The day started with birds; not a dawn chorus so much as a five-alarm dawn clatter. A herring gull has taken to dawn dancing on the flat roof of our bedroom, for the third annoying day in a row. Our neighbour has seen the bird looking in her windows but here, it sounds like it’s doing a pogo though more likely stripping off the roof felt. I might need to use a selfie stick to video the action just in case gull dancing is trending.
A grandson asked a question about the colour of a woodpecker’s beak. He’s five and the request came by a voice message during breakfast. There are a few Great Spotted or Pied Woodpeckers in the trees around his home and his Dad says they’ve stopped drumming recently so maybe that’s why beaks were on Master 5’s mind.
I replied ‘grey-black’ to the beak question and sent a supporting picture of the bird with a map of woodpecker distribution, taken as phone snaps from my Collins book The Birds of Britain and Europe that I bought in 1976. The map of Ireland was blank for woodpeckers because they hadn’t yet expanded over from the UK. I digressed for a while because the Birds book still has my handwritten lists of birds taped inside the covers. Plus notes about where I saw them as I twitched around Ireland between 1976 and 1978. It seems I peaked at 98 ‘firsts’ and never broke 100. Some of the maps have handwritten places and dates. I read of sighting my first Redpoll in Akista 18-6-76 and my first Dipper in Cong 17-4-77. Which also reminded me that I wrote with Rotring 0.25mm Rapidographs back then, tiny and permanent. I adapted to the use of technical pens both in cartography classes and contouring over pencilled lines on geology maps.
My serious twitching stopped when employment took me from the third world of Ireland to the warm world of the former Trucial States via a dreary world of an Aberdeen December. A year in Sharjah in a Uniting Emirates was fascinating place to be while across the water Iran underwent revolution. I was a tad isolated from home because of a postal strike that lasted over four months in support of a demand for a 30% wage increase. The birds were still interesting but work had to be the dominant life force for a while. About forty-something ‘whiles’ as it turned out.
My interest in birds never waned. I just think of them as special and I’ve bird watched wherever luck has taken me. Not serious twitching but binoculars did travel with me until I’d had a couple of confiscations. One old pair in Indonesia was demanded of me in reparations for my attempting to enter the country without any hassle. I wasn’t that fussed to hand-over glasses that had grown mould after a few monsoon seasons in Burma. And then, a few years later, on arrival in the Algerian Saharan oil town of Hassi Messaoud, a small pair were taken from me. I probably should have declared them. Either way, I got the impression I could keep my camera or my binoculars but not both. A few hours later I was aboard a DHC-6 Twin Otter heading towards In Salah, the hottest place on earth in July. The plane had several signs reminding us that aerial photography of the seas of sand was illegal. Which was weird because I was working with satellite images that didn’t seem to bother anyone. Not quite a weird as it got when the two Algerian guys who’d never flown before got sick. They didn’t know there was no aircon in a Tw’Otter. Their first flight was like riding a bucking bronco because of updrafts from the dunes. We couldn’t get high enough to clear the airborne sand so there was a feeling of very sweaty, very bumpy, brown claustrophobia. It got much more horrible when their sick bags burst onto the uncovered metal floor.
Another beep for the phone and encouraged by my woodpecker information, Master 5 asks about Purple Sandpipers. I’d just seen a record of my first sighting of them 26-12-77 when I was staying on an island for Christmas. I sent Master 5 a picture from the wonderful Bird Atlas 2007-2011 that I begged as a Christmas gift. The 2011 maps show the Great Spotted Woodpecker as resident around where Master 5 lives and if he goes down to the nearest coastline next winter, he’s likely to spot Purple Sandpipers overwintering.
And this was all before 9 am. Just before which I found a photo of my father on an apartment balcony using my binoculars to spot vultures above Nueva Andalucía in 1976.
A couple of things occurred to me over the next few hours after I learned about a friend who is being harassed by the authorities for expressing observations without the freedoms we take for granted. And chief among my concerns is that smartphone apps will become the spies in our pockets.
I plan to allow myself be traced for the good of my fellow citizens. Temporarily. It must be a very temporary app. And it must be utterly anonymous. All records must be machine forgettable. And all must be open and transparent. Doveryáy, no proveryáy.
About four years ago, I did a one hour lunchtime talk on machine learning for some of my colleagues. I used maps to illustrate that my colleagues had no idea of the information their tweets were giving away. I based my examples on maps of data from a huge anonymised data release, the Twitter ‘Decahose’ database. These were anonymised but georeferenced tweets from a one month period in 2012 destined for academic research and more. A whole world of tweets for a month. I trawled the data for an hour. I had found a tweet from a guy saying he was ‘leaving now’. I built my story seeded from this one tweet. Earlier and later tweets mentioned cycling. They were in Dutch and German and I used Google to translate them. Since they were georeferenced, I can tell you he was one of a group of cyclists either side of a country border in Europe who met at the same crossroads at the same time every Saturday. I could see where he tweeted from, his garden, the back of his house and what looked like a garage on the satellite imagery I was using in the map. I could see his mates’ homes. I could see and show that some guys didn’t come every Saturday that month. The data was sparse, I could only see the positions of their tweets. The data was collected 8 years ago and I told the story four years ago. Things can only have become worse (or better if you work the dark places).
By the way, I reminded my office colleagues that since everyone had a mobile with them during the talk, a disaster management team would be able to confirm who was in the room in the event of a disaster. What disaster asked one? Since we were under the flightpath to Heathrow, I decided the disaster scenario could be that a plane hit the conference room. The talk seemed to be well received, the message appeared to be understood. Except that a couple of folk took me aside over the next few days to ask if I really thought a plane might hit the building. I still think the clear and present danger remains in tweets rather than the aviation industry.
I think Da Vinci would agree that Mona Lisa won’t need a phone. She or her agents shouldn’t be able to trace everyone she enigmatically looks at. Nor should you be able to trace me in order to use a drone to deliver a latte to me as I walk The Wild Atlantic Way. No matter how much I want it.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?