Monthly Archives: May 2013

Azteca Shadow

Peter taking a midday “jungle nap.” The days start early and end late around here. Sleep mostly happens only when it can’t not happen anymore.

Last night promised myself to sleep in and work on computer stuff with the single caveat that I would get into the field if peter was going. Right before going to bed, I get an email from peter asking if I am down to hit the field at 7am.

Using the new female-female connector, I am able to get some air in the Insect Dream Machine. We pick it and Rochelle up from the Schoolhouse (Main Laboratory complex in Gamboa). See a white tailed deer jumping around in front of us as we drove down the pipeline road path. My mind initially rejected the sight. It didn’t seem to make sense that these same deer I see prancing around in Illinois would be out here. A family of seven coatis crossed the road in front of us. Reminded me of fatigued soccer moms trying to transport a whole vanload of children through a crowded shopping mall. They gave a guttural snort to the babies moving slow or confusedly.

This was my official shadowing day for Peter. Followed the steps of his work and interviewed him along the way.

On the way back, in the middle of the road, we are working out how many more trees we can experiment upon, before we need to hightail it out of the woods to catch the 5:30 boat to Barro Colorado Island for the BAMBI talk. Our estimations put us about 15 minutes late (if we wanted to shower), when the front tire started rumbling. We looked out to see it saggy and limp in the wet mud.

Neither of us had changed a flat before, much less in the middle of a jungle. It ended up being an interesting, complex problem where we were never quite sure of the next step until we arrived. We were guided entirely by the affordances of the tools combined with the basic steps of the problem: First get out spare from under truck, then lift up flat wheel, take off nuts, put new wheel on, add more nuts, drive home. There were many deviations to these steps. The jack wouldn’t fit under the truck until we dug out a hole for it in the mud with my knife for instance. The sheer tacit understanding of these problems steeped in the physical world struck me as so different from the nasty thickets of errors one gets in troubleshooting programming errors. There, one must negotiate the pathways of logic in one’s mind, in a constantly shifting world of changing assumptions. It seems to be possibly a problem of feedback. In the world, if the jack is too large for a space, I get steady responses from the mud and metal which immediately let know the current problem. The world is persistently shouting and making itself known. In the computer’s logic though, we have to probe ourselves to get responses for any questions we may want answered.

Snappy Fireflies

After the Gamboa Talk, I shadowed Peter’s work in the Field. He is about to launch into his official experimentation, and is spotting a couple more trees to use in his tests. While the jungle is full of cecropia trees, only a certain small demographic can fit into the constraints of Peter’s experiment. Some factors are due to the theories being tested by the experiment itself (the tree needs to have a healthy, mature colony living inside it), and also due to physical limitations (if the tree is too tall, he can’t reach the leaves to perform the experiments).

The night dropped quickly out in the jungle, and we, still full of energy from the weekend, decided to just keep driving as the pipeline road grew narrower and narrower.

Peter stopped the car at one point when he saw a large flashing bug. We hopped out of the car and I grabbed it. It gave me a startle as it started snapping hard into my hand (with about the strength of a human flicking). Soon the lightning beetles were flying in from all over the depths of the woods, drifting silently out of the darkness.

I started filling my hands with the snapping fireflies as they descended upon our truck. They were as long as a stick of gum, and had not only the brightest luminescent abdomens I had ever seen, but also additional different colored “running lights” on their shoulders.

We took the vial back to the ridge, and showed off our catch. Then we setup a camera and recorded some long exposures of them crawling over us as we let them go.


This experience inspired another performance which we will perform (and describe) later.



The Digital Naturalism Logo is a stylized version of one of ‘Etienne Jules Marey’s diagrams of the wing movement behavior of a bee. Marey developed novel techniques for simultaneously extracting and sharing information from the animal world, and helped give birth to the new medium of film. His tools (sensors, triggers, and temporal photography) promoted strange new ways of encountering the world. Digital Naturalism strives to promote this style of research in the era of new behavioral tools to view ethology as a new medium of expression.

Background – Gamboa


Gamboa is a strange town at the end of  a highway across Panama full of scientists, townies, resort goers, and canal workers. It sits in the middle of the country directly at the intersection of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal. It was originally an American township built for canal zone workers, but as the US relinquesed control it became more Panamanian.

Now it is often heavily used by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as both a launching off point for travel to Barro Colorado Island, as well as the site of many scientific research labs. Scientific residences are often in modified dock worker houses which have been reappropriated as luxury condos for rent from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. A primary field site for many individuals is along Pipeline Road. This trail along an old oil pipeline transects some of the best parts of the jungle, and serves as a tether from which to sink into its depths.


