This is an idea I’ve been kicking around for the past few weeks and I’m close to having it wrapped up. Should be done with a coherent post very soon. I know it sounds like a bunch of woo BS, but just wait…
The benefits of remote work are obvious and overwhelming, for both employer and employee. So why did so many employers resist this opportunity to cut expenses, benefit the environment, and boost human health? Inertia likely played a big part. Old customs die hard. Before March, 2020, many organizations were still resisting. It took an act of god to force the religion to change. There will be many beneficial results of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, and the general acceptance of remote work as “normal” will be at the top of my list.
Employees can also resist remote work, too, with insecure thoughts like “if I work from home then isn’t that proof that my job can be easily outsourced?” Those of us who work with security clearance and-or sensitive data are more immune to out-sourcing. But either way, if you contribute real value then the answer is “yes,” you’d be better off working from home.
Another reason for the resistance to teleworking could be there isn’t enough knowledge work out there to sustain all the jobs our economy needs, so the theater must continue, and the office is the stage. There are entire industries that are useless in terms of improving the human condition or increasing quality of life. In these settings everyone must play the part and act like they’re doing something useful, so they fill up the day churning up more useless nonsense and doing pointless busy work to keep the boss satisfied. The boss in turn does the same thing for her bosses, and on rolls the giant parade of nonsense on up to the board of directors and investors.
The Golden Rule of Sniffing Out Bullshit in the Office
For knowledge workers, the need to be present in a traditional, brick-and-mortar office setting is proportional to how useless the job really is. The stronger the need to be present in the office, the more likely the job is fake. Everybody knows who these people are. The meeting organizers. There’s zero impact on anything if they disappear, except maybe for an uptick in productivity for everyone else. There’s nothing like working remotely to reveal whether a particular job is fake. If there’s no measurable output, then it should become obvious in the first week.
In the IT sector of knowledge work, there has been a decades-long, non-stop effort to make our services cost-effective, automating and outsourcing the work. Many of us work hard each week to slowly put ourselves out of a job. Eventually these jobs become fake, too. And when the economy crashes, it’s a private sector clearinghouse for fake jobs.
Government jobs are another story. If all the blubber was boiled away there’d be nothing left. But this never happens. These jobs exist to prop up a fake economy, in a way. It should be no surprise that the US Federal government has more people on its payroll than any other organization on Earth. The US Defense Department by itself is the largest employer in the world. “Work” has become a kind of adult day care for a massive chunk of the workforce, millions of people who do not fit easily into the system we’ve made. For better or worse, government’s answer is a kind of social welfare system disguised as employment. Most of these jobs are fake.
There’s no such thing as a totally lean workforce. If all fake jobs were eliminated then unemployment would be thirty percent or more. Something must be done for these people, or the cost comes back around to those of us with so-called real jobs.
This touches again on the idea that “the inter-subjective experience becomes real”. It’s something along the lines of what Harari writes about in his book Sapiens. We have to be careful when talking about fake jobs and fake economy, because all our systems are fake if we look at them through a certain lens. There’s nothing real about money, religion or state. These are all concepts we’ve agreed to accept as reality, and the agreement itself makes them real.
If we agree on positive concepts and social structures then the world becomes a better place, but with negativity machines like social media driving cultural and political polarity, this becomes a steep challenge to overcome. Most internet memes probably start off only partially true, if they have any truth at all. We mistake popularity with truth, and many false ideas become accepted as truth over time. We become what we imagine, whether good or bad.
A lot of good can happen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fiasco in the States. As with the aftermath of 911, it all depends on how the cards are played. The acceptance of remote work is one positive change that is sure to come, and it’s long overdue. But we can expect other big picture changes, too. What else will be exposed as obvious and overwhelming as a result of this fortunate act of god? In America, the crippling costs of health care, housing, and higher education enforce a wage-slave system, and this needs to change. (Higher education needs a separate post titled Education Is Not a Place.) We’re entering into a time when everyone knows our traditional systems are outdated. Everything needs to be rebuilt. Let’s start with rethinking the way we work, and embrace the beneficial technology of Virtual Private Networking (VPN).
A few principles of the Second Law of Thermodynamics serve to prove the irrefutable superiority of remote work for knowledge workers:
1. natural processes are irreversible
2. concentrated energy is more efficient
3. entropy reduces efficiency
The human body is basically a system with a finite amount of energy that is tasked with accomplishing work. In the case of knowledge workers, electrochemical energy (brain power) is burned to produce actual work in exchange for money.
As with any system, energy in the human body varies greatly with the environment in which it operates, and this includes the mental framework. Efficiency can reach dizzying heights in a remote-work environment, but it’s not automatic. It requires a disciplined mind and a renewed dedication to actual work, from both manager and employee.
What is the finite amount of energy at our disposal? The eight-hour workday might be a good baseline for manual labor, but for creative work, five hours of peak productivity per day is around the most we can expect from anyone (assuming chemical intake is caffeine and not something stronger like Adderall). This is supported by research, my practical experience, and general common sense. The remainder of the requisite eight-hour day can be spent doing tasks that are less brain-intensive, like research, revision, and the inevitable administrative work.
Remote work allows for maximum efficiency, like some zero-loss, theoretical energy source recovered from an alien spacecraft marooned on Earth.
