Humans Still Best Machines In The Berry Patch


Credit: Dan Charles/NPR

Thanks to Dan Charles and his salt colleagues at National Public Radio (USA) for this look at one of machine-learning’s agricultural challenges:

Robots Are Trying To Pick Strawberries. So Far, They’re Not Very Good At It

Robots have taken over many of America’s factories. They can explore the depths of the ocean, and other planets. They can play ping-pong.

But can they pick a strawberry?


The strawberry-picking robot enters a field near Duette, Fla.
Dan Charles/NPR

“You kind of learn, when you get into this — it’s really hard to match what humans can do,” says Bob Pitzer, an expert on robots and co-founder of a company called Harvest CROO Robotics. (CROO is an acronym. It stands for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer.)

Any 4-year old can pick a strawberry, but machines, for all their artificial intelligence, can’t seem to figure it out. Pitzer says the hardest thing for them is just finding the fruit. The berries hide behind leaves in unpredictable places. Continue reading

Podcast Proliferation

VoxPodNearly one month ago, Vox launched a new way for us to source stories. We have sourced from their website when the story fits our mission. For us to scan the news daily and link to at least one article or book review or other media that seems consistent with our mission, we increasingly bump up against the fact that producers of and channels for accessing relevant information seem to be increasing faster than we can possibly keep up.

Today we sampled from their sonic venture, a story about changes way up north, wrought by climate change, geopolitical ambitions, head in the sand-ism and other intrigue. Finding an episode like this one stretches our horizons in a healthy, productive manner:


There’s a new Cold War being fought in the North Pole between the United States and Russia (but also China, Finland, Norway, Canada, Greenland and more). Fueling the battle is the melting Arctic, which just had its warmest winter in recorded history. Vox’s Brian Resnick gives us the science before Yochi Dreazen takes us to the war.

It must also be mentioned that having outlets we trust recommend other outlets is a must. And here is an example of one we appreciate:

“Today, Explained”: An Edgy New Vox Podcast to Compete with “The Daily”



Hosted by Sean Rameswaram, the Vox podcast “Today, Explained” feels funny, knowing, and energetic—which, in this news climate, isn’t easy. Photograph by James Bareham / Vox Media

Podcast-wise, 2017 was arguably the year of “The Daily,” the beautifully produced, gently voiced narrative-news offering from the Times, hosted by Michael Barbaro, which started last January and quickly became indispensable. The show, which parses a different news story in each episode, through a conversation with a reporter or other guest, then delivers a brief news roundup, has sufficient perspective and empathy that it produces in its listeners an intoxicating, if temporary, feeling of sanity; by now, its theme song alone cues in me a Pavlovian calm. The show garners 4.5 million unique listeners each month; in April, it will expand to public-radio syndication. Continue reading

Disruption Reconsidered

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Gabrielle Lurie / Reuters

Derek Thompson, writing in the Atlantic recently, has a very readable consideration of the fashionable obsession with disruptors, a topic we give too little attention to in these pages. So, a small step forward:

Airbnb and the Unintended Consequences of ‘Disruption’

Tech analysts are prone to predicting utopia or dystopia. They’re worse at imagining the side effects of a firm’s success.

The U.S economy is in the midst of a wrenching technological transformation that is fundamentally changing the way people sleepworkeatshoploveread, and interact.

At least, that’s one interpretation. Continue reading

What Do We Want In A City Of The Future?

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lillisphotography / Getty / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

We do not normally link to the writing of science fiction authors, nor is the topic of the essay below typical of the themes in our 2011-2018. But it is not unheard of; nor is it too late to add more to this short thread of links to sci-fi authors. If Bruce Sterling catches your attention with these first few paragraphs pasted below, you may want to go to The Atlantic to read the rest:

Stop Saying ‘Smart Cities’

Digital stardust won’t magically make future cities more affordable or resilient.

The term “smart city” is interesting yet not important, because nobody defines it. “Smart” is a snazzy political label used by a modern alliance of leftist urbanites and tech industrialists. To deem yourself “smart” is to make the nimbyites and market-force people look stupid.

Smart-city devotees all over this world will agree that London is particularly smart. Why? London is a huge, ungainly beast whose cartwheeling urban life is in cranky, irrational disarray. London is a god-awful urban mess, but London does have some of the best international smart-city conferences.

