A video experiment not sure if this is going to work

Let’s see if I can do videos on this thing… I keep forgetting the iPhone can do pretty good videos.

Wow, seems it actually worked. Well, if I can put up with the 350 kbs upload speed. 350 kbs? Really? I’m supposed to have 7 mbs upload according to the info the cable company keeps sending me. A wee bit of discrepancy there…

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Went to the antique farm equipment and steam engine show at Chilton on Sunday. It’s an annual event they do every August and it’s always interesting.

Oh, and in case you can’t play the video for some reason, here’s a picture of a butteryfly so this hasn’t been a complete waste of time for you:

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The Urge

It’s early spring, and that means the urge is starting to kick in again.

I never used to be much of a traveler. I was always a homebody. I hated traveling, hated the discomfort associated with it, hated staying in motels, hated having to try to find someplace to eat. I hated everything associated with traveling.

The result was that for the first 50 years of my state I’d hardly been more than a hundred miles from the place I’d been born, and I was quite content with that.

Then something, I’m not sure what, happened. That’s when the — the urges started to kick in. And suddenly the guy who hated traveling, hated being away from home, was finding himself in places like, well, like this:

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Or like this…

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Or this

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Or these:

So what happened? How did someone who hates traveling so much end up doing exactly that? I have no idea. It’s weird, really, this urge to go wandering, traveling.

I was starting to think that I’d got it out of my system. I wasn’t going to go wandering very far from home this year. If I went anywhere at all it was going to be less than a day’s travel from the house.

But now that the weather is getting warmer, things are starting to grow again, that damned urge is coming back… Same thing happened last year. Wasn’t going to go anywhere, I told myself. Nope. At least not very far, not more than a couple of hundred miles. If that. And ended up spending over a week out in the Black Hills…

This year I’m not going anywhere though. I am going to stick close to home. It’s too expensive, too time consuming. No sir. Not going anywhere.

But then there are those damned urges. Don’t know where they come from.

Personally I blame allergies.

The War On Weeds

So, let’s talk farming. I ran into this article about weed control over at Agweb and it’s actually pretty good so go take a peek at it if you have the time.

Differentiate fact and fiction as you plan your weed control strategy. Source: Myth-Busting Weed and Herbicide Rumors | Agweb.com

Now, the reason this article has popped up (and I’m sure you will see others in the ag press similar to this in the future) is that there are a few new GM crops coming on-line now, modified to work with a couple of new blends of herbicides in an effort to deal with increasing weed resistance to glycophase. The herbicides aren’t really new, though. They are simply blends of previously existing herbicides with glycophase. They incorporate either 2,4-D or dicamba, both of which have been around for decades already. The only thing new about the system is the GM crops that have been engineered to tolerate 2,4-D and/or dicamba.

And they aren’t going to work any better than glycophase alone did. At least not in the long run. Sooner or later weeds will eventually develop resistance to these new blends as well, and we’ll be right back where we are now. In fact, there is already resistance to both of those herbicides “out in the wild” so to speak, because both have been in use for some time.

We have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon a system of weed control that we know is eventually going to fail. So, if we already know that these reformulated mixes are going to eventually fail, why are we bothering with them at at all?

Part of the reason this isn’t going to change any time soon is that over the last few decades we have adopted almost across the board farming techniques that make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to change.

 

How did we do it in the “good old days”? Well, like this:

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Oliver 70 with cultivator attachment

Now, if this text editor has managed to put the image in the right place, that is an old Oliver 70 with it’s optional corn cultivator rig. I used to drive one of those when I was a kid. For hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And.. Well, you get the idea.

It was boring, tedious, took huge amounts of time, huge amounts of fuel. And with how expensive fuel is these days, how expensive labor is, if you can even find labor, how time consuming it is… Well, it isn’t surprising that the agricultural industry has always been looking for something, anything, to try to eliminate weeds that doesn’t involve so much time, labor and expense.

But some alternative to this never ending cycle of herbicide failures is going to have to be found. We’re running out of options. No matter what kind of chemical intervention we may come up with, sooner or later nature will figure out a loophole to work around it because that’s just how nature works.

 

I wish I could tell you that there is a solution to this, but there isn’t. People are experimenting, yes. But so far all of the efforts I’ve seen in trying to get out of this dependency on herbicides have involved techniques that simply can’t be scaled up. I’ve seen flame throwers to burn weeds, steamers to steam weeds, “cookers” that scoop up soil and literally cook it to kill weed seeds… All of them are tedious, time consuming, and worst of all, very energy hungry.

