Quantum Computing “Hype”


Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.
(source: wikipedia)


Last night, April Fool’s night, I attended a talk by 2012 physics Nobel Prize winner, Dr. David Wineland. The talk was titled, “Quantum Computers and Schrödinger’s Cat”. Though I won’t pretend to you readers that I understood what he was talking about, and the audience included two other physics Nobel Prize winners, so I was clearly out of my league, I’d gone to hear what he had to say about cats, since I have three at home.

And he did have quite a lot to say about cats, so I was not disappointed. He said that he didn’t think Schrödinger liked cats very much, since he put them in theoretical boxes only to wonder whether they were dead or alive.

The simple take-away from the evening, however, I thought was worth reporting.

Dr. Wineland is on one of the relatively few teams around the world that is working on developing quantum computers, and, his Nobel Prize was awarded for “ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.” His job has been with NIST, (National Institute of Standards and Technology), here in Boulder since 1975.

He began his talk by showing us the cover of the February 17, 2014 issue of TIME magazine, titled “The Infinity Machine”. He used it as an example that there is a lot of “hype” in the media about quantum computing, gently, but clearly implying that he wasn’t smitten with TIME’s article.

The Nutshell
In reality, the teams working on quantum computers have some major obstacles to overcome and there is no big optimism on the near term horizon that they’ll overcome them. To date, what they’ve created can’t do as much as your hand held device can do.

And, that, readers, is the big highly simplified take-away of the evening.

Alegría Fresh: A Prototype Urban Farm in Irvine, California Uses GardenSoxx

A commercial venture is on the move, and its timing is great, as it proposes to save water, fertilizer, and space, while providing fresh, nutrient-dense produce in urban areas.

This Southern California company is setting up an urban micro-farm -which claims to save large amounts of water- in Irvine, California during this time period when the extreme-drought of California is grabbing so many headlines.

The company is called Alegría Fresh, and they have various products on the market which are intended to grow fresh produce by using hydroponic techniques.

They have devised a mini-vertical garden system for urban dwellers for use in small spaces. Their vertical farm set-ups use coconut fiber (coir) instead of soil.

Their latest venture, Alegría Soxx Farm, uses 7500 linear feet of GardenSoxx on one-fifth of an acre in Irvine, California to grow 15 different vegetables, for a total of 13,000 plants.

They expect a 70 percent reduction in the amount of water needed to grow this produce, and a 50 percent reduction in fertilizer required because of the rich growing medium used. They also expect high yields, greater pest resistance, and faster growth rates, calling this a “paradigm shift in urban ag”.

Furthermore, they suggest that this prototype farm, and other future urban micro-farms like it have a juice bar, salad bar, and small farm stand alongside it to sell produce direct and employ local workers, creating a revenue stream that can support the farms.

All Sounds Great, But a Few Comments . . .
One question that I have, should any of the fine folks from Alegría drop by and read this, is how does this farm save water, when the GardenSoxx Q&A states, “as the mesh breathes, it will dry out sooner than normal soil.” I’d love to see an answer in the comments below, please, as many people are looking for solutions such as this to help grow food in our urban areas.

My other question is how adaptable would this system be to other regions of this nation, besides our prized Mediterranean climate growing region of Southern California?

Finally, I love innovation in food growing, but how I wish it didn’t (so often) involve greater use of plastic.

UPDATE: I’ve noticed the video isn’t working, which really is necessary to understand this set-up. See this page for another video. And here is a video of their vertical hydroponic gardening system.

Map of Countries Sized by Population & a Changing Global Economy Dominated by Asia

This map was tweeted by @incrediblemaps and shows us the size of countries relative to their populations, which as we know has big implications for food security and the commodity trade markets.

On a related note, one of the news items that really got my attention last week was the WSJ sideline interview of Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard, during his speaking engagement at the Credit Suisse Asian investment conference in Hong Kong.

