Robot Cars Pick Up the Pace In Florida!

Human driver crashes in St. Petersburg Florida

We’ve talked about robots and self-driving cars for a while now. You’ve seen articles and videos showing cars driving themselves, but these are test vehicles. While we haven’t yet reached the tipping point for the robotic car, 2015 may be the year of the semi-autonomous vehicle. This year’s cars have self-parking features, autopilot (far more than cruise control) for lower speed and traffic jams, blind spot detection, robotic braking in emergencies (i.e. a child running out on the road), correction to “lane drift” (perhaps because the driver is falling asleep), and of course a variety of cameras and sensors that further assist in the management of your car. As the New York Times points out, if you put all of these features together, you already have a fully robotic car. However, most high end cars that offer these features “a la carte”, are reluctant to merge these features and remove the driver from the center of the car driving experience.

Not surprisingly, driving for driving’s sake is not the center of car automation. Instead, it is driving as a business that is at the forefront of the robotic revolution. Florida has announced that semi-autonomous crash trucks will be rolling to work sites in just a few months. Let’s break that down. First, if you are not familiar with the term, a crash truck is a truck that follows a road construction crew… often on a highway. While the work crew rebuilds the road, the crash truck hangs back at the tail end of the construction (i.e. it’s the

Crash Truck "Attenuator"

Crash Truck “Attenuator”

first vehicle that you see as you drive down the road). Why is there a crash truck? So that you crash into it! More specifically, this truck… with signs, flashing lights and a platform in the back… is there so that you crash into it, INSTEAD of running over workers.

Second, anyone who regularly works on an active roadway is in a dangerous profession. If I were to ask you, “What is the most dangerous profession: police officer, fireman or garbage collector”, which position would you pick? Most would think it is the police officer or the fireman. After all they have such dangerous jobs they need protective clothing to protect them from fire and weapons. Yet it is the garbage collector that has the most dangerous of these professions.

“Garbage Collector” is one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in America. Why? Because they work on the street, and their work often causes traffic problems. Drivers get annoyed, and as a result they drive with anger, and kill workers. In 2013 579 road workers (only road workers, not garbage collectors or others), were killed. That means that every 15 hours, a driver kills a road worker. In Florida, the combination of a large population and a considerably higher than average number of vehicular fatalities, makes it a very good place to use a robot crash truck.

My third and final point, is how the crash truck will work. The manned crash truck itself, was a major safety innovation. In a lot of road work, the “work site” is in motion.  Laying asphalt, painting new lane lines or cleaning up weeds on the shoulder or meridian  means that the work crew, must slowly move forward, and that static barriers to protect the crew are not practical. A crash truck has become a common way to put a barrier between oncoming traffic and the work crew. You can also see crews laying down orange cones prior to work starting… often from a platform suspended behind the truck. The life of a crash truck driver is to drive forward a few feet, and then park for 20 or 30 minutes and wait to be hit, drive forward, wait to be hit, etc. Given the job position, the union rates for the driver are understandable. But the cost of the driver and the truck together causes some states to choose more dangerous alternative, such as just positioning a guy with a red flag or just using orange cones and lights.

These robot trucks aren’t yet fully autonomous, but they don’t have to be. A fully autonomous robot might leave from the garage and meet the road crew at whatever location they are working at. This version of the crash truck leaves from the same garage as the road crew and follows the human controlled trucks. Sort of like a baby duck not yet being fully autonomous and following a moma duck around. It knows how to stop at lights and not hit pedestrians or other vehicles, and it can sense the road around it. When it does arrive at the work site, it will simply move forward when the other trucks and equipment move. So it doesn’t yet need any greater autonomy. Yet, it’s good enough to replace a union job.

Step by step, we are getting closer to fully autonomous robot cars. Crash trucks are an early sign, but so too are the individual automation features in today’s high end cars. What’s coming next? No one may know, but we do know that something is coming next and something after that. We will continue these baby steps forwards until we start to see some big changes in transportation. So, keep and eye on this space for the next update, because the robot revolution is already here! And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Continuous Improvement And The Environment

Food ParamidOver the past few months I’ve written a number of articles on the environment. I wrote these articles because I truly believe that the environment, and recent changes to the environment, are one of the most important issues affecting the world today. I was also motivated by the amazing amount of misunderstanding, and intentional misinformation, about how farming, fishing and other human activities are driving environmental change.

Do huge corporations distort information on their product to favor higher profitability? Yes, they do. Do consumers misunderstand scientific reports and create harmful pseudo-science. Yes, they do… too. The problem is, quite simply, that we have more humans on earth than at any other point in history. The earth, as vast as it is, has limits. Technology has allowed us to keep pushing those limits, but until we can shrink our population, we’re going to need to learn how to live comfortably at the very edge of the earth’s capacity… without falling over that edge.

The world needs to understand continuous improvement. All  or nothing solutions don’t work in the real world. Today’s polarized politics try to get everything at once. Instead, we need to take a step at a time, and just make tomorrow in some way measurably better than today. That means compromises… lots and lots of compromises. That’s the problem. We live in very polarized times, with little regard for compromise.

Conservatives have embarrassed themselves by denying climate change. Now, Washington’s agreement to ignore any and all scientific findings that interferes with petro-dollar donations, is crumbling. All but the most conservative Republicans now admit that global warming is real, and the rest are slowly agreeing that humans activity is the cause. The next step, agreeing to effective actions, requires that we also measure the resulting changes. Some actions will work, and some will fail. Just like a corporation that adopts continuous improvement, America needs to identify key metrics, develop effective tracking, and perform root cause analysis to know when our actions are effective or need correction.

Of course, objective analysis is not just a conservative issue. Liberals also need to give up magical thinking, and rely on scientific analysis. Liberals are quick to tell conservatives, “Look at the overwhelming research, written by the top scientists in the field, and stop quoting the few contrary reports by researchers with no credentials.” At least liberals are quick to say that when the subject is Climate Change. When the discussion is about industrial pesticides or nuclear power, suddenly expertise is equated with bias. Now we hear, “Big research studies cannot be trusted, and the only reports that are trustworthy are written by researchers from outside the establishment (i.e., no credentials).” In order to save the earth, we need to take a hard look at the mythology of Organic farming, and objectively review major industrial innovations to improve the foods we eat.

Let’s be very clear on a few important points. All of the farm land in the world is currently being farmed. In fact, around the world we lose 5,000 acres of productive farmland a day. Those losses will increase over time. This is the normal effect of farming. All modern farming has a negative impact on the land. Planting food and harvesting it, disturbs the land and cause the erosion that eventually makes land unproductive. The use of irrigation, the type of water we use, use of heavy farm equipment, and other activities on both conventional and organic farms accelerate land erosion. If we try to expand farmlands, it will both worsen existing environmental problems and require plowing under parks, forests and other public lands. Organic food requires 25% more land than conventional farming. If America switched to 100% organic farming today, we would need hundreds of millions of acres of new farmland. By 2050, America will have an additional 100 million citizens. Hungry citizens. How will they be fed?

That 25% higher productivity is why farmers use industrial chemicals and modern agricultural techniques. Humanity needs that 25%, and more. Tomorrow’s farmers MUST become even more productive, raising more food on every acre. Yet, that productivity must come from less water and a smaller carbon footprint. Pesticides help farmers to deliver high productivity, but their use is highly  controversial. Yet, farms, both conventional and organic, are using increasing amounts of pesticides.  As pests gain resistance to these chemicals, usage rises. The newest pesticides have been found to be safe, but even the safest pesticides have some risk. After all, pesticides kill insects and weeds. Newer pesticides are less toxic than the ones they replace, but less risk is not “no risk”. Old pesticides were essentially universal poisons, such as arsenic. Newer pesticides are specific to individual pests, and not directly toxic, but that doesn’t meant that they couldn’t indirectly affect your health or might have cumulative effects over your lifetime.

Today, a pesticide called Roundup is receiving a lot of attention. Massive amounts… literally hundreds of millions of tons…  of pesticide are used every year to grow corn, soybeans and other staple crops. Roundup has tested as an exceptionally safe pesticides, certain far safer than the pesticides it replaces. Yet, over a lifetime it may be a cause of cancer. No studies yet have linked Roundup to cancer, but it can take decades to establish these links. After all, every pesticide used in organic farming has been found to cause cancer, or is directly toxic. Roundup may be safer than older pesticides, but we do need even newer pesticides that are safer still. New pesticides are under development today that fit that description, but it means that they will work in a very different way. A new generation of pesticides will be completely non-toxic, killing pests by disrupting targeted RNA. The genes affected by this new class of chemicals only exist in the specific insects that are being targeted. Not in human beings.

