Archive for November, 2010


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.