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Comment My own Marvin Minsky story on neural networks (Score 2) 76

Posted here first this morning (couple of types fixed):

Wow, sad to hear the news. Marvin Minsky and I were academic peers of a sort -- he was one of George A. Miller's first students, and I was one of George's last students. :-) George told my parents something like I was the student who most reminded him of Marvin Minsky, except whereas he spent George's Air Force money, I spent my father's money. :-) Which was not quite true (I paid for a chunk of Princeton with the proceeds of a video game I wrote and with some loans) but it sounded funny. :-) My dad was actually mostly a blue collar worker, and my mother only later in life worked for county social services, so George may also not have realized my family was not that well off financially.

I met Marvin Minsky once in his MIT office in 1985 as I was graduating from Princeton. I likely gave him a copy of my thesis -- "Why Intelligence: Object, Evolution, Stability, and Model". I also wrote to him once in the 1990s about getting computer time for space habitat simulations (he was responsive in a positive way, but then I met my wife and so just let stuff like that drop). And I saw him in passing about fifteen years ago when he gave a talk at IBM Research while I was a contractor there (he spoke about multiple simultaneous mental representations, and picking from the best one). A nephew of his even lived down the hall from me my senior year at Princeton in 1903 hall, too, but I never talked with him about his uncle. But we never really connected any of those times, sadly.

One of the biggest mistake I've made in my life careerwise (or so it seemed at the time) was when visiting Marvin Minsky in his office to talk to him about the triplestore and semantic network ideas in my thesis (stuff that indirectly helped inspire WordNet which George started as I graduated). I casually mentioned in passing to Marvin Minsky very early on in our meeting something about neural networks (MIT had a spinoff then of the Connection Machine), and I guess that may have put him in one of those mental states where some of the 400 different little computers activate. :-) I had not known then that he had essentially written a book (Perceptrons) to discredit neural networks (by only considering a limited version of them) to preserve funding for more formal semantic networks he worked on. He warned me sternly about how many careers had been destroyed by exploring neural networks. Another of George's students had found a copy of Marvin's original SNARC paper (what Marvin spent George's Air Force grant money on), and I can wish I had thought to take a copy to Marvin, as that might have set a different tone for our meeting, as it turned out Marvin had lost his original and wanted to reference it in his book "the Society of Mind" he was working on then.

So, instead of MIT, I spent a year hanging out in Hans Moravec's and also Red Whittaker's robot labs, and that was interesting in its own way. That experience also set me to thinking about the implications of most of the CMU robotics work being funded by the US military, which ultimately lead to my key insight about the irony of using robots to fight about material scarcity they could otherwise alleviate.

I sent Marvin Minsky an email in 2010, with a subject of "Vitamin D, computing, and abundance", warning about the health risks of vitamin D deficiency for heavy computer users. I also thanked him for his interactions with James P. Hogan, an author whose writings have been very inspiring to me (like Two Faces of Tomorrow and Voyage From Yesteryear), as James acknowledges Marvin in the first as a major source of ideas and inspirations, so some big ideas went from Marvin to James to me at least in that sense. :-) I also thanked him for being such an inspiration in years gone by. I had been reading through all the comments at a Wired article on "DARPA: U.S. Geek Shortage Is National Security Risk" and reflecting on my own career and inspirations, and thought I'd write to him. I told Marvin the biggest thing missed in that article is just that most computer jobs in the USA are not given much room for creative expression these days. And, sadly, much the same is true for academia for reason Dr. Goodstein outlines in his "The Big Crunch" essay (as do many other authors) which I also linked to. When you think about it, even as billions of dollars are being poured into proprietary software every year, and maybe a similar amount into academia, most programmers are kept on very short leashes focused on narrow project outcomes. There are very few projects like Mozilla or Chandler with a broad mandate (and when there are, they are often badly managed). When you think about it, for example, where is the broad support for creating better GUI libraries? Sure you can point to Angular or React as spinoffs of big corporations and they are getting most of the mindshare, but the very limited support for truly creative people like Leo Horie who made Mithril on the side in their spare time is more typical. Likewise, Notch and Minecraft got all the publicity and billions but Infiniminer and Zachary Barth, the source of key Minecraft ideas, get very little returns or support. Even Bill Gates learned by dumpster diving and reading the TOPS-10 OS listings and his MS-DOS was purchased as a ripoff of Kildall's CPM, which IBM may have known about and used Gates to stay at arms length from a suspicious transaction. Sigh.

I have since some to think that, short of improved subsistence via 3D printing and flexible home and agricultural personal robotics, or a radical change to a gift economy, or broad government grants totaling in the hundreds of billions of years to any programmer who asked, about the only thing I can think of that would really fix that situation of limited time for programmers to be creative, that would really give most programmers some financial freedom to innovate, not just a few (like Marvin) who manage (often by technical brilliance of a sort, and so seemingly "deservedly") to work their way up the social/funding hierarchy, would be a "basic income" for everyone. Then any programmer who wanted to could live life a graduate student their entire life (but without grad school restrictions like pleasing an adviser) and turn out free/libre and open source software. And others might choose to do other things with that freedom (have kids, teach, write books, paint, whatever). Most such creative programming projects would fail of course, but we might still see a lot of great innovative socially-useful stuff, where programmers would have the time to really support it.

I included in that email links to my Post-Scarcity Princeton writings. That email to Marvin Minsky was also when I first created my email sig, to, as I said to him, sum up the most important thing I've learned over the past 25 years by following the road less traveled (via CMU). :-) The version then was: "The biggest challenge of the 21st century is technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity." I changed "thinking" to "still thinking" later to be a bit more optimistic. :-)

It is a sad day for us and his family, but Marvin apparently had one of the most fun careers of anyone I can imagine, so I can't feel too sad for Marvin himself. I am sad though that I said the wrong thing incidentally in his office and so never got to be part of that fun. But a deep question to ask is, how can more people have a fun and creative life like Marvin Minsky had?

Comment funding policies in automotive intelligence & (Score 1) 276

The below is from me originally from 2001:

Although see also this idea from a couple of weeks ago:
Consider again the self-driving cars mentioned earlier which now cruise some streets in small numbers. The software "intelligence" doing the driving was primarily developed by public money given to universities, which generally own the copyrights and patents as the contractors. Obviously there are related scientific publications, but in practice these fail to do justice to the complexity of such systems. The truest physical representation of the knowledge learned by such work is the codebase plus email discussions of it (plus what developers carry in their heads).

We are about to see the emergence of companies licensing that publicly funded software and selling modified versions of such software as proprietary products. There will eventually be hundreds or thousands of paid automotive software engineers working on such software no matter how it is funded, because there will be great value in having such self-driving vehicles given the result of America's horrendous urban planning policies leaving the car as generally the most efficient means of transport in the suburb. The question is, will the results of the work be open for inspection and contribution by the public? Essentially, will those engineers and their employers be "owners" of the software, or will they instead be "stewards" of a larger free and open community development process?