London also has a large urban-management bureaucracy who emit the proper smart-city buzzwords and have even invented some themselves.  The language of Smart City is always Global Business English, no matter what town you’re in.

So if grand old London is smart, with its empty skyscrapers, creepy CCTV videocams, and sewers plugged with animal fat, then we probably needn’t fret about the Elon Musk sequins and stardust of digital urbanism. Better to reimagine the forthcoming urban future as a mirror of Rome, that “Eternal City,” where nothing much ever gets tech-fixed, but everything changes constantly so that everything can remain the same. Continue reading

Water Independence, A Trend Worth Watching In 2018


At Opal Springs Water Company in Oregon, raw water is prepared for shipping to the company Live Water. Credit Leah Nash for The New York Times

Closing out 2017, a note on water. Nellie Bowles wrote this story, Unfiltered Fervor: The Rush to Get Off the Water Grid, for the Food section of the New York Times. It could just as well have been in either the Science or the Tech section.

One new technology allows anyone, in dry or humid climates, to produce and store their own drinking water. The story is in the Food section presumably because it is a luxury for the improvement of your drinking pleasure; but the implications for natural resource management are interesting. And what about the projects that societies have embarked upon, forever, to determine ever-better ways to distribute necessities like water?

SOURCE: a HydropanelTM that makes drinking water from sunlight and air


A standard residential SOURCE array is made up of two panels: one primary panel and one additional panel with array sizes designed to meet your drinking water needs.

  • Daily Production

    A standard array averages 4-10 liters each day or 8-20 16.9oz standard water bottles, depending on sunshine and humidity.

  • Footprint

    Each panel is 4 feet x 8 feet (1.2m x 2.4m) and a standard array contains 2 panels.

  • Water Storage

    Each panel holds 30 liters in a reservoir where it is mineralized and kept clean for optimal taste and health. Standard arrays have 60 liters of water storage capacity.

  • Power

    SOURCE utilizes solar power and a small battery to enable water production when the sun shines and water delivery on cloudy days or at night.

The story includes several technologies that seem worth knowing about:

Continue reading

Battery Story, 2017

Tesla grid storage South AustraliaBattery technology is the thing. It seems to be a holy grail that environmentalists and technologists can agree on for helping us, humans who want a habitable planet for generations to come, mitigate climate change. And occasionally it is at the core of short term fixes. Once the dust has settled on 2017, and we are looking back on stories that were on the positive side of long term impact on the planet, this story will probably get more attention. For now it seems like a footnote at the end of the year to note that this Tesla scheme actually seemed to work:

Tesla Grid Storage Battery Reacts Insanely Fast To Coal Power Outage

Last spring, Elon Musk made a daring bet. He claimed he could build and install the world’s largest grid storage battery in South Australia within 100 days of the date a contract was signed or the system would be free. The contract was signed on September 29. Installation was completed by the third week of November. On December 2, the giant 129 MWh system was activated. Continue reading

The Business Sense of Doing Good

The Google logo is spelled out in heliostats (mirrors that track the sun and reflect the sunlight onto a central receiving point) during a tour of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border February 13, 2014. The project, a partnership of NRG, BrightSource, Google and Bechtel, is the world’s largest solar thermal facility and uses 347,000 sun-facing mirrors to produce 392 Megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power more than 140,000 homes. Photograph: Steve Marcus/Reuters

The often maligned Calvin Coolidge quote the “Business of America is Business” takes on a positive note when we consider that in the current political climate many corporations are stepping up where the federal administration falls short.

American companies are still investing in renewable energy

After the November elections, many of us in the climate and energy fields were rightfully fearful. What would happen to international agreements to cut greenhouse gases? What would happen to funding for climate research? What would happen to the green energy revolution?

In most instances, Trump is worse than we could have imagined. But in one special area, the president may not matter. That is in the growth of corporate purchasing of renewable energy. It turns out there are factors that even he cannot stop that make choosing renewable energy an easy decision for many companies.

New evidence about the unstoppable renewable energy wave recently came out in a report that was released by Apex Clean Energy and the GreenBiz Group. These groups surveyed corporations to determine their future plans on renewable energy installation and adoption. They wanted to know whether these plans had changed in the past few years and what motivated their decisions to implement renewable energy strategies. The outcome of this survey is available here for people who want to read the entire document.

