Saturday, July 28, 2012

Culture Club: Asian Pop Comes to Town

While most of the world was focused on London this weekend, there was a whole lot of activity in my neighborhood, too. With the Orioles in town, an army of orange turned out to support the team in its bid to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Down the street at M &T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens, Tottenham and Liverpool drew a more international set for their soccer match. While it wasn’t always obvious which of these events people were attending, there was no doubt about who was in town for the third big affair, the Otakon convention.

I’m not really sure what Otakon is all about, but when 31,000 teenagers in strange costumes take over the streets around the Baltimore Convention Center every year, I know it’s time for the convention. According to the Otacon website, this event is for the otaku generation, honoring anime, manga, and all facets of Asian pop culture. I don’t know what that means, but I do know that the kids are well behaved, friendly and happy to pose for pictures, so they’re alright in my book.

You have to see it to believe it, so here you go. 
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Monday, July 23, 2012

Get Your Art on in Baltimore

If you’ve never been to Baltimore, your impression of the city has probably been formed by the television shows Homicide and The Wire, two gritty series about drugs, murder and corruption. After living downtown for 16 years, I can tell you that everything you see is accurate–broken families, failing schools, political corruption, gang violence, teen pregnancy, STDs and substance abuse. We’re known to many as the City that Breeds, the City that Bleeds and a few other titles that are nothing to be proud of.

Joanne Drummond Photography: Baltimore &emdash;
John Waters has made Baltimore
famous for its quirky characters.
But there’s a lot more to Baltimore than you see on TV. There’s also the Baltimore of John Waters, creator of the hit Hairspray and several other quirky films that accurately portray the many lovable, offbeat characters with big hair and strange accents who have earned us the name Charm City.   

Art Lives Here
If you scratch off the grimy reputation, you’ll discover that Baltimore is a cultural gem. The city is filled with so many museums and other sites that feature world-class art, music, literature, history and theatre that you’ll never have time to see it all if you visit. In fact, after all these years, I still haven’t.

This weekend, Baltimore showed off its finer side by putting on Artscape, the largest free arts festival in the US. For three days every year, visitors from across town and across the country try to take in as much of Artscape as they can cover. The festival features every form of art you could think of and then some. The most popular attractions are the hundreds of booths filled with unique treasures created by local artists and at least five stages that offer music of every genre. This year’s national acts included Brian McKnight, Clutch and Rebirth Brass Band. Artscape also offers visitors the opportunity to find out about what’s new at local museums, pick up giveaways from national sponsors, enjoy street performers and take in short features by local filmmakers.

Joanne Drummond Photography: Baltimore &emdash;
A walk down Charles Street is a surreal experience during Artscape. 
Welcome to Wonderland
Artscape’s borders have expanded to include Charles Street, which was converted into a fantasy land. In strolling the few blocks, I felt like I was living Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. I passed three stages, one of which was made of pallets; a knitted port-a-potty; a houseboat topped by a guy wrapped in a snake and a band; a rock opera performed by a cast of medieval punks; a turkey breast children’s ride; an enormous crash-test dummy; a large drawing of John Waters’ head, an art car exhibit and a fashion show. My favorite was a human exhibit that I think was supposed to be an artful interpretation of some down and out folks.

The most impressive part of the festival was that it brings together people of just about every race and economic class, and everybody gets along. Funny thing about art. It always seems to melt away the differences among people, yet it’s the first thing that gets cut when budgets are tight. Perhaps if we started replacing guns with guitars, our streets wouldn’t be littered with bullets and drug paraphernalia.

Dance more, sing more, make art more, Baltimore.

Check out more of my photos from Artscape. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

6 Rules for Finding the Best Airfare

Many travelers are staying closer to home or making the long drive to their destination these days as the cost of a plane ticket becomes more unaffordable. If flying is your only option, and you don’t have wads of cash or piles of frequent flier miles, try these tips when searching for your next flight.

Photo of Versailles
Use these tips if driving to your destination isn't an option. 
1. Know when to book.
Look for flights at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday. This is when the low-cost airlines like Southwest publish their specials. The larger airlines follow suit within the next few hours. Prices tend to rise by the weekend. Rates can change quickly, and other travelers can snatch up the cheap seats, so if you find a good price, jump on it. Note that the Tuesday rule applies to domestic fares. International fares don’t seem to change on a set schedule.

Don’t book more than two to three months in advance. Rates usually fall a few months before the departure. 

2. Know where to look.
Websites like and search several sites to come up with a list of available flights and prices. They can also lead you to more convenient flight schedules you wouldn’t find on an airline’s sight because they mix flights with other airlines. Note that some airlines, including Southwest, do not appear on these sites.

At, users can enter their closest airport to come up with a list of the best prices for flights to cities throughout the United States as well as some international cities. Users can also sign up for weekly emails with the best flight prices, many of which are unadvertised. 

