As We May Think: response

I didn’t realize The Atlantic was as old as this Vannevar Bush paper from 1945. It seems as though the feeling that there is far too much information being produced to possibly organize, let alone consume, is not unique to the post-Internet age, but rather has been a struggle since the vacuum tube was considered an emerging technology.

The memex, a technology Bush imagines in the paper, sounds very much like the phones and computers we now have within our grasp so readily: “A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.” I have often thought of my phone, and by extension the internet, to be some kind of external brain–that things like facts don’t require memorization because they are so easily stored and found by other means. This does cause frustration when I can’t quite remember something and my email, calendar, or google won’t load. I have wondered whether there might have been some intrinsic and creative value to having all those facts memorized, and thus easily retrievable. Bush also makes the point that the sheer volume of information makes keeping up with new information impossible.

Along with the memex, Bush anticipates many of the trends that have since changed the labor market since then, including increased specialization and the mechanization of many jobs. Increased specialization does seem to go hand in hand with the organization of the massively records of human knowledge, which we’ve been able to build on like never before. At the same time, being broadly knowledgable, and being able to transfer lessons and techniques from one area of expertise to another can stimulates creativity and innovation. He argues jobs that rely on well-defined logic are well suited for mechanization, and if that’s true, perhaps this knowledge cross-over is one way human labor will remain important to the economy.

And my first homework, I wanted to work within the constraints of HTML and CSS, especially since I could use the practice: Hide & Seek.

Algae Fountain

This video demonstrates the development and potential use of the fountain, as well as show the final result.

Motivation and goals

In reflecting on my motivations for creating a fountain, I went back through my documentation this semester and found a question from a long time ago that I thought encapsulated my thread of thinking the past few weeks: Can I create a visual and gustatory experience using algae that upends people’s perceptions about their rate of consumption and gives them a visceral understanding of their body in relation to the food systems that sustain human life? Some major inspirations for this were Rebecca Bray & Britta Riley’s DrinkPeeDrinkPeeDrinkPee and Stefani Bardin’s M2A™:The Fantastic Voyage.

I don’t think I succeeded in creating something that did this, but I do think it touched on my goals. I also think this phrasing got away (usefully) from the many details of nutrient pollution and recycling and articulated something that I could affect, even if I subsequently lost site of this asking smaller, related questions and getting things to work. So, I presented the fountain as a way I could address this question, and a way to built knowledge for designing interventions using algae in the future.


I chose to continue working with algae since I learned so much growing it and it has such varied species, potential, and uses. I had chlorella and spirulina that could both be used to try out this fountain idea. There were some practical questions that needed proof of concept:

  • Would it be too much of a mess?
  • Would the way I imagined the grow light working hurt people’s eyes to look at when the algae were at low biomass? How could I mitigate this?
  • Would the pump work with material besides water running through it?
  • Would the algae be hurt by being pushed through a pump? Chlorella and spirulina both do need some agitation but that doesn’t preclude this potential problem.

Some other design considerations:

  • How worried should I be/how could I address the potential for contamination?
  • How should this thing look? What should be the final form? And if I’m trying to use as much recycled material as possible, how lenient can I be?

My final fountain was made with:

  • A deconstructed grow light that I bought, took apart, and re-soldered to be used more easily
  • A small water pump
  • Vinyl tubing
  • Acrylic scrap & recycled acrylic from ITP’s shop dumpster
  • Scrap wood from ITP’s shop dumpster
  • A found/borrowed bowl: I was thinking of using recycled acrylic for this as well but this proved unfeasible (at least in the time I had)–this bowl was about the shape I was looking for

Some useful questions from classmates & reviewers: 

I got some positive feedback about it being beautiful and meditative. Marina thought the crazy straw (which serves the double-function of replicating the shape of spirulina at the microscopic level) successfully suggested drinking, so I did at least one thing right. I also got a several helpful suggestions, comments, and questions:

  • Is this a model towards the future, a home scaled solution to address nutrient pollution or a critique on the state of our water?
  • Should explain terms like bioreactor and biomass for laypeople
  • Could develop the stories/drama around cyanobacteria
  • Algae grosses people out unless they’re into superfoods
  • Should function and in it’s function also communicate this is about growing algae and consumption
  • Could be educational
  • Is the idea that we should drink out of this? One person said the openness of the fountain would make them hesitant to drink it
  • How do I imagine people would actually drink out of it? Could the ‘crazy straw’ also be functional?
  • Could incorporate “aesthetics of contamination”
  • If not drinking, then fertilizer? What other functions? Use as fertilizer may lessen the limitations around contamination
  • Do I imagine this being sold, or releasing instructions for DIY-ers?


