Archive for the ‘The CONE System’ Category

CONE Welder Temporarily Down

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

I just received the following email from loughman1:


This morning I sent a note to Goldberg, et al about the camera – see bottom message here – and received this note from Dez Song at TAMU. I’ve posted his note to Chat.

I’m sending this note to all the CONE-Welder players for whom I have e-mail addresses – fewer than a dozen. So feel free to forward the message to your best buddies.



Hi Kay,

We are aware of the problem and working on the issue. It is a network outage with possible equipment damage. We are trying to figure out what went wrong.

On Thu, 6 Nov 2008, Kay Loughman wrote:

> Hi Folks,
> We haven’t had a camera at Welder since yesterday, about noon. Some people are having serious withdrawal problems! Would it be possible for you to give us a brief message in the News section of the Login page – something that says why, and when it is expected that the camera will be functioning again?
> Thanks,
> Kay

In the meantime, those suffering from withdrawal can check out grrlscientist’s “Mystery Bird of the Day” feature at Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted). I confess that that’s one of my favorite places to hide out lately when I’m not on CONE Welder.

“Bonus” Zoom (aka “Wide Angle”)

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

Today idbirds and I were chatting about something we’d noticed from time to time: How it apparently is possible to get a view with the camera that is zoomed out farther than is normally allowed. We did some experimenting, and it turns out that it’s pretty easy to trick the system into giving you such a zoomed-out view. Here’s a photo I took when the camera was in what we’ve taken to calling “bonus zoom” mode:

Image 106894

(Update: abirch suggested calling it “wide angle” mode, which I think is probably a better name.)

It seems like this view would be handy in certain circumstances. It helps avoid some of the “tunnel vision” I was talking about in a recent post. You need to be careful with this, since it will tend to make small birds disappear in more-distant views. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s noticed how smaller birds can seem to vanish when the camera is zoomed out too far, especially when those birds are located far away. That’s why I tend to zoom in a bit when scanning distant locations: There’s no point in looking for birds if you’re zoomed out too far to see them.

To give you a sense of scale, there’s a Golden-fronted Woodpecker visible on the fountain in the lower lefthand corner of that bonus-zoom shot above. It’s pretty tiny, even though it is quite close to the camera. So don’t expect to see small birds in bonus-zoom mode if you’re pointed very far away.

But I think bonus zoom could be useful when looking at a field of view that is relatively close to the camera, waiting for something to fly in that can then be zoomed in on for a closer view. The bonus zoom lets you keep more area under surveillance without having to constantly be panning back and forth. Also, if you could pan while in bonus zoom mode, you could cover the same field of view more quickly, making fewer stops.

There are two parts to this bonus zoom trick that we worked out today:

Trick #1: Getting into bonus zoom mode

This takes two users working together.

The system normally restricts how large a field of view you can request. When drawing a rectangle on the panorama, or when using the minus sign (-) button to expand your most-recent request box, you can’t go past a certain-sized box. (I’ll refer to this normal maximum-zoomed-out view as “max zoom”.)

It turns out, though, that the “game” interface we use to issue requests artificially limits this max zoom. That is, the underlying camera system is capable of zooming out farther than that. In particular, if two users each draw a max-zoom box slightly off-center from each other at roughly the same time, the system will try to accommodate their requests by zooming the camera out a bit more to create a view that encompasses both requests. As long as no one then pulls the camera back by issuing another request, the camera will stay in bonus-zoom mode.

The specific way we accomplished this today was this: One user would start drawing max-zoom requests on the panorama, centering those requests on the red hummingbird feeder to the left of and slightly above the fountain. (There’s nothing magic about that location, but it made for a convenient landmark as we coordinated in chat.) At the same time, the second user started drawing max-zoom requests that were centered about halfway between the hummingbird feeder and the upper-righthand corner of the first user’s request box.

In other words, the second user’s request box was positioned in such a way that its upper righthand corner was above and to the right of the first request box by an amount about half the size of a normal max-zoom box. In still other words, the finished bonus-sized box ended up being about 50% larger than a normal max-zoom box. From the small amount of experimenting we did today, it looks like that’s about as big a box as we can make. When we tried to make a larger bonus-zoom box, the trick didn’t work. That probably reflects a hard limit in the camera’s underlying control system.

The trickiest part of this is knowing when to stop drawing boxes. If you watch the panorama carefully, you can see when the camera creates a bold box representing bonus-zoom mode. Once you see that, it’s important that you stop issuing requests. If you (or another user) draws another request after that, the view will shrink back to that size, dropping you out of bonus-zoom mode.