By contrast the physical office environment disperses the concentration of energy and limits efficiency to somewhere between zero and thirty percent, which just happens to be the range of efficiency at which an internal combustion engine converts old-school petrochemical fuel into forward momentum. In this work arrangement energy is wasted on non-work activities in the effort to get to (and exist!) in the place where we’re paid to think.
1. Natural processes are irreversible.
Business objectives must comply with the laws of physics and human nature, not the other way around. In an average work week the employer owns a set amount of the employee’s energy, and the employee agrees to devote that amount of time to the working process. All the effort devoted to work that does not involve actual work gets decremented from the total in terms of output no matter what, regardless of the quality of employee. When the limit is reached, productivity takes a dive. On the outside the employee may appear to be working and this might give the manager a warm feeling; but warm feelings do not contribute to the bottom line. On the inside her bullshit meter is beyond the threshold and she’s turned off. Employee energy is a currency, and it’s the employer’s responsibility to spend it wisely. Spending the energy wisely results in success for the organization, and this starts with providing the right environment for its employees.
2. Concentrated energy is more efficient.
How is the knowledge worker’s finite energy dispersed by the physical presence requirement of the traditional office?
First, there’s THE COMMUTE. For me the actual work is not so bad. Generally speaking I like what I do, and I’d do it even if I had all the time and or money in the world. What bothers me are the thousands of little actions that comprise the stupid routine to get my meat mass to the work site, exist there for nine plus hours, and then get back from there, when there is no logical reason for me to be there in the first place. Sure, I usually make the best use of my commute time, but I’d rather be focusing on actual work, fulfilling my actual obligations to my employer, and then getting on with life.
True, it is my responsibility to commute from home to the work site, but as noted above, it doesn’t matter. Natural processes cannot be reversed.
Most people have it much worse. I devote the absolute minimum time on wardrobe and hygiene, and then I take it easy on the train, reading a book or planning my day. Most U.S. workers have to deal with the hellish nightmare of rush hour traffic in a motor vehicle, which luckily I have not experienced in twenty-plus years. How productive can an employee be if he just spent the past hour screaming his intent to murder the mothers of people who cut him off in traffic? Recently I calculated that one of my friends had driven around the world over six times in the past ten years, in terms of mileage driven back and forth to work. Somehow, to him this was not just normal, but commendable. To me it’s insane, a wooden board cracked over the head.
The commute has a massive impact on the environment and long-term health issues. Of course there is zero energy loss with teleworking. The commute is zero. Food prep is zero. Clothing prep is zero. All these things can be done during breaks in the work day. Impact on the environment: zero. Let’s stop this harmful, masochistic routine once and for all.
3. Entropy reduces efficiency.
Then there are all the continuous, idiotic distractions that only an office can produce. OH THE HUMANITY. People invade your space and force you to listen to their stupid jokes, gossip, opinions about world events. There’s always some guy in the next cubicle over who just won’t shut the hell up. Some days the senseless meetings are non-stop. For me, tendency to produce actual work is much greater when working remotely, as there has to be some measureable impact of my work. In the office I tend to slack, simply because being seen and heard is perceived (wrongly) as equal value to actual work.
The importance of written communication often goes unrecognized in the physical office. It’s not unusual to spend time crafting a clear description or explanation in an email reply, only to have the recipient run to your cubicle for an offline follow-up, leaving others out. Email is asynchronous for a reason. There’s real value in taking time for deliberate thought. It’s also not unusual to verbalize the same information to many different people in different ways in addition to writing about it. This is because interpersonal, verbal communication just feels better, especially to those people whose job only job is to appear important. Even if people have no idea what you’re talking about, they smile and nod because they feel better hearing your words, and they feel better knowing that you’re working in a professional environment with them, wearing similar “business casual” clothing, looking polished, professional and smart. None of this has anything to do with the actual product or service that we’re paid to provide, but we’re all dancing the same stupid dance, and in this way the inter-subjective experience becomes real. Communication in an office setting typically requires triple the energy than is actually necessary to convey thoughts and ideas.
In the very best case scenario THE PHYSICAL OFFICE environment is not as good as what you have at home. Does anyone have a cubicle at home? The answer is “no,” unless you’re hopelessly locked into the wage slave mentality. People are not meant to sit in boxes. A bad physical environment drains energy and dramatically decrements the bullshit tolerance, as well as other human needs like comfort, fun, and hygiene. There are very real studies that show how bad lighting and cold air, for example, reduce employee productivity.
The “existing there” part is currently the most challenging for me, as it’s the extreme opposite of what I used to have. By contrast, in my old teleworking job I used to proactively invent improvement projects and find work to do when things were slow. I don’t do this anymore. All I’m thinking about all day is getting the hell away from that place.
In a typical week I drop about thirty hours on the above three items (the commute, the humanity, and the physical office). This might seem like a lot, but when you factor in all the water-cooler chats, the distractions, pointless meetings, meat-mass transport, navigating distance to nearest vacant toilet seat, or availability of suitable places to sit down and eat lunch, the time adds up. So I’ve burned about three-quarters of the energy I’ve agreed to devote to the job, and this is before any actual was has been done. If there’s something urgent to do then I’ll do it, but my finite energy level and my business sense are telling me that I’ve only got a total of ten hours of productivity left to give.
At the end of the week in my old teleworking job, I had accomplished a solid thirty or forty hours of actual work, which, if people are absolutely honest, is a heck of a lot of brain work in one week for any job. My bullshit meter almost never got pegged, as energy spent was at or around the forty-hour limit. I was happy, engaged, and consistently returned to the company very high efficiency on hours logged.
