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Series: Fun in the Sun!
Cool things you can do away from your computer... but only with the help of the Internet
Article 1 of 2 in series
Sitting at a glowing screen for hours on end, with little or no live human interaction - this is the typical Internet experience. But some areas of the Internet compel users to leave the keyboard, go outside, and interact with the real worldShow full article
Sitting at a glowing screen for hours on end, with little or no live human interaction - this is the typical Internet experience. But some areas of the Internet compel users to leave the keyboard, go outside, and interact with the real world. This category of Web sites, hugely popular and usually non-commercial, doesn't have a name yet. Because these sites promote an activity or hobby - even a lifestyle - beyond the Web, they're more of an online/offline phenomena. I've dubbed the aggregate of these Web sites "Internet-Guided Offline Recreation" (IGOR). IGOR is different from sites that merely discuss offline recreation, like sailing or knitting, because the activities are mediated and tracked by - and essentially inseparable from - their Web sites.
GPS Games -- On 01-May-00, the Clinton Administration ended the U.S. government's policy of Selective Availability, the intentional degradation of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals. The new availability of GPS to the civilian population had practical applications for telecommunications, emergency response, transportation, and industry. It also launched a new form of recreation.
Only two days after the end of Selective Availability, someone hid a logbook inside a container near Portland, OR and posted its GPS coordinates on the sci.geo.satellite-nav newsgroup. Just three days later, the container, called a "cache," was visited twice, the visits recorded in the logbook and online. From the immense curiosity, immediacy, and coolness factor that this generated, a high-tech hide-and-seek game was born: geocaching.
Geocaching.com, the first and most trafficked Web site devoted to geocaching, facilitates seeking and creating new caches. The caches are registered in the Geocaching.com database according to "waypoints," short names representing the identifications of specific caches. Each waypoint is associated with GPS coordinates that indicate the exact location of the cache.
The Geocaching.com site enables searches for any relevant data: zip code (within a user-defined radius), location, coordinates, keyword, area code, waypoint, or geocacher's username. For example, if you search for waypoint GC78A5, you'll find a geocache called "Stock Market CrACHE in Twin Peaks." The details page provides the coordinates, difficulty and terrain ratings, notes and encrypted clues (easily decrypted by the "cheater" link), zoomable map, and log entries and photos from other geocachers.
Most caches are hidden in parks, wilderness areas, and other public spaces. When hunting for a cache, it helps to have both GPS coordinates and clues in hand - but also look for the telltale path of trampled grass that often betrays the hiding place.
Some caches are so challenging that finding them might require more than one attempt. The coordinates are accurate to about 15 feet (4.6 m) at best - which, when multiplied by two (to account for the margin of error of both GPS units, the hider's and your own) is 30 feet (9.1 m) - and beyond that, you're on your own. I had to return to "Sounds of the Bay" after my first unsuccessful search because the cache could have been hidden in any of the myriad crevices of the loose-rock wharf, and even the "spoiler" photograph of the geocache owner pointing to the hiding spot didn't help.
A "Traditional Geocache" (marked by a generic icon) is an airtight, waterproof container that stores a logbook and pen for on-site comments, a disposable camera, and some goodies. The idea is for geocachers to sift through the goodies, take one, and add something new. Don't expect to find a wad of cash or valuable jewelry in a geocache; prizes usually comprise old toys, coins, seashells, and trade convention gewgaws. But getting stuff isn't the point of geocaching; the real prize is just finding the cache and admiring the view while you're there.
Another type of geocache is a "Multi-Cache," which contains a clue in the first cache that leads the geocacher to a second cache and possibly more after that. Sometimes these can be all-day affairs, involving clues, puzzles, or riddles, for which only hard-core geocachers have the necessary time and patience. (The Geocaching.com Web site, previously all non-commercial, recently launched a premium service for such serious geocaching.)
