Creative Design Informatics for Horticultural Awareness at the End of the World Garden

Thanks to Paul Chaney who runs The End of the World Garden, we had an opportunity to trial a short workshop based on our Farm Crap App and prototype Allotment Lab on his two-acre forest garden site in Cornwall. This was our contribution to the Bank Holiday Weekend Haymaking Extravaganza (along with a bit of hay-making too).

We started by looking in detail at the Farm Crap App, how it arose from an intersection of governmental policy and the needs of farmers, providing a way to quantify the nutrients present in natural manures that are added to the land. We were able to map a section of the End of the World Garden intended for future agricultural experimentation, and based on its crop history and soil type calculate the additional nutrients required for growing different crops.

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One of our discoveries were the limitations of the underlying DEFRA data, being based on a particular approach to farming it uses a pretty broad brush – the necessary simplicity of the data in some areas (for example in the range of crops present) is not so well suited to smallholders. For example high yield crops that maintain profitability are less important to smallholders who are able to use slower growing strains. It was also interesting to work with people who had less experience with farming (me included) and trying to work out the difference between ‘dribble bars’ and ‘splash plates’ and other arcane muck spreading technology.

We also tested our prototype Allotment Lab. This has been designed to provide a couple of trial walk through experiments based on compost quality and soil type estimation for a more general audience – allotment owners, gardeners and smallholder farmers included.

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We tested the soil in a small area of field, attempting to form different shapes with our hands and a little water, in order to estimate its specific type and consistency. The soil in this part of Cornwall consists of a top layer of ‘sandy clay’ (actually containing larger granite particles, rather than sand) and a lower layer of ‘silty clay’ laid down from melt water during the last ice age. Paul dug down to find the lower layer so we could check the difference between them using the test.

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This workshop was useful in that it highlighted the limitations of top-down governmental data and the potential for citizen science to allow people to gather their own knowledge based on their specific circumstances. One of our challenges is coming up with a range of experiments that can augment official data and allow farmers, allotment owners and others to ask questions, collect data and make decisions that will help them in increasingly difficult social, climatic and economic circumstances.

Technology after Collapse

The philosophy underlying contemporary ‘seamless’ technology production seems to be one of endless energy, bountiful resources and waste being someone else’s problem. Naive working assumptions of some form are a requirement when designing for the future, but do we believe in these enough now to make them useful? Flashy ‘aspirational’ tech videos of ever thinning devices disappearing into the ‘cloud’ seem to be less common than they once were, so perhaps not.

Whenever a philosophy starts to look shaky, there are huge opportunities to try different ideas. For example, what happens if we instead use collapse as a working assumption for design? A sudden global societal collapse may be as unlikely as fusion power coming along to ‘solve’ climate change – but as a working assumption it shines a different light on usability – for a future that will mostly likely be somewhere between these two extremes. It’s also a view that is shared by some areas of research (particularly military) and I suspect by quite a few internal corporate future planning departments.

This research direction was triggered by Amber who found a paper called “Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse”, this quote is from one of the papers it cites:

“In our present world of virtually unlimited resources, at least from the consumer’s perspective, acquiring the newest piece of technology is often considered a desirable lifestyle choice (e.g., for early adopters). A future of collapse might see a different picture…”

Sustainable Interaction Design: Obsolescence in a Future of Collapse and Resource Scarcity, Christian Remy, Elaine M. Huang

For this weeks seminar at the Institute for Music and Media in Düsseldorf, Julian Rohrhuber and I wanted to explore this area a little with the students. This is something that has been present in FoAM Kernow’s work for a long time – partly as we work closely with environmental researchers so it’s hard to avoid, but it’s also inherited from the history of the FoAM network.

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We started by discussing the great Atari video game burial of 1983 and the comparative durability of the technology used at this time in history compared to that of today. This was an important aspect of the What Remains, so we looked at how we recycled old cartridges to store new software on for that project.

The specific scenario of collapse used in this type of research is one where all electronics production has ceased, all logistic and communication channels are destroyed, damaged or restricted. This could be due to a global crash, or an area becoming cut off from the rest of the world. Each component in our devices has a lifetime, most of them less than 10 years. While its possible that we could salvage components and repair our devices, there is also the issue of the knowledge required – much of it currently restricted to specialist silos of expertise.

“Social networks or institutions of people interested in computer repair could be invaluable for sourcing parts and maintaining skills needed to keep computing alive until devices and power are no longer scarce.”

Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse, Esther Jang, Matthew Johnson, Edward Burnell, Kurtis Heimerl

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Quote from Radix’s Adventures in Tech #3: Tanglebots, assemble! by Fiona Campbell-Howes

The starting point for our Tanglebots workshop for example, is an e-waste scrapheap we search through for things to take apart and reuse. Sustainability issues like this are often better presented implicitly, to set the scene – which then leads to a more interesting situation than starting with identical ‘kits’. You get to explore internal parts of cheap toys like dissecting natural organisms, and this process fits well with the haphazard reality of building technology, and working with family groups leads to knowledge sharing of the kind that would be needed to keep skills alive after collapse.

For the practical part of our seminar we wanted to focus on internet infrastructure, although originally developed to be resilient to war situations – the current scale involved, with undersea cables and centralised servers makes it one of the weakest aspects of our societies infrastructure to collapse, along with mobile technology:

“Long distance networking and information sharing becomes difficult with the decay of Internet infrastructure. Therefore, it may be crucial to establish communication channels, file sharing practices, and communities before the breakdown of mobile computing.”

Unplanned Obsolescence: Hardware and Software After Collapse

Some of the problems involved include software updates – as these become more challenging users become more prone to malware and viruses as they can’t be protected as effectively by the software authors. How would we manage software distribution post-collapse?

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Unknown signal, a composite morse/data packet combination.

Global data transmissions are happening all the time on short wave radio. Certain frequencies bounce from the ionosphere or micro-meteorite trails to cover the globe, and data ‘modes’ are used rather than voice as they can travel further at lower power. There is even a slow-scan TV data mode which is used by the International Space Station to transmit images to amateur radio operators around the world – and regular contacts are made with people on the ground using shortwave frequencies.

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We spent the afternoon scanning the airwaves using the websdr.org network (no radio hardware required). You can choose your global location and frequency band (and by extension the time of day too – as transmissions travel further in the night time). The web interface allows you to record sound as wav files, which we analysed using Audacity.

In order to figure out what a particular transmission is, there are some clues you can use. The first is the frequency used, which you can look up via this chart as there are rules for what frequencies can be used for. We also found these example data recordings which we used to figure out the type of transmission data based on listening.

Here are some example recordings we made:

The first one was a bit of an enigma for a while – it sounds like really slow badly tuned music. We figured out it was probably an RTTY text messaging protocol called JT65 – for low power, long range short text communication:

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The second one is still unknown, but there are a few clues. It’s a periodic burst of high speed data transmitted on a frequency band (6765 to 7000 kHz) that includes ‘FAX’ modes. It’s likely that this is some kind of weather map – but it doesn’t sound quite like any of the examples I’ve heard.

The third recording is a collection of simultaneous morse transmissions on similar frequencies. They all seem to be machine generated, a lot of repetition – probably some kind of beacons. I’ve tried to decipher them below but no hidden messages unfortunately!

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This seminar was a good crash course for us all, and a way to get a handle on the sheer amount of activity on these not too well known global communication channels. A lot of these concepts are making their way into technology we are building, for example the penelope pattern matrix where we are using wood construction and modular circuits that we can adapt for different uses.

Future radio directions could be to set up a packet radio server to host some websites, even on a very tiny range (perhaps simply transmitted/received over audio) so we wouldn’t need a licence.

Additional reading material:

A tanglebots workshop report

I’ve tried a lot of different ways of teaching children programming, starting a few years ago with primary school children in a classroom, then doing inset training days for teachers and finally private tutoring in homes. For the finale to the weavingcodes project we are trying a new approach, teaching families about code, robotics and thread by building “tanglebots”.

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The concept is to combine programming with physical objects, concentrating on sensor input and movement as output. It’s important that we incorporate our weavingcodes research process, so deliberately setting goals we don’t yet know the answers to.

The weaving focus allows us to ground the workshop in loom technology and demonstrate the challenges of manipulating thread, with its enormous history of technological development. For the first Cornwall workshop, Ellen started us off with an introduction using FoAM Kernow’s Harris loom and the fundamentals of weaving. We were also joined by Janet and Jon from lovebytes who are helping us to run these events. When first talking about possible workshops with children, we’d discussed the impossibility of making a functional loom in a couple of hours with only broken toys and lego – and so the focus on tangling was suggested by Alex as a way to turn these difficulties to an advantage. Similarly we created a series of prizes for different categories such as “Most technical effort with least impressive result” – inspired by hebocon events.

