Seeing leaf-cutter ants in the wild is the sort of thing that makes you want to spend all day crawling on the ground following them around. These are charismatic microfauna

Here, a few seconds of footage I took while playing around with a GoPro near Jaco, Costa Rica, last December.

They don’t eat the leaves, petals, and other bits of foliage they bring back to the colony, but use them to cultivate gardens of fungus that act as a food source. 

multimedia, science

Night of the Planet Hunter, Youtubed

Last week, someone asked if some of my work from a few years ago could have been published to Youtube. Great question. Way back in 2008/2009, if you were working with an organization that was interested in experimenting outside their traditional media format—say, a magazine publishing an audio slideshow—you’d sometimes find that despite the interest, there was a more fundamental question: what, exactly, to do with the resulting story. There might be technical constraints (which was the case with the story below), or certain editorial imperatives (self-hosted video; wanting people to visit your site as opposed to making something embeddable, etc) would make things complicated.

In the case of this 2008 audio slideshow about searching for exoplanets (the pre-Kepler era), my editor said I might as well publish it to my site since they couldn’t really publish the Flash-based output from Soundslides (speaking of which, ugh, Flash). Since then, some of these things have loosened up—see, for example, the Wired video I pitched in on with an early draft script, that went straight to Youtube. SoundSlides itself developed a convert-to-Youtube-friendly-format option online, which is what I used here.

Anyway, here we finally have an easily embeddable version. And below that, the brief write-up that went with it.

California Goes Planet Hunting

Until 1995, exoplanets—planets orbiting sun-like stars—were more figment than fact, the stuff of sci-fi novels. But in 1995, a Swiss group discovered the first known example, called 51 Pegasi b, and since then, astronomers have documented more than 300 exoplanets. Of those, nearly half have been discovered by the team led by Cal astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who directs the Center for Integrative Planetary Science.

California recently checked in with Professor Marcy to find out more about his work. The results: an audio slideshow of a night searching for planets with Marcy (above) and a Q & A with Marcy about his work (below), both produced by Timothy Lesle.

California: How do you describe what you do?

Geoff Marcy: I think every young person, at some point, looks up at the night sky and wonders if those “suns” harbor any planets, especially earth-like planets. We wonder, “Is anyone out there?” My research has been to search the nearest 1000 stars for planetary systems, with the hope of finding possible oases for life. My group works day and night using the world’s largest optical telescope, the Keck telescope. NASA and the University of California provide the telescope time. Three NASA space-borne telescopes hold real promise for the future. Kepler will launch in 2009 and is designed to detect Earth-like planets, which have never been found. It will search for stars that dim repeatedly, as a sign that earths are crossing in front of the star, blocking starlight.

How did you get into planet hunting?

When I finished my Ph.D., I didn’t have any good ideas about what to do next. I attempted to continue my research, measuring the magnetic fields on Sun-like stars. But such measurements are very difficult, and I could tell it wasn’t going well. I felt lost and incompetent. Resigned to mediocrity, I decided I should do research that captured my imagination, no matter how unlikely it was to succeed. For the next 10 years my collaborator, Paul Butler, and I tried to discover planets, without success. I was quite distressed the entire time, but didn’t feel that I could quit. When we found our first planets, most people didn’t believe us. A Canadian astronomer and an American astronomer promoted alternative interpretations, saying we were fooling ourselves and tricking others. But we persisted. I was so depressed when people didn’t believe me that I had to get away from astronomy. I took up tennis, playing every day. I still play tennis every day.

If a star looks small, a planet must be impossible to see.

Detecting a planet near a star is like trying to see a speck of dust next to a flashlight, located 1000 miles away. We find planets by using a trick. The stars are yanked by the gravitational pull of the planet. We watch the stars to see if they are moving around in circles or stationary. If they move, we know a planet is there. Massive planets yank more strongly on the star, allowing us to measure the planet’s mass. And the time it takes for the star to move in a circle is the same time it takes the planet to orbit the star. So we learn quantitative information about the planet, even though we don’t see it at all.

My team has discovered extraordinary and bizarre new worlds. Some orbit so close to their star that they are just skimming above the star’s surface, [which is] blow-torching the planet to thousands of degrees. Others travel along stretched-out, elongated orbits, with the star flinging the planet far, only to let it plummet back. The circular orbit of the Earth is a fluke among planets in the universe.

Will we be visiting them one day?

Some day we humans will devise propulsion systems that allow us to send spacecraft to the stars. At first the payloads will be sensitive cameras, sending back detailed pictures of another world, with its oceans, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. Perhaps we’ll even see the life forms living there. Later, we will travel to the stars ourselves, to visit those worlds and live there, like the pioneers in the Old West. Ultimately, our travels to other worlds will help preserve our species, protecting us against catastrophe on any one planet, including our home Earth.

Tim Lesle also wrote about a serendipitous supernova study in the November/December 2008 issue of California.

image of washizu and wife from Throne of Blood
movies, Uncategorized

Quick Note on Throne of Blood

Here’s the late Donald Richie on Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood:

I was present during the location shooting for much of the film. Particularly fine were those rushes of the advancing hunting party, both the long silhouette shots and, later, the advance, taken with longdistance lenses which flattened the figures out and looked like a medieval tapestry. After they were taken Kurosawa said he was pleased. “I have about ten times more than I need.”

