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Monday, April 25, 2016

Precision Farming Reboot - A new paradigm using sensors, robots and lasers

Precision Farming Reboot - A new paradigm using sensors, robots and lasers

As my wife and I drove down a rural Iowa highway last week, we began speculating about the next revolution in field management. Currently, tractors blindly and mechanically groom rows of crops spaced only wide enough to accommodate their massive tires. Large quantities of herbicides and insecticides are broadcast, leaching into streams and aquifers. In turn, specially bred seeds, resistant to these chemicals must be purchased as a part of a proprietary program.

Instead, I imagined swarms of spider-shaped robots with travel legs long enough to keep their body suspended above the crops. Work arms, tipped with sensors and tools, could maneuver to any spot.

Monday, April 18, 2016

How to Save the World

How to Save the World

In my family, both of my parents are dying and my grandchildren are about to inherit the earth. Dad spent many years on an assembly line making cars. I worked at refineries making gasoline. He enjoyed traveling and drove to California 23 times, just for starters. I live in a very small rural town and don’t think twice about driving 60 miles round trip just for a special supper out. Have we made it more unlikely that our children’s children will have a world worth inheriting?

Thinking about the many issues of ecology and economics makes my head want to explode. Nevertheless, somehow, it still seems important enough to try to wrap my mind around it. If not for me, than for the ones I love. It turns out that smart people of good will are actually starting to get a handle on all of this. Some scientists are focusing on barely-imaginable details. Other researchers are backing off far enough to get an overall picture of the entire forest of environmental and social issues.

Surely, it is obvious that our finite world cannot sustain infinite growth. We must discover, meet and deal with limits to growth. Yet, we continue to expect that every nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) must always continue to grow to provide improving standards of living for a growing percent of our populations. Something has to give.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Forgiveness of Debt

Forgiveness of Debt

Jesus Christ taught his disciples to pray for forgiveness as they forgave others. Various translators have given this injunction as forgiveness of “trespasses,” “sins,” or “debts.” While we can speculate endlessly about how such Christian forgiveness should work out in practice, the sense of the idea reflects a certain recurring traditional social contract. When we owe something, we should attend to repaying it. Further, it is wrong to expect leniency if we ourselves are impatient and demanding. However, individuals should not be reduced to intractable permanent poverty.

Many cultures institutionalize forgiveness of both moral and economic debts. For instance, the Law of Moses to the Jews directed that there be a periodic “Jubilee” year in which certain debts were to be forgiven. This has been described was “…a self-regulating system that deleveraged itself before credit bubbles grew out of control…” Also, the Koran holds a similar instruction that “… if (the debtor) is in [serious straits], then let there be postponement until (he is in) ease … and that you remit it as alms is better for you…” For what it’s worth, the Jubilee law even prescribed that farm land be given a rest every seven years so that it had a chance to recover and restore productivity.

Many people were aware of the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) protests at their peak, but now think that the movement has disappeared. Actually, it only got quieter while it organized a variety of initiatives. OWS volunteers were some of the most active responders in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

One of the many OWS projects is “Rolling Jubilee,” which uses donated funds to buy-up private debt (such as college loans) for pennies on the dollar – like collection agencies do. But, instead of hounding the debtor, it forgives the debt. In just their first month, they raised $474,723 to abolish $9,499,377 as an act of “mutual support and good will in pursuit of a new world based on common good, not Wall Street profits.”

Today, many people find themselves in increasingly difficult and overwhelming circumstances. Without adequate health insurance, serious illnesses in families account for 60% of personal bankruptcies. Situations such as ballooning mortgages, being laid off, or college loans without having a living-wage job, can be devastating as well. We don’t have to overspend to land in this kind of debt. The working poor and middle class have faced decades of degenerating economic headwinds (including fewer and poorer jobs) while bankers and corporations win increasing legislative favors and record profits.

OWS is not the only group that views modern investment banks and nonbank financial companies as increasingly predatory – using deceptive and abusive practices. That is why the Obama administration formed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and nominated Elizabeth Warren to be its head. The CFPB began overseeing debt collection agencies (including $850 billion in student loans) at the start of 2013.


Frankly, our national economy is currently “awash in unpayable debt.” Financial institutions are already sometimes obliged to “take a haircut” by canceling a portion of each other’s debt. International banks have allowed entire countries to recover their economies through debt forgiveness. We will be seeing a growing national conversation develop about the possible benefits of consumer debt relief.

David Satterlee

Monday, April 4, 2016

Jobs: Part 2: Disintermediation

Jobs: Part 2: Disintermediation

Whatever happened to all the travel agents, filling station attendants, and encyclopedia salesmen? It turns out they were middlemen – intermediaries between you and what you wanted. Therefore, you can say that, when we found ways to do their jobs more directly, they were “disintermediated.”

These days, it is ever-more-common to “cut out the middleman.” You book your own travel, pump your own gas, and easily search for information about any subject that interests you by using Internet search engines. The Encyclopedia Britannica has stopped printing paper volumes. Voluntary curators and editors contribute articles to Wikipedia, a free on-line encyclopedia with an increasingly solid reputation. Tesla Motors is working toward their vision of bypassing dealerships to sell electric automobiles directly to the public.