Borgeby Fältdagar – A Day at the Agricultural Fair

I spent Wednesday at Borgeby Faältdagar, the professional agricultural fair outside of Bjärred in southern Sweden. I had heard about the fair from the people at SenseFarm who had attended the AgrIoT meeting at ITU on Tuesday night. The idea was to get a better hands-on sense of what modern farm equipment looks and feels like, to talk to people throughout the industry (farmers, suppliers, manufacturers) about the ideas and trends in the field, and to perhaps make some research connections. I managed to accomplish most of that, while also shooting some decent photos and video, and recording a few impromptu interviews.

Large Machines

One of the first things I noticed at the fair was the size of the equipment that was on display, and especially how the larger machines were featured and advertised. While there was a range of equipment from remote sensor systems to animal enclosures, it was clear that the tractors were the main draw. There were regular demonstrations on large sample plots, virtual reality tractor simulations, and row after row of massive vehicles.

I spoke to a few representatives about the size of the machinery and two in particular seemed to have spent time thinking about the advantages of smaller equipment. The first, a rep from Yara (a company that sells sensing systems and fertilizers), mentioned that smaller machines would scale nicely and one could use the same equipment for both small and large farms. He also mentioned the versatility of being able to switch some of these smaller machines over to a different function to split tasks, as well as the minimization of soil compaction given smaller machinery. Finally, he pointed out that there’s inherent safety factors in automating smaller equipment versus large tractors. A rep from Fendt had similar things to say about their Project MARS research.

One thing that seemed to come up quite a bit from the representatives is that they were unsure of whether farmers themselves were interested in smaller machinery. A few opined that the farmers sought large equipment in part for its largesse and the present advertising seemed to indicate a similar set of assumptions. At Laura’s suggestion, these observations may eventually end up in a paper about the aesthetics of farm equipment.

Union Response

One of the things that surprised me most was the response of the union representative that I spoke to. He belonged to Kommuna, the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union and I asked him about the union’s view of robotics in farming.

From my experience, the “conventional” viewpoint is that robotics and automation pose a significant challenge for workers (and therefore unions) as concerns arise that they will displace certain jobs (see here and here). It is not that unions oppose the use of technology per se, but there is a very real concern that jobs – especially those that support the most financially vulnerable of us – will be displace by automation.

However, the representative from Kommuna seemed to take a different tack. His view was that workers that once needed to do jobs that occurred at odd hours and caused repetitive strain injuries (milking cows was his example) could now be transformed into more supervisory roles that could mean more of a regular 9-to-5 day. Though he did not explain (or perhaps I did not understand) how this would not incur the loss of jobs (machine supervision typically requires less workers than manual labour), I suspect that this might result from the union’s broad representation.

Kommunal represents people who “take care of the elderly, do lunches for school pupils, and take care of children in preschool…drive buses, put out fires, sweep chimneys and drive ambulances…look after the animals kept in zoos, tend to the green on the golf course and drive combine harvesters in the country’s fields.” That is a pretty broad base of workers and I suspect that Kommunal might have an eye towards retraining displaced workers for other roles in their diverse areas of practice.

Related Work

Of course, one of the main purposes of the visit was to assess the state of the art in relation to my own project. Much of the most closely related work was in the realm of sensors, most probably because this represents the lowest-hanging fruit. There are a number of efforts to place permanent sensory systems in the field (for example, the good folks at SenseFarm, who first told me about Borgeby Fältdagar). Other efforts, such as the Yara N-Sensor place sensors on movable platforms. That particular one is mounted on a tractor and attempts to measure nitrogen uptake in plants using camera vision, during the fertilizer application process. Finally, another approach is that of the Solvi and other similar projects. Solvi is actually an vision-based web app that allows farmers to map a field with an off-the-shelf drone, and then assesses nitrogen uptake (in a similar manner to the N-Sensor) from those photos.

These efforts are all interesting, but none of them represent an effort to introduce autonomous robotics into the agricultural field (never mind exploring non-conventional agricultural practices with said robots). In fact, I was told by one representative at the exhibition that Sweden is actually a rather conservative market for agricultural equipment and that typically technologies will have been field-tested for 5 years before they hit the Swedish market.

