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Monday, June 24, 2019

Machines That Know Us?

As creatures of habit, we humans tend to be very predictable.  For those of us who are married, we quickly learn behaviors and habits of our spouse so that we usually know how they might react to various situations, or whether they would choose one type of movie over another.  Familiarity aids us in developing the "sense" of knowing the other.

The ability to predict from observed behavior is something that is likely written into our genetic makeup.  It would logically be part of the set of survival tools that allowed us to become the dominant species on the planet.  We learned many, many generations ago that when certain things were observed -- e.g. a lion -- we needed to respond in a certain way -- run!  Developing the cognitive ability to recognize danger, or safety, or situations calling for decisive action were necessary for coping with the world around us.

Animals also appear to behave along the same lines.  People who are highly observant of how animals respond to stimuli are often extremely good trainers and achieve a level of effectiveness that appears almost empathic.  It is simply that they are observant of the cause and response mechanisms and able to employ them to affect behavior.

What sent me down this pathway today is an observation on Facebook by someone I grew up with that their automobile seemed to know their habits to the point it was spooky.  They got in the car to go to church at the same time they normally do on Sunday and their navigation system informed them, without any input, that it would take them 19 minutes to their destination of XYZ.  The immediate reaction was, "I think our devices know way too much about us!"

Pattern Recognition is a field of study that has been around for a long time.  In recent years computing ability has made it more accurate and more pervasive.  The field of statistics developed as a rudimentary way to analyze behavior and through mathematical modeling, predict likely outcomes based on past behavior.  Today, such modeling has been refined to the point that huge reams of data can be parsed into subsets which allow a tremendous amount of accuracy in predicting behavior.

In the instance of the example above, it is clear that the machine (their GPS) has the ability to recognize patterns at some level.  If every Sunday afternoon at 5:40 they start their car to go to church and approximately 19 minutes later they arrive there, a clear pattern begins to emerge.  If next Sunday they get in that car and start it at approximately 5:40, where are they likely going?  You get the picture.

Computers have given us the power to model behavior in ways never before imagined.  It will be interesting to see how more and more machines mimic human behavior.  It isn't so much that the machines are exhibiting intelligence as they are using predictive algorithms to solve problems almost instantaneously that analyze the situation and compare it to a database of behavior-response scenarios that allow the prediction of likely outcome based on a specific action.

Alan Turing once wrote on the subject.  He suggested that we shouldn't ask the question, "Can machines think?" rather, we should ask, "Can machines do what we (as thinking entities) can do?"  It seems the answer is yes.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Space Food, a "Growing" Frontier

I've been reading quite a bit about the new efforts by NASA and various private companies and other nations to get back to the moon and possibly even to Mars.  The projected timeline for both endeavors is within my potential lifetime.

I remember lying in the floor watching the early forays into space on our black and white television, listening to Walter Cronkite describe what we were seeing.  In my head, I can still hear his voice.  When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon it was as though we, mankind, had achieved a victory.  It was more than just a U.S. win over the Soviet Union in the race to the moon, it was something that "felt" as though it went beyond that to encompass all of humanity.

One of the things that intrigues me as I read about the possibility of going to Mars is the question of how will they transport enough food for the duration of the trip?  If you figure roughly 6 months each way and maybe 90 days on Mars for 4 or 5 people, it will take a good deal of food.  The weight and volume of that food will be an issue in the design of the craft and it will affect other things such as the amount of fuel necessary for the trip and space available for other items.

In recent news there has been much ado about various alternative technologies for producing meat-like products.  One is through the use of bacteria to grow the tissue.  Perhaps that is one of the solutions being proposed for the trip.  If a substantial portion of the nutritional needs of the astronauts can be produced on the way, it might alleviate some of the space requirements.  I don't know enough about the technology to evaluate the feasibility but, I would guess that waste could possibly be recycled and utilized by the bacteria as part of the matter necessary to produce the food.  After all, something isn't created from nothing -- there has to be food to feed the bacteria.  It becomes an issue of efficiency in conversion.