A chemical that alters the cell structure of… anything… will attract a lot of negative attention. A new breakthrough that can significantly raise farm productivity will be very different, more than just a tweak to existing techniques. Delivering big  improvements to crop productivity will take big breakthroughs. Scary breakthroughs. Genetically modified foods (GMOs) need to be looked at again. New techniques we haven’t yet developed, will need to be considered. In the next few decades our world’s population will grow by billions. Unless we sacrifice our public spaces and forests, we MUST dramatically increase farm productivity. We are all stakeholder in the quality of our environment. We don’t know if the next “big thing” will help or hurt, but we need to objectively analyze each new option, and use science rather than opinion, fear and self-interest to decide if it should be used. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Is America’s Food… Deadly?

Food LabelWhen I was a child, I remember reading the “sort of newspapers” near the checkout in the supermarket. The National Enquirer, The Globe, The Star. “Supermarket Tabloids”, more entertainment than news, were kept safely separate from real newspapers. Stories of the “Bat Boy”, news about Big Foot, and of course the latest coverage of UFO abductions. Today, these outrageous stories pale compared to a brief glance at the Internet. Especially stories about foods. Conservatives approve mega-tons of farm chemicals being dumped on our food. Liberals who refuse to admit that “chemical free” organic foods are loaded with dangerous chemicals. All kind of crazy blogs about our food killing us. Hey… can the little green men stop building crop circles for a few minutes and tell me if any of those crops are safe to eat?

While operators stand by for a call from our intergalactic farm hands, let’s talk about how safe our foods are. In the last two blogs, we discussed how scientific data is made to look more confusing than it is (“If Science Has The Answers, Why Are We Fighting Over The Questions?”), and how all farming impacts the environment (“Does Farming Destroy The Earth?”). Today, we’ll use what we’re learned from these blogs to understand food safety.

So, let’s set aside our partisan beliefs, and lets focus on facts. The Internet is full of stories about the dangers of foods, but few of these stories quote real research, or they only take evidence from a single paper, and ignore everything else. When much of the “real” information comes from huge corporations, there are lots of reasons to question if the data is biased. But we can’t “confirm” that we should ignore data just because it comes from a big corporation. The US farm chemical industry is indeed huge, generating revenues of $769 billion annually. Then again, the US organic industry, which is still in its infancy, has revenues of $81 billion. There are no players (including us) that don’t have a big stake is the truth behind food safety.

What we all want is food that is: nutritious (vitamins, minerals, ant-oxidants, etc.), healthy (farmed without additives that makes us sick), and free from contamination (food isn’t adulterated after being harvested). The processes needed to make this simple statement happen is incredibly complicated. Terrible mistakes have been made in the past, but it appears that food is getting safer all the time. But the farming process is also looking more like a cross between a laboratory and a factory, and less like a farm. It’s not obvious how pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and other products used by big agricultural firms, like Monsanto, work. As consumers, we want lots of options, but as the farming process grows ever more complex, we’re not even sure what we’re asking for. It seems easier to just say, “I want my food to be natural”, and anything that is not “natural” is seen as a type of contamination.

The fact is that farming, organic or conventional, hasn’t been natural for a very long time. Look at corn. The stuff we eat today, is unrecognizable in its original form. And we would

Ancestral Corn - All Rights: John Doebley

Ancestral Corn – All Rights: John Doebley

need to eat about a hundred of these, to equal one ear of modern corn. Organic corn is the same corn as the commercial kind (with the exception of very recent genetically modified corn). Those who favor organics tend to focus on the difference between one recent variant (or cultivar) of corn, and another… usually a Genetically Modified one. You will see very little, if any, comparisons with an original versions of corn. If wouldn’t make any sense to do with comparison with “natural” corn, because no one is going to go back to growing corn with just 5 or 10 kernels. Likewise, what we consider to be an acceptable form of corn today (the taste, nutrition, cost, etc.) may be seen in a hundred years as just as primitive and impractical a crop as original corn is today. The history of farming is a progressive march towards higher crop productivity, squeezing more food our of less and for a growing population.

A Bit Of History: In 1840, all farming was organic, and 70% of American workers were farmers. In this organic world starvation and famines were common: Bengal famine of 1770, 10 million dead; Chalisa (India) famine of 1783, 11 million dead; Irish potato famine, 1.5 million dead (2 million more left Ireland); Russian famine of 1921, 5 million dead; and so on. In addition to the death tolls from famines, many more were crippled by malnutrition and vitamin deficiency (ex.: vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in children).The rise of the industrial revolution allowed farmers to dramatically increased the food produced per acre, eventually allowing the US to produce enough food to feed all

Photo, All Rights Wikimedia Commons - Famine in the Ukraine

Photo, All Rights Wikimedia Commons – Famine in the Ukraine

Americans (300 million today, 400 million by 2015), export $136 billion in food, all the while reducing the labor needed for farming to just 2% of the American workforce. There few regional famines we still see are due to war, not crop failures.

The need to feed a hungry world slowly changed the nature of farming, creating the massive industrial farms we have today. The vast increase in farm productivity did not come without a cost. Flood irrigation became our preferred form of farming, when the US was relatively unpopulated. Now agriculture competes with homes, industry and  recreation for increasingly scarce water resources. Pesticides have been proven to be relatively safe, but our use of pesticides.. both in conventional and organic farming…. keeps increasing. Is there an upper limit, past which it is np longer safe? Mistakes in the past, such as DDT… which proved harmful, but in complex ways that were not easy to predict… make us cynical about tests that are performed by the firms that manufacture the products that are being tested.

The world population in 1800 was 1 billion, which doubled to 2 billion by 1920, and then to 4 billion in 1970. The introduction of more productive cultivars, “miraculous” fertilizers and safer pesticides allowed world food production to more than double between 1960 and 1980. Experts say that the world population will stop growing at some point, perhaps as soon as 2050 at 11 billion, or we might grow past 16 billion. In our last blog (“Does Farming Destroy the Earth?”) we found that America has little land to spare for new farms, and that are losing farmland to land erosion (globally, 5,000 acres a day). As global climate change continues, we will lose still more farmland as acreage becomes flooded,  too hot or are invaded by pests that thrive in the new weather.

Poison in Our Fields?: In a murder mystery, the target of a poisoning consumes some beverage or food, clutches at their throat, gasps and falls dead. Science is very good at finding this type of poison. Pesticides aren’t this type of poison. If you drank a  glass full of pesticide… a quantify that is millions of times greater than what you would normally consume… it would undoubtedly make you sick, if not kill you. Pesticide is supposed to be poisons, usually of plants or insects, so they need to be in some way lethal.

The current generation of pesticides is more specific, and less toxic than the last generation. Each generation is measurably less toxic, or is found to have an unknown toxicity and removed. Sometimes the toxicity is not understood, or self-interest and bureaucracy slow down the process of removing  toxic chemicals. Nonetheless, the chemicals we use on the farm today are safer than what they replaced. And the next generation of pesticides are likely to be still less toxic. Every chemical we use on a farm has some risk, but moving to newer and less risky chemicals is one way to make our food safer.

Many people believe that Organic food does not use pesticides or dangerous chemicals, but this is wrong. Organic foods use BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis), Rotenone, Nicotine, lead and  other substances. All of these substances are known to cause health issues, including cancer. However, many (if not most) of the foods that we eat naturally contain substances that can poison us or cause cancer.  It is absolutely true that we bombard our crops with mega-tons of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers. Yet, American’s live longer than ever before and all statistics tell us that our life expectancy will be still longer in the future. Perhaps, you are thinking, “OK, we’re exposed to more pesticides and all of the objective science says we’re healthier, but what if a very small population is getting sick?”

A lot of blogs talk about autism, allergies, and other non-specific diseases being caused by farm chemicals, but the research is very weak. Studies are showing that more children are showing severe allergic reactions than in the past. The association with pesticides is usually no more than, “We keep using more pesticides and kids are getting more allergic. So, there you go!” The latest studies. however, show that the cause of allergies is “hyper cleanliness”, not pesticides.

If our immune systems are not exposed to allergens when we are kids, our bodies never learn how to cope. Later in life, kids can have extreme, even fatal,  allergic reactions. Add to this the narrowing of the Western diet. Vegetarian diets may reduce fats in the diet, but it also reduces the range of proteins and bacteria that we are exposed to. That stunts the growth of our immune system. Gluten, a protein that humans have consumed for 10,000 years, is an allergen for a very small number of people. However, a growing number of hyper-protective parents are removing it from their children’s diet, even when children are not allergic. Finally, consider children that only eat chicken fingers, hot dogs or mac and cheese… and possibly pizza. Pesticides may cause health problems, but these changes in kids diets are KNOWN to cause health problems. Consumer food choices appear to do more to influence health issues than farmer’s choice of methods.

