Category: S3: FALL 2010


Gastronomica is an exploration of the visual and sensory power of food that is abstracted, magnified and layered. The project was born out of a dinner that Nisma (Bengali/Caucasian American) and Minette (Filipino/Chinese) had at Mitali East. Many dinners followed at restaurants with cuisines linked to their cultural heritages, where they fleshed out project ideas. The food that Minette and Nisma prepared and videotaped for this project came from recipes handed down through their ancestors, so the act of making the dishes was both a cooking adventure and a tribute to the past.

Many thanks to Robin Sukhadia and Walter Kitundu for permission to use their beautiful music. We are also grateful to Craig Protzel for the sound mix, to Calli Higgins and Matt Ganucheau for letting us use their awesome Canon HD high speed cameras, to Derek Chung for letting us shoot in his gorgeous kitchen, and to Matt Richard for all his help and support.

I just read chapter one of The Craftsman by Richard Sennett and one thing that caught my attention was the writer’s argument that CAD tools (computer-assisted design) in the world of architecture cause the head to suffer in relation to the hand (as he put it).  In other words, the mind gets lazy because of the computer algorithms at work in CADs, so the repetitive or tedious process of doing the drawings by hand forces the architect to visualize the building, with its situational context and material properties, in the mind’s eye.  The CAD drawings provide endless possibilities but can cause a “disconnect between simulation and reality” and lead to flaws in design thinking.

I don’t fully agree with the mainly negative view of digital tools in relation to craft and excellence, but I realize that there are aspects of the creative thought and planning process that have suffered for me in switching from analog to digital approaches in documentary film/video-making.

My first film was a 26-minute documentary about mixed race women’s thoughts on identity in American society.  This is a project that began in my senior year of college, after winning a film grant for my proposal.  The grant covered about ten 100-foot rolls of 16mm film (at that time, each roll cost around $100), which was a lot of film at that time but constituted only about 100 minutes of footage.  The footage time constraint and the lack of money to buy more footage compelled me to come up with a “script” and a solid plan for shooting before breaking open those cans of film.  I conducted long audio-only interviews on audiotape with the women that I chose to film, transcribed all the interviews and then created a script for them based on their own words. The filming of the “interviews” was very focused and the interviewees were generally more articulate and less nervous about being filmed because of all the preparation and the time I spent getting to know them beforehand.

In contrast, for the “film” (actually video, to use the more accurate but less glamorous term) that I’m working on now about adult competitive figure skaters, I wasn’t able to spend much time on preparation and I didn’t create a “script” for the interviewees.  Tape stock is relatively cheap, so I treated taping in a similar manner as the audio interviews that I did in my previous film.  I conducted my research on video, getting to know skaters as potential subjects, and then continued to videotape the skaters I chose to focus on.  I asked them all similar questions about skating and their lives, and believed that I would be able to craft the story in editing, trying out different possibilities (which is easier and faster to do in video than in film, for obvious reasons).  While I have a great deal of interesting and spontaneous-feeling footage, I don’t have the skaters stating things in the way that would have worked best for the story, so it’s been quite a challenge trying to cobble together moments from difference pieces of footage to create the best storyline.

The editing of each documentary is analogous to the shooting process, in that the craft of physically editing 16mm film with a Rivas splicer caused me to think carefully about each and every cut before I actually executed it, while the process of editing a video in Final Cut Pro allowed for more experimentation but made me less decisive and prepared.  The 16mm film was finished years ago and is still in distribution, while the video is still waiting patiently for my time, my attention and my final decisions.

Over the years since undergrad, I’ve transitioned from virtually all analog forms of media production to digital.  I love the speed, the variety of software features, the possibilities of structure, etc. but one of the things I need to remember is how analog tools informed my creative and decision-making processes, my relation to the craft of these disciplines, and the quality of my overall work.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I decided to sprinkle some moistened moss in the tank for a couple reasons. First of all, Aragorn and Arwen were now both in the sand part of the tank, away from the humidity tubes, and we know that moss can retain water and increase humidity levels. Since we had reliable sensor readings for awhile now, I wanted to see if the addition of moss would change the numbers. It also seemed a bit stale in the tank, and I thought moss would brighten up the air quality.