It seems to work best having just two users do this trick. When we tried it with a third user, we ran into problems, since the chances increased that a late request would drop us back out of bonus zoom after we’d achieved it.

Trick #2: Maintaining and restoring bonus zoom

As you can see, it’s a little bit of work getting into bonus zoom. Also, once you’re in it, you can’t issue another request (zooming or panning) without dropping the camera back to a normal view. But we figured out the following trick: If, once the camera is in bonus-zoom mode, you leave the game and immediately return, as you arrive you will be given a default black request rectangle that is equal to the camera’s current view. In other words, you’ll get a request rectangle that is bonus-zoom sized.

This is really useful. If you draw a rectangle on the panorama, or use the zoom buttons (+/-), you’ll get a normal-sized request box, and lose your bonus-zoom request box. But as long as you limit yourself to using only the arrow keys on the camera controls (up, down, left, right), you can drive the bonus-zoom request box wherever you want. In other words, you can pan around the panorama in bonus-zoom mode.

Besides being able to pan in bonus-zoom mode, there’s another advantage to getting a bonus-sized request box. If a bird appears, and some other user zooms in on it, you will keep your bonus-sized request box. As long as you don’t issue any other pointing requests, you can easily restore the bonus-zoom mode afterward by nudging your request box with the arrow keys.

Did you follow that? Once you get into bonus-zoom mode using trick #1, one or more users can then obtain a bonus-zoom sized request box using trick #2. They can then pan around in bonus-zoom mode using the arrow keys, and, if a bird is seen and the camera is zoomed in by another user, they can return the camera to bonus-zoom mode afterwards by nudging the arrow keys.

Fountain Fun

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

The first view I ever had of CONE Welder was the following zoomed-out panorama:

I wrote at the time:

And then there’s that complicated-looking circular object near the center of the field of view. What is that thing? A feeder station? I really want to zoom in on it to get a better idea.

As we all now know, that thing was actually the fountain, with its inverted-cone squirrel guards (I guess?) around the support legs.

For a long time I mostly neglected the fountain; there didn’t seem to be much happening there. I was much more interested in the feeders, and the pond, and that bare-limbed tree beyond the pond to the right. But lately there have been a lot of good birds being photographed at the fountain. Here are some of my favorite shots from the last few days:

The Eastern Bluebird seems to show up here regularly. Here’s a really nice view (of a male, maybe? not sure), taken by txbird at 1:17 p.m. on October 20:

Image 101812

Here’s a two-fer: A Green Jay on the left, and an Audubon’s Oriole in the middle. We’ve only seen Audubon’s Oriole a few times with the camera, so this was definitely an exciting appearance. This shot was taken at 6:49 a.m. on October 21, also by txbird:

Image 102030

Next up are several shots of the Northern Mockingbird, a bird we’ve seen off and on for a while, but have seen a lot of lately at the fountain. The following shots are by, in order, rafa, idbirds, vanilla and tinyang. If you check out the inner toe on the bird’s left foot in each shot, you’ll see that there are at least two mockingirds visiting the fountain: One who is missing that toe, and one who isn’t.

Image 102326

Image 102094

Image 101765

Image 101758

Finally, here are a bunch of my favorite shots of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, a bird we’ve seen only a few times before its recent run of fountain visits. These are by idbirds, txbird, vanilla, txbird, rafa, and txbird, respectively:

Image 102443

Image 101616

Image 102332

Image 102012

Image 101842

Image 101142

I was chatting recently about all the great fountain shots lately, and wondering if there really are more good birds at the fountain these days, and if so, what caused the change. Or is it that there have always been these good birds there, and we’ve just never bothered to look? I could see an argument being made either way. Birds change their habits in response to seasonal movements and shifting food and water sources and any number of other factors. We’ve certainly seen dramatic changes in the birds visiting the feeders over a similar span of time. So I could easily believe that this recent run of interesting birds at the fountain really is a new phenomenon.

On the other hand, I’ve always been suspicious of the unavoidable tunnel vision imposed by the CONE system. With no peripheral vision and no audio cues, and with the constricted field of view when the camera is zoomed in, birdwatching with CONE Welder is a little like a deaf person birding with his or her eyes constantly looking through binoculars (or rather, a spotting scope, and a spotting scope restricted to sweeping through a fairly limited arc in terms of side-to-side motion, and an even more limited arc in terms of up and down). When I try to imagine what it would be like to bird in that fashion, I’m struck by the realization that there could be all kinds of interesting birdy activity going on just outside the frame, and I would simply never be aware of it.

