I recently wrote about iNaturalist and a new update includes a powerful new feature I want to share.
Updating the app on June 29, I read the version notes and found the understated description above.
No fanfare, just “we now give you automatic suggestions”. Which makes sense, because the app is about user photos, and image recognition is the prototypical machine learning/AI application. However, 'universal' image recognition (determining that the subject of a photo is a car, as opposed to a tree) is notoriously much more difficult than specialized applications, such as facial recognition or identifying license plate numbers from images that all contain strings of known characters.
So I kept my expectations in check and tried the new feature. It is both shockingly good and absurdly fast. This interesting tech post about the feature indicates that it is using the TensorFlow open source Machine Intelligence framework from the 'Google Brain Team' and running on dedicated NVIDIA hardware. Even if you aren’t interested in sharing or contributing your photos for research, this app seems to be the ultimate, free, comprehensive field guide. Here is how it works:
I open the app and choose this photo of a flower from my phone as a new observation.
It knows where I took the photo from the geotag. I touch 'View Suggestions'. In a few seconds, it comes back with this:
It first tells me that it is pretty sure about the genus, which is pretty cool. It then gives me suggestions on the species and shows me which ones have been seen nearby, based on the geotag. I like the look of the first suggestion, so I touch for more info.
This shows me interesting field guide info and also lets me swipe more pictures. I can see close ups of the flowers and even compare the leaves of the plant so that I am sure whether or not this is my species.
So that’s pretty cool for flowers, but I’ve seen 'leaf matching' apps before, so let’s see how the same app does with insects and animals.
Wow. Not everything I try gets me an exact match in the first few gos, but I learn more, faster than I would searching in a book. You can even see a map of the country with observations, to see where each species has been seen before, to help narrow it down.
Up till now I’d been trying photos with fairly representative shapes, with the subject right in the middle. Let’s see how it does on one of the hard problems - a photo with lots of noise and a partial, off-center subject.
This level of image recognition may become commonplace soon, but for me, this still feels pretty magical. It adds a level of instant gratification to my hiking and nature photography, as long as my hiking companions don’t get sick of my stopping to photograph ants. Hopefully real-time recognition integrated into a display in my sunglasses will be out in time for Christmas, because, incredibly, it’s now just a matter of design and engineering before we see such products.
In a previous post, I declared Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco as the road trip's best ice cream. As it was pointed out to me by several Portland friends, this was foolishly premature. Portland has something of an attitude, in my opinion, about their craft food, and ice cream is no exception. From what we’ve seen, food creativity is sweeping the nation, but that’s not to say that Portland is not a great place to eat.
We tried several ice creameries in Portland. We went to Ruby Jewel with some friends who migrated to Portland from NYC and their kids. Their twin boys loved Ruby Jewel and it is a great place. One of their specialties is ice cream sandwiches made from any ice cream, a choice of fresh cookies and an interesting list of toppings onto which the edge of the sandwich can be rolled.
But the new champion is Salt & Straw, which has multiple locations, including California. Their Rhubarb Crumble with Toasted Anise reigns supreme. Imagine a really great rhubarb crumble from a restaurant, the crumbs buttery with a hint of salt. Now blend it into perfectly creamy vanilla with hints of toasty anise nibs.
The other flavors we tried were great too. Salt & Straw is also an early adopter of a brilliant sizing trend – they allow split scoops so that you can try more flavors in one cone. I ordered a whole scoop of Rhubarb Crumble on the bottom, topped with a split scoop of Honey Lavender (they soak the lavender in the cream) and Pear and Blue Cheese (incredible).
However, the line out of the door and the free tastings at Salt & Straw were out of control. I was told by another Portlandian that this is by design – they don’t want to streamline the process because the line out the door is free positive advertising. Fair enough, but it would be just as fair for someone to organize an ice cream strike until they institute a no tastings express line. Just don’t do it in July, because who could resist breaking the picket line for Meyer Lemon Buttermilk with Blueberries?
Every time we visit a busy National Park, I think about how many photos each of the hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, millions of annual visitors take. My guess is that it's on the order of 100. So that’s like 10 to 100 million photos per year, per park. And don’t say that the visitor count includes kids – they take photos these days.