Open source software is typically eventually of much higher quality ( ) and reliability because more eyes look over the code for problems and more voices contribute to adding innovative solutions. About 35,000 Americans are killed every year in driving fatalities, and hundreds of thousands more are seriously injured. Should the software that keeps people safe on roads, and which has already been created primarily with public funds, not also be kept under continuous public scrutiny?

Without concerted action, such software will likely be kept proprietary because that will be more profitable sooner to the people who get in early, and will fit into conventional expectations of business as usual. It will likely end up being available for inspection and testing at best to a few government employees under non-disclosure agreements. We are talking about an entire publicly funded infrastructure about to disappear from the public radar screen. There is something deeply wrong here.

And while it is true many planes like the 757 can fly themselves already for most of their journey, and their software is probably mostly proprietary, the software involved in driving is potentially far more complex as it requires visual recognition of cues in a more complex environment full of many more unpredictable agents operating on much faster timescales. Also, automotive intelligence will touch all of our lives on a daily basis, where as aircraft intelligence can be generally avoided in daily life.

Decisions on how this public intellectual property related to automotive intelligence will be handled will affect the health and safety of every American and later everyone in any developed country. Either way, the automotive software engineers and their employers will do well financially (for example, one might still buy a Volvo because their software engineers are better and they do more thorough testing of configurations). But which way will the public be better off:
* totally dependent on proprietary intelligences under the hoods of their cars which they have no way of understanding, or instead
* with ways to verify what those intelligences do, understand how they operate, and make contributions when they can so such automotive intelligences serve humane purposes better?

If, for example, automotive intelligence was developed under some form of copyleft license like the GNU General Public License, then at least car owners or their "software mechanics" would be assured they could have access to the software in source form to ensure safe operation. What might be "street legal" in terms of software modifications might be a different story -- in the same way people can't legally drive with a cracked windshield or a broken headlight. For example, software changes might need to first be proven safe in simulation before being provisionally "street legal". But, the important thing is, foundations or government agencies funding code development could insist on some form of free licensing terms for automotive intelligence as a matter of public policy.

There are many other areas of human activities that the exponential growth of technology will effect. Automotive intelligence is just one of them that is here now and which I am familiar with from tangential interactions at universities with people developing it. In enough time similar issues will arise for the software behind household robotics or intelligent devices that assist the elderly or handicapped. The IBOT wheelchair by Dean Kamen using complex software to balance on two wheels is just the beginning of such devices.

Note the IBOT wheelchair was developed entirely with private funds it seems, so the reasoning in this essay does not apply directly to it. Also, in general Dean Kamen is a role model of a socially responsible for-profit inventor. Still, the issue arises of whether "Johnson & Johnson" should be funding such development, as was the case, as opposed to, say, the "Robert Wood Johnson Foundation", as was not, given the public policy issue of whether individuals should be continually dependent for personal needs on proprietary software. In either case it would be worth it to pay billions for such innovation, and the public will pay that in the end as a toll on for such devices.

There is a real question here of how our society will proceed -- mainly closed or mainly open. It is reflected in everything the non-profit world does -- including the myths it lives by. The choice of myth can be made in part by the funding policies set by foundations and government agencies. The myth that funders may be living by is the scarcity economics myth. How does that myth effect the digital public works funding cycle?

Comment An democracy needs confident people & good too (Score 2) 161

On ageism, it's not just whether programmers work, it is the quality of the work and the independence of the workers. Where might that matter? Consider the democratic need for programmers to follow ethical standards about privacy and democracy and openness and user empowerment (in their designs) that much centralized proprietary behind-closed-doors big data CS just ignores.

As I found in academia (for example in the PU CE&OR department in the late 1980s), when half or more of the graduate students in an academic department are foreign nationals being paid by their governments to get degrees, where when going back home without a degree would be a huge disgrace and maybe loss of career, the atmosphere of the place changes. That might explain why dealing with systematic financial risk was not a big topic at the time then.

So, if most programmers are nervous about their jobs with tons of H1Bs and cheap young labor, what effect is that going to have on taking a stand for important issues? And these are not just ethical issues, they are even issues like pushing back on inefficient or brittle designs, or designs users won't like, or whatever. It takes a certain level of confidence to do that (a confidence that includes knowing you can always easily get a job elsewhere, which may be true for a fifty year old civil engineer but is less true for a fifty year old programmer). And I'm not talking the brash confidence of youth or even a willingness for self-sacrifice like Snowden or Manning -- which is a different thing. I'm talking about a well-earned confidence in the context of a supportive community which is the basis of day-to-day successes by a democracy accountable to the needs of citizens.

See also:
"Smile or Die" (which discusses the financial crisis in part resulting from no one being able to point out systemic risks without losing their jobs)


And even my other post here mentioning John Taylor Gatto who talks about compulsory schools as being designed specifically to shape compliant workers.

My latest folly is based on remembering what computers and our democratic culture were like in the 1970s and 1980s, is to want to help create software that respects a citizen's needs for private data controlled locally and shared peer-to-peer (like via email) instead of a typical web business' needs (like Slack or gmail) to centralize and control other people's data: :-) Here is that project:

I started that with the news that Mozilla, supposedly about internet freedom and privacy and user empowerment, is going to kiss off Thunderbird, meanwhile billions of dollars are poured into the web space to make the opposite of Thunderbird (and some of those dollars are going to Mozilla in a way as a conflict-of-interest). See also my post here:

The USA should be funding thousands of people to work on such FOSS tools. Meanwhile, Thunderbird suffers for lack of a funding model. Volunteers and open source go together well -- but relying on volunteers is problematical when you have literally one gigabyte of legacy C++ and XUL source code that need to track every security issue in Firefox.

If this was really about increasing interest in computers, just give green cards instead of H1Bs, insist on overtime for programmers, require every employee have a window (like in parts of Europe) and do basic stuff like that. It might also help if we reduced the churn in "new" technologies that are often not as good as the old one (still waiting for something a lot better than 1980s Smalltalk, for example). Getting rid of software patents would also be a big help in the USA, as would reducing copyright scope and duration to make building materials more available.

Comment Another John Taylor Gatto in the making? :-) (Score 1) 161



More links on how schooling is not about education, and how schooling is a form of (prison-like) adoption:

Check out John Holt, too. That's all a big reason we homeschool/unschool.

More links:

Enjoyed your informative post from the trenches, thanks! Especially your point about teacher incentives. You get what you measure -- so, as you imply, if you incentivize teachers to dumb down kids faster and better, that's what you'll get more of.