Sometimes you won't get a prize at all - at least not one you can take with you. A "Virtual Cache" has no hidden container: the location itself is the prize. (The details page may ask you to answer a specific question about the location or to perform a task.) An "Event Cache" involves both space and time; geocachers go to a certain location at a certain time to meet other geocachers. Avid geocachers frequently check the Events Calendar to see when an Event Cache is happening in their area.
Seek and Hide -- Of course, you're not limited to just seeking - you can create your own cache as well. I recommend finding at least one geocache before establishing your own to learn what works well and what the best caches offer. You're responsible for the caches you hide, which means visiting them occasionally, cleaning out debris, replacing cameras when film runs out, and adding new stuff. If you're lazy or don't have much time to visit your geocache, hide it close to your home to avoid traveling extensively to check it. And read the instructions carefully; I mistakenly hid a cache in Land's End, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and therefore federal land - a geocaching no-no. Since it's across town, I have yet to retrieve it. Further, use good judgment based on your knowledge of the area. I hid a geocache containing a beautiful handmade logbook and a bag of candy in what I thought was the perfect hiding place: the trunk of a large evergreen tree. But, because the tree is in San Francisco, a homeless person moved in underneath the branches, and my cache not-so-mysteriously disappeared.
I started with three hidden geocaches, and now have only one left, but I am quite happy with it. It's in a beautiful, easily accessible area, so it's visited often. I developed the film of its first disposable camera onto prints and a photo CD, whose images I uploaded to the geocache details page. Before I looked at the prints, I hadn't quite realized what a marvelous hobby geocaching is. No two photographs were alike. In several pictures, a man stood alone, sometimes staring off-center because he's taking his own picture. Other pictures showed couples and groups of friends, smiling or sticking out tongues. A young father posed with a baby in a backpack carrier, a dog shivered in the wind, a too-close wristwatch blurrily displayed the time, and a toy lay on the grass. Photos were taken from different directions and perspectives, at different times of day (including one wigged-out guy at night), during different seasons, and in different types of weather (sometimes clear and sunny; other days, foggy). I slid the prints into a cheap pocket-sized photo album, labeled it "See the geocachers who have come before you!", and added it to the cache.
Spin-offs -- A testament to the popularity of Geocaching.com is its spin-off sites. Navicache.com offers the same thing as Geocaching.com, but with a more amateurish site and fewer registered caches. Geocaching Worldwide began specifically for Australians and later expanded to include caches located around the globe. Geodashing turns geocache hunting into a race to find one cache after another (uploading photos as proof), and has appropriately renamed "waypoints" as "dashpoints." Befitting the patriotic times, CacheAcrossAmerica has successfully established a chain-link of geocaches across the continent, following the approximate path of Interstate 80. The burgeoning EcoScavenger encourages geocachers to "share places rather than stuff" - a nice idea but already covered by Geocaching.com's virtual caches. Inspired by the cheap plastic toys in Hasbro's classic Barrel of Monkeys, a couple of jokers created a very serious Web site that invites geocachers to Linn Run State Park in Pennsylvania to conduct "monkey research."
Geocaching aficionados appreciate Buxley's Geocaching Waypoint, a companion guide chock-full of interesting stuff. Buxley's world map of cache sites reveals the predictable pattern of a hobby for the techno-elite (that's us): the vast majority of caches are hidden in the United States (and southern Canada) and Western Europe; the rest are hidden in coastal areas of Australia, Central and South America, South Africa, major Asian cities, and Pacific islands. In other words, even though geocaching is a relatively inexpensive hobby, players live in and travel to "rich" areas and so obviously have enough food, shelter, and disposable income to afford GPS units and Internet-connected computers. Buxley's also keeps a log of geocaching news and unique caches that involve more than waypoints and containers.
Getting Started with Geocaching -- One of the major draws of geocaching is that it's a relatively inexpensive and easy hobby to participate in. A bare-bones handheld GPS unit, which you can buy for about $100, can read satellite signals and triangulate fairly accurate coordinates - all you need to get started on your first geocache. For around $350, a fancy GPS unit includes features like downloadable mapping, waypoint storage, an altimeter, and other geeky but useful stuff. Other units work specifically in cars, and some combine GPS capability with fish-finders and water-navigation tools.
