Archive for October 21, 2011

Toward a Spider Free Existence

Now I’m nevous. What I’m doing can’t be completely legal. I’m walking around the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and I’m carrying what might be an invasive species in my backpack. It’s a spider, and in addition to being a non-native species, it might be deadly. And the spider is alive.

Last night my wife, Sandra, encountered a big brown spider – about a two inch legspan – in our son’s bedroom. In many ways, Sandra is braver than I am. And while I normally dispatch bugs that find their way into the house, I wasn’t home. She was a mother hen protecting her children. She scooped up a spider the size of a Buick and secured it in a plastic container.

Zoropsis Spinimana aka: Big Hairy Spider

On my arrival home Sandra told me about the big spider she had captured. I immediately went to my creepy place. I don’t like spiders at all. (I published a short story in which a spider causes some small disaster to an internet company, titled Their Constant Breathing for Kindle, and for Nook ) And of course I assumed that it was dangerous. Brown recluse spiders are not supposed to live this far West, but I’m sure it could happen. I held the container and looked at the invader. It was brown, hairy, long-legged – all traits of spiders that I disliked – it had angular markings on its thorax and abdomen, and had two large-ish pincer-looking structures hanging near its mouth.

I started looking at spider taxonomies online. There are a lot of spider pictures on the web. (ha-ha, I wasn’t even trying) I ruled out Brown Recluse – the legs weren’t translucent and there was no violin shape on its back. That was a relief. After some more searcing, I had the thing narrowed down to Grass Spider or Hobo Spider. And I couldn’t really tell the difference from there. And my relief was shot, Grass Spider: harmless, Hobo Spider: just about as dangerous as a Brown Recluse.

And then I found an authoritative site from UC Berkeley which was billed as Frequently Encountered Spiders in California. The pictures were big and clear, and toward the bottom I found a portrait of, possibly, our monster bearing the caption: “A recently arrived mediterranean invasive, now found in the Bay Area. If you see this spider, please contact Darrell Ubick at the California Academy of Science.” Ominous. Nothing more was said about the spider itself – like maybe if it was dangerous. Amazingly, we were headed there the next day to chaperone a field trip for our son’s second grade class from River Glen School. The coincidence was awesome. Seriously, what are the odds? (well, the odds are 1:1, because it happened.) I decided that I would bring this monster along on Thursday and deliver it in person. It spent Wednesday night in a vented plastic container in our garage.

Of course, I had a nightmare about it. In my dream, Darrell Ubick was wrestling the struggling creature down to a board with pins so that he could subject it to his scanning electron microscope. Dreams are like postcards from your subconscious, but this scenario was probably pretty close to what was

Spidey riding in the back seat.

actually going to happen. By the morning, though, I had somehow made my peace with the spider. It was creepy, may have been deadly, but still, it rode in the backseat of my car up to the city, and then in my backpack all morning. Sandra asked me where it was. I pointed to my back, her eyes grew big.

So I found my way to the Naturalist Center on the third floor. And there my theories were validated, my fears were assuaged, my feathers smoothed. There I met Alison Young.

Alison Young has bright eyes and a disarming smile. And her squeamish rating, unike mine,

Alison Young from the Academy of Sciences - not afraid of spiders.

appears to be very nearly zero. When I asked if she’d like to look at the spider she perked up and nodded. It took her less than ten seconds to identify it: “Yes, that’s definitely zoropsis.” She said. I could not wait to tell Sandra this news.

Alison showed me a Google Earth map with a pin for every location that one of these spiders had been found – most in the South Bay. The year-by-year number of sightings grew, and to date there are over a hundred. Not severely invasive, not pushing any other species out yet, but still something that the Academy is tracking.

Zoropsis Spinimana sightings in California

It’s a good time to mention this; the spider is harmless to us humans. Alison showed a video of the spider crawling on the soft palm of someone’s hand. I had to look away. I am creeped out by spiders, I said that before. here’s a list of five things I really never want in my hand. In increasing order:

A snail
Cat food
Flaming wood
One of my own organs
This spider

Other facts: This one that Sandra had caught is a male, the females are bigger. (Bigger!) Good news, though, since it meant we wouldn’t find any egg sacks…hopefully. It’s realted to the Wolf spider – both are hunters. They do not spin webs. The first known specimen was found in Sunnyvale. Alison told me

Naturalist Center at The California Academy of Sciences

that they mostly received dead spiders (squashed, no doubt) or photos of them. A live one was a rarity. I filled out a form that included the exact location where Sandra had found it. I later learned that Darrell Ubick had picked up the specimen on his way to a meeting. I pictured him in a meeting with a live spider languishing in a container next to him. This probably happens all the time in his field. I didn’t have the chance to meet him, but read his background on the Academy website, with something like a hundred publications – he is a man who knows his bugs. Alison told us that he would catalog Sandra’s spider into the Academy’s archives.

I was not sentimental about leaving the arachnid behind. And Sandra, you’re some kind of field research fellow for the California Academy of Sciences, now. So I might ask you to do more insect duty at home.

Some other pictures from the second grade trip to the California Academy of Sciences. Thanks to the parents and teachers who made it happen.

The Dishwashers: Grunts of the LA Movie Scene

The streets around my hotel were covered with piles of movie-making gear.

If it’s not too cliché for me to say it: they are filming a movie on the streets and in the air around my hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Two helicopters chase one another in circles around the glass towers of the Westin Bonaventure. There are lighting trucks parked up and down the street. It’s after ten at night and there is a lot of activity. The film in production is Batman Rises. Christian Bale is rumored to be somewhere nearby. I saw the bat motorcycle, but didn’t get a picture. Why not? See below.

honkin' lighting gear for Batman filming.


I met some Production Assistants, (PA’s) on the corner, and struck up a conversation with them. They were funny and easy to talk to and seemed to enjoy what they were doing, which was:
A. smoking
B. Keeping people like me from taking pictures of the production.
C. Keeping people like me out of areas that would disrupt the production
D. Smoking
“You know what we are? We’re the dishwashers.” One of them told me. An apt parallel – people totally critical to the success of the enterprise, but also totally replaceable. Not a union job, I learned – you needed something like 60 days of this kind of work to apply for a union job. If these guys were the dishwashers, then the busboys were also out in force. Busboys: riggers, had everything hanging from their belts. Gloves, wrenches, rolls of gaffer’s tape.  They moved with a little more nervous energy than the PA’s.

All of these guys had a look. Central casting or wardrobe couldn’t create or deliver it. For all of the glitzy perfection that is a final product that we pay ten dollars to see, the equipment and the people who make it are rough-looking, distressed. These guys had patina. Jeans, baseball caps, crew T-shirts from previous projects.  At least two walkie-talkies each on their belts. I hereby nominate PA’s and riggers for LA’s Best Dressed award. They have tons of style without trying. And they don’t sacrifice function for fashion.

And, yes, they were all working on their own screenplays.

I told them I worked for Adobe and that I was here as part of the MAX conference. As usual, there was a lot of discussion about Flash and the iPhone. I went over the approved talking points, played it mostly for comic effect. Apple hates us, etc. (not entirely true) And we talked about a conference session I had hoped to attend (but couldn’t, damnit.) on shooting and editing with HDSLR cameras. Yeah, digital still cameras that shoot HD video are being used to shoot indie, and I suppose even studio productions. The first time I saw a Canon 5D with a matte box attached to it, I thought it looked insane – but hey, that would work, I guess. And cost a lot less than a Sony video camera, especially the lenses.
So we talked a bit about the look of HDSLR video. “It looks too digital.” We decided.
“But then you can use filters in Premiere Pro to make it look like film.” I told them. Does that make any sense? I guess it does. Nods all around. (Actually, they said Final Cut Pro, and I had to smack them around a bit. I have mouths to feed, after all.) While I was trying to increase my street cred with the real movie guys here on Figeroa I let slip that,
“Oh yeah, I know, the “look” of film, hey, man, I’ve shot and I’ve edited 16mm.”
“This is being filmed on 16mm,” one of them told me quickly and with zero irony in his voice, “you know, for that look.” OK, now I realized that they were playing with me. I deserved it.

A car which was part of the production was towed nearby. It was a rig in which the actors sat and pretended to drive while the whole thing was actually towed by a camera truck. A crew of men began efficiently unhitching lighting gear from one side and then reconfiguring it on the other side of the car. The PA’s described what was happening. Basically, they had to reconfigure all of the lighting and camera equipment to the other side of the car for a reverse angle shot. I saw IMAX cameras, cool. I hid behind a bus shelter and took a picture. Plausible deniability for us both.

I saw the batcycle – or whatever it’s called. I was assured that it was a fully functioning motorcycle, and that Christian Bale had driven it earlier in the evening. “It’s badass, it hauls.” But I didn’t take any pictures, they told me not to. See? These guys command respect. Plus, I’m a rule follower.
Earlier in the day, I saw 40 cops walking into my hotel, most carrying plates of food. But when I saw the GCPD stenciled across the back of one of their jackets I realized that they weren’t real cops. I’m such a sucker. (Really? Do I have to do this? Gotham City Police Department.)



It was midnight. We said goodbye. They would probably be working on the set for at least another two hours. Good luck with the screenplays, guys, I hope you sell them and direct them.

My souvenir from LA.