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Man finds his way home using Google Earth - after 25 years (themercury.com.au)
275 points by pkuhad on March 14, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 67 comments

While I love the story, I think the headline gives too much credit to Google Earth. He was able to find his home by joining a Facebook group and asking people. Yes, he used Google Earth to find the town; but he was able to find his way home only by emailing people.

Regardless, it's a great story. Whenever technology (be it Google Earth, or Facebook) makes such a positive impact on someone's life, I find it uplifting.

And specifically an application used to view satellite imagery, rather than the company that produced the imagery. They might as well credit Internet Explorer instead of Facebook. Taken to an extreme, they could have credited Windows XP for the reunion.

Somehow Google Earth is often credited for anything involving satellite imagery. He probably actually used Google Maps.

I don't what your problem with the article is (both of you). To me it appears that he searched for the town most of the ten years. Once he found out what the name of the town was, the rest was easy. He might as well have flown there and asked around. Also Google Earth did not invent satellite imagery, nor did Google produce it, but it made it accessible for the broad public. This is why Google Earth gets so much credit.

It does not make sense to credit Windows XP nor Internet Explorer, because he might as well have used Firefox on a Mac. But it does make sense to credit the advance of computer technology in general. And I think to a degree that is the subtext of the article.

ISTR Microsoft making satellite imagery available on the web long before Google did.

Can't remember the name of it now though. It seemed mostly like an embarrassingly parallel benchmark designed to make a success story for SQL server.

Here we go: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Research_Maps Microsoft Terraserver since June 1998.

> Somehow Google Earth is often credited for anything involving satellite imagery. He probably actually used Google Maps.

I doubt that without Google's effort, this very valuable database of satellite and aerial photography would be available to everyone.

It is more akin to crediting a library for its content : it did not write it, but gave you access to it.

There was the Terraserver (not terraserver.com) long before Google Maps/Earth.

If I recall correctly, this was a paid service, no ?

NASA has actually put together a beautiful product, that I think is even more beautiful than Google Earth



But it happened several years after Google Earth. They would never have done that otherwise.

It sounds like he used a combination of Arial footage and street views to locate the town. Having located it he could have traveled there or even called, but instead use other services to talk to people in the area. So, IMO it really was Google street views coupled with maps that let him find the place.

PS: He remembered the Khandwa train station and surrounding area not a street name and not what the area looked like from space.

@sausax, no need to think whether Google have street views (note not Streetview) in India - http://maps.google.com/maps?client=ubuntu&channel=fs&... is an image of Khandwa station on Google. IIRC Google Earth have used Panoramio (sp?) for location images for some time, longer than they've offered Streetview or indeed location views on Google Maps.

Any particular reason to chose Khandwa? (I am curious as I am from that town and it is not particularly well known)

Unless I made a mistake Khandwa is where the man was from and he tracked his family from a memory of the station there.

I don't think google has street view available in India.

If you did give credit to Google, one 25-year long query would really through off their average query times.

My OCD kicks in.

Where does this odd thing come at the end of the article? "The older brother who accompanied Mr Brierley on the train ride was found dead on railway tracks."

Earlier in the article, it was written that Saroo boarded the train after he got lost. No mention of older brother, which made me think he was alone.

Third paragraph of the story: "Mr Brierley, at the age of five, was begging at a train station in west India with his older brother."

Although the article does fail to mention him again until mentioning his death, which seems to warrant more explanation than "guy died on some railway tracks."

Yeah, that sentence stuck out to me too. The way it's worded and positioned seems to make it very random and cold, when compared to the rest of the article.

I think that comes from the "inverted pyramid" style of writing that journalists typically use. Most important stuff first, filler at the end.

That's exactly what happened. Writers are taught to put the least important parts at the end, so that the editors know what to cut when trying to reach word count targets. When several standalone sentences are written (like here), editors are supposed to know that they can move that sentence to a more appropriate place, or cut out those that don't go well together. Think of it like a 'filler sentences' bank that the writer provides for the editor who will end up rewriting the end of the story.

This here is just an example of very shoddy editing.

think it's less about the writting method and more about the priorization

Mr Brierley, at the age of five, was begging at a train station in west India with his older brother.

He got separated from his brother and subsequently got lost.