References have been updated.


Throughout the semester I was also experimenting with microscopy. I moved way from this from the final but I still would like to do a project creating microscopic worlds using tools like unity or processing. I would still like to find a way to create an inexpensive way to capture automated microscopic video. I made a simple site to click through my daily practice images.

Since I’ve created a sort of bioreactor that works at a small scale, I think it would be interesting to continue adding useful functionality that would allow people to actually grow algae this way. Some steps to consider in making this a viable sort of product:

  • A way to monitor nutrient availability would be useful–how do you know when to add medium, urine, water, etc, to keep your algae growing?
  • There should be a way to monitor growth/biomass so that people know when their algae are ready for harvest.
  • I should develop an easy way to periodically harvest the algae. I found some research suggesting I could explore solutions that use: coffee filters, a centrifuge, or altering the pH of the algae medium.

Some steps for developing this project and determining feasibility:

  • Figure out how to test for contaminants during algae growth
  • Figure out whether there’s a way to filter the algae such that the water resulting from the process is drinkable

To further develop the idea, Marina suggested more rigorous experimental methods to try and also pointed me to the Fungi Mutarium and Dezeen.

I don’t know where this last note fits, but someone recently pointed me to Water Tower by Rachel Whiteread, which I thought was another interesting way to rethink water and resources in a city.


I began with the question of whether you could create ads for intermediary steps in the supply chains for the many products and devices that use rare earth elements. Supply chains are incredible opaque, and the need for them is driven by demand in the final products. My experience with efforts to clarify them in a way that conveys the magnitude of trade is often abstract and not impactful. Meanwhile, showing the effects of technological advancement and modern consumption at the human scale does not convey the breadth of the underlying systems. My goal was to try to reflect on these systems and the lifestyle I’m familiar with by rearranging texts related to both.

Source Texts

Through researching rare earths and exploring APIs I found that since the 1990’s an overwhelmingly large amount of rare earth mining and production is based in China. Instead of some complicated combination of trade API queries to get at supply chains, I settled on a report about China’s Rare Earth Industry from the USGS which provides detailed information.

I thought ad text like what I was looking for might already exist. Instead, looking through marketing and business papers on advertising, I found these are usually created for specific research projects. One way is to go through magazines and collect the text of ads that appear. I did this with the April 2017 issue of Wired, but specifically chose ads based on their relationship to the rare earth supply chain (directly used in their products or were in an industry that uses such products heavily- so as not to make it so broad that any company with a computer would be included, since that would be all of them). I also developed a second corpus by googling for companies who make products known to rely on rare earths, and grabbing a few of the top ads that appeared in google image search. I though this would give me a rich corpus to develop markov ads.


The code imports the list of 17 rare earths from my very first rare earth poem and the USGS report for nouns and noun chunks (for the USGS report, noun chunks are extracted using I created a function that finds the sentences created from character-level markov chains on the two ad texts imported, and replaces the nouns with one of the rare-earth nouns. The output from 3 of these functions is stacked together, and the words are stored in a list. Then, the portion of the list grows with each printed line so that the poem grows exponentially until the list is done. The print doesn’t go straight through, instead sweeping down so that there’s some repetition.

The poem prints such that the beginning of the line starts to move. I don’t know if this is effective in getting across the movement between all the places and companies that come up across the poems, but this was the intent. For the final form, I wanted the sense of the growing poem to come across, and I wanted to connect back to the 17 rare earths. I decided to pick 17 (which do not necessarily correspond in a linear way with the rare earth they appear next to) and create an image so this effect would be apparent. Through the process, I also tried mashing up markov generated text from both sets of text, and other ways of presenting the result.

