Friday, May 4, 2012

Into the Palouse

I’m back in the US this week, looking forward t0 a combination of graduation, medical, and business that should be lively.  My plane dropped into Seattle last night and we set out for Eastern Washington this morning, a five hour drive into the rolling Palouse farmlands.

I’ve been limping along with an old Sony camera for over a year now, and have been looking for an upgrade for the past six months.  It takes time to sort features and wait for a good price – fortunately it all came together just ahead of this trip.  I bought a Sony HX-9V on the basis of it’s mega-zoom, low-light performance, and color balance and gave it a workout during the drive.  I really like the way it handles contrasts, twilight, colors, and detail: it’s a little slow to start and between shots, but I can live with that if I get good pictures in difficult light.


I’ve put the sampling up on my Flickr site in the 2012 Palouse album

It was also a good chance to compare US rural villages and farmhouses with their Dutch counterparts.  The Dutch really do tend towards low and long farm buildings as compared to the square peaked US style.  Fields are plowed in arcing contours around the swells of the Palouse, while the griddle-flat Netherlands follow geometric grids.  The Dutch irrigate from canals cut through the fields; the dryland farmers irrigate from above with huge rotary sprinklers.

   The Netherlands                                    The Palouse


  Dutch Villages                                   Palouse Villages



And it was nice to find Random Road Art scattered around – this a giant wave made from canoes along the river in Clarkston and a “Codger Pole” in Colfax to mark an ancient football game.


And there were some things that will never come to the Netherlands…



Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What skills can’t be automated?

Picture1The day is fast coming when machines will surpass human abilities in all but six skills.

This sobering (or exhilarating) prediction comes from MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, related in their book Race Against the Machine.  Their report, covered by  the Financial Times this week, suggests that what’s already happened to manufacturing is now spreading to sales and will shorty arrive at management.  At some point, like ever more erosive austerity, the burden will bring displaced workers to the streets.  But it won’t change the long-term trajectory of displacement.

The six skills that the authors argue will remain under human purvey are statistical insight, managing group dynamics, good writing, framing and solving open-ended problems, persuasion, and human nurturing.  To this, the FT adds “decision-making”, although I disagree.  It’s easy to make decisions:

IF (this OR that) THEN do OR don’t;

Instead, as the primate exhibit at Brookfield Zoo observes, being human is about enumerating and making choices.

On reflection, there are other qualities that I would also change or replace, arriving at:  creative expression, intuitive reasoning, negotiation, framing and solving open-ended problems, nurturing, and framing choices.

Picture2I was thinking about this in the context of CamStent’s first-ever shareholder meeting on Monday.  It’s a real milestone for our young company, and humbling to look around the room at our Board, shareholders, scientists, and management group.   It takes diverse skills, selected from experience and organized around a purpose, to complete  the things we’ve accomplished in the past two years. It’s remarkable.

Can those skills be automated?  Not today, probably not in my lifetime, perhaps never.  I like to think that there is a unique way of processing information, coloring it with emotion and desire, thinking and choosing, organizing and acting, that can’t be reduced to deterministic algorithms and pattern recognition.  The deep search and combinatorial approaches of ever-faster machines can, indeed, solve ever wider problems.

One might argue whether entrepreneurship is relevant in the coming age of machines. But if it is, then it still needs at least six, and perhaps dozens, of  human skills can’t be replaced by computational horsepower alone.   In the jobs at the end of the universe, we’ll still need to strive for symbiosis, not dominance, with our machines.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Watery light at midday

Back in the UK for a few days – I’m leading our first shareholder meeting, kicking off prototype development, closing up the quarter’s teaching at Cambridge.

But the weather is just awful.

‘more like winter than spring, it’s been unremittingly grey, cold, wet, and windy.  Apparently things are better up north (I got a call from Skye, where all was sunny and calm) and I hear that the Dutch had a decent weekend.  But in the normally arid East of Anglia, April is shaping up as the wettest month on record.

In the village, this translates to mud.  It cakes onto shoes, tracks onto carpets, and congeals at doorsteps where people try to scrape their shoes.  The annual carnival packed up their booths and rides and quit the green after getting two lackluster patrons in as many days.  Birds and bunnies seem equally bewildered in the fields behind the flat; the yellow fields of rapeflowers are struggling between bloom and dormancy.


At this time of year, in these conditions, I worry again about the North Atlantic Conveyor.   It’s a huge delicate thing, ferrying water around the world driven by thermoclines and differences in salt density.  Atlantic conveyorIt also keeps the warm Gulf Stream aimed at Europe.  If it should ever reverse, due to excess fresh water from icecap melting, warming, or circulation changes as new waters open up, our weather would be more like Alaska.

More, in fact, like April has been.