There are some new robotics and AI technologies that are looking promising. I suspect that may be one possible solution; machines that do the cultivation for you using cameras, LIDAR, GPS to guide them. Even systems that can identify weeds by sight and mechanically remove them, leaving the desired plants alone.

But those are years away, maybe decades. But who knows? Maybe there is some kind of “magic bullet” out there. Ah, well, no, there isn’t, but we keep looking for one, don’t we?

Changes…

Despite the name of this blog, it isn’t really about farming. I guess it’s more like a journal where I write about things I find interesting, curious, infuriating, irritating, fun. But I often return to talking about farming because it was such a big part of my life for so long. But this one is about farming for a change.

What does that have to do with changes? A lot. I was reading an article about new ag technologies, automated and robotic systems to replace human labor. This has been going on for some time, of course. Robotics and automation have taken over product assembly, car manufacturing and a whole host of other industries. Ag has been slower to adopt robotics because it requires above average intelligence, dexterity, strength and gentleness and a lot of other qualities that are difficult to do with robotics. Until now. New advances in software, AI systems, new engineering, new materials and a lot of other technologies have sprung up that are making fundamental changes in how we grow food over the next couple of decades.

Neat, I thought. But then I thought further and realized that this has been going on my entire life. The pace of change has accelerated, true, but when I look at what farming was like when I was a kid and what it’s like today, it’s actually a bit mind boggling.

When I was a kid we still had a crank style phone. We didn’t get a dial phone until I was in second grade. Electricity service went out so often we still had old kerosene lanterns laying around ready to use just in case. A lot of the equipment we used looked like some kind of steampunk nightmare, to be honest.

We still had a few farmers in the area who were harvesting grain with grain binders,dscn1419 shocking it, and running it through threshing machines, for heaven’s sake. In case you’ve never seen one, here’s a photo of a grain binder from an antique farm equipment show I took some years ago. And yes, that thing over there that looks like it was cobbled together out of bits of old string, wire and old barn boards, is an actual commercially made machine. It was pulled by horses (that’s why there’s a seat on it). It cut the grain off with a sickle bar, put it in a bunch, tied the bunch with twine, then dumped it on the field. Workers would come along, stand the bundles on end with the grain heads up so it would dry. Then it would be loaded onto wagons and taken to a threshing machine.

And in case you’ve never seen a threshing machine, here’s one. Well, it’s sort of a dscn1422threshing machine. This is actually a special machine designed specifically for threshing or hulling clover seed, not wheat or oats, but the principle is the same. Workers would throw the bundles onto the elevator over on the left where it would run through threshing bars, fans, screens, etc. to be separated from the stalks and hulls. The hopefully clean seed would come out one pipe to be bagged, the straw would blow out onto a pile. The whole thing was originally powered by a massive steam traction engine via that long belt you see extending out the left side of the photo. Steam engines were replaced in the 1920s or so by gasoline powered tractors, but the threshing machines themselves remained in use well into the 1950s in some parts of the state. There were still a couple of farmers in the area who were using this setup when I was a kid. These things hung on because as long as you could get inexpensive labor it was cheaper to keep using it than buying a combine.

Then there were tractors. Take a look at this beast, for example. Believe it or not, when I img_0279was a kid we actually had one of these beasts, this exact same model. And we didn’t have it for some collection, this monstrosity was an actual working tractor at the time. The only thing we used it for was running the blowers to blow grain or forage into the barns or silos, but it was still a working tractor on the farm. And dear lord we hated that thing. Trying to start that beast… Oh, my. It started by manually cranking it with that big lever  you see just below the radiator. That connected to the crankshaft to turn the engine over. And if you didn’t know what you were doing when you tried cranking it, it would gleefully break your arm. Seriously. It would if you didn’t know what you were doing.

Lest you think we were weird or something, the rest of our tractors looked like this.

A modern (at the time) Oliver 1655 and a 1950s era Oliver 77. (That 77 actually belongs to my eldest son.) So why did we hang onto that old monstrosity? It was cheap power. You could buy them for little more than scrap metal price.

Almost all of the changes that have gone on in agriculture have occurred for one reason: money. They did something that improved the profits of the farm in one way or another. The old threshing machines hung on as long as they did because for some of the tiny farms around at the time it made more sense to keep running them long after they should have gone to the scrapyard than to drop thousands of dollars on a modern combine. Same with the old McCormick tractor. It was cheap power, good enough to run a forage blower, but for nothing else. As soon as it was no longer economical to hang onto the thing, it got dumped. We ended up buying another 1650 to replace it.