For the reading, I will read 2-3 of my favorites (image and text both available on my github). This one reminded me of this Young-Hae Chang poem (I love these animated poems but you need Flash!):


 Any excuse Imagine. Samsung
    LED Jiangxi Province Any This will allow the
       company to increase the recovery of rare earths to 50 percent from 25 percent in the
          separation process (China Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, 2010; Wang Ganzhou . You Need it You Need it Every and much more than a wide range lives. electronics Every and much
             more than a wide the volume tungsten products . Surgical supplies ration for all you need it Every Detail Sony 3D explorings to the microphone yet. Scandium for all you need it Every ion-adsorption Sony Jiangxi Province Pacemakers to the Ytterbium yet . Lowest priced technolo Lowest priced Environmental Protection era of do. nickel-cobalt products of do . Bigger The Best Catchbook. Bigger The
                Best Catchbook . Ultra Slim. Ultra Slim . FaceTime. FaceTime . Smart creater and game. Smart Chinalco and Metal smelting producers . Feel the LG Door-in- Feel the LG Door - in-

Growing algae in diluted urine & Final project

Our Spirulina has really proliferated which presents a new problem: how to harvest it? So I’ve been figuring out how much and how best to extract the biomass. Chlorella seems much more difficult to harvest.

Successful growth with blue-green algae

I continued to research microalgae growth with urine (citations updated) and fertilized a batch of algae with urine. Spirulina grows in a more basic medium, and will die if too much urine is introduced, so I added 8.5mL to about 850mL of Spirulina medium for a 1:100 ratio. I added 10mL to the Chlorella medium for about a 1:50 ratio. I also found some evidence that Chorella can grow in a solution of urine and water, so I’m trying this as well at about a 1:28 ratio.

additional mason jars fertilized with urine

Final Form

I’ve been struggling to figure what I will build for the final next week. I loved the Drink.Pee.Drink.Pee.Drink.Pee installation and DIY kit Bray & Riley assembled. They created struvite, a recycling phosphate fertilizer I came across when I first started research phosphorus pollution, by adding magnesium chloride to the pee. The reaction separates the solution into struvite and water almost instantly. I wonder if the same effect can be achieved by using algae (it would certainly take longer)?

I realized I could actually produce a urine-based algae-growing solution presented in a way similar to the Algohol idea I had at the beginning of the semester (like as a champagne-algae fountain? Or just a fancy bottle?). I bought some materials to experiment with–I wanted to create a fountain where instead of drinking you could observe the algae with a stereoscope microscope, but I quickly realized making a stereoscope microscope, or even just a stereoscope or a microscope within the design of the fountain quickly complicated things. Since there’s only a week left in class, I won’t try to figure this out unless there’s time.

If the fountain also functioned to grow the algae, it would need to incorporate a grow light–which presents it’s own problems. It shouldn’t be directly next to the algae, and I’m pretty sure it would be bad for people’s eyes. How could they view it safely, by say, turning on an LED closer to the top of the device, while avoiding any dangerous consequences of looking at a grow light?

I’m concerned also with the materials to be used in a project like this. Maybe I can create an algae fountain from recycled materials from the floor? While I like this a lot, I don’t know if this weakens the cohesiveness of the concept. Maybe the ideas are connected in that we’re creating new things to consume from our waste?

One idea is to recycling the acrylic chunks that accumulate at ITP this time of year to build parts of the fountain, although I think I would need to dissolve them in acetone, which isn’t the best. People do this to create acrylic glues so I don’t see why I couldn’t form it into something. Or perhaps use it to create waterproof cardboard.

A bit of a joke would be:

Microvideo & project progress


I’ve been experimenting with creating a microscope that allows me to easily take video.

The nice thing about using a piCam is I know it’s easily programmable. Although for my purposes the same functionality might be available for a cheap usb webcam.

I’ve been researching tools others have used to do similar things, and found a group at Betzig Lab that has created a microscope that does high speed imaging using bessel beam planes. Someone else created foldscope, a cheap paper microscope. I also discovered this microscopic film festival.

