This is it. I've been flirting with the World Wide Web for years now, finding ever more ingenious ways to waste cyber-time, and now I've hit the mother lode. Think of it as the pornography of geography, a live peep show, the naked Earth itself. Tune your browsers to www.terraserver.microsoft.com and buckle your seatbelts.
This clever site is a catalogue of satellite imagesof the Earth that can be magnified to the point where you can make out things as small as a meter across. That is, a kiddie pool or a car in a driveway. Though I'm sure the intent of the creators is to make money (like, duh--you see the "Microsoft" in the address, do you not?), you can have fun and waste time for free.
Though it is possible to order a quality reproduction suitable for framing in exchange for quality U.S. currency, the alternative, Web-potato way of doing it is to click on the map on the home page (images exist for the green-shaded areas only, including most of the United States, but only a tiny fraction of the rest of the world) and then settle in for a free virtual satelite tour, zooming down for a close look when the whim hits.
Click on the "advanced find" button and you have the option of putting in a place name instead of navigating on the map. Many names will come up blank, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. For instance, Vienna, Va., got no hits, but Reston did, and once you've clicked on Reston, you can navigate visually, using the major roads as landmarks just as if you were lost in a small plane, and two clicks later, you are in Vienna (a title above the sat photo will confirm).
There's something immensely and wonderfully weird about finding your own crossroads from about 100 miles up, and then clicking down, closer and closer, until, click!, there's your very own back yard, down to the tree. The highest-resolution image filling the screen is about a half-mile square, and you can navigate around the 'hood in quarter-mile increments--hey, I didn't know the Johansons' back yard was that big!--or you can travel to the little slice of northeastern France available on the server and marvel at the gloriously tidy jigsaw of farmland. When you see something you like, you can print or download the image for free.
My friend Gregg, a fanatical kayaker from Miami, used it to focus in on some previously hidden inlets and tidal pools in the mangroves near his home that didn't appear on any charts because they are considered nonnavigable. He navigated them just fine.
Or you can use it to help chart a road trip into unfamiliar territory, complete with landmarks that just don't appear on roadmaps, or, what the heck, zoom in on a certain address just to see what kind of spread the boss has.
Perhaps that last use is a little high on the creepometer, and it does give you pause to zoom down on that little strip of the Mall until the Capitol looms front and center, the tip of the statue of Freedom atop the dome quite visible. Or maybe I've just seen too many Tom Clancy movies.
--Tom Shroder, Vienna
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