As an added bonus to the organization I never called in sick in over ten years of working from home. Why not? Because I never had to serve my time in the virus distribution center called “The Office”. I still worked even if I was sick, and nobody suffered because of it. I never felt like I had to take long breaks from work. So the end result was win-win.
Remote work offers employer and employee the most efficient expenditure of human energy and the highest productivity in terms of actual work produced. Never mind the opportunity to eliminate the massive cost of maintaining the bizarre circus of bullshit called the physical office.
In the next post I’ll wrap up a few mind-tingling thoughts.
A quarter of a century ago, a new, beneficial tech promised to boost knowledge worker productivity and save employers loads of cash. Virtual Private Networking (VPN) allowed employees to work remotely, cutting back on carbon emissions and the senseless waste of time getting to and from work. But for many employers, their management styles and conservative business practices did not mesh with the new tech. It took a global pandemic to make those old-school laggards see the light.
If you’re able to work anywhere and you’re serious about getting the work done, then working remotely is the only way to go. It’s a win-win for the employer and employee, no matter how you look at it. I can attest to this truth as an eleven-year veteran of remote work who transitioned to an organization with a strict physical presence requirement. The new job offered a few nice perks, but the change was like stepping into the past, back to a time when it was common to confuse “being there” with doing actual work. Or, put another way, it was like jumping into an Idiocracy future, where stupidity reigned supreme.
Teleworking is the most productive work environment because it offers the unique opportunity to maximize work and minimize the ceremonial bullshit that does not matter. Many people who have always worked in an office don’t understand this idea because stupid office customs have been so deeply ingrained and accepted as a normal part of work. People commonly label their bullshit as “work” and brag about how much of it they do. Mandatory physical presence requirements for brain workers are nothing short of an assault on the intellect (and possibly on physical well-being, in the current environment of COVID-19).
It’s as if some hypothetical person who knew nothing about our world was introduced to the concept of work for the very first time, and on his first day in the office somebody walked up to him and cracked a two-by-four over his head. His boss would say, “Oh yeah, you might want to wear a helmet tomorrow,” and every day for the rest of his career the guy gets hit in the head with a board, accepting it as completely normal.
There are only two reasons an employer could enforce physical presence during a time like this. One, the employer is sadistic, immoral, and cruel to their employees and society as a whole. And-or, the job in question is fake. The fake job phenomenon exists more often than we might like to admit. There are whole industries that are fake. I’ll touch on this later. For now, the point is that people should get paid for actual work – not for getting hit in the head with a stupid lumber stick.
Before a discussion of teleworking can even begin, it’s necessary to re-examine the most basic concepts of work, because its true definition has become blurred in the modern age. First there is the concept of a little something we can call “actual work,” the measurable service or product an employee produces in exchange for getting money.
The second basic concept is “energy,” the finite life force that employees are capable or willing to devote to actual work in a given period of time. After the energy is spent, the individual might show up, but they’re a disabled meat sack, existing but not producing. Energy levels are very real factors in economic output. The Ford Motor Company was the first to standardize the forty-hour work week – not for humane reasons, as is often cited, but because they determined this to be the economic sweet spot to get the most out of their manual laborers. Countless studies have supported this number, and even lower numbers for those doing strictly brain work. Any effort after these limits produces short-term diminishing returns, and long-term negative returns. Employees take time off for sick leave – either because they really are sick, or because their bullshit meter is pegged in the red.
Working remotely eliminates the wasteful, customary bullshit of the traditional office, freeing up time for real work (and more importantly, life). It’s unfortunate it took a global pandemic to remind some organizations of a single, blatant fact. For many of us, “work” is not a place.
Last Saturday we packed the kids into the minivan and navigated the highways, bridges, and tunnels of the most populated metro area on earth, destined for Chiba, home of Tokyo Disney, but we wouldn’t be visiting the Magical Kingdom again today. Our destination was an indoor vertical farm called MIRAI. The only problem was that I still wasn’t sure why.
A few weeks earlier I had contacted Spread, near Kyoto, operator of the largest indoor farm in Japan, but they had turned down my request for a tour. By some miraculous coincidence my wife knew the CEO of Mirai from her university days, a gentleman named Nozawa Nagateru. I was surprised and elated when he agreed to give me (us) a personal tour of their Chiba farm. I would’ve preferred to go alone; but I needed my wife there for introduction and translation, and with her came the kids.
The drive from our place on the Shonan coast was an hour and a half. My eyes were burning with seasonal allergies. Spring was the season of suffering for many people in Japan.
As we crossed the Yokohama Bay Bridge, I caught sight of the cruise ship that had been in the news. There were some people with COVID-19 “Corona” virus on board.
Mirai grew produce in clean room environments, where workers wore full body suits and breathing gear, sanitized in an airlock before going in. It was better quality control than whatever they were doing to contain the virus on the cruise ship. A day or two in that clean room and my allergic reactions would also subside.
Entering Tokyo, the kids slept and I got the head space to think about what I was going to ask Nozawa-san. How would represent myself to him? Why was I visiting an indoor farm? I wasn’t a journalist. I wasn’t a horticulturalist. I didn’t know anything about growing plants. Never mind the fact that I didn’t have a business card, the obligatory prop of any professional engagement in Japan. At least we were bringing souvenirs from our hometown of Kamakura, and a paperback copy of my book. I had worked in information technology for most of my life, and I was the author of an unknown novel that happened to feature a character who abandoned his corporate gig for a life of helping people and growing things indoors. If anything I was an otaku (geek). There were otaku obsessed with everything from Pokémon to bullet trains, so why not vertical farms? Either way, I was going on a whim and a dream, armed only with the desire to work with beneficial tech.