Generative & algorithmic art

I was very inspired by Markos Kay’s quantum fluctuations and other related work and searched for which software he might have used to create it. He hasn’t mentioned this in any of his interviews, so I tweeted at him, but he didn’t respond.

It got me thinking about whether I should find a way to generate the phenomena I’m interested in capturing with algae in some other way–like with Processing or other software, like Unity. I took a look through Shiffman’s Nature of Code examples and found a link to this great book: The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants.


My microgreens have grown, started to dry and die, and are now coming forth with new life. It’s been very interesting to watch!

Our algae are also growing–the chlorella and spirulina are doing great, while the nori doesn’t seem to be. We’re not sure why.

Final project concept progress

I’ve been revisiting Donella Meadows to think about how to steer my project towards something impactful.

I still really like the idea of creating a sort of stereoscope where there’s a sense of being immersed in an environment at a different scale.

Another perhaps more outrageous idea is to grow the chlorella or spirulina (perhaps chlorella since it’s a bit easier) in a higher nutrient medium, resembling something more like the runoff from industrial farms. I think it would be interesting to present this in the form of a water fountain, to make the association back to what we consume to sustain us. I wondered if people had perhaps made algae fountains before, and of course they have.

What if the nutrient solution was urine?

Two proposals

I’m hoping to get some direction in class on two ideas, since I have unwisely spent time becoming invested in both.

Idea #1

What if we tried selling all points of a supply chain as much as the end product?

  • Uncover as much specific information for the supply chains of as many rare earths, or heavy metals, or depleted elements as is feasible
  • Collect language from advertising
  • Create ad-like descriptions of starting, intermediary, and end points the supply chain


  • A lot of research
  • Highlighting bad things can be informative but I find this somewhat problematic when people aren’t empowered to address the issue. Perhaps I’m promoting awareness that reduces consumption?
  • As a positive, it could be interesting to include some but I don’t necessarily want to promote of these ‘responsibly sourcedproduct lines as a solution.


My poem from week 2 was sort of a first experiment with this, where I tried putting the rare earth element back into the end product.

There are also several places to look for supply chain information, although to get a complete picture often takes people several weeks and many databases have paywalls:


Site-specific found poem

  • Sniff for wifi at a specific place (this would require going to the place, so it’s a physical limitation)
  • Pull all the tweets from that place (perhaps there’s other geo-located social media that would be fun to incorporate)
  • Create poem

I like that it’s could be found poetry that makes a connection to how the words might have been released to the world.


  • Is twitter poetry Two Thousand and Late?
  • Enough twitter material?


I’m playing with the Twython library and twitter API (link to geosearch doc) but have been having trouble getting the actual tweets by querying geolocation. I know that only about 1% of tweets are geolocated so this might be a fatal limitation. Or maybe my code is just incomplete.

I haven’t delved into this first step of collecting wifi networks.


u ‘search_metadata’: {
u ‘count’: 100, u ‘completed_in’: 0.025, u ‘max_id_str’: u ‘852568659604234240’, u ‘since_id_str’: u ‘0’, u ‘refresh_url’: u ‘?since_id=852568659604234240&q=&geocode=40.72%2C%20-73.95%2C%2010mi&include_entities=1’, u ‘since_id’: 0, u ‘query’: u ”, u ‘max_id’: 852568659604234240
}, u ‘statuses’: []

markov budget

My poems for this week juxtapose the language of Trump’s 2018 Federal Budget with the Sequoia National Park text I’ve been using. Because the federal budget is not a text I enjoy engaging with and we learned natural language processing tools, I thought it might be interesting to use these new tools to decipher it. I found it as a PDF: I tried using PDFMiner & Slate but ended up using pyPdf to convert it to text.

Considering there have been a number of controversies around the current White House administration and the Parks Department, I became curious about using the National Parks text, specifically (and considering I’m familiar with it). I tried combining the two texts in different ways and finally found what I thought was a compelling way to show the different priorities, values, and kind of patriotism exhibited in both (final code), while also analyzing the similarities.