In the finished film this morning’s work takes ten seconds. Gone are the living tapestries (“they only held up the action”); the wonderful turning shots of the messenger (“I don’t know—they looked confused to me”); a splendid entrance of Mifune skidding to a stop (“you know, Washizu wasn’t that upset”); and a lovely framing shot of the procession seen through the gate (“too pretty”).

I still think of Kurosawa that morning, up on his platform, directing everything, always quiet, suggesting rather than commanding, looking through the view-finders, getting down to run through the mud to the other camera, making jokes, getting just what he wanted. And then—having the courage, the discipline to choose from that morning’s richness just those few frames which contained what would best benefit the film.

It is, indeed, a very good film. As Kurosawa’s fans point out, literary critic Harold Bloom has written that Throne of Blood is the “most successful film version of Macbeth.” (Perhaps more interesting to note the subordinate clause Bloom tacks to the end of his declaration: “though it departs very far from the specifics of Shakespeare’s play.”)

In any case, Richie’s description of what was cut leaves me wanting to see the deleted scenes.

The trailer:

image of washizu in command

animated gif of calvin and hobbes looking at shooting stars


It’s a redesign for this place, a modified version of the new Ryu theme: a much-needed behind-the-scenes upgrade and a maybe-not-bad change in the look of things. E.g.:

Old version:
Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 5.31.54 PM

New version:
screenshot of new design

For those of you into WordPress, I now have options like post formats, responsive parameters, featured images (such as the gif above), a click-down “sidebar” at the very top of the screen (that’s what those tabs are if you hadn’t tried them), etc.

Now I just have to think of stuff to publish here.


After stumbling across a circle of white-rumped shama enthusiasts while writing an earlier piece, one of my favorite reads from their ranks is Alan Pang’s post explaining why he lost interest in traditional shama competitions. The standard Singaporean competition, he writes, last as much as two hours:

Personally, i only enjoy active, swift n nice display and long melodies song type of shama. I prefer them to go around the cage flicking and flashing their tails plus some wings display at the same time. Not the stand singing type. What i meant by stand singer is flick tail once or twice sing two three notes and stay in one position all the time. This is no fun to watch for many of us but don’t forget this are the the birds that is able to last for hours! Haha…! So for those birds that showed us wonderful display, swift cage play, stretching all muscle to give us the best posture and bursting at the top of their voice with beautiful songs would be drain out by then. Then how? How about the next one hour? Frankly, i do not think Shama is by nature create to show that kind of aggression in the wild for such prolonged hours. Did we extend the competition time for human satisfaction? Haha…

Sing it, brother.

And in the video above, you can see one of Mr Pang’s shamas “singing like crazy till sorethroat,” which has accumulated a whopping 276,133 views on YouTube.


Pursuit of the White-Rumped Shama

Here’s a little recording I made in Kauai in April 2012:

I later learned it was a white-rumped shama. The shama is popular for its song—we heard this bird well before we saw it—and inspires a quite devoted following in some quarters.

Copsychus malabaricus is a type of thrush native to south and southeast Asia. It was first introduced to Kauai by Alexander Isenberg in 1931 (presumably this is the son of beloved sugar baron Paul Isenberg). The particular subspecies on the islands is C.m. indicus, found from east India and Nepal to northwest Burma.

In Asia, there are whole groups devoted to the bird. Singapore, especially, has an active set of shama enthusiasts raising them, sometimes catching them in the wild, and entering birdsong competitions with them.

To see what a shama looks like, the photo below (posted on Flickr by Chris Thomas), gives a better view of one of these birds than the less-than-stellar iPhone snap I filed with that audio clip.

bird on the trail

Print called "Fine Wind, Clear Morning" or "Red Fuji" by Hokusai
Asia, disaster

Mount Fuji In Red, After Fukushima

Among the eight vignettes in Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams is “Mount Fuji in Red.” It’s the sixth story, and among the eight dreams, it’s one of the nightmares. It’s a stark, bleak view of a few people discussing——while trying to flee——a nuclear disaster.

Akira Kurosawa: DREAMS (1990) from cinema.antifono on Vimeo.

[Update July 2013: Ugh, someone took down that video. Sorry for the inconvenience. Until I find another version to embed, you can read the relevant script dialogue here.]

I saw this before Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, which began just about two years ago. But where the short film might come off as preachy and reflective of some reflexive late-80s anti-nuclear sentiment, it now evokes the anxieties and concerns about nuclear safety that we’ve come to know as Japan’s “safety myth.” That, as the Times summed it up, “Japan’s nuclear power plants were absolutely safe.”*

“They told us that nuclear plants were safe,” says the woman in the dream. “Human accident is the danger, not the nuclear plant itself. No accidents, no dangers. That’s what they told us. What liars!”

*Or, rather, as the Japan Times put it after the government’s report on the disaster, the myth required ignoring the possibility of rare but extreme events.