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They promised a paradise - but delivered a hell. If I ever get my hands on that tour organizer - well, all I can say is, hold me back! Summer's here, and that means it's vacation time. Like you, I will soon be joining the exodus, seeking a summer haven "out of town," like they say in the old country. It may be at home or it may be abroad, but vacation we will - even if it kills us.
Traveling is a risky business - you often never know what you're going to get when you get to where you're going. How many "first class hotels" your travel agent recommended turned out to be third-class dumps? How many "scenic islands" are more like concrete canyons with a beach? How often do travel brochures show the "good side" of a hotel and describe its amenities in flowery language - without bothering to show you the fat rendering plant on the next block?
And what can you do about it? You've paid a tidy sum, and your travel agent is nowhere to be found. But the room is dirty/faces the wrong side/smells etc., and now you're stuck. So what do you do? Well, you make the best of it; maybe you complain when you get back home, but you know you're not getting your money back. So, in the end, you employ some selective memory and decide that "it wasn't too bad after all."
Well, you deserve your money's worth - and today I'm going to tell you how to get it! That exotic sounding hotel in Athens, or that enticing looking bed and breakfast in Pittsburgh can make all the claims it wants on its Web site or in its brochure about the sights and wonders you can view from their windows or the great family activities "minutes away by foot" - but they can't lie to Google Earth, the amazing service from the search engine people that will give you the real goods on what's where.
The Google people have basically taken medium and high resolution photographs taken by satellites and airplanes and stitched them into a virtual globe. Then, the maps get integrated with templates showing all sorts of useful information, like street names, restaurants, parks, tourist sites, etc. Together, you get an aerial view of the area you're checking out - either a bird's eye view (where the bird is flying very high) or a closer view until neighborhoods, streets and even individual buildings come into high resolution view. In some areas, it's as if you're hovering only a few meters in the air above a site!
The basic program lets you overlay onto the photos various graphic templates, such as stores in the area (you can specify markets, gas stations, etc.), geographic features (volcanoes, mountains, rivers), transportation (highways, railroads, etc.) and many other features. So, it's like having an almost-real time physical photo/map of any spot in the world, including the services available in the neighborhood or town you're checking out - and you can see the actual building, house, hotel or other facility you're going to be visiting.
You can even find your own house - although US law prevents Google from displaying high-resolution photos of Israel in the program, believe it or not (in addition, the program does not display any information on Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria - you see clusters of buildings, but unless you know what you're looking for, you won't be able to figure out what they are!).
You can add your own selections as "pushpins" (reference points) - in other words, you can save the location of Grandma's house on your map.
Then, when you enter "Grandma's house" into the search engine, the Google Earth globe will spin until it finds and focuses in on the right spot. Google Earth's photos are, according to the site, up to three years old, although there are major updates of the photos every few months. You have to be on-line to use it, because it draws its photos from a database (as opposed to storing them on your computer).
The real fun in Google Earth, though, is to add map overlays others have made to your copy of the program. The Google Earth Community (http://bbs.keyhole.com) is a great place to find KML (Keyhole Markup Language) used by Google Earth to display its wares. User generated maps include the common, informative - and even weird.
You can get overlays of high-res photos of many world cities (most of Europe and the US included), amusement parks, current weather maps, airports - all with facilities pinpointed on the image overlay, so you can make sense of where you're going and what to do when you get there.
There are historical overlays (such as one I downloaded showing ancient sites of the Middle East, contrasted with current photos) - even overviews of places like the infamous Area 51 (where they keep the aliens!), Bill Gates's house and even views of Ikea signs in branches throughout the world. Google Earth has millions of users and will provide you with hours of fun - as well as ensure that you never take a second-rate vacation again! Download Google Earth for free from http://earth.google.com. There are versions for PCs, Macs and Linux systems (check the graphics driver information on the site before installing).
Everything you need to know about computers is at http://www.newzgeek.com and http://digital.newzgeek.com.
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