The groups surveyed 153 major corporations (both public and private), whose combined revenue was in excess of $250 million. Among these companies, 84% are “actively pursuing or considering purchasing renewable energy over the next 5-10 years.” Surprisingly, they found that 43% of the corporations intend to be more aggressive in their pursuit of renewable energy in the next two years. 87% of those actively pursuing renewable energy purchases stated that the election had no impact on their decision.

In fact, 11% were more inclined to purchase renewable energy. Continue reading

Is This The Future Of Agriculture?

hfh-logo_1Automated machines growing the first arable crop remotely, without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. ​

Nicola Twilley, a contributing writer for and the author of the blog Edible Geography, is also a co-host of the Gastropod podcast that we link to from time to time. She has brought our attention to an “underfunded initiative” which, considering what looks like a shout out from Monsanto on the initiative’s website, we read with simultaneous wonder and dread:


A Field Farmed Only by Drones

Across the United Kingdom, the last of the spring barley has been brought in from the fields, the culmination of an agricultural calendar whose rhythm has remained unchanged for millennia. But when the nineteenth-century poet John Clare wrote, in his month-by-month description of the rural year, that in September “harvest’s busy hum declines,” it seems unlikely that he was imagining the particular buzz—akin to an amplified mosquito—of a drone. Continue reading

The Origin Of Feasting


A life of hunting and gathering had advantages over one of farming and settlement. Illustration by Golden Cosmos

John Lanchester’s article, pondering technology versus science, gives fire its due in the course of reviewing a new book about how hunting and gathering gave way to progress. At the same time, Lanchester raises reasonable doubts about the gains:

book-scott-grain…We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. Continue reading

Scale, Distribution & Disruption


Three stories in today’s New York Times, two in the main Business section and the other in the Media subsection of Business, are an interesting read in tandem:

As Amazon’s Influence Grows, Marketers Scramble to Tailor Strategies

While Other U.S. Companies Flee China, Starbucks Marches In

With ‘Logan Lucky,’ Soderbergh Hopes to Change Film’s Business Model


That Thing About Uber


For what it is worth, a confession. I deleted this app with the intent to never use it again, and then I switched to this one. That felt good. Then last week I was up in the mountains of Escazu, in Costa Rica, and I had to change my mind. At 3:30 a.m. a local taxi driver who was supposed to pick me up to take me to the airport did not show up. After a few minutes I finally relented and downloaded the app I had deleted. And something unexpected, something very good happened. Continue reading

The Technological Wow Factor of Archaeology

Crist’s post about this fascinating National Geographic article last week touched on its excellent graphics but barely began to scratch the surface of the amazing technology that would certainly have left the readers of the early issues of the magazine speechless.

In addition to the world-class photography, the interactive 3-D graphic of the frieze above uses SketchFab technology to allow viewers to not only zoom in and out, but to turn the object around in all directions, as if handling it in person. Do take the time to play with it! Continue reading

Suddenly, Lyft

Lyft1.jpgWhen I decided to delete that app it was without hesitation. I wanted to avoid sanctimony, but the point of making a show of my resolve was a simple message, i.e. that manners matter. Even though that app had been extremely useful to me over the past year, it was not so useful that I could ignore its founder’s behavior once I finally paid attention.

So now I am paying attention, and need a new app. And where better to start looking? I liked the message of that story, for reasons akin to my boyhood preference for Bjorn Borg over John McEnroe. I believe in disruption and I believe in winning, but if one is going to develop new rules of the game, then they should definitely be better rules that lead to better behavior. Continue reading

Adapting to Change

The jungle is constantly changing. Large mammals break through low growing plants, fungi break down fallen material, and birds, insects, and monkeys are constantly roaming about the canopy.

The most recent edition of the Chan Chich trail map was produced in 2006. However, since then, the wildlife has continued to go about its business making small modifications to the landscape over the past eleven years. Not to mention, the occasional tree fall from storm interrupting the balance. As a result, because of the organic, unpredictable movement of nature, this map isn’t as accurate as it was a decade ago. Now, Alana and I undertaking the task of updating the maps to reflect how the trails look now.