I did hear about a project, however, while I was at the fair and took the opportunity to talk to a rep from the company responsible for it. MARS, or Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms, is an EU-funded project run by Fendt (makers of the 18 tonne combine) and The University of Applied Sciences Ulm. MARS purports to have created a fleet of medium-sized (about 1 cubic metre, maybe a little larger) robots that perform agricultural tasks. If one detects a hint of skepticism, it is the result of a lack of photographic and video content that shows live-action demonstrations of the robots (as opposed to animated renderings). The lone paper published from the project, “Motion Control for Omni-Drive Servicerobots Under Kinematic Dynamic and Shape Constraints”, is so generally titled that it could apply to nearly any robotics project, and mentions the MARS project only in the funding acknowledgements. It may well be quite successful, however, so I’ll have to see if I can get an invite to one of their test plots.

Even taking the project at face-value, MARS can be seen as a effectively implementing the same industrial system of agriculture that exists today, only with smaller machinery. It’s an interesting first step towards what I am proposing, but it does not really attempt to change the way agriculture functions to suit the new machinery.


I spoke to some researchers with the SITES project from SLU (Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences). SITES is Swedish Infrastructure for Ecosystem Science and they have a series of field sites around the country. The site in Lönnstorp is near Malmö and focuses specifically on cropping ecologies and they are apparently looking for researchers to come and experiment with it. I’m excited to connect with them and see what we might be able to do together!

Ceiling of the Westin Peachtree Plaza's lobby in Atlanta, Georgia

SLSA2016 – Creativity and Scale + The [occasionally Facist] Politics of Biocentrism

On Tuesday, Nov 1st, I started a PhD at the IT University of Copenhagen in the Robotics, Evolution, and Art Lab working with Laura Beloff and Kasper Stoy (co-supervisor). I’m going to be working on a project involving robotics at the intersections of ecosystems and food production, but more on that in a later post.

My first action as a newly minted PhD student was to attend the 2016 Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I want to take this post to outline two of the panels that were held there. The first, Creativity to the Nth, was the panel that I was a part of and was chaired by Meredith Tromble. The second, The Politics of Biocentrism, was chaired by Oliver Botar and provided a fascinating window into development of biocentrism and systems theory, and its unfortunate connections to interwar Germany and, eventually, the racist and facist politics of the Nazi regime.

Creativity to the Nth: Scalar Dimensions across the Biological, Social, and Planetary

In this panel, I presented my thoughts on the relationships between scale and creativity alongside Meredith Tromble. For my presentation, I used the Inorganisms project as a reference point and discussed the links between emergence and the agent-structure relationship across scales, as well as the effects of diversity at micro scale and the resulting creative outputs at macro scale. The full presentation (with presentation notes) is available on ResearchGate.

Meredith spoke next on the idea of emergence as seen through the eyes of four authors from different fields. What resulted was an interesting look at the concept of emergence in general. It lead to a discussion, after the talk, about the the way in which emergence is often given a sort of Utopian driving instict and that, the possibilities of negative patterns emerging is often ignored.

We see this in the examples of emergent systems in the biological world that we use to describe emergence. The emergence of complex structures in ant colonies and complex patterns in swallow flocking are regarded as beautiful, aesthetic formations. This ignores the reality that emergence is a process and that the abject and ugly can also emerge in a complex system. Emergence as the result of a process does not necessarily tend towards good or bad, positive or negative. It merely tends toward pattern.

Books from Meredith’s talk

Sawyer, R. K. (Robert K. (2005). Social emergence : societies as complex systems. Cambridge University Press.

Sassen, S. (2014). Expulsions : brutality and complexity in the global economy.

De Landa, M. (1997). A thousand years of nonlinear history. Zone Books.

Galanter, P. (2016). An introduction to complexism. Technoetic Arts, 14(1), 9–31.

The Politics of Biocentrism: How Creativity Masks, Transforms, or Enhances the Politics of the Ecological Movement

The Politics of Biocentrism featured Oliver Botar, Charissa Terranova, and Flint Collins. The panel formed coherent whole with Oliver speaking from a historical perspective on Raoul Francé, Charissa mixing the art historical and theoretical on Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work on Systems Theory, and Flint tackling the art theoretical implications of Hans Haacke’s Der Bevölkerung.

What was astounding to me about the panel is that it seemingly managed to hit on many important highlights of my identity and current research.  Oliver spoke first and introduced me to a figure that I had previously known nothing about. Francé was a Hungarian biologist, chemist, and natural philosopher that contributed to early developments in microbiology and plant ecology. His major works include an eight volume work called The Life of Plants (1906-1910), Life in the Soil (1922), and the journal Mikrokosmos.

Francé’s contributions on this front are complicated by his eventual association with the Nazi party (though Oliver pointed out that he likely pursued membership in order to be allowed to continue publishing as opposed to an ideological affinity with Facism, as being a party member was a necessary requirement for publishing scientific works under the regime). Francé’s legacy is further complicated by his interactions and apparent embrace of Jewish figures and culture through much of his life. Some of his major works were published in Yiddish and Hebrew, his wife and partner (in life and science) Annie Francé-Harrar was half Jewish, and his writings tended to reveal very positive attitude towards Jewish people in general despite the attractiveness of some of his philosophical writings to Nazi party members.

Charissa’s talk focused on the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, another biologist who is strongly associated with the formation of General Systems Theory. Together with Paul Weiss, von Bertalanffy developed a conception of the world as a series of interconnected systems. Von Bertalanffy wrote about this in his book General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (1968). That particular work is considered seminal and part of the foundation of fields ranging from cybernetics to complex adaptive systems studies.

However, it is long to this work that von Bertalanffy engaged in dubious behaviour. After a failed attempt to remain in the US following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, he reluctantly returned home to Vienna. In order to take a position at the University of Vienna, he reluctantly joined the Nazi Party (a requirement at the time). However, his apparent distaste for Nazi ideology seemed to dissipate by the time the Second World War was underway, and his writings from the time closely link his biological theories with Nazi philosophy. It was this period that (rightfully, I would argue) lead to much of the academic community ostracizing von Bertalanffy after the War and to his exclusion from many off the seminal conferences and meetings on Systems Theory, despite his important contributions to the field.

I find the struggle to come to terms with these figures interesting. On the one hand, it is tempting to relegate them to the dustbin of history and find recent, more palatable figures to serve as the standard-bearers for our fields of interest. I’ve certainly taken that approach myself. There are places in my MFA Thesis where I could have easily cited Heidegger in discussions of experience and phenomenology and I simply decided to cite other who didn’t have connections to genocidal regimes. At the same time, to ignore these sources is to deny the history of the field, robbing it of its own complex past. Perhaps the more appropriate avenue is to continually expose the origins of the field as a reminder of the dangers of embracing an ideology for pragmatic reasons as opposed to ethical ones, especially in the current political climate.

It is perhaps fitting a discussion of systems and complexity to return to von Bertalanffy’s upbringing to finish off this post. Von Bertalanffy’s introduction to biology and ecology came at the hands of his family friend and neighbour, Paul Kammerer. Kammerer was a researcher at the Prater Vivarium, a research station that was designed as a interdisciplinary research space to tackle important questions in biology using long-term experiments. As such, it is credited with findings that lead to the eventual development of the field of systems biology. The institute was founded by zoologist Hans Leo Przibram and botanist Leopold von Portheim, and it was Przibram who hired and mentored Kammerer (Bertalanffy’s eventual mentor). In 1938, after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Przibram, who was Jewish, was fired from his post as the Director of the Vivarium. Przibram was murdered by the Nazis in Theresienstadt on May 20, 1944.

High Power RGB LED Controller Shield

Subtle Emergences was a massive undertaking and, as often happens, a lot of work went into features that didn’t quite make it into the final project. One such side project was the development of an Arduino shield to perform control of 1 watt-per-channel (3W total) RGB LEDs.

The Problem

LED control is a relatively solved problem. LEDs need PWM controllers in order to fade in and out and a number of solutions. Both Sparkfun ( and Adafruit ( make PWM shields that can control 16 PWM channels (more, actually, because they can be daisy-chained) from a subset of the available Arduino pins. The problem is power. The TLC5940, the chip upon which the Sparkfun shield is based, can only drive a maximum of 130 mA per channel, which is fine if you are driving a servo motor or a small LED, but not if you have a 1 W (400 mA @ 2.5 V) per channel monster LED.

Higher-power PWM can be achieved by using MOSFETs to quickly switch a high-current source (for example), but mounting 16 MOSFETs on a shield could be tedious as well as time- and space-consuming.

The Solution

Fortunately, TI makes the ULN2803A, an 8-channel Darlington Transistor Array that has a rated collector current of 500 mA, well above our 400 mA requirement. Two of those arrays, attached to the outputs of the aforementioned TLC5940 would give us 16 high-powered PWMed slots, enough to drive 5 RGB LEDs (3 channels x 5 LEDs = 15 channels). I designed a breadboard circuits to test the design and then moved on to a shield layout, designed for SMD components. At this point, I still have to solder the components on to the shield board, but since the breadboard test circuit worked, I’m relatively confident that the shield will be good to go as soon as I get the components in the mail!

The nice thing is that because the shield uses the same chip as the SparkFun PWM Shield, the library from that shield works with this shield as well. That said, since this one is specifically designed for LEDs, I will likely extend that library to deal specifically with RGB LEDs.

I’ll post more pics and results as soon as I get the final shield together.

Inorganisms workshop wrap up

First of all, thanks to everyone who’s come out to workshops this week. It’s been tons of fun, and we’ve made some excellent Inorganisms. The workshop week started off relatively quietly with Taylor and I working at his studio on Monday evening (thanks again Taylor for having me over there!), but picked up through the week with a couple of people dropping by the Logan Square table (thanks Comfort Station) and a full compliment of workshoppers at the library (thanks Harold Washington Maker Lab).

I’m spending the morning today back at the Harold Washington Maker Lab, just finishing off some of the work we’ve done over the week. And then my residency comes to a close. I’ll post a final wrap up post with pictures and links to code, but I wanted to say now, it’s been great and I can’t wait to come back to Chicago!

Pig Pen Theatre Co. at the Old Town School of Folk Music

I had the absolute privilege last night of seeing the PigPen Theatre Co. play at the Old Town School of Folk Music last night with Brian and Carla. They and their opening act,  the Morningsiders were fantastic.

First, the venue. The Old Town School of Folk Music seems like an incredible institution. In its 50-plus years it has served as a teaching, collaboration, and concert venue to musicians of all skill levels and folk-related interests. The actual theatre was a lovely space to take in the show.

The Morningsiders kicked off an excellent show with an upbeat folk set interspersed with interesting factoids (for example, apparently unless they tell people how to spell their name, there are 64 possible permutations of reasonably valid spellings). I thoroughly enjoyed these guys and I’ll definitely be listening to them for some time to come!

Then there was the main act. PigPen is an interesting musical entity. They are primarily a theatre troupe (I can’t wait to see one of their stage shows), but they have also released two albums and are fantastic as a live band. Their songs tend to build from a single voice to a raucous crescendo and their stage presence and comedic timing – I’m sure the performance training helps here – are some of the best I’ve ever seen. If you get the chance, go see these guys in concert!

Check out below for a sample of their music!

Questionable Poll Reporting from the Globe

I’ve been following the polls pretty carefully in the lead-up to the October election and a story caught my eye yesterday. The Globe headline read “Parties tangled in three-way tie as Duffy drags on Tories: poll”. I’ll forgo the discussion about covering the horse race over the issues (after all, that’s what I’m writing about as well); if the Globe is going to cover the horse race, it would be nice if they were at least precise about it.

The poll in question is the Nanos tracking poll, which, if I understand it correctly, surveys about 250 people each week and is reported as a four week average of a total of 1000 people. It is useful, then, largely as an indicator of longer-term trends, than as a marker of where the electorate is now, because it includes opinions from a month ago.

This is the trend we see if we look at the Nanos Poll alone. But, if we take Eric Grenier’s approach, a very different picture emerges. Poll Tracker includes the results from Nanos, but weights more recent polls more heavily. So, three polls that began surveys after August 14th show the NDP leading with between 34% and 37% of the electorate’s support, the CPC at 29%-30%, and the Liberals with between 24%-28%, and the Greens between 4% and 6%. The general trend of these polls is slightly up for the NDP, which is reflected in Poll Tracker‘s projections and trends.

PollTracker‘s model shows the NDP at 35.4%, the CPC at 29.8%, the Liberals at 24.7%, and the Greens at 4.3%, which seems to reflect the recent polling results and trends. Which brings me to the problem with the Globe’s reporting. In proclaiming a “three-way tie”, they’ve neglected to mention that this is an AVERAGE over the last month. It’s a very selective reading of a single poll as opposed to an analysis of the status of the campaign as a whole.

The author, Chris Hannay, fails to convey the context to the reader, which, as a reporter, is his job. He even fails to mention that the poll was conducted over the span of a month, saying instead that “the most recent interviews took place on August 21st”, implying that the poll is far more current than it actually is. It is shoddy reporting like this that allows voters to find the information they want instead of the information that is accurate. I expect better from you, Globe.

The Making of Subtle Emergencies

Subtle Emergences was shown at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art in Kelowna, BC in April and May 2015. The show featured a number of technical innovations in addition to the artistic content and I wanted to take some time to go over them here. For more information on the artwork itself, check out the main project page.

Arduino Setup

Overall, the project involved actuating 7 hanging fabric elements (with a total of 9 independent SMA actuators), 13 halogen lightbulbs, and 3 speakers. Additionally, 8 sensors fed data about the space into the control system which modulated the behaviour of the elements. The code that ran both the Arduino microcontollers and the Python (PyGame) is available at

The software that drives the installation is run from a Mac Mini and the Arduinos act as an intermediary in the process, driving the control circuits and collecting sensor data. A total of 4 Arduinos were used in the installation – 3 to control the lights and the hanging SMA sculptures and to collect light-level data from sensors embedded in the sculptures (fritzing file) and 1 to sense ambient room conditions (noise, light, temperature, humidity).

Gestural Control

One of the technical/procedural innovations of the work was the use of gestural control to create the different behaviours for the hanging elements. I had begun to try to create their motion graphically/numerically, creating input curves in an attempt to elicit certain affects from them. I quickly realised that this was relatively futile. Each element had different motion characteristics derived from the difference in fabric and acrylic arrangements, as well as slight shifts in the quality of the SMA annealing.

A much better approach, I realised, was to engage a more artistic and the gestural tactic. I knew how I wanted them to move and I could use my own internal feedback to accomplish this. A simple Arduino circuit to read a potentiometer input and then control the signal based on that input, combined with a record button and a python script to read the data over a serial connection and transcribe it for posterity did the trick. With that in place, I could turn a dial until I got the kinds of motion I was looking for and then press a button to record the motion.

A circuit that allows for controlling a load (a motor, light, shape memory alloy, etc) using gesture (turning a dial), and then a record button to save the motion.A circuit that allows for controlling a load (a motor, light, shape memory alloy, etc) using gesture (turning a dial), and then a record button to save the motion.

Dynamic Arduino Identification

A final technical innovation of note. I ran into some difficulty as soon as I began to use more than one Arduino at a time to run the exhibition. With a single Arduino on the computer, it is easy to determine from Python which serial connection to open (on Unix with Leonardo boards is was the one that had ttyACM# in the name, where # is any number). However, once more boards were attached, the numbers simply incremented and they were not guaranteed to point to the same board each time. So, one light may be found on pin 3 of /dev/ttyACM0 one minute and pin 3 of /dev/ttyACM1 the next time the installation started. Since I wanted the boot process to be automatic, this wouldn’t do.

The solution was relatively simple. I used the EEPROM to permanently store a unique ID for each board (code at . The python code then connects to each board that is available and queries it’s ID number. The controlled elements are attached to a pin and a board ID, which is then mapped to a serial connection each time the connection is made. This means that the python code is able to find the correct board each time. The python code is not terribly well-documented (hopefully I’ll fix that soon enough), but is available at

Textural Music Glove

The textural music glove interprets the texture of a material as music. A participant wears the glove and headphones and drags their left index finger across a surface. A piezoelectric element vibrates with the motion of the finger across the surface and the vibrations are filtered through the circuit on the headphones and then processed by the Arduino microcontroller.

The notes played by the system are based on a markov chain generated from a piece of MIDI music (any MIDI file can be used to generate the transition table). As signals are generated by the piezoelectric material, the Arduino code aggregates the strength of the signals. Once the signal aggregation reaches a certain threshold, the next transition in the Markov chain is triggered. The result is music that is more staccato on a rougher surface, and music that is more melodic on a smoother surface.

The Textural Music Glove was used as part of Materiality.

The code for the Textural Music Glove is available on github at