GPS games are an innovative way to combine computer nerdism with outdoor adventuring. It costs next to nothing and inspires eager novices to join the "secret society" of geocachers. It's easy to get addicted (some geocachers seek hundreds of caches per year), but as vices go, this one's not so bad.
In the next installment of this article, I'll explore a few other variations of geocaching, such as tracking currency around the world, exchanging physical notebooks, and more. See you at the next waypoint!
[Mariva H. Aviram, author of several books and numerous articles, has a passion for the outdoors, art, books, film, culture, and satire. More information can be found at her Web site.]
Article 2 of 2 in series
Your finances, medical history, school records, Internet usage - it's all out there. Any type of information can be tracked through a database, with ramifications both highly useful and, these days, profoundly scaryShow full article
Your finances, medical history, school records, Internet usage - it's all out there. Any type of information can be tracked through a database, with ramifications both highly useful and, these days, profoundly scary. But before you curse the god-like power of database-tracking, consider its lighter side: Internet-Guided Offline Recreation, or IGOR. A growing number of innovative hobbyists have fun with databases (really), and they've established Web sites to track the mostly non-commercial transit of everything from toys to books to money.
High-Tech Kula Ring -- The indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea, the Trobriands, and other South Pacific islands participate in a complex ritualistic system that interweaves their cultures and enforces economic bonds and social loyalty. Shell necklaces, yams, armbands, and other objects are exchanged, ceremonially and non-competitively, around a large geographic circle of Melanesian islands, forming what anthropologists call the Kula Ring. Each object is passed along with stories of its previous owners, and the more an object is exchanged, the more valuable it becomes.
<http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/ anthropology/courses/122/module5/kula_ ring.html>
Perhaps it's part of the human condition to crave such deeply meaningful and ancient rituals, even in technology-mediated industrial nations. A number of IGOR sites track the motion of things, encouraging the ongoing exchange of ritual objects that reflect the values of modern society: dollar bills, for instance, and books.
Following the Money -- Where's George, which tracks the serial numbers of paper currency, is like money itself: ugly, utilitarian, green, and very popular. Of all forms of IGOR, tracking currency is the easiest: simply enter the bill's serial number, mark the bill with a short message ("Track this bill at wheresgeorge.com" - use pencil if you don't want to deface public property), and release it into the world (in other words, spend it). Dollar bills are tracked the most, but Where's George tracks all bills up to $100.
Currency from other countries can be tracked, too. Britons track pounds through DoshTracker, Canadians visit Where's Willy (which resembles Where's George) and Canadian Money Tracker, and Japanese trackers use Osatsu ("Bill"). The fastest-growing currency, the Euro, has its own tracking system at Eurobilltracker.
Other Ritual Objects -- Geocaching (see "Internet-Guided Offline Recreation (IGOR): Geocaching" in TidBITS-683 for more details) circulates its own currency: "hitchhikers," or objects transferred from cache to cache. Attached to the objects are instructions ("Take me to another cache") and sometimes small logbooks. A specific type of hitchhiker is a "travel bug," marked by metal ID tags bought from Groundspeak, a supplier of geocaching gear. In addition to finding and hiding caches, geocachers enjoy racking up the number of travel bugs they've carried and released.
Using a similar method, BookCrossing catalogs a giant global library. Registering a book takes a bit more work than tracking a dollar bill. For one thing, the BookCrossing database generates new identification numbers (BCIDs) instead of just using ISBNs. For another, a book can't be spent like a dollar bill, nor carried in a wallet or small pocket. So it takes more planning to register a book, print the BCID and instructions on a label, stick the label on the book, and "release it in the wild" (bus, cafe, classroom, waiting room, wherever). When books are found, readers log journal entries on BCID-associated Web pages. Unlike an actual library, BookCrossing doesn't loan specific books - or even reliably supply them in specific places, because other finders may get to them sooner. But the idea of an organized catalog of free books scattered randomly in public places nevertheless appeals to blithe bibliophiles.