The Mirai farm consisted of a couple of tidy, non-descript warehouse buildings tucked into the midst of an industrial zone. A mob of uniformed workers from a nearby factory smoked cigarettes outside the convenient store down the street. If anyone had to pick the most unexpected place to find tens of thousands of vibrant green plants, this was it.
We parked in front of the main building and Nozawa-san met us outside. We exchanged greetings Japanese-style and he ushered us to the side of one building. Inside and upstairs, we entered an observation room overlooking a vast space containing rows of illuminated towers ten meters high, each containing thousands of plants in various stages of growth. Monitors on the wall displayed graphs of data points collected from the farm below, as well as from other facilities, both local and remote. “Mirai” meant “future” in Japanese, and they lived up to their name.
Nozawa-san poured green tea into paper cups and we sat down at a table to talk. His company was one of the early pioneers of indoor farming technology, with over fifteen years in the business. Their unique, data-driven approach to cultivating perfect produce could be described as precision farming, focusing on the balance of over two hundred growing factors. Like all vertical farms, their main selling points were steady, reliable production of perfect produce, at a fair price. Of course their products were free of pesticides and GMO’s. Best of all, their vegetables tasted great. We sampled fresh romaine lettuce and basil from a platter on the table. Each plant was ninety-five percent edible, with minimal stalk to throw away. Their produce was clean at harvest time. No need to wash.
Aside from the Chiba facilities, Mirai owned and operated a lab and another large farm in Tagajō, Miyagi prefecture, the area hit hardest by the Great Tōhoku earthquake of 2011. I asked if this lab was built in response to the doubly-whammy natural and manmade disasters there. Yes! Absolutely, he said. They chose this site to help the area recover, and to demonstrate the benefit of their tech. Sendai wasn’t too affected with fallout from the Fukushima meltdown, but I guessed their clean room facilities would be immune to radioactivity, as well as to pollen, vermin, and disease.
Mirai sold their design and built farms in numerous locations that were hard-pressed with resource issues and-or harsh weather conditions, with successful operations in Antarctica, Northern China, Mongolia, and Russia. Nozawa would soon visit Norway to consult on the construction of a farm there. Mirai was a leader in urban farming, too, having built farms in cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, and Beijing.
Mirai’s yield is up to one hundred times more resource efficient than traditional farming, using just two percent of the water and a fraction of the land. Their primary expenses were electricity (for the LED lights, the pump, cooling, and control systems) labor, and insurance.
Not knowing anything about the business, I asked the most common sense question on my mind: what would it take to make Mirai more cost-efficient than traditional farming? Sure, their product was of the highest quality and healthier on every level, but at what point would it make more economic to grow produce with the Mirai method as opposed to traditional farms? It turned out to be a good question. Mirai’s solution was in the size of plant. By growing bigger plants they could essentially get more bang for the buck. It wasn’t as simple as that, of course. Other operations, like Spread, got more bang for the buck by growing smaller plants and harvesting quicker. It was a complicated equation of precision farming, taking into account numerous factors of resource usage, output, and time.
Next I asked Nozawa-san what he thought of the impending world food crisis, and how Mirai might play a role. He was of course aware of American vertical farm marketing campaigns, but he answered flatly: “starving people don’t want lettuce”.
Excellent point. Poor countries facing population explosions and resource deficits needed protein and grain. The best answer to this problem was the kind of work done by George Kantor, Senior Systems Scientist with Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, Farm View project, whose work focused on using technology to accelerate the efficiency of traditional farms. CMU was working on tech that didn’t require radical change; it could be plugged into existing, traditional farming techniques. Even the trillions of data points collected by start-ups like Plenty seemed only applicable to growing plants indoors, so it still wasn’t clear how vertical farming would save the world.
There was only so much to keep our young kids entertained in the observation room. They were getting unruly to the point it was impossible to concentrate, and it was a natural time to go. Nozawa-san also had two boys, too, so he understood. We decided to call it a wrap, taking a couple of photos and presenting our gifts. Nozawa was impressed with my novel even if he couldn’t read it in English. He asked why I wrote. I shrugged and told him it was the kind of work I wanted to do. I think he assumed my reason for the interview was research for my next book. Who knew? Maybe it was. Later it occurred to me that this was our first family outing in nine years dedicated to something I wanted to do. I didn’t stray far from the path between work and home. My visit to Mirai was a real treat. It may have been unclear how I could contribute to the business of indoor farming, but the fact that this was how I chose to spend my first real “me” time in nearly a decade spoke loud and clear. I was drawn to beneficial tech. It was work I wanted to do.
New York metropolitan area is a nice place to be if you’re into indoor farming. Here are few examples of what they’ve got going on.
This New Jersey startup has received tens of millions in funding in the past fifteen years. They’re based in New Jersey, but the skyline in the animated graphic on their spectacular homepage is most definitely Dallas.
What did they do with all this funding? Their big farm is in Newark, measuring THIRTY THOUSAND square feet. And remember, this is a vertical farm. They should list the size in cubic feet.
