Tag Archives: gamboa2013

Music: Biopoesis and Ego Solvent

I have never been really good at music, but I have always been compelled towards it. I remembered hating being forced into band in 6th grade. Music did not make much sense to me. You were given a list of absolute commands, and then judged upon how well you could become a robot that repeats these instructions. To me, this seemed like an alright thing to do for a little bit, just to get an idea of how frequencies and rhythms were encoded onto paper, but once you had that part down, it seemed like the appropriate thing to do would be to program a synth or computer to perfectly replicate whatever you composed. The playing of the actual instrument itself seemed a flawed a pointless pursuit to me then. I felt that the only value in making music could come from composing new songs. However no one could really describe what the true point of music was anyway. Other arts seemed to have absolute value at least in representation; you could paint a picture, or make a sculpture to obtain a lasting record of parts of the world. There was nothing we were explicitly replicating with music however.

Experimental Musical Instrument by JPOM (“Mushy Lightning”)

Music had no explain-able higher purpose. You did things because they sounded good, and things sounded good if that’s the way we were used to hearing them. It strictly relied on following conventions agreed upon unconsciously by our culture. Particularly when I was younger, this notion of following conventions purely for the sake of appreciation by others seemed to be the antithesis of creativity.

I still appreciated good songs and secretly admitted to myself a fondness for popular catchy tunes, but the schism between analytic and emotional appreciation of music just drove my curiosity further. I sought out music that broke conventions and did strange or discordant things that you could grow an appreciation for like Zappa, Aphex Twin, John Cage. No matter what, though, I could still get a terrible song by Train stuck right in my head.

So I had this slow burning question that I always carried with me from a very young age:

What is music?

What is its function? How does it work, and why do we enjoy it?

The first thing I did when I moved away from home in High school was create a band to violently deconstruct music (http://jpom.bandcamp.com/). Maybe by stripping it down, I could finally see the naked truth of music.

Cover of one of our first albums

Even the band’s unpronounceable and unreadable name, Ju9mp_ily PLant Orgasm > Mayhap, was developed for cognitive jamming. Scientifically speaking, the methodology involved to pursue this inquiry involved taking one assumption and then applying one algorithm.

Assumption: we were the best band on earth, and thus had unlimited creative freedom to define an artifact as “music.”

Algorithm: if I could identify a musical convention or standard, I would try to do the opposite.

A lot of this is your standard teenage contrarian-ness, but I very consciously always tried to channel this push to inversion towards its limits in investigation and general weirdness. The first thing to destroy  was any pre-determined roboticism about creating music. So no rehearsing, no aiming for particular notes, no written poetry, just fill a room with energetic people, hit record for a certain amount of time and accept what results as the purest of music.


After a while I would identify other commonalities in music to attack: the proper way to play instruments, non-disgustingness of lyrics, types of juxtapositions of content and form, and standard components such as rhythm, melody, and tempos. We also explored all the satellite activities that constituted being in a band such as making music videos, producing records, battling other bands, creating the official soundtrack to major motion pictures, and even starring in our own documentary about the prices such an amazing band must pay for fame.

After exploring one factor thoroughly in experiments, such as the point of percussion in a song, I would relax the constraints on the banishment of this particular feature, and allow a song to have normalcy in this aspect while I experimented with some other part of music. Towards our later albums the contrarian-ness became more subtle and songs started to almost sound like real songs as I focused on attacking more and more specific parts of songs. For instance, the impetus behind the “Pee Pals” song was to see if I could make a simple song that people could dance to the beat whose content was also about something less appealing like peeing all over the dance floor. And this all started as an attack on the common reference in so many songs to the roof or ceiling as holding down the dancing. So in this song I tried to paint the picture of the roof holding in everyone as they literally drowned in their own piss as the dance room filled with party urine. Like all my songs, this exact sentiment may not have come across, but this manic process always did lead to something.

This still never directly answered questions for me about music as a whole, or even about this specific component (i.e. “oh, songs need percussion because of X”), but slowly I began to tacitly understand the impact of certain conventions. In fact, it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that music was a recursive set of conventions scaffolded deep in the trenches of history beyond memory.

Over the 15 years of this thought and analysis, I have currently arrived at two definitions that have been bouncing around in my brain.

Now prepare for conjecture…


One of my earliest definitions for stating precisely what music is came to me at a Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert.

The group danced in front of the audience, and followed and played with the musical rule-sets. Musical algorithms developed amongst themselves and the unconscious genetic and cultural regulations governing our thoughts and bodies. As they twisted and undulated, and non-verbally encouraged the rest of the audience to clap along, I was struck with a vision of the creation of life. The arbitrary rule sets were no different than the arbitrary universal constants set forth to govern the universe at t=0; the entangled patterns that repeat themselves in these musical rule sets were no different than the forms, and behaviors that have distilled from the chaos according to the universal laws. Music was biopoesis. Music created the simplest version of “life;” a single note resonating against the void. The persistence of a pattern throughout space and time could serve as the simplest definition of a “living” entity for me, and music was the conjuring of these patterns. At a concert everyone participating is aiding in the birth, exploratory life, and eventual death of a living creature.


