Deep Learning

For a while, in the mid-1970’s, I was obsessed with chess, caught up in the fever generated by Bobby Fisher. I spent many hours playing and studying the game. Among competitive players, I was just average. I didn’t have whatever it takes to play at a high level.

But I could beat any computer in the world. In those days, any reasonably competent player could. Computers just weren’t any good at chess, and experts predicted they never would be.

In a chess game there are literally millions of potential positions after just 3 moves each, and hundreds of billions of potential positions after only 4 moves. The number of potential combinations in a typical chess game exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. The reason early computers weren’t any good at chess was because they had to analyze every potential move, whereas a human player, based on experience and pattern recognition, could automatically exclude the vast majority of potential moves and focus only on the few that were sensible in that situation. Playing chess well required a degree of abstract thought that computers weren’t capable of.

Not any more. Nowadays chess computers can beat any player in the world. Cheap devices found in toy departments play at the grandmaster level. The human mind simply cannot match human-created computers when it comes to playing chess.

Go is exceedingly more complex than chess. The number of potential combinations in Go is far greater than that in chess. Yet this year a computer called AlphaGo defeated the world Go champion. As with chess, humans have created a machine that plays Go better than its creators–better even than any potential human creator.

These computer achievements are due to a process called “Deep Learning,” which uses “deep neural networks” that enable computers to mine Big Data and teach themselves, essentially imitating the human learning process, but at lightning speed. The implications of this technology, which is developing at an astonishing pace, are mind-boggling. I urge anyone who has the time to read this article, provocatively titled: “Deep Learning is Going to Teach Us All the Lesson of Our Lives: Jobs are for Machines.”

I’ve blogged often about the effects automation and robotics will likely have on human work. I won’t go into that again this morning, but the linked article addresses it well and raises some fascinating questions and concerns.

But aside from what Deep Learning means for the human job market, I wonder what it will mean for human intelligence?

Over the course of history our appreciation for what it means to be intelligent has evolved. We don’t typically consider mere literacy an indication of advanced intelligence any more, for example. When I was in school rote memorization was still being taught. The ability to memorize and recite a poem or a passage from Shakespeare was considered a sign of intelligence. Nowadays that might be a neat bar trick but hardly anyone would measure intelligence by how much stuff a person has memorized. More recently the ability to do calculus would be an indication of intelligence, for example. But if an inexpensive device most people carry in their pockets can do it better and more quickly, what’s the point of knowing how to do it? Why is it any different from being a chess grandmaster, who would be routinely defeated by an inexpensive computer?

Over the last hundred years or so humans have devised ways to measure human intelligence, and hundreds of studies have proven that intelligence correlates to nearly every measure of human well-being: education level, income, longevity, criminality, marital stability, health, etc. It would be wrong, I think, to assume that in a world of Deep Learning computers human intelligence becomes entirely irrelevant.

But other than as a measure of human capacity for well-being, what are we to do with our “intelligence” once we don’t need it for the things we’ve traditionally used it for? Are we at a point in history when in the time it would take for a human to acquire the skills, experience and education to find a cure for cancer (for example), Deep Learning machines could have already solved the issue in a small fraction of the time? Every time I think of things like this the question Wendell Berry asked many years ago rattles around in my brain, “What are people for?”

I go on about this for hours, but for now I’ll close with another interesting thought. What if in 25 years or so, what we now identify as human intelligence is no longer important, because artificial intelligence will have so far surpassed it as to make it practically irrelevant? I heard a commentator predict that when that happens, we will begin to objectively measure and assess human intellect by reference to “emotional intelligence,” rather than whether our neurons fire in ways that make us good at chess, calculus or memorizing Shakespeare.

We surely live in a fascinating time.



Black Eyed Susans

Look what I found growing in Paris.


It seemed like a reminder of home.


Thousands of miles away a week earlier, on White Flint Farm. These were showing their late summer age.

Just before going on vacation I’d read this interesting post on Margie’s Garden, all about black-eyed Susans. Evidently English colonists gave them their name, taking it from a popular poem of the day, “Black Eyed Susan” by John Gay. The poem begins:

All in the Downs the fleet was moor’d
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came aboard;
‘O! where shall I my true-love find?
Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true
If my sweet William sails among the crew.’

So perhaps Sweet William originates with that poem too.

Shortly after returning from vacation I read this moving poem, by Bussokuseki

the rudbeckia aren’t usually still in bloom,
so close to my birthday,
and even these are brittle –
but in the patch near the small gravel pile,
perhaps sheltered by the overgrown viburnum,
a few stragglers remain.

if I’d noticed them last year I might have arranged
one more vase
and placed it by her bedside,
so she could have turned her head
and thought to herself,
how I love those black-eyed susans.

A few days ago this year’s Fedco catalog arrived. I always look forward to reading it. This time I came across this blurb:

Black-eyed Susan seems demure enough to human eyes, but she’s slyly signaling her availability to the pollinators of the garden. Bees and other insects that are able to perceive ultraviolet colors can clearly see a highlighted bullseye guiding them in the center of each flower.

