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I'm a total sucker for aerial photography, especially images of my immediate surroundings. Call it aerial narcissism, if you will. The Thomas Guide is my Bible while I'm on the road, but what to do when I'm chained to my computer?

Fortunately, online mapping technology has advanced miles beyond what it used to be even a couple of years ago. The standard road maps are usually accompanied by satellite imagery that allow the user to get a much better sense of the surrounding area.

Google Maps and Microsoft's Local.Live are the two sites I frequent the most. Each has their own quirks though. I find Google Maps to be the quickest loading and easiest to use if I'm trying to find businesses or simple addresses. It also has the most intuitive interface, permitting quick access to road maps or aerial views.

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Local.Live's interface is a bit more complex, covers a bit less square mileage, and occasionally takes a bit too much time to load for just looking up a simple address. However, Microsoft's application makes up for those shortfalls in one big way: oblique aerial photographic views.

These views differ from aerial images in that the camera is directed at a 45 degree angle rather than 90 degrees straight down. These images aren't distorted or manipulated in any way and they look just as they would if you were flying 1000 feet over the land in a small airplane. Plus, you can see the same parcel of land from any of the four compass rose directions. The result is a stunning sense of perspective that looks much more natural than the 90 degree view.

I tell you all this because I've learned so much about Los Angeles simply by 'flying over' it with Local.Live. I know precisely where the Hollywood sign resides. I have the locations for the Chinese Theatre, Pacific Design Center, and La Brea Tar Pits committed to memory, as well as many other hot spots in and around town.

Now, don't get your panties in a bind: the imagery is not live and in many cases not totally up to date, which leads to some intriguing circumstances. Some photos depict construction that took place years ago, while other images may be only a few months old. The most glaring examples of this condition can be found when looking at images with Local.Live's Birds Eye View feature.

Local theme parks are my favorite locales to check out in Birds Eye View. Take Knott's Berry Farm for example. In the Northwest corner of the park currently resides the Xceleratorroller coaster. However, depending on the vantage point you select using the Birds Eye View feature, you may be looking at the roller coaster that was in place before, the Windjammer Surf Racers. This coaster opened in 1997 and was torn down in 2001. In its place was built the Xcelerator, a distinctive 200 foot tall roller coaster that remains today. If you look at this section of the park in Birds Eye View, you will see either one or the other coaster depending on which part of the grid you've accessed. You are basically looking at two different points in time.

The same condition exist at Disneyland. In one view, Space Mountain is painted a kind of gold-brown. In the more recent views, the exterior is the current brilliant white. Same goes for the former Submarine Voyage, now being converted into a Finding Nemo themed ride. In the older pictures, the ride sits dormant, while in the more recent pictures, the lagoon has been drained and construction is going ahead on the new ride. Even more recent shots of the Submarine Voyage can be seen with Live.Local's simple 90 degree aerial views. The Submarine Voyage has begun taking on its new design, with new structures growing in the lagoon itself.

I'm warning you ahead of time: this activity can prove to be a time sucker. You may want to set an hour timer so your afternoons don't go to waste while searching for your childhood neighborhood or that hidden beach cove you used to escape to. It's the closest thing to piloting your own Goodyear Blimp.

Two sites that cater to those obsessed with the aerial views:

birdseyetourist
googlesightseeing