Teabagger conspiracy theory fodder: Arabic on a Google Map of Alabama?
May 14, 2010 6:43 PM   Subscribe

Go to Google Maps and search for Montgomery, Alabama. Now look due northeast of the city, to an intersection between 2 highways, just above the Lagoon Park Golf Course. Do you see something that appears to be labeled in Arabic script? Can anyone who reads Arabic verify this, and if so, translate what it says?

In case you aren't seeing it, here is a screen capture from my monitor.

The weirdest thing is that I can zoom out at least 2 levels, and the Arabic-looking label is still there. But if I zoom in any further, the label disappears.
posted by Artifice_Eternity to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I noticed it too along with the weird zooming thing that you found. I don't read Arabic, so can't help you there.

The other strange thing is that Maxwell Air Force Base is labeled "Maxwell AFB" and "Maxwell Air Force Bace". The misspelling seems to persist when you zoom in.

Maybe someone is hacking google maps?
posted by elmay at 6:47 PM on May 14, 2010

It's a phonetic spelling of 'Madison'

No idea why it's not in English
posted by JV at 6:54 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, strange.

When I search "Madison, Alabama" I get a marker right on the spot where the Arabic appeared. Apparently it's the name of a town located there.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 6:58 PM on May 14, 2010

Maybe it's just one of those things cartographers do to make sure nobody's copying their maps...
posted by jozxyqk at 7:01 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I search "Madison, Alabama" I get a marker right on the spot where the Arabic appeared. Apparently it's the name of a town located there.

I don't think so. Madison, AL is a real town. But it's not in that little area above the golf course to the northeast of Montgomery. If you open a new window in your browser, go to Google Maps, and search for "Madison, AL," you'll see the real town. As you can see, it's in a totally different area -- 182 miles north of Montgomery.

FYI, Althouse just posted this (linking back here), so you might want to check in there a little later and see if anyone has come up with any ideas.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:08 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are a bunch of things like this -- always with a single Arabic phrase that disappears if you zoom in enough. This comment and this comment each have lists of several such locations. Some of those require zooming in one or twice to see the Arabic -- but, again, if you zoom in more than that, it goes away. (I am absolutely not vouching for the general content on either of those blogs -- just pointing out those lists to show that Montgomery/Madison isn't a lone instance.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:39 PM on May 14, 2010

The Arabic script can be found elsewhere on Google Maps. Here it is next to New Dorp on Staten Island.

I'd guess this is a bug in how google is looking up place names. For whatever reason the Arabic version gets called instead of the anglicized name.
posted by plastic_animals at 7:39 PM on May 14, 2010

I think plastic_animals is correct. Google maps is easily confused. It intermittantly insists on rendering place names in Ireland in Irish, which is really useless.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:08 PM on May 14, 2010

Best answer: It's a bug. When the primary place name isn't available, for whatever reason, an alternate name (irrelevant favorite example of an alternate name) is displayed instead. Arabic is usually the first alternate language, alphabetically, so that's the name that appears.

It's not terrorists.
posted by halogen at 8:09 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I get one of these here in Kitsap County. Really weirded me out, since this is about the least arabic place I can imagine. But the no-default, alphabetical-lookup bug seems totally plausible to me.
posted by Netzapper at 8:28 PM on May 14, 2010

Response by poster: Halogen, your explanation makes perfect sense.

But I just knew that this would be wingnut fodder when I discovered it.

It figures that a blog called "Creeping Sharia" would be all over this like white on a KKK robe.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 8:45 PM on May 14, 2010

Related: jessamyn has been tweeting about GMaps relocating her Vermont town to the middle of Lake Champlain. No Arabic in this bug, though.
posted by dhartung at 8:55 PM on May 14, 2010

I wonder if the fact that nearby "Maxwell Air Force Bace" is misspelled will be cause for similar concern.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:18 PM on May 14, 2010

Misspellings are common. Arabic text on an English-language map that disappears when you zoom in is not.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:05 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

The "Arabic is the default language when Google gets confused" thing rings true for me. A number of times Google Analytics has set my default language to Arabic when it freaks out. Considering the hundreds (if not tens of thousands) of sources that Google has collected and sorted to get the maps they have I'm surprised there isn't more wacky stuff going on.
posted by Ookseer at 11:17 PM on May 14, 2010

Misspellings are common. Arabic text on an English-language map that disappears when you zoom in is not.