Something I thought about several times with the old CONE SF system, and that I think about now with CONE Welder, is that I’d love to actually be there with my binoculars and a network-equipped laptop, birding the area conventionally, and comparing what I see and hear to what is being found and seen via the camera. As with that shot Chris forwarded to us of the Red-shouldered Hawk perched high in the bare tree (who even knew that there was a top portion of that bare tree?), I suspect I’d find that there is a lot going on that is being missed by the camera.

I think there’s a larger philosophical lesson there. Something I’ve definitely learned from birding is how the process of becoming a better birder is not just about becoming more knowledgeable. It’s about becoming more aware. For all that I really love the CONE system, it’s important to be aware of its limitations, and one of its biggest limitations, I think, is that tunnel vision it imposes.

But constrained as it is, it still offers an amazing view into the birds at a place that I otherwise would not be able to see at all. And these latest shots from the fountain are a great example of that. Thanks to everyone who made them possible!

CONE Welder Videos at YouTube

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

I was in the game for a little bit this morning (something I haven’t been doing enough of lately; shame on me), and had the fun of meeting a new user, amy0321. She (I’m assuming she’s a she, based on the username) mentioned that she’s a graduate student doing research on the technology of wild bird observation, and that she’s located in Beijing. She also mentioned that she’d seen some videos on YouTube about Professor Goldberg and CONE Welder, which led me to check them out. They’re pretty cool!

Here’s one I’d seen before, though not on YouTube: It’s a demo of how to use the site, with narration by (I believe) Bryce Lee:

Here’s a short (53 second) video of Prof. Goldberg talking about CONE Welder to (I believe) a classroom of younger children:

Here’s a longer (1h 26m) video of Prof. Goldberg talking about various projects he’s worked on, including CONE, in a presentation at Stanford University:

Finally, here’s Prof. Goldberg in an hourlong interview from the series “Conversations with History”, talking about “his dual careers as an industrial engineer who designs robots and an artist whose creations use robots to stimulate understanding of technology’s impact.”

Like I said, really cool stuff! Thanks, amy0321!

Playing the CONE-Welder game: guidelines

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Several of us have been active participants in CONE Welder for many  months. We’ve developed a few guidelines that help us get along with each other, and allow everyone to take good pictures.

Be aware that there is only one camera, and it is shared by everyone who is currently logged in (left side of Chat screen). If several people try to drive the camera at the same time, no one gets a decent picture, and everyone gets frustrated.

The first guideline is: Only one camera driver at a time.

How do you know if someone is driving? If the camera lens (on the right side of your screen) is moving over the landscape, or around some feeder, then someone else is driving. If it is not moving, then the current driver may be waiting for the camera to move (sluggish internet connection), may be waiting for the return of something that just jumped off-screen, or may wish someone else would take over.

What if you want to drive the camera? Keep the Chat window open – you don’t have to participate in conversations unless you want to. If you want to drive the camera, on the Chat screen ask: “May I take the camera?” Abbreviated to MITC? Then wait 30 seconds. Someone will let you know if they really need to continue. Otherwise, you are free to take the camera.

The second guideline is: Ask first; don’t just grab the camera.

When you are finished driving the camera: Use the Chat function to announce “Camera is free.” Abbreviated to CIF.

So now you’ve taken a picture, what next? For those pictures worth keeping, try to zone your pictures promptly. If the picture contains images that are so small or fuzzy that they cannot readily be identified by others, it may be appropriate to delete the picture. It you keep such a picture, it’s considerate to add a note to the comment section indicating the classification you have assigned. Otherwise the picture may languish forever in the Unclassified files. If you are unsure about the correct identification, use the Chat function to ask others for assistance. If you have two or more species in one picture, zone each species separately. If you have two or more of the same species in one picture, you may zone them together or separately. [If you zone them separately, you get more points – a boon to the more competitive among us, and an annoyance to everyone else!] Zone separately any bird that has a band or other unique characteristic. The system gives you an hour from the time you take the picture until the picture appears on the “public” screen. It is best to get your picture zoned before it becomes public.