Nutrition: For years organic consumers have believed that organic is more nutritious than conventional foods. The nutrition of organic and conventional food has been tested many times and the verdict is… there is no difference. It is true that one study will find that organics are slightly better in anti-oxidants and another will find that convention food has more vitamins. Another study shows the opposite results. A recent large scale study looked at 200 peer reviewed scientific reports (peer reviewed studies, are the preferred form of research) and found no significant differences between organic and conventional. An even larger study… reviewing some of the reports from the previous study… found that organic had more vitamins, but conventional had more protein. There may be small differences, but not enough to matter. Besides, most of these reports are missing the two most important points about food nutrition.

First, every farm is different. It doesn’t a matter if it is a conventional farm or if it is organic. The US is a big nation with states that have different soil, different weather. From farm to farm there are variations in the appearance and the nutrition of produce. These variations are not enough to matter, but they are enough to measure. If you truly want the best nutrition, then it’s a matter of consumer selection, not farming methodology. Consider your choice of Lettuce. It has three times the vitamin K, 5 times the carotenoids and 10 times the vitamin A of Iceberg lettuce. That’s a vast difference. Even within the general type of Romaine lettuce, there are different cultivars that can impact the specific nutrition of a head of lettuce, and the weather in a given season many make small differences in the nutrition of a given head of lettuce, at a given time in the season. Are you one of the lettuce lovers who prefers the tender yellow leaves at the heart of a head of Romaine rather than the slightly bitter outer leaves? Did you know that the greenest of the outer leaves that has the highest nutrition? Likewise, “baby greens” are usually nutritionally inferior to their more mature cousins. There is more nutritional difference between which leaf you choose on a head of lettuce, than which farm it came from.

The second factor in nutrition is… freshness! Strictly speaking, this is not a farming issue. Instead, it’s about something called “supply chain”. This is the combination of cooperatives, transportation firms, packing plants and processing centers that move food from the farm to your dinner plate. All along the way, the enemy of nutrition is time and heat. The fields that grow your produce are hot, and every moment after produce is picked it is decaying. Big farms immediately move produce from the field to an ice bath, to quickly cool it down. The biggest corporations see that most of the route is kept cool… refrigerated cars, trains and warehouses. The factory farms is very efficient at moving vast amounts of food quickly. Still, the farther the produce, the more likely that it has lost some nutrition. The impact of shipping on produce is easy to see on leafy greens, but harder to see on apples and other produce that can be stored for long periods of time. There is a simple rule. If the food looks old and tired, buy something else.  If you want the maximum nutrition, focus on buying food that was grown locally, and might get to you faster than if it was grown in another state or country.

Healthy: “Is my food healthy?” This is what we really want to know, but most consumers don’t understand the question. Before modern farming, we would want to know if some unfamiliar food could make us sick or even kill us. Many common foods have deadly poisons, or must be carefully prepared to be safe. Apples are good to eat, but the seeds have arsenic, a deadly poison. All parts peaches and apricots are eaten around the world, but the seeds have high levels of cyanide. Does that potatoes have a bit of green? That’s a deadly neurotoxin. Cashews are good for us, but cashews (even “raw” cashews) must be processed to remove a natural toxin (the same one that makes poison Ivy itchy). Even carrots, innocent little carrots, that wonderful source of vitamin E, can be deadly in large amounts. It takes a LOT of carrots to be poisoned by Vitamin E, but every year 60,000 instances of vitamin toxicity are reported to poison centers in the US. There’s an old saying, “The difference between medicine and poison is dosage.”

These are all “simple” cases of poisoning. Eat something poisonous, get sick, and then identify the problem. If modern farming chemicals are toxic, they are not poisonous in this straight forward way. Next, we ask, if these chemicals are not directly poisonous, could they give you some other illness? There have been questions about the connection between farm chemicals and… autism, Parkinson’s, asthma, diabetes, hyperactivity and other disorders, but the evidence is contradictory. Some reports  show a relationship between these diseases and pesticides, and others disprove any link. The best interpretation?  There is no definitive link between farm chemicals any and of these disorders. This doesn’t mean that a new study won’t change this tomorrow, it just means that there is no easy link that can be found today.

What about Cancer? Most simply described, cancer is a copying error. Cells constantly copy themselves, and occasionally, something goes wrong. Most mistakes die off quickly. But mutated cells that survive, don’t function as a healthy cell, continue to replicate themselves, and copies itself faster than a healthy cell… this is cancer, or a precursor to cancer. The latest studies say that we all have pre-cancer, but our natural defenses constantly kill off cells with errors. That’s what our immune systems have been doing for millions of years.

Mutated cells only become a disease because they can grow fast enough to overwhelm our defenses, or they discover how to hide from our defenses. BT, the most common pesticide used in organic farming has been designated as “can cause cancer”. When used as recommended, it doesn’t appear to be toxic. No studies show an increase of cancer in the population, or a conclusive link between individual cases of cancer and organic foods. A common commercial pesticide, Roundup, may get the “can cause cancer” label. As the use of pesticides continues to rise, we do need to keep testing for links between disease and farm chemicals, but the link is still to be found.

The problem with truly understanding the link between food and our health is understanding if there is any such thing as a “safe” dose of a toxic substance. An industrial chemist knows which pesticide, in what quantity will kill a pest. Obviously, that pesticide must be in some way toxic, or it wouldn’t work. A chemical that kills a mammal is more likely to kill a human than a chemical that is specific to insects or plants. Just as our bodies know how to deal with poisons in limited quantities, but if the quantities are too large or poisons are unfamiliar, there might be health problems, but they are very difficult to detect. Many studies merely point to the rise in cancer in America and conclude that it must be our food. However, when you look at any age cohort (for ex: all males under 21 years old, everyone in New York from 30 to 40 years old, etc.) cancer has been falling. The “rise” in cancer has been due to our living longer, since 2/3 of all cancer cases occur after age 60. The rate of new cancer cases is unchanged and we’re living longer. Shouldn’t we conclude that something has been happening to our food that is making us healthier?

Contamination: Once your crops are picked and off the farm, we’re done with food safety issues, right? The truck that carries produce today, carried had something else yesterday. This happened in the past, but hasn’t been an issue in the US for decades. Likewise, in the past there were small, local outbreaks of food contamination, but today we see regional or national outbreaks.  The change in food contamination has a lot to do with the supply chains we discussed in the last section. As the chain gets longer, a small mistake at one farm becomes a national problem when produce gets comingled. The big contamination problem have been bacterial, especially E Coli, but also salmonella and a other bacteria.

These bacteria come from the guts of animals and people. How do they get into our food supply? Farms often have farm animals. The rise of organic farming has led to the return of manure as a crop fertilizer. Animal manure has been stored near harvested foods, and manure is often move around in the same trucks that later move produce. Conventional farms can also have animals, even if they only use synthetic fertilizers, and can also have bacterial contamination. However, as organic practices expand, we can expect more contamination. Consider these recent cases of food contamination: US 2006 – organic baby spinach, 6 dead 198 sickened; Germany 2011 – organic leafy greens, 53 dead, 3,950 exposed). Leafy greens are very vulnerable to this type of contamination because they have many nooks and crannies where bacteria can hide. Both cases involved pre-packaged, separated leaves (ex.: a bag or a clamshell box of separate leaves). This allows just a small amount of produce to be mixed into a very large bin of separated or chopped leaves. Those leaves are then divided into hundreds or thousands of packages that are sent around the country, or around the world.

In meats and processed foods, there are similar examples. In 2011, there was a large recall of ground turkey from Cargill (a national meat distributor), due to salmonella. One person was killed, and 78 sickened across 26 states. Earlier, other meat processors had similar outbreaks involving hot dogs and hamburgers. Ground and processed meat products have been repeatedly contaminated, but steaks,  turkey drumsticks and other meats that haven’t been ground up rarely become contaminated. Surface contamination is more easily killed by the cooking process than contamination at the center of a ground food, like a hamburger.

Conclusion: It takes a lot of processes and a lot of people to keep America’s food safe. Looking at the number of instances of food contamination, our ever increasing life expectancies, and other superficial but important statistics, this may be the golden age of food safety. Most Americans have enough food to eat and few showing signs of food borne illness or disease. New chemicals, new farming techniques, the arrival of GMOs and even the expansion of Organic farming may have health consequences that we cannot imagine today. We do need to remain vigilant as our farms diverge farther tan farther from “natural” farming. Still, the average consumer has a lot that they can do to control the safety and nutrition of their foods. Choosing the right types of foods, knowing how fresh your purchases are, selecting local producers, and ensuring that our children have a balanced and varied diet can do a lot of ensure that our food keeps us nourished and healthy. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Does Farming Destroy The Earth?

Tilling teh field

Tilling the field

In our last Blog, “If Science Has the Answers, Why Are We Fighting?”, we discussed how we live in a polarized world, where we pay the most attention to the facts we already believe in. Today, we’re going to see how our selective hearing impacts some specific environmental issues and see if we can move past self-interest, and look at the facts objectively.  We will look at one of the most fundamental environmental issues… “What is farming doing to the earth?” That’s an enormous issue, that involves pesticides, fertilizers, use of water, soil erosion and GMO crops. In the next blog, our third in this series, we will look at a related issue, “Is our food safe for human consumption?”. Let’s dive right in!

America’s farms have long since ceased to be idyllic rural hideaways, where you wander through orchards with cows softly mooing in the background. Sure, you can go to a family farm to pick some apples or find your Halloween pumpkin, but that’s destination entertainment more than it is farming. Our farms are closer to factories than something your granddad would recognize. America’s farms use artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified foods (GMOs) and gigantic farm equipment. Americans want to return to a simpler time, that is easier to understand, and this desire can best be seen in the Organic Movement. If we get rid of chemicals and harmful farm practices, so the movement says, returning to the way farmers used to raise crops, we’ll have better food and the earth will be better off. It sounds good, but can organic foods really deliver what we expect?

One hundred years ago, the world had just 1 billion people, and all farming was organic. Today, organic farming is just not productive enough to support today’s population of 7 billion. That’s why farming changed. Mechanical tractors and flood irrigation raised productivity. By the turn of the last century, farmers selected the most productive seeds for their land, rather than just replanting seed from last year’s crop. Since the 1930s, long before GMOs… or labeling laws, new seeds were blasted with radiation and soaked in mutagenic chemicals to create new characteristics and higher yields; some of these mutations may be growing on organic farms today, as heirloom or heritage varieties. Productivity was again boosted, with synthetic fertilizers, and then still again with the green revolution (a world-wide, scientific evaluation of crops around the world, and what was best to plant where). And finally, the rise of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the fields, and hormones and antibiotics for cattle in the pastures.

Today, all but a few percent of our farmland uses these “conventional” farming methods. At the same time, organic farming, which attempts to get rid of chemicals and technology dependent methods, is rapidly gaining interest around the world. In America, Most organic foods consists of “premium” foods at a premium price. Is it worth it? While every major study to date, shows little or no benefit, consumers of organic produce strongly believe in the “back to a simpler time” message, and feel that it is healthier than conventional food. Today we will only cover the impact of farming on the environment (food safety and nutrition will is covered in the next blog), but we should quickly touch on personal vs public good.

If you have evidence (or you just believe) that organic food is good for your health, you are certainly justified in choosing to buy organics. That’s a personal good. But what about the good of the public? What if you are right and you are better off eating organic foods, BUT… by doing so, you cause great harm to the environment? What if the continued use of organic foods was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, thousands of children. Not your children. Someone else’s children. Would you still buy only organic fruit for your family? These issues of public vs. private goods are at the center of farming today. Let’s take a deeper look at the public good, at how farming affects the environment.

ACREAGE: No matter how you look at it, farming is not good for the environment. On a

All Rights: Flood Irrigation

Flood Irrigation All Rights: Wikipedia

planet with a population of 7 billion and growing, we just don’t give the earth a chance to rest. Planting and harvesting crops every year breaks up the soil, contributing to soil erosion (i.e. allowing the soil to wash away). Over the last 150 years, America has lost between 50% and 75% of its soil due to farming and erosion. As a result, in the US and around the world farmland is now becoming desert, while the soil that is swept into rivers and lakes, causes rapid bacterial and plant growth. The water soon runs out of oxygen, creating a killing zone for fish and native plants. Soil erosion is caused by many factors, but is observed when it rains and when the land is irrigated. Irrigation was the miracle of the Bronze age, greatly increasing crop yields, but also destroying the land over time. There are other methods of farming, but none that have yet matched the productivity of commercial farming and flood irrigation.

One of the problems with organic crops (and meat) is that they require more land than conventional farming. Organic farming generally requires 25% more land to grow the same amount of food as conventional farming. Think about it. The land mass of the US is 2.3 billon acres. Farmland is  442 million acres and pasture land is another 587 million acres. If all food was organic tomorrow, we’d need 260 million additional acres. There’s 300 million acres of parks, 650 million acres of forest, and another 375 million acres tied up in Alaska (which has very little good farmland). Take out another 50 million acres for cities and 73 million for rural towns, and we’re left with about 225 million acres of land, that includes deserts, swamps, military bases, open pit mines, etc. Not exactly choice farm land.

Even if we could convert to organics without the price of food skyrocketing, there just isn’t enough land for organic farming. Especially when you take into account the 100 million additional Americans that we need to feed by 2050. Are organics  important enough to convert our national parks into farmland? Another alternative is to make organic farming much more efficient, without using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. That just leaves consolidation (merge small organic farms together into bigger farms), add more heavy machinery, and replace human farmers with a new generation of smart robots. Technically, this is still organic, but it doesn’t sound very much like what organic consumers want.

CARBON FOOTPRINT: Synthetic fertilizers are usually based on petroleum, which means a bigger carbon footprint. Organics require more land, which means more fuel for transportation and farm equipment. It’s difficult to say which is better or worse, since every farm has different requirements. However, we can say that organic, or natural, or family oriented farms are less efficient, and at big commercial farms have smaller carbon footprints per carrot, per head of lettuce, or what have you. It’s not just the farm, but what happens after the crops are harvested. Early one morning, go to a supermarket. See all of the trucks unloading food? That is just the last step in a complex transportation process that links the farm to your supermarket. Big farms are more efficient in loading trucks and trains full of food. The smaller the farm, the less efficient the process, and organic and family farms are usually smaller. If you rode an hour in your SUV to go to a small farm to pick your own produce, it can be a fun day, but that small bag of produce (with maybe a lemonade or cider donut) leaves a HUGE carbon footprint. The small farm just isn’t an efficient option for an increasingly urban population.

Earlier, we discussed the limits of land in the US (and elsewhere in the world). There is, however, an alternative to using US land to grow organic foods…imported organics. Increasingly, American’s are buying organics from overseas, especially from China. For example, any organic corn you find in your local market it undoubtedly imported (from Turkey or Romania). Imported organics avoids the land use problem in America, but moving food around the world increases the carbon footprint. Of course, the same applies to conventional foods, which is grown around the world for the US market. The only small advantage that conventionally grown food has is that since most food is conventional, there is a greater likelihood that you can buy local produce.

EXTINCT CROPS: Most consumers are unaware that common food crops have gone extinct. Bananas, which are all imported, were an early casualty of our global food system. Before the 1950’s, we ate a type of banana called the “Gros Michel”. Panama disease infects almost every variety of banana.  A particularly deadly strain of Panama disease showed up in the 1930s, and the Gros Michel was history. The banana we eat today, the Cavendish, survived the epidemic and the world’s #1 banana. The Cavendish is not immune to Panama Disease, it just wasn’t harmed by that one particular strain. Banana growers know that the constantly mutating Panama Disease will one day randomly mutate into something that wipes out the Cavendish. When that happens, we have no substitute, no “one last try” banana. Unless, of course, we use genetic modification to make one.

The banana is not the only threatened fruit. In the 1990’s Hawaiian papayas were wiped out by the ring spot virus. Other varieties of papaya were tried, but none would grow in the virus infected soil. Then they found a papaya that flourished, a new GMO papaya. Today, all Hawaiian papayas are GMOs. Soon, the Florida orange will suffer a similar fate. A small insect, the Asian Aphid, carries a virus that destroys the roots of the orange tree. First the oranges become inedible, and later the tree dies. Up to 80% of Florida’s orange trees are already infected, and are expected to die in a few years. Florida’s orange groves have between 3 and 10 years before they close. Worse yet, grapefruits, lemons and other citrus are also infected and will only outlast orange trees by a few years. Oranges groves in California are just as vulnerable, but have so far remained free of the Asian Aphid.

Asian Aphid - All rights: Wikipedia.

Asian Aphid – All rights: Wikipedia.

If you’re trying to read between the lines for a ray of hope, there isn’t one. This is a massive disaster, with very news little coverage. But you have seen the signs that something was wrong. Between 2004 (when trees started to die) and 2012 the wholesale price of juice oranges rose by 275%, and continues to rise. Look at a 64 ounce half gallon jug of juice. That jug is now 59 ounces (or less), a way for the industry to hide the price increase. Fewer acres being farmed (down 29%) and each acre is yielding less fruit (down 21%). Orange growers have pooled their resources to develop a solution, which they must have ready to apply in the next year or two if they expect to survive.

Growers already have several solutions, but they all require a strain of GMO orange. Farmers are convinced that all of the GMOs are safe, but they are afraid of the backlash from the pro-Organic camp, which could be even more destructive to their profits than the virus. For decades, orange juice advertising has made OJ synonymous with “natural”. It’s going to take a very good ad campaign to make us think that a laboratory developed orange, is “All Natural”.

In our global economy, pests are moving around the world and wiping out local species. It’s not just happening on farms, it’s happening around our homes, in lakes a streams and in our forests. Half of America’s Elm trees were lost to a fungus called Dutch Elm disease. Ash and Chestnut trees are being wiped out by other foreign insects and diseases. More foreign invaders are already be in the US, but have not yet made their presence known. Overall we’re losing ground against invasive species. If we want to keep local plants, and the environments they sustain, we may need to consider using farm GMO techniques to save our parks and forests. That’s not an idea solution, but it may be better than letting an extinct tree leave a whole in the environment. Even if another tree grows in its place, the birds, insects, mosses and other life the extinct species supported may not survive with the new trees.

All Rights: Sesibone

All Rights: Sesibone

SOIL: The soil on America’s farms, especially in the Great Plains states (or “America’s Breadbasket”) has been steadily deteriorating ever since we America’s earliest farms. The process of farming, organic or conventional, disturbs the soil. You need to plant, water, tend and harvest the crops, all of which loosen the soil and allow it to wash away. In the last 150 years, 75% of the soil in the Great Plains (i.e. “America’s Breadbasket”) has washed away. Other areas have lost only 50% of their top soil. When the soil runs out, there can be no farming. Topsoil is replenished, but it takes centuries to gain back one inch. The great plains have lost more than 100 feet of soil. When we had a great deal more soil than today, a combination of soil erosion and a persistent drought caused ca=used an ecological disaster that we called the Dust Bowl. This lasted through the 1920s and 1930s, when the land literally dried up and blew away… burying whole towns as dust storms swept the Great Plains. The largest recorded storm in 1934 had dust clouds 2 miles high. Farmers starved to death, and the choking dust led to lung diseases that killed hundreds.

Over tilling, over watering and bad weather combined to form the Dust Bowl, a decades long environmental disaster. Unlike Global Climate Change, once the US government was presented with evidence that human activity caused this disaster, the Department of Agriculture developed soil conservation and training programs, and the Dust Bowl was eventually tamed. Farmers learned from their mistakes, but soil erosion continues to be an issue. Farmers need to till or “turn over” the soil to disrupt the growth of weeds. Without tilling, weeds drain the soil of nutrients and crop productivity falls. However, tilling loosens the soil and makes it easier for soil to be washed away in the rain or during irrigation. Traditional herbicides helped to kill weeds but also killed crops. These herbicides had to be used carefully, since they were based on arsenic and other toxins that could poison consumers. Synthetic herbicides were introduced after World War II, and for the first time were specific. They would kill specific weeds, and leave other plants alone.

This new generation of pesticides was so effective, that it created a revolution in farming and ended hunger in many parts of the world. But as always, there is a cost. These products were seen as so safe, they were used indiscriminately. Suddenly we were dumping millions of tons of pesticides into the environment. Some of the “safe” pesticides had strange effects. DDT didn’t kill birds, but as DTT built up in the environment bird’s egg shells got thinner and broke under the weight of the brooding mother. Early pesticides were retired and replaced with safer alternatives. But greater safety meant still more use, and new types of use. Roundup (Glyphosate) worked so well that it allowed a no-till solution to be developed… IF it was used in conjunction with GMO crops. Spray roundup, and then plant without tilling. Tractors (and petroleum) use drops off, the leftovers from last year’s crops acts as a soil cover (less erosion), and less fertilizer and water is needed.

Given the massive quantity of Roundup that is America uses, there is a lot of attention and testing to see if Roundup could be causing more subtle health and environmental problems. To date there is little evidence that Round up or other pesticides are a danger, but new chemicals always mean new risk. However, there was already risk. New pesticides do seem to be less risky (less toxic) than the products they replaced. If these products weren’t toxic in some way, they wouldn’t kill pests. Even if the newest pesticides are the least toxic of all (especially to people), it takes a long time to collect enough data to find out if it does harm. The combination of low toxicity and “specific” types of pesticides (leaves “good” insects and plants alone).

One of the newest class of pesticides, Neo-Nicotinoids, may be linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing honey bees around the world. Ironically, this class of chemicals was intended to mimic a commonly used organic pesticide… nicotine (as in tobacco). Which raises a question. Does natural nicotine also harm bees? Should nicotine be studied and possibly banned from farming, before organic farming grows any larger?

WATER: America barely has enough water to meet our needs today. By 2050 America’s

All Rights: Dwigt Sipler

Drip Irrigation – All Rights: Dwigt Sipler

population will grow by another 100 million. Can our farms produce 35% more food, and reduce our use of water? Home owners can expect to see new homes without lawns, fewer private pools and fountains, and toilets and showers twill require even higher water efficiency. Likewise, farms must get better with water conservation.  No-till farming can conserve water. In 2009 only 88 million acres of land were no-till, so there’s still a lot of room for expansion. California, with hot and arid farms, would greatly benefit from drip watering systems, which allow the soil to hold onto moisture and dramatically reduce the water crops use. Still more radical are “dry farming” techniques, which does away with irrigation. This vastly reduces the cost of farming and, for some crops, produces premium foods for a premium price. With less water, crop yield does fall, by half or more. The “golden triangle” of farming… good for the environment, good for the farmer and good for the consumer… is a tricky proposition. While farming in California is not the same as the rest of the nation, they are dealing with problems that other states will be facing soon, so I’m going to use a lot of examples from California in the sections that follow.

For example, most of the almonds grow in the US come from California. Almonds production has skyrocketed, largely due to the popularity t of Almond Milk. That’s a great personal good (less cholesterol, fat, etc.), but it’s not a very helpful public good. Did you know that every individual almond consumes a gallon of water? Worse still, now that the rivers and lake have dried up, Almond farmers are relying on wells for water. Underground water picks up salts and minerals which may be perfectly safe for human consumption, but over time build up in the soil. Different plants have very different tolerances for salt. As that tolerance is reached, plants start to show salt burn (yellowing and browning of the leave), then yields drop dramatically. Eventually crops stop growing. Almond trees throughout California are showing salt burn, and yields are falling. In the old days you could just irrigate a bit more and it would make up for some of the damage. But farming already uses 80% of California’s water. Around the world 45 million acres of land are now too heavily salted to grow crops, and another 5,000 acres are lost every day. Salt may be the most dangerous chemical in farming today.

You might ask yourself, “Why don’t farmers just use the most efficient farming methods?” The answer is that farming is risky, making farmers slow to accept change. Profits from this year are needed to buy fuel, seeds, equipment and labor today in hopes of a good crop next year. Too little rain, too much rain, a too hot or too cool growing season, a sudden drop in prices, the arrival of a new pest, and a host of other issues could bankrupt a farm. California became one of the largest fruits and vegetables producers due to cheap and plentiful water. Naturally, farming was built around “flood irrigation”. Now that water is expensive and hard to find, they need very different “best practices”, but a small mistake in technique could cause crop yields to plummet. You could convert to organics, but that means no synthetic pesticides for 5 years (how do you make money before you get your organic certification)? No-till is well understood, but nervous farmers may choose “sort of till” instead of no-till, blending the worst of both practices. Farmers know they must speed up water conservation, but there is no easy and obvious roadmap for them to follow.

CONCLUSION: As you can see, questions like “Is this pesticide harmless?”, aren’t very useful. A better question might be, “Will a new pesticide be better than the old one?” Farming has always had negative consequences for the earth.  The mechanical process of planting and harvesting disrupts the soil. All farming, organic or not, with irrigation or without, require chemical and techniques that consume resources and can cause soil erosion. Farming is about balancing the golden triangle: good for consumer, good for the land and good for the farmer. New chemicals and technology are constantly being developed, but we only know how safe a product is after it is used.

Organic farming lowers the risk of the unknown, but raises risks in other areas (more land use, more water use, continued use of older less effective pesticides, etc.). There is no single correct farming technique, but a careful assessment of new and old techniques may give us options on how to better use the farmlands we have. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today! Join us for the third and last part of this three part series on farming… and learn if our food is still safe to eat!

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 If Science Has The Answers, Why Are We Fighting Over The Questions?

All Rights: Amshudhagar, via Wikimedia Commons

All Rights: Amshudhagar, via Wikimedia Commons

America has a deep schism between the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, polluters and ecologists. The schism may have started in politics, but today it reaches everywhere including science. If we go back a few decades, America had groups with different interests, but just about everyone believed in science. Science turned desserts into farms and put the world of hunger in our rear view mirror. Science cured many of the major plagues of the history. Even corporations, often ruled by personality and vison, incorporated elements of scientific management. People largely believed that if numbers and science were used, the answers must be right. But then there were striking cases of corporate greed and self-interest that changed our view of science. Drugs that kill, cause addiction or other serious issues… OxyContin, Prozac and of course Nicotine …  but remain on the market because of their massive profitability. Deadly contamination… DDT, asbestos, and Love Canal…  known by those in power, but hidden from the average citizen. Now we either don’t believe the science or we don’t understand what these increasingly technical science reports say. We are choosing to ignore facts and science so that we can hold onto outdated beliefs.

Nowhere can this be better seen than in our approach to the environment. It doesn’t matter if you are conservative or liberal, you know that ”the other guy” is always willing to lie a little bit… or will manage to ignore what they don’t want to hear. Take, conservatives, who are mostly Republicans, that believe industry needs to grow, there should be few or no penalties for pollution, manufacturing needs to be unregulated, chemicals and genetically modified foods help America, know that the media’s liberal bias only publicizes fake studies that big business is harming the environment; conservatives are strong deniers that global climate change exists or is caused by human activity.

On the other hand, liberals, who are mostly Democrats and independents, believe that industry needs to be controlled, we need more penalties for pollution, manufacturing must be regulated, chemicals and genetically modified foods harm the earth, know that media’s conservative bias hides studies about how big business harms the environment; liberals are strong deniers that organic foods provide no benefits to the individual or the environment. No matter which side you are on, no matter which position you hold, you know with absolute certainty that the facts support your position.

A big part of the problem is a confusion between personal and public good. We want what we know is good for us (or what we think is good for us) to be good for the world. No one wakes up and says that they want to be evil today. More often, we want to be good, but we get caught up our opinions about the world, and we are too quick to accept what we want and ignore what we don’t.  It’s not that we’re stubborn or bad people, it’s just that the human brain has a lot of ways of biasing the way we perceive data. We listen most to the people most like us, who share our opinions.

Another problem is that the simple questions have been answered, more questions today are predicated with “international” or “global” or some other way of saying big questions with big complex answers. Some questions may require a knowledge of chemistry or statistics to understand the answers. We are frustrated that we may not even know how to ask the right questions.

A question like, “What is wrong with the environment?” or “Are GMO’s good for us?” The answers are too big, or at least they are too big to answer in one blog. My goal is to see that you can understand how conventional farming is affecting our food, our environment and our health. To do that we all need to start with a common base of information, and then we can go into some of the answers. In this blog we’ll just cover what we mean by science and how we know what science is telling us. This will then move on to other blogs, that answer questions about food, environment and safety. Makes sense? OK, here is our foundation about how to understand science, broken into four simple concepts!

Personal vs. Public Good:  Science answers questions, but values determine what those answers mean in a larger framework. For example, when several people are exposed to the same information, each person will have different memory of what they hear. What we remember and what we forget is usually aligned with our values. Which is a long way of saying that we hear what we want to hear. This isn’t just a saying, it is a known property of our brain functions. Look at the controversy over organic foods, Genetically Modified Organisms and the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. One camp sees organic as a personal good (less chemicals must be good), and therefore has come to believe that organic farming must be good for the world. The other camp has many individuals who work in conventional and GMO farming and the chemical industry, who were once the heroes who found ways to feed a growing world, who now take personal offense when their efforts are portrayed as damaging the environment or even evil.

The reality is that each camp is both right and wrong. Conventional farming uses chemicals that may be dangerous, and so too do organic farms. In fact, they often share the same pesticides. Real food safety issues have resulted in people dying. Some deaths were due to conventional foods and some deaths were due to organic foods. Yet, when the two opposing groups argue, each side tends to forget the deaths that result from their favorite form of farming. Both farming methods are causing catastrophic damage to the land, that could be avoided if both sides could just look at science objectively. Perhaps most importantly, the battle between conventional and organic farming in the US and Europe is killing hundreds of thousands of children and adults in the poorest countries in the world (more on that in the next two blogs).

Quality: We like science, when it agrees with us. When it doesn’t, or when we don’t understand the results, we look for faults in the study or we want more research. When a subject is popular, we might find dozens and perhaps thousands of studies on that subject. When some studies say, “Yes!”, some say “No!”, and others say “Maybe?”, we become frustrated. Our frustration grows when papers ask related, but not identical questions. We want to know, “Is organic food good,” but instead studies only tell us that conventional farming uses chemicals that might cause cancer, but no rise in cancer has been found. The same chemicals may be used by organic farmers. And some crops may naturally produce similar) chemicals, even when humans don’t touch the crops.

More confusion comes from the quality of the research papers. Not all scientific papers are equally “scientific”. Some, like the blog you are now reading, or a story in a newspaper, are opinion pieces. These merely comment on the materials in the field without using a rigorous methodology to understand ALL of the material on the subject, or adding any new data. An opinion piece might take a day to write, but good research takes months, if not years, to produce. Not surprisingly, that makes true scientific papers expensive, time consuming and relatively rare. Opinion pieces can, intentionally or not, distort the original findings, perhaps by just omitting some conclusions. Part of the process of writing a true research paper is to subject papers to peer review. The author has knowledge of their field, By engaging additional experts, who may have researched the very same subject, mistakes in the research design or in the conclusions will be identified before the paper is released. The author, in turn, will need to explain flaws identified through the review process. More well known, more rigorous publications attract reviewers with better credentials. IT is because of this review process, not academic snobbery, that the publication helps to define the quality of the research.

Peer review has been one of the most important tools in improving modern research, which is why it is so important that you know the source of a report. For a subject where hundreds of reports are produced, it is quite common to find two similar reports with seemingly contradictory results. A closer look might provide important clues to help understand the data. Is one of the two reports considerably older? If one is 10 or 20 years older, old data and assumptions may no longer be valid. Both reports might even have been authored by the same individual or group, at different points in time. Is a key variable different (different countries, different times of the year, etc.)?  Whenever possible, look at the original report. Don’t have time to go through the whole document? Luckily, most research papers have an abstract at the beginning that summarizes the results.

Consensus: Once you have a general sense of what a report says, you need to know if there is great or little agreement between the papers on this subject. An individual paper can say just about anything. But if there are many papers, there is usually a trend, even if that trend is that most reports say, “We don’t know.” Let’s look at Global Climate Change. This issue has been out there for decades, and many papers have been written. Rather than spending months reading every paper, you can look for a report that summarizes the field.

One such report is,  “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature.” This imposingly named document is in itself a significant, peer reviewed, report. It examines 12,000 reports written about climate change. 8,000 reports did not attempt to identify a cause. Of the remainder (4,000), 97% agreed that “human activities” was the cause of climate change. True, a few did identify other causes, but when 97% of independent researchers arrive at one opinion and 3% arrive at another, the 97% are probably on to something.

Direction: All new scientific theories represent a rebellion against the existing theory. It is truly rare that a new theory is presented and it is immediately accepted. It usually takes years, if not decades for enough studies to accumulate to gain converts and then replace the old theory. With Climate change, the theory came long before… perhaps as early as the 1800’s when CO2 was first found to heat the atmosphere…  and only long after this did changes in opinion begin to manifest. It was easier to ignore climate change when observable symptoms were still quite small, or had as yet to appear.

When there are new competing theories about the environment, many will want to wait until a theory about change actually manifests the predicted changes.  As physical evidence appears, you can see the how a new consensus slowly gains followers and replaces the old theory.  When a theory is not supported by the majority of scientists, it may be because the theory is weak, or that the theory is still developing or it is just too young to (yet) be the consensus opinion.

Summary: If you follow these steps, you will find that the most contentious issues become easy to understand. You will see that the “public discussion” is often very different from the scientific facts. Long after a new theory has been tested by science… “Is organic food better for your health”, “Is climate change actually happening?”, “Does overuse of antibiotics cause new diseases?” or “Can vaccinations cause autism?”… the public argument continues, regardless of the fact that the answer has long since been determined and documented.  The greater the self-interest or distrust of the party that has been proven wrong, the longer they will continue to ignore and mis-represent the facts. Luckily, this process eventually drives out even the most pernicious of wrong ideas. In today’s environment of polarized politics and distrust of the people in power, it can take a very long time. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Amazon Web Services: It’s Time To Say “YES” to Corporate Cloud Services

Server Room

All rights: MEGWARE Computer

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is back in town and bigger than ever! AWS had its annual New York City conference at Jacob Javits center to celebrate its continuing growth and introduce new data management tools. The AWS value proposal is very simple, move your data storage into the cloud and AWS provides the data storage and CPU cycles you need to house and run your data. AWS can replace your server room, at a lower price, with more up-time, higher speed, and better security while providing you with advanced tools to turn data into business predictions. This could be the greatest corporate freebie you’ll see this decade! If you think that’s an over statement, or AWS doesn’t apply to your corporation, then join me as we take a look at how the world’s largest provider of cloud storage is revolutionizing how corporations manage data.

Big corporations manage a vast number of document and huge databases. This data all needs to be stored… somewhere. In the past, that somewhere was the corporate server room. The server room evolved into large server farms that contain whole fleets of Windows, Unix and other servers that support the many different programming languages that your firm needs to operate. Managing server farms and interpreting data retention and security rules is a necessary IT function, but that function does not need to be managed from inside the corporation. When a major data breach occurs, or data is irretrievable, or an audit that must be immediately addressed, it’s not unusual for corporations to hire experts to ensure that these problems are resolved. Why not expand that approach and transfer your data problems to experts that can design and execute the best solution for your needs. That’s what AWS is proposing.

COST: Data storage and CPU cycles should be the cheapest commodities on earth. And they are, for consumers. Yet, for corporations the cost of managing these commodities have become prohibitive. Between 1990 and 2010 the cost of a Gigabyte of storage dropped from $100,000.00 to $0.10. However, this million fold drop in cost is not reflected in the cost of compensation, even though corporate IT has spent heavily in automation and remote maintenance products. Increasingly, compensation has become the dominant cost of data management.

Should support costs drop as quickly as equipment costs? For a comparison, look at your corporate desk phone and your personal mobile phone.  Over the last 20 years, the cost of a desk phone has remained largely the same, and the feature set only added voice mail and a small LCD screen to manage phone features. Your cell phone has dropped dramatically in price and added GPS, Skype, cameras, scanning, OCR, text translation, voice commands, internet access, streaming video and the convenience of a “computer in your pocket”. Consumer services need to answer to many customers, and ALWAYS evolve faster than corporate services. It no longer makes sense for IT to devote management time and money to overseeing a resource of ever declining value, and rising financial constraints?

Data Storage Pain PointsA recent survey of over 1,000 IT professionals identified the challenges in data storage, and the number one pain point was… Managing Storage Growth. Other pain points included: designing and deploying solutions (backup, recovery, archive) and making strategic/big picture decisions. The corporate world has a huge hunger for data storage and processing. Database mining requires ever more CCost of CPU CyclesPU cycles, but it may not need them all the time. The ability to scale capacity up and down rarely works well within  IT, where unused resources are ultimately billed back to IT, which is left to explain cost over runs to senior management. These pain points are not going to go away until a radical new solution is deployed. The cost of storing a gigabyte is fast approaching zero, and the business needs greater flexibility to be competitive. Why not eliminate all of these pain points by moving to AWS or a similar solution?

RISKS: If all of the old issues were not enough, new threats just keep coming! Cybercrime has grown from a rarity to a daily war against anonymous hackers who test your firewalls every day. Your IT department must defend the corporation against international cyber criminals, and increasingly sophisticated attacks from government hackers in Iran, China and North Korea. Managing these threats has become a new money pit for Procurement and HR departments as they seek the equipment, software and personnel needed to defend your infrastructure. AWS, on the other hand, has: extensive reporting on security issues, state of the art firewalls, secure VPN, and full data encryption… for as much of your data as you want secured.

Too good to be true? It is… for corporate IT departments. Corporate IT has a massive disadvantage. IT needs to develop their own solutions to each and every new challenge. They need to identify new vendors, test their solutions and adopt these solutions to your environment. AWS constantly learns from their million plus corporate clients. Solutions for one client, can be applied to all clients. A clever security solution for the health industry, might benefit a finance industry client. AWS’ cost of development will always be lower per client, because it can be spread over so many more customers. For the same reason, AWS will also be able to install leading edge services earlier and with better results. A massive customer base delivers very tangible benefits.

MANAGEMENT: If you ask your IT department to add ten thousand gigabytes of storage, while also doubling the access speed of a key 25% of your data, you will first need to hold a series of meetings to estimation costs and agree to a schedule before you’re able to start the implementation. AWS has reduced this complexity to just two questions: how much space do you need and how fast do you want access speed to be? If you also have databases, there is a third question: “How much CPU power do you need.” These three questions are shown as sliders on your AWS management console. If you want more detailed cost implications, you can use the management console to run a simulation. Once you’re satisfied, just press “go”. That’s it.

When you want more space, it’s virtually instantaneous. Providing faster access means that somewhere within AWS, your data must be moved from lower speed devices (usually hard drives) to higher speed equipment (including solid state storage). The migration begins a few minutes after you hit go, and continues for minutes or hours until it is done. Because AWS storage is fully redundant, you don’t need to wait until a weekend to start a project. There is enough spare capacity in the system to start the move now, without violating performance SLA’s.

If AWS, and its competitors, provide such miraculous services, why haven’t all corporations already moved into the Cloud? Part of the reason is that there are so many tasks on IT’s plate that they don’t have time; so many projects are scheduled every year that a true game changers for cost moves to the bottom of the pile. IT departments rarely have the full cost of storage under one budget and so the magnitude of savings is not fully known. Also, few IT departments understand these services. Instead they remember less robust services from years ago. Finally, every IT department sees corporate security as a top priority that they fear outsourcing. However, AWS has security and management tools that are equal to the best corporate IT departments. And they have deployed data mining and management tools that most corporations are years away from deploying. How can you minimize resistance to change and reap the benefits of AWS?

While you can debate the virtues of Cloud services or the capabilities of your IT team to respond to new threats, it is not debatable that different data requires different levels of security. In a bank, customer data is of the highest importance and must be handled in accordance with both internal procedures and external regulations. In a law firm, documents containing confidential client data not only needs proper security, documents may also need to obey jurisdictional restrictions. Consulting, accounting, insurance and other financial firms will have other specific documents and data that require exceptional security. While each of these firms has unique security concerns, they also each have three categories of data that are good targets for migration to the Cloud.

  • HR – Personnel Data: HR must protect employee information, especially medical data and personnel reviews. However, health care groups and personnel services have both chosen AWS, which speaks well for their ability to securely manage this type of data. The requirements of your HR department may have been addressed by other customers, and thees solutions can be applied to your data. Large firms also provide software to the general public, so that they can apply for new positions. This function should be at the top of HR’s priorities, yet a quick look shows many bugs and missing features in the recruitment sites of America’s largest employers. All of this data is important, but it rarely justifies the cost of your firm’s most secure (and expensive) data storage. HR could also benefit from AWS’ data mining tools, that could provide insights into future personnel needs.
  • Procurement: Aside from any indirect insights derived from your contracts, little is in Procurement’s data that could lead to insider trading or a regulatory issue. The data risk is lower than managing than social security or account information. And this data already exists outside your firewalls, in emails and vendor databases. Moving Procurement data into AWS reduces costs, might significantly improve branch office performance, and unifies international data. AWS has invested heavily into machine readable language systems to mine vast reserves of data and convert them into future predictions. For example, it can read your contracts and documents to provide you with clues to future sourcing projects, and next year’s budget. That information can be used by your coverage teams to see if predicted RFP’s have been initiated.
  • IT: IT manages a huge number of servers that contain customer data, but it also manages servers used only for development, testing and internal IT support. These servers are often “hand me down” equipment, which sometimes slows progress on projects. Servers that manage real customer data should be stored on the most secure servers, in the most appropriate locations. But in development, testing and all “pre-release” states, AWS is a better priced option with more than adequate security. When you separate out internal data from customer facing data, you may find that there are far more resources that can be outsourced, especially when the full personnel costs are accounted for.

AWS is the largest and most advanced cloud based data storage system in the world, with as much storage space as all of their competitors combined. You can use their existing services as configured, or they can build a custom solution that blends your network with their services. By leveraging their purchasing power and the scale of their operations, they can offer the same services that you receive from your IT department at a lower price, with more up-time, less waiting around to start projects and an unprecedented level of security. Even the CIA has entered into a $660 million, 10 year contract with AWS. If your firm migrates your data from internal IT to AWS you will deliver major cost savings, free up management resources and return IT’s focus to higher value projects. You might even deliver critical security roll-outs years ahead of schedule. If your IT budget needs relief and costs are rising… outsourcing your data storage to the Cloud might just be the solution you need. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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China’s Robot Gap Will Disrupt Outsourcing

China… the number one location for outsourcing. The world’s manufacturer. But, perhaps, not for much longer. In order to sign the next outsourcing contrfoxbotact, China has offered every conceivable incentive. They have even built hundreds of new cities in the anticipation of the next outsourcing project. Still, even China’s legendary dedication to outsourcing has its limits. China must obey the laws of economics, and they exhaust their labor pool. The next employee becomes less skilled and more expensive than the last employee, and productivity falls. China is very aware of this, but the fix for their productivity problem will… once again… rewrite how outsourcing works. Get ready for it! This is the BIG one! China’s latest plan will disrupt outsourcing and change how we work around the world!

Before we examine China’s next plan, we need to understand China’s previous plans. China’s last disruption was to move their economy from agricultural to manufacturing. In 2013 China’s work force was just under 800 million workers. In 2011, only 30% of the workforce was agricultural, down from 70% in 1980. Think about that for just a minute. China moved 320 million workers, and their families, from villages to cities and factories in just 31 years. That’s more than the entire population of the United States. And they’re not done. In industrialized countries just 1-4% of workers are in agriculture. Even if 5% workers remain on farms, another 200 million agricultural workers will transition to factory work, probably in the next 20 years.

Just this movement of works is staggering, but it is only part of their plan. Remember those hundreds of new cities that China built? There have been many stories about “ghost

All Rights: Steve Evans, Bangalore, India

All Rights: Steve Evans, Bangalore, India

cities”, hundreds of cities that were built and abandoned throughout China. Reporters who saw these cities a few years ago assumed that these were mistakes, abandoned projects from an overly ambitious central planning committee. Now, as Reuters points out, it looks like those early reports were wrong. They weren’t looking at abandoned cities, they were looking at cities that were still being built, with the residents still moving in. Between 2000 and 2013, over a million villages were depopulated in order to fill these cities. More villages are targeted and more cities are being built. China is still planning, and building, for an economy in  transition.

Executing on China’s economic plans has not come without a cost. The cost of building cities, the cost of new factories, the cost of urban pollution, and the inevitable cost of a successful economy… higher wages. As China continues to win more outsourcing work from the West, workers want better working conditions and higher wages. A year or two ago, Foxconn, one of the world’s largest employers, was constantly in the news. This Chinese firm assembled most of Apple’s electronics. Workers weren’t paid for overtime, worked far too many hours and the work conditions did not meet Chinese laws or their outsourcing contracts. While Apple and other customers failed to hold Fox conn accountable at first, eventually Apple led the charge to fix the worst of their working conditions. And that too has a cost.

How high is the cost of providing a safe work environment? The cost of labor has been rising over the last couple of decades. Generally, offshore inflation is  twice the rate of inflation in America or Europe. Over time, higher inflation will reduce or eliminate the advantage of offshore lower wages.  Today, a factory worker in China is paid about 3,500 Yuan (the currency of China) a month. For anyone renewing a China contract in the last couple of years, you have belt the bump in costs. Especially compared to similar workers in Vietnam (900 Yuan) or Cambodia (600 Yuan). That’s such a big cost difference that even Chinese factories are beginning to outsource work to neighboring countries.

China is well aware that they cannot stay competitive at these prices. Unless… the raise productivity per worker. After all, if the same worker is twice as productive, they cost half as much. Just about every analysis shows that the US has the most (or one of the most) productive work force in the world. Why? It is a combination of skills and advanced equipment in our factories. China has low wages, less skilled workers (on average) and factories with little equipment or automation. According to an analysis by The Economist, China’s worker productivity is just 17% of that of an American worker.

The only way that China can raise productivity to approach American’s levels is to invest in mechanization and automation.  Looking at their progress in agriculture, China has more than doubled the productivity of their farms. Even through the agricultural workforce decreased by 60%, the yield of wheat more than doubled, yielding a total productivity increase for wheat farming of nearly 400%. Much of this increase is due to improvement in mechanization. A typical example of the speed of new mechanization is the improvement of China’s fleet of medium and large size tractors, rising from 1.4 million in 2005 to 3 million in 2008.  These are the metrics driving agriculture, and that will soon drive massive increases in factory productivity.

China is not only dealing with a productivity crisis, they are also dealing with a labor shortage. There are fewer farmers to convert to factory workers, and as CChina Laborhina produces ever more complex manufactured goods, a smaller number of ex-farmers have the industrial skills needed to fuel the economy. Here too China planned for the future with a massive push for education, that now yields over 7 million Chinese college graduates (compared to a million in 2000). Unfortunately, China did not realize that these graduates would not be interested in entry level factory jobs. College graduates, and former industrial workers, area headed into the service sector, which created 37 million new jobs in the last 5 years.

Competition from the service sector, limited interest by college graduates and few new workers from the agricultural sector. China needs a productivity boost to just keep up with the current demand for labor. Add to that the continuing rise in wages and competition from the service sector, and China’s manufacturing sector  needs double digit productivity increases throughout the next decade. China’s plan to leapfrog ahead can be summed up in one word… ROBOTS!

In order for China to maintain its title as “the world’s manufacturing center”, they need more than just the mechanical assistance of 20th Century factories. China needs to adopt the newest industrial techniques, and install the latest generation of “thinking” robots.  Installing thinking robots would vastly increase productivity, and make China’s industrial cost of operation competitive with their neighbors.

The country with the greatest robotic density is South Korea, which has 437 robots for every 10,000 workers. China, with just 10 robots per 10,000 workers, is far less productive. To reach parity with South Korea, China’s 100 million manufacturing workers need to be joined by 4.4 million robots. And that’s what China is planning to do. Just one of China’s manufacturers, Foxconn, has promised to add 1 million robots. While they originally planned to have these robots in place by 2015, they may meet their goal by 2020. The problem is that the world’s production of industrial robots is only around 200,000 annually. That’s why Foxconn is manufacturing its own robots, and has installed 50,000 “Foxbots” in the last year.

If (when?) Foxconn installs a million robots, they would have a 1 robot for every 2 workers. Assuming that a robot is as productive as several humans, a super-robotic Foxconn could be as productive as 10 or 20 million average Chinese industrial workers, possibly even more productive. That is a huge influx of capacity for a manufacturing workforce of 100 million. If other firms also install robots, that means that China’s productive capacity could double or triple in just a few years. However, the big  game changer is not that China will convert to robotic manufacturing, but the rate at which it will make that change.

As we have seen with the construction of cities, and the conversion of agricultural jobs, China does not wait until demand builds up. They plan in advance, and they implement in advance. With a cost per worker 4 times higher than nearby countries, they already have a crisis. Raising productivity by 4 times requires millionRobots - World Productions of robots. That much new capacity means that the real cost of outsourcing is going to plunge, firmly re-establishing China as the world’s outsourcing center. Every manufacturing site in the world will need to increase its productivity to keep up. American workers will still be the most productive in the world, but offshore sites will close much of the productivity gap, while still having a much lower cost per hour. With a massive increase in global productivity, there must be massive layoffs in China, or outsourcing to China will exponentially increase to match the new capacity, pulling tens of millions of jobs out of America and Europe.

The robot revolution has begun, and the new generation of intelligent robots are flexible enough to expand into new territory where robots did not previously compete with humans. At the same time, new robots are much less expensive. The old robots cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy and program, and were too dangerous to work in a human environment. Today, a robot can cost $25,000 or less, and any worker can “teach” it a task, literally showing it what to do, just like any other worker. No programmers needed.

Robots can move into virtually any business, including small businesses. Once robots learns how to perform a task, that knowledge can be uploaded to an entire location or it can be duplicated around the world. That’s a big advantage over previous offshoring, where it took years… if not decades… to build training programs, train new workers and give them time to master skills. Remove the constraints of training and robots can take over functions in a fraction of the time “old” outsourcing took.

Faster, Cheaper, Better. That’s the mantra of outsourcing. It’s also the triple constraints, or golden triangle, of any improvement program. The old logic is that you only get two legs, never three, of the golden triangle. Now, you can get all three. Once the robots start arriving, numbers for these three constraints will move so quickly that only a few outsourcers will be able to keep up with these changes. While some firms will install robots themselves, the greatest impact… during the next 5 to 10 years… will come from outsourcers who bring robots into the factories and the workplace. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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