Monthly Archives: June 2013

Mining for the Greater Gold


Barrett Klein, the model-making wizard and insect insominator has arrived back in Gamboa. We have all been eagerly anticipating his return, as this will kick off a new interesting experiment: parallel sleep study between an invertebrate and a vertebrate. The vertebrate will most likely be a bat, since the bat lab is one half of the grant, but exactly what type of bat is still up for discussion. For the spineless participant, Barrett makes sure to have everyone think in very broad terms, before mentioning a couple of organisms with good potential for the experiment.


At the beginning of the meeting Barrett describes the approaches we can have with this study. Sometimes you can plan plan plan, and work out all the meticulous details of your project ahead of time. This can reduce later stress, improve efficiency and precision of your experiments. It also tends to work in highly controlled environments with heavily studied subject animals. He says that unfortunately we have neither. Here, instead he suggests that we use the Tinbergen approach. We begin experimentation, but always keep one eye open for oddities in behavior. It is these unusual bits of phenomena which can lead to veins of gold in research. He instructed us to always “keep the tinbergen in you to mine for the greater gold.”


Barrett is very excited and makes us all food while we wait. The discussions are always fast and fun with him. Later in the evening I join Michelle from the bat group and Ashley, who will make making up part of the invertebrate testing team to test out some modded gopro cameras from Bill Wcislo. He had the cameras sent away to be modified into IR cameras for recording high-speed video of creatures moving around at night. In theory they were supposed to remove the normal infrared filter built into most cameras, and then add in a visible light filter. We were going to see if we could use it for recording the bats swooping down to catch the robotic frogs in the flight cage. On the way over, we found a huge, beautiful roach. It fluttered softly in the air and was easy to catch. Its outer wings were a stylistic transparent color.



We were having problems with the new IR cameras. It seemed like the IR floodlights were far too dim. When we looked at my other, unmodified gopro however, we could actually see everything fine. Possibly the IR floodlamps were too short of a wavelength to get blocked by the normal gopro, and not long enough to make it through the newly added visible light filter of the modified one. This was good news for being able to record with my cameras that we already had, and bad news for Bills.

Groovy Science Band


(Photo from Peter Marting)

Field day with Peter and his Band. They came into town from St. Louis Saturday evening prepped for the Neon Party on the ridge. Today they are working with us as field assistants who happen to break out into the occasional jam. As I ride in the back of the truck, testing out living inside the new bio-survey method “Ladder on a Truck” with Evan strumming the guitar, I have the realization that this moxy adventure could be the premise for a children’s animated television show from the 70’s. Crazy truck of scientist-musicians rolls through forest, experimenting with ant-plants and taking time out for musical interludes.


It was a luxury having so many extra hands available for carrying out the experiments. It also gives those great recurring instances where you have to explain to a whole new group of people on the spot exactly what it is you do.  The restatement of one’s goals and ideas seems to sharped and sculpt your arguments. It runs an evolutionary algorithm on your ideas, and it chips away at the bits of the iterations that fail. But like evolution, it only gives us a locally optimal solution. Evolution will only give the laziest solutions to continued existence, and reinforces the situation a thing finds itself in from previous investment. The process will reflect its embedded environment, and dig the solution deeper and deeper, until entrenched. This is why it might be useful to carry these ideas as they evolve to different mental environments. Keep it flexible, robust.


Had the guys do an acoustic set of a couple of their songs with Peter’s subject animals. The concert featured just a guitar, some rocks, and a cecropia tree full of azteca ants for percussion. Their performance ended up being limited by the aggressiveness of the colony.


We also wonderfully weirded out some groups of other scientists who happened to be passing through in the jungle. Evan and I also testing out a sprinting, moving, musical performance with guitar and harmonica while jogging down pipeline. We all do some jungle vine swinging and then catch Marc Seid’s Gamboa talk at 4pm about various different projects involving insect brains and addiction. The newly arrived Barrett Klein is also in attendance. I give him copies of my field books and he loves them. He says he is always looking for things to show his class about alternate ways of doing and presenting science.


Peter’s jungle ladder has been capturing my imagination more and more.  So much so, that I even wrote a poem about it (adopted from WC Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”). It is a simple household tool, but completely necessary for Peter to gain closer experiences to life with the Azteca. The trees and ants are trying their best to keep others from experiencing their world, and the ladder defeats them. The way we carry it in his truck makes it collect all sorts of interesting debris as we drive through the forest, but because it is in the back, this process remains mostly hidden to us. There’s not much logically missing from this process when we think about it abstractly, a ladder sticks up and waps all the branches and leaves that hang down. But it is such a dynamic system, I have been wanting to feel it more deeply and experience it from within. It also didn’t hurt that the truck was full on the inside anyway. So I set to surf the truck down pipeline and put myself directly in the ladder. Something stung me on the eye, I got slapped around something fierce, and I got bit by dozens of different creatures. It gave me something I am not sure quite yet how to express.

