Monday, June 25, 2007
Vote for the hippest Pop Candy avatar

Popavatar200 First came USA TODAY’s celebrity March Mania brackets — a play on the college basketball annual event — and now Pop Candy, Whitney Matheson’s blog, has its very own contest to determine which of her readers has the hippest avatar. Her loyal audience is among the biggest avatar creators, and out brackets showcase their artistic works on the sixty-pixel computer canvas. So, vote now for your favorites — the contest is already in Round 2.

SPECIAL REPORT: The road to Tora Bora

Afghan_road200 Road-building is the key to U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, summarized the importance of the roadwork: "Where the road ends, the Taliban begins."

Officials hope that roads will extend the reach of the central government and connect rural farmers to markets and provide greater access to hospitals and schools.

USA TODAY reporter Paul Wiseman spend a year following the progress of a $4 million, 26-mile road project in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The road begins near the outskirts of Jalalabad and runs south to the Tora Bora mountains, near the Pakistan border.

Click here for video, audio and maps of the road.

The international team building the road has been targeted with roadside bombs, hunted by killers and kidnappers, menaced by mobs and viewed warily by locals who think the team wants to destroy their opium crops. So far, the road has been scaled back from 26 to 18 miles. The team has managed only to clear and widen the rocky dirt track. Not a single foot has been paved and a Nov. 1 deadline looms.

Wiseman made several trips to Afghanistan to report the story. USA TODAY photographer Jack Gruber went twice to photograph progress. Gruber also shot about two hours of video along the length of the road and recorded audio of some interviews, natural sound and a key meeting between the builders and local elders.

The visual pieces didn't come together until we had Wiseman take the place of a narrator of sorts, which we use in two Sights and Sounds presentations and a short video clip. Let us know in the comments section below if this is an effective way to bring to life to this story.

A second challenge was finding information about this remote corner of Afghanistan, which is still largely a Taliban stronghold. We found dirt roads plotted on a 2002 map created by Afghanistan Information Management Services. This map also includes transit times from district centers in Nangarhar to the next closes district center. In some cases, it can take as long as an hour to travel 19 miles -- this distance some of us drive to our offices every morning without a thought. We did not use the transit information in our final graphic because the data was more than five years old, but I think it provides a different look at what little infrastructure exists in this part of the world.

CelebWatch with Will Keck

Keck200 Today we’ve launched our new video feature, CelebWatch with Will Keck. Will, our Hollywood celeb reporter, goes face-to-face with actress Brooke Shields. Every week, he’ll chat with another celebrity and bring you up to date on the latest in Hollywood. In addition to the video, Will includes a story, behind-the-scenes details in “The Back Story,” and a poll.

Thursday, June 21, 2007
How high is your Harry Potter IQ?

potterTrivia200 Jayme Deerwester’s introduction to this quiz, another in our occasional series of movie and television show trivia, says it all: The summer of Potter is upon us, with The Order of the Phoenix flying into theaters July 11 and the final book, The Deathly Hallows hitting bookstores 10 days later. Are you a master Muggle? Take our quiz and find out.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Presidential supporters

VotersWe just ran a story looking at some of the typical supporters of eight top-tier candidates for president. Actually, seven plus Al Gore, who says he's not running.

Along with that story is an interactive graphic that breaks down some of the demographic data of those "typical supporters," profiles of them, and audio clips of them describing why they support the person they do.

Who do you support and why? Leave your comments here or on the original story page.

Who's hungry?

BbqRecently we ran a story about the North Carolina Barbecue trail. We thought it would be a good opportunity to shoot a video documenting the people and the process of the timeless tradition in the Tar Heel State.

Some of the shooting situations were challenging, like when we talked with Stephen Grady at 2 a.m. while he prepped his hogs in a dark cookhouse, lit by a single bulb dangling from the ceiling. Nor did it help that Grady could barely hear me ask questions thanks to my untimely encounter with laryngitis.

Finding our way on North Carolina's country roads proved a challenge too, although we were helped immeasurably by a small window-mounted GPS device. Were it not for that, I don't know that we ever would have found "B's Barbecue Road" on a map.

All-in-all, though, we met some great characters, ate some fantastic barbecue and ended up with a video that seems to capture the culture pretty well. Hopefully, you'll agree.

Friday, June 8, 2007
Shuttle Atlantis ready for liftoff

Shuttle_blog After a months-long delay because of damage caused during a hailstorm, the space shuttle Atlantis is ready for its next mission to the International Space Station (ISS). During the 11-day space flight, the crew will install new trusses that will eventually support laboratories, which will be delivered in future missions.

To learn more about the details of the mission, you can watch NASA video breaking down particulars. The repairs to the fuel tank foam damaged in the hailstorm are explained in this graphic. You can see the various pieces of the space station and watch an animation of the entire construction, scheduled to be completed in 2010.

We have a challenge covering the construction of the ISS because many of the missions are similar to previous missions: Atlantis carries up a new piece of the shuttle and astronauts connect wires and fold up arrays as the station takes shape. NASA is scheduled to launch three more flights in 2007. Are there graphics or concepts involved the ISS construction that you'd like to see when Atlantis flies again?

Photo gallery with a twist

Cma200 If you’ve expressed your opinion or shared a thought using the comments box available on our stories, you may be interested to know that we’ve added this functionality to the 2007 CMA Music Festival photo gallery. This is your opportunity to let us know what you think about the exclusive portraits our team in Nashville is taking.

Another new addition to this gallery is video of selected photo shoots. We’re curious to know your opinion of this feature too — and other ideas you might have.

To produce this gallery, we sent a team comprised of a photographer, videographer, and producer to Nashville. They set up shop in a small space draped with a backdrop of white seamless paper, which you can easily see in the videos. Producer Jym Wilson toiled diligently behind the scenes, weeks in advance, to set up five-minute appointments with each star. Working late into the night and into the early hours of the morning, the team transmitted images and video to our servers. I showed up in our Virginia office early this morning, added the content to our gallery template, and published it to our site. We will continue updating this gallery through the weekend and into Monday morning.

Thursday, June 7, 2007
Bonds away

bondsTracker200 No matter what you think of Barry Bonds he is approaching Hank Aaron's career home run record. Track his day to day progress here.

Short & Sweet

parismugs200 Editor Alison Maxwell noticed celebrities wearing super-short skirts — and showing plenty of leg — at the MTV Awards. We found photos of four attendees, Victoria Beckham, Cameron Diaz, Jessica Biel and Fergie, and put together a vote. This is your chance to cast a ballot for the star you think pulls off the look best.