3. Be flexible.
I clicked the “My dates are flexible” option on the last flight I booked, and I ended up saving more more than $1,000 by changing my departure date by two days. I can’t promise you’ll be as lucky as I was, but you can often save a decent amount of money if you’re willing to change your schedule by a few days. Tuesday and Wednesday are usually the cheapest days to fly, and the old rule about flying more cheaply if you stay over on a Saturday no longer applies.

4. Be social.
Some airlines release special offers on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter before revealing them to the rest of the world. You can also learn about deals from your city by registering for the airline’s email list.

5. Check the schedule.
Many people buy the cheapest ticket without looking at the flight times. That’s a bad idea for a few reasons. Let’s say you want to spend a long weekend in New Orleans. You book a ticket that leaves on Friday and returns on Monday. Imagine all the fun you can have in four days in the Big Easy. In checking your itinerary, you notice that the flight arrives at 10:30 p.m. on Friday and departs at 7:00 a.m. on Monday. Add in the time it takes to travel to and from the airport, and you’ll arrive just in time for bed on Friday night, and you’ll have to be in bed just after dinner to make your early morning flight on Monday. That only gives you two days, not to mention that you’ll miss out on two nights on the town. After considering the money you’ve spent for a hotel for those two nights, it’s just a bad deal.

Transportation to and from the airport could be an issue depending on your flight times. You’re less likely to find a ride from a friend if you are flying early in the morning or late at night. That leaves expensive options like hiring a taxi or airport shuttle or parking in an airport lot. The tram near my house only costs $1.60 each way, so I try to book during its operating hours when possible. 

Direct flights are hard to find these days and are often priced much higher than those with connections.
If your flight has connections, beware of layover times. I’ll pay more to avoid a long layover, which costs me valuable time and often a good chunk of change on meals and snacks. I also pass on any itinerary with less than an hour between flights, even if they are in the same terminal, because if my first flight is late, I'll be mor likely to miss my connection and lose my luggage.

I have taken several international flights through JFK, which is the perfect storm for airport unpleasantness on the return trip. If you absolutely can’t avoid this airport, allow at least three hours between flights on the return trip. Since it’s the first port of entry in the country, all passengers must wait in long lines at Immigration, pick up their checked baggage, pass through Customs and check their baggage again. Then they must go to another terminal for their connecting flight, where they must pass through security. I have never spent less than 45 minutes in security, and they won’t send anybody to the front of the line for a flight that’s about to depart because everyone in line is facing that issue.

6. Add up the hidden costs.
Fees for checked bags, choosing seats and other services not included in the price of the ticket can add up, especially if you’re traveling as a family. Therefore, come up with a total cost before making your choice.

If you have any other tips for finding cheaper airfare, please share them here. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

My Memory of Lionel Batiste

When I was skimming headlines on last night, I was two stories down before my heart skipped a beat. Uncle Lionel Batiste is dead. Wait … what? I had to back up and read it again. Lionel Batiste. I know him!

To be honest, I don’t actually know Lionel Batiste, a huge figure in the New Orleans music scene, but he made a big impression when I ran into him about two years ago. As I was entering the courtyard of the legendary Preservation Hall to meet up with my jazz tour, he was finishing up a photo shoot.

Most of my family and friends know that I adore the music and culture of New Orleans. I’m also a huge fan of Tremé, the HBO series about the city, so I immediately recognized Uncle Lionel and his Tremé Brass Band drum.

All I could think of was getting a picture of that drum because I was certain that I would never come across anything that screams New Orleans like that beat up instrument. Had I known at the time that Uncle Lionel had used his drum to keep himself afloat in the post-Katrina floods, I probably would have passed out on the spot.

As I stood there trying to work up the courage to ask permission to take a picture, Uncle Lionel was packing up his things. I knew that he’d be gone in a few moments.

What if he thought I was crazy for asking? What did it matter since I’d never see him again? What if he said no? And why were the other few guests meandering around looking more interested in starting the jazz tour when a living, breathing musical giant was standing right in front of them?

Ah, what the hell? “Hi, do you mind if I take a picture of your drum?” I practically whispered, and my heart stopped as I waited for his response.

Slowly, he turned around and picked up his drum. Oh, no, you idiot! Why didn’t you just walk over and take the damn picture before he had a chance to move the drum? I can’t believe I upset him so much that he’s going to hide it. Now I’ll never get my shot!

Suddenly, he turned to face me and struck a pose with the drum. This was too good to be true! My heart resumed beating and began to pound furiously. I only had seconds to get the shot. I was looking straight into the sun. I was too close to get a full body shot.

He started to lower the drum, and I snapped as quickly as I could, praying for the best. Then, despite his age and frail build, he disappeared with his drum in an instant.