From the WSJ’s blog:

…he can foresee a tri-polar world in which China and India are the major economic powers, counterbalanced by a bloc of the United States, Europe and Japan, whose populations together will total about one billion people.

“We’ve said the U.S. is a superpower, an economic superpower. But these are giants, they’re bigger than a superpower,” he said. “What would that world be like, both economically and politically? I think that’s really hard to understand. How much would the Western bloc be willing to cooperate politically to be a counterbalance to China and India?”

Mr. Bullard offered few specifics of what such a world would look like, but did acknowledge that it might require some adjustment on the part of ordinary Americans like those he serves in the heartland.

This future is a challenge to imagine, but has implications for the competition for oil and energy, number one, I think, and all of the other commodities, with ever-bigger demands on the Earth’s natural resources. It has jobs implications; global communications will continue to improve and evolve; technological advancements and innovations will be coming more and more from Asia; and, global politics and alliances will change, as Bullard states. Finally, it has big implications for food and agriculture. My personal view is that there will be very surprising innovations in both of these sectors.

In another weekend article, the NYT’s travel section contained this interesting paragraph:

Ernst & Young estimates that by 2030, nearly one billion people in China could enter into the middle class and have a disposable income that allows them to travel domestically and abroad. Ten years ago their government singled out tourism as a key pillar of economic growth, and as a result, they have invested well ahead of the curve in high-speed trains, hotel complexes and airports to absorb growth within the middle class. In fact, right now they are busy building 69 airports around the country, so that in the future no person in the country will be more than a 90-minute drive from an airport.

There are a few “somethings that are gonna haftagive” when we consider these rapidly changing global dynamics.

If you have any visions of where this puts people in Bullard’s heartland, in, say the year 2035, please let us know your ideas in the comments. What does the future look like for your children under this scenario? What will their standard of living look like? What will transportation and supply chains look like in the U.S. and in Asia? Where will the job opportunities be? Will there be enough jobs? What will global cooperation look like by then?

Bioregional Agriculture in Colorado

“Our food system is broken. What kind of society do we live in that pays all of our farmers to grow the same five crops? —Adam Brock”

Adam Brock, who helped found Denver’s by-now-famous GrowHaus*, tells us that we need a bioregional cuisine here in Colorado not unlike the Cajun food found in the Gulf area. Because we live in a region with very little precipitation, we need to start listening to the land, because we can only get our crops that we do today by working against nature. By growing bioregional food here on the High Plains, we’d use less water and produce food with better nutrition. He suggests eating foods such as a salad made with Sorrel, Bison, and Nopali (Prickly Pear Cactus).

Brock explains that Colorado’s farmers have to play into the commodities markets to compete economically with a result that our state’s top crop is wheat, followed by corn, hay, millet, sorghum, and sunflowers. Showing us a pie chart of the state’s water allocations in 2011 (@3:35), 44 percent of Colorado’s water goes to irrigation for agriculture and 30 percent to power generation.

Here is his list of plants that he recommends we eat and plant in our gardens, because they are native and/or suited to our climate:

• Nopal cactus – prickly pear cactus
• Sunchoke (also known as earth apple or Jerusalem artichoke)
• Sorrel (lower right photo)
• Sea Buckthorn
• Currant
• Burdock
• Amaranth
• Goji berry
• Goumi
• Jujube
• Lovage
• Nanking cherry
• New Zealand Spinach
• Prairie turnip
• Western Sand Cherry
• Yellowhorn

Brock has a website (atriplex.org) which lists more plants he recommends for food that work with nature here in Colorado.

He is also instrumental in helping to plan Denver’s first public food forest.

You may listen to his great talk here:

*****

*The GrowHaus is a half-acre greenhouse in an under-served area of Denver which uses aquaponics to produce fresh greens and vegetables to its local community at prices “less than Walmart’s”.

Also recommended: Seattle creates a public food forest; Hardy Perennials for your small farm; and, Denver’s GrowHaus website.

Photos: Wikipedia and GrowHaus.

Do Corn and Soybean Farmers Feel Like Hamsters on Wheels?


Flickr CC photo by Asad.

Though we always hear that there needs to be more investment in agricultural research, an agronomy student once told me that his professors are frustrated by the fact that nothing they can offer in the way of agricultural advice will be adopted by farmers unless it increases their profitability. And, usually that comes by way of reducing labor, increasing yields, or through policy.

We have a situation today where the efficiency of industrialized agricultural methods are being challenged because of ever rising input costs as well as ever growing global production competition as more and more of the developing nations adopt our industrial methods of production. Additionally, whereas the U.S. used to be the world’s corn exporting powerhouse, we’ve relinquished export market share since mandated ethanol policy went into effect.

In recent years, the agribusiness giants have done extremely well and many corn and soybean farmers have just ended a cycle of great crop incomes, too. We all know how well the S&P 500 has done in the past five years, but Deere has done even better:

In part recent farm-related profits have been due to government policies of direct farm payments and crop insurance, and in larger part, because of the biofuels mandates. But, it looks like that good time period is about to end. A recently released FAPRI study forecasts breakeven crop prices through 2023 for U.S. farmers.

Furthermore, during the five-year corn commodity price bull run we’ve just experienced, the profits went to the top half of producers, while the bottom half was left out; the top 10 percent of producers made 10 times the amount of profits than the bottom 10 percent.

Approximately 97 million acres of corn and 78 million acres of soybeans were planted in the U.S. in 2013. Let’s take a look at profitability from the farmer’s perspective by using data provided by Mike Duffy of the Iowa State Extension Service, who provides ongoing data updates for the input costs per acre to grow corn and soybean crops in Iowa. His data shows that the machinery costs for growing corn rose 420 percent in the 46 years between 1968 and 2014. The cost for seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers went up over 1000 percent. The yield in corn bushels per acre went up 77 percent for an overall cost per bushel increase of 347 percent over the past 46 years.

My chart below helps demonstrate the numbers:

And the following chart by Chad Hart of Iowa State helps us more in visualizing input costs versus returns of Iowa corn farmers (note the number of years that the average cost of production exceeds the corn price):

source: https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/info/agcycles/hart.pdf

Hart included this commentary with the graph above, “When we examine the average return to a bushel of Iowa corn over the entire time period from 1972 to 2012, it is a positive 5 cents per bushel. However, if you looked at 1972 to 2011, the average return was negative.”

Whereas the input providers can set their prices, the farmer-producer is always at the mercy of the markets. What the farmer has the liberty to decide, however, is his/her choice of methods.

As for benefits, a major economic benefit for the corn and soybean farmer comes from taxpayer supported policy programs which help to ensure that production costs are met each year. The new farm bill offers even greater support to the farmer when prices fall, putting a high floor under prices. Unfortunately, today’s policy also encourages farming on marginal land because of a guaranteed profit to the landowner.

Then, there is also the labor saving benefit of today’s row-crop farmer. Compared to the old rotational grazing systems, the grain farmer’s time commitments have fallen dramatically, offering a better lifestyle and the opportunity to work off the farm for additional income.

What does this all mean and where is the corn and soybean farmer headed?

First, precision agriculture may be another method to increase production, but it comes with a large price both in dollars and in trust of the technology, creating a new set of risks and challenges. Second, integrating cover crops into cash crops can make row-crop farming more ecological and more productive in the long run. And, third, it is expected that by planting closer together, and by further improving genetics, crop yields per acre can continue to increase, but that, too, will come with higher input costs of seeds, fertilizer, and machinery for farmers – which brings us once again to the hamster on the wheel situation.

The farmer who can reduce his/her input costs and produce a product of value, such as providing organic products to answer consumer demand, may do well, and, the younger farmer demographic is looking into new alternatives and ideas which challenge the status quo. Perhaps this is all best summarized by a CNBC news headline that I spotted over the weekend, “There’s a growing discontent around farming in America.”