As soon as I put moss in the tank, I felt an immediate rush of cool, fresh air which I inhaled deeply. Aragorn responded almost immediately. You can see his initial response towards the end of the video attached to the previous post, but below is the short video I took with my old little Canon digital photo camera. He was initially shy when I leaned over the tank with the camera but then he overcame his shyness and started moving toward the moss. He even got on top of the moss and then the wood to head towards the moss I put at the top (my little camera can only record a short bit of video, so I wasn’t able to get the wood climb). Given how little movement we’ve witnessed and how shy they’ve generally been, this change in activity and behavior was amazing!

CrabSense: Aragorn loves moss! from Nisma Z on Vimeo.

I later checked the VOC and Carbon numbers and they showed a big drop: 100 to 150! This is proof in the power of moss to increase air quality.

Melissa came in around noon to check on the crabs and tank conditions. The Mac Mini was really hot and when I touched the mouse, the computer crashed, which is unfortunate because we lost all the video recorded overnight (I need to change the code for the Processing sketch so that it auto saves video every hour or so). Apparently Aragorn finally came out of the hut and migrated over to the other side of the tank in the sand area to presumably be near Arwen. We couldn’t find Arwen initially but upon lifting the wood piece, we saw that she was burrowing deep into the sand under it (see video).

CrabSense: Arwen burrowing in the sand from Nisma Z on Vimeo.

Aragorn had positioned himself between the wood and the climbing background. Melissa turned up the humidity to increase the levels, since both crabs were on the low-humidity side of the tank, and misted and covered the lid to keep the humidity in. Around 8p I came in and decided to introduce a bit of moss, which is supposed to retain moisture and increase humidity. Aragorn loved the moss…see the next post about that.

Early in the morning while it was still dark out, Arwen apparently came out of the hut, drank some water, ate part of a pellet, and climbed over the wood and later burrowed in the sand under the wood.  About three hours later, Aragorn came out of the hut, drank some water, possibly ate some of the pellet food, and then went back into the hut. Check out the sped-up video to see the movements caught on camera (yes, I know, we need to set up an infrared camera).

CrabSense: Arwen’s migration to the sand from Nisma Z on Vimeo.

Aragorn came to the doorway of the coconut hut around 1p to say hi to Melissa when she was checking on the crabs – she was delighted by that and sent me a photo :)

The temperature and humidity levels have been good.  I popped in around 10p and misted, turned on the heat lamp, downloaded sound and video files and soaked the towel in water that covers the screen top.

Trying to maintain the minimum acceptable humidity level for the hermit crabs has been almost impossible. We would have to mist the tank every 10 minutes to keep it up, which is obviously not feasible. Yesterday I found this DIY “humidifier” and decided to try it out. I bought an air pump from Petco and a safe water bottle from Kmart.  I set it up and placed the tube inside the tank mid-day.  It definitely did more than just the sponge and water pillows, but still not enough.  There was no visible movement from the crabs on the USB camera.  I looked inside the hut and thankfully the two that were inside there were moving and digging slightly, but the one in the corner wasn’t moving.  I thought it was just resting.  Melissa checked on the crabs in the evening, misted the tank and moved the tube.  She also recoded the VOC and Carbon sensors, added an ozone sensor, and made the whole breadboard more secure. Awesome.

Today I met up with Melissa around noon and we discovered that the one in the corner had died.  We were really bummed out.  Was it because it was too cold, too dry, or just lonely and depressed without a mate?  We know that hermit crabs are social and need to be in groups but perhaps each one also needs to have a buddy or mate?  Looking back at the videos, this crab seemed confused about direction and moved much slower than the other two, so maybe it was sick?  The other two had gone over to it on the first day when it settled in the corner, almost as if to check up on it, but had then gone into the hut and stayed there.  Maybe they knew it was dead and huddled together to stay warm and comfort each other?  Who knows…we’d have to research further and talk to experts.   This death made us determined to fix the humidity and tank conditions and check on them frequently to make sure they’re alive.  I also thought of names finally, inspired by characters from Lord of the Rings.  The one who died is name Boromir, the more adventurous one with the spiral patterned shell is Aragorn, and the one with the light-colored cone shell is Arwen.  I’ll refer to them by name from here on out.

