I'm one of the millions of people who have recently become absolutely, incurably addicted to the new online game GeoGuessr. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably will be too.
Here's how it works: GeoGuessr drops you in a randomly chosen location on Google Street View. You can move around, but can't zoom out. It's a bit like playing Myst, except that you're looking for clues in a real place somewhere in the world. You then have to guess where you are by clicking on a world map, with points awarded for how close you get to the actual location.
Sometimes, obvious clues like signs in the local language or geographic landmarks will make it easy. Other times you'll find yourself on a nondescript country road trying to decide if those evergreen trees look more Scandinavian or Canadian. The game's one unfortunate limitation is that it will only drop you in countries that Google Street View has mapped, which means most of Africa, the Middle East, India, and China, are immediately ruled out. You could, however, be dropped in such locations as the base camp of Mount Everest or the Great Barrier Reef. The most exotic place I've been in the game was what looked like a jungle path somewhere in Japan's remote Ogasawara Islands.
In addition to just being a fun way to kill time -- more time than I'd like to admit over the past week or two -- the game is also a cool way to experience visual culture and notice surprising similarities in architecture and landscape between regions. Every once in a while you can come across something weirdly beautiful or an unexpected slice-of-life moment like those documented in artist Jon Rafman's 9-Eyes project.
GeoGuessr is the creation of a 29-year-old Swedish IT consultant named Anton Wallén. I recently spoke with Wallén via e-mail and asked him how the idea for GeoGuessr came about.
"I have always loved how Street View enables you to visit locations you would never go to in real life in such an immersive way, almost like you're there," he said. Wallén says he initially set out to build a simple "random location generator" using Street View, and only later decided to add the guessing game element to it.
According to Wallén, since the game blew up on social media last week, it's been getting 200,000 to 300,000 unique visitor per day. "To me, it's mindblowing," he says, noting that he's "received many emails from people getting together to organize tournaments in their workplaces/schools using their own rules, parents/children and couples playing the game together as a team and also a lot of teachers allowing their students to play the game during their classes."
Initially, much of the feedback Wallén received was from readers complaining about Australia being overrepresented. (It is, after all, a pretty big country, and frankly much of the interior of it is pretty nondescript-looking from the road.) But he says he's tinkered with the algorithm and the overrepresentation complaints are now much more diverse -- which could indicate that it is, in fact, pretty random.
I asked Wallén for the hardest location he's had to guess. "The hardest probably was a very luxurious, Asian-style house somewhere in Central America (which I finally decided would have to be Japan). You could walk around in the courtyard and the garden but there was no way to leave the premises. The easiest I guess was when I was dropped right in front of a sign that said 'Welcome to Fairbanks, Alaska.'" (I had similar good fortune in Valparaíso, Chile.)
The game may even have inspired a few people to see a bit more of the world. "I got an email a few days ago from a woman who had known her husband for 12 years," Wallén says. "She had always been very fond of traveling but since he didn't like it they had never really traveled anywhere together. They both, however, liked the game very much and had been playing it for a few nights. After that, the husband had started looking up tourist locations in Japan and even bought a guidebook. That story really made me smile."
Liberal commentators have dismissed today's hearings on the Obama administration's response to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi as a purely political exercise aimed at scoring points against the Obama adminsitration rather than bringing new information to light about the events in question. But the bad news for the administration is that the American public seems to be more interested in the politics of Benghazi than the actual event.
Here's a quick Google Trends chart showing the intensity of searches for "Benghazi" in the United States over the last 12 months:
Searches during the actual attack last September rated a score of 24 out of 100 on Google's scale, whereas searches maxed out at 100 -- the highest possible score -- around Election Day last year, when the Romney campaign was criticizing the administration for covering up information about the attack. Interest peaked again during David Petraeus's testimony on Nov. 16 (shortly after his controversial resignation from the CIA), when the State Department's internal review was released in December, around Hillary Clinton's memorable testimony in January, and again this week.
I've heard some say that Benghazi is an inside-the-Beltway story of little interest to the general public. But I think it may actually be the opposite. Beltway types-- particularly liberals, but some conservatives too -- are ready for this story to go away, but the public is still very much interested, and conservative media outlets in particular have continued to beat the drum. The administration may grumble that senators are politicizing a tragedy, but for the public, this has always been a political story.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
It's a bit of an exaggeration to say that the FBI has "released" its 207-page file on Muammar al-Qaddafi. The documents are so heavily redacted that most of what you get is a series of headings, dates, and corrections of the spelling of the late Libyan leader's name. But there are a few nuggets that are sure to intrigue and frustrate Libya watchers.