Just in my lifetime we’ve gone from grain binders and threshing machines, to GPS guided computerized combines. Harvesting crops by hand to a facility in New Hampshire that raises lettuce that is never touched by a human during its entire life. From planting to harvesting and packaging, everything is done by automated systems or robots.

Changes… Sometimes I look at the world around me and think I’m living in a science fiction novel.

Computers that should have been great but weren’t

The item I wrote about the Epson HX-20 the other day reminded me about one of the other items I was supposed to try to sell for that business supply company, the Epson QX-10. This beastie:

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This particular example is, judging from the color of the case, an elderly one. The plastics used for computer cases rather rapidly turned an unappealing shade of dirty yellow. In its prime, though, it was a rather handsome creature, and it was both one of the most advanced, and the most useless computers I’d ever worked with.

At the time the QX came out the computer market was going through a shakeup and even more importantly, a shakeout. There were dozens of different computer makers back then, offering an astonishing variety of systems that ranged from the silly to the sublime. But at the time, IBM with its PC and the MS-DOS operating system was well on its way to becoming the standard for small business and, eventually, home computers. By the time Epson brought the QX-10 to market, its underlying hardware was already pretty much obsolete, and it’s sophisticated software and graphics weren’t enough to make up for it’s lack of horsepower.

Before IBM jumped into the market with the PC, the ‘standard’ for small business computers was the 8080 or Z80 CPU based microcomputers running the CP/M operating system. These computers were based on an 8-bit CPU and limited to 64K of RAM. Then IBM came along with it’s PC, which used the 16-bit Intel 8088 which could handle up to 640K of RAM, at around the same price as the 8-bit CP/M machines, and the rest is, as they say, history.

How did Epson hope to compete in a market that was already crowded with other 8-bit, Z80 based computers, or to compete against IBM and MS-DOS?

By coming out with a operating system of their own which was combined with a hardware package that made the QX-10 the most sophisticated system ever produced. Or so they claimed.

The QX-10 was admittedly pretty sophisticated. It had a high-resolution monochrome graphics system with up to 128K of dedicated video memory that blew away anything except dedicated CAD systems. It’s Valdocs operating system was incredibly advanced for it’s day with a built in Help system, 128 character long file names when everyone else struggled along with 8 characters. And it had 265K of RAM.

And it had what was possibly the first WYSIWYG ‘what you see is what you get’ word processor to become widely available at a (somewhat) reasonable cost. Boldface a word? It showed up in bold on your screen. Same with italics, underlining, etc. Virtually every word processor on the market at the time showed not bold face, but codes embedded in the text to turn on or off control functions, if they allowed things like bold face or italics at all.

They gave me one of these things and I had it at home for a few weeks while I learned it inside and out because I was supposed to support the thing. It was definitely sophisticated. The graphics capabilities were outstanding. It was undeniably an amazing computer when combined with the Valdocs system.

The problem was that it just didn’t work very well. Valdocs and TPM, the underlying operating system, were full of bugs. It seemed every other day I was getting updates and bug fixes. And since this is the pre-internet, that meant either dialing the company’s BBS system with a 300 baud modem and paying long distance phone bills, or waiting until they shipped me a floppy disk with the updates.

The biggest problem though was it was slow. Oh dear lord it was slow! Any kind of competent typist could easily outdistance the Valdocs word processor, getting forty, sixty characters ahead of the display update. So far ahead that you could easily overload the buffers and lose characters and words. And since we were supposed to push this as a word processing system because of the WYSIWYG display system, well, it’s pretty hard to sell a word processor that made you work slower.

The other problem was that there was no software for the Valdocs system except what was supplied by Epson. The word processor, calculator and drawing program and, I think, a rather brain dead database. There was a spreadsheet but it was so abysmally slow you could go get a cup of coffee while it was recalculating.

If you wanted to use it for actual work, that meant you had to reboot the system with the old CP/M operating system to actually do anything useful. And, of course, once you booted into CP/M, all of the fancy features Epson was pushing were lost and all you had was a generic and overpriced CP/M computer.

Then there was the competition. At the same time Epson was pushing the QX-10, the IBM-PC was becoming the standard for small business computers. There was lots of genuinely useful business software available for it. So basically there was absolutely no reason to buy the QX-10 with it’s outdated hardware, useless Valdocs system or the increasingly obsolete CP/M system.

Epson’s solution to the competition from IBM was to find someone to supply them with a plug in card that was basically an IBM-PC clone on card, while they scrambled to get the QX-16 system on the market. This ‘solution’ was literally a PC clone on a card that plugged into the computer’s internal bus, with an 8088 CPU, it’s own memory, everything. It worked, sort of. But it didn’t actually run MS-DOS, it ran PC-DOS which was an MS-DOS clone. It would run some MS-DOS based software. Sometimes. Maybe.