I spent the next few minutes willing my heart back to its normal pace, trying to look nonchalant about my run-in with a legend. Inside the tiny, dark hall, I struck up a conversation with the photographer, who explained that he was working on a book of photos of famous musicians posing with their instruments. He soon excused himself to shoot his next subject, Mardi Gras Indian chief Monk Boudreau, who was waiting patiently while we wrapped up our chat.

I don’t know whether it’s the Southern culture or the fact that musical talent is the norm in New Orleans, but it’s remarkable to me that musicians in this town mingle with the masses and don’t put on any airs. In any other city, they would be surrounded by an entourage and a throng of fans and paparazzi. Despite this unusual attitude, I preferred to focus on my success in shooting Batiste rather than pushing my luck with Boudreau, so I faded into the shadows to wait for the tour.

When the tour guide called us together and led us back into the light of day on St. Peter Street, he offhandedly revealed the identities of the gentlemen we had seen inside. The rest of the group, assuming the New Orleans attitude, seemed unimpressed. As for me, it was the highlight of my trip and a memory that will last a lifetime.

Rest in peace, Unc. Enjoy your second line.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Interrupting the Heat Wave with a Simple Writing Request

Can it get any hotter outside? Yes, and according to, it could reach 109 today. That’s about 43 for anyone born outside the United States. I’m not even going to attempt to leave the house for fear that I will spontaneously combust. Instead, I’ll enjoy the air conditioning and plow through the stack of magazines that’s been growing on my coffee table.

For more effective writing, KISS: Keep It
Simple, Stupid. It shows respect for your
reader's time and increases the chances
 that he or she will read your document. 
My magazine-reading habits are like those of most people, according to what they teach in the communications seminars I attend. We prefer articles we can scan quickly and lots of white space, graphics and photos. When we come across long blocks of text, we tend to feel overwhelmed, unwilling to invest our time on long sentences that lead us down a long confusing path with no sign of reward at the end.

We feel the same way about insurance, legal and financial documents, pretty much anything you’d find in the business world. Don’t get me wrong; our preferences don’t mean that we’re stupid or illiterate. People are just really busy.

Don’t Forget to KISS: Keep Is Simple, Stupid
If given the choice, I’m sure that people would choose the concise, simply worded document over the long one filled with words you’d find on an SAT test. So why do people continue to churn out documents that look like they are a college essay? Is it because they believe they will look more intelligent? Actually, a Harvard study says that the opposite is true.

Although it takes practice, it’s possible to simplify your writing by using short words and short sentences without sounding like you’re talking down to people. You wouldn’t use those long sentences and big vocabulary words if you were talking to someone, so write like you are having a conversation with the reader.

How to Simplify Your Writing
Following are some suggestions from a writing bootcamp that I recently attended:

  •  Replace long words with short words that mean the same thing. For example, use instead of utilize, have or feel instead of experience, home instead of residence.
  • Cut words that would not change the meaning of the sentence if removed. Delete phrases like it is believed that, in my opinion and in terms of.
  • Don’t use a phrase when a word will do. Replace that point in time with then or when, cut because of the fact that to because; shorten in order to show to show. 
  • Use active voice instead of passive so the reader knows who is performing the action, and that the person or organization is taking accountability.   
  • Use bullets, subheads and graphics to break up your text.
  • Avoid referring to the reader in the third person. Write as you would speak, using you or the imperative voice. My city government should be fined for breaking this rule on a regular basis, constantly issuing alerts and instructions on what citizens or residents should do in various situations. Considering the low literacy rates where I live, most people probably can’t even read the words, let alone realize that the information is directed toward them. Please, Madam Mayor, just say you. Also, leaders, please stop referring to yourself in the first person. Geez, even the president of the United States says we, not I.
  • Avoid overuse of bold, italics, capitalized and underlined text because it overwhelms and confuses the reader, often making him feel like he is under attack.
  • Use spell check, but proofread afterward. Spell check will not notify you if you typed loose instead of lose because it’s still a word. 

What’s the Point?
Writing simply shows respect for your reader’s time. It also increases the chance that he or she will read your document and take the action you request, which is your ultimate goal.

Not sold? Research has shown that people overestimate the vocabulary knowledge of others by 30 percent. That means that your reader might not understand about a third of what you’re writing, which is sort of like trying to read a foreign novel after only a few years of language class. It doesn’t work. Trust me.

If you still need convincing, a study by the University of Baltimore showed that people at high literacy levels actually benefit more than people at lower levels when reading simplified materials.

The bottom line: For everyday use, try simple, concise writing. Save the big words for the New York Times crossword puzzle.