Exquisite Corpse -- The serendipitous result of collective writing or artwork was dubbed cadavre exquis ("exquisite corpse") by the Surrealists. Creative IGOR projects naturally produce cadavre exquis, delighting and inspiring their participants and admirers.
Avid diarists are drawn to The1000JournalProject. As the title suggests, one thousand blank journals were sent to various diarists who added written entries, drawings, and collages, and sent the journals to other diarists. Full journals are sent back to the source, their pages and covers scanned into images, which are posted on the site. Even non-diarists appreciate the colorful images of handwritten entries and artwork.
Letterboxing, an exchange-based IGOR similar to Geocaching but lower-tech, appeals to a narrower audience. It requires old-fashioned hunting methods - compass reading, encrypted clues, resourcefulness - instead of GPS coordinates. Letterboxing uses no identification numbers of any kind. Its purpose is to exchange rubber stamps. When a letterboxer, toting a rubber stamp and logbook, finds the container (which may not be easy), she stamps the container's logbook with her own rubber stamp, and conversely stamps her logbook with the container's stamp. It's like the stamping of a passport, without the presence of obnoxious customs people. Participants are encouraged to use unique, even home-carved, rubber stamps, so letterboxing typically attract artists and craftspeople.
Dude, Where's My Camera? With the advent of digital photography and disposable cameras, taking pictures has become an inexpensive hobby with broad appeal in our image-fascinated culture. This, in turn, has inspired several photography-based IGOR projects. Photo Tag involves passing a disposable camera from one person to another, each taking a single snapshot and mailing the camera to someone else. When the full camera returns to Photo Tag, the film is developed and serial photos are posted. One camera started near the North Pole and was sent to someone in Hawaii, so the film contains pictures of both arctic and tropic scenes.
GeoSnapper catalogs photos by GPS coordinates; more specifically, the photography of the Degree Confluence Project targets coordinates with integers, like 38 degrees N 123 degrees W, which is near the Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin County, California.
Come Together -- That no one (except me, as far as I know) has yet labeled this genre of online/offline recreation may be related to the fact that IGOR sites are not typically affiliated with each other. Sometimes an IGOR site refers to similar activities in its informational page. The BookCrossing FAQ, for instance, references Where's George, Photo Tag, and Geocaching.com to reveal the source of its inspiration: "[W]e thought to ourselves, 'Okay, what's something else that people would have fun releasing and then tracking?' And we thought of books. Which made perfect sense, since everyone (well, almost everyone) loves books. Twenty-eight mostly sleepless nights later, on April 17, 2001, BookCrossing.com was launched."
The possibilities of IGOR are infinite. (Why not, for example, associate sound or video files with GPS coordinates?) I like to combine different forms of IGOR, such as slipping a Where's George dollar bill inside a BookCrossing book, which in turn is placed inside a geocache. Some geocaches are letterbox hybrids, so rubber-stamp enthusiasts can find letterbox containers via Geocaching.com. A geocache is also a good place to launch Photo Tag cameras and traveling journals. Combining IGOR types is perhaps the best way to invite adventurous and creative people to participate in activities they might not have known about.
Certainly, IGOR junkies can socialize online. But since the purpose of IGOR is to get people outside and interacting with each other, it's fitting that enthusiasts meet each other offline. Meetup.com organizes local gatherings according to interest - languages, hobbies, career, even BookCrossing - and democratically allows participants to vote on where and when to meet.
It's no wonder that IGOR is attractive: it's low-impact, inexpensive, family-friendly, collaborative, and fun, and it elegantly blends real-world activities with the organizing power of cyberspace. Participants probably don't care if IGOR is a modern-day high-tech Kula Ring or cadavre exquis - they just want to get outside and find neat stuff. As long as the Internet is around (but GPS Selective Availability isn't), it's probably here to stay.
[Mariva H. Aviram, author of several books and numerous articles, has a passion for the outdoors, art, books, film, culture, and satire. More information can be found at her Web site.]
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