I thought so too. But then why is it written that his older brother accompanied him on the train ride. Yes, I have OCD. "The older brother who accompanied Mr Brierley on the train ride was found dead on railway tracks."

There were two train rides, one to go beg, and then one to head back home. The brother accompanied on the first.

I think this is right. Also, it's quite sad to consider the older brother's fate. After he lost his little brother, he may have spent the remainder of his life searching around the train station for him.

Other writeup of the story has the same mistake. First "he is separated from his brother and boards a train", later "the brother was accompanying him on the train ride".


Given the tendancy of Indian rail lines to be overloaded (and for beggars and hobos to hang on the outside of trains or on the roof/undercarriage), is it possible both are true? That he was seperated from his brother, but both somehow got on the same train and his brother 'fell off' somewhere along the way?

Pure speculation, but it might put your OCD at ease.


Also fuck poverty. I hope we can wipe poverty off the earth soon.

I hope we can wipe poverty off the earth soon.

Most of the industrialized world can be said to have done that.

Western Europe, Japan, probably Canada too. It is easy* and requires only low levels of corruption, good law and order, combined with mostly free markets. Wealth in terms of natural resources is NOT a requirement, Switzerland is resource wise very poor. (Unless you count scenic views of the Alps as a resource.)

*When I say easy, I mean possible and requires only changes in human behavior - so super hard in fact.

> Wealth in terms of natural resources is NOT a requirement, Switzerland is resource wise very poor.

Consider the "curse of oil." Abundant natural resources may make uplifting the wider society difficult. Compare the Middle East with Japan.

So that theory would imply that if we compare the Middle East with Japan before 1900 when oil became an important resource we should expect ... what?

I suspect it may also require the systematic exploitation of the remainder of the world through aggressive pursuit of unfair trade agreements and projection of military force abroad, but I may be wrong.

Also: the help of a larger, richer friend overseas who is much less concerned with equality.

It is true the OECD countries are currently bending the developing world over backwards. But this does not mean that the OECD needs that kind of advantage. We might not be as rich without it, but we would still be quite rich.

Also there's very little military projection from the Scandinavian countries for example.

And I am not sure how the overseas friend helps? If you look at median (not average) GDP per capita, the US is actually less wealthy than many European countries. Plus, in terms of trade with Europe, the US is as much a competitor and exporter as it is an importer.

So I'd say Western European or Scandinavian style prosperity is definitely possible without UK style ex-colonialism, or US style inequality and military projectionism.

You make some good points. I figured that US involvement probably has a hand in ensuring us a steady supply of fairly low priced oil, but you're right that other factors may counteract this.

Honestly, it seems so hard to imagine a 20th Century without US influence that it may not even be worth the effort.

Well the US military involvement does mean it gets some of the lowest priced oil. What's the price of a gallon of gasoline up to in Europe now, $9 or something? I think most of the time it is something like triple what the US pays.

And yet that has not crippled the European economies when it comes to trade with the US. European cars are more gasoline efficient, and Europeans live closer together (although this may largely also be due to historic reason long predating the automobile).

And I think the fear that oil might be radically more expensive for everyone, unless someone ensures it keeps flowing, is unfounded. If oil is valuable - people will look to sell it.

Didn't certain groups in Iraq partly fund themselves by exporting oil in pickup trucks? That's what I mean. Even if an oil exporting area turns to complete and utter chaos, strong men will arise and they will look to get rich by selling oil. And how long could the oil exporting states maintain their quality of life without massive oil exports?

I think you'd have to actively fight to prevent oil from trading rather than the other way around.

But it is also true that Europe might look radically different if the US had not pushed for democracy in the west.

That's what's really so depressing about the US and the rest of the world slowly sliding towards more and more authoritarianism. Who will be guiding beacon of freedom in the coming centuries? Switzerland is not big enough to strong arm anyone into being more democratic.

I'd argue that European gasoline is more expensive purely because European gasoline taxes are higher - the underlying commodity has a similar cost. European governments benefit from being able to charge higher taxes on fuel because US foreign policy helps keeps the oil price down. Thus, they're indebted to the US, which the US knows.

But yeah - I agree. Authoritarianism is definitely not the way to a prosperous world.

+1 great comment, but I think you meant "Eastern Europe".

since he included Canada and Japan, I'm assuming he meant Western Europe.

> I hope we can wipe poverty off the earth soon.