I came back in the evening and saw that the humidity levels were still not quite suitable.  I decided that the DIY humidifier wasn’t good enough, so I did some Googling and found a teardrop-shaped humidifier made by Crane that was referenced in a Vivarium Forum post related to hermit crabs.  So I ran over to Kmart to get this.  Melissa had brought more tubes, so I gaffer-taped four tubes going from the top of the humidifier cone into the tank with outputs at four different parts of the tank.  I immediately saw water mists coming out of the tube ends and watched the humidity levels rise.  Finally!

Just to rant for a second, I’m really quite annoyed that Petco doesn’t sell a humidifier like this for hermit crabs and other creatures that require high humidity, given how essential it is for their well-being.  It is simply irresponsible!  I can’t even believe that local plant stores didn’t carry automatic misters or humidifiers for their tropical plants.  It seems that these stores care only about profits and not about the well being of the living creatures and plants they sell.  Grrr.

Here’s the video that shows some extremely sped-up motion of Aragorn moving around inside the hut:

CrabSense: Aragorn and Arwen inside the hut from Nisma Z on Vimeo.

I spent quite a bit of time today checking on the hermit crabs. Last night the temperature in Manhattan dipped down below 40 degrees, so the tank was quite cold and dry when I came in. I misted quite a bit, which caused the humidity level to rise to 70, which is still a bit too low. I had left the heating lamp on all night but the temperature was also around 70 and should have been higher. I realized I needed to do more to increase both the temperature and humidity, so I went to the pet store to look for some kind of humidifier or automatic mister. I had asked about this initially and was told such an item wasn’t needed if I misted the tank once a day. On today’s trip, I was told that the automatic mister/fogger that they used to sell did not work properly, so the salesperson did not recommend this. He suggested instead that I get a natural sponge, which would provide another way of getting them drinking water while also raising the humidity level. I decided I also wanted to get the water pillows, which would also increase humidity. I was still concerned about the heat, so I decided to get a small heating pad to attach to the side of the tank.

When I got back to the floor, I introduced these items into the environment, all the while capturing double-speed video via the USB camera that I set up previously. It definitely made an impact because two of the three crabs at least responded and seemed to be gathering more moisture from the sponge and moistened dirt. The other crab was alive, just not moving much.

I misted throughout the day and checked all the sensors and audio-visual data, and sent files to Melissa for data visualization. Below is a video featuring the visible movements of the crabs from today.

CrabSense: Nov 1 highlights from Nisma Z on Vimeo.

Today marked the exciting transition between the preparation phase and the hermit crab data gathering phase of our CrabSense project.

When I got to our station on the floor, I checked the sensors that Melissa set up and attached them to the inside of the tank on the upper left side.  I checked the SD card in the DataLogger of the Arduino, and confirmed that we were getting CSV files containing reliable data from the sensors, along with date and time information.
CrabSense sensor and tank set-up
A big part of our data gathering is video and audio, which we decided not to do through the Arduino.  I checked out an AXIS 207W network camera and configured it to send me an email with an MPEG-4 video file whenever the camera detects any motion.  The sensitivity is set pretty high, to hopefully detect subtle movements.  The camera doesn’t really have a wide angle so it doesn’t capture as much of the tank as I’d hoped.  I attached it to a mic stand and set it up on the left edge of the tank, so that the Arduino could also rest on it.

Melissa wired up two small condenser microphones and attached them to quarter-inch plugs.  We checked out the Zoom audio recorder and after inserting a 16GB SD card, I configured it to record MP3 files at a variable bit rate (VBR) so that it doesn’t eat up space.  I  positioned the two mics on either side of the tank and connected them to the recorder on inputs 1 and 2.  I tested the recording and it is indeed producing a good sound file.  We’ll be importing it into a program like Audacity to look for peaks and changes in relation to time.