Ego Solvent

The other definition upon which I arrived for music was an oblique one. It defines music indirectly by describing the conditions for the experience of it.

My thought is this:

Music is what you receive when you are no longer an individual. Static and discord are only felt when a thing exists as an single organism. Musicality is what your bodily cells live in every moment of their lives until they die or turn cancerous (perhaps in cancer a different tune takes over, perhaps the biological equivalent of getting a terrible Coldplay song stuck in your head).

This definition had been with me for several years, but did not manifest itself as well into words until I made a concert video for peter and his friends in their band Ptarmigan. I had them perform an acoustic concert with Peter’s research animals, the Azteca ants living in Cecropia trees.

[Video of Ptarmigan’s performance in the jungle with their research creature/collaborators]

Watching them follow the secret patterns governing the actions between them (both the band and the ants), solidified for me that what we call music was the experience of living as a larger entity beyond our “individuality.” Also with things like Mirror-Neuron theory stating that our brains actually enact what we see others do, the idea that listening to music is cognitively similar to playing it removes a categorical distinction between musicians and audience. Thus living in music is the same as living in a superorganism. Living in static is living as a solitary singular creature.

To find the atomic organism at a given moment, we travel up levels of organization until the music experienced starts breaking down.

Music is the dissolution of identity. It is ego solvent.

It may be communication without meaning. A meaningless medium.

When social insects like honeybees slowly evolved an increasingly tight social co-dependence, the musicality of their everyday encounters would be increasing. Evolution is the ultimate composer, crafting species specific songs over millions of years. Individuals merge identities not through explicit goals, but through a developing drive towards a certain sought after harmony bred into their brains. The ant collects and returns food to the nest not because it has a stated intent of helping the group, and perhaps not even because she herself is hungry, but instead because she is caught in a musical rapture.

Brains are little more than multi-dimensional harmonic oscillators shaped by adaptation and genetics. They are software both learned and burned-in. These oscillators respond to our environment and actions, and when our behavior shapes the external world to vibrate our brains correctly we experience music.


Dissolution into the Conjured Being

I think both theories are interesting to ponder, both music as the simplest living creature, and as superorganismal glue. They need not exclude each other also. Perhaps music is a creature to which we can become a part. Music can be the female anglerfish, and by following its siren spell, we the male anglerfish attach, dissolve and become just an additional appendage of this larger animal. The function of music as an art can be to let us create new forms of life, and leave ourselves to become part of this new creature, if only for a brief period.

The male anglerfish attaches to the female during mating and then dissolves its entire body leaving little more than an appendage of gonads for the female that produces sperm.(from letvc.com)


Embedded Design


Dad takes off from Panama, and I head to the weird zone between the city and Gamboa along the canal to get my final shot in my Rabies series. Had to erase part of my prescription and write in a new date because I think the nurse had gotten it wrong. It’s a tiny bit scary considering my prior reactions and just manipulating the hospital workers’ decrees in general, but everything works out fine. Ummat on the other hand became super Ill. We had to drive him to the clinic, and they gave him some antibiotics, but in two days his condition went back worse. Poor guy being sick in the field is terrible, but now it looks like he will be in the hospital for quite sometime. (Update: 15-7-2013 They still haven’t figured out what is wrong with the guy. They had been thinking rickettsia,  leptospirosis, and several types of meningitits (including fungal meningitis), but haven’t nailed it down. He had brain and liver swelling, and all they have been able to do is treat the symptoms.).


Peter and I uncover an electronic mystery during the rest of the day which we relegate to digital crafting. We are able to send communication wirelessly and drive a servo from a soldering iron.


Peter starts working on flick-o-matic 2.0. He’s coming up with growingly crazier designs to meet his goals of delivering fully automated powerful thwops against the tree. What started last year between us as a simple idea of programmatic smacking device, grew into more specifics as we developed the device with his experimental requirements. He needs the device to hit the tree with the following constraints:

– Deliver a consistent, hard enough wallop to be felt by the ant colony many meters above.

– Repeat this hit 10 times consistently and then automatically stop itself.

– Be blunt and soft enough to not bruise or cut the tree (stop it from releasing chemical stimulants in the tree sap)

– Be able to be bounced around in the back of a truck driving down a rough jungle road

– Be easily positioned near the tree, but only touch it when the experiment starts (even minor brushes with the tree can screw up the experiment). Peter waits at least 30 minutes after an accidental knocking on the tree to restart the official trial.



PETER: “I find myself thinking in new ways of the materials I have available. Like I use these things (plastic collection vials) for everything. I wonder sometimes about how if I had a different workspace with different materials how my designs would appear then.”


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.


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.


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!

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.


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.


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.


Before I even got here, the scientists in this strange vibrant community were already coming up with great ideas for experiential performances involving the animals.