Define poverty.

If you define it as having much less money than everyone else around you then it's impossible to ever get rid of it. Someone will always have less money. Someone will always have fewer skill and have the poorer jobs.

However, if you define poverty as not having the basics, then we are well on the way to getting rid of it already.

Another few doublings of our energy usage should do it. (Energy usage = resources available, which means everyone has those resources.)

There's something to be said for trying not necessarily to get rid of economic inequality completely, but at least significantly lower it: http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html

I agree with your cry of anguish (esp. reading about the older brother and seeing the pained expression on his mum's face). Yet, this may be impossible because of our humanity, as Agent Smith puts it:

"Have you ever stood and stared at it? Marveled at its beauty, its genius? Billions of people just living out their lives, oblivious. Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program, entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering."

Impressive - how many people have concrete enough memories from that age? I have maybe one I could use to locate somewhere, but otherwise that age is lost to me.

I can't help but think that at five years old I could have told anyone that I lived in Oxford, and therefore wouldn't need to remember what it looked like to find my way back there 25 years later.

Am I wrong about the ability of five year olds?

Many places in India don't have definitive addresses. They tend to be relative, such as "across from the train station." And I suspect that when you live in the slums and are begging at the age of five, your world is quite small -- the chances that you might leave town on a trip or know someone who's not from the same area are slim. So you likely don't need to know, much less practice, the name of your town.

Not at all. When I went to school at age 6, I knew which busses to take, knew the names of the stops that were relevant to me (and after a few weeks the name of all the bust stops in between), and my parent's address and phone number. And I grew up rather sheltered, in comparison to Indian slum inhabitants.

Granted, one year can make quite a difference at that age, I'm sure I at least know the name of the town and which quarter I lived in.

My daughter knew her City and street address at 2.75 years, but then, that's just because we taught it to her as a fun game, not something she picked up organically. Whether should would recall when in a scary environment separated from her family is another thing entirely.

Most likely his memories are so vivid because he got lost. Our brain remembers that kind of situations way better.

Plus his life was pretty tough. He might have some rather traumatic memories from that first town where he lived in. Life of a beggar aint that comfortable.

I remember the town I lived in when I was 4 years old vividly. In my case it wouldn't help much because it's been turned into a resort community and everything has changed. I sure hope Google Earth is archiving snap shots over time so people can look back and watch how the world transformed.

My memories before 4 were a blur, but my daughter remembers falling off a Big Wheel and breaking her front tooth when she was 1-1/2. She's 17 now but she can even tell you what outfits she and her best friend were wearing that day. Some people just have sharp memories of their early childhood.

An old family friend of mine has studied a fair few things in this area and his opinion (I'm not sure if this was based on his studies or if it's just a related area) is that people cannot remember anything from that age.

The logic here is that if you are reminded of things your brain can think you remember them. This doesn't just mean that someone can say "when you were 2 x happened" and you suddenly think "I remember x!", it means that, if for example you heard the story when you were 5, a decade later that story might now feel like a memory of the incident itself.

I can't remember exactly what age he said the cut-off was, I think it was 3ish - and I don't honestly know if this is a well-educated opinion or a proven fact, but it's definitely an opinion I'm inclined to believe, both for it sounding reasonable and for the credibility of the person who explained it to me.


Just looked up his current job, as it's been a few years since I've spoken to him. He's currently a tenured (that bit I remembered!) Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney, and his bio page says his specialist areas include:

  - Emotional Development and Social Cognition in Infancy and Early Childhood
  - Individual Differences in Children's Socio-Cognitive Development
  - The Inter-Generational Transmission of Social Fears
  - Attachment and the 'Internal Working Model' Construct
  - Children's Theory of Mind and Folk-Psychological Understanding
By directly referencing him I hope I haven't mis-represented him too much, I'm sure there are inaccuracies in my memory of the conversations we had about it, but I'm confident the gist is correct.

My opinion is that this is probably what is happening when people claim to have many clear memories from a very young age, though I dare not suggest it since they tend to take offense at having their reality challenged and I don't have data to back up my suspicion. The correct term for this is "confabulation" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confabulation) and is related to "false memory" and "source amnesia".

I'm sure most people have a few legitimate clear memories (the single one I have is indeed of a traumatic, though amusing, event) of the 4-6 age range, and of course you have your savants; it's the unusual number of people who claim to vividly recall their youth pre-3 to 4 years of age who I'm skeptical of.