The files, most of which date from the 1980s, contain several references to Qaddafi possibly putting out a contract for the assassination of Ronald Reagan -- something that has long been a matter of speculation. The most complete section refers to a possible connection between these assassination plots and the Chicago street gang the El Rukns, an Islamist offshoot of the infamous Blackstone Rangers whose leaders were convicted of planning terrorist attacks on behalf of Libya in a landmark case.
A file from February 1989 refers to a plot the investigators seem to have concluded was bogus. (Don't let all the "redacted" notes below fool you: Believe it or not, this is the least-redacted section of the documents.)
During 1986 and 1987, the Chicago division successfully indicted and convicted five (5) members of a well established Chicago street gang known as the El Rukns. These five (5) members of the El Rukn organization were convicted of conspiring to commit terrorist acts in the United States on behalf of the government of Libya. Their conviction marked the first time in the history of the United States that American citizens had been found guilty of planning to commit terrorist acts in the United States for foreign government in return for money.
On February 29, 1989, [redacted] telephonically contacted the Chicago division. [Redacted] advised that one [redacted], an [redacted] had stated that Qadhafi of Libya had put a contract out on the life of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Initially [redacted] told [redacted] that Qadhafi had [redacted] for information of [redacted].
[Redacted] also told [redacted] that [redacted] then told [redacted] who is [redacted] was also [redacted] in conspiring to commit terrorist acts in the United States. Subsequently, [redacted] supposedly [redacted] of this threat.
Immediately upon receiving this information, the Chicago case agent in the Rokbom matter telephonically informed the U.S. secret service, at Chicago, Illinois, and advised them of the facts outlined supra.
On February 23, 1989, the Rukbom case agent and a U.S. secret service agent from Chiago [redacted] and interviewed [redacted]. It was learned during the course of the interview that [redacted].
[Redacted] was then extensively interviewed regarding his knowledge of any threat to the life of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan as a result of Qadhafi of Libya. [Redacted] After an extensive interview, it is the opinion of the Chicago case agent in the Rukbom matter that [redacted] is exaggerating [redacted] with Qadhafi of Libya. It should also be noted that the Chicago agent of the Rukbom matter and the U.S. Secret Service agent who conducted the interview noted numerous inconsistencies in [redacted] statements while the interview took place.
There's also a totally redacted 1987 telex from the bureau's San Diego office titled, "Libyan dissident plans to overthrow Libyan leader Moummar Khaddafy," as well as quite a few follow-ups from offices throughout the country. It's tempting to wonder if these had anything to do with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the exile group known for several assassination attempts on Qaddafi -- efforts that, according to some reports, may have been supported by the CIA. The group's leaders, several of whom are now active in Libyan politics, were living in the United States at the time.
An August 1986 cable from Sacramento -- entirely redacted -- concerns an interview with a "contract worker concerning Moammar Qadhafi compound." That was, as it happens, a few months after the U.S. bombed Qaddafi's compound.
In one intriguing 1986 document, political activist and perennial longshot presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche makes a mysterious cameo:
Changed: [Redacted] alleged plot to assassinate president Ronald Reagan during the New York statue of Liberty celebration July 3-6, 1986.
This communication is classified
"secret"in its entirety.
Title marked changed to more clearly state the the substance of this case. Title formerly carried as "Libyan terrorist activities: IT-Libya: [unreadable] Muammar Qadhafi, Lyndon Larouche: International terrorism, information concerning.[...]
The purpose of this teletype is to report the resolution of captioned matter as unfounded.
I don't know of any connection between LaRouche and Libya. This was shortly before the politician's headquarters was raided by the FBI as part of a fraud investigation, but I can't imagine that's related.
There are several reports on Qaddafi's travels as well. A May 1985 cable discusses a visit by the leader to Palma de Mallorca and identifies his traveling companions, including a number of Libyans, an Egyptian, a Tunisian, and a Yugoslavian. The names are all redacted.
That same year, the bureau noted a trip to Moscow to sign a "treaty of friendship and cooperation" with the U.S.S.R.