Efficiency is one of the biggest constraints in food production.  There are widely varying differences in the efficiency of different processes.  It is a question of how much input is converted into usable output.  With catfish, the conversion is about 1.1 lbs. of feed for 1 lb. of meat.  In cattle it is closer to 6 lbs. of feed (on a dry matter basis) to make 1 lb. of meat.  I don't know what the conversion rate is with bacteria, but I can't imagine it being possible to do better than 1 to 1.

Even for vegetable production it is something that must be considered.  If we take and take from the soil without replenishing that soil, eventually it becomes unproductive.  Growing food of any kind is a matter of chemistry.  It requires energy and various elements which are extracted and recombined into forms that are usable by us, or by other animals as fuel for growth, maintenance and reproduction.  One of the more valuable contributions of plants is that they take carbon out of the air as well as from the soil.  That could be useful on a craft in space and would reduce the power requirements necessary for carbon scrubbers to keep the air breathable.  The water component is recyclable for the most part and fuel for food production could come primarily from sunlight.

Any way you slice it, food will be one of the major considerations as we venture into space.  The astronauts, trapped within their craft, are a microcosm of the same issue we face on our planet.  We are all, in essence, passengers on this giant blue marble hurtling through space.  We have to manage our resources in new and creative ways as our population grows in order to have enough to last the journey.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Take a Break!

Mental breaks are as necessary as is exercise.  I have found that the two are related.

I usually get both in physical labor.  Some people like to run, or go to a gym and work out, but I prefer to spend my time outdoors doing something physical.  It doesn't have to be mowing the lawn with a push mower in 95 degree heat, or working on a stretch of fence that needs repair; it can be as simple as sweeping the sidewalk.

The best mental break for me is a walk in the woods.  This time of year it isn't something I normally do because of the extreme heat, but when there is a cool morning and I have the time, there is little that I enjoy more.  Often, especially if I am out early or late in the evening, I will see wildlife.  Sometimes it is deer, or the occasional coyote or, feral hog, but I also enjoy seeing the various birds and listening to the frogs.

For some reason, when I am out and doing something physical, the cares and thoughts of work fade away.  My mind rests -- even more so than with sleep.  The constant background churning that is seeking solution to various challenges seems to fade away and I become more aware of the present.  I focus on the sights and sounds around me and simple actions like where I place my foot to avoid snapping a branch that would frighten away any wildlife that might be in the vicinity.  I focus on becoming part of my surroundings rather than an intruder blundering through.

I think our minds and bodies need the "rest" of physical activity just as much as they need the rest of a good night of sleep.  Without those breaks we lose our edge over time and with the fatigue of constant mental focus, we miss things that should be obvious.  It is amazing how often I return to a focused mental effort after such a break and the solutions appear clearly in my mind.

I have learned that small breaks during the work day aid in maintaining mental clarity.  Sometimes it is a deliberate walk to get a drink of water, or possible to step outside for a moment.  Such breaks help me to stay with a task.  It may seem counterintuitive to some, but the right kind of interruptions at planned intervals can speed the process by giving my mind the breaks it needs.

Give your mind a rest.  Get outside.  Do something physical.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Bridging Technology Gaps

In a world of specialization, it can sometimes be difficult to be the generalist.  It seems that multiple degrees with increasing focus on a narrow band of study has become a status symbol -- especially in certain circles.  The trend has added to a polarization in the workplace that is embedded within the perceived intellectual superiority of those with "like" qualifications.

Specialists are needed.  As the complexity of technological innovation grows and more deeply permeates everything that surrounds us in an increasingly integrated "Internet of Things," those who have depth of knowledge in such devices and systems are required to keep them operating at expected levels.  For those of us who are "mere users" of the technology, dependency on the specialists comes at the price of loss of control.