There are unzoned pictures on the public screen. Should I zone them? No. Sometimes photographers keep several pictures for a while – trying to decide which to delete. If you put a zone, comment, or star on that picture, the picture can no longer be deleted. When looking at those pictures, try to keep your hands off the keyboard! It’s okay, though, to use the Chat function to remind the photographer that s/he has unzoned pictures.

The third guideline is: Don’t put zones, comments, or stars on someone else’s unzoned picture.

Can I take a picture of anything? Pretty much, yes. Keep in mind that the Welder study is concerned with range expansion for several traditionally subtropical bird species (see the link for the list on the About page). So it’s good to get pictures of those species when you can. Birds, insects, mammals, reptiles – are all fair game. Occasionally you may also see people. But – just like at home – don’t take pictures of people without their permission: it’s an invasion of their privacy.

Other questions? Use the Chat function to ask. Among the people logged in, there is likely to be someone who will be glad to answer or refer you to a place where you can get an answer.

Q and A

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Kay Loughman (user loughman1 in CONE) has been doing some really great work lately posing questions to various experts (as her post on the banded Buff-bellied Hummingbird shows). She and I recently put together a list of questions for the people running the show at CONE Welder, and we’ve now received answers that I want to share with you all. (Dr. Selma Glasscock at Welder indicated that she was going to be out of the office until the second half of August, but indicated she would be happy to forward some responses as well when she gets back.)

Dr. Glasscock (and others),

You had previously indicated it would be okay for users of the CONE Welder system to periodically forward you a list of questions and suggestions we had about the system. Attached is a summary of some of the questions users have submitted lately. Any responses you can pass our way would be great; I’ll post them on the blog I maintain.


John Callender (aka “elanus”)


1. Do you have a checklist of Welder’s non-bird wildlife that you could forward to us? Many of us are interested in wildlife beyond birds. A complete list would help us to know more about the area. And in our lax time, we could speculate about the identities of generic frogs, snakes, etc. (loughman1)

John Rappole writes: Selma can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that there is a checklist on non-bird wildlife.

2. Beyond the information in the Welder bird checklist regarding the abundance of different species in each seasons, do you have any information you can forward us about what bird species we can expect to start seeing migrating through, and when we might see them? (loughman1)

John Rappole writes: That is a book-length request. Over 300 species of migrants occur in the Texas Coastal Bend region, of which Welder is a part. Over 200 of them have been recorded at Welder. The best source for detailed information on the birds would be a copy of Rappole and Blacklock, 1985, “Birds of the Texas Coastal Bend”, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas or Rappole and Blacklock, 1994, “Birds of Texas”, Texas A&M University Press.

3. The Welder checklist shows Mourning Dove as Common all year. In California they frequent seed feeders, so we’d expect to see them regularly in our area at Welder. But we’ve seen hardly any. Are they elsewhere at the refuge, or simply not as common as we might expect? (loughman1)

John Rappole writes: Mourning Doves are common at Welder all year, as are many other seed-eating species that are not visible regularly at the feeders. Why each of these is or is not at the feeders at any given moment is a study in itself.

4. Do you have any information you can forward us about what bird species have been banded with what colors at the refuge? It is often difficult to determine the band colors. Other than indicating “Banded” in the comments accompanying an image, is there anything else we could do to help identify banded birds? (birdbrain)

John Rappole writes: The only birds that I have banded to date are six Green Jays and a few Inca Doves. Selma and her assistant have banded others, but not in the vicinity of the feeders – and therefore very unlikely to be seen there.

5. Would it be possible for us to know specifically where at Welder the camera is located? We’d like to know more about the habitat beyond the camera’s field of view.

John Rappole writes: The camera is located about 100 meters WNW of the headquarters building, which should be readily visible on Google Earth. The habitat is live oak-mesquite chaparral with some elements of riparian forest. An ox bow lake (Encino Lake) of the Aransas River is about 400 meters north of the site, and the river itself another 500-600 meters beyond that.

6. We very much appreciate the efforts that have been made to immobilize the feeders to minimize movements in the wind. It definitely helps. Even better would be an arrangement of _three_ guy wires running down from each feeder, arranged so that the three wires are in separate planes. By having two guy wires running down from the feeder, diverging to different points on one horizontal wire, and then having a third wire running down from the feeder to a different horizontal wire off to one side, and tensioning all of the wires, you could create a rigid pyramid configuration that would keep the feeder motionless even on windy days. That would be very helpful for aiming and focusing the camera for close-up shots.