Aero’s website is impressive and inspiring. It advertises the same noble message I’m seeing on every vertical farm website: by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet, with less arable farm land than there exists today. To solve the world food shortage crisis, Aero grows 390 times more crops per square foot than soil-based farms. As expected, they grow the freshest greens with no pesticides and no GMO. Their produce is nutritional and “bursting with flavor”. I’m starting to see that “nutritional” and “bursting with flavor” are interrelated selling points for vertical farms in general, and that there might be some genetic reason for this link that dates back to humanity’s hunter-gatherer days. Either way, I’m sold.
Still, something about this impending world food crisis doesn’t make much sense. It’s fantastic they’re trying to avoid or solve a very big problem that could affect a good chunk of the world’s population, but I’m wondering: how are the places that need food the most going to afford a fancy, data-driven vertical farm run by robots and AI?
The overpopulation and food scarcity won’t be happening in the rich countries that can afford this high-tech farming gear. People are living longer in America but the fertility rate is below 2.0. Japan’s fertility rate is so low they’re expected to lose fifty million people by 2050! (I got this stat on population pyramid dot net.) So what is Aero’s plan to save the world from going hungry? Do they propose to grow produce with robots in rich countries and then ship it overseas? If so that eliminates the “hyper-local” factor. I’m making a mental note to ask them about this.
Their website also has an image showing how the growing process works. It looks like they use a cloth barrier to hold the plants above the growing solution, and in at least one of the growing stages there is an aeroponic barrier instead of liquid nutrient solution. I’m guessing these must be technical trademarks.
I wrote them via their website contact form with questions about their software, and about their strategies for saving the world; but a week later and no response.
Based in New York City, Bowery Farms looks like the archetype for “Urban Farming”. They cater to upscale restaurants that distribute their produce to select, local grocery stores within short driving range of their farms. Like many vertical farm websites, their message is positive. They “believe a better future is possible,” and “set big, bold goals”. They also “practice radical candor” and “say hello when (they) walk through the door”. On the surface “Radical candor” sounds like the kind of place I’d like to work. Saying hello when walking through the door seems like basic human nature, but maybe that’s something you have to remind New Yorkers every day.
As for what systems they use: “BoweryOS, our proprietary software system, uses vision systems, automation technology, and machine learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth 24/7.” I can’t imagine there are too many job postings on Indeed.com asking for experience with BoweryOS. Still, it sounds interesting. I’d have to guess it’s a collection of home-grown apps running on a Linux-based OS.
Bowery boasts some high productivity stats: “Bowery farms use zero pesticides, 95% less water, and are 100+ times more productive on the same footprint of land than traditional agriculture.” Good for them.
Founded in 2011, this New York-based startup has accepted $113 million in funding so far to “pioneer the future of local, low-impact farming.” To be accurate, Bright builds horizontal farms. As the name might suggest, they use natural light to grow greens. There’s not a lot on their website about the tech they use, but they build greenhouses, so that eliminates the most expensive part of a typical indoor farm operation: electricity for lighting. I could be wrong about this, but their op appears to be low-tech compared to vertical farms. There’s no sign of robots or AI. They build, own, and operate greenhouse farms that create permanent green-collar jobs. Sounds great! When can I start?
These people might be based in NYC, but they design structures that can be built anywhere. From their website: “Yes, we grow salads. But we grow a lot of other things, too. Like, big ideas and positive attitudes, jobs in communities across the country, sunny greenhouses, and accessibility to fresh, delicious produce. But most of all we grow trust – your trust – by delivering clean, fresh, safe, and delicious greens.” Kudos to their marketing people. What a great message. It’s great to see such inspirational messages that are so low on BS. Their product is so obviously good. It requires zero spin. There are so many companies and whole industries that could never be so honest and positive about what they do.
Bright’s message about building green jobs sounds fantastic. This is a nice break from “robots are taking our jobs”. How can I get involved?
Founded in 2009, this Brooklyn startup has taken in around $45 million. Gotham also builds greenhouses, growing plants with natural light, like Bright farms. As usual there’s not as much detail as I’d like to see on their tech, but according to their website: “Our latest greenhouses are advanced, data-driven, climate-controlled facilities — the most efficient production systems available today. These greenhouses are some of the highest-yielding farms around, and use less energy, less land and less water than other farming techniques. Plus, advancements in machine learning and data analysis allow us to monitor our crop’s health and progress, so we can deliver a fresher, more delicious product. Happy greens make happy people.”
Sounds great! Way to go, NYC.
Next week I’m going to get a first-hand look at a vertical farm in Japan. I can’t wait.
If I could do any kind of work, I’d devote a good part of my week to working at a vertical farm. (Or building one myself.) A couple years ago I wrote a novel called TOKYO GREEN. It’s about a guy who abandons his high-paying job in Silicon Valley to live a more natural, beneficial life. The MC ends up in Tokyo, where he builds an indoor farm for a bunch of retirees, with the help of a rogue AI. At the time of writing the novel I didn’t know much about vertical farming. I still don’t know much about it now. But I do know I want to get involved. I’ve worked twenty-plus years coding and automating systems, and I have a rough understanding of how machine learning works. This was the knowledge I brought to writing the book, and it’s the knowledge I could bring to vertical farming today.
I’m thinking about this now because I got an invitation to visit a vertical farm in Chiba, Japan (near Tokyo Disney) in a couple of weeks, and I want to have some informed questions for them. In particular I’m interested in the computing systems and software they use, as this is the most likely way I can contribute my current skills.