The FBI's analysis conclues that for Moscow, the treaty is "probably a payoff for Qadhafi's support of Soviet foreign policy in the region.... Qadhafi's invitation from the Moscow and the prospect of the treaty signing indicate the Kremlin sees some value in Qadhafi's openly hostile anti-U.S. activities." It's not entirely clear why the FBI was taking note of this foreign-policy development.
There are also discussions of security arrangements for Qaddafi's visit to the U.N. General Assembly in 1985. A telex requests the names of the "Libyan females accompanying Qadhafi family," a reference to his famous bodyguards.
Overall, as the cliche goes, the files raise more questions than they answer. One thing we do know for sure is that there was absolutely no bureau consensus on the spelling of Qaddafi.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Izvestia, one of Russia's largest broadsheets, has apparently joined the "false flag" conspiracy crowd with a very weird article (translated here) that suggests a link between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and U.S. intelligence agencies through a very long list of dubious connections.
The article cites secret documents from Georgia's Ministry of Internal Affairs claiming that when Tsarnaev visited the Caucasus in 2012, he took classes organized by the Jamestown Foundation -- a U.S. think tank -- and the "Fund for Caucasus," a Georgian group whose "main purpose is to recruit young people and intellectuals of the North Caucasus to enhance instability and extremism in the southern regions of Russia." According to the article, the seminars were engaged in "recruiting residents of the North Caucasus to work in the interests of the United States and Georgia" and "preparing acts of terrorism."
Remarkably, there does seem to be a Georgian organization that goes by the gramatically awkward English name "Fund of Caucasus." The group, which describes its mission as "To popularize the phenomenon of Caucasian peoples' cultures and 'Caucasian civilization' all over the world," has put out a statement about Izvestia's article denying any connection with Tsarnaev:
The 'Fund of Caucasus' rejects the accusation about being involved in promoting extremist intentions and encouraging destabilization in south regions of Russia.
The group also suggests that the story may have been motivated "by the fact that in 2013 the President of the 'Fund of Caucasus' was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the famous scientists and public figures of the South and North Caucasus, Israel and Poland." Not quite sure about that one.
Izvestia also makes a big deal out of the fact that the Jamestown Foundation's board includes former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the main "ideologists of U.S. foreign policy." Alex Jones's conspiracy theory clearinghouse Infowars, which has, not surprisingly, picked up on this, takes things a step further by describing Jamestown as a "known CIA front." For what it's worth, a Jamestown employee denied to FP that the group was involved in running training programs in the Caucasus, and there don't appear to be any links between the two organizations.
The Izvestia article doesn't quite explain how Georgia would benefit from any of this or why shadowy anti-Russian forces would want to pin the attack on Chechen extremists -- not exactly the Kremlin's favorite people.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley appears to be the first out of the gate in attempting to link the suspected Boston bombers to the congressional debate over immigration reform.:
As a chaotic, frantic, and violent hunt for a suspected bomber unfolded in Boston, the Iowa Republican pointed to the situation during the committee's first hearing on a new comprehensive immigration bill. Grassley argued consideration of the issue is important "especially in light of everything that's happening in Massachusetts now."
In his opening statement, Grassley also argued the Boston terror case can help strengthen immigration reform since "it will help shed light on the weaknesses in our system … [and] how can we beef up security checks on people who would enter the United States."
Other senators have swatted the suggestion down. A spokesman for Marco Rubio, one of the chief proponents of the current reform proposal, told the Daily Caller that "Americans will reject any attempt to tie the losers responsible for the attacks in Boston with the millions of law-abiding immigrants currently living in the US and those hoping to immigrate here in the future."
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy also told reporters, "If we change the policies of this country every time something happens, Oklahoma City, 9/11, this, we're never going to do anything."
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was reportedly granted U.S. citizenship last year and Tamerlan was apparently hoping to become a citizen as well. But neither was an undocumented immigrant and Grassley's argument seems like it would be a bit of a distraction from the actual point of the bill being considered ... which doesn't mean it won't catch on.