It’s funny though. Whenever I think of black-eyed Susans, what pops into my mind are not photos, poems, or scientific or historical facts. Instead I’m reminded of being a 12 year old country boy, and believing that Elton John was the coolest man on the planet.

Organic without Soil?

We aren’t certified organic by the USDA and I don’t expect we ever will be. In some sense we don’t really have a dog in the fight over what is “organic” and what isn’t. The government has already denied us the ability to use that word, regardless of our practices.

But for the sake of those who have to rely on that certification for some of their purchases (including us), I’d prefer to see the word “organic” retain as much of its integrity as possible.

Currently much of the commercially available “organic” produce is being grown hydroponically–in a nutrient-infused solution, rather than in soil. There is controversy about this. You can read about it in the article I cut and pasted below.

We have neighbors who have made a successful small business from their hydroponic lettuce operation. They’re hardworking farmers and I happy they’ve been successful. They aren’t certified organic and far from hiding their practices, they use it as a sales point. Above their booth is a large banner that reads “Grown in Water, Not in Dirt.” I’ll admit that bugs me a little, as it suggests there is something “dirty” about food grown in soil and something superior about food that isn’t. But that is something the market can decide. Selling hydroponically-grown produce as “organic” is something I’m less comfortable with.

Consider this, from Pam Dawling’s blog, and keep it in mind when shopping, if growing in soil is important to you:

Did you know that nearly all the supermarket “organic” tomatoes are not grown in soil drawing the nutrients they need from the complex array in the soil, but in an inert material (rockwool, coir or plastic pipes with holes in), receiving as nutrients only what the growers provide in a solution that passes by the roots?

Did you know that your understanding of “organic” might be different from USDA’s? Driscoll’s Berries has over a thousand acres of “organic” hydroponic production in hoophouses in California and Mexico. They are the biggest hydroponic “organic” producer in the world.

Did you know that hydroponics is large-scale? Melody Meyers of UNFI testified at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that her company’s hydroponic “organic” sales exceeded $50,000,000. (Wholesale value – double it to get the retail value.)

Dave Chapman said

One of the challenges of the USDA takeover of organic certification has been the loss of involvement on the part of the organic farmers. As we have all struggled to make a living in a tough arena, it has been easy to give into a sense of helplessness around maintaining strong standards. At the same time that organic farmers have retreated from the process, the USDA has been profoundly influenced by large corporate farming interests.

Three quarters of US hydroponics sales go to only three or four farms – this is a huge concentration of money, power, and influence in a very few hands. And the industry is engaging in heavy lobbying, not just at NOSB, but throughout the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

How did this happen? How did “organic farming” change so drastically in six years? My report is based on Dave Chapman’s in his blog Keep the Soil in Organic.

In 2010, the NOSB recommended saying no to hydroponics receiving Organic Certification by a 14:1 vote, in keeping with international standards, the federal law (the Organic Foods Production Act, OFPA) that created the National Organic Program (NOP), and the traditional practices of organic farmers.

At the NOSB meeting in fall 2016, despite hydroponics industry lobbying, there was not enough support to vote to overturn the 2010 recommendation and allow hydroponics, aquaponics and bioponics. (This would have needed a 2/3 majority). Also, the proposal (from the Crops Subcommittee) that would have eliminated hydroponics in organic was sent back for reconsideration. The stalemate means that the NOP will continue to certify “organic” hydroponic operations.

Dave Chapman reported that

Food Democracy Now! presented a petition with over 12,000 signatures to reject hydroponics. Cornucopia Institute presented 1400 proxy letters from farmers and eaters demanding that soil stewardship be a requirement for organic certification. Clearly, the people numbers were on the side of the soil.

National Organic Program (NOP)  director Miles McEvoy stated at the meeting that even if the recommendation allowing hydroponics was defeated, it would not affect NOP policy. The NOP continues to support certifying hydroponics as USDA Organic even though the OFPA law requires Organic farming be based on maintaining and improving soil fertility. The NOP support of hydroponics is also in direct opposition to the 2010 NOSB recommendation, as well as standards in most other countries. Across the world, hydroponic operations are being USDA Organic certified.

A resolution  passed 12 to 0 reading, “It is the consensus of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water-based substrate.” (This refers to “plastic pipe” hydroponics as opposed to rockwool and coir which are imagined to provide something more than physical support.) This resolution does show consensus in rejecting the idea that hydroponic growing can become organic simply by “adding biology” to plain water, and provides a small glimmer of sanity and common sense. NOSB refused to acknowledge that actual hydroponic farming is not limited to plants that grow in water, but includes those propped up by rockwool and coir. The current hydroponics industry move is to avoid the “H word” and talk about “containerized ” plants – ones held in a small amount of material, but still being fertilized by solutions flowing by.

What makes a system hydroponic is how the fertility is delivered to the plant, not the material that the roots sit in. In a hydroponic system, the fertility is supplied to the plant in the irrigation water. There are so-called “organic” fertilizers that are extremely processed organic materials. For example, the 16-0-0 hydrolyzed soy protein being used in hydroponics acts like a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. It has little similarity to unprocessed soy meal. In a genuinely organic system, the fertility results from the  complex soil food web interacting with organic materials we growers supply.

The companies speaking in support of hydroponics to the NOSB include Miracle Gro (chemical fertilizer company), Nature Gro (major supplier of substrates for conventional growers), the Organic Trade Association (lobbyists for the big hydroponic “organic” growers), Nature Sweet tomatoes (1400 acres of conventional greenhouses), Houweling’s Tomatoes (250 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), and Driscoll’s (already mentioned).

These companies all want  to get in on the “Organic” market without doing the honest hard work. The food industry spends more money lobbying Capitol Hill each year than the defense industry does!

Know your farmer! Buy local, from trusted growers. Do what you can to speak up for real food, grown in the soil.

In Praise of Potatoes

My breakfast included potatoes, fried with onions and peppers. Last night Cherie made a delicious potato soup as part of our Christmas supper. As we slip deeper into winter it’s easy to appreciate potatoes as possibly the ideal homesteaders food.

They’re easy to grow and easy to store–no canning, drying, pickling or freezing necessary.

This time of year our stored potatoes can start looking a little gnarly. Some look like the wrinkled heads of very old men. Others are beginning to sprout, and are starting to resemble bizarre space aliens. But they’re still delicious and nourishing, despite appearances.

We no longer depend upon potatoes to keep us alive in the winter, as many of our ancestors did, and that’s a good thing. But it is good to know that they’re down there in our basement, ready to be converted to meals whenever we need them.

So this morning I tip my cap to the humble spud. And in about three months it will be time to plant some more.


Stop Running

Truth is not the result of an effort, the end of a road. It is here and now, in the very longing and the search for it….It is your own.
Just stop running away by running after.
Stand still, be quiet.
— Nisargadatta Maharaj

We do so much, we run so quickly, the situation is difficult, and many people say, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” But doing more things may make the situation worse.
So you should say, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Sit there, stop, be yourself first, and begin from there.
— Thich Nhat Hanh


Merry Christmas y’all

May we all find the time to be still.

Old Ways in the New Days

More and more economists seem to be coming around to the idea that “low-growth, low-inflation” is the new normal. For most, this is not a change for the better. Because they believe economic progress depends upon economic growth, they hope for private sector “innovation,” or government “stimulus,” to kick-start economic growth.

I’m not an econometrician, of course, but I don’t dread and fear this “new normal.” Rather, I welcome it.

As someone famous once said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” It seems to me that growth is desirable, until we’re done growing. At some point things grow as large as they ought to grow. At that point it’s best that they stop growing.

Growth that is dependent upon depletion of finite natural resources is unsustainable. Growth that is dependent upon an ever-increasing human population is unsustainable. Such growth may create “economic activity” and jobs, in the short run. But in the long run it is deadly, like cancer.

In the “new normal” there probably will be fewer jobs. Nominal incomes may very well stagnate or fall.

But that doesn’t mean humanity’s quality of life will necessarily fall. In fact, I expect our overall quality of life to improve. It will require some discipline, and a transition out of consumerism, but I expect that in the “new normal” it will be easier than ever to lead a very fulfilling and comfortable life with little money. “Economic growth” (at least as traditionally understood) may be unnecessary in a stable population whose basic needs are met.

Looking back at the last 20 years, we’ve seen amazing technological advances that have dramatically improved the overall quality of human lives around the world. The pace of technological achievement we’re seeing these days suggests that the changes that come with the next 20 years will be even more dramatic–to the point of being nearly unbelievable.

I believe we’re transitioning into the next phase of human existence–a phase our ancestors have been anticipating for thousands of years. The future is very bright and is rapidly approaching.

Maybe it’s ironic that we have a pre-existing set of values that are well-suited to the “new normal” and our emerging new world–values we have cultivated over 10,000 years of pre-industrial civilization. The agrarian values of virtue, prudence, thrift, community-based economies, sustainability, reverence for the transcendent and for the natural world, morality, self-reliance, love of neighbors, simplicity–these, I believe, will be the foundations for the peaceful, creative, benevolent societies that will emerge as we leave our ancient struggles behind us.

And if I’m wrong about the direction of humanity, if my technological optimism is misplaced and civilization is in fact proceeding toward collapse rather than toward progress, then it is agrarian values that will sustain us in that future as well.


Rambling thoughts on a rainy Christmas Eve morning…


The Kids Are Alright

I’ve been remiss. We have five cute kids on the farm and it’s been nearly a month since I’ve shared any pictures of them here. Time to remedy that.





They’re at a great age. Curious, comical and fearless. If I sit down in the pasture they like to jump and climb on me. I haven’t figured out a way to get good photographs of that.


Playing on the salt block




They’re growing and enjoying our cool, but mild, weather.



Playing king of the hill


Another day on the job



I’ve been posting farm pictures (mostly kids these days) more regularly on our Instagram page. If you’re not on Instagram you can see the pictures here. They’re in the right hand column. You can click on them to view them. You don’t have to have an Instagram account.

Hoping everyone is enjoying the season.