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The workshop format we used is also influenced by Paul Granjon’s wrekshops – wherever possible we’re recycling by pulling apart e-waste, making use of electronics, motors, gears and ideas from the surprising complexity of what’s inside things people are throwing away. This turned out have a powerful implicit message about recycling, parents I talked to had tried taking things apart to learn about them, but the next step – making use of the parts discovered as we were doing here, needs a bit more help to do.

Also as normal for FoAM projects was the importance of the food, in this case tangled by Amber and Francesca to both provide sustenance and inspiration with cardamom knots, spiralised courgetti and tangle fritters.

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The groups ended up a bit lopsided, so in future we plan to pre-arrange them as we did on the machine wilderness workshop. In order to do that we need to ask for more information from participants beforehand such as family ages and backgrounds.

We tried using the small Pi touchscreens – these were a bit too fiddly to get away without a mouse, but are much less oppressive somehow than larger PC monitors – as they are so small, they became incorporated into the tanglebots themselves.

Crocodile clips were the best way to connect to random/plundered electronics as well as the lego motors. These removed the need for soldering (which we had set up anyway, but in a separate space).

A selection of other notes we made:

  • Start with a manual tangling exercise (weaving with rope, tablets etc)
  • Lego has a strange all or nothing effect, once you start using it – everything has to work that way, avoiding it may lead to more creative options than including it
  • A first aid kit is needed for these sorts of things
  • The Pimoroni Explorer Hats are good but needed periodic resets in some cases – the motors seemed to get jammed, not sure if this is short circuits interrupting the i2c comms?
  • The Raspberry Pi docs are riddled with minor errors, e.g. the Scratch GPIO section on the explorer hats has a lot of sometimes confusing typos.

All our resources are being uploaded to the kairotic github repository so other people can make use of the materials.

As well as being supported by AHRC Digital Transformations, this project was part of British Science Week, supported by the British Science Association.

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Tanglebots workshop preparation

It’s workshop time again at Foam Kernow. We’re running a Sonic Kayak development open hacklab with Kaffe Matthews (more on this soon) and a series of tanglebots workshops which will be the finale to the weavingcodes project.

Instead of using my cobbled together homemade interface board, we’re using the pimoroni explorer hat (pro). This comes with some nice features, especially a built in breadboard but also 8 touch buttons, 4 LEDs and two motor drivers. The only downside is that it uses the same power source as the Pi for the motors, so you need to be a little careful as it can reset the Pi if the power draw is too great.

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We have a good stock of recycled e-waste robotic toys we’re going to be using to build with (along with some secondhand lego mindstorms):

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Also lots of recycled building material from the amazing Cornwall Scrap Store.

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In order to keep the workshop balanced between programming and building, and fun for all age groups, we want to use Scratch – rather than getting bogged down with python or similar. In a big improvement to previous versions of the Pi OS, the recent raspbian version (jessie) supports lots of extension hardware including the explorer hat. Things like firing the built in LEDs work ‘out of the box’ like this:

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While the two motor controllers (with speed control!) work like this:

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The touch buttons were a bit harder to get working as they are not supported by default, so I had to write a scratch driver to do this which you can find here. Once the driver script is running (which launches automatically from the desktop icon), it communicates to scratch over the network and registers the 8 touch buttons as sensors. This means they can be accessed in scratch like so:

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Red King: Host/Parasite co-evolution citizen science

A new project begins, on the subject of ecology and evolution of infectious disease. This one is a little different from a lot of Foam Kernow’s citizen science projects in that the subject is theoretical research – and involves mathematical simulations of populations of co-evolving organisms, rather than the direct study of real ones in field sites etc.

The simulation, or model, we are working with is concerned with the co-evolution of parasites and their hosts. Just as in more commonly known simulations of predators and prey, there are complex relationships between hosts and parasites – for example if parasites become too successful and aggressive the hosts start to die out, in turn reducing the parasite populations. Hosts can evolve to resist infection, but this has an overhead that starts to become a disadvantage when most of a population is free of parasites again.

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Example evolution processes with different host/parasite trade-offs.

Over time these relationships shift and change, and this happens in different patterns depending on the starting conditions. Little is known about the categorisation of these patterns, or even the range of relationships possible. The models used to simulate them are still a research topic in their own right, so in this project we are hoping to explore different ways people can both control a simulation (perhaps with an element of visual live programming), and also experience the results in a number of ways – via a sonifications, or game world. The eventual, ambitious aim – is to provide a way for people to feedback their discoveries into the research.

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Quipu: further experiments in Düsseldorf

A report on further experimentation with Julian Rohrhuber and his students at the Institute for Music and Media in Düsseldorf during our coding with weaves and knots remote seminar this week.