Chechnya's pro-Russian strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov has just posted a statement about the Boston marathon bombing suspects on Instagram, his social media outlet of choice. Here's the Google-translated version:
The tragic events took place in Boston. The blast killed people. We have previously expressed their condolences to the people of the city and the people of America. Today, as reported by the media, while trying to arrest a Tsarnaea was killed. It would be logical if he was detained and investigated, found all the circumstances and the degree of his guilt. Apparently, the special services needed by all means to calm the result of society. Any attempt to make the connection between Chechnya and Tsarnaevys if they are guilty, [is] in vain. They grew up in the United States, their attitudes and beliefs were formed there. It is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America. From terrorism to fight the whole world. We know better than anyone else. We wish recovery to all the victims and share the feelings of sorrow Americans. # # Boston # bombing investigation
Meanwhile, Kavkaz Center, the propaganda and news site associated with the Islamist militant movement in the North Caucasus, has posted an item in Russian expressing skepticism about the guilt of Boston Marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Headlined, "Strange 'Terrorists,'" the article notes that the suspects are "as if to order" for the U.S. media to link the events in Boston to the violence in Chechnya, and reports that "experts" have suggested that the only evidence used by U.S. investigators was looking at photos of people wearing backpacks near the bombing.
Ramzan Kadyrov on Instagram
A good rule of thumb for news in the Internet age: If there's a "Ha, ha, silly foreigners" story circulating on the Internet, and if 90 percent of the people writing about it are citing the Telegraph, it's probably mostly fake, or at least highly misleading. (See Putin's Boyz II Men booty call or Sarkozy's fromage fatwa.)
I suspect this is the case with the story of an Iranian scientist claiming to have invented a time machine, which has been making the rounds today. (To be clear, I realize that no one actually thinks he did invent the time machine. I'm disputing whether or not the news story is real.)
The Telegraph story that kicked all this off reports:
Ali Razeghi, a Tehran scientist has registered "The Aryayek Time Traveling Machine" with the state-run Centre for Strategic Inventions.
The device can predict the future in a print out after taking readings from the touch of a user, he told the Fars state newsagency.
Razaeghi, 27, said the device worked by a set of complex algorithims to "predict five to eight years of the future life of any individual, with 98 percent accuracy".
As the managing director of Iran's Centre for Strategic Inventions, Razeghi is a serial inventor with 179 other inventions listed under his own name. "I have been working on this project for the last 10 years," he said.
"My invention easily fits into the size of a personal computer case and can predict details of the next 5-8 years of the life of its users. It will not take you into the future, it will bring the future to you."
Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post reports that the original Fars item has now disappeared. There is also a Farsi interview with Razeghi on another site. (Here's a Google-translated version -- it's hard to tell but the tone of the interview seems somewhat incredulous and mocking.)
After that things only get murkier. The "Centre for Strategic Inventions" sounds official, and gives the impression that some sort of legitimate Iranian organization is endorsing this claim, but a Google search for references to it without "time machine" doesn't turn up anything. There is a "Center for Strategic Research," but that seems to be a foreign-policy think tank.
If you search for the original article's Farsi name for the center, which Google translates as "Inventors and innovators in strategic guidance center," you just get items about the time machine, including some expressing outrage that Western news outlets are picking up on this story.
So until I see evidence to the contrary, I'm going to assume that if this story is true at all, it's actually just about one obscure crank saying ridiculous things -- a phenomenon that is hardly unique to Iran.
Update: A second interview, translated here by Arash Karami of Al-Monitor makes clear that no one every actually claimed to have invented a time machine, just an "a kind of agent-based modeling program that would predict an outcome given a set a of circumstances or situations."
Even that claim seems a lot more dodgy the more we learn about Razeghi -- or is it Zareghi?:
Zareghi also wouldn’t answer questions about his education background. When asked he said that he had “10 years of research history.” When pressed two more times about his degree, Zareghi finally said, “Education has nothing to do with this issue.”
As far as his “state-run Center for Strategic Inventions” that most Western media reported as the center of all of his research and 179 inventions, it’s a private company run by Zareghi himself. He said that he has registered his “time machine” with his own company but has not yet taken it to official government agencies for registration or approval.
Scotland is currently gearing up for an independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, 2014. If it passes, independence advocates hope the country could become the world's newest nation as soon as 2016.
First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, is in Washington this week both to celebrate Scotland Week and to share his vision of what an independent Scotland would look like with American audiences -- including on Capitol Hill.
Of course, the timing of his visit also coincided with the death of Margaret Thatcher, whose policies -- notably the flat-rate "poll tax" passed in 1988 -- were particularly unpopular in Scotland. Salmond was a member of the U.K. Parliament at the time, and in a speech at the Brookings Institution today he discussed the unintended galvanizing effect Thatcher had on the movement that led to the convening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, as well as next year's referendum:
As an unintended consequence of some of her policies, she accelerated a move toward a Scottish Parliament. She managed to alienate a full spectrum of Scottish society.
A very interesting thing happened one weekend back in '88, when Prime Minister Thatcher went to the Scottish Cup final between Dundee United and Celtic -- or Celtic and Dundee United depending on your point of view -- but the point about it is that both sides' fans held up red cards as Prime Minister Thatcher presented the cup. Football fans are not always known for joining together, so it was a very effective demonstration.
The same weekend, the prime minister went to deliver a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on The Mound -- it became known as the Sermon on The Mound -- and she argued that Christianity should be about individual redemption and not at all about social progress or social campaigns. This came as something of a surprise to the elders of the Church of Scotland who were engaged in debating exactly such social campaigns and then presented the prime minister with the reports on poverty and housing which they just passed.
The following Tuesday, as a young impudent whippersnapper member of parliament in the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Questions, I asked the prime minister to remind the House of the captain of Celtic's name, to whom she had presented the cup, and the name of the moderator of the General Assembly. She didn't think that was a very good question.
The point is, that was a huge sway for Scottish society. I opposed Margaret Thatcher's economic policies, I thought they were mistaken. But I've always held the belief that the reason Margaret Thatcher had the political effect she did in Scotland was about the social direction of her policies. [It was] exemplified in the poll tax but also in a range of other statements such as, "There's no such thing as society. There are only individuals," which ran counter to a collective consciousness of Scotland. What is that collective consciousness if it's not a national consciousness?...
It was indeed an unintentional effect. I think it genuinely puzzled her. I suspect what she was running across was a different national consciousness. The poll tax wasn't just unpopular in Scotland, but it didn't have the same political effect because in Scotland it represented a wider social agenda that people found impossible to accept. Therefore, I quite freely say that she did accelerate the move toward a Scottish parliament because people no longer saw the parliament as a nice idea. They saw it as something essential to protect the social fabric of the country.
In his speech, Salmond discussed the role he foresees an independent Scotland playing in the international system. The SNP's position is that Scotland would continue to be an EU member upon independence -- the EU is a bit more ambivalent on this point -- but would likely continue to use the pound. Salmond also believes his country should join NATO, though he would like to see the U.K.'s Trident Nuclear System removed from its current location on the west coast of Scotland.
The nuclear issue has loomed large in the independence debate, with Prime Minister David Cameron -- who opposes independence -- visiting Scotland last week to tour a nuclear submarine, touting Trident's importance as a deterrent to North Korea and Iran.
Salmond dismissed the idea that nukes in Scotland have any impact on North Korea, and in a brief interview with me after the speech, lamented Cameron's refusal to debate him face to face:
The case of the Union should be presented in its full honest face. That is the prime minister of the United Kingdom whose policy framework determines what happens over many key areas of Scottlish life. He is the face of the bedroom tax. He is the face of social inequality. He is the face of the lack of success, of frustrating Scotland's economic potential. He is the face of the Union and therefore should be prepared to debate openly with me on television in the run-up to this referendum.
That's the debate the country wants to see. It's one thing to sail up the River Clyde in a nuclear submarine. It's another thing to walk into a television studio and debate with the leader of the independence movement why he doesn't think Scotland should be an independent country. I'll tell him the reasons why it should. Then people can decide which face they like better....
He has chosen to sail in, nuclear-clad, to tell us why should remain under London control. So he has abandoned his high ground of disinterest and decided to get in there swinging. Once you've done that you can't avoid a debate. He's going to get dragged kicking and screaming into a television studio where we can have this out.
I also asked Salmond why, when the open borders and common market of the European Union would seem to diminish the importance of nationalism, secessionist movements appear to be stronger than ever, in Catalonia and Belgium as well as in Scotland:
The problems that small countries used to face in the world used to be two things: your territory under threat from aggression and secondly, access to international marketplaces. Both of these tended to push people toward larger countries or larger trading blocs. Both of these in the Western world have gone.... The disadvantages of smallness have disappeared.
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images
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