martini-drinking robot minions

Awhile ago, I wrote about the robots (Stormtroompas) working behind the scenes at the San Jose Mercury News. It would be great, I thought at the time, to capture these things on video.

So I did.

Here, for your amusement, is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Merc-bots. And the massive printing presses, and some charming humans. In the last scene, Mama and Papa Drake even make an appearance.

Oh yeah. I added an out-take reel as well.

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Sea otter death….and life!

Sea otter with urchin Credit: matt knoth (Flickr)

Last fall, our class visited the sea otter researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Sandeep summarized many neat tidbits about otters from that trip on this blog. Two items that really piqued my interest involved otter mortality. In California, many otters die from disease or shark bite. What’s going on?

I tracked down the answer during my internship at KUSP 88.9 FM. Here’s a short radio story about how disease contributes to the recent otter population decline.

I talked about the increased number of shark bites during my interviews with Tim Tinker, an otter researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, and Steve Shimek, executive director for The Otter Project, a non-profit organization working to support otter population recovery. The slideshow covers Tinker’s thoughts about the shark bites.

Shimek isn’t convinced that sharks only “taste” otters. Perhaps these toothy predators are swallowing them too. “What washes ashore is the otters that have been bitten and maybe spit out by the shark,” Shimek says. “Of course, we don’t know the number of otters that were eaten by the sharks because we’re never going to find those otters. Those otters are shark poop.”

Whether tasted or swallowed, the increased number of shark bites concerns otter advocates. Otter and shark biologists plan to work together to find the cause.

Tinker told me about another neat project comparing the environment and genetics of otter populations in Alaska, California and Canada. Of those three groups, only the California cluster is in decline. Researchers want to find similarities and differences between the three populations to help pinpoint the specific reasons for this downward trend. They set out for a three-week Alaskan expedition on Monday. It’s the second year of fieldwork on this project.

[UPDATE: Follow the scientists as they blog from the field here.]

The scientists will trap wild otters, collecting blood samples and one whisker for genetic analysis. The blood contains genetic markers that indicate otter immune system responses. These results will help them learn which diseases dominate each population.

The whisker contains clues to the otter’s diet over time — chemical elements unique to different kinds of prey. The tip of the whisker is several months older than its base. The scientists test many sections along its length to figure out an otter’s favorite treats. Many diseases start with a toxic meal, so this information helps scientists figure out which type of prey carries a poisoned punch.

Tinker hopes to have results from this long-term study in a couple of years. Until then, follow their work at the USGS Pacific Nearshore Project website.

I’ll end with happy otter news from SciCom’s backyard. A wild otter was born in Elkhorn Slough, a wetland south of Santa Cruz, last week. Researchers working on an unrelated project witnessed the birth and posted videos to YouTube. It’s hard to see the new pup, but it’s neat to watch the other otters form a ring of bodyguards (or babyguards?).

Description from press release:

This clip shows the mom/pup pair being noticed by a third otter, who then retrieves more otters to form a protective circle around the two.  Interesting points include:
0:00 – mother holding pup in the air to clean it
0:19 – the pair are noticed by a third otter, who seems excited at the new addition
0:49 – a new otter swims up
1:05 – another mom/pup pair joins in, then the three new otters disappear for a bit
2:52 – another otter returns briefly
3:30 – five otters begin to circle up

It’s a tough world out there, little otter, but know that scientists, environmentalists and SciCom slugs are looking out for you!

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Finally, a puppy

For this entire school year, I’ve been trying to find a story into which I could sneak some mention of my puppy. Every single time we got a project, I though, “Is this it? Is this finally THE ONE?”

No. And no. And no again.

Until one fine day at the end of April, we got to film and edit short video biographies for our multimedia class. Guess who I picked as my subject? As I write this, Dozer the English bulldog is nestled against my back in our beanbag chair, snoring away. He is the product of many generations of forced inbreeding, and I love him with all my heart. I hope you enjoy.

English bulldogs are descended from old English bulldogs (really). Old English bulldogs were taller and had less-squished noses than their descendants. They were bred for bull-baiting. Their up-turned noses helped them breathe while keeping a bull’s nose clamped in their jaws, the wrinkles of skin on their faces, called ropes, helped keep the blood out of their eyes, and their stubborn temperament made them hang on long after any reasonable animal would have let go and run away to lick its wounds.

Dozer does not bait bulls. He runs from loud noises and plastic bags. Like most modern English bulldogs, he has a calm demeanor and a relaxed outlook on life. He’s had a few skin issues, and we have to watch carefully for eye disease and joint problems.

Pure bred animals are often more prone to diseases than their mixed-breed counterparts. That’s because they have been bred over and over again with very similar animals, winnowing down their genetic makeup so severely that specific traits consistently show up. It’s just like people. When family members have children together, those children are more likely to have health problems (think of how many of the Russian royal family had hemophilia).

