Google Earth and Other Goodies

May 2006

I don’t know about you, but whenever I think of the word “Google” I feel happy. It’s because Google just keeps giving me things I want — for free.

Most recently I really wanted a globe. I’d be reading about this or that corner of the Earth and I just wanted to see where it was in the world relative to everything else. I thought about buying a world map, but the Earth always gets so distorted when you flatten it.

So I thought of buying a globe. But I didn’t really want another object cluttering my life. Then, computer guy that I am, I realized that what I really would like would be a computer application that would let me see the Earth and rotate it, and let me zoom in and see particular areas at different resolutions.

Then I heard that Google Earth had become available for the Macintosh. I wasn’t sure what it was — maybe just another mapping application like Google Maps. But it was everything I had been ready to purchase, and so much more. It is, to be trite, awesome. And FREE!

The most amazing feature is one I hadn’t even thought of. You can, of course, do all that I described above. But you can also tilt the view so that you’re not just looking down at whatever area that interests you. You can tilt it up so that it’s if you’re flying in a plane across the landscape.

Like Google’s mapping application, it uses satellite imagery to show you the planet, with varying degrees of resolution. In some places, you can actually identify familiar buildings, such as the house you’re living in.

There are several dozen overlays, so you can just look at the Earth as it really is, for example, or you can overlay it with borders or roadmaps and dozens of other layers that you can select. They even include things such as restaurants, gas stations, and volcanoes.

Another really cool feature is that it’s linked to the National Geographic archives. There’s a layer that puts a tiny National Geographic icon on every location that National Geographic Magazine has featured, linking to articles, photos, and multimedia presentations.

You can use the Find feature to zoom around the planet to a particular location. And like Google Maps, Google Earth also offers driving directions.

The application requires a broadband Internet connection because as you zoom around the planet, it gets the data from the terabytes of information stored on Google’s servers.

Google Earth is all this and much more. Plus, there are commercial versions that offer even more features.

Somewhat more mundane but also awesome is Google Desktop. It’s not yet available for the Macintosh, but Macs recently got something similar called Spotlight. Now I see why people are excited about Google Desktop.

Again, it’s a free application that you download. You use it to search the entire contents of your computer for a particular word or phrase. It not only searches file names, but actually searches inside the files themselves.

A colleague recently needed contact information for someone I had communicated with via e-mail a couple years ago. I didn’t remember the person’s name, only the name of the web site. I told my colleague that it would take a while to find, because it would entail searching through archived e-mail stored on an external hard drive.

He suggested I do a search in Spotlight, since he was familiar with how well Google Desktop works for this. I didn’t think it would work because I rarely turn on that hard drive, and didn’t think that Spotlight would have indexed it. And I’d typically have to “switch users” to access the archives.

But I gave it a try anyway. It worked! In seconds I had the exact information he had wanted. Without this desktop search capability, it would have taken much longer, and even then I might not have found it.

And don’t forget Google Toolbar. This is another essential application. It puts a Google search window right into your web browser. You don’t have to first go to Google’s site in order to search.

Google Toolbar has other features, but the most useful is a popup ad blocker. Some browsers already have these features, but I don’t think Microsoft Internet Explorer does.

Oh darn. There was more to tell, but I’m out of space. Maybe in a future column. For more, check out www.google.com/intl/en/options.

© 2006 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen