Google Photos as a natural history resource.

Most of these photographs were taken on what turned out to be a life changing trip to Dartmoor in March 2016. The Potwell Inn didn’t exist; we’d been through retirement and a major family crisis when our second grandchild was born with a still undiagnosed genetic disorder; we’d moved from a large vicarage to a small flat in Bath and the allotment was yet to come. Christmas had been a write-off and we had taken ourselves off to St Ives in the campervan in search of some respite – in the dog days of the old year just as a major Atlantic storm reached the south west.

January 1st 2016 – a stupidly hubristic resolution

The key photograph here is the one of the (at the time) unidentified little seagull. We were leaning on the railings above the harbour just down from St Ives lifeboat station and watching the gulls when I realized that this gull was very different from some of the other gulls and I had no idea what species it was. I remember feeling faintly annoyed with myself and later that day we went into the bookshop and bought the first bird guide we’d ever owned. It was about then that quite the stupidest resolution I’ve ever made began to form in my head. I would not – I resolved – pass by any plant or animal, without naming it. The picture I took that day was completely hopeless in terms of identification, even with an 80mm lens there was no detail that had any significance so far as I could see. Just for the record I now know perfectly well that the dark smudge behind the bird’s ear is all that remains of the Black Headed Gulls’ distinctive summer plumage on December 29th.

Before we retired (i.e when we had a bit more money), I bought an iPhone and a Macbook. Madame had already settled into the Apple ecosystem because she was teaching photography at the time and it made sense for us to share resources. For the first time I owned a mobile that would add location data to the EXIF file. At roughly the same time I started keeping a private journal using Day One software and this integrated seamlessly between the iPhone, the Macbook and a big desktop. But it wasn’t so long before we came up against Apple’s policy of abandoning their products by making it impossible to upgrade the software. Day One suddenly stopped talking to my Macbook and when I complained I was told that it was my fault for not upgrading. We struggled on for several years, but applications like Photoshop and Lightroom were less and less easy to run on our aging machines and in any case their memory hogging features were far beyond my own needs. I was using Microsoft Windows for work and so we landed up in the worst of all worlds, moving photographs between incompatible software. Heaven knows how much data was lost; but in the end I began a long process of ditching Apple and moved as much data as I could find into Dropbox as a security for the future.

It was our oldest son who broke the impasse by giving me an old Pixel 3 phone after an upgrade and I started using Google Photos. To be honest there was nothing about the iPhone that I particularly missed, and when – a couple of years later – he gave me a basic HP Chromebook that he’d acquired during another upgrade, and after he helped me with a fast and pretty seamless setup and data transfer, I put my agonisingly slow Macbook on a shelf and started enjoying an entirely new and fast cloud-based ecosystem.

Anyway, to get back to the photographs at the top of this post, they represent something of a sea change. My ludicrous resolution to try to name things brought about a move towards much more purposeful photography. As my interest in plants moved up a step, I discovered that well composed photographs of plants I didn’t recognise, meant I didn’t have to dig them up and take them home which is at best inconsiderate and at worst illegal. It’s taken ever since to refine the technique so that I remember to photograph the sometimes apparently insignificant details that make the difference between a correct and a wrong identification.

None of this particularly mattered, of course, as long as I was the only person ever to see the record. But then, as I wrote in a post last week, I began sending them for verification by the local BSBI East Cornwall recorder – which is when it dawned on me that my photographs were more akin to archaeological compost than a filing system. Looking for old photos meant trawling through thousands of them in the hope of alighting upon the right one.

By now I’d got myself a powerful little Pixelbook and I was beginning to understand that the originally utilitarian Google Photos has a few new tricks up its sleeve. One of Google’s most useful – although much feared – attributes is its formidable artificial intelligence software. If you’ve ever used Google Lens on the phone you’ll know that. It can be a curse as well as a blessing – this morning I had an email from someone asking what was the launching fee at Percuil. We were on holiday for the last two weeks and I mentioned Percuil several times in the blog and the odd request must have flowed from a bit of AI that was too clever for its own good.

Google Photos uses AI to do a lot of basic sorting and indexing of photos behind the scenes; so I can search on months and years, faces and places. But last week I wanted to start indexing keywords like genera, species, English and Latin names and various other bits of searchable data. I’d contemplated using some third party software but after hours of searching I couldn’t find anything I liked better. Any records I’d submitted or had accepted would be somewhere in one of a number of vast external databases, but I wouldn’t be able to access them in a simple personal list.

So here’s the exciting thing. After a bit of experimentation it seems that contrary to what I read on the internet, I can do keyword searches on terms that I type into the “details” column at the head of all the EXIF data. The only downside is that the AI facilities remain in play, so a keyword search on primrose might yield a few lookalikes as well – not the end of the world in my view. My guess is that some of the AI used in Google Lens is already being built into Google Photos. The software connects seamlessly to WordPress, so I can use my photographs in this blog; and I can easily forward diagnostic photographs to the referees for acceptance.

When we go out plant hunting I take the phone with a macro lens so I can take the necessary photos. I’ve got stacks of useful apps on the phone as well, including OS mapping, accurate National Grid references, altitude, and shortcuts to the BSBI plant distribution database. I’ve also got iRecord, I Naturalist and a link to the local list of plants which I download as a PDF before leaving home. Google Lens is surprisingly helpful in steering me in the right direction but it’s not infallible. Of course I will take a book along with me but I always take photographs because I can use them with my library of plant books at leisure when I get home. It doesn’t always work, and I often have to go back, look more closely and take more photos in order to do a full ID.

