Best waste of time… EVER!

Needless to say I was thrilled to locate my pickup truck in the satellite photo of Burning Man 2005!

I’ve always been intrigued with maps and you could generally find an atlas or two on my coffee table back when I actually had a home (yes, I am homeless now, but in a good way). I discovered Google Earth way back in 2005 while searching for some kind of software atlas to replace my massive map books. I’d like to say I immediately recognized the potential of Google Earth, but I’d be lying. Suffice it to say that the realization was gradual, building over the subsequent weeks as I found myself spending increasing amounts of time scanning the surface of the earth.

Like everyone, I started with the basics — where is my house? is that my truck Burning Man? Then I looked up my childhood home, where I was born, where my mother was born… the list went on and on. I soon had to set Google Earth time limits for myself. Well, as it turns out, I’m not alone in my fascination… the whole world loves Google Earth! This past week saw the release of Google Earth v5.0 (beta) and a plethora of new features. You can now go to Mars, explore the skies, the ocean and even travel through time – all this and a flight simulator too – all this for FREE!

In keeping with my maps fixation, I’m also a GPS geek. For that reason I subscribed to Google Earth Plus for $20 per year to get access to GPS tools. However, I’ve just received a nice email from the folks at Google telling me that they’ve now put most of the “Plus” features into the free application, so they don’t want my money any more (unless of course I subscribe to Google Earth PRO at a substantial discount). The rates for Google Earth Pro are pretty hefty – $400 USD per year. For that kind of money, I want to see in your lunchbox. I’m not too sure their satellite pics are THAT good!

So where does Google get all these photos? Most images were classified surveillance photos at one time, put on the market after the information they provided was no longer of strategic importance. Evidence of this can be seen by Googling Iraq and checking out crystal clear images of seemingly inconsequential villages (thought to be good hiding places). More recently, Google has been criticized for aiding nefarious characters by providing free access to detailed satellite images. All this begs the question – can we trust what we see on Google Earth? Believe me, if someone with enough clout (like the British Ministry of Defense) doesn’t want you to see something, you won’t see it.

And, as Google Earth matures, it’s seeing some interesting and unexpected applications. Swiss police recently found a massive pot farm hidden in the middle of a cornfield – this image led to a bust! In another accidental discovery, scientists found an unexplored patch of forest in Africa on Google Earth. The evidence was compelling enough that they put together an expedition, explored and discovered several new species (of small furry animals).

The famous hummingbird from the Nazca Lines in Peru.

These days I use Google Earth to recon mountain and road bike rides, plan hikes, find bars, and (especially) search for the great mysteries of Earth – in this day and age there’s no hiding from the sat-cam. There’s even a cool little video on YouTube that runs you through some real strange places (probably some fakes too). But remember, Google Earth is nothing more than pixels in a JPEG stored in some server. Anyone with beginner Photoshop skills can alter satellite reality – so don’t believe everything you see. I suspect that secret alien base in Area 51 will be kept under wraps for a while yet…

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3 Responses

  1. kathy says:

    I played on Google Earth too, not the recent version, it’s really a time wasting game, I can’t stop looking for the places I went too 🙂
    I think Google Earth’s picture of China is not that detailed as in US. For example, my company located in ShangDi, the far north part of Beijing, where was a huge orchard, now a lot of technology companys built their own buildings here, you can’t find any orchard any more, but when I looked at the google earth a couple of months before, what I saw are buildings under construction or blank fields are waiting for construction, seems to be the view years ago, when people began to turn the orchard to business area. Anyway, still interesting for me.

  2. Patrick says:

    I always thought that it would be an interesting performance art if you could mark out paths in Google Earth that were also images like the Nasca lines hummingbird. At equal points in the image, you could take photos and post them on Google Earth. For example, mark out a 15 mile run path in Beijing in the shape of a “smiley face”. Post the path and a photo from every 200 meters on the path.

  3. Hans de Wit says:

    I read your article “Any Portal in a storm”. If you want a new and slightly different perspective you can look at the website or contact me.

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