To use technology apologies, the thing is that memory is not a video recording. It is constantly actively maintain reformed in your brain every time you recall it. Some research has shown that a long term memory can be destroyed by inducing minor amnesia at the moment of recall, while many diseases can catastrophically damage brain and memory without harming long term memories. It is very similar in some sense to maintaining hot backups of database data, which can be corrupted by writing bad data over the backups, or messing up during restore.

A 20 year old real memory is not a recording that you have carefully preserved. It is more like a a clarisworks document on a floppy disk that you copied to a wordperfect doc on a hard drive, then to a word doc on a CD, then to Google docs, and each time you copy it you have any to reconstruct some lost details. Rehearing and retelling the memory is critical. As such, the actual different in constructing a real memory vs false memory diminishes to kill over time.

I just spoke to my mum who happens to be writing him a letter and is going to ask about it to get clarification - though it will be too late for this thread.

She also thought she remembered him saying 3 years old, so 4-6yo memories are perfectly feasible, and I think most people have them. I have loads.

If you set up your questions in the right way, you can make people remember to have seen Bugs Bunny on a Disneyland visit: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/06/010612065657.ht...

> The logic here is that if you are reminded of things your brain can think you remember them. This doesn't just mean that someone can say "when you were 2 x happened" and you suddenly think "I remember x!", it means that, if for example you heard the story when you were 5, a decade later that story might now feel like a memory of the incident itself.

I don't intend to make this a political discussion, but something similar appears to have happened to Mitt Romney recently:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/27/mitt-romney-remembe... (warning, autoplay video)

While this was, of course, widely interpreted as Mitt making up a story to play to the crowd, it seems a much more charitable interpretation is that he heard about the Golden Jubilee so often as a child that he internalized the memory.

I watched the video and came to the conclusion that is exactly what his spokesman's official statement was:

> "Mitt doesn’t say he was there," said the aide. "In fact, he says his memory was foggy, he 'thinks' his dad had a job there and that he was “probably 4 or something like that.” He was simply telling the story about his dad."

(And to your point about not being political - I'm an Obama fan, and I extremely dislike Romney, so I think my opinion that the HuffPo piece you linked is a load of bollocks isn't motivated by my politics!)

And something similar happened to Jon Hamm (Madmen) recently too (claiming to have played catch with Roger Clemens when Clemens had already graduated from this schol).


I could.

I surprised my parents some while back when we discovered I could remember the full address and phone number of a house we left when I was 5.5 and they couldn't. I found it again pretty easily when I was at university not that far away, along with my school and church. I'm pretty sure I could find our regular shops from then as well. There are occasional details of life from around then that I remind them about.

Kids remember more than you'd think, and tend to get home details drummed into them by parents in case they get lost.

In my 30s, I successfully drove to and found the house that my family moved out of before I turned 2. I haven't been in it since we moved, but I could still draw you the floorplan today.

I've never considered myself to have a particularly good memory, so I don't doubt that anybody else would have an issue doing the same thing.

You may not have a good memory in general, but I think you have exceptionally good early memories. I can't remember a single room of the house I left when I was four.

I can remember the shape of the wheels on my crawl-a-gator and the jumping seat that hung from the door frame.

Let me see if I can find a picture.. yep that's it http://daddytypes.com/2009/02/12/brother_can_you_spare_a_cra...

It sounds like this poor kid spent a lot of time on the streets, literally. It's not surprising to me that he was able to recognize it later.

Yet another example of how hard it is to predict how a product/technology will be used or what societal benefits/detriments it might provide.

Vow, first i thought this is the plot from a bollywood movie.

There has been too many. But Bollywood doesn't need billions of dollars worth technology to reunite families! We have (a)fate and (b)a song that the families sing and dance to in happy days(kids are young, they learn fast). Decades later, due to fate family gets placed into a 1 mile radius, and the kinship-proximity sensor gene trigger the release happiness hormones which in turn makes the family members break into song and dance. Technology is catching up it seems ...

> Mr Brierley said his mother told him of how they had searched endlessly for him after he went missing and saw fortune-tellers who told them they would one day be reunited.

Hah. I bet they did.

Good to see that google is finally running an efficient PR department :-)

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