In such an environment that is bifurcated into technologists and users, a niche exists that is often overlooked which can lead to failure in the implementation process.  It is that of "interpreter."  During the transition period to new technology, especially, there is a need for individuals who can walk, with some level of competency, in both worlds.  They become the bridge for implementation.

I have filled that role several times in my career.  One of the first opportunities I had to do so was during the early utilization of software systems to track animal health and feed data in cattle feeding operations.  Later, it was in the implementation of diagnostics as a tool of prevention rather than a tool for analyzing events.  Most recently, it has been in the interpretation and application of genomic data to fit within operational constraints of production systems.

Recognizing the need for those who can walk in both the world of technology and the constraints of the users of that technology is difficult for many specialists.  In the first example mentioned above where I worked with users of software in the cattle feeding industry I was told it would take six weeks to achieve a minimum level of competency to be able to solve the issues generated by "ignorant" customer personnel.  It took about half a day to understand how to bridge the gap.  It was a classic case of the "intellectual superiority" of the software developer blinding him to the fact we were dealing with a simple communication issue.

In the end, it boils down to communication.  My father was an educator.  He once told me that until you can explain a subject at a level appropriate to the student in such a way that the student could understand the subject, you did not truly understand the subject yourself.  Maybe that is the key to it all -- the generalist is the "educator" who fills the learning gap between creator and user of systems and technologies.  In this world of growing complexity where "specialists" reign, never forget the need for the generalist who sees a broader picture.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Coronado's Quest

As I gaze across the silent plains
My mind plays tricks on me;
Through shimmers of the rising heat
There appears to be
Figures
Moving silently.

In my head I make the leap
To a time so long ago
When Coronado crossed this land
And he didn't know
What
He might see.

I think of how he may have paused
And raised his hand to halt
The mighty train that followed him
Whose sweat had turned to salt,
Crusted
On their skin

As unknown strangers there appeared
And sat upon their steeds
So alien with feathers in their hair
Aware of growing needs;
Water,
Source of life.

In unknown tongue and gestures
One pointed to the east
Then turned his shaggy mount
And seemed not the least
Concerned
For safety.

Soon, there before them yawned
The canyon of the Tule
Hidden in the vast domain
Where Comanche rule
Protected
By isolation

These warriors of the open skies
Who feared no beast or, man
Led parched and weary soldiers
To quiet pools where they can
Drink
Their fill

Before moving on in search
Of wealth they had been told
Lay hidden in this sprawling land;
Cibolo, made of gold,
Enticing,
Leading on,

Never to be found.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Expectations Frame Perspective

The way we view events is often affected by our expectations.  It can be as simple as a storm which we see on the horizon.  We note the amount of lightening and the darkness of the color and think, "That's going to be a bad one."  Once it is over, we pass judgment with words such as, "That wasn't as bad as I expected," or, "Man, that was worse than I thought!"

On a slightly larger scale, our expectations affect our view of climate change.  Flooding in the Midwest this year is an example.  Those who are staunch believers that we are experiencing extreme weather events as the result of climate change see the flooding as a result of that change.  Those who are more skeptical, see the flooding as part of the cyclical nature of the world and point out historic flooding in times past.

What we fail to realize is that the same issue of expectations affects us in many other ways.  If we expect conflict to develop in a family gathering, it likely will do so simply because of how it affects perception of things said, or done.  That perception evokes reaction and the conflict begins.

It happens on social media too.  When we see a post from someone who typically thinks very differently than we do -- such as those of the opposite political persuasion -- we tend to react to it in a polarizing fashion rather than actually thinking about what they posted.  We immediately think, "stupid" liberal, or "ignorant" conservative rather than considering what they are really trying to say.  Admittedly, many such posts are meant to be somewhat provocative, but there is always an intellect of some kind behind them which is saying, "This expresses what I am thinking."