In general it does not seem likely that vertical farming will offer many job opportunities, as the technology that makes these operations economically feasible is also the technology that is eliminating the need for human work. Still, I’m imagining my contribution to beneficial technology starting with the question “what kind of work would I do if I could choose anything?” I’d write, of course, but vertical farming is at the top of the list.
Vertical farming is a sustainable, cost-effective method of Controlled-Environment Agriculture (CEA). It combines tech like aquaponics, hydroponics, robotics, and machine intelligence (analytics) to grow plants indoors. I’ve also seen “urban farming” and “low-impact farming” used to describe this kind of AGTECH, but these are general terms. Vertical farming refers to the particular way of growing plants in tower racks or even sideways, on a wall.
Hydroponics is all about growing plants without soil, in a nutrient-rich solution, and one way to get those juicy nutrients is through the age-old techniques of aquaponics. There is something very appealing about creating a cyclic, sustainable ecosystem of plants and water-dwelling creatures and organisms. For example, the hydroponics system might drain its water into a catfish tank for re-circulation and watering the crops. It reminds me of when I’d siphon fish poop out of my fish tanks and use it to feed the plants. Aquaponics takes it a step further, completing the loop.
How is vertical farming beneficial? It produces fresh, hyper-local, inexpensive greens with superior flavor, using sustainable techniques. The very nature of Controlled-Environment Agriculture means the product is free of pesticides and GMO. What could be more beneficial than that?
These indoor farms are also far more productive than soil-based farming, growing thirty or more crops per season, and they use a fraction of the resources. Some common stats cite up to 100% less water, 100% less land, and 100% less shipping fuel than field-grown produce that’s delivered to stores in far-away places. It would be interesting to know the net carbon footprint of a big vertical farm operation, considering the electricity it sucks off the grid. (In TOKYO GREEN, the MC uses solar panels to run his farm.) Some indoor farms use actual sunlight, further reducing the need for electricity.
Vertical farms are on the rise. I read somewhere that the industry has grown from near nothing to US$3 billion invested in the past three years. Even if those numbers are off, the industry promises to grow even more in the coming years.
The recent ascension of vertical farming is made possible by certain technologies that have become robust and cheap enough to make this method of food production economically feasible. These technologies include perception devices (cameras and sensors used to monitor and measure plant growth), machine intelligence that processes the data produced by the perception tech, and robotics that carry out the instructions of the AI.
According to this article, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has developed an integrated system called ACESys (Automation, Culture, Environment) that powers vertical farming, but the only thing I saw on the CMU website about this system was an implementation of it in a vertical farm in Taiwan in an effort backed by University of Illinois. There’s nothing about what the system is on a technical level, or how it works.
CMU is doing a lot of great things with robotics and AI, with a particular focus on AGTECH. Their mission is to avoid a world food crisis by the year 2040. By “world” they mean what used to be referred to as the third world, as that’s where populations will explode. CMU is developing soil-based, high-tech farming that will enable existing farms to produce all the food they need while reducing resource usage by half or more. I’d love to dive deeper into what CMU is doing, but for now I’ll focus on vertical farming. In the next week I’ll take a look at what various vertical farms are doing around the world.
I’m tempted to write the title of this post with a question mark, as it’s not always clear that corporations are good. On the macro level, corporations have been a huge boost to elevating human quality of life. Governments can be slow, incompetent and wasteful. Corporations move fast. They’re good at raising capital and achieving big things. They can also do great harm.
I’ve been employed by corporations for the past couple of decades, yet I still don’t consider myself “the corporate type”. Very few people do. It’s the safest way to go if you live in America and have to pay health care for a family of four or more. If solvency is your thing then somebody in the household better be getting that subsidized health insurance as part of a corporate plan. It would be nice if working for a corporation was the safest and the most ethical way to bring home the bacon. I’ve never worked for an organization that benefited the greater good, but in the next five years I’d like this to change.
What qualifies as beneficial? I’ve thought about this before and I’ll think about it again. A search for “beneficial corporations” brings up the usual lists of “best companies to work for,” and the companies deemed to have the most social responsibility. Topping these lists are the likes of Facebook and Google. This should raise an eyebrow. One could argue that Facebook and Google are among the least socially responsible companies of all time, as they maximize advertising effectiveness by unleashing uncontrolled psychological experiments on the entire civilized world.
Tech companies are always cited as being the best to their employees, but they also work their employees to death. If you work for a Silicon Valley company then chances are you’ve kissed that work-life balance goodbye. You might’ve even found yourself crying alone in your cubicle as you miss your daughter’s dance rehearsal … again.
Work-life balance is a term that should not even exist. It implies that work is not good, a contrast to life. In reality work is an integral part of life. But the kinds of work people do these days can be anti-human, unnatural. I know that words like “human” and “natural” can be ambiguous, but if a term like “work-life balance” enters the common vernacular then something’s not right.
Even if work-life balance at a company is excellent, the benefits these companies provide to the world is usually limited to whatever perks they give their employees. Some companies seem to have a guilt complex about this.
In the past decade or so it has become popular for corporations to ask (demand?) that their employees volunteer their time to a charity, to “give back” to the community. This is one way to define social responsibility. However, the term “give back” is suspicious. To “give back” implies something was taken, probably without consent. If a corporation pays taxes and fulfills its legal obligations, isn’t that enough? Why are these reparations to the community necessary? If the organization was doing something beneficial in the first place then all of this mandatory volunteering would not exist.