I couldn’t find Ibex Meadow but I did find Horseshoe Meadow, Lone Pine, California.

One of the
Enforcement law enforcement personnel
Ibex Meadow on Lone
a view of
Enforcement law enforcement personnel
Ibex Meadow on Lone
which is now
Enforcement law enforcement personnel
Ibex Meadow on Lone
the size of
Enforcement law enforcement personnel
Ibex Meadow on Lone

Final project progress update

Revisiting micro green composites

Something unexpected this week was realizing my micro greens are dying. I was thinking a lot about apoptosis, and how death is necessary for a healthy ecosystem, to allow other living things to thrive. I recreated some of the composites I made when my micro greens were growing now that they are shriveling, drying, changing color, and dying. Some of the colors were really striking.

Micro green bin on day 32:

@ 10x magnification

Each type of micro green planted:

@ 7.5-50x magnification

Algae Cultures


These photos made me wonder if it would be interesting to include as part of my project a color study of the dominant species of the world now and what it might be once other species dominate the planet. Or maybe even a color study of the life and death of particular organisms.

I’m continuing research on microscopy and time-lapse microscopic photography, and have ordered a few more items to start experimenting with (including a raspberry pi camera and magnifying beads).

Algae growing set up

We set up mason jars to being growing spirulina, porphyra, and chlorella!

Final concept development

Played with some initial logo ideas: somehow ended up with stuff that looked like a street light or mastercard logo. I liked the idea of showing a cycle of life and death but couldn’t pull out the elemental pieces.

Can immersing ourselves in an environment of small, growing, parts of the larger ecosystem help us understand our own consumption and the work the earth does to replenish itself?

Can juxtaposition between living and dying help us think about our role in the larger biosphere? How can observing the mechanisms by which other living things recycle everything in their environment and are ultimately absorbed back into it help us reflect on the waste we produce throughout our lives?

How can speculative design problems arising from replicating our environment on other planets help us appreciate the earth’s services and help us address problems that have already arisen trying to maintain our habitats on earth?

Why focus on algae? I was interested in algae in the first place as a potential way to bio-remediate phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. Nutrient pollution was an interesting problem to address since it sits at the intersection of food security, resource depletion, human population growth, and pollution. Thinking about this made me reframe the idea of ‘limits to growth’ less abstractly as limits to HUMAN growth and societal development.

Algae grows rapidly & has a number of environmental benefits: it can be used as biofuel, food, to produce oxygen, to remediate polluted environments, including as a chelating agent, even to terraform mars. There is also so much work being done around cultivating it at different scales. I wonder if we can better address the ecological problems at hand by imagining a world where we’re hyper-reliant on algae? Or maybe many solutions really do lie in further algae-focused biodesign?

Idea #1: VR stereoscope that leverages scale

Try a microscopic VR stereoscope-esque experience that includes increasing levels of magnification and/or some kind of telling comparison. For in-class testing, I’m going to present using google cardboard:

I created additional 360 photos to juxtapose those I took when the plants were still growing.

Idea #2: Yet Another Way of experiencing microscopic worlds

Try using projection, pepper’s ghost, hologram to display a magnification or scientific information in a new way. Perhaps you insert a slide to start, and play with a physical controller to manipulate information, comparisons to other things, the magnification settings.

AIM Park updates

This week we refactored our code–I updated my Sequoia Park AIM poems from last week.

I didn’t get to correct a number of things I intended to–modularizing took longer than expected. There’s something weird going on where I’m getting a lot of the same rhymes line after line. After some trials I thought I had successfully taken out all of the punctuation I intended to, but I’m still getting some. Maybe it’s because this punctuation is part of a word? I also had trouble trying to figure out how to re-write code that used if/elif/else syntax–I want to put it in a loop. I also started to write a function to create sequential times but to get the sequential numbers and then turn everything into text where single numbers had a zero in front, in addition to continually checking to see that the numbers were in fact moving forward in time seemed excessive. There must be some kind of time function that I haven’t found yet that could do this more easily.

My favorite aspect is still the screen names. It’s funny working with this older text because every once in a while years show up, which reminds me of how people used to use their birthday in screen names, but the years are like, 1890.