Much less visited, photographed and blogged are many of the National Monuments. Chiricahua in Arizona, the subject of one of our previous posts, is just remote enough that vacationers don’t get there as often. Another is Dinosaur National Monument that straddles the Utah and Colorado border. It is sort of close to Yosemite and Grand Teton National Parks and also to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, but not close enough that you can easily swing by when you fly into those places for vacation.
I could write with praise about almost every long drive that we have done and most do have at least something spectacular to share. The fastest route from Grand Teton National Park to Dinosaur took us from Wyoming into Idaho, then Utah, and finally into Colorado. The highlight of this leg was the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. It was our first taste of Utah and the mesas, layers of salt, red and yellow rocks and canyon overlooks heralded things to come. We also saw a large but elusive animal that we’d been on the lookout for since at least Arizona:
The drive to Dinosaur was noteworthy in other ways. We planned on dry camping on free Bureau of Land Management land, so we had filled our fresh water tank with 10-12 gallons of water, which meant our Keystone Bullet trailer was a heavier load than usual. The route plan was also one of our longest, close to seven hours – a long tow for a certain cat. So when we finally got to the turn at the visitor center for the southeast entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, we were anxious to see what this ‘off the grid’ location was like and set up.
It was 12 miles, almost all uphill to the site. About six miles in, The Beast flashed a light and a message indicating a tire pressure sensor fault. We had seen this come and go many times and I’ve discussed it with my mechanic cousin Jay, so we weren’t worried. About a mile later, another beep. I looked down to see a message I hadn’t seen before: Reduced Power.
The truck then proceeded to behave like a four cylinder. Going uphill, towing our heaviest load, I couldn’t get it over 10 MPH. We had no cell phone service to google the message or call anyone. We couldn’t turn the rig around on the road, because the mountain desert roadside dropped away quickly from the edges of the pavement. So, we limped it up the hill at 10 miles per hour and it was painful. The tire pressure monitor warning kept going on and off, as well as another message about an overload of the exhaust management system.
The exhaust management system on a diesel Ford pick up truck is a complex, somewhat mystical topic worthy of its own post, and in fact if you google it, you will find that it is an area of enthusiastic consumer study. Anyway, there were lots of lights and messages going on and I was trying to baby the truck along in case we might be doing damage by towing with it in reduced power mode. Those are the excuses I will attempt to use to justify the fact that, at about 20 miles per hour on a minor down slope, we missed the turn into our campsite.
Although it was an impossible road to turn around on, we normally would have just gone to the next turn around, pull out or parking lot and come back. The problem, of course, was that in reduced power mode this was potentially a multi-hour problem that would need to be overcome with a highly annoyed cat. The only solution: to stop and back the trailer up, all the way to the turn.
By the time I realized this, the turn was half a mile away. This is not a great distance to reverse, even with a long truck, although the road was curved. If you don’t know from experience, it is something else entirely with a trailer. Fortunately, there was not much other traffic, so I used up both lanes until someone was coming (it was easy to see ahead, but behind the trailer, not so much). Then I would have to pull forward to get everything back in my lane, losing ground, and waving by the sensible Colorado drivers who wondered what the hell this idiot from New York was doing. I rapidly discovered that there is no way to hand signal 'reduced power mode'.
Anyway, we counted down each 1/10th of a mile and we made it. Not to be boastful, but I sort of found my groove and added the 'high speed half mile’ to my hard-earned trailer reversing skill set. I hope I never need it again.
We made the turn and our campsite was immediately on our right. I stopped in front of it and we looked at each other like, “is that it?” We had the huge site in the picture below with a fire ring, breathtaking view and ample parking all to ourselves. We stayed there two nights and wish it had been more.
Dinosaur National Monument has two sides. One of them is the source of the most dinosaur bones in the world. They have an indoor/outdoor structure over an incredible quarry where you can see hundreds of bones, all together and embedded half-exposed in the rock. If you are interested in dinosaurs, it’s pretty one-of-a-kind.
It's also great for kids – one of the rangers was running a presentation for a bunch of happy children sitting in a circle right across from of the giant fossil wall, touching dinosaur bones and asking all sorts of insightful and zany questions. The museum and the canyons are hot in June, but the overviews and campsites at elevation were a reasonable high-70s even in the midday sun. Which is a good thing, because Sonny the cat doesn’t have air conditioning when we are off the grid, and the heat makes him tired and crabby.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.