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New terms for sound recordings in Audubon Core

Ever since the immersive experience of the fantastic Biodiversity_Next conference 2019, I've been getting to grips with biodiversity data frameworks such as GBIF and TDWG. So I'm very pleased to tell you that I've been contributing to the Audubon Core standard, which is an open standard of vocabularies to be used when describing biodiversity multimedia. These standards help the world's collections and databases to talk to each other. It can enable some amazing stuff to happen, when the entire planet's evidence about animal and plant species can be treated almost as if it was one big dataset.

After community consultation we've just released an update to the Audubon Core Terms List which adds some terms that are very important for describing audio data. The terms added are:

  • sampleRate for the sample-rate of the digitised recording.
  • freqLow and freqHigh to specify the frequency range of the sound events captured in the recording.

Any audio experts reading this might find these rather unimpressive and basic metadata. But that's precisely the point - to add these basic and uncontroversial terms to the standard. I'm very happy with what seems to be the TDWG approach, which is to move forward by gradual consensus rather than over-engineering a standard in advance.

What can we do with this? Well, in the not-too-distant future I can imagine querying GBIF for all animal calls within a particular frequency band, or analysing frequency ranges globally to explore acoustic environmental correlations. We can't do this yet, but as these new terms get taken up it should happen.

These term additions came about primarily through joint efforts of me, Ed Baker, and Steve Baskauf - a TDWG expert who has guided us through the process very attentively. Plus, many people in the TDWG community who checked our work and gave input. Thank you!

I'd also like to acknowledge the Heidelberg Bioacoustics Symposium (Dec 2019) at which we had discussions with many different taxon experts on animal sound and how we can share it.

There are some presentation slides from the TDWG annual meeting, introducing the changes, and also looking forward to more detailed metadata that might be added in future (i.e. for sound-event annotations). We also proposed to import a term "dwc:individualCount", but we ran into some definitional issues so that will take a bit more time to resolve.

You can get involved in what happens next. Use TDWG standards such as Audubon Core to share your data. Get involved in the discussion about what else might be needed to share and aggregate bioacoustic datasets.

| Science |

RSEC journal special issue: Ecoacoustics and Biodiversity Monitoring

I'm extremely pleased to announce this publication, edited by Jérôme Sueur and myself: Ecoacoustics and Biodiversity Monitoring - a special issue in the journal "Remote Sensing in Ecology & Conservation".

It features 2 reviews and 6 original research articles, from research studies around the globe.

You can also read a brief introduction to the issue here on the RSEC blog.

| Science |

The plan has been wrong for at least a couple of months. Shut the damn pubs.

I just want to put some of this down for posterity - i.e. to remind myself in future, of what was obvious at the time.

  • "Shut the damn pubs," I've been thinking to myself for weeks. Saying it to friends too. Back in August, I think, the scientific advisors Chris Whitty and Graham Medley floated the idea that the pubs should shut in September to allow the schools and universities to come back with some level of reassurance, some help to restrict the spread of the virus. The idea didn't seem to catch on. It wasn't debated much in the media. Now, with the benefit of hindsight it's clear that the start of term would have been the IDEAL moment to put the pubs (and some other similar parts of that sector) into an autumn furlough. It would clearly need a furlough or some other financial support.

    The public messaging would have been clear - a straightforward cutoff that we can all understand. "You've had your summer in the beer gardens, now let's get the kids back to school". Much much easier to manage publicly.

    (Update: we now find that the science advisers were indeed officially in September suggesting shutting bars and restaurants)

    The current 10pm shutting of pubs and restaurants struck me as a useless compromise. People will have already been boozing, hanging around with strangers indoors. It's looking, at the moment, like it actually may be doing more harm than good, with people gathering in streets, supermarkets, homes. That's more than I'd expected. I wonder if people are making the most of their time before the expected imposition of even tougher restrictions.

  • The second wave of covid was clearly blooming BEFORE the schools and universities went back into their term. Given the time-lag in detection, and the fact that the wave was picking up approx 2 weeks beforehand anyway, it must have kicked off about a month before. It seems likely that one cause is people coming back from foreign holidays: a fairly high chance of bringing novel infections in. But maybe it's also just the gradual relaxation - of rules and of attitudes - that did it.

  • The union, UCU, was right. They had more insight than I did - I wasn't particularly committed as to whether universities should be trying to restart their academic year on-campus.

    (And we could see the financial problem facing universities: if they didn't offer some kind of "on-campus teaching and socialising" promise, the students might not come at all, which puts the universities into a massive financial loss. That could be handled by the big well-endowed universities, but for many of the more normal universities - like the one I work at - there's no big money pot in the background giving them strategic flexibility, they live on the balance of incoming and outgoing, and a bank loan facility to allow strategic investment.)

    But the union UCU spoke forcefully, saying that the teaching term should not go back on campus until it was clear how to do it safely. I did not foresee this horrible situation of students in accommodation lockdown and big discussions about whether to let them leave for Christmas. The union's position was the right one.

