Meet the Trees

Maple Tree

This tree is too old to tap, with signs of fungus and moss covering much of the trunk. Years of soil neglect have taken their toll.

It’s been a busy 16 months. I’ve had a baby girl, taught Introduction to Robotics at Mount Holyoke College, and continued to apply permaculture techniques to our land. Christine asked me the other day why my technology blog had veered so far into gardening before going quiet. I see the garden and all the living creatures in it as being intimately connected with technology – a showcase and a test bed. To wit:

This spring I tapped the row of maple trees on our property. By some accounts Native Americans got 17% of their calories from maple sugar, and I have been wanting to try my hand at it. This year I got a jump and ordered the taps and tubes in December, so that when the temperatures started climbing above freezing by day I would be ready.

My mother recently completed her chemotherapy and had her port removed. This was on my mind as I inserted ports, aka spiles, into my maple trees and began collecting fluid. I’ve gathered about 3 gallons of sap so far. The biggest surprise is how tasty it is when it’s only been boiled down about 25%. It has all sorts of subtle flavors beyond sweet that put me in mind of birch beer.

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My test batch – a pint of sap yields a tablespoon of syrup.

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Gonna need a bigger pot

The process of tapping also forced me to look closely at my trees. Most of them are quite robust and are putting out a good amount of sap, but two had enough signs of distress that I chose to pass them by. One is just getting on in years and being taken over by moss. The other has a narrow fork that looks like it is starting to rot out. Both of these trees had their roots exposed by decades of poor soil management, and will probably have to come down in the near(ish) future. Which is a topic for my next post…

In the meantime I’ll keep the sap boiling and continue to enjoy all the health benefits of locally-sourced, sustainably produced, small batch artisanal maple water and maple syrup.

Thrun’s Contradiction

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment.” -Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity

“We decided at Stanford to build a different self-driving car… we made it learn from us, and we set it free in the desert.” -Sebastian Thrun, inventor of the self-driving car

Is there a tension or contradiction between these two statements? Thrun’s great breakthrough with the challenge of the self-driving car was to program a machine, not to do, but to learn. The result of this machine education is indeed employment, as Google’s self-driving fleet of vehicles presages. Woe unto the truckers, whose job is more complex than a travel agent’s or an accountant’s, but is now within grasp of the machines.

In another sense, Thrun has inadvertently put his finger on the central challenge facing education today. As machines become smarter, they raise the bar on the value an employee needs to add.

A Group of Drones is Called…

draught-of-dronesAlthough mapping a whole mountain in an afternoon is pretty cool, I don’t think three drones constitute a “fleet,” as the article puts it. But this raises the interesting question of what the collective noun for drones might be. There are enough of them around these days to merit such an honorific.

Examples from nature range from the alliterative (gaggle of geese) to the evocative (pride of lions) and the downright strange (murder of crows). So how about a “draft” of drones? I like the connotation with drawing or pulling since drones often do both, whether shouldering a load or mapping their environment.

“The Matterhorn was mapped in six hours by a draft of drones that launched from the summit.” Hmm, that has a nice ring to it.

The Reach of Our Senses

The news that the Voyager Spacecraft has left the solar system and entered interstellar space fills me with happiness. Launched in 1977 – the year I was born – this little tendril of technology has extended our senses to the planets and now to the edge of our celestial neighborhood. You can actually hear a change in pitch from Voyager’s sensors as it passes the interstellar boundary. It senses, and communicates.

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The Brick

Brick, American, 20th century

Brick, American, 19th century

There’s a great post on Next Nature about brick sculpture by Maarten Vanden Eynde. Bricks are one of my favorite technologies for being incredibly long lived and durable. The basic form of fired brick has hardly changed in over 6,000 years! They are living proof that technologies don’t go extinct.

The landscape where we live is littered with bricks, the residue of our recent industrial past. They erode from hillsides and stream beds like fossils. A great many were spread along the Mill River by the Flood of 1874, forming a technological smear in the landscape that will persist for millennia. Still functional, the bones of old mills make their way into my garden terraces.

The Egg

“All the armies that have marched the earth, and quenched its soil with their blood. These boys of our passing days, and all their comrades in arms who are dust. The hordes of Genghis Kahn, the legions of Assisi, the bowmen of Assyria, all the children of today, and of unnumbered yesterdays. All the poets, all the tyrants, all the philosophers, and all the fools. All of mankind who have lived and labored on this planet since the beginning, all have come from this microscopic egg, many many times smaller than a mustard seed.” -In the Beginning, 1937 (USDA Extension Service, Division of Motion Pictures)

Robin's Egg in Moss

A robin had its birthday somewhere above our garden, leaving behind this trace.

I found this robin’s egg nestled alongside a maple seed, each playing their role in an unbroken chain stretching back billions of years. It reminded me of In the Beginning (1937) which is preserved in the excellent Prelinger Archives. Don’t watch the linked movie unless you can stomach a bit of leporine vivisection.

While science has understood the mechanics of life in broad strokes for centuries, we are still grappling with the implications. Of all the different forms that life has given rise to on this planet, should we be so surprised that human technology is among them? Next to the intricate beauty of a seed or an egg, our tools are crude and simple beings.

Elf Sighting

After reading about her new wheels in the Gazette last week, I was excited to find Dory and her Elf at the South Hadley farmer’s market yesterday. The solar- and pedal-powered bike doubles nicely as a baked goods stand!

Baker Dory Goldman with her Organic Transit Elf at the South Hadley farmer's market, August 2013

Baker Dory Goldman with her Organic Transit Elf at the South Hadley farmer’s market, August 2013

I had imagined the Elf having floor boards, but there’s not much between the driver and the road except for the pedals. Very Flintstones.

Bryophites Rock

Poking around the garden yesterday with my robotic tripod, I captured a lot of moss and a few odd interlopers. Did you know that moss that was frozen under a glacier for 400 years can come back to life? Or that little moss tumbleweeds support an entire ecosystem as they bounce around the tops of glaciers? Here we have them growing happily on top of glacial till and outwash.

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Click for the higher res image – the original is in the 50 megapixel range! I like the way a long exposure and tiny aperture increased my depth of field and caught the evening light.