One peculiarity of our economic system is that really beneficial jobs don’t pay good money. If you hear about someone helping someone else then you’re going to assume they’re not getting paid. Childcare, elderly care, teaching, farming: they’re all essential to maintaining or quality of life, not to mention our survival. These jobs are often thankless, the most difficult and the least lucrative. Some (like stay-at-home mom) don’t pay anything at all. On the flip side, a hedge fund manager, a corporate lawyer, even an engineer working as a cog in the military industrial complex, all of these are worthless (if not harmful) to society, but the money is nice.
What if there was some way to accurately measure and qualify the value of helping people? What if this became the new currency? Why can’t we have a system that incentivizes the pursuit of excellence while also taking care of our own?
I’m still not sure what qualifies as a beneficial corporation. I’m refining the definition as I go. Maybe it’s enough for a company to take care of its own employees and leave it at that. For me, it would be an awesome step in the right direction to help people and get paid. I’m going to keep an eye out for opportunities. My next employment situation will be with an organization that’s doing some good.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was an easy way to catalog and control the ever-rising deluge of photos and videos we generate with our devices, a system of organizing that could be transferred to future family members for safe-keeping? What if this system had the following traits?
- locally-controlled (by you)
- decentralized (resilient)
- with a standardized file structure
- and a standardized file naming scheme
- that is both effortless
- and flexible
Well, that would be awesome, indeed.
It so happens I have such a system. It achieves the first five of the above traits, but it’s not yet effortless (if there is such a thing) or flexible. Without me the system falls into disarray. This post isn’t exactly a life hack – not yet, anyway. It’s the first of what will be several posts on this project as I get closer to making it more flexible and easier for others to use. With this post I wanted to explore the reasons for such a system, and to illustrate the general idea.
Ten years ago my dad gave me a box of photos and slides, which I scanned and integrated into my family’s multimedia mess. This effort began a home-grown archiving system that would come to be known as the Multimedia Archive Project (MAP). For me it’s a workable solution, still evolving today.
My ultimate long-term goal is to establish a system (more a protocol than an actual set of tech) that is easily transferable to my kids and subsequent generations. A decade later I’m in a holding pattern, still looking for technology that could suit my needs. Here’s some more details about what I mean by the above traits and why they’re important to me.
What is “locally-controlled”? I want the primary location of my family’s multimedia files to remain in my hands, so to speak. I’m not contributing to the oceans of photographic knowledge that an artificial intelligence uses to shape the world in ways I don’t see fit. This might seem paranoid now, but the world is starting to understand “free” services for individuals have big costs to society as a whole. It’s very important that I maintain control.
“Decentralized” just means it’s impossible to lose data. This part isn’t exactly effortless. It requires discipline and planning that most people aren’t willing to do. The Multimedia Archiving Project is backed up in the same system I use to back up all the data in my household, which includes consolidation and copies made to mirrored USB drives, a NAS, and a cloud service based in Switzerland that is a stickler for General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules.
“Platform-independent” is another cornerstone of this project. I don’t want to be locked into any single app, or depend on one company’s services. When I started this effort ten years ago the big cloud services were making it difficult to switch platforms. They’re a little nicer now, but to some degree this is still true.
Apple offers a great all-in-one photo archiving solution, and they’ll no doubt be around for decades to come. I’d be the first to recommend Apple to anyone who doesn’t have the discipline or technical chops to handle a DIY solution, based on their track record of quality software (iTunes for Windows not withstanding) and data privacy. Still, I prefer platform-independence. My family and I have some Apple devices, but we don’t have a Mac. What if I put my trust in a company who changes the rules twenty years down the road in a way that is unethical, inconvenient, and-or too expensive for me?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I’d rather delete everything than trust a mind-control advertising platform like Facebook or Google with my family memories. Last year we went skiing with another family in beautiful Niseko, Japan. The other dad and I were on the mountain together one afternoon and he took a video of me as we skied down the slopes. I thought it would be an awesome video, with the sun in the right position and the spectacular scenery. And it was! The only problem was it had been live-streamed to Facebook and I didn’t have a Facebook account. Never mind me. What if the photographer wanted to preserve this video – or any media – and pass it down to his kids? They’d need Facebook accounts, too. This illustrates the importance of platform-independence. It’s the freedom to never be locked down to a proprietary system that defines how you can use your own stuff.
There are some very positive trends in digital identity that could work in my favor as the decades unfold (see previous post). Bottom line, I want the flexibility of moving my family memories securely and safely, with the maximum privacy levels, whenever I want.
The “standardized file structure” and “file naming scheme” are the coolest features of the system. They’re inspired by ISO standards. This gets into how this system works.
How does this thing work?
First, there are rules, because every system has rules. Fortunately most of the rules are enforced by code, but the first one must be observed by humans: NEVER MODIFY ORIGINALS.
The second rule is there is one and only one destination path for any given source device, a file folder in the ORIGINALS directory. For example, there is a folder for all the originals backed up from my wife’s iPhone, a folder for my camera photos, a folder for our Gopro, and so on. These devices and paths are configured in an XML file. This system runs on Windows, so I use PowerShell. In the future I might go with Linux and Python.
