Coursework, notes, and progress while attending NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP)

Rare earths in things

This week I spent some time learning about rare earths, which have very obscure element names but are ubiquitous. All their names end with the same few letters which seemed like it might lend itself nicely to computational manipulation.

I wanted to play with the scientific taxonomy and naming conventions of these strange elements, the weirdness of their rarity, and their displacement. Like my last poem, I wanted to use space on the page/screen as a way to see this. Playing with spaces and elemental numbers didn’t work as well as I’d liked this time.

The source text is all 17 of the earth metals plus 17 products made of these elements I assembled from the internet.

My final poem and code.

Telescope lenetium
Nuclear control rodsetium
Aircraft enginesetium
Automotive Lutexhaust systemsetium
Pulsed lasersetium
Camera lenetium
Surgical suppliesetium
Optical glasetium
Computer disksetium
Fluorescent lampsetium


Project sketches

Reading “contaminated soil” described as Mel Chin’s “sculpture medium” in To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet made something click. Of course soil is central to the problem of exponentially increasing phosphorus use, but I hadn’t thought of as a ‘medium’ in itself. I was immediately reminded of the image included in Liu, Tang, & Li’s paper studying plant roots experiencing phosphorus deficiency.

Some ideas

  • Micro-materials flow analysis: change the scale to make it personal
  • More personal: collecting your own phosphorus. Would Jasmine-fertilizer be sufficient to grow my own food? The Bradford-Hartke et al. article noted issues with ecotoxicity and salinization with the use of untreated urine.
  • Designing larger scale interventions: create an easier way to capture and re-use phosphorus from urban waste streams, or from farm run-off. These processes are currently energy-intensive, and struvite (made from recovered phosphate) is still more expensive that mining for phosphate (Roy). Roy also explains, “several researchers have explored the potential for havesting P in the biomass of macrophytes and algae in ecological wastewater treatment systems.” I wonder if this kind of exponential algal growth and subsequent re-capture could be demonstrated?
  • What is a P-focused soil sculpture? What does healthy soil look like? What do healthy roots look like? Could I create a planter that shows their growth under different conditions somehow?

I wanted to know what recovering phosphorus from algae looked like

Maybe these ideas could be merged actually–if the food were edible witnessing this process could be different?

I wonder about the potential of using time lapse imagery or measurements?

P recycling research & references

[updated 5/7/2017]


Roy, E. D. (2017). Phosphorus recovery and recycling with ecological engineering: a review. Ecological Engineering, 98, 213-227. doi: 10.1016/j.ecoleng.2016.10.076

Bradford-Hartke, Z., Lane, J., Lant, P., & Leslie, G. (2015). Environmental benefits and burdens of phosphorus recovery from municipal wastewater. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(14), 8611-8622. doi: 10.1021/es505102v  

“Overall, mineral depletion and eutrophication are well-documented arguments for phosphorus recovery; however, phosphorus recovery does not necessarily present a net environmental benefit.”

Kalmykova, Y., Harder, R., Borgestedt, H. and Svanäng, I. (2012), Pathways and Management of Phosphorus in Urban Areas. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 16: 928–939. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00541.x

Liu H, Tang C, Li C. 2016. The effects of nitrogen form on root morphological and physiological adaptations of maize, white lupin and faba bean under phosphorus deficiency. AoB PLANTS 8: plw058; doi: 10.1093/aobpla/plw058

“Low phosphorus (P) availability in the soil is one of the most limiting factors for crop production (Schachtman et al. 1998 ; Lynch 2007). Plants have evolved different mechanisms in roots in order to increase P acquisition under P-limiting conditions.”

