speaking Urdu, people.

So, what does it mean, po-faced? In general, it means to be humorless and disapproving. But the definition doesn’t convey the richness of the term. To really appreciate po-faced you need to understand its origin.

There’s some disagreement about the etymology. Some claim the term is derived from ‘poker face’. I call bullshit. A poker face is one that’s devoid of expression; it’s a face that doesn’t give away any information. It’s a perfectly fine phrase, poker face, but it lacks the depth and emotional content of po-faced.

I favor the interpretation that suggests ‘po’ comes from pot de chambre. A chamber pot. It’s pronounced poe de shambra. Po-faced, then, refers to the expression on a person’s face upon encountering a chamber pot that’s — well, let’s say it’s after being used. A sort of mild attempt to disguise feelings of disgust and disapproval.

Wait. Maybe this will help.

kim davis

Po-faced. Any questions?