Here in another example are some screen names where $ are still showing up:

One nice thing is since I now have all these functions, I can play with other combinations of the code, so I experimented with making these little chats, where really I just focused on screen names:

Algae growth progress: bioreactor plans

Maintaining a culture

This week we learned a lot about maintaining algae cultures in their appropriate medium (we are maintaining a google doc to collaborate and maintain these and other resources).

We had a number of practical questions about building a bioreactor to grow our algae, and about whether there were real or just semantic differences between the terms we were seeing across documentation. We reached out to Lauren again who was able to give clarification around terms, recommendations for lighting, and tubing. Our plan is to inoculate our medium on Thursday!

What to get (updated)

  1. Some kind of container, sterilized: we decided on mason jars (bought)
  2. Nutrient solution/ medium for chlorella, nori, and spirulina (bought)
  3. Small aquarium heater (bought)
  4. Thermometer(s) (bought)
  5. pH strips (bought)
  6. Light source: I thought we could use flourescents but I will also check Lauren’s suggestions
  7. System for aeration: sterilized tubing and t-valves connected to an air pump (borrowed/bought)
  8. Pipettes and slides (which I imagine we also need to sterilize) (bought)
  9. System for camera, thermometer, pH monitoring (more below)

Setting up a monitoring camera

We want to be able to monitor the temperature, growth, and pH of our algae remotely. Monitoring each of our algae solutions with pH and temperature sensors seemed prohibitively expensive, so I thought, why not set up a camera?

Some options:

  • An IP camera (challenges: could not find at the ER; might need to buy)
  • An android phone set up to work like an IP camera (challenges: android in the ER could not be updated to have the appropriate software downloaded)
  • GoPro live stream with ffmpeg & ffplay (challenges: was finally was able to download ffplay but realized this solution probably requires a computer, which I wanted to avoid)
  • Raspberry pi camera (challenges: I haven’t yet tried this but would like to; I need to order a camera!)

Microscopic imaging tools 

This tadpole egg dividing!

Eric had recommended phone adapters that allow you to connect a smart phone to a microscope. I chose one from Thingiverse that seemed to require minimal assembly for iPhone 6. We have Ultimaker 2+ 3D printers at ITP and the steps including required software & for setting up your file are available through their Quickstart Guide. I downloaded Cura, exported the file, and tried printing…but this didn’t work for some reason. I just got a wad of plastic.

I found other instructions for building a powerful microscope using a glass bead and a small 3D-printed (maybe with better luck this time) piece. The design was developed with smartphone portability and rapid imaging in mind.

Limits to growth (connections, literature)

Marine algae cultures

This warning system for toxic algal blooms measures rapid decline in oxygen levels.

Often used geo-engineering methods are additions of aluminum salts or modified clays into the lake to lock excess phosphorus stored in the sediments.

However, results have not always been good. Often lake managers have used geo-engineering uncritically in lakes where the external loading of phosphorous was not reduced enough or they have applied too low dosage because of economy, says Sara Egemose, department of biology, University of Southern Denmark.

On algae:

“Although algal biomass contains less than 1% P, it is often one of the most important growth- limiting factors in algal biotechnology.”

Inorganic Algal Nutrition, Chapter 8

Final Project development

In class we did and XY Grid exercise to help us think through our final project ideas. Utsav and Lindsay asked me helpful questions and gave some great suggestions. I included project ideas that I had earlier in the semester that didn’t have to do with algae, to see if I could pull out interesting components and evaluate them against each other.

Some big decision points are:

  • Do I want to create an intervention to address nutrient pollution on an infrastructure scale (for a city, for a home)? I would like to be don’t find this feasible.
  • Do I want to create an app or visualization that helps people understand their impact on the earth’s ecological systems? Yes, but then what?
  • Do I want to make food? Yes, but this is hard.
  • If I create something visual, do I appeal to the beautiful aspects or the ugly aspects? And do I want people to be disgusted? Amused? Hungry?
  • On these last two, Utsav and Lindsay pointed out that demonstrating a ‘failure’ could also be interesting.
  • And I have to include: who is my audience?