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As we have so little idea what the Inca are telling us in their Quipu, it seems appropriate to add a cryptanalysis approach to our toolkit of inquiry. One of the first things that a cryptanalyst will do when inspecting an unknown system is to visualise it’s entropy in order to get a handle on any structures or patterns in the underlying information. This concept comes from Claude Shannon’s work on information theory in the 40’s, where he proved that information obeys fundamental laws of physics. The concept that information and “cyberspace” may not be as intangible and otherworldly as we might believe (in fact is grounded in physical reality along with everything else) is one of the recurring themes of the weavingcodes project.

Shannon’s innovation was to separate the concepts of data quantity from information value, and he claims that information is equivalent to surprise – the more surprising a piece of data is, the more information it contains. Conversely a piece of information which we expect to hear by definition doesn’t really tell us very much. The potential for some data to be surprising (or more specifically it’s potential to reduce our uncertainty) can be measured statistically, with a quantity he called entropy, as it is analogous to states in thermodynamic systems.

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Shannon defined a generalised communication system, which is handy to give us a way of reasoning about our situation in relation to the Inca. Our main unknown is the source of the messages they are sending us, are they accounting information, calendars or stories? We know a bit more about the transmitters of the messages, the khipukamayuq – the knot makers and quipu keepers. At the time Shannon was working on information theory, he was part of the start of the movement away from analogue, continuous signals and towards digital signals – with advantages that they are highly resistant to noise and can be carried further and combined together to increase bandwidth. Quipu are also mainly comprised of digital information – the type of a knot, the number of turns it’s comprised of or the twist direction of a thread are all discreet (either one thing or another) and therefore highly robust to material decay or decomposition. We can still ‘read’ them confidently after 500 years or more without the digital signal they represent being degraded too badly, if only we could understand it. At the same time, none of us working on this have access to a real quipu, so our receivers are the archaeologists and historians who study them, and compile archives such as the Harvard Quipu Archive we are using.

Although entropy is a very simplistic approach mathematically, it’s main use is to give us a tool for measuring the comparative information carrying potential of data which we have no idea about. Here are all the quipu in the Harvard database in order of average entropy bits they contain (only listing every other quipu ID):

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This graph is calculated by making lists of all the discreet data of the same type, e.g. knot value, type, tying direction, pendant colours and ply direction (ignoring lengths and knot positions as these are continuous) – then calculating Shannon entropy on histograms for each one and adding them together.

We can also compare different types of information against one another, for example the main data we currently understand has some specific meaning are the knot values, partly derived from the knot type (long, single or figure of eight), which represent a decimal notation. If we compare the entropy of these we can expect them to have roughly similar average amounts of information:

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The meanings of colours, ply and structure are largely unknown. Here are the knot values compared with the colours:

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And this is pendant ply direction compared with knot values for each quipu:

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At this point the most useful aspect of this work is to give us some outliers to inspect visually and sonically – more on that soon.

Photos from the machine wilderness workshop

Busy times at Foam Kernow, here are some photos from the Machine Wilderness Workshop weekend before last. This was a project between Foam Amsterdam and us, with 30 participants from all over the place geographically and professionally. My role was as facilitator, so mainly obtaining raw materials (electronic toys, recycled trash and e-waste) as well as a bit of cooking and general running around which I found very enjoyable. The machines invented and prototyped were grounded in the environment of the Penryn river in Cornwall, so common themes were seaweed biomimicry and experiments with estuarine mud, both as a surprisingly rich power source as well as a design medium in it’s own right.

I’ll leave the in-depth write ups to those leading the event, but one of my interests was to see how a workshop involving e-waste would work, practically and as an inspiration – with an eye to doing this with primary school kids and teachers. We managed to locate a good quantity of old toys from various local second hand stores and warehouses, quite a modest outlay in return for some very good mechanics, motors and electronic parts. Resisting the temptation to take them to bits beforehand meant that the participants could open them up and discover what they could use, one of the best items was a bubble machine – inside was a good air pump and lots of mechanics (total cost ~£1.50). This was incorporated into a robot lifeform that was in part augmented by moss growth and LED lights.

See the rest of the photos here.