It also cost in the neighborhood of $1,500 if I remember right.

So you have a computer with a base price of around $2,500, already far more than comparable CP/M machines. And now you have to drop another $1,500 for a card to make it use MS-DOS software, and there’s no guarantee it will actually run the software you need…

Oh, brother…

Could it have been a great computer? I don’t think there’s any doubt that it could have. The QX was, on the surface at least, one of the most sophisticated systems to hit the market at the time. It had a lot of features that eventually became standard on later generations of computers; long file names, WYSIWYG word processor, high resolution graphics, etc.

Unfortunately, design decisions crippled it. The decision to go with the Z80 processor meant it would never have enough raw horsepower to live up to the hype. The graphics system’s hardware was woefully slow. The Valdocs system, while very nice, was bogged down by the obsolete hardware and inefficient programming techniques. Even worse, Epson never brought out any software that ran under Valdocs except that which was included with the computer. That meant that in order to run the popular business software of the day, the computer had to be rebooted into CP/M, and that turned it into nothing but a vastly overpriced, generic business computer.

Valdocs itself acquired a reputation of being buggy. I never really ran into serious problems with it except it’s woefully slow speed, but I wasn’t using the computer under actual business conditions.

There were rumors flying around that over at Rising Star, the company that made Valdocs and its underlying OS, TPM, programmers were routinely fired as soon as they finished work on their assigned modules, leaving people who were unfamiliar with the code to try to support and debug problems.

I was told that large parts of Valdocs and even TPM had been written in Forth, of all things. Forth is not exactly what I’d call user friendly. It was never designed for large projects. It was originally designed as a hardware control language used to control telescopes. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but oh brother… I’ve programmed in Forth and I wouldn’t want to use it for any kind of complex system.

Epson went on to bring out the QX-16, an interesting machine that was intended to compete head to head against the IBM PC. It had both a Z80 and 8088, and would run either Valdocs, CP/M or PC-DOS. Alas, it wasn’t very good either.

The upgraded hardware didn’t cure the system’s speed issues. The word processor was faster, but screen updates were still unacceptably slow. The spreadsheet was terrible. Reviews at the time claimed that a spreadsheet that would recalculate in just five or six seconds in MS-DOS or CP/M spreadsheets, would take minutes to recalculate under Valdocs. And while it could run some MS-DOS software, a lot of it wouldn’t run at all.

 

Computer Memories

I ran into this little item in a nostalgia piece in a UK magazine called Gadget, and it brought back a lot of memories. I’ve had a lot of jobs over the years, some better than others, and one of them involved trying to sell these things–

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I’ve been involved with the personal computer industry in one way or another since 1979, and in 1983/1984 while I was back in college studying business, computer science and electronics, I was also working a part time job for a business supply company that sold, among other things, this — this thing.

Epson’s claim to fame was making relatively inexpensive, relatively well made, dot matrix printers. Not computers. And when the company decided to move into the lucrative personal computer market, things didn’t go all that well for them, largely due to things like this, and the famous, (or infamous if you had to try to sell the damned things) QX-10 computer.

The HX-20 was, to put it bluntly, utterly useless. The 4 line, 20 character long display was was too small for any kind of serious work. And while the built in thermal printer was a nice feature, well, it doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have any software that actually does something useful, and the HX-20 had pretty much no software support at all. As the blurb above points out, the rechargeable battery usually didn’t. Recharge, I mean. And it certainly didn’t last 50 hours, especially if you used the printer or the tape.

The Epson factory rep took me out to dinner and dumped one of these things on me in the hopes I’d help him get my boss to buy them. I fiddled with it for an hour, the battery went dead, the printer only worked when it felt like it, and the tape deck immediately ate the one cassette tape I tried using. With the wonky battery, the dodgy tape deck, the ridiculously tiny display, and total lack of any kind of useful software, I refused to have anything to do with it.

Somehow he managed to talk our boss into ordering a dozen of the damned things, and now it was my job to try to sell them.

Meanwhile Radio Shack was coming out with the TRS-80 Model 100, which was the same size, had a 40 character by 10 line display that was actually useful, all kinds of goodies like a built in modem, built in bar code reader, real standardized I/O ports for RS-232, a ROM port for speciality software, and, better still, you could buy actual, real and useful software for it. And it cost less.

The things are probably still sitting in a box in storage somewhere. We certainly never sold any. They’re probably with the dozen or so QX-10 computers he was talked into stocking that we never sold, either.