Jungle Ladder
so much depends
a jungle
mounted in the
truck bed
writhing with


Surfing the Forest Truck



stills (1)stills (2)

1/3 Rabid


[The blog post in which I rapidly transcribe many half entries scrawled on bits of paper]


Bats are quite often agents for  spreading rabies. So, to be safe, any bat researchers that handle them need to get their full vaccines. This is a series of 3 shots taken over 3 weeks that can cost $1000-$1500 in the United States. In Panama, however to deter what could maybe be a very serious hazard to public health, they offer this vaccine for free. So I am off to get myself free super-powers!


The needle is longer than the radius of my arm and it goes straight in, so I don’t understand how it doesn’t hit bone. I am fine for the first day and a half, but slowly get incredibly dry and sore throat.


Marc buys us Palm fruit on the way back. Tastes like southern boiled peanuts but much larger and substantial.


Begin designing with Toni some exploratory tools for research. After each design we do a little physical performance to act out how our code would work. She is impressed with how effective this technique is for making you think about the weird non-obvious assumptions you make in programming. We change a part in our design, perform the new process, change, and iterate.


They have a tradition of naming new bats after fellow researchers who have left. So today we processed a May, Florencito, and Molly bat. Last year May and them gave me the honor of naming a little “Andy” bat after me. Marc Seid says that bats are real outliers on the size to lifespan chart. For how small they are, compared to other mammals, bats can live a super long time. More than 30 years old seems to be the consensus around these parts. It is fun that this little andy bat can still be flapping around in these forests when I am 60 years old. Their heart rates are crazy too. 1300bpm in flight and several hundred bpm while resting. These rates would make your heart explode.


The May bat’s transpondering failed, but we already registered her in the permanent records. We will forever keep the May bat’s punchings and record on file, we will never know if we catch her again. So now due to a physical error, this bat will persist eternally under the “May” identity in a bureaucratic limbo. She is now a phantom of information penetrating the forest.


We go and process the bats out in the field. Strolling around marc tells me about some research that wasn’t exactly quashed, but was put off indefinitely because it went against what an expert in the field had purported to be true. This is the more sinister way science can be manipulated. Not outright rejection of non-canon, but overall doubt in the researcher and peers about contradictory findings.


Whipped out some better bug tweezers for taking out parasitic specimens for the bat people. I am not the best biologist, or designer or researcher or artist or anything, but damn if I am not good at carrying around tons of equipment that might be useful. I am like a hobo hoarder of potentially interesting tools. I have found that by not every truly knowing what I am doing, I tend to be specially prepped in a lot of situations. I can be the contingency guy.


After crazy day of performance art, hiking, designing costumes and all night neon party out in the field with Santi and Toni.





Pass Peter and his band in the field. They take a rental car out on pipeline and rip off the back.

They’ve been hunting Trachops without results for many weeks. Now suddenly stumbled across a nest of ten in a tunnel. Most are bats never even caught before.





I hop the 4:45 am bus to go to the airport. Waiting outside in a tornado of sex. The leafcutter ants are having their nuptial flights all around me, and the street lights are confusing their orientation, working as strange attractors to the orgy clouds around me. The males are the size of testicles. You can hear them smashing together in a fury. I step into the dark bus, a diablo rojo. This particular one of these blinged out virginian school buses is lined with LED strips and has a large disco ball up near the driver. He steps out the bus and pees.

By the time I set foot in the airport my throat is on fire. The rabies vaccine is reacting badly. I get a sample of whisky from a girl selling it, and use it to gargle in my throat. Numbs it a bit.The lady sitting next to me waiting for the plane says that it is too early (6am) to be drinking. I have an achy flight to San Francisco. My foot is also infected from a thorn that I tried removing in the jungle. It throbs along with the main character’s infected foot in the book, “Oryx and Crake” that I finish up on the flight. I get to SF before Kitty. The air conditioning is freezing. I crawl into a large plastic bag and sleep on a bench waiting for my lovely wife.

Jungle Soap


For my second “Digital Naturalist” collaborator, Toni, we met up late one night to discuss which famous work of performance art she wanted to reenact in the jungle.  We discussed Joe Beuys, Yoko Ono, (she brought up Abramovich’s piece with the gun), and more of Kaprow’s happenings. She really enjoyed reading about the piece for “Raining” where various objects in the world were painted and then waited on for the rain to wash away (pictures of boats along gutters, trunks of trees painted red, people’s naked bodies). She eventually chose an adapted, and condensed version of Kaprow’s “Soap” to perform where we would cover our bodies in Jam and wash them in the river.

(video documentation of the entire performance)


My goal with these performance art re-enactions was to expose my scientists to different modes of experiencing the strange worlds they encounter everyday in the jungle. Our perception and learning is not absolute but rather state based. The things we pay attention to and the way we comprehend these interactions are steered by our physical and mental states. The insects you notice while walking through a jungle may be different when walking through that same jungle naked and covered in jam.

Another reason for these happenings is to provide and opportunity for the scientists to stand back and reflect on their own practices as these strange performances with animals. Casting this frame of “performance” around the scientist’s work allows him or her to sort of see their own methodologies with new eyes, and pay attention to aspects of their interactions with animals which may have been taken for granted, or simply adopted flatly from standardized ways of experimentation.

For Toni, she saw the performance as a way to explore the irrational in order to clean out the logic machine operating within the everyday scientist. This “logic vacation” let the scientists attempt to let down their guard of incessant meaning-making. It was a way to wash the mind and restore its logical gates to their proper functioning. I argued along with this that too many scientists were always worried about the “meaning” behind doing certain actions, when in fact, meaning making is the core-automatic process of our brains. Our brains find meaning and connections between all the random bits of stimuli we receive, whether these connections make sense or not. We find faces in rocks on cliffsides, and claim instances of Deja Vu when two events from of all the sensory data we happen to take in during our lives intersect. Instead I argue that novel action, not meaning is what’s rare to find in the world. Borrowing from Robert Crease’s work in his book “The Play of Nature” I claimed that the way to discover interesting new behaviors is by performing new behaviors in the world itself. The phenomena we then call forth will be then put under the lens of our brain’s semantic scrutiny.

Like all the performances, I first created engaging posters to hang up around the Smithsonian. This served several purposes:

  1. It prompted curiosity about our research.
  2. It let us reflect and abstract upon the core principles of our performance to be.
  3. It kept my scientists committed to their performance. In this tumultuous world where daily routines are shattered and driven by the weather or wills of the animals, these posters served as temporal staples; locking in their commitment to the strange or odd act they had agreed to.


Tienda guy’s wife had an accident on Friday and the shop shut down. Not only were we worried about her health, but to a lesser extent, we also realized that there was no other source of large amounts of jam within miles.



So I got up early on the day of the performance and showed up at the little shop as it opened to make sure that if it was not going to open, we might still have enough time to find a ride into the city and secure the jelly. Luckily everyone was fine back at the Tienda, and I bought ALL of their jelly. (After buying all their ice another day, the Tienda guy is starting to get a bit weirded out).


Toni and I prepped before heading out. We finalized our performative script for the day. She wanted us to:

  • Cover our bodies in Jelly
  • Hike through the woods down to the waterfall on Mendoza River
  • Bathe ourselves in the waterfall and pool
  • Hike back

So that’s the invented ritual we aimed to follow. Like how Schechner defines a performance as “ritual modulated by play”, -how we would adapt this theoretical model of action to the real time and place became the actual performance.


It rained a ton, which made the normal way of walking up to the waterfall (along the edge of the river), quite impossible (especially if we wanted to keep our jelly on). The rain also kept the insects at a minimum which we had anticipated being one of the main experiences of our journey. Instead  one of the main things we noticed were about how a body, unencumbered by backpacks and clothes, can move through a jungle. Peter noted that he was able to sneak up on a deer due to his ability to move ultra-silently. The jelly served as a way to highlight all our intereactions and brushings against different insects, dirt and vegetation.

Sometimes the steepness, or thickness, of the terrain would force us to walk through the river, and the jelly made you perpetually conscious of exactly how deep you had entered this fast-flowing flooded river.

The sweetness of the jelly came as sudden suprises. During the trek, little bits would drip with your sweat and land in your mouth, causing quick explosions of rare flavor to take precedent over your focus.


I also took the opportunity to physically emulate the actions of the primary hero of my research, Niko Tinbergen. Here’s a candid shot of him doing fieldwork out in the Netherlands paired up with a shot of the fieldwork of my own.


Toni’s first moisture sensor

Here is my first electronic creation – moisture sensor that can make a servo move with a different speed relative with the soil moisture… device that no one can survive without!

But before to reach these high technological goals I first had to learn few more simple tricks.

My first step was to build circuit that make LED turn on. Then we learn how to use arduino and so to control the electricity and make the LED blinking with computer code. Then we programmed servo to move on its own. Finally I looked up how to make a moisture sensor circuit in Google and I hooked up the sensor to the arduino and the servo and programmed so the sensor make the servo move differently.

Here is the code you can use to build it by your self.

const int VAL_PROBE = 0; // Analog pin 0
const int MOISTURE_LEVEL = 250; // the value after the LED goes ON
#include <Servo.h>

Servo myservo; // create servo object to control a servo
// a maximum of eight servo objects can be created

int goup =1;

int led = 13;

int pos = 0; // variable to store the servo position
void setup() {
myservo.attach(4); // attaches the servo on pin 9 to the servo object }
pinMode(led, OUTPUT);
void LedState(int state) {
digitalWrite(13, state);

void loop() {

int moisture = analogRead(VAL_PROBE);

if(pos >180)

if(pos < 0){
if (goup==1)
pos = pos+1;
if(goup == 0)
pos = pos-1;

if (moisture < 500)
{digitalWrite(led, HIGH); }

if (moisture > 500)
{digitalWrite(led, LOW); }

Jungle Fluids

Jungle-Fluids-Poster IMG_9834

Doing any performance is much harder than you ever think. Our plans were set and Peter and I joined up to gather morning coolers before La Tienda Opened. 7am Grab the super nice volunteer Dallas along the way. It is crazy early for a bat person.

To give my digital naturalists some practice at alternative forms of performance, I am having them recreate famous performance works in the jungle with their creatures. The first one to go was Peter, who from a list of famous works of performance art chose to reenact Alan Kaprow’s piece, “Fluids.” In “Fluids,” Kaprow built large structures of ice around LA and left them to melt. We were going to try out the same thing in the Neotropical rainforest. A place where ice scultpure art is not only uncommon, it actually introduces a whole new state of matter to the animals that typically only live in the thick sweltering heat of the jungle.


Scene from Kaprow’s Original “Fluids” work.

We noticed the gas levels in the truck were dropping rapidly though. Suspected a leak. Needed to drive into the city to the nearest gas station (20 miles away). Caught in Traffic, gauges still dropping. Pulled into station with needle bottoming out. Fill it all the way to the brim with diesel, but it only takes 5 gallons. Gauge must be faulty. Hurdle 1 done.


Get to La Tienda. Guy seems a little weirded out that we actually came for the “mucho mucho mucho hielo” I requested earlier in the week. 60 bags total. Loaded 40 into coolers and my newly emptied out pelican cases. Wrapped the remaining bags in a white tarp (that Peter used for harvesting Aztecas from Cecropias). KC saw us loading ice and decided she was game to join the crew.


Loaded first installation at the gate to Pipeline road. Met Sunshine’s group there with us. Explain concept and move a fallen tree a bit. They seem to actually like the concept.


Get to our first cecropia tree. It cannot be one for Peter’s official research, because that would screw up his longer term experiments. Pile the ice around for installation #2 and freak those ants THE FUCK OUT. Peter and I have never seen them so angry, and come down so far from their nest near the top of the tree. They seem to be sustaining the anger longer than with flicking or tapping the tree also. Want to get some gorgeous dolly footage of the installation, and realize the dolly is gone. Maybe left it at the Tienda?


Drive back to town, setting up installations along the way. This time around a foraging leaf-cutter trail. Drop off KC, cannot find dolly. Maybe it bounced out of the truck? Drive back to dallas who has been performing a manual time-lapse for us and guarding the tree from the rain. No sign of camera dolly. Bring him lunch. Eat and discuss, and suddenly he has a batmeeting he needs to go to. Peter leaves me at the cecropia ice installation, whose inhabitants are still attacking full force (for over 3 hours by now).Time passes trying to get aesthetically pleasing macro shots of Azteca performing unseen behavior where they shake or pull their frozen compatriots from the icy depths. They are able to revive many. The ice is taking much longer to melt than thought.





After an hour, Peter pulls up in truck. He saw my weird, large mammalian body sprawled in the road and thought I was a tapir. He now has Marc Seid with him and three interns. They are happy to report that they found my dolly! They pull out a brown metally mess. After having driven over it 4 times ourselves, and with at least 3 other run overs by other trucks, it had peeked itself out of the deepest puddle on pipeline. Nothing was bent, only one simple screw had come off, and after I rinsed off the mud and re-lubed it, it worked good as new!


Marc became fascinated with our ice installations. He gave me the high compliment I had been looking for with all this craziness: “This is …. not stupid!” We studied the deformations and restructuring of the foraging leaf cutters in close detail as they responded to this strange stimuli.

One installation, near the river, revealed to us, the vastly different heating and cooling properties of the leaf littler and hard rocky surfaces.

IMG_9807 (2)IMG_5207IMG_5241IMG_5247IMG_5263

Didn’t wrap up until around 7pm. A good solid 12 hours out in the field. The azteca and the ice were still battling as we left.


Jungle Ladder

Peter and I have hiked out to his secondary field site down old Gamboa Road. Unlike pipeline, this old road is barricaded, so we cannot drive our equipment down to his trees, and instead have to take his cameras, tripods, and full sized ladder through the jungle and up a creek. We set up the first of the days experiments around 8am. Howler monkeys lazily gaze down upon us. Probably resting after all the sunrise screaming. My second official day shadowing him, and he has already worked many of the kinks out of his process. All the cameras are charged, no tripod switching, timings are all down pat with additional buffers for recording ant movements.

Tested out my macro extension tubes on Peter’s 100mm canon macro lens. Makes for double mega macro that’s also super hard to use in the field. Managed to snag this pic however, resting the camera on the top of my boot.


Checking in with him about his journaling, and he reports that it is going well. In particular he liked one of my guidelines in the journal where I have him act out a portion of a performance that he had witnessed that day. “It always makes me think of new things when I actually perform. I think about specific parts about how the antennae move, or that person acted which I would not have otherwise noticed.

We packed up as the rain came down. Peter gave me my first lesson in driving stick. The jungle is a good place to learn to drive.

Relaxing, Reflecting, Letting things Happen

Things are feeling lighter. My initial wave of stress of getting things together and worrying about missed opportunities is calming down a bit. I am appreciating what is blooming in the seeds I have been able to sew already so far in the brief time I have. Misery seems to result from imposing one’s will onto the world, but this is also the source of fun. Life out here in the jungle, and in this strange community seems to exacerbate emotions; particularly when coupled with limited time.
The serendiptity abounds in this thick environment however. Just as I was walking home, I bumped into Fred, whom I recognized as a firefly person from his T-Shirt. He was driving back and forth in the middle of the night down the road. He looked lost but he was hunting. Hunting for fireflies.
I started talking to him about this firefly performance I was going to put on. I wanted to learn more about the particularities of these click-beetle fireflies we encountered. I mentioned my concern relating to the quote from Konrad Lorenz,
““artists must regard it as their most sacred duty to be properly instructed regarding those particulars in which they deviate from actual facts””
Fred was enthusiastic and mentioned that Lorenz was his advisor! He gave me loads of advice, especially about the typical north american fireflies that he studied. Not many people know exactly how the mating ritual of these creatures works. Fred has only seen a female once in his life. But this is alright for our purposes, we will note in our performance which aspects of the behaviors we are modeling come from which parts of the real world.

Digital Biocrafting Demonstrations and MiniWorkshop

Held first set of demonstrations of sensors and actors that can be brought into the field.

Over the weekend worked with Toni and Peter. Peter had arduino experience from my work with him last summer, so I started him on more advanced circuit making and the fickle problems of ATTinies. Toni on the other hand had never touched computer code in her life, and knew nothing about electronics. So i started her off with simple circuit building and LED blinking examples, but she was so delighted, and kept absorbing so much, within an hour we were onto building full moisture sensing to servo controlling mechanisms.


Over the next two days she kept independently going through her code to figure out all the parts, and at the beginining of the workshop on monday, triumphantly stormed in, showed off her contraption to everyone around, and then sat down with a ring of people to teach them all how to do the same! It was impressive. I’ve never seen this sort of enthusiasm for coding and electronics from any engineer.

I was flustered in my presentation and speaking rapidly about all sorts of different topics, but people seemed to just enjoy it all. It’s tough because there is so much i want to tell them about and show them, and it is hard to avoid driving a conversation over the cliffs of deep tangents. I could avoid this, install some safety rails by better preparing these presentations, but there is so little time for refinement here. Also, living in a place perpetually in flux, over-preparation can actually be a hindrance in many cases. I have to stay flexible and adapt to the shifting situations, but I also need to be prepared enough to take on what happens.

Plus I came in at 6am and worked straight through until starting at 4:05 (when the presentation needed to begin). I built a ton of things that I had only theoretically made before:

  • ATTINY Blow Laser (Thanks Paul O’Neil!)
  • Distance Sensor to Addressable RGB LED Strip
  • RFID Bug Identifier (with Processing)
  • Honeybee Census machine to Servo Indicator
  • (Peter Marting) PhotoSensitive Bristlebot
  • (Toni Hubancheva) Moisture Sensor to speed control of wiggling servo

I will have video of the presentations, and documentation for all these projects up later!