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S., Fetzer, I., Bennet, E., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S., Vries, W.,  De Wit, C., Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G., Persson, L., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B., & Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223). doi: 10.1126/science.1259855

Brownlie, W., May, L., Mcdonald, C., Roaf, S., & Spears, B.M. (2014). Assessment of a novel development policy for the control of phosphorus losses from private sewage systems to the Loch Leven catchment, Scotland, UK. Environmental Science & Policy, 38, 207-216. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2013.12.006

Kanter, D. (2014). Returning to the planetary boundary for nitrogen: Science, economics and policy (Doctoral dissertation, Princeton University). Retrieved from

Tuantet, K., Janssen, M., Temmink, H., Zeeman, G., Wijffels, R. H., & Buisman, C. J. (2013). Microalgae growth on concentrated human urine. Journal of Applied Phycology, 26(1), 287-297. doi: 10.1007/s10811-013-0108-2

Jaatinen, S., Lakaniemi, A., Rintala, J. (2015) Use of diluted urine for cultivation of Chlorella vulgaris. Environmental Technology, 37(9), 1159-1170. doi: 10.1080/09593330.2015.1105300

Fernandes, T. V., Shrestha, R., Sui, Y., Papini, G., Zeeman, G., Vet, L. E., . . . Lamers, P. (2015). Closing Domestic Nutrient Cycles Using Microalgae. Environmental Science & Technology49(20), 12450-12456. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.5b02858

Nguyen, T. D., Frappart, M., Jaouen, P., Pruvost, J., & Bourseau, P. (2014). Harvesting Chlorella vulgaris by natural increase in pH: effect of medium composition. Environmental Technology, 35(11), 1378-1388. doi: 10.1080/09593330.2013.868531 


Richmond, A., & Hu, Q. (2013). Handbook of microalgal culture applied phycology and biotechnology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hackett, S. C. (1960). Environmental and Natural Resource Economics (4th ed.). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

Weintraub, L. (2012). To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Cohen, T. (2012). Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1. Open Humanities Press.

Morton, T. (2012). The ecological thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


EPA Nutrient Policy: nitrogen and phosphorus data access tool 

Scope Newsletter

Blog/article: how the phosphorus shortage could leave us all hungry

New ideas/vocabulary [wikipedia]

Industrial Ecology: The study of the human-influenced stocks and flows of resources and energy, from the perspective of resources and the environment

EutrophicationCultural eutrophication is a form of water pollution. Cultural eutrophication also occurs when excessive fertilizers run into lakes and rivers. This encourages the growth of algae (algal bloom) and other aquatic plants. Following this, overcrowding occurs and plants compete for sunlight, space and oxygen. Eutrophication arises from the oversupply of nutrients, which leads to over growth of plants and algae. After such organisms die, the bacterial degradation of their biomass consumes the oxygen in the water, thereby creating the state of hypoxia.

Material flows analysis: an analytical method to quantify flows and stocks of materials or substances in a well-defined system. MFA can also be applied to a single industrial installation, for example, for tracking nutrient flows through a waste water treatment plant. When combined with an assessment of the costs associated with material flows this business-oriented application of MFA is called Material Flow Cost Accounting. MFA is an important tool to study the circular economy and to devise material flow management.

Art/Design inspiration

Experts [updated 5/7/2017]

I reached out to an David Kanter, an NYU professor who studies the nitrogen cycle and fertilizer, a UVM professor who studies phosphorus and has an ecological design lab, and a professor of industrial environmental management and solid waste at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES).

Interviews with David Kanter at NYU’s Environmental Studies department, who spoke with me at length about nutrient pollution, and Lauren Jabusch at UC Davis’ Department of Ecological and Environmental Engineering, who gave invaluable guidance and insight regarding algae, made my project this semester possible.

Built to Last: ch.3-4 response

I used to think I didn’t understand the motivation of for-profit companies, but now I think I understand it even less. If part of what makes a company ‘visionary’ is its pursuit of varied goals and a ideals, then what’s the point of being for-profit? I understand that making money is important for the continued existence of a company, for it to invest in its development, guiding, and for it to pursue its main purpose while maintaining its foundational principles, but don’t non-profits also do this? And aren’t non-profits even better positioned to re-invest any profit rather than having to give it away? If the point is to get initial investment funds, wouldn’t the leaders of a company want to buy out the shareholders whose sole interest is continued interest? I didn’t study business and have always viewed money and simply a means to an end, so I’m probably missing something. But then Packard said “Profit is not the proper end and aim of managements–it is what makes all of the proper ends and aim possible” so maybe I’m not.  I realize there are probably a number of accounting/practical differences between the two so I wonder what goes into the calculation of being either. Anyway, if a for-profit structure was imposed upon me I think I’d try to keep shareholder influence to a minimum at most.

I liked this formula, where core values are “a sound set of [authentic] beliefs on which it premises all its policies and actions”, and purpose is “the set of fundamental reasons for a company’s existence beyond just making money”:

Core Ideology = Core Values + Purpose

Chapter 4 expanded on the book’s core thesis, that visionary companies “preserve the core” while they simultaneously “stimulate progress.” They explain “A visionary company protects its core ideology, yet all the specific manifestations of its core ideology must be open for change and evolution.” I couldn’t help but think these qualities could define a person as easily as an organization, and so this made a lot of intuitive sense.


This week we made a device a client of the Towers of Power VPN–I used the virtual box we set up last week. Downloading openvpn and running the ssh server were pretty straightforward. The ps command allows you to see a snapshot of current processes.

After creating the client.conf file and leaving my cert and key lines blank, I thought I’d need to generate these using easy-rsa. I downloaded this, since it didn’t come with the version of OpenVPN I installed, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to generate keys this way. Luckily Sharif saved me from my descent down this path–it seems like the cert and key information was just our netid’s! Then we could SSH into the server using the instructions on the Towers of Power github.

Then, you can log in from the client machine and scp the appropriate files from the server to the client. I also confirmed tun0 was open using the ifconfig command.

First computational poem

For Temporary Expert I’m currently researching the concept “Limits to Growth,” which led me down the path of researching Phosphorus depletion, something I didn’t really know anything about. I decided to use source text from Phosphorus Futures, a research group.

I liked the alliteration I noticed on the website and thought this might be fun to play with more. My first problem was that the paragraph-style structure of my source text didn’t allow me to easily manipulate lines. I created new lines with commas as the delimiter. Then, to maximize alliterative capacity (? sure) I pulled out all the lines that included phos*, or any other word that started with an F. I stuck these lines back together and used the short python program included in the notes to randomize them.

The use of many non-renewable resources is growing exponentially–in the case of Phosphorus, because of its use as a fertilizer. I wanted to play with this idea of exponential growth as well, so I actually created 5 mini poems, each one grabbing exponentially more words/space than the previous one. I ran into a problem sticking them back together because I didn’t know how to insert my own text in between each mini-poem (I would have liked to somehow designate each new generation). As it is now, each one just follows the preceding one with no particular marker.

My source text

Unix commands that would recreate the poem from the source text, excluding all of my experiments

Final poem: P (P being Phosphorus’ chemical element symbol)

Limits to Growth & Peak Phosphorus

Limits to Growth is an idea as well as a book that was published in the early 1970s. A group of experts in various fields (The Club of Rome) worked together to specify a “formal, mathematical model” of the world “built specifically to investigate five major trends of global concern-accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment.” The resulting computer simulation helped them better understand these problems and their implications. From what I understood from reviews and critiques, their overall predictions have stood up pretty well so far. The great acceleration slides we looked at in class demonstrate the exponential growth that the book also explains in its first chapter. They concluded the following:

1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.

3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second out- come rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.

The limits to growth refer to the physical and social boundaries beyond which these trends cannot continue. Physical limits include: “food, raw materials, fossil and nuclear fuels, the ecological system of the planet which absorb wastes and recycle important chemical substances” including “arable land, fresh water, metals, forests, the oceans.” Social limits refer to “peace and social stability, education and employment, and steady technological progress.”

Limits to Growth is an idea that continues to be revisited by others. Trying to take this very large and complex system model and turn it into a an exploration or experiment seemed daunting, so I tried to find other angles and ways of conceptualizing this. I thought the 9 life support systems and their boundaries, which we saw in class, was an interesting way to look at this same idea. After reading some of Limits to Growth it seems more like this visualization doesn’t easily convey the interaction between these systems. Earth Overshoot Day which “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year,” also seemed like an interesting way to bring these ideas to a human-understandable scale. I found this cool map and timeline that explored world population growth. I re-learned that “carrying capacity” is “the maximum number of a species an environment can support indefinitely.”