We now return you to the scheduled heat wave. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Use Your Smartphone Wisely When You Travel

I recently attended a jazz concert sponsored by the city in my neighborhood’s park and decided to take pictures of the crowd enjoying the show for use on the community website. When I downloaded the photos, I was disappointed to find that most of them showed people who were more involved with their phones than they were with the neighbors or the music, hardly an advertisement for my exciting urban lifestyle.

While cell phones drive me insane when their owners use them to communicate with everyone but the people right next to them, I’m addicted to some of my iPhone apps, especially when I’m on the road, and I don’t have access to a computer.

photo of Sahara
A smartphone is handy, even when you don't have service.
If you travel overseas, you probably know that the first thing you need to do is turn off the data and roaming to avoid a huge bill. If you can find a café or hotel with Internet access, you can still take advantage of Wi-Fi to use your apps. McDonald’s offers free Wi-Fi, and the coffee wins awards in several countries, so it’s a good option in a pinch.

There’a an app for that. There are lots of apps, many of them free, that can simplify travel. Following are some of favorites: 
  • Most airlines offer apps that enable you to check in and get updated flight information. Some allow you to download a boarding pass for certain airports. I would still recommend a paper ticket after witnessing a TSA agent at JFK tell a passenger who had waited an hour in line for a plane that was due to take off in 15 minutes that the smartphone reader wasn’t working, so she had to go back and get a paper ticket.   
  • TripIt (available for iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7) enables users to forward their confirmation emails for plane and hotel reservations to the app, so all of the vital information is available in one place. If the information is a small hotel or other vendor not supported by the TripIt system, the user can manually enter the information.
  • If you will be in a city that has a metro system, MetrO is a necessity. Plug in the starting and ending stop or landmark and the time that you want to travel to find out which metro, tram or bus to take and where to transfer. Best of all it’s a downloadable database, so you don’t need WI-FI or a data plan. Just beware that some city names are presented in their native language, e.g., Prague is Praha, and Vienna is Wien.  Check the website  for the list of smartphones supported, as the company continues to add more.
  • A foreign dictionary always comes in handy if you are going to a country where English is not the native language. There are free versions for many languages, but like most apps, the paid versions offer more. Before buying, be sure to find out whether Internet access is required if you won’t be using your data plan.
  • A currency converter is a big help when you are shopping and trying to figure out how much you are spending on a souvenir, or when you're at the ATM trying to figure out how much money you need. I use GlobeConverter Free because I can open it before I leave or when I have Wi-Fi access to download current exchange rates, and it will use the last rate downloaded to make the calculations.  
  • To stay in touch with the folks back home without spending an arm and a leg, download Pinger's free texting program. If you have Wi-Fi, you can text anyone in the U.S. for free. Pinger also offers free incoming calls from any U.S. phone and free outgoing calls to any mobile phone in the U.S. that also has this app.
  • Walking tours can offer advice on what to see and how to get there. Again, find out whether Internet access is required if you won’t be using your data plan. Rely on user reviews to choose the best guide. Some of the popular travel guides, such as Frommer’s and Rick Steves, are available for a fee, but they are cheaper than the printed books and certainly less weighty. Remember that most hotels and tourist spots overseas can provide a free map as well as advice on the best places to visit, so don’t rule out the locals as some of the most useful resources.
  • Foursquare, available for most smartphones, is helpful if you can use your data plan and you want to know what’s worth seeing in the vicinity. Although I don’t really care to be the mayor of any of the places I visit, I was happy to let it lead me through the Garden District of New Orleans to the homes of some celebrities and the resting place of Lestat, the main character in several Anne Rice books.
  • Living Social offers bargains in your town and throughout the world. PayPal also offers an app called Where that provides information on local offers based on your GPS location.

Know where to go. While a map app can be a great travel tool, it’s still a good idea to print out a map that shows the location of your hotel before you leave. While I’m on this topic, research the best way to go from the airport to wherever you’re staying by doing a search for “transportation from whatever airport to whatever town.” You can compare prices between shuttles, taxis and whatever modes of transportation available and learn how and where to buy tickets. You will probably be tired and disoriented when you arrive, so it won’t be a good time to start figuring out where you are and where you need to be, especially if you won’t be in an English-speaking country.

A photo of your luggage doesn't have to be a work of art. 
Take a picture. You’ve probably heard that you should keep a copy of your passport in a separate bag. But what of you lose your bag? What if you lose your passport and you just can’t get to your bag? As a simple safeguard, take a picture of your passport and email it to yourself. You can also take a picture with your cell phone. If the phone or the camera uses a flash, make sure your photo, the passport number and expiration date are still visible. As I mentioned in my last entry, use your phone to take a picture of your suitcase just before you leave for your trip. That way, if the airline loses it, you can show someone exactly what it looks like. 

I hope you get a lot of use out of your phone while you’re away, but I also hope that you don’t become so involved with it that you miss out on all of the exciting activities and scenery around you. And if you come across a must-have app, please let me know.