The good earth


Michael Raffety

The 2015-16 rain year ended with 39.5 inches, just a tad over the current 143-year average of 39.31. It doesn’t sound like a lot after a two-year drought, but the real bonus is that rain was distributed throughout the rainy season from September through May.

When I started digging a hole in mid-August to cement in a steel post I was surprised to find moist-looking dirt after digging past the first foot or less. The hole I was digging was not anywhere near any of my drip emitters. It was free and open dirt. The posthole was almost 30 inches deep before I mixed cement to hold it in place.

I had chosen the spot near trees but not in trees. The metal post would be the base over which I would slip a 12-foot metal pole and a cedar box nest for a barn owl. It took the help of my son-in-law Peter Santos to raise the owl nest on its pole like the flag at Iwo Jima.

A barn owl could inhabit it at anytime. Barn owls without a nesting site by November-December will start looking for one, according to the Website for the Amador Barn Owl Box Co. Nesting season is January-May.

That moisture helped my older orchard trees look absolutely luscious this year.

.. . .

Crop prediction is a challenging business for the government, particularly corn. Using crop visits ands surveys the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Aug. 12 issued a forecast of 175.1 bushels of corn per acre.

Now, a private forecaster has predicted 169 bushels per acre. That private forecaster is Descartes Labs Inc., created by former government scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Descartes scientists are basing their analysis on information generated by a new “shoebox” satellite, so-called because its high-resolution video camera is the size of a shoebox.

The science whizzes analyzed 1 petabyte of imagery, which is science-speak for 1 million gigabytes. They ran it through a cluster of 30,000 computer processors. Who is right – the USDA or the Los Alamos geniuses — will be known in January “when the USDA’s more rigorous analysis comes out,” according to an Aug. 15 Wall Street Journal story.

Most of the rest of the paying users of the shoebox satellite are hedge funds looking for detailed info, such as oil tank farm levels, parking lot counts for corporations like Wal-Mart and Target stores.

Digesting the information for the hedge funds is a company of rocket scientists, so to speak. Planet Labs was founded by three former NASA scientists, who have an agreement to shuffle data over to an outfit called Orbital Insight Inc. Orbital Insights sifts out the trading tip info for the hedge funds.

The data comes out weekly, but Planet Labs plans to launch 40 shoebox-size “cube-satellites,” which will result in daily info. Venture funding will enable Planet Labs to hire 300 employees in San Francisco, Berlin and Lethbridge, Alberta.

There is more to this shoebox satellite revolution than cornfields and parking lots. The WSJ story by Bradley Hope said the next frontier for data crunching is getting more reliable information on the Chinese economy, like tracking the entire chain of steel production from ore mining to refineries and shipping ports.

Orbital Planet Labs “already has a China economic index based on construction rates revealed by changing heights of new buildings and vehicle counting.”

We live in a time of great technological advances. In 1969 when we first landed men on the moon to now, there is more computing power in a smart phone than there was in the entire command module. Scientists are creating medications that activate a person’s own immune system to attack certain kinds of cancer, and LED lights bulbs have declined in price to make them affordable, resulting in substantially lower electric bills. And now shoebox-size satellites can sort out more information about the Chinese economy than the Chinese Communist Party currently knows. How about that!


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