  • Should students get some money back? They've paid "normal" fees and are not getting a normal education. Well: the first thing to say is that university staff have been moving heaven and earth this summer to create, very rapidly, a seismic shift in how they do their teaching, making it possible to do blended or online as necessary, often completely reworking their courses. It's not me that moved heaven and earth - it's the lecturers and support staff, especially those teaching the big first-year courses. They are knackered. So. The "cost of education" has definitely not decreased. Frankly, students this year have received, unknowingly, hundreds of hours of added free labour from university staff busting a gut to get things in place. If the outcome is thought to be not good enough - because as we all know, it's the social, group-learning and extra-curricular side the students will be missing out on - then yes, it's worth compensating. I'm afraid it should be government-backed compensation, since the cost of teaching hasn't decreased, it's more like a furlough of students' in-person experience. So how about a per-university scheme that pairs lockdowns/go-homes with student compensation.

  • It beggars belief that the government was saying, in late August, "Now is the time" to go back physically to work, in offices and workplaces. They were doing this, as was obvious, mere weeks before the schools went back. Why not wait and make sure the schools get back OK? Why not let individuals and businesses make up their own minds? Sure, there are economic costs to staying remote, staying in furlough, etc. But the most reasonable way to go seems to lay off the government messaging for a moment - allow our collective intelligence to work out how to work sensibly and safely in the new era. Not to coerce people back into unsafe conditions. Not to give some bosses (and I have a couple of my friends' bosses in mind) the backing to force people back into face-to-face work that they personally feel unsafe doing.

| Politics |

How to schedule regular no-wifi time on a Linux laptop

I'm having problems focusing on my work. It's very difficult to avoid distractions.

One big distraction is something called the World Wide Web... well in my job the most difficult distraction is actually work email - there are lots of different things that distract attention by email. Email is great but it can so easily mean you have no focussed time at all.

I went on a time management course and realised that I should save at least one or two hours per day away from email. I've heard many times, people recommending "No email before noon" or suchlike. I can't imagine being able to go as far as that and also manage meetings etc, but at least I can defend some portion of time.

The problem is not just deciding to stay away from distractions. It's forcing yourself to do it.

I've found one way that helps me: forcing my laptop to be disconnected from the internet between 7am and 9am. It's not much - I mean, many people don't even consider work emails before 9am, though my daily pattern is a bit non-standard. Starting the day this way does help me focus, and make sure I've achieved at least one bit of thoughtful work most days.

Here's how I do it on my linux laptop. I couldn't find any reliable guides for it - I thought there'd be an easy command of some sort. But here's my way:

I tried a few options before this one, including commands that were supposed to auto-run whenever my laptop opened (to check the time and decide whether or not to enable wifi), but there were various problems getting that working, partly because there's a small delay in the "normal" wifi manager connecting, so it's hard to synchronise with that.

In the end I went for a rather brute-force approach: I used "cron" to ensure that once per minute, for every minute between 7am and 9am on a weekday, the "nmcli" command turns off my laptop's networking. Then at 9am it turns it on.

If you don't know cron or crontab, look it up, it's a really common way on linux to schedule commands.

# sudo crontab -e
# seems to need to be in sudo. Not sure why! Probably env vars.
0 9 * * 1-5 /usr/bin/nmcli networking on
* 7-8 * * 1-5 /usr/bin/nmcli networking off

You can see there's a "networking on" command and a "networking off" nmcli command. The numbers at the start of the line specify the day and time - for example "1-5" means Monday to Friday. And " 7-8" means to turn the networking off whenever the hour is 7 or 8, and whenever the minute is anything ("").

This method might seem a bit stupid (why not just turn wifi off once, rather than every 60 seconds?) but actually works very reliably, and has some handy side-effects. It is technically possible for the user (me) to turn wifi back on, and in practice there's often a temptation to do this. Sometimes there's even a good reason! But even if you do, cron will simply come along approx half a minute later and turn it off, meaning that the "rabbit hole" temptation of "oh I'll just check that one thing online" can't lead you off and away from your quiet time.

| IT |

Levantine aubergine pizza

This flavour combination was fabulous - the hot deep flavour of muhammara (from Turkey/Syria, so I'm told) and the herby zesty za'atar (ours is from Palestine) make a great complement to the classic taste of grilled aubergine. We're not from the Levant so don't take this as authentic, but this is evocative and quite easy.

Muhammara is a fiery dip, and mixing it with mascarpone (or similar) in a ratio os 1:2 gets the heat just right for this, in our opinion, though you may wish to tweak it! Serves 2 hungry eaters, takes about 30 minutes (aside from making the pizza dough, which is optional to do it yourself).