Continue reading

Deleting Uber

Uber.jpgShame on me for waiting until today to finally do it. I started hearing one year ago from friends and family about why they had decided to stop using Uber. But Uber was just then ramping up in Kerala, India and I found it compelling enough to abandon car ownership. When I saw the details recently on what a creep Uber’s founder and largest shareholder is, that should have been enough. But, it was this article that finally compelled me. Thanks to the New York Times reporter Kevin Roose for the perspective:

As Uber Stumbles, Lyft Sees an Opening, and Bites Its Tongue

It has been a rough, scandal-filled year for Uber. But don’t expect John Zimmer, Lyft’s president, to gloat about his competitor’s misfortunes. Continue reading

Communicating An Idea Clearly


When I followed a link to a recording of his lecture, which happened after reading a review of his book, I could not yet have answered clearly as I can now an important question related to Yuval Noah Harari. Is it the core idea, or is it how he communicates that is more compelling? Yesterday I read this op-ed of his in the Guardian and it was as sticky for the last 24 hours as what I heard in that lecture in March, but perhaps not because of the idea.

I say this because the future he describes, in which artificial intelligence is pervasive and essential to the sense of value guiding our lives, is not one I am immediately attracted to, to put it mildly (I say this surrounded by a half million acres of very real forest and very real wildlife and a community of wonderfully real people with whom I enjoy hosting other wonderfully real visitors). And yet the argument he makes, and specifically the structure and description he uses for that argument, are compelling. And worth a few minutes of reading:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). Continue reading

Why Net Neutrality Matters To All Of Us


Tim Wu has shown up on these pages exactly once in the past. Today marks #2 with a link to his op-ed The ‘Fix’ for Net Neutrality That Consumers Don’t Need, which helps strengthen the case we tried to make in the first post about him. He is a gifted explainer. This seemingly innocuous policy issue, which might otherwise get ignored and thereby also allow another gain of the wrong type to the wrong people, is suddenly clearly a very big deal thanks to Mr. Wu:

Netflix and Amazon have been nominated for hundreds of Emmys and Golden Globe awards in recent years, and that is a testament to both the quality of those companies and the transformation of television. But some of the credit is also due to “net neutrality,” the legal regime that nurtured and protected the open internet and streaming TV in the first place. Continue reading

Tools, Tinkering, Science & Salvation


Tim Boucher sets a camera trap near a bird of paradise lek. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Justine E. Hausheer)

Camera traps are never going to lose our fascination, and have played a mitigating role in our non-Luddite but still determined effort to keep it simple, back to nature. The future depends on innovation, and we cannot hide behind trees pretending otherwise. If conservation efforts are going to compete effectively against the forces supporting environmental destruction, unconventional approaches are needed. We are entrepreneurially-inclined, and so are naturally comfortable with FishFace, among seven innovative pivots to a better future described by the wonderful team at Cool Green Science:

7 Science Innovations That Are Changing Conservation

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In our still relatively brief existence, humans have evolved our way to an era many are now calling the Anthropocene – a new geological epoch defined by human impact on Earth. But our unparalleled creativity is a double-edge sword. We are undeniably contributing to many of the global challenges now facing our species, and all species who share this planet. Continue reading

Footprint Improvements


Believe it or not, there is some good news out there on the carbon footprint trail. Thanks to Mathis Wackernagel, whose work I have appreciated even without posting more since 2011, and to his whole team for sharing this:

Ecological Footprint Explorer Open Data Platform Launches April 5, 2017

The US per capita Ecological Footprint dropped nearly 20% during the last eight years of available data (2005 and 2013), a total reduction that matches the entire Footprint of Germany. Continue reading

Merlin Flying Further Afield

We’ve written about this amazing APP on our pages before, and it’s exciting to watch it’s evolution and expansion of both technology and territory.

Our work has yet to expand to Mexico, but birds don’t acknowledge national borders, so the majority of the species in the Yucatan  can be found in all 3 countries that make up the peninsula – Belize, Guatemala and of course, Mexico.

We look forward to having our marvelous guides try it out just for fun!

 Merlin Expands to Mexico

We’ve spent the last few months working to expand coverage of Merlin, and we’ve just released a new bird pack for the Yucatan Peninsula. Research at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology repeatedly points to the Yucatan Peninsula as a vital wintering ground for many of our favorite breeding birds in the United States. It’s also home to many dazzling birds unique to the Neotropics. Continue reading