Genes for maladaptive traits like hemophilia (or having a face so scrunchy it’s hard to breathe) can hide when they’re part of a genetic mixed bag with lots of variety. They don’t show up that often because other, more dominant genes override them. But when you breed similar creatures together, be they human or canine, you lose a lot of that genetic variety, and those hidden genes can rear their ugly heads. Or their adorable, wrinkly heads, as the case may be.

Well, that’s my attempt at making my adorable puppy relevant to readers interested in science. Thanks for your indulgence, those of you who stuck with me this far. Here’s your reward:

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mud, mountain lions, and my dad

The SciCom slugs have been out and about recently, perhaps seeking an escape from the swirling pre-graduation chaos?

You've been slimed!

Part 1: Paintings and Pumas

Last week, we attended the opening of the Science Illustration Program‘s exhibit at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. Word on the street is that one of the Slugs is putting together a multimedia project about the event, so I’ll keep my comments short: It was fantastic!! (reptiles and insects and jellies, oh my!)

Butterfly-eye-view of the gallery

My goodness those artists are talented. I can’t wait to see the illustrations for our Science Notes features. Eagerly, eagerly waiting.

Coincidentally, the museum’s featured exhibit is about mountain lions — an entertaining surprise, since I’ve been writing about the furry felines for several months now…ever since one went slinking through my front yard. (proof: gazing outside while daydreaming can lead to good things)

RAWR. I live with mountain lions!

September, 1926: Nature cover

Puma-paws, Nads-paws

Rallying my inner puma to drag 200 pounds.

I can haz deerz?


Part 2: Muddy Spelunking

Thursday, instead of spending two hours in a classroom, we went on a little adventure. Our instructor, Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza, led us first into a meadow where — horrors! — we stretched our writing skills with a chocolate tasting (I know, so rough). Turns out, describing food flavors isn’t so easy. Power to those wine critics, and to Martha for this exercise.

Martha and Slugs sharing some writing


[headlamp required]

There’s a cave on campus known as Empire Cave — carved out of the calcium carbonate (limestone) on which the university sits — and it’s a hidey-hole for wildlife undergraduates. Though the school tried to block the cave with a big cement slab, stubborn spelunkers dynamited the barricade, and three subterranean rooms and tunnels again await those willing to take the plunge.

Martha brought us there to write about being in the cave, the forest, and listening to noisy cars amidst forest songs — things you need to experience to creatively convey.

Martha says, "We're going in there..."

En route -- Hi Donna!

Slug brigade.

Mud? Sweet!

Taking the plunge

A rusty metal ladder descends roughly 15 feet from the jagged concrete hole into the 
A rusty metal ladder descends roughly 20 feet from the lip of the jagged hole, guiding explorers into the cave’s first room. Near the cave’s entrance, the endangered Dolloff spider (Meta dolloff) supposedly spins its web, though I didn’t see any of the creepy crawlers. Who lives in the cave? The Empire Cave Pseudoscorpion (Microreagris Imperialis), a “species of concern,” which only inhabits this dripping, slimy cavern (didn’t meet that one either).

Yummmm...paper. Melissae and Danielle get geared up.

Peering down into the darkness. (those are headlamps)

The first, high-ceilinged room is filled with tree branches and some trash. From the cave’s floor, a 25-degree incline loops back in the direction of the cave’s entrance. At the top of the rocky hill is the 


Hi, Keith!

It's dark down here, yo.

The first, high-ceilinged room
The first, high-ceilinged room is filled with tree branches and some trash. From the cave’s floor, a steep incline doubles back in the direction of the cave’s entrance. At the top of the rocky hill is a tunnel that slopes down to the cave’s second room. It’s easiest to traverse this tunnel by hanging onto the ceiling and walls (well within reach), since the floor is slippery with mud, booby-trapped with boulders, and riven with tree roots (curious and curioser…)

Into the belly of the beast.

'Doop & K-tron Do Spelunking

trying not to break anything...

Several weeks ago, Sandeep (‘Doop) and I ventured into this sloppy wonderland and were forced to stop partway down the tunnel since recent rains had flooded the passage.

Ummm...a cave-lake?

Today, the passage was open, and we happily squelched through the mud. Indeed, there must have been a sh*t-ton of water before, since the cave just kept going and going…and I’d thought it had just been a big puddle.

Keith (K-Tron!) remarked that trudging through the mud sounded like walking on bubble wrap: the mud insistently sucked on our shoes, reluctantly releasing them with a loud Pop! as we pushed forward.

As for our assignment?

Keith actually wrote *in* the cave...

...Danielle (Dunkle) perched...

...I waited for the meadow.

I wrote that I was drawn deeper into this moldy mineral chamber as though caught in a
I wrote that I was drawn deeper into this moldy mineral chamber as though caught in a rocky tractor beam…there was no turning back — onward!onward!gogogo! — until we hit a wall.

Or so I thought. According to a cave map, somewhere in that wall lurks the entrance to another room, waiting to be discovered by this Slug. I’m going back…

That's right. See ya next time!

And thank you, Martha!

Epilogue: Spelunking runs in the family.

After coming home covered in mud from my first outing in Empire Cave, I found myself at the receiving end of enthusiastic inquiries about the cave from my dad. (how big? how deep? rooms? tunnels? stuff inside? water? stalagmites? stalactites? bears? — not the last one.)

“Huh?” I thought. “Since when is dad concerned with all things subterranean? I thought his interests lay wayyyy above ground.”

Turns out, my dad is a super-spelunker.

In the 1960s, he and his buds spent their down-time exploring caves near the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. One of those caves, he says, is among the most spectacular in the eastern United States.

It’s called Cass Cave, and this cavern is no joke — parts of it are accessible only by adventurers doing their best earthworm impressions,  and its tunnels and rooms extend for miles.

But, “The most spectacular thing in this cave is a big waterfall,” my dad says, of the more than 100-foot underground cascade. “To get to the best part of the cave you had to climb down the waterfall (with ropes).  The geometry of the situation was such that you had to go up and down IN the waterfall, with freezing water pouring all over you. It was quite an adventure.”

I’ll say. He found a website showing an old National Geographic picture of the cave (photo below, caption info on the site is definitely worth a read!).

“I recognize the ladder in the picture…,” he says.

Conclusion? Dad’s badass.

[More Cass Cave recollections here, from a fellow who was at Green Bank around the same time.]

The End.

Posted in inspirations, observations, photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tulip Two-step

I’m having a lot of fun in our multimedia class this quarter. I love mixing together a voice over, a touch of music and eye-catching images to tell a story. The hard part has been getting the courage to take pictures and video of people. Personally, I hate being on film, so I sometimes feel like I am torturing my subjects when I’m standing on the other side of the camera, snapping away. Also, my lack of experience with lighting, lenses and layout means I’m slow and I make mistakes (back lighting an interview? super fail. will.not.repeat).

As training wheels for my first project, I found a subject that has all the time in the world and no sense of self-consciousness: a crops of tulips blooming on my deck. One day, I noticed that on a particularly warm afternoon, the flowers had opened wide, so that the petals were practically perpendicular to the stem. I thought this movement would be a nice subject for a slide show. On picture day, the weather didn’t get quite as warm as I would have hoped, so the flowers didn’t open as dramatically as I had first noticed. Nonetheless, the flowers did get in their daily stretch and made no complaints as I set up each shot and adjusted all the camera’s widgets.

Here’s what I came up with:

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Adventures in Time-lapse

I’ve always admired time-lapse videos. You can watch the seasons turn or cloud banks roil against a mountain range in a matter of seconds. One guy shot a time-lapse of himself driving across the country, although this takes several minutes to watch.

After learning how to make my own time-lapse sequence in class, I spent sunset this past Sunday capturing images.

It was definitely an adventure – equipment failures (tripod attachment), dead batteries (but I had a spare!), and people wanting to ask what I was doing. Since I had to take a picture every four seconds and I don’t have one of those programmable gadgets that will take them for you, I had to keep a weather eye on my stopwatch. No time to talk, sorry! But, I got what I needed. You can see for yourself how it turned out:

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Limited listening

A closeup of one antenna in the Allan Telescope Array, at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Northern California (Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill/Creative Commons)

Our collective ears have swiveled downward, from the sounds of the sky, to the jingling of our coin purse. The SETI Institute halted operations of the radio telescopes in the Allen Telescope Array, the San Jose Mercury News reported Monday. Until a few days ago, these telescopes had been scanning the sky, radio-ears at the ready, in a quest to detect signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Budget shortages, it seems, find ever new ways to determine, and limit, what we listen to.*

These budget reductions are sad news, for me and for many people. SETI matters have appeared on this blog before (and for pieces I’ve written for Wired Science and for class). What actually interests me most about the field – more than the aliens themselves – is how the search affects those drawn to it. (For more on this watch Jill Tarter’s, director of the institute’s Center for SETI Research, 2009 TEDtalk.

Moon meets Venus

Night sky (Sabby3000/Flickr)

The desire to reach intelligence beyond the bounds of earth, seems to imbue goodwill towards the life already here (snarky jokes shelved for another time). By turning off equipment that makes the search possible, we’re lowering our perspective. Our concerns become more base. I can’t think of any time when that worked to our advantage.

Tossing in my two copper coins, I hope it’s not too long before our ears perk up again.

(*Note: Radio signals aren’t actually sound, but stretched-out, far-journeying light.)

= = = = = = = = = =

For reading see:

Search for ET Put on Hold, Seth Shostak, a lively, likeable Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, Huffington Post;
-SETI Institute to shut down alien-seeking radio dishes, Lisa Krieger, the San Jose Mercury News;
SETI Institute suspends search for alien signals, David Perlman, the San Francisco Chronicle;
-Or see the announcement and request for donations on the Institute’s website.

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