Thursday, September 25, 2014

Virtual Farms and Real Sunsets

Many farmers in our neck of the woods own smartphones, so I suppose you can find a plethora of harvest time selfies—me in the cab of my computerized combine; me unloading corn that has been analyzed by Big Data; me with a robotic tractor approaching in the background. As this article explains, a tractor that maps a field, drives itself, and precisely calibrates its movements within inches to minimize waste is nearly ready to become standard equipment.
I imagine these devices will improve yields, efficiency, and maybe even safety. A robotic tractor pulling a grain wagon up to the combine is probably more reliable than we teens were when we drove cab-less tractors and unloaded grain with our thoughts on the high school dance coming up that night. But unlike us, a robot can’t yet hum the Easybeats’ “I Got Friday on My Mind.”
Farmers have apps to help them with markets, weather, and soil conditions. This Farm Journal survey clues us into the ten apps that farmers most favor. Folks who are not net connected can ignore the buzz or slide into App Envy—an anxiety complex that comes when you think everyone else is digitally tuned into the newest thing, while you’re still trying to remember your password to access voice mail messages on your archaic cell phone.
On the other hand, any Luddite farmers are less likely to suffer from phantom vibration syndrome. Studies indicate that some smartphone users feel electric vibrations in their pockets even when there is no phone there. It’s like they’ve had something surgically removed but they think it’s still there. No worries—someone will figure out an app for that.
When it comes to farming, maybe apps will soon be obsolete. The DesMoines Register has moved into the virtual reality realm with their Harvest of Change project. It centers on a farm run by four generations of the same family. Apparently you can strap on an Oculus headset and explore an exact reconstruction of the farm using a keyboard or an Xbox controller by turning your head from side to side. The virtual environment serves as a way to navigate through multimedia content, and you “walk around” the farm, accessing various icons--360-degree videos, archival photographs, and short passages about farming in modern-day America.
The next step will be a real farmer at a digital command center performing a virtual harvest that has real results—really! I guess I’d rather manipulate a keyboard than grip the frozen steering wheel of our old John Deere 4020 or shovel corn on top of a wagon as the north wind whips in. During Iowa corn harvests, you could be virtually (or actually) dead on your feet from dust, cold, and constant struggles with uncooperative machinery.
Then again, that farmer in a computer command room will miss a few things. Grain moves into wagons and into bins with the sound of satisfaction, the white noise of a job well done. Harvest time gives off its own fragrance of dying plants mixed with tractor fumes and the ever-present smell of the Good Earth. And autumn provides color—fields turn to a sepia tint while trees flare out in orange, yellow, and red. Harvest dust floats along the horizon at dusk, and the slow-motion silhouettes of geese winging south turn the sunset into an interactive portrait.
I suppose there’s a virtual farm system somewhere that could incorporate all these images, but I’m not much into wearing a Darth Vadar style helmet to get there. It’s a good time of year to log off, power down, and take a walk in the reality of a farm at harvest time.  

by dan gogerty (top photo from Pinterest, bottom from USDA)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hitchhiking--with Robots, Wildcats, and Ghosts from the Past

Maybe it’s time to take up hitchhiking again. I haven’t stuck out my thumb for decades but suddenly I’m inundated with odd images that bring back my on-the-road memories. A hitching robot in Canada records its road trip; film director John Waters writes a hitchhiking book called Carsick; I come across a website that takes a classic look at hitching in the past; and even a wild cat in Africa learns how to hitch a ride on a rhinoceros.

Assuming you won’t be making a sign and heading for the entrance ramp, hitch a virtual ride with the following links:

** HitchBot the Canadian robot made it across the country—and even “kept its friends and family up to date along the way”—as futuristically weird as that sounds.

** This historical site looks at the Depression era when people with little money found new ways of getting around. Hitching a ride in a car or truck gained in popularity—and a subculture grew.

** The genet—a furry little African cat—takes to the backs of rhinos or buffaloes to hitch a ride.

In this era, hitching is not so much “road less traveled”--maybe a bit more “mean streets”--but it still has nostalgic appeal for some. If I try again, I'd need a sign: I doubt something like "Old Dude Heading West" would help much, but possibly "Traveling to See My Grandkids" would get a sympathy ride. Or maybe I could dress up as a Canadian robot and see what happens. My wife can drive out and rescue me if I’m at the same spot along Highway 30 when the sun goes down.

Looking back through 40 years of fog, the romance of the road seems appealing at times, but I’m probably too old to write “the hitchhiker’s guide to finding your lost youth.”

by dan gogerty (pic from

Monday, September 22, 2014

Environment News Includes Marches, Waste, and Donuts

Folks used to sit on the porch shootin’ the breeze. For many now, the porch is a cubicle and the breeze is digital. These are a few of the stories floating around our cyber porch today—and they focus on the environment.

Marches and Summits:  As a U.N. summit on climate change approaches, thousands of people marched in cities around the world Sunday to urge their leaders to act boldly to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the changes.

Waste and Want:  Harvest Media offers six insightful articles about food, waste, and the environment. One source claims that approximately 40% of all food produced in the United States is wasted.

Donuts and the Forests:  Environmentalists say two major doughnut chains got a little sweeter as Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Brands both made commitments to source palm oil for frying their goodies from suppliers who are not clear-cutting forests.

cartoon from