After getting the tech part out of the way, I then prepared the dirt substrate by soaking one of the dirt “bricks” that we got from PetCo in water, according to the instructions.  I went to PetCo and bought the remaining supplies, including sand substrate, and 3 hermit crabs with changes of shells (I chose crabs with natural shells, versus the painted shells — painted shells aren’t good for them because the paint can crack off and be ingested).  I felt and heard them moving around in their little box as I walked as quickly and steadily as I could back to ITP.  I kept telling them to “hang in there” — silly, I know, but I felt bad for them knowing it must have been so jarring to be exposed to so much movement and noise.

Once back at the station, I poured the bag of sand substrate into the left half of the tank and the moist dirt into the right side of the tank.  I took them out of the box — they were each hiding in their shells — and put them on the sand side, thinking they would like that better.  But within a few seconds of feeling the sand, they decided to move to the dirt side.  I captured their migration in a couple photos and video clips (see embedded video below).

CrabSense Project: hermit crab setup from Nisma Z on Vimeo.

After they huddled, they split up.  The one with the smooth round shell went to the right, front corner of the tank and stayed there.  The one with the cone shell positioned itself by the edge of the coconut house and the tank.  The adventurer with the spiral patterned shell wanted to be on top of the coconut house.  It peered behind the coconut fiber climbing wall and I was worried that it might go behind it, but it didn’t.  It tried to climb up the side of the tank but realized it couldn’t do that.  It eventually climbed down and onto the cone shell crab, who didn’t seem to mind.  Right before I left, I peered back in and didn’t see the adventurer – it must have burrowed into the dirt.

I was surprised that they seemed to prefer the edge by the window, which is colder.  I thought they would prefer heat and sand but apparently it’s the opposite.  I was worried about the heat though. When I was at PetCo, I purchased a 75 Watt bulb for nighttime viewing that also generates some heat and I set that up on top of the mic/tripod stand, so they should be okay for tonight.

I should have taken a photo of the whole tank set up with everything…I was in a rush to catch my train home…I’ll plan to take a photo first thing in the morning.  Aside from the sensors, two mics, and humidity and temperature monitors, the tank is now set up with the sand and dirt, a backdrop for climbing, a large natural climbing structure, a coconut house, four medium growth shells, one clam shell with eight pellets of food, one clam shell with regular water, and one bathing rock with salt water.  We intended to add plants, but we’ll either have to get a bigger tank or swap out the climbing structure with a smaller one to make room.

Play the Food Guessing Game first and then return to this post to read about it.  I look forward to your comments!

For this assignment, our instructors asked us to pick a topic we are passionate about and make a statement about it through a playable game or a self-explanatory art piece with game mechanics.  They also wanted us to make it in a medium that we’re comfortable with, to give them a sense of how we prefer to express ourselves.  The topic and medium came to mind right away: food and video.

People tend not to think too much about what they eat and why.  For me, thinking about the what and why of food, along with the short-term and long-term consequences, is a daily habit.  In a nutshell, I’m pretty dedicated to an organic, mostly vegan diet for a range of reasons that I won’t get into right now.  I originally wanted to make a game that encouraged people to eat healthier but I couldn’t come up with a way to do it that didn’t seem didactic.  So I decided to interview random strangers about their favorite food and make a game out of it.

I enjoy meeting people through video, getting them to talk about something they love – seeing their eyes light up, observing the transformation in their mood as fun memories surface in their mind, and leaving them in a happy state of being. I originally wanted people to describe food in an abstract or poetic way so that I could have the player guess between a food and something else, like an item of clothing, a place, etc.  But if food is described too abstractly (as in the beginning of the cheesecake example), then the player has no idea what the person is talking about.  I think the videos that I included in this piece strike a pretty good balance between making the player think and eventually giving them enough clues so they can guess the correct food.  (Note: I shot this pretty informally on a windy day, so it’s not quite up to my usual quality standards.)

The first version of the game showed the player the first part of the video and then displayed a message asking whether they wanted to guess or hear more of the video.  The player had to guess by typing in the name of the food, which would then prompt a display with the answer and give them a point if they got it right.  They would have to do that with each of the four videos.  I game-tested this with a couple people, who found it too hard to guess exactly what the food was or spell it properly (for instance, enchilada).  It also took longer to play than I had wanted because of the sequential nature of the video playing, and the experience of playing it in this way didn’t highlight all the things that I wanted the player to experience.  Plus this first version was built in Processing, which does a bad job of playing videos.

