The Critical Question of the Campaign: Palin/Putin edition

A while back, in this post, I committed a reductio ad absurdum by asking just what of Russia Sarah Palin could see from just where in Alaska.

That post triggered a happy reaction in the mind of my old friend, Michael Kosowsky, who, among many other attributes, possesses a quality common in his adopted home state of Maine, in that he likes to build cool stuff himself.

In this case, Michael is the author and mastermind behind — a lovely software tool/website, now usable within Google Earth as well.  The idea for the site came to him whilst hiking near his home in the Camden area.  He was looking across at some hills, and, looking at one peak, wondered to himself, “hey — what’s that?”

The result is a website and set of tools that now allow the user to figure out what they can see from any point in the US (and in beta form for the rest of the world), to study paths through geography, maplets that model contours and implications of sea level rise, among other functions and so on.  Details here.

So, when I did a rough search through web resources to find out just what points in Alaska had Russia in their sights, Michael decided to take my simple-minded survey and turn it rigorous.  The result is this new tool, Hey What’s That Alaska, which takes actual geographical data and performs the calculations needed to determine from whence you can see what.

His results?  I got it a bit wrong.  There are a couple of places on the mainland of Alaska from which it is possible to glimpse Putin’s place — they are mountaintops in the back of the beyond, but they are, I guess, slightly more accessible than Little Diomede (though probably not St. Lawrence Island, which does have some kind of air service from Nome, meaning the amount of back country hiking needed to peer across the fog at some dim grey rock-bound shoreline would be slightly more under control).

So when Governor Palin returns home to continue her lonely watch, constantly vigilant against the looming threat from across the Bering Strait — she has a couple more places on which she also can serve, standing and waiting through the night.  Or something.

But check out Hey What’s That.  It’s a truly wonderful time sink, and an increasingly useful, multiplatform tool, put together by one of the true good guys.

Also — for those of you who like such things, below the jump you’ll find Michael’s technical explanation for what his Alaska/Russia applet is doing:


Putting the Alaska-Russia visbility analysis together
required two things.  First, data.  I’ve been relying solely
on SRTM elevation data, which runs from latitude 54S to 60N
and doesn’t quite get us as far north as Anchorage.  So I
grabbed all I could of Alaska from the USGS National
Elevation Dataset via the Seamless Data Server.  And please note that I haven’t
yet fully integrated that data, so while you can accurately
run the mountain peak/visibility computations for Alaska,
the contours and profiles for that state will still be based
on much lower (SRTM 30″ derived from GTOPO30) resolution
data for the time being.

Second, to actually try every high point in Alaska to see if
Russia is visible would take a long time at two minutes per
computation.  So I’ve implemented a quick and dirty way to
estimate where two regions can see each other: divide Russia
and Alaska into rectangles, look pairwise between the
highpoints of all those rectangles, and ignoring any
intervening terrain, determine if they can they see each
other.  This will generate lots of false positives, e.g.
this analysis would tell you that Vermont is quite visible
from Maine because it doesn’t take into account the
intervening White Mountains.  But it does set an outer limit
— the purple line on the above-referenced site — and in
this case generated a small set of candidates I could then
look at more closely with the longer computation.

This could be applied to any pair of regions; this graphic

for example, shows the parts of Georgia (red) and Alabama
(crimson) that might be able to see each other. Again, we’re
not taking into account any intervening terrain, so you’d
have to check individual locations by computing panoramas
under the “New Panorama” tab at

I haven’t put a web interface on this — i.e. let you draw
two arbitrary areas on the map, click, and see colored
regions representing mutually visible spots — because I
can’t think of any useful applications for it.  If you can,
please get in touch …

Explore posts in the same categories: Cool Tech, geography, Mental Health Break, Palin, political follies, ridicule, Snark, Technology

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One Comment on “The Critical Question of the Campaign: Palin/Putin edition”

  1. Reductio ad absurdum of a McCain-Palin talking point is like falling out of a boat and succeeding at hitting water, but it’s great to see that you provoked Michael to provide a definitive answer.

    I do think Dr. Seuss already spoofed this particular Palin talking point in “The Big Brag”. However, since life imitates art at least in children’s lit, I expect Palin now to claim that she can smell Russia from Anchorage, even if it’s not detectable from Juneau due to the presence of a few annoying Democrats.

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