GeoGuessr: Where in the (Googleable) world are you?

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."


Chávez propagandist in leaked recording: 'We are in a sea of shit, my friend'

The Venezuelan opposition on Monday released a recording of what it says is a conversation between Mario Silva, a prominent Venezuelan television host and a favorite of the late Hugo Chávez, and a Cuban intelligence officer, in which Silva details a feud within the government between Chávez loyalists and Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly.

In the conversation with Aramis Palacios, a lieutenant colonel in the G2, the Cuban intelligence agency, Silva, the host of the state television program "La Hojilla," describes a government deeply divided against itself, with rival factions competing for power amid rampant corruption.

The conversation was allegedly recorded for the benefit of Cuban President Raúl Castro, but its authenticity has not been independently verified. Writing on Twitter, Silva dismissed the recording as a Zionist plot.

Assuming that's not the case, set against the backdrop of the recent highly contested presidential election and Chávez's death, Silva sketches a portrait of a government in turmoil marred by high-level corruption, shares rumors of a coup d'état against President Nicolás Maduro, and says he fears that Maduro is being manipulated by his wife. Additionally, according to Silva, on election day the Venezuelan National Electoral Council was the victim of a cyberattack that brought down its security protocol for at least an hour, an allegation that would seem to further call into question the integrity of the vote.

The full audio (a transcript, in Spanish, is here) is available below:

Prior to being selected by Chávez as his heir apparent, Maduro engaged in a bitter power struggle with Cabello, and if Silva's account is correct, a great deal of tension remains between the two men. At one point, Silva, who might be described as the country's de facto propaganda minister, says that "Maduro is obligated to follow the path of el Comandante and is obligated to put Diosdado Cabello against the wall," a statement that is difficult to read as anything other than a suggestion to put Cabello before a firing squad.

But it's not entirely clear that Silva trusts Maduro either. "I am afraid, Palacios, that Nicolás ... is feeling manipulated by Cilia [his wife]," Silva tells the Cuban officer. "This is a continent of caudillos [strongmen], my friend, and the woman has to stay in the shade." Silva then compares Maduro's tendency to appear in public alongside his wife and to kiss her to the worst tendencies of an American poltician. "This isn't a North American campaign," he says. "This is a Latin American campaign." Elsewhere in the conversation, Silva wonders why Chávez didn't make a tape recording of his decision to anoint Maduro as his successor.

Although Chávez used the armed forces to consolidate his power, according to Silva, the army is now divided, with some factions in favor of staging a coup. According to Silva, Maduro has managed to alienate Diego Molero, the country's defense minister, whom Silva describes as an "operator" and a "commando." The strained relationship resulted in rumors circulating in Caracas that Molero was about to launch a coup attempt, leading Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores, to dispatch Silva via intermediaries to find out if the rumours were true. They were not.

But for the man charged with selling the idea of the Bolivarian Revolution to the Venezuelan people, Silva speaks like a man who has become disillusioned with what has become of the government. He describes rampant corruption and officials dipping into public funds for their personal benefit. "We are in a sea of shit, my friend, and we have not yet realized it, Palacios," Silva says.

Despite the explosive nature of the conversation between Silva and Palacios -- never mind the crazy fact that he is having in-depth conversations with Cuban intelligence agents in the first place -- it is far from clear what repercussions this recording will have on the ground in Venezuela. Writing at Caracas Chronicles, Juan Nagel makes a compelling case that this recording may strip some of the revolutionary veneer off Maduro:

The important thing to keep in mind is that we are not the target audience for this recording.

Yes, we all knew that Cabello was a crook, Maduro a nincompoop, Silva a marxist Cuban mole, Rangel an evil power broker, and Flores a scheming Lady Macbeth. But the important thing is that rank-and-file chavistas … didn’t. Up until now, they have been immune from these facts because of the messenger.

Either way, take a moment to revel in the sweet irony of the fact that Chávez's favorite propagandist is now responsible for providing the most stinging critique to date of the Maduro government.