This version of the game is built in Flash, because Flash does a much better job of handling video clips and I wanted to learn Flash and ActionScript.  Craig Kapp, an ActionScript expert and collaborator on another project, taught me how to program this, and I’m proud to say that I figured out how to make the final confirmation screen on my own.  The game begins by asking the player to pick and drag their food choices for each person.  Game tester Sebastian is the one who had suggested this initial step when I explained that I wanted to play on people’s natural tendencies to stereotype others or size them up at first glance. I also thought it would be a quick and fun entrée to the game to have people think about what these four people love to eat based on just an image.  I noticed that game players actually talked through their logic for choosing foods for people, in order to justify their initial choices.  Only after the player fills each person’s box with food are they allowed to watch each person’s video to hear the food descriptions.   This phase of the game tests the player’s listening skills, patience and memory, because half of the food choices are blocked, and also provides a way for the player to “get to know” the person who was interviewed.  The player then gets the opportunity to guess again by dragging food choices.  This cycle continues until the player gets all four choices correct, which prompts a confirmation screen along with the names of the foods to supplement the food images.  There is more I could do to refine the game but I’m pleasantly satisfied with where I got it to today, and am thrilled with the positive feedback that it got.

I really enjoyed making this game.  From the people I interviewed, I realized from chatting with them after I videotaped them, how much their favorite foods remind them of home and are tied to childhood memories, and it made me think of foods that I loved as a kid but rarely eat now. Even though I advocate for healthy eating, I think there’s room for indulgences in these favorite foods once in awhile, especially because of the memories and comforting feelings they carry with them, and spacing them out makes them more special anyway.

My project partner, Melissa Clarke, and I are planning to create a vivarium (an enclosed or semi-enclosed container for plants and animals) as well as a sensor kit for monitoring changes in an interior environment before, during and after the vivarium is introduced into the space.  The sensors will also be used to monitor the biosphere of the vivarium.  We want to use sensors that monitor air quality, dust, temperature, and humidity. Check out Melissa’s blog for details on sensors and design drawings.

I was inspired to switch from a terrarium to a vivarium after observing leaf-cutting ants on display at the New York Hall of Science.  I was out there recently for the Maker Faire event and this display caught my attention because I observed adults who were totally entranced by the little ants carrying leaf bits that were at least four-times their size.  Watching the little creatures working so hard yet seemingly nonchalantly was fascinating.  I know, I’m anthropomorphizing the ants, I can’t help it.  I know others will do that as well, so introducing little creatures into a terrarium should dramatically increase complexity and interest and encourage other people to create their own vivariums.

I’m in the process of researching what creatures we should work with.  Crickets are an obvious choice, which reminds me of fellow ITP student Jill Haefele’s Living Headphones project.  I’m more intrigued though by hermit crabs and stick insects, both of which moult.

Hermit crabs are ironically social, so we’ll have to get a bunch.  They’ll also require water bowls and a temperature and humidity-controlled environment.  They love to climb, which makes me want to design little jungle gyms or other such structures to see if they’ll play with them.  Stick insects are among the best camouflaged of all creatures, so spotting them can be challenging but delightfully surprising.  They are mainly nocturnal, so we’d like to add a camera sensor to take snapshots at regular intervals when we’re not around.

The design idea that came into my head when I switched my thinking to a vivarium was a clear double-cylinder (like a large donut), with the inner diameter large enough for a person to insert their head and rotate 360 degrees at their leisure, to observe the creatures and plants in an immersive fashion.  The outer diameter of the cylinder would perhaps be 6 inches bigger, to form an enclosed environment, although the top of it could be a mesh to allow for air circulation.  I like Melissa’s organically-shaped interpretation, although for that creation we’d need a custom glass blower to make it for us.  My cylinder idea isn’t very practical either, so I’m sure we’ll modify our design.

We are planning next to visit some terrarium/vivarium shops around the city to get ideas for shapes, materials and plants.