In business we often don't realize that a similar thing occurs.  When we present an idea, or a plan, we do so with expectations that the audience will see it the way we do.  That isn't always the case and we are faced with rejection.  Most people respond to rejection defensively.  The correct response is to be inquisitive.  Until you truly understand what is behind their rejection, you cannot effectively formulate a plan that will be successful, or frame your idea in such a way that it is understood.  We fail to clearly communicate because we are caught up in our own expectations.

Sometimes, our expectations get in the way of our success.  They cloud our ability to understand.  Our first response to rejection needs to be a question; "What is it that I don't understand?"  

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Becoming Innovative

The way we each go about solving problems tends to become entrenched within us.  When we find an approach that works, we subconsciously register that success in the "win" column and are likely to turn to it when the next challenge arrives.  Over time, we may build on that approach so that it becomes somewhat more "elaborate" and it will change slightly over time to incorporate new things that we learn.

Innovation comes with scrapping the old and bringing in the new.  It is difficult because our natural tendency is to turn to the tried-and-true methods that have previously brought success.  We "know" what works because experience has informed us that a particular approach provided a solution.  The problem is that we accept "a solution" as a "win" whether it was the best solution or, not.

One way to becoming more innovative is to look at how others solved similar problems.  We sometimes do this with friends, neighbors and acquaintances, but rarely look much farther.  Until we look beyond our circle of influence, we aren't likely to see radically different methodology.  This hit home with me years ago on a trip to Niger.

I was extremely interested in agriculture as practiced by farmers there.  I went with the preconception that the mega-farm approach using mechanization was the solution to all of their difficulties.  I quickly learned that I needed to lose all of my assumptions and start asking questions.  I didn't understand their situation and overlaying my experience was not truly applicable to solving their issues.

Finding that my "bucket of knowledge" was almost useless in their situation forced me to think differently.  What I learned there has helped me here.  Looking beyond the same old pool of experience is necessary to stimulate thought that leads to innovation. 

I realize this brief commentary doesn't include much in the way of details.  That is intentional.  My goal is to stimulate thought, not provide solutions....

Monday, June 17, 2019

That Which Dwells Within

Sometimes when I write,
The thing that is on my mind
Is wondering if
There is something I might say
That would make a positive impact
On one of my grandchildren
Who might read the words
At some point in the future.

I think,
Deep down,
What all of us really want
Is to know that what we did
Made a difference
For someone else.

There are other times when I write
That I think of those
In other parts of the world
Who might happen upon my words by chance
And read them,
Wondering who this person was
And why they think/thought the way they do
And just possibly
Find something positive there.

I think,
Deep down,
What all of us really want
Is to know that what we did
Made a difference
For someone else.

There are other times when I write
That those people
Who I came across at some point in time,
Whether classmates, or acquaintances,
Or friends through the years
Might read my words
And realize that who they knew
Wasn't all
Of who I am.

I think,
Deep down,
What all of us really want
Is to know that what we did
Made a difference
For someone else.

Ultimately,
I hope that somewhere in my words,
People who might read them
Will see that,
In spite of my flaws,
Jesus is firmly at the center
Of what I believe
And who I am.

That, I think,
Deep down,
Is what I should want most of all --
Knowing that what He did
Can make all the difference
For someone else.

"For God so loved the world, He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not die, but have eternal life." -- John 3:16

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Happy Father's Day

We watched the College World Series game yesterday between Texas Tech and Michigan.  It was more than out of character for me to do so, but my better half is an extremely passionate fan of the Red Raiders.  I also am happy to see them do well although they are not my alma mater.

The game made me think of Dad.  He loved baseball.  I wanted to take him to the College World Series but, either never had the money, or the time, to make it happen.  It is one of those things I regret.  It was something he wanted to do, but was never able.

Baseball is a game that requires patience.  It isn't like football, or basketball, with the constant action.  In some ways golf is similar because of the duration, but golf is an individual sport with competitors going head-to-head while baseball is a team sport at the deepest level.  It requires constant situational awareness which changes continually throughout the game.  Every player is dependent on his teammates and must anticipate their response to each action.