  • One 12" pizza base (we made a square one, using Jamie Oliver's recipe, with: 250g strong white bread flour; 160g warm water; 3g yeast; 1 flat tsp sugar; 1 flat tsp salt)
  • One medium aubergine
  • 120g mascarpone cheese (to veganise the recipe - use Oatly creme fraiche :)
  • 60g muhammara
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 flat tsp za'atar
  • 1 tsp fresh chopped parsley
  • 5 cherry tomatoes

Heat your oven to 200 C.

Put the pizza base out onto a lightly-floured baking tray. Mix the muhammara and mascarpone together, and spread this evenly over the pizza base, leaving the edges clear like you normally do with pizza.

Slice the aubergine in half down the middle, then slice thinly to make semicircle slices (about 3mm thick). In a bowl, toss the aubergine slices with 1 tbsp of the olive oil. Then lay them out nicely on the pizza, to make a scallop pattern - don't just pile them on, you want each aubergine piece exposed equally to the heat. You'll cover almost the whole pizza.

Sprinkle the za'atar evenly over the aubergine pieces, then drizzle the remaining olive oil evenly over the top. Put it in the oven for about 20 minutes, until it's looking lovely.

Chop the tomatoes into little quarters. Take the pizza out of the oven, and dot the tomato pieces all over, then also sprinkle the parsley over. Leave the pizza for a minute before eating! It's too hot, and also it's good for the tomatoes to take up some of the heat.

| recipes |

Why share your boring driving on Snapchat?

Snapchat lets people share little photos and videos with each other, mostly used to tell the story of their day. Snapchat also created a map where you can click around the world and drop in on anonymous little slices of life. Try it - it's an odd but absorbing thing.

There's one thing I noticed that I really don't understand. People posting funny comments, or snaps of the cocktail they've ordered, or just things they notice in the street - sure, I get it. The thing I don't get is... Why are hundreds and hundreds (at least) of people posting videos of the very boring road ahead of them as they drive?

Here are some I saw locally, in London:

And here are some from around the world:

These are NOT snaps of high-speed driving, or showing off about the car. (Not even doing something daft on a motorway.) They're NOT snaps while held at a red light or in a traffic queue. They're NOT about something funny/interesting outside the window, and usually no-one is talking, let alone talking to camera. There may be some music playing but it doesn't seem particularly about sharing music.

They are incredibly mundane. The driver is going along, driving with one hand, and basically showing us the road as they see it. It's boring. We can see the steering wheel and the backs of some other cars. It might be partly possible to work out what road they're on, but they're not seemingly doing it to share their exact location.

What I'm fascinated to understand is: WHY are they doing it?

Like I said - they are NOT showing off about speed, or car ownership, or friends, or jokes. Their mates are probably not impressed, or even interested, and don't seem to be commenting back and forth on each others' rides. Why bother?

(And, of course, why do something that's certainly illegal (in the UK as well as elsewhere), and known to be dangerous - and before you ask, yes I'm certain that it's the driver filming these, not a passenger (there are some passenger snaps, but many fewer; e.g. some taxi rides). But the moral outrage can come later. The primary thing I'm wondering is WHY BOTHER?

Now I'm well aware that people post all kinds of random shizzle on Snapchat - you can see it right there - and they're not all meant to be amazing. Snaps are often part of a "story", a collage of your day, and I guess these videos are part of the story perhaps of someone's night out. But why include all the boring bits? (These videos are not short - often multiple snaps in a sequence.)

One possibility is: Snapchat incentivises people to post many snaps, or to post frequently. It could alternatively be slightly more innocently that people develop a "habit" of posting snaps, but it seems odd to me they'd post pointless snaps without any incentive. Wouldn't they instead prefer to look at snaps, or post verbal callouts, or suchlike?

Can anyone enlighten me? What makes people post snaps like these?

| misc |

74 alcohol-free beers, ranked and rated

Back when I first tried alcohol-free beer, I only knew of one from Sainsbury's (not bad) and Becks Blue (meh) - little did we know that by 2020, there would be so many that it's hard to keep track of them all! There are many good ones but also a few …

| food |

Curried roast cauliflower with carrot coriander puree

This was a great dish making a centrepiece of the cauliflower with Indian spicing. I made it up based on something that looked nice on Masterchef. A notable non-cauliflower-lover gave it top marks so I'm sure you'll love it too.

Serves 2, takes about 50 minutes, plus extra time at …

| recipes |

Four amazing vegan ice-creams

It's official! Vegan ice-cream is now good.

Don't believe me? I don't mind, that means more for me :) But if you want my credentials: I'm not even a vegan and I think these ice-creams are great.

It's summer. There's a problem. You want ice cream, but the dairy industry produces …

| food |

UK covid response: If they were following the science...

The UK's response to Covid-19 is a national tragedy. It's not just a case of "bad luck": we had approx 2 weeks extra time than Italy in coming up with our response, and yet we somehow managed to achieve a higher number of Covid deaths, and even, a higher number …

| politics |

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