John Rappole writes: We have had many suggestions concerning how to improve the feeding site, all of which cost money and time that we do not have a lot of at presesnt. If this project gets solid funding, we will consider what measures need to be taken to best achieve the goals of the research.


7. Would it be possible to add Black-crested Titmouse to the CONE drop-down menu? Although once a subspecies of Tufted Titmouse, Black-crested has been a separate species for some time now, and that is what we believe we are seeing at Welder at least half the time. (loughman1)

John Rappole writes: Although the small hybrid zone for these two forms begins just north of Welder (along the Mission River), and Tufted Titmouse range begins at the San Antonio River, only the Black-crested Titmouse is to be expected at Welder.

Yan Zhang (a member of the CONE team at UC Berkeley) writes: Black-crested Titmouse has been added as a new species.

8. Can the panorama picture be updated to reflect what the site looks like currently? The vegetation and feeder arrangement have changed since the site went live, and it would make navigating the camera easier if the panorama matched the field of view. (loughman1)

Yan Zhang writes: Concerning the panorama, may I request a new panorama image from your side, Dez? Thanks! [Addressed to Prof. Dezhen Song of the Dept. of Computer Science at Texas A&M University, co-developer of CONE.]


9. We would very much like it if logs of the in-game chat were accessible to users, preferably with date and time stamps. (tinyang)

Yan Zhang writes: We’ll figure out a way to log the chats and make it accessible.

[elanus again] So, there you have it: Some really great responses from some of the people connected with CONE Welder. Thanks to Kay Loughman for putting together the list of questions, and thanks to Dr. Rappole and Yan Zhang for their great answers (and pre-emptive thanks to Dr. Glasscock for her answers when she returns to the refuge).

Phantom Bobwhite

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

I got an email from robin54 today that included the following news:

Today we had bobwhite on the cam. Unfortunately, there was too much wrestling for control and no one got a shot! The users at the time talked about how sometime it seems deliberate and at others we’re all just so excited we forget when we try to drive, the camera goes to the last place we were. So we decided among ourselves to let whoever found the bird drive from then on. We hoped something could go on the blog about camera ethics.

So, there you go: there are bobwhites out there, so keep your eyes open. Also, try not to get too excited and jerk the camera away from the action when there’s something good on-screen. (I’ve done that myself, and I always feel really dumb afterward. Remember: if you use the arrow or zoom controls, rather than drawing a box on the panorama, the system interprets your action as being relative to wherever you last told the camera to go, even if it’s not where the camera is currently pointed.)

Update: And now, as pointed out by robin54 in the comments, peteinkeyworth and birdbrain each got shots of a pair of Bobwhites this morning (Saturday, May 24). Yay!

Camera Issues Again?

Friday, May 16th, 2008

I can log into the CONE Welder site, but clicking the power button on the camera never turns it on. I also can’t see any users (including myself) showing up in the left pane of the chat window. My guess is that this means we’ve got a problem at or near the camera, or at least something toward the lowest, “camera” layer of the stack of components that makes up the system.

The last image in the gallery was timestamped 12:31 a.m. So the problem apparently occurred some time after that.

Update: Bryce sent me the following via email a few minutes ago:

Hi John,

I just saw your blog post. There were thunderstorms around the camera site last night and we believe something happened to the camera connection there. We are looking into it as I write this and I’ll keep you updated. Thanks!


Later update: Bryce emails again to say the camera is back up again.

Craig’s Black-headed Grosbeaks Are Back

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

The latest post on Craig Newmark’s personal blog: My black-headed grosbeaks are back!

kryptonkay also pointed out this item he posted the other day: Butterball the hawk is back!

We don’t get as many shots from Craig’s deck these days, but the ones we get are really nice. In a way, it’s like we never really lost CONE Sutro Forest. We just got a dramatic upgrade in the camera’s command-and-control subsystem. 🙂

Camera Issues

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

As the late-night crew on “owl patrol” no doubt noticed, the camera went down last night. Here’s a brief update I received via email from Bryce:

Hi John,

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed yet but CONE has been experiencing some issues tonight. In particular our camera connection seems to be dropping constantly. Unfortunately it’s too late in the night to get in touch with anyone in Texas, but we will start repair work first thing in the morning. Sorry about the current situation – please rest assured we are working as hard as possible to get CONE back up!

In the meantime, I’ve been clicking around at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Birding in Texas sites. Some neat information is available, including a Quick Reference Guide to Texas Hummingbirds (PDF file).

Update: The camera is back up! Hooray!