I don't have the patience to watch it for any length of time simply because I don't have the passion for the game.

Today, on this Father's Day, I am listening to the thunder which is likely to persist throughout the day.  We have had rain since about 3:30 a.m. and it is expected until Midnight.  I don't know of any baseball games scheduled here today, but if there were, they would be rained out.  I'm sure the weather will put a damper on some cookouts though.  I'm sure that if they are watching baseball in heaven, Dad will be there -- unless he's playing, or golfing.

Happy Father's Day.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Life on the Farm Ain't Really Laid Back....

Sustainability.

S - seeking perpetuity in the ability to deliver.
U - understanding the long-term consequences of actions.
S - securing the welfare of all through thoughtful planning.
T - taking only what is necessary and regenerating where possible.
A - aiming for generational continuity.
I - intelligent use of resources.
N - natural processes that replace damaging practices.
A - acting responsibly toward others and the environment.
B - building systems that focus on renewability.
I - investing in solutions.
L - long-term thinking.
I - integrating economic and environmental systems.
T - teaching responsibility for and to others.
Y - yielding to needs beyond self.

I've been spending time digging into some of the new agricultural technology -- or, at least reading about it.  The buzzword of "sustainability" gets tossed around a lot.  I am a firm believer in sustainability, but I think sometimes the word gets used and abused in ways that subvert the meaning.

Ultimately, sustainability means to look beyond oneself.  All of us follow the natural tendency to focus first on our personal needs and then on the needs of our immediate family.  Rarely, you find those who reach beyond that to their community.  Even more rarely do you see someone who thinks on a broader basis -- to the needs of humanity.  Most of those have some angle that is driving at financial wealth.

We need more people who think in terms of global impact who recognize that we are all -- no matter of race, creed or country -- passengers together on this giant marble swinging around the sun as it hurtles through space.  We need to realize that actions have consequence beyond ourselves.

Am I a globalist?  No.  But, I do believe in a phrase captured in the Declaration of Independence in the words of Thomas Jefferson that "all men are created equal."  In spite of those who would make him an atheist, Jefferson was echoing a Biblical tenet in that we all are descendants of Adam.  We are all part of the human race.  Come to think of it, Darwinians think the same way, but they see us as descendants of primordial ooze.

"Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.  Then there will be equality, as it is written: 'He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.'" -- 2 Corinthians 8:13-15

Feeding mankind will become increasingly challenging as populations continue to grow.  Weather factors affect production in various areas every year.  Seeking ways that work with the local climate, yet recognizing that it won't always cooperate, we must realize that the efforts in one geographic area may ultimately be the salvation of another.  We are dependent on each other -- globally -- for food.  Here in the U.S. many of our fruits and vegetables come from other countries.  They are often luxury foods, rather than our primary foods.  In some other countries that isn't always the case.  Many of them are virtually dependent on imported food to feed themselves.

Profit is necessary in order to fund growth.  It shouldn't be the total focus of man's endeavors, but must be a part of it.  Profit can be defined as "increase."  The "increase" of a herd are the calves born.  The "increase" of a crop is that each seed produces many hundreds of seeds.  U.S. food production is profit driven.  In most parts of the world it is survival driven.  We are fortunate to have an economic system that allows us the luxury of building a food system, through its profitability, that surpasses anything in the world.  We must remain aware though, that we cannot feed the world alone and that as our own population grows, there will be increasing pressure on resources by competing needs.

Sustainable practices here can inform sustainable practices worldwide.  We must continue to do more with less.

As to globalism vs. nationalism, I am unashamably a nationalist.  I believe in my country and our system of government.  It is being threatened at a level never before seen -- internally.  Those who would destroy it use everything possible against it -- even food production.  We need to be exporting our beliefs and our systems rather than allowing the destruction of those very things by those who would tear us down in order to build something else.

I suppose I have rambled a bit this morning.  Reading the mess in the news sometimes does that to me....
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