Bugs are even more common. The text probably disappears because it's crowded out by the three number signs around the intersection. Must be some local business or other non-critical information that the algorithm considers less important than the road numbers for navigation purposes.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:28 AM on May 15, 2010

They confuse me everyday since for some godforsaken reason every street in Helsinki (Finland) is labelled in Swedish.
posted by infini at 2:46 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Halogen, your explanation makes perfect sense." "The 'Arabic is the default language when Google gets confused' thing rings true for me."

The title of this post rags on Tea Partiers, but commenters here are displaying a free-wheeling intuitive style of thinking that is actually the mode used in coming up with conspiracy theories. Where are you getting this feeling of "perfect sense" and what kind of truth bell have you got in your head and when does it ring? When you hear what you want to hear?

I tried Googling for some information about "default languages" and I couldn't find anything. It's bad to assume that some strange thing is evidence of an elaborate conspiracy, but it's also bad to grasp at a theory that turns it into nothing.

(Note: I'm Ann Althouse, whose blog is linked in one of the comments above. "Alizaria" is my Metafilter nickname from long before I started blogging.)
posted by Alizaria at 8:00 AM on May 15, 2010

This comment on the Althouse blog seems to be from someone who can actually read the arabic characters. It seems it says "Madison", the name of the area. If it's a sinister plot, it's a pretty dumb one.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:54 AM on May 15, 2010

Also, I suck at remembering earlier parts of the thread.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:56 AM on May 15, 2010

Response by poster: Alizaria/Ann: Do I feel that a technical bug is a more plausible explanation than a Google conspiracy to rename American locations with "Islamic" names? Yes, indeed I do.

But if you don't, you will find plenty of like-minded friends at America Speaks Ink and Creeping Sharia who agree with you.

The truth bell in my head does NOT ring when someone says that Arabic writing on a Google Map is "Islamic" and a sign of "creeping Sharia".

But again, your mileage may vary. And evidently does.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:35 PM on May 15, 2010

@Artifice. You're the first person in this thread to say "Islamic" or "creeping Sharia." I never offered any explanations like that. I only commented on the lack of evidence and logical thinking about the "bug" theory and how eagerly some people jumped to embrace it. I think that people are engaging in emotional thinking and that your response to me just now is another example of that. To me, you are doing something that is *like* the way conspiracy thinkers think even as you probably assume you are quite different (and better). I'm interested in the way people think and the leaps that they make. That's the subject I was trying to talk about. I wish you'd reread what I wrote and notice and maybe find it interesting too.
posted by Alizaria at 5:43 PM on May 15, 2010

There are three possible explanations for why a few locations in the U.S. have labels in Arabic:

1. Unintentional coding error (i.e. bug) by Google Maps programmers
2. Intentional, possibly nefarious, feature provided by Google Maps
3. Google Maps was hacked months, if not years, ago and has never bothered to fix their code

The last two explanations are far-fetched and very, very unlikely. That leaves programming error. The only people who can answer the question with any certainty are Google Maps programmers as they have access to the underlying code. While the answerers here don't have that code, many of us have some knowledge of programming, databases and mapping. Based on my experience I ventured that this is a bug. halogen's further explanation makes perfect sense to me. There is no "emotional thinking" in coming to this conclusion. It is the simplest, most straightforward, most logical conclusion based on the limited information available. If you've got an explanation that does a better job of explaining the problem than the solution already expressed then by all means put it forward.
posted by plastic_animals at 9:37 PM on May 15, 2010

Response by poster: Alizaria: I'm quoting the sites (linked repeatedly in this thread) that suggest a conspiratorial explanation. One of the sites is actually called "Creeping Sharia" and both of them refer to the Arabic labels as "Islamic".

Yes, I do emphatically believe my way of looking at this issue -- as being likely caused by a technical bug -- is different from, and superior to, theirs.

My main reason for viewing the bug explanation as probable is, in two words, Occam's Razor. Their beliefs appear to be fueled by free-floating paranoia.

I guessed from the start that there would be people who would view this oddity thru a paranoid Islamophobic filter. My guess proved to be correct.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:51 PM on May 15, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - please keep answers on topic and take side discussions to email, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:25 AM on May 16, 2010

« Older Chicago is a city with lots of deliveries, right?   |   What was the source of this disturbing Clowes... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.