Long term, I feel a basic income may be part of the answer:

As for what you can do in the short-term, it's tough. If you walk away, your (virtually adopted) kids will suffer. And you'll lose your income in a tough economy.. And one less voice for change in the system will be lost. But it's a painful situation if you care about what you do (although you run a high risk of burnout). Don't know what to advise, but at least you are not alone! :-)

Comment Sprint for Thunderbird webapp proof-of-concept (Score 1) 388

AC wrote: "We've lost the arms race for content over presentation in this medium. Pages with perhaps a kilobyte of text take over a megabyte to download and 10 seconds to render. Firefox is mortally wounded. Safari and Opera are hobbled. Chrome is a trojan horse. Guys, I think the Gopher people were right."

This is a very insightful AC post. That is a big part part of why for the last week (since hearing about the Thunderbird uncertainty) as a sprint, I've been working towards a webapp / server called Twirlip as a proof-of-concept for a server version of Thunderbird. The idea is to support the same functionality as Thunderbird (and more) but use standard Firefox as the client loading a Thunderbird-like webapp from a local Node.js server. The project repository is currently here:

The sprint is not "blessed" by Mozilla or the Thunderbird Council at the moment. It is just my own take on things and to demonstrate what is possible. And given I just blew all our cash/credit writing another FOSS project (NarraFirma, a webapp in TypeScript/Mithril/D3 with Node.js and WordPress backends) over the past year or so, financially, this is so stupid for me to be doing right now instead of finding a paying job. :-)

That said, the leader of the Thunderbird Council (Kent James) suggested in September considering making Thunderbird into a webapp, so the idea is not completely new, or presumably unwelcome as a proof-of-concept demo:
"Future Planning: Thunderbird as a Web App"
"As we are discussing our future, both in relation to radical changes expected in the Mozilla platform, and our need to express where we are going to potential partners and donors, we need to discuss and agree on some big-picture issues. One of those was end-to-end encryption that we discussed recently. I want to discuss here our future platform, and how it related to users and their needs.
tl;dr Thunderbird over the next 3 years needs to convert to being a web app that can run on any browser that supports ES6 Javascript and HTML5. (web app does not imply cloud-based, only that the underlying platform is js/html)."

Here is an update on my last week's progress sent to the Thunderbird Planning list.

I've used Thunderbird for over a decade, and have a million messages in it totaling over 15 GB (mainly from a bunch of mailing lists). I know of others who have 50 GB in it. So, I'm obviously concerned about its future.

All that said, there is no immediate reason to panic. Thunderbird still works well for what it does.

In looking into this issue though, maintaining Thunderbird is apparently difficult though because the codebase includes a copy of Firefox, which bloats the source code by 20X or more up to about a gigabyte of mostly C++.Any security patch to Firefox needs to be evaluated and then likely integrated into Thunderbird to keep it secure. That may be the biggest issue -- and it is worse now that Mozilla has essentially defunded Thunderbird over the last few years to make it a "community" project, so synergy has been lost with the Firefox development team. (SeaMonkey, formerly the Mozilla application suite, is in the same boat and uses essentially the same codebase.) Thunderbird itself also has a lot of XUL to define UI functionality, but Mozilla has deprecated XUL (not reasonably, but there are consequences) creating an obvious future maintenance issue of sizable proportions. Thunderbird plugins likewise are written with XUL. So, while Thunderbird can be maintained, given that codebase and the size and the need to closely track Firefox, maintenance is hard and probably not a lot of fun (given the C++ and XUL) as a legacy thing.

As others have said, this is a big amount of "technical debt". And Mozilla is less and less interested in helping service that debt, let alone pay it off. So, what energy is available in the Thunderbird community generally needs to go into maintenance and not new ideas. Maintenance is important, but may not happen long-term without substantial funding given the scale of the issue. That commitment to substantial maintenance of that gigabyte of source code might happen though if a foundation concerned about democracy or privacy got behind Thunderbird as-it-is. Frankly though, as much as I feel free and open source is the way to go, it is really a full-time job to support big complex applications, and that effort should be funded somehow, whether by grants, donations, or other means including perhaps someday a basic income.

An alternative though is to re-envision Thunderbird somehow, like Kent James suggests. That is like deciding to build a new house next door because the old one has too many issue to fix cost-effectively. Disentangling a gigabyte of C++ and XUL is probably not going to be much fun, and given the nature of C++, will almost certainly lead to security issues and lowered stability for a time. But long-term, any issue in Firefox is potentially then a know and exploitable security vulnerability in Thunderbird by a maliciously-crafted email.

Ideally, both maintaining the old Thunderbird and building a new Thunderbird could be done with enough money or volunteer energy. Even with other email clients out there, given over 100 billion emails are sent every day, email is very important to modern society. There is a more general information access issue as well that AC wrote about. Thunderbird should not have to languish for lack of support on the order of millions of US dollars a year when billions of dollars a year are getting poured every year into proprietary web sites like AC implies that just make knowledge harder to access.

By the way, see comments at the next link from a few months ago about how unhappy Firefox (not Thunderbird) developers are with recent Mozilla decisions about XUL and plugins. Unfortunately, Mozilla has not invested in tooling to make migration from XUL to standard DOM easy for plugins and there are other complicating issues well as other issues related to locking down Mozilla plugins more.

That all means is the pool of people who remotely care about XUL is going to quickly shrink.

Here are comments by me on why Mozilla should reinvest in Thunderbird as-it-is and as-it-might-be as part of supporting peer-to-peer technologies like email

From an equity issue too, it is unclear to me what percent of Mozilla's previous donations received are due to Thunderbird and the email part of SeaMonkey?

Overall, the current situation is not a healthy one for Thunderbird as-it-is given the expected upcoming maintenance costs (like having a house that needs a new roof and a new foundation and a new septic system all at the same time). However, that situation could change overnight with a commitment from a foundation or some other source. Houses do get fixed up all the time even after having incurred a lot of maintenance / technical debt. But new houses get built too. And our society is so wealthy materially we should be able to afford *both*. It is only ideology that gets in the way, leading to so many resources to instead go into creating the problems AC bemoaned (in part from unbridled competition and quests for de-facto vendor lockin, such as now with Slack and before with gmail or ymail and Facebook and MySpace and so on).

As this 2008 Slashdot article on what the now-current Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation said back then when a Shuttleworth Fellow:
"Is Open Source the Answer To Giving?"
"Mark Surman, Shuttleworth Foundation fellow, writes that open source is the answer to philanthropy's $55 trillion question: how to spend the money expected to flow into foundations over the next 25 years. While others have lashed out at 'Philanthro-Capitalism' -- claiming that the charitable giving of Gates and others simply extends power in the market to power over society -- Surman believes that open source shows the way to the harmonious yin-yang of business and not-for-profit. Sun, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Yahoo, and Facebook are big backers of Creative Commons; Mozilla has spawned two for-profits. Open source shows that philanthropy and business can cohabit and mutually thrive. Indeed, philanthropy might learn from open source to find new ways to organize itself for spending that $55 trillion."

So clearly, the existence of resources is not the problem here. It is the allocation of resource to the important issue of email and peer-to-peer information exchange in general.

As I see it, Mozilla has a fundamental conflict-of-interest between relying on commercial partnerships with big companies like Google or now Yahoo which to support Firefox (funded by them to access proprietary social media and commercial search engines) and obtaining funding for peer-to-peer software like Thunderbird which provides an alternative like AC (and I) prefer.

So, as I see it, given what Mark Surman wrote in 2008, he and/or Mitchell Baker (Executive Chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation and of Mozilla Corporation) could be approaching a lot of foundations to increase support for the Mozilla mission for peer-to-peer. Here is a list they could start working through: :-)

But first they need to acknowledge this conflict-of-interest in relying on a big centralized web company as a funding source when you claim to be interested in promoting privacy and data security and individual empowerment on the internet and reflect on it, rather than just kiss off Thunderbird (which actually supports all that!!!) as a concept (even if the current Thunderbird implementation needs refreshing to deal with accumulated technical debt).

Comment Donate Slashdot to & take tax writ (Score 1) 552

The title says the main idea, but here are some more details in my usual rambling style... :-)

== More details (and should be better/conciser, but headache plus other stuff to do)

When you wake up in the early morning before sunrise, you may feel you need to turn on a lightbulb to get around safely otherwise in the dark. That lightbulb seems blindingly bright -- so bright you can't look at it. You need that lightbulb though. Then, hours later, after the sun is up, you may forget the lightbulb is even on -- it is bright everywhere, and the bulb hardly stands out. Is that the story of Slashdot? As well as the story of many other tech innovations and communities and individuals (perhaps even myself)? These tools, communities, and individuals help bootstrap something greater and then just fade into the background.

As a different analogy, each year, seeds produce the next generation of plants that produce more seeds, but generations later, who thinks of (or thanks) the seeds from years ago that made everything possible? It remains important for our own mental health to be thankful for the past generations that made our life possible (an idea very strong in some Native American culture, and even made into politics by C. H. Douglas and Social Credit) -- but it is perhaps too much to expect direct gratitude for our own contributions. "We do what we must because we can"? :-) Or maybe because we "should". Or even just because it was "fun" (a preference for fun perhaps shaped by millions of years of evolution and selection for survival). Sure, some people get remembered and celebrated because they won some commercial popularity contest (Edison, Gates, Jobs), but most just get mostly forgotten (Steinmetz/Tesla, Kildall, Wozniak/Wayne). Even Doug Engelbart's obituary did not even get a full open article on the Slashdot home page, just a title line (and I and others complained about that at the time). People like Peter H. Huyck & Nellie W. Kremenak (who wrote the very insightful "Design & Memory: Computer Programming in the 20th Century" in 1980) get essentially no mention, as does William Kent (who wrote "Data & Reality" in 1978). I'm continually amazed how little mention Smalltalk (Kay, Ingalls, Goldberg, etc.) gets these days -- it seems almost entirely forgotten, even if Java and now JavaScript is step-by-step reinventing most of it (often badly) -- even as the Smalltalk community struggles on, and when I squint just right, I see the web as a Smalltalk image Theodore Sturgeon envisioned ubiquitous mobile networked wearable nanotech-built computing in the 1950s in "The Skills of Xanadu", which inspired Ted Nelson and other technologists (myself included), but who remembers him for that? Chuck Moore (Forth) and James Martin (everything IT) likewise are near forgotten at this point, as far as their name coming up much in discussion. Even Clifford Berry and John Vincent Atanassoff are pretty much forgotten, even given their Atanasoffâ"Berry Computer (ABC) the main reasons digital computing was not burdened with core patents early on. And those are just a few I know who are public or published figures. And that does not include the people like high school teachers Jack Woelfel, Joe Maurer, David Gray, or many others (including my father) who made a big difference in my own personal computing education (but few others would ever hear of outside of where I grew up).

I can also look at old computer magazines and catalogs from decades ago and see so much diversity of hardware ideas before the PC monoculture took over. Still, as Manuel De Landa said, uniformity at one level can promote diversity at another. A lot of different software has been built on the Windows/Intel hardware/OS monoculture. Hardware and OS diversity seems also to be going up again with Smartphones and Chromebooks. Although again, with lots of soon to be forgotten developers -- even if it may mean a lot to the developer and their local community and successors that they did what they did. And even if much of this is just playing out the visions of Vannevar Bush, J. C. R. Licklider, Sturgeon, Engelbart, Kay and so on.

So things change. There was a time when people came to Slashdot because of the good infrastructure and good management. September 11th, 2001 was one of Slashdot's finest hours as the Slashdot servers kept going to support discussion when other websites crashed under the load. Now it seems that people come to Slashdot *despite* those things (e.g. Beta, audio ads, whatever) based on the legacy of those times. I can sympathize with the plight of Slashdot's staff given the corporate profit-making emphasis and whatever other internal corporate social power struggles are taking place, and they may be doing the best anyone could under the circumstances, but it remains a sad situation that feels wrong. I had thought the idea of selling job advertisements on Slashdot was a good one (as far as advertising as a revenue stream goes), but I can see, like other posters have suggested, that Stack Overflow or GitHub are better positioned for that in some ways. There remains a tension between a company hiring for skill (SO, GitHub) and hiring for conscience (aspects of Slashdot). Although as one of the earliest SourceForge adopters, I can be even more sad about what happened there, like with bundling stuff into downloaded software.

IMHO, at this point, the biggest value of Slashdot (or, for that matter, SourceForge) is perhaps as an archive representing a time in history relating to the emergence of the internet as a social force. There are also other historical discussions on Slashdot relating to shaping the interaction of technology and society beyond the web. seems like a good fit in that sense. DHI Group might even get a nice tax write-off from such a donation. It seems most of Slashdot is not showing up in Google searches? That seems unfortunate to me as another loss of history. Hopefully something that could be fixed in the future especially by, either on the Slashdot side or Google side. already seems to have much of Slashdot archived, but having the raw archives might help -- the earliest crawl for this page is 2009, for example:*/...

I don't mean to dismiss the value of the current community even if just a shadow of itself. It's still a good community, even if smaller and less engaged. As you say, it's strongest around open source / free software issues. I'd be proud to have started a community that grew to just the size Slashdot is even just now. But with so much competition from other news aggregator and discussion sites (including for FOSS etc.), as well as other internet distractions, it's hard to know what the future is for the Slashdot community. Clay Shirky wrote in 2003 about the interaction of communities and their infrastructure in "A group is its own worst enemy"; Doug Engelbart also wrote even earlier on that, about co-evolution of tools, community, knowledge, and processes. I like the idea of the community buying Slashdot, but with the community slowly fading and likely with DHI Group asking a lot of money even now, I wonder if that is going to happen. Is the best use of a couple million community dollars (maybe a lot less, 200K?) to ransom the Slashdot community from its corporate overlords or perhaps instead to build something new (or just move over to pipedot or Soylent News)? The fact that this article on the sale has so few posts, and that posts to Slashdot these days now tend to be a couple lines (a general trend on the internet), suggests the community is not as strong or engaged as it once was, so I can doubt it would come up with the money -- although there always might be a tech millionaire here who could do it personally. I wish I could buy Slashdot today to give it to myself, but I can't.

Also, I feel the future of technological communications is more in the direction of a distributed social semantic desktop. I've worked towards that end myself like with my Pointrel/Twirlip/etc software. So, I also wonder how much a centralized web platform for discussion will last in general, even if web platforms may still have years of life in them. My vision of Slashdot would be to push the community into using a more decentralized system -- but that would be a very radical shift and no doubt attract even more moans than Beta, if such were possible. :-)

Ideally, that would be a platform where people like me could write long rambly posts, and others could, if they want, summarize them, or take pieces of them, or create diagrams of them, (or I could do that myself later). Those derived items could lead to other discussions and so on in some organic way where people did not feel put upon from seeing long essays. One can say such long things should go on a blog, and maybe they should, but then that misses something Slashdot has. Still, maybe, in that sense, a sea of interlinked WordPress blogs is really what Slashdot should become (as a first cut)? Is the free-ranging webforum itself increasingly obsolete? If not, how could it be better (other than Beta)?

As my Slashdot user ID suggests (109597), I've been on the site since near the beginning around 1997, starting reading it when I was a contractor at IBM Research -- yes, it was mostly work related research and education. :-) I lurked for a year or so before getting this ID. I have not posted in the last five months (since March 2015) for a few reasons. I've also (almost entirely) avoided reading the site since then. I saw this article on the day it came out because I peeked again at Slashdot looking for comments on Intel's new 3D memory technology whose announcement was all over the place and I wanted to see what people here thought about it. I've been thinking about it for the past week or so.

The main reason for my avoiding Slashdot during the last few months was to focus on getting some software written, especially as our finances dipped from cash into credit as our software project dragged on and on. That just shows how powerful an influence Slashdot still has over me -- like an alcoholic trying to stay dry. :-) I've been turning to Inhabitat for my news fixes once a day or so (a mostly optimistic site about green design), although I don't post there and there only about 100 comments to read -- or at least there were, but now somehow there are 551 -- some weird interface or database glitch?

As a result of abstaining from Slashdot for almost six months, :-), yesterday my wife and put up this new GitHub project called "NarraFirma". It is a single-page JavaScript application supporting Participatory Narrative Inquiry (PNI) as described in her free book which we have been working on for about a year:

That application supports multi-user editing using a version of the Pointrel system that supports distributed messaging using a triple store. It's not "done", and has many issues and TODOs, but at least it is useable either as a NodeJS application or a WordPress plugin.

Letting myself post this to Slashdot again right now is sort of my reward for all that progress -- even as it is another lost morning. :-)

A lesser reason to stop posting was this reply by "swell" to a comment I posted related to technological militarism -- which may have struck a nerve with someone who says elsewhere he "was one of the first from the US in Vietnam":

While I discarded his specific hedonistic advice, and I disagree with aspects of the extreme fatalism in his post ("it won't make any difference" vs. perhaps "it won't make *much* of a universal difference, but it will still matter a lot to you and your local community in the near term"), nonetheless, his negative feedback crystalized the fact that my postings on Slashdot had been facing diminishing returns. If my Slashdot posts were starting to stand out, that was in part a function of much of the rest of the community fading away. But I won't disagree I was posting too much on the same topics -- as important as they were like vitamin D deficiency, vegetable phytonutrient deficiency, advanced technology's effect of employment, basic income, the irony of tools of abundance like advanced computers and better materials being used in militarism assuming scarcity, etc.. And to not much good effect for me or the community at that point. True, I linked to my personal site (which has no ads or such), but in order to inform, even if maybe the message was ignored. So, thanks "swell" -- for helping me realize that.

Coincidentally, I also signed up as a Reddit user yesterday, although that was just to post a couple of links to my writings to subreddits on Technostism (seen mentioned at e-catworld) and Basic Income. Just more of the usual but in a different place. But don't plan to participate much on reddit (I don't have the time). And looking for those items on the main reddit page, one can see how in seconds they are buried under many other posts on endless different topics -- like "drinking from a firehose". Compared to the web of 1997, it much harder these days to put a signal through all the noise...

Anyway, I don't know if I'll ever post on Slashdot again regardless of how it gets sold. I had used Slashdot for more than a decade as sort of a mix of a blog for me and a way to interact with a community of technologists -- and maybe hopefully to even help educate the next generation of technologists. I miss Slashdot, but that is maybe also missing a Slashdot that "was", as well as a life situation with enough time to participate in that community, and a certain hope there was still time to make a difference. I can also be worried about reverting to my own old ways and spending too much time here I should be spending in other ways. That can be true eve if I now feel increasingly out of touch with things like, say, current fast-moving trends in UNIX system administration (although there are many news sources for that kind of info these days). I've changed; Slashdot has changed; the world has changed -- hard to make sense of all those changes or what they imply. But I can still be very thankful for all that the Slashdot community has given me over the years through many discussions.

So, is this post, "So long, and thanks for all the fish"? Dunno. Maybe.

Here is one last article submission for the road, at least: :-)

In any case, whatever happens to the community, the Slashdot archive remains of historical interest IMHO, and should be preserved by a group like Perhaps one of my college professor's influence (the late historian Michael S. Mahoney who wrote on the history of computing) may have rubbed off a bit? :-) I'd love to curate such a site and build tools to study it. I'm a trustee of my local historical society. We focus mostly on history of about 150 years ago (such as farming, homesteading, and simple manufacturing) in a couple museums. Increasingly I'm thinking of computing as history (e.g. my old Commodore VIC-20) -- even if I doubt I could ever sell that idea to the current board, who still see computing as a mostly future thing. :-) Even if the people and artifacts of the social transition from pre-computing/pre-internet era to what we have now and beyond may be fading as I write... Such is perhaps the nature of history, with several tales of old historical computers just carted off as scrap... Although in this case we're just talking about preserving access to data, and supporting annotating it, ideally in a distributed way, which is probably overall cheaper than running big physical facilities open to the public... Still, no doubt there are privacy issues and so on. Few worthwhile projects seem easy, otherwise they would have been done already. Sure there is a "Computer History Museum" in CA -- but what would the world be like with just one museum about art or early farming? Still, is accessible globally, so it seems like a good potential home for the Slashdot archives, however the Slashdot community/infrastructure transforms in the future.

As always, I'll close with my sig, in case some huge AI reads this someday and maybe gains some insight from it (maybe, like a toddler with nuclear bombs as toys, only after wiping out its physical humanity "parents" either accidentally or on purpose):
"The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity."

Submission + - Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?

Paul Fernhout writes: MIT economist David H Autor has written an article entitled "Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation". His article is a good read to understand the best of emerging mainstream economics thinking on technology and employment.

I feel his article leaves out some fundamental political aspects of the situation like I brought together in "Beyond a Jobless Recovery: A heterodox perspective on 21st century economics"). His article of course assumes consumer demand is infinite (despite Maslow's hierarchy of needs suggesting people more to more low-cost self-actualization activities over time). It assumes that the business benefits of employing a human will always outweigh the costs for many jobs (despite strikes, lawsuits, quality, illness, turnover). It assumes humans will always have special advantages over AIs and robots. It ignores whether some aspects of the economy (like long pipelines to become a professor) are really needed or are just protectionism. It ignores the social impact of rich/poor divides on working conditions and the operation of a capitalist economy itself. It ignores the value to the worker of the intrinsic nature of the work (i.e. some people may just be less happy in service jobs compared to agriculture or manufacturing). It ignores deeper issues of rethinking work as play (like Bob Black wrote about). It also ignores (incidentally, in relation to humans vs. robots) that "comparative advantage" only applies theoretically when you have "full employment". The article jumps between proving some points with numbers and then making other points as "strong hunches" or by quoting suggestions about technological unemployment from fifty years ago (quoting Herbert Simon). His prescription is of course mostly just more "education" — which is nice job security for a professor. :-) But, within those sorts of limits, it's an excellent article which makes many good points, especially about the dynamics of economic networks as different parts of them are automated. The article has many interesting facts and figures. His points on how jobs are a mix of tasks which different near-term prospects for automation is excellent. And his point about human jobs changing as people work together with automation is well made. So, his article provides a good base for further study and/or rebuttal of the mainstream position. His article could be a good starting point for anyone writing an economic simulation, to see what really happens to economic networks based on distributing the right to consume based on perceived contribution to production as such networks undergo severe stress from automation.

Submission + - Why Not Utopia? Mark Bittman on basic income and increasing automation (

Paul Fernhout writes: Mark Bittman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting a basic income as a solution to increasing automation leading to job loss. He concludes: "We have achieved a level of social equality barely imagined by progressives 50 years ago, but economic equality has gotten much worse. No one knows what the world will look like in 50 years, but if we resign ourselves to dystopia — in which capital has full control, as it nearly does now — we'll surely have one. Let's resolve to build something better. In the long run we know that we'll make the transition from capitalism to some less destructive and hopefully more just system. Why not begin that transition now? If there is going to be a global market that will further enrich capitalists, there must be guarantees that the rest of the population can at least afford housing and food. And things can be even better than that: We'll have the robots work for us."

Comment Re:Exactly! Recognizing irony is key... (Score 1) 47

And a major reason people want to control other people is... getting needed resources. :-)

Of course, since "needed resources" for some people can include specific mates (who need to be impressed or dominated or whatever), there is complexity there. James P. Hogan talks about the issue of achieving status in a post-scarcity economy in his 1982 sci-fi novel "Voyage From Yesteryear".

But, while prestige and status of a country relative to other countries is a cause of war (including to deter aggression), the personal level of status is rarely the reason entire nations are convinced into going to war. That is true even if personal status among leaders may have something to do with why leaders try to convince their countries to foolishly go to war.

For example, in this survey of the causes of war in 2008, every one except the top one of "ideological change" essentially comes down to control of resources.
"Why wars happen"

And I'd suggest even "ideological change" most often has a strong component of access to resources in order to manage them in specific ways (for example, having enough territory to implement some vision of some form of law or politics).

Anyway, this is a complex topic. There are many lists of reasons on why wars happen. I'm trying to say that issues of perceived scarcity drive a lot of them. Also, scarcity-thinking also often keeps people on a treadmill where they never seem to have time to learn about alternative ways of handling conflict than knee-jerk violence. And then further, fighting over perceived scarcity with super powerful tools of abundance (like computer code that can cause billions of potentially useful things to happen all at once across the world) is what creates the biggest current risks (like nuclear war). Without these tools of abundance like computers, communications, nanotech, biotech, nuclear power, advanced materials, rocketry, and so on, we would not be worried about the end of the human race by just some few people in one small area throwing rocks at each other.

Comment Exactly! Recognizing irony is key... (Score 2) 47

As I wrote here:
" Military robots like drones are ironic because they are created essentially to force humans to work like robots in an industrialized social order. Why not just create industrial robots to do the work instead?
    Nuclear weapons are ironic because they are about using space age systems to fight over oil and land. Why not just use advanced materials as found in nuclear missiles to make renewable energy sources (like windmills or solar panels) to replace oil, or why not use rocketry to move into space by building space habitats for more land?
    Biological weapons like genetically-engineered plagues are ironic because they are about using advanced life-altering biotechnology to fight over which old-fashioned humans get to occupy the planet. Why not just use advanced biotech to let people pick their skin color, or to create living arkologies and agricultural abundance for everyone everywhere?
    These militaristic socio-economic ironies would be hilarious if they were not so deadly serious. Here is some dark humor I wrote on the topic: A post-scarcity "Downfall" parody remix of the bunker scene. See also a little ironic story I wrote on trying to talk the USA out of collective suicide because it feels "Burdened by Bags of Sand". Or this YouTube video I put together: The Richest Man in the World: A parable about structural unemployment and a basic income.
    Likewise, even United States three-letter agencies like the NSA and the CIA, as well as their foreign counterparts, are becoming ironic institutions in many ways. Despite probably having more computing power per square foot than any other place in the world, they seem not to have thought much about the implications of all that computer power and organized information to transform the world into a place of abundance for all. Cheap computing makes possible just about cheap everything else, as does the ability to make better designs through shared computing. I discuss that at length here:
    There is a fundamental mismatch between 21st century reality and 20th century security thinking. Those "security" agencies are using those tools of abundance, cooperation, and sharing mainly from a mindset of scarcity, competition, and secrecy. Given the power of 21st century technology as an amplifier (including as weapons of mass destruction), a scarcity-based approach to using such technology ultimately is just making us all insecure. Such powerful technologies of abundance, designed, organized, and used from a mindset of scarcity could well ironically doom us all whether through military robots, nukes, plagues, propaganda, or whatever else... Or alternatively, as Bucky Fuller and others have suggested, we could use such technologies to build a world that is abundant and secure for all. ...
      The big problem is that all these new war machines and the surrounding infrastructure are created with the tools of abundance. The irony is that these tools of abundance are being wielded by people still obsessed with fighting over scarcity. So, the scarcity-based political mindset driving the military uses the technologies of abundance to create artificial scarcity. That is a tremendously deep irony that remains so far unappreciated by the mainstream.
    We the people need to redefine security in a sustainable and resilient way. Much current US military doctrine is based around unilateral security ("I'm safe because you are nervous") and extrinsic security ("I'm safe despite long supply lines because I have a bunch of soldiers to defend them"), which both lead to expensive arms races. We need as a society to move to other paradigms like Morton Deutsch's mutual security ("We're all looking out for each other's safety")
and Amory Lovin's intrinsic security ("Our redundant decentralized local systems can take a lot of pounding whether from storm, earthquake, or bombs and would still would keep working").
    There are lots of alternatives I helped organize here for helping transcend an economy based around militarism and artificial scarcity:
    Still, we must accept that there is nothing wrong with wanting some security. The issue is how we go about it in a non-ironic way that works for everyone. The people serving the USA in uniform are some of the most idealistic, brave, and altruistic people around; they just unfortunately are often misled for reasons of profit and power that Major General Butler outlined very clearly in "War is a Racket" decades ago. We need to build a better world where our trusting young people (and the people who give them orders) have more options for helping build a world that works for everyone than "war play". We need to build a better world where some of our most hopeful and trusting citizens are not coming home with PTSD as shattered people (or worse, coming home in body bags) because they were asked to kill and die for an unrecognized irony of using the tools of abundance to create artificial scarcity. ..."

Comment Re:Yes, Haber's life is an example of that irony (Score 1) 224

Interesting read, thanks! So true, you comments reflect the adage "taxes are the price we pay for civilization..." And also, capitalism tends toward privatizing gains and socializing costs...

If you see my other posts above though, I am not concerned about the technology to feed the world even without the Haber process (and perhaps better without it). As at this link, we have the technology through organic farming:
"Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?"

Whether we have the political will is a different issue, with so many vested interests in the current synthetic-chemical-based agricultural system.

Another aspect of this craziness:
"The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has posted an easy-to-understand visual on its site that shows which foods U.S. tax dollars go to support under the nation's farm bill. It's titled "Why Does a Salad Cost More Than a Big Mac?" and depicts two pyramids -- subsidized foods and the old recommended food pyramid. It's interesting to note that the two are almost inversely proportional to each other."

Comment Feeding the world without the Haber process (Score 1) 224

Human waste includes urine, which is part of "night soil".

But yes, "night soil" could only be part of a system. But there are other parts, as mentioned in a section quoted at the end.

I don't know about England specifically, or later years, but this says:
"Population and Economy : From Hunger to Modern Economic Growth"
"According to official Chinese statistics, by the middle of the 18 century, population density was already over 500 people per cultivated sq. km (see Liang 1980: 400, 546). While these numbers are undoubtedly exaggerated owning to under-registration of cultivated acreage (ho 1995), the contrast with 18th-cent. Europe, where 1 sq. km of cultivated acreage supported 70 people, is quite extreme (see Braudel 1981a: 56-64)."

Much of China is just not that cultivated because of mountains and deserts and such (especially in the West).

Organic agriculture is indeed information and labor intensive -- which is why robotics will revolutionize it -- including robots to pick specific insects off of plants.

On fertilizer loss, see:
"Between 1960 and 1990, global use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer increased more than sevenfold, while phosphorus use more than tripled. Studies have shown that fertilizers are often applied in excess of crop needs (MA 2005). The excess nutrients are lost through volatilization (when nitrogen vaporizes in the atmosphere in the form of ammonia), surface runoff (Figure 2), and leaching to groundwater. On average, about 20 percent of nitrogen fertilizer is lost through surface runoff or leaching into groundwater (MA 2005). Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and nitrogen in manure that is spread on fields is also subject to volatilization. Under some conditions, up to 60 percent of the nitrogen applied to crops can be lost to the atmosphere by volatilization (University of Delaware Cooperative Extension 2009); more commonly, volatilization losses are 40 percent or less (MA 2005). A portion of the volatilized ammonia is redeposited in waterways through atmospheric deposition. Phosphorus, which binds to the soil, is generally lost through soil erosion from agricultural lands."

Comparisons to medicine... Don't get me started. :-) Doctors typically have only a few hours of education about nutrition over the course of several years of study, yet poor nutrition is the root of most Western disease. So, the whole medical community is (profitably for itself) misdirecting its efforts as far as priorities. Sure there is much alternative medicine that is bogus, but the parts based on nutritional research (e.g. Dr. Fuhrman's work) is quite good overall. Yet it is not mainstream. What is mainstream is stuff like "stents", which studies actually show are mostly worthless. For example:
"The sad thing is surgical interventions and medications are the foundation of modern cardiology and both are relatively ineffective compared to nutritional excellence. My patients routinely reverse their heart disease, and no longer have vulnerable plaque or high blood pressure, so they do not need medical care, hospitals or cardiologists anymore. The problem is that in the real world cardiac patients are not even informed that heart disease is predictably reversed with nutritional excellence. They are not given the opportunity to choose and just corralled into these surgical interventions. Trying to figure out how to pay for ineffective and expensive medicine by politicians will never be a real solution. People need to know they do not have to have heart disease to begin with, and if they get it, aggressive nutrition is the most life-saving intervention. And it is free."

Same for many other aspects of profit-driven science... I collected some examples here, with one example quote:
"The problems I've discussed are not limited to psychiatry, although they reach their most florid form there. Similar conflicts of interest and biases exist in virtually every field of medicine, particularly those that rely heavily on drugs or devices. It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine." (Marcia Angell)"

Why should mainstream agriculture be any different? Monsanto and the like all have huge profits on the line convincing farmers they need the agricultural equivalent of "stents" and so on... That includes heavy influences in political subsidies and control of research at land grant agricultural schools. And agricultural commodity prices are overall so low in the USA that most farmers need to take off-farm day jobs to pay the bills, and selling the farm land at an appreciated value is pretty much just a retirement plan, with farming a way to keep taxes low on the land. It's a crazy business in that sense. And meanwhile the USA has sold off all of its national grain reserves due to free market fundamentalism and a privatization emphasis and such among our legislators... Its just plain madness. Meanwhile the USA spends (or incurrs) about a trillion US dollars a year on "defense", but it does not have any security of the most basics like good food!

BTW, the rest of this quotes from a document on whether organic farming can feed the world (and bear in mind the suggestion that many organic crops are superior in nutritional quality because of the micro-nutrient issue):
The only people who think organic farming can feed the world are delusional hippies, hysterical moms, and self-righteous organic farmers. Right? Actually, no. A fair number of agribusiness executives, agricultural and ecological scientists, and international agriculture experts believe that a large-scale shift to organic farming would not only increase the world's food supply, but might be the only way to eradicate hunger.

There are actually myriad studies from around the world showing that organic farms can produce about as much, and in some settings much more, than conventional farms. Where there is a yield gap, it tends to be widest in wealthy nations, where farmers use copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in a perennial attempt to maximize yields. It is true that farmers converting to organic production often encounter lower yields in the first few years, as the soil and surrounding biodiversity recover from years of assault with chemicals. And it may take several seasons for farmers to refine the new approach.

But the long-standing argument that organic farming would yield just one-third or one-half of conventional farming was based on biased assumptions and lack of data. For example, the often-cited statistic that switching to organic farming in the United States would only yield one-quarter of the food currently produced there is based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture study showing that all the manure in the United States could only meet one-quarter of the nation's fertilizer needs-even though organic farmers depend on much more than just manure.

More up-to-date research refutes these arguments. For example, a recent study by scientists at the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture in Switzerland showed that organic farms were only 20 percent less productive than conventional plots over a 21-year period. Looking at more than 200 studies in North America and Europe, Per Pinstrup Andersen (a Cornell professor and winner of the World Food Prize) and colleagues recently concluded that organic yields were about 80 percent of conventional yields. And many studies show an even narrower gap. Reviewing 154 growing seasons' worth of data on various crops grown on rain-fed and irrigated land in the United States, University of California-Davis agricultural scientist Bill Liebhardt found that organic corn yields were 94 percent of conventional yields, organic wheat yields were 97 percent, and organic soybean yields were 94 percent. Organic tomatoes showed no yield difference.

More importantly, in the world's poorer nations where most of the world's hungry live, the yield gaps completely disappear. University of Essex researchers Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine looked at over 200 agricultural projects in the developing world that converted to organic and ecological approaches, and found that for all the projects-involving 9 million farms on nearly 30 million hectares-yields increased an average of 93 percent. A seven-year study from Maikaal District in central India involving 1,000 farmers cultivating 3,200 hectares found that average yields for cotton, wheat, chili, and soy were as much as 20 percent higher on the organic farms than on nearby conventionally managed ones. Farmers and agricultural scientists attributed the higher yields in this dry region to the emphasis on cover crops, compost, manure, and other practices that increased organic matter (which helps retain water) in the soils. A study from Kenya found that while organic farmers in "high-potential areas" (those with above-average rainfall and high soil quality) had lower maize yields than nonorganic farmers, organic farmers in areas with poorer resource endowments consistently outyielded conventional growers. (In both regions, organic farmers had higher net profits, return on capital, and return on labor.)

Contrary to critics who jibe that it's going back to farming like our grandfathers did or that most of Africa already farms organically and it can't do the job, organic farming is a sophisticated combination of old wisdom and modern ecological innovations that help harness the yield-boosting effects of nutrient cycles, beneficial insects, and crop synergies. It's heavily dependent on technology-just not the technology that comes out of a chemical plant.

High-Calorie Farms

So could we make do without the chemical plants? Inspired by a field trip to a nearby organic farm where the farmer reported that he raised an amazing 27 tons of vegetables on six-tenths of a hectare in a relatively short growing season, a team of scientists from the University of Michigan tried to estimate how much food could be raised following a global shift to organic farming. The team combed through the literature for any and all studies comparing crop yields on organic farms with those on nonorganic farms. Based on 293 examples, they came up with a global dataset of yield ratios for the world's major crops for the developed and the developing world. As expected, organic farming yielded less than conventional farming in the developed world for most food categories, while studies from the developing world showed organic farming boosting yields. The team then ran two models. The first was conservative in the sense that it applied the yield ratio for the developed world to the entire planet, i.e., they assumed that every farm regardless of location would get only the lower developed-country yields. The second applied the yield ratio for the developed world to wealthy nations and the yield ratio for the developing world to those countries.

"We were all surprised by what we found," said Catherine Badgley, a Michigan paleoecologist who was one of the lead researchers. The first model yielded 2,641 kilocalories ("calories") per person per day, just under the world's current production of 2,786 calories but significantly higher than the average caloric requirement for a healthy person of between 2,200 and 2,500. The second model yielded 4,381 calories per person per day, 75 percent greater than current availability-and a quantity that could theoretically sustain a much larger human population than is currently supported on the world's farmland. (It also laid to rest another concern about organic agriculture; see sidebar at left.)

The team's interest in this subject was partly inspired by the concern that a large-scale shift to organic farming would require clearing additional wild areas to compensate for lower yields-an obvious worry for scientists like Badgley, who studies present and past biodiversity. The only problem with the argument, she said, is that much of the world's biodiversity exists in close proximity to farmland, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. "If we simply try to maintain biodiversity in islands around the world, we will lose most of it," she said. "It's very important to make areas between those islands friendly to biodiversity. The idea of those areas being pesticide-drenched fields is just going to be a disaster for biodiversity, especially in the tropics. The world would be able to sustain high levels of biodiversity much better if we could change agriculture on a large scale."

Badgley's team went out of the way to make its assumptions as conservative as possible: most of the studies they used looked at the yields of a single crop, even though many organic farms grow more than one crop in a field at the same time, yielding more total food even if the yield of any given crop may be lower. Skeptics may doubt the team's conclusions-as ecologists, they are likely to be sympathetic to organic farming-but a second recent study of the potential of a global shift to organic farming, led by Niels Halberg of the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, came to very similar conclusions, even though the authors were economists, agronomists, and international development experts. ...

  Sidebar one:

Enough Nitrogen To Go Around?

In addition to looking at raw yields, the University of Michigan scientists also examined the common concern that there aren't enough available sources of non-synthetic nitrogen-compost, manure, and plant residues-in the world to support large-scale organic farming. For instance, in his book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, Vaclav Smil argues that roughly two-thirds of the world's food harvest depends on the Haber-Bosch process, the technique developed in the early 20th century to synthesize ammonia fertilizer from fossil fuels. (Smil admits that he largely ignored the contribution of nitrogen-fixing crops and assumed that some of them, like soybeans, are net users of nitrogen, although he himself points out that on average half of all the fertilizer applied globally is wasted and not taken up by plants.) Most critics of organic farming as a means to feed the world focus on how much manure-and how much related pastureland and how many head of livestock-would be needed to fertilize the world's organic farms. "The issue of nitrogen is different in different regions," says Don Lotter, an agricultural consultant who has published widely on organic farming and nutrient requirements. "But lots more nitrogen comes in as green manure than animal manure."

Looking at 77 studies from the temperate areas and tropics, the Michigan team found that greater use of nitrogen-fixing crops in the world's major agricultural regions could result in 58 million metric tons more nitrogen than the amount of synthetic nitrogen currently used every year. Research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania showed that red clover used as a winter cover in an oat/wheat-corn-soy rotation, with no additional fertilizer inputs, achieved yields comparable to those in conventional control fields. Even in arid and semi-arid tropical regions like East Africa, where water availability is limited between periods of crop production, drought-resistant green manures such as pigeon peas or groundnuts could be used to fix nitrogen. In Washington state, organic wheat growers have matched their non-organic neighbor's wheat yields using the same field pea rotation for nitrogen. In Kenya, farmers using leguminous tree crops have doubled or tripled corn yields as well as suppressing certain stubborn weeds and generating additional animal fodder.

The Michigan results imply that no additional land area is required to obtain enough biologically available nitrogen, even without including the potential for intercropping (several crops grown in the same field at the same time), rotation of livestock with annual crops, and inoculation of soil with Azobacter, Azospirillum, and other free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria. ...

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