The upshot is that the more of this kind of intense work I do, the more my plant ID skills improve. Typing details into the software drills the English and Latin names into my memory very effectively too. I think the take-home point is that while for some people, staggering across a bog with a large camera and tripod, an expensive GPS unit and a copy of Stace 4 weighing in at well over a kilogramme is the only way forward. But for my purposes I can get it all into a pocket without my trousers falling down. I take a 6″ ruler, I use my walking pole as a 1.5 metre measuring stick. I take a plastic zip bag, just in case; a Rite in the Rain waterproof notebook and a pen that writes on it underwater and upside down – who knows when that might be needed! a scalpel and a couple of hand lenses. Total weight around 500g.

Maybe I’ll be forced to eat my words one day, but this seems to me to be the simplest and cheapest way – it’s free – of creating a searchable, automatically backed up photographic database for plant recording. No good at all, of course for insects, mammals and birds because they all race around too far away for a phone camera. But my subjects stand still – unless it’s very windy – and best of all the photos escape the dangers of being lost forever in my fallible memory. What’s not to like?

Changing platforms

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I think that, in the manner of these things, the relationship was cooling for years. Me and Apple were an item, but when the relationship started Madame and me were both working full-time and we could (sort-of) afford it. There were moments I can remember when the chill started, like the day the Apple Store declared my laptop too old to mend, and I no longer fitted the customer profile they were after. They seemed to think I was too old and too hard up to bother with being polite to. A visit to the Apple Store started to seem like attending church, with young acolytes gliding effortlessly on an invisible field of moral superiority.  Uninvited updates to my phone would suddenly disable apps that I’d paid for; they fixed the software so that the phone would die, like one of the robots in Bladerunner, at the press of a button by the Tyrell Corporation, and they tried to charge me more than the phone was worth to replace the batteries. My laptop grew ever slower  as programmes grew more and more bloated with Bow bells and steamship whistles that I had no need of, and the desktop headed off into senility.  Indifference turned to hatred.  I wanted to stand in the middle of the store and shout “I just want an effing lead” so I could be escorted out by the ever smiling white robed security advisor. Then, in the summer – horror of horrors – I noticed that my son’s photos were much better than the ones I was taking on my iPhone 6. I had to do it secretly, but I started to back things up on the non-Apple cloud.

One thing led to another (how often have I heard that phrase as a parish priest!) and the parting began to be more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘whether?’ But it was the offer of my son’s old (not very old) Pixel phone that pushed me over the edge, and on Saturday we sat down together in Birmingham to seal the deal.

Normally I avoid platform changes because the idea scares me to death. That suits the major players who rather like scaring their captive customers to death at the thought of going somewhere else. And the scheming goes all the way down to street level – the Saturday handover failed to work due to some obscure security settings I could only access at home and so I naively brought the gift phone home and set out to buy a lead to connect it to my iPhone. However it seems that even independent phone repair shops have some kind of rule of ‘omerta’ going on regarding platform switching, and I’m still waiting for my son’s widget to arrive in the post.

I’m moving to Android – there, I’ve said it! I need a bail-out option as my Apple stuff gets older and the astronomical price of replacing them moves ever further out of reach  I’m moving because I’m hacked off with Apple products and I’m moving because the vast majority of writing I do lands up on this blog, and the Google products integrate almost seamlessly with WordPress as opposed to endless directory searches for photos. I’m content to have cut-down online versions of the clunky programmes whose features I never use. All that stands between me and the future is a mountain of accumulated data, contacts, emails and blather that I felt sure I might need ….  one day ……. maybe?

One of the surliest customers to deal with on the failed switch was contacts – way over 600 of them and so in the absence of the ‘moving-stuff-over’ widget, I thought I’d have a clear out after I moved them across manually.  This in itself had me frothing at the mouth with frustration as barriers were constantly thrust in my way.  This weeding is where it all gets a bit metaphysical, because although many contacts were no-brainers – like the suprisingly large number of deceased contacts – there were many others I remembered well, some even with affection. Highlighting them and pressing the ‘delete’ button became a much more serious, almost cathartic process. There was no hierarchy of usefulness or prospective gain in the selections.  Many of the names went back to activities that I was engaged in years ago – names and phone numbers of builders, suppliers of candles, BBC producers. Some were people who carved me up in some way – button pressing became a pleasure there; and some were left in because I remembered them fondly. Within a couple of hours I’d whittled them down to just over 200 in a list that looked like it truly belonged to me.  So I’m sorry Phil and all the rest, it was great but it’s over now and yes, it was Phil the funeral director I was dreaming about this morning when I woke up. He was running a wonderful butchers shop somewhere in France, and he invited us down to the local cafe for a drink. I couldn’t tell him that I’m not that person any more.  I can’t hack any more grief.

Next job will be to reduce my email providers down to one.  Now I’ve got the list of contacts sorted I’ll email them all and give them my one and only address. More clearing through the thickets, I think.  Big ticket programmes will have to go too, subscriptions ended so I can keep the ancient machines running for as long as possible – it’s all very exhilerating – this decluttering business.  And if you’re reading this you’re not among the fallen, I promise.

So tonight, I hope, will be switch-off day for the old phone. I’ll lie them together on the table – connected by the new lead – and with one click, the iPhone will say, in an electronic sort of way: –

All that I am I give to you and all that I have I share with you.

And the Pixel will say “thanks mate” and after a few quiet moments the corridors of the iPhone, once hectic with malware, spyware and foreign security agents clogging up the arteries will fall silent and I shall remove the SIM in the reverential way that Phil the funeral director would adopt for the the removal of pacemakers and other explosive devices from the deceased, and the screen will go dark.  Well that’s the theory at least. I fully expect a bit of tooth gnashing as well, and then onwards and – well – onwards, I suppose. I just want to write about borlotti beans and when the equpment gets in the way it can only end in tears.

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