Walking through the jungle, all naturalists are randomly struck by the impromtu passing of a brilliant blue morpho fluttering by. Now they will be physically struck also! An adaptation of the traditional “punch – buggy” or “slug-bug” games, this is a new tradition that Ummat started doing which serves a fun recognition ritual for an event that is commonplace but unpredictable.


Drunk Natural History

Based on the “Drunk History” concept by Derek Waters at FunnyorDie http://www.funnyordie.com/drunkhistory , several of the people in gamboa have apparently been discussing recording descriptions of animal behavior by inebriated scientists, and then going out in the field and recreating these performances. FunnyorDie’s popular original concept could provide an excellent framework for reflexive performances since  a) it has a readily understandable script for action and b) can serve as a productive use of leisure time.

This could be quite like Rossellini’s Green Porno series but perhaps sillier than strange.

Experimental Solidarity

Toni, one of the Bat-girls working under Rachel Page, was talking about a 24 – hour observation experiment she was going to have to do with her bats. Since this was also going to be such an endurance feat on the human’s part she also wanted a way to document and experiment upon herself. She does not have all the details decided yet, but really wants to submit herself to the same sort of tests that the bats are undergoing during this test. For instance while the bat was being kept awake and subjected to mazes at regular intervals, she was going to time herself playing a “memory”  game with cards.


Rock in the Jungle

Peter Marting’s band, Ptarmigan is actually slated to have a performance here on june 15 (which unfortunately I will be gone for). This is due to a lucky coincidence of his fellow band-mates coming down to visit in combination with an open-mike night.



In keeping with last year’s traditions, I show up at La Tienda to buy my first set of food and supplies during that no-man’s zone between 1-2 pm. Gives a good opportunity to write down my first field entry.

Got an hour of sleep after unpacking and am now scouting locations for setting up the Digital Biocrafting station. I was happy to see that my tiny version of the old biocrafting station was still intact!

The school house will probably be ideal if they let me have a desk. All of this would be much easier if I could bank on actually being officially funded or not, and could then proceed on a particular strategy for acquiring a tiny bit of room to set up for the community. But, even as May draws to a close, I still have to wait to see what will become of me this summer. Either way, glad I was able to organize the trip on what I already had.


Had a relaxing yet also invigorating morning straight into the jungle. Walking from the airport to the car at 3am Ummat poses me a question that brings a large smile to me: “So, are you excited to go back into the jungle? More excited than tired? Let’s go to the observation tower!”  Am already feeling the  time crunch though in only my first few hours here.

Stopped by Rachel Page’s office and chatted with her and May Dixon, so fun to see them again.  With a new bat-girl, Toni, I dropped off some of my first sets of “Digital Naturalism” propaganda. It seemed to do its job of initially providing an attractive bundle that invites further contemplation. Excited to see how this pans out. One of the excellent parts of having ready-made material when entering a zone of activity intensity is that it can provide a brief mental reprieve to oneself  Where I am now constantly thinking and list-making about all the things I needed to do before I came down, and all the multiple facets I must now plan, it is nice to be able to just pull out something in a situation, and have that responsibility of thorough explanation offloaded to an object.

Surprised at how much I perfectly remember about Gamboa and specific pathways in the jungle. For such a relatively short stay that I had last time, I have so many vivid memories seared into my brain.




Performances discussed today:

– Toni, Rachel, and May indpendently brought up doing a 24 hour observation where they would also include fun tasks for the

Packing \ Preparing

Last year before my trip I had little knowledge about what awaited me. Back on that trip the mission was to collect as much high quality footage of social insects as possible. So I packed three DSLRs, two gopros, tons of SD cards, hard-drives and backup hard-drives, and lighting equipment. It was easy to pack for the mission because the mission was straightforward, but I had no idea what the living environment would be like at all. Thus, that year I went overboard on survival supplies due to my cluelessness about the everyday life. I packed tents and sleeping bags and a full bee suit. I had mosquito nets and tarps and space blankets. I didn’t realize then that we would be staying in re-appropriated tropical resort villas next to the jungle instead of in the jungle.


I now face the reverse problem. I have a very good concept of how the area functions and what supplies I truly need for general life, but for carrying out my research I had to stay as open-ended as possible. I ended up with a kitchen-sink style, basically bringing as much of my digital toys and physical computing / biocrafting equipment as possible.


Determining the way to optimize the packing to avoid 200 dollar overweight fees on the airline, as well as balance out pesky TSA rules about carrying potentially hazardous material like LIPO batteries or CO2 canisters was tricky and took me 3 days of thinking to sort. I tried to be overly cautious since most of the equipment is out of my own pocket, and I included notices for the TSA officers and a full inventory printout that I placed in each pelican case. This social hacking attempted to over-weigh the suspiciousness of my boxes full of wires and strange devices with the pseudo-authenticity of an “official” research scientist going into the jungle with lots of “official” forms.