Erin Welsh, a STRI scientist posing in front of typical Gamboa Architecture (also a sloth).

Here’s a website / blog / resource summarizing daily life along with tips and tricks for figuring out his strange place


Bat Shadow

Glass frog that hopped onto May Dixon while she processed an interesting bat

Low morning with lots of computer stuff. Nice and rainy out but still couldn’t sleep. Things brightened up with brief chat with Kitty and then initial interviews and shadowing of Toni.

Today is Toni’s full induction to my research. We go over the papers and what we plan to do. Then I shadow her daily work. She walks around houses in the neighborhood where they have weight monitoring stations set up coupled with RFID readers for bats coming and going. She climbs up ladders under these stilted houses to change the batteries and collect their data.

Next, we visit her flight cages next to the woods. She shows off the full area where she will test bat decision making under sleep deprivation conditions. The bats will move through simple maze in the first cage, through a connecting hallway, and then through a complex maze in order to get to the fake robotic tungara frog signaling food. The tricky problem we are thinking of now, is how to keep the bats awake in the least stressful manner.

This is part of a much larger research project studying the effect of sleep across many different animals. The awesome Barrett Klein, whom I met the previous summer and discussed paint pens with, has already done such experiments with honeybees and wasps. For these he used his insect inseminator, which consisted of magnets glued to backs which could be wirelessly agitated by large magnets outside the nest. I found out about this when I sent him my recipe for magnetic ants last fall.


Tiny Cicaduinos

First talk is scheduled for the day. A 15 minute quick “teaser” introduction to “Digital Naturalism” scheduled for after Kathy’s talk about Arbuscular Mycorrhizal fungi.
Peter meets girl named Steffie from Konstanz who is leaving today but is very interested in my work. She is part of an Ant Course that is ending today, so I did a quick impromptu lunch presentation with them also. Feeling pretty good about how quickly I am able to tap into lots of different people. I guess I was more prepared than I thought.

Yesterday, Peter and I spent the day on computers getting a backlog of work taken care of. I also busted out some ATTinies to give Peter a first glimpse of how they work, and also to reassure myself that they do still work. With any of these, even banal seeming, peices of technology I have to remain suspicious of their functionality until I can actually make them perform the plan I originally envisioned (even if I had done it 100 times before). For a quick demo, I went from a Blink Example (But with a vibration motor), to a slightly more sophisticated light controlled vibration motor. Peter then sparked on the idea, from this light sensitive device, of simulating a cockroach’s light avoiding behavior by having a bristlebot that would freak out when exposed to light, and calm down when hiding in the shadows. He basically thought up a 1-Dimensional Braitenberg vehicle. Took a brief computer reprieve in the small forest within Gamboa. Found snotty goop on tree. Single Leafcutter ant showed me how much my pinkie finger was like a leaf. To be fair i was testing how quick their jaws could close using my finger as a trigger.

Spent today trying to see if I could pack all the parts necessary for such a vehicle (Perf-board, light sensor, resistor, ATTiny85, LED, and battery) into the shell of a cicada that we found. You get some great effects with the LED in there, but the coin-cell batteries are still much to large to fit. It’s a good reminder of how small insects are (even the large ones). The whole device does still work with most components mounted on it, and the battery on a tether. Perf boards are trickier to use than I had thought. Maybe I should look up proper technique.


Participant Journals

All of my core participants are given their own official journals in which to keep their thoughts. I offered several different sizes, shapes, and abilities of journals so they they could choose on that best suited them. Both Toni and Peter opted for the smaller sized journals with Peter choosing the waterproof one (that you can’t use pens on), and Toni opting for the top-bound mini-drawing pad.

They are tasked with writing an entry everyday, and tackling these four guideline question/tasks (which are glued inside the journal).


Questions for Research Journal

For each day please document your experiences. Here are four questions to also answer for each entry:
1. Describe an animal (or human (or robotic)) performance which you have witnessed or participated.
2. Physically act out one specific detail of the performance now in a new context. Tell us what you selected, why, and any insights to this displaced, separated, reenacted behavior.
3. Did you create, test, or repurpose any tools or techniques today?
4.  In the way that your tool performed, how did it change yours or the animals behavior?
Other questions for inspiration:
How could you turn the behavior into a game? a love story?
What superpowers would let you change the meaning of the behavior? Can you trick the animal? Can you make it do the opposite of normal?
What props or objects could help you embody life as your animal?



Digital Media Field Guides

“What is Digital Naturalism” PDF        “Inspirations” PDF    Design Considerations for Ethology PDF

I compiled several different projects at the intersections of performance art, literature, design, physical computing, and cybiotic animal-machines. The goal was to have a rich reference guide for scientists to browse, investigate, and potentially adapt to their own approaches for engaging with or  disseminating their research. I also made another guide, “What is Digital Naturalism” to quickly explain my research, when encountering interested parties in non-digital places (like the jungle).

For visual and textual knowledge sharing, this project faced interesting design challenges. I wanted to make booklets (by hand, since it was the cheapest) that the biologists could bring with them into the field and reflect on, in situ, during down time. My thought was that this could be additionally inspirational, but it also posed extra challenges. The booklets would need to be tough to survive in a field biologist’s backpack, and also not be too heavy.

This lead to my design of 1/4 page sized booklets, printed off our common GT printer (double sided), which I then sewed together for durability (and because the staplers were too short and the staples fell out too easily).


Jungle Techno Performance 1

I instructed peter to take two techno-artifacts from our messy biocrafting station which we were setting up (it has a sign now!). We would use these to enact some sort of performance prototyping a behavioral tool. As with any performance, I find myself always internally cynical. I default to being my own devil’s advocate despite the purported performative basis of my research. Before hand, i always have a nagging feeling of, “this is stupid, we are going to dance around and pretend, and nothing will be accomplished because we know what’s going to happen.”

But all this serves to continually prove my point where, by forcing myself or others to physically realize a theoretical model of action, the doing immediatly 1) reveals the mental crap clogging up the original idea, 2) inspires and manifests unthought of arrangements, and 3) polishes the revealed good parts that were supporting the original idea.

At the end I had him bow and it seems like it would be a good idea to come up with a set of these performance self signals (ahhh there is a word for these in ethology that i cannot remember right now) where a creature performs certain actions that put it into and pull it out of a certain behavioral state. The self-signals can help put the performance into a focused activity for better reflection.


Showed the film, The White Diamond, by Werner Herzog this evening between jobs, and everyone loved it!

Am now about to [truck pulls up] help Santiago and some of the bat crew test their high-speed camera they are borrowing from Wcislo. Through pure perserverence in fighting unmatching equipment (they only had a nikon adapter, but canon lenses for the high speed camera), I made the strange discovery that canon Eos-M lenses can mount directly to the nikon. We haven’t been able to check and see if the lens distance isn’t too screwed up or anything, but it certainly fits just fine right in there.

Hannah Perner-Wilson: Collaborator

Hannah Perner-Wilson combines conductive materials and craft techniques, developing new styles of building electronics that emphasize materiality and process. She received a B.Sc. in Industrial Design from the University for Art and Industrial Design Linz and an M.Sc. in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab, where she was a student in the High-Low Tech research group. Since 2006 Hannah has collaborated with Mika Satomi, forming the collective KOBAKANT. In 2009, as research fellows at the Distance Lab in Scotland, KOBAKANT published the website titled How To Get What You Want, where they share their textile sensor designs and DIY approach to E-Textiles.

Peter Marting – Collaborator

Peter Marting is a PhD Researcher at Arizona State University looking into collective behaviors of the cecropia tree -symbiotic Azteca ants.


Here is a short documentary which summarizes a bit of his research into this mutualism.

Meshing with the People

May is going away quickly. Woke another morning with too much to do and too many opporunities to potentially lose to sleep in. Got lots of official things setup this morning: Gamboa Talk (mini) on monday, Gamboa Workshop next monday, Lunch with Bill Wcislo on tuesday, meeting with batlab on friday.

From the little bit that I got to talk with her on thursday, and from the things that others have told me about her (like her bat-themed play in bulgaria), she seems like a great fit for the Guinea Pig Slot #2. They are going on a trip climbing up a volcano though, so in an effort to waste less time, I gave her a rapid induction. Sort of like a battlefield promotion. I’ll have to follow up with her when she gets back next week [Mosquitoes killing me know as I write this waiting outside the batlab at night…need to move] She ‘s so enthusiastic I can’t wait to see what comes out!

This morning I tagged along with Chris and Victoria on a bullet ant nest hunt which proved to be apocryphal. Instead we worked on ways to test aggression in leaf cutter ants. Having trouble at first, because the ants weren’t biting through the flat foil, but then we though to fold the foil in a bit of a fan shape, and they were able to grab a purchase on it then with their mandibles. This made neat aesthetically pleasing holes that were revealed when held to the sun.

Lunch with Peter. Canned food and chips in the park – no spoons. Then we prepped for some free-form jungle exploring, nominally helping kathy look for monkey comb seeds.

Gamboa Field Experimentation 2013

In the summer of 2013, I am embarking on an exploratory mission to test out some of the techniques and performances I have been reading and theorizing about over the past year.

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