Some questions I had after this initial exploration were:

  • How much of the earth’s land use is used to produce food? I’ve seen widely varying estimates from 4% of land to 28% of land (granted I might want to revisit the time periods of these).
  • Which are the resources we’re depleting most quickly and are in danger of running out of completely?
  • I’m wondering about assumptions in models that make the most conservative predictions and those that make the liberal ones.
  • What are physical limits of energy production?
  • Are social limits likely to be reached first? Especially since physical limits exacerbate the effects of these (tendency towards revolution, war, etc)?
  • How do we understand time? People don’t want to have less now to have more to share later–things in the present are worth more than things in the future (the economic concept of discounting.)
  • Is a yearly scale the right way to think about the regeneration limit? Technically aren’t we years in debt?
  • Why does the US need so much more energy to create wealth than other countries? Is it something to do with how much energy production is part of our GDP?

To gain more focus I asked this second question more directly and found this Guardian article which listed natural resources most under pressure: water, oil, natural gas, phosphorus, coal, and rare earth elements (there are 17).

Some surprises for me were: (1) the importance of phosphorus depletion and (2) pollution is also increasing exponentially (this shouldn’t have been a surprise but I hadn’t thought of it this way).

I thought of some ways I could experiment:

  • Animation, game, or poem demonstrating exponential growth?
  • Some kind of investigation into specific resources being depleted at a rapid rate?
  • Photos, aerial depiction, industrial use/end products, lifecycle of these resources?

…and decided to learn about this phosphorus depletion problem more closely and created a computational poem with some tools I’ve just been introduced to. I gathered my source text from Phosphorus Futures, a phosphorus research initiative (the alliteration in their name and website was part of my inspiration). I learned that phosphorus is a non-renewal resource used to create industrial fertilizer: this ties into the limits of arable land, pollution, food production, and as a result also human population growth and the social and political stresses associated with food insecurity.

My poem iterates five times, growing exponentially with each new ‘generation’: Peak Phosphorus.

Anthropocene readings

For class we read Oreskes’ & Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization: a view from the Future, a science fiction book that examines our current climate crisis from the future, when the social, economic, and environmental consequences have been realized and the human race has somewhat recovered thanks to the overgrowth of a CO2-consuming fungus. I really enjoyed the mode of address and found the story to be haunting and compelling. For my Video for New Media final, I also employed this vision-from-the-future set once the world had been destroyed as a result of climate change, so it was really interesting to see this similar, but much more detailed and scientifically accurate piece. My focus was also a bit different.

That faith in Baconianism and statistics resulted in a failure to act was disturbing because of my own faith in science and reason–I’m not sure I’m willing to concede this is what is to blame. That knowledge isn’t translated into power, and the evidence of a good idea does not translate into policy, does seem particularly salient in this political climate, although I think it has always been more true than not. What I see is an incredibly resistant and entrenched capitalist elite with a disregard for life or convenient disbelief for the consequences of their pursuit of wealth (what will they use their wealth for when the habitability of the planet is destroyed?). The current state of information wars seems almost as important and many times more baffling to me. How do we change the current social/economic structure, which requires the movement of massive amount of capital and (presumably through) pressure on those who hold it, when debate is manipulated?

We also read Kolbert’s  Enter the Anthropocene, which examines the geological changes that characterize the Anthropocene, the history of the term, and when might be a valid time to apply it. It was a fascinating examination of the record we know we will leave behind. Because my first topic is “Limits to Growth,” it was thought-provoking to see human population growth characterized as “bacterial.” The potential power in redefining this era is perfectly captured by Crutzen, who hopes the term he coined, Anthropocene, “will be a warning to the world.” It also may be true that this sort of change is significant to scientists but perhaps unnoticed by others, reflects the isolated expertise that The Collapse of Western Civilization presented as a core problem.

Built to Last: ch.1-2 response

It was interesting to reflect on the take-aways presented in the first chapters of Built to Last that apply to any organization. This weekend I was thinking about the non-profit organizations at which I’ve worked, faith in U.S. government institutions (I was amused the the U.S. government’s founding was brought up as as example), and non-state groups and movements. We are in a school that emphasizes technology, and of course there are implications for the entrepreneur building a more traditional company.

Last year during NYC Media Lab’s conference, there was a speaker addressing how to keep a company relevant in a rapidly changing technological climate. I remember thinking, why should companies endure indefinitely? Maybe a company should do one thing well and when that thing becomes irrelevant, it should die so something else can take its place. Built to Last suggests a shift in thinking that focuses not on a particular product, instead emphasizing the processes and cultures in place that allow whatever its current goals are to be realized, and realized well. In order to assess the uniqueness of companies that have been able to “transcend dependence on the original visionary founders” the authors selected a sample of “premier institutions” that are “widely admired,” that have had an “indelible imprint” on the world, “multiple generations of chief executives,” “multiple product/service lifecycles” and that were “founded before 1950,” as well as a set of comparison companies. Chapter one lays out the methodological rigor of their study while chapter two expands on one key quality of the founders of visionary companies: they were “clock-builders” rather than “time-tellers.” They built an organization that could “tell time,” or do whatever it was they did well, even after they were no longer leaders of their companies.

I’m currently working at a company where we have a lot of discussions about how we see our work affecting the world and how we can use a clear understanding of our mission to be more strategic. Something we’ve stated less explicitly, but that has come out of these discussions and that chapter two allowed me to identify, is the values we all share. They underly everything else. I think they are aligned and consistent across the organization but I’m not sure I thought of them as “core.” Now I wonder how I can create processes that reflect these core values and outlast me. It’s a new frame with which to evaluate leadership at the organization as well.

The authors asserted the United States needs to “gain a better understanding of our enduring core purpose” which pushed me to further evaluate the usefulness of this paradigm. Not to oversimplify the current democratic crisis in the United States, but it does seem as though there’s a fundamental disagreement about the core purpose of this country, and moreover, who has a valid voice in defining this. This frame also seems useful in evaluating social movements: for example, the Black Lives Matter movement now seems to be much less centrally governed than civil rights movements in the past, but has a very clear core purpose and this is part of what makes it so powerful. Last, I think its useful in understanding the persistence of certain groups and ideas that strike terror: for example white supremacy and nazism in the West, and radical Islamic groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Again, while these groups have a leadership structure, vanquishing them requires much more that simply eliminating leaders likely in part because there is that strong and well-defined core purpose.

Finding IMSI and IMEI numbers

We were tasked this week with finding our phones’ IMSI and IMEI numbers. In researching how to find these, I came across how-to’s that mentioned several other kinds of numbers. Quora helped me clarify exactly what I was looking for:


International Mobile Subscriber Identity. This is a unique identifier that defines a subscriber in the wireless world, including the country and mobile network to which the subscriber belongs. It has the format MCC-MNC-MSIN. MCC = Mobile Country Code (e.g. 310 for USA); MNC = Mobile Network Code (e.g. 410 for AT&T), MSIN = sequential serial number. All signaling and messaging in GSM and UMTS networks uses the IMSI as the primary identifier of a subscriber.
The IMSI is one of the pieces of information stored on a SIM card.


IMEI is short for International Mobile Equipment Identity and is a unique number given to every single mobile phone, typically found behind the battery.

I have an iPhone, so I found my phone’s IMEI number by going to “Settings” then “General” then “About.”

Finding my IMSI was more complicated. Instructions I found indicated “In order to find your IMSI you must have a jailbroken and activated iPhone. Otherwise your attempts will fail,” and my iPhone is not jailbroken. I found an Apple thread that suggested I could use a SIM card reader (these do not seem easy to find but I’d be happy to know where to find one). Finally, I found instructions for displaying IMSI when you dial “* # 0 6 #” which did display a number! The same site seemed to be saying the IMSI and IMEI/MEID codes were functionally equivalent numbers for Android and iPhone, respectively, but I’m not sure if that’s right. If it is, I’m not sure what number I got to display.