The process begins by running a script to “add new files to archive,” which reads the XML file for source and destination paths, checks to see if the devices in question are plugged into the system, and if so compares the latest photo and video files on the device with what’s already in the archive. If there’s new stuff then it copies it to the destination folder. I run a separate script to rename the files in a standard format so that anyone can take one look at the file name to know the date it was created, by whom, and where (all this data is available in the metadata of standard media files). A five-digit sequence number is tacked to the end of the file name. Ten years ago I never thought I’d have more than 99,999 files per device, but who knows? My wife is approaching 10,000 photos and videos now after five years with one iPhone (and these are the files remaining after she deletes stuff from her phone).
Since rule number one is NEVER MODIFY ORIGINALS (renaming doesn’t count as a modification, as it does not change the “last modified” timestamp), I maintain a separate directory for “COLLECTIONS,” which are basically photo albums of certain events or seasons. This is a manual effort and probably always will be. I don’t have the AI at my disposal to magically identify people, places, and events to assemble a photo album on the fly.
When the files are copied, updated, and renamed, I then kick off the backup script (basically a fancy Robocopy) to replicate the changes to the various backup locations, including the folder to sync with the cloud service.
In the future I might keep this basic system intact but expose a portion of it to a paid AI service to assist with categorizing, facial-recognition, tagging, and the like.
In days of old, family memories might be preserved in the form of hard-copy photographs in a shoe box. Back then, the problem was keeping this single point of failure safe from fires and floods. Now, the problem is we have too much stuff. Some intervention is necessary, and this system works for me. As for “effortless,” I’m not sure I’ll ever completely reach this goal. Maybe the point of an archiving system is that is should require some effort, otherwise how do we decide how we’re represented by future generations?
It’s amazing we’ve gone this long with password protection as the primary way to prove who we are and what belongs to us online. Nobody likes user names and passwords and they’re a hacker’s dream. Dual-factor is more common now but it is proprietary and a short-term fix. Digital identity is much bigger than the convenience of logging into websites: without an expansion of this technology’s capabilities the future of our civil liberties are at stake.
A universal system of digital identity is a crucial piece of establishing meaningful and effective digital rights. To protect our future freedoms, we need an authentication system that is:
- sovereign (to the individual)
- and most of all, secure
So what is the big deal with digital rights? The answer is obvious for corporations; their value is directly tied to their ability to maintain the integrity of their intellectual property, all of which is digital.
For individuals, the data we give away increasingly determines how much liberty we enjoy and what opportunities come our way. What we share online can determine whether we’re approved for a loan, accepted to a school, hired by an employer, or asked out on a date.
Fortunately there have been positive developments in the establishment of digital rights for individuals in recent years (See links to articles at the end of this post.) Digital rights are an issue in the U.S. presidential race for the first time I can remember. It’s about time.
Digital rights should be as clear-cut as property rights, but there’s still a lot of gray area for individuals. Part of the problem is lack of awareness. Another issue is that most of our digital property exists outside our direct control. On a technical level we can say that an online account belongs to us and that the files associated with that account also belong to us. But if the data gets into the wild then how can we take credit or claim it’s ours? With the right approach, digital identity has the potential to protect our virtual property more securely than age-old property rights.
In decades past, if someone stole your precious collection of Credence Clearwater Rival albums on eight-track tapes, you could call the police, but chances are you’re not going to get any “leads” on who stole your old-school tunes. In more recent years, if you purchase a product, say a blender, that allows online registration (and you’re diligent enough to complete the process and hold onto the registration info), then you have at least the potential to claim indisputable ownership of that blender if it’s stolen and then miraculously shows up at a garage sale or an eBay auction. The online registration process is analogous to how Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) encryption works. The manufacture is the Certificate Authority. The serial number stamped into the blender is the private key, and the proof of purchase is the public key, as it’s transferable.
What’s the right approach for data? What about all the bits and bytes that come from our smart home, our refrigerator, and multitude of devices we use? With a universal system of digital identity, would every outgoing packet be digitally signed and tagged in a way that can’t be hacked? (See Oasis Labs, below.) Anyone who has worked in cyber security knows there’s no such thing as one hundred percent secure, but with today’s technology we can get close enough.
In the past couple of years there has been a lot of talk about “self-sovereign identity” and biometrics, secured with block-chain tech. Block-chain ledgers bring the system a little closer to impenetrable by making the certificate authority distributed. A startup called Oasis Labs is working to make this a reality, but they’re in the beginning stages. Microsoft has been backing “self-sovereign digital identity” for a couple of years. This is a technology that would be a huge benefit to individuals interested in protecting their digital rights. No surprise, Facebook is not on board.
Digital identity is a hot issue right now. Like most people I’m no expert on this topic now, but we’d all be well advised to follow it closely in the coming years.
Microsoft and decentralized identity “Microsoft believes everyone has the right to own their digital identity, one that securely and privately stores all personal data. This ID must seamlessly integrate into daily life and give complete control over data access and use.”
Oasis Labs “With Oasis Labs you can use data without liability, easily comply with new regulations, and collaborate on shared data without risking privacy or losing control.”
GoodID looks interesting, but I can’t tell from their website how the technology works or whether it meets the criteria for digital identity mentioned at the beginning of this post.
As for digital rights:
(For an illuminating example how data we give away can affect the course of our life, see “It’s time for a Bill of Data Rights” in the MIT Technology Review.)
Some other recent and noteworthy articles:
Contract for the Web “A global plan of action to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone”