May 222012

As my wife and I drove down a rural Iowa highway last week, we began speculating about the next revolution in field management. Currently, tractors blindly and mechanically groom rows of crops spaced wide enough to accommodate their massive tires.  Large quantities of herbicides and insecticides are broadcast, leaching into streams and aquifers. In turn, specially-bred seeds, resistant to these chemicals must be purchased as a part of a proprietary program.

Instead, I imagined swarms of spider-shaped robots with travel legs long enough to keep their body suspended above the crops. Work arms, tipped with cameras and tools, could maneuver to any spot.

  • Plants could be grown in an efficient honeycomb pattern, wasting less space.
  • A database of every plant, with its progress, could be maintained.
  • Instead of making care decisions on a whole-field basis, adaptive algorithms could adjust interventions for increasingly small areas.
  • Micro-doses of fertilizer nutrients could be injected under the surface, sufficient for each plant.
  • Individual weed plants could be identified and selectively uprooted.
  • Individual bugs could be identified and selectively destroyed.
  • Individual bugs could be harvested using a suction device. Some bugs contain valuable chemicals such as dyes or pharmaceutical components.
  • Crop plants could be automatically thinned or even transplanted to more-sparse areas.
  • Robots could work continuously, even at night, returning to an energy source to recharge or exchange batteries.
  • Some labor-intensive jobs, such as harvesting strawberries, currently require lots of labor for brief periods of time. Machines would be easier to store and transport from place to place than people.

The next day, I discovered that researchers at Leibniz University in Germany are exploring how to use lasers to kill weeds. Cameras feeding pattern-recognition software can identify multiple weed plants and distinguish them from the crop plants. Tunable lasers, aimed at the most vulnerable areas, can kill weeds. In the process, the German researchers found that lesser intensities of laser light actually stimulated weed growth. This raises the potential of non-chemical stimulation of crop growth.

Researchers in Israel are developing multispectral sensors for identifying fruits and vegetables along with their ripeness. They are already able to correctly identify 80-85 percent of fruit on a plant. They are also designing grasping tools that can remove individual pieces without damaging them.

This is a field (pun intended) to keep your eye on. The core issue of agricultural productivity has always been the limitations of manpower. Perhaps it is time to look away from ever-larger mega-machines. These are becoming highly-automated themselves anyway. The next step is to teach smaller highly-automated machines to perform the tedious judgment-intense precision farm work that we can no longer afford to do in person.

©2012, David Satterlee

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Feb 172012

By David Satterlee

This morning, I opened the Fort Dodge, Iowa Messenger News. I’ve been skipping past the editorial section because it tends to feature mostly conservative columnists beating the same old drums. Today, feeling the sap rising in the grass-roots democratic arm of the Democratic Party, I decided to start reading that page regularly.

The publisher’s editorial was featured in a top outside corner. It was an uninformed rant about President Barack Obama, and how “his EPA” should be stopped by a furious Congress. As I started to turn the page, yet again, I felt a flush of heat that so many readers were being led down the wrong path; that an authority figure was citing an authority to echo the rants of conservative pseudo-authorities to lie to people who have been primed to accept the word of their authorities.

As an aging hippie, I was raised to “question authority,” so I decided to get back in the game. Here it is. Please read on. We’ll start with the full text of the editorial:

Have we been misled? [Publisher’s Editorial]

February 17, 2012
Messenger News [Fort Dodge, Iowa, USA]

“The science is settled,” President Barack Obama insists in defense of his scheme to wreck the coal industry.

Well, no. It is not.

Obama insists the threat of global warming requires drastic new curbs on industrial emissions. Coal-burning power plants have been a primary target of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Unless discharges of carbon dioxide into the air are reduced dramatically, the planet faces severe changes in climate, Obama, the EPA and supportive liberals have maintained.

A new study on the issue is out. It has been published in the online journal “Science.”

And guess what?

The international team of scientists involved in the study concludes cutting emissions of soot and methane – not CO2 – is the key to slowing global warming.

That is hardly settled science.

Members of Congress, who have the power to stop Obama and his EPA, should be furious. Clearly, they and the American people have been misled.

Okay, so here’s where I’m planning to go with my argument.

  1. Ha! By highlighting some gasses that contribute to global warming over another, the editor may have accidently conceded that there is an issue of global warming.
  2. The scientific study does NOT actually discount CO2 as a major greenhouse gas.
  3. The science on methane and soot is hardly new.
  4. Coal fired power plants are, themselves, major contributors to methane and soot.
  5. The EPA is also already concerned about methane and soot.
  6. President Obama is not pursuing a scheme to “wreck the coal industry” so much as to increase our energy resources, make our air and water cleaner, and, you know, help save the world.
  7. This kind of misinformation is bad for America. The editor should be ashamed and we should work to improve the functions of government in areas where government is best suited to helping make our lives better.
  8. We should each work to become better informed, more involved in civic discourse, and supportive of leaders who are committed to the goal of making the lives of individual citizens better.
  9. The argument that the United States should fight to keep up with developing countries in the emission of pollutants because it is more profitable, is simply less honorable.

1 Many conservative commentators continue to use words such as myth, swindle, and hoax to describe the results of climate science research. I am afraid that these simple negative messages, repeated frequently, are taken by many people as persuasive and factual. Not wanting to be carried along blindly by that agenda, I looked up the study.

2 The editorial alludes to, but does not cite, the article “Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security” on pages 183-189 of the January 13, 2012 issue of Science.

The researchers took advantage of continuing research to create a detailed computer model of our atmosphere’s response to pollutants and, for the first time, possible economic, energy generation, social, political and developmental influences. However, it does not yet make predictions for major societal shifts such as switching to electric vehicles or increased levels of public transportation. The research is available online at It is designed to support international negotiations and strategy coordination.

The study points out that CO2 emissions produce “long-term inertial responses” but that reducing soot and methane emissions is more likely to produce short-term benefits. This does not affect the understanding of the effect of CO2 on global warming; it just adds more urgency to our priorities in also addressing soot and methane reductions.

5 Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is already on top of this with projects such as those to reduce methane released by coal mining and soot released by burning coal in electrical power generating plants. Dang, the editor must have overlooked these pollutants as additional results of burning coal.

3 Our understanding of the influences on global climate change has included soot and methane for quite a while. The same Science journal has already published articles such as, “Soot takes center stage” (Sept. 27, 2002), and “Study Fingers soot as a Major Player in Global Warming” (Mar. 28, 2008). The Nov. 10, 2000 article “A New Route Toward Limiting Climate Change?” explored short-term pollutants such as soot.

4 Coal fired power plants do more than emit CO2. It seems they are a major source of other greenhouse gasses as well. They also emit more arsenic, mercury, and lead than any other U.S. industrial pollution source. According to a Chesapeake Bay Foundation report, “A Coal Plant’s Drain on Health and Wealth,” The health costs of coal power plants are estimated to be equal to the price of the electricity they produce. (This sucker is already getting too long, so let’s move on.)

6 Yeah. So there. Take that. The balanced liberal approach is to gradually retire the worst of the coal power plants, add pollution controls to the rest, and promote research and development of alternatives. This is because it is in the public benefit but companies in the energy generation business have little incentive to make changes until the costs of a crisis exceed the costs of a new technology. And by then, everybody will be wringing their hands and wondering why nobody thought to start looking into making alternatives more price competitive.

And, by the way, while our use of coal can be improved, why do I keep hearing the term “clean coal” like someone has discovered a whole new thing, blessed it with holy water, and invested in infomercials? Okay, now I’m just getting cranky.

7 This kind of misinformation is bad for America, the editor should be ashamed, and we should work to improve the functions of government in areas where government is best suited to helping make our lives better.

8 We should each work to become better informed, more involved in civic discourse, and support leaders who are committed to the goal of making the lives of individual citizens better.

9 The United States of American was born with the blessing of a vast, resource-laden, productive, unexploited continent at its disposal. Much of America’s success in the era of industrialization can be attributed to an “aggressive pioneer spirit” that moved us inexorably west, killing wantonly, cutting trees, setting fences, building roads, plowing fields, and leveling mountains as we went. Our fertile fields, open waterways, and abundant minerals rewarded our hard work and indomitable spirit with relatively easy wealth, and even more so for the robber barons, industrialists, and financiers among us.

Unbridled exploitation and consumption worked well for several hundred years and I can understand why some people want to be allowed to keep doing whatever they want just like we have been doing so far. But, we are reaching the limits of our clear vistas, standing timber, open prairies, and clean rivers bounding from unexplored wilderness. It is time to protect, defend, and wisely use what remains of our resources.

And, by the way, if it is primarily liberals petitioning for moderation, caution, and conservation what has happened to the meaning of the word “conserve”ative?

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Feb 272011

Religion, Science, and Truth

by David Satterlee

Both religion and science build theoretical models to explain observations. Sometimes the models work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes sacrificing infants to Baal brings productive crops, sometimes bleeding a patient breaks a fever. Most cultures have rejected both of these discredited concepts (religious and scientific, respectively) while even science often fails to distinguish between correlation and cause.

Even having a thoroughly-consistent theory does not establish truth. Traditional Chinese Medicine successfully treats “spleen deficiency” for problems totally unrelated to our anatomical spleen’s function. Both religious and secular authorities have found themselves needing to adjust their accepted doctrine from time to time. Most religions hold a very tenuous claim to truth by faith when you consider that current beliefs (like language, culinary tastes, and DNA) can usually be traced to the intersecting influences of earlier cultures and societies. Continue reading »