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Training teachers in coding, and thinking about e-waste/recycled robots

We recently had the second inset training day in programming related activities at Truro school. Following on from the previous session I didn’t want to introduce too much new stuff, so we concentrated on going back over Sonic Pi and Minecraft/Python programming in the morning, then discussed a lot more about our future workshops in the afternoon. These will include children from most of the primary schools in the Truro area and take place during the next term. I also wanted to use the day to work on some specific ideas the teachers wanted to get going. One of these involved running a Kinect camera with the Pi, which we managed to get more or less working – reading depth data in Python for potentially plugging into Minecraft at a later date.

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The big idea I wanted to get feedback about was the use of robotics and electronics in conjunction with code (the photo above is my desk while preparing the day before). I didn’t have any lesson plans for this, but based on some comments from the first workshop and from playing a bit with this during CodeClub teaching I felt it might be good with this age group, who already know quite a bit about screen based activities. To keep costs down (as well as building in issues like e-waste) we’re planning to make use of recycled junk to extract motors from toys and hack them to do different things. It seems this doesn’t cause too many issues from safety POV (everything will be low-voltage and we can check everything beforehand), even the use of soldering irons seems to be acceptable as they have supervision.

The advantage of using code to move real things (as shown by a long history) is that it directly connects programming with the world outside of the screen (where it most certainly now has great importance in our lives), and at the same time results in teamwork – as it’s not easy for a single person to make a robot while programming it. When we tried this at Troon Primary they self organised into a group with one person programming while another was building stuff in lego and a third provided excited communication between them and more or less managed the task. Other programming activities tend to be more individualistic – with the possible exception of networked Minecraft, which is important but a very different form of collaboration.

Picademy Exeter and Future Thinking for Social Living

Last week I had the chance to help out the Raspberry Pi foundation at their Picademy in Exeter. It was good to meet up with Sam Aaron again to talk livecoding on Pis, and also see how they run these events. They are designed for local teachers to get more confident with computers, programming and electronics to the point where they can start designing their own teaching materials on the second day of the two day course. This is a model I’m intending to use for the second inset teacher training day I’m doing next week at Truro school – it’s pretty exciting to see the ideas that they have for activities for their pupils, and a good challenge to help find ways to bring them into existence in a day.

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We also had the ending of Future Thinking for Social Living at the Miners Court summer party last week. We exhibited the map made during the workshops, made lots of tea, and had some fun with the pattern matrix in musical mode out in the garden – I adapted Alex’s music system we used with Ellen in Munich to run on Raspberry Pi so it didn’t require a laptop, or a screen at all – simply a speaker. It was interesting how quickly people got the idea, in many ways music is easier to explain than weaving as listening while coding is multi-sensory.

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Coding with knots: Inca Quipu

This week I’m teaching at IMM Düsseldorf with Julian Rohrhuber which has given me a chance to follow up a bit on Inca Quipu coding with knots, a dangling thread from the weavecoding project. Quipu are how the Incas organised their society, as they had no written texts or money – things like exchanges (for example from their extensive store houses) were recorded via knots. Researchers have been able to decode the basic numeric system they used, but 20% of the quipu seem to follow a different set of rules, along with extra information encoded via thread material, twist direction, colour and other knot differences. I’ve written a python program for converting the Khipu Database Project excel charts into graphviz files for visualising:

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The knots are described in ascii art, with S and Z relating to the ply and knot ‘handedness’ direction they are tied in:

O : a single knot 
O/O : two single knots tied in S direction (it's rotated 90 degrees :)
(\\\\) : a long knot of value '4' tied in the Z direction
/8 : end (figure of 8) knot tied S direction

The pendant nodes also have labels describing their ply direction and the side the attach on, so “S R” is S ply & recto attached.

The hardest part of this has been a bit of more recent media archeology to figure out the colour values, I’ve had to cross reference the original Ascher-Ascher Quipu Databooks published in 1978 which contain their own colour system which more or less maps to the NBS-ISCC Munsell colour chart originally proposed in 1898. Luckily that site provides hex colour values – hopefully they are vaguely accurate, the current lookup table is here:

colour_lookup = {
    "W": "#777777",
    "SR":  "#BF2233",
    "MB" : "#673923",
    "GG" : "#575E4E",
    "KB" : "#35170C",
    "AB" : "#A86540",
    "HB" : "#5A3D30",
    "RL" : "#AA6651",
    "BG" : "#4A545C",
    "PG" : "#8D917A",
    "B" : "#7D512D",
    "0B" : "#64400F",
    "RM" : "#AB343A",
    "PR" : "#490005",
    "FR" : "#7F180D",
    "DB" : "#4D220E",
    "YB" : "#BB8B54",
    "MG" : "#817066",
    "GA" : "#503D33"
}