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Walking the Watershed [Nature
Posted on April 18, 2018 @ 09:31:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Last weekend I decided to walk the watershed at my ridge top farm property. The lowest area of our property has a marsh area that eventually turns into a running stream. It is the headwater area for the stream. The stream then runs for about 500 feet to the end of our property onto our neighbor's property.

As I followed the stream down I noticed 5 tributaries that joined the stream. In some cases these "tributaries" appeared to contribute almost the same volume of water so it would be difficult to say which stream was the "main" stream. A watershed does not have to end where the water meets an ocean or lake. You can arbitrarily stop at any point in your journey down a stream and say that you are only interested in the watershed before that point. For me, the end of my journey and my watershed was about 2 kms (1.25 miles) down the stream where the first large pool of water forms. Because it is next to a road called MacKillop's Road, I decided to call the watershed the MacKillop Pool Watershed.

It came as a bit of a surprise to me that intimate knowledge of a watershed is now within my reach. All I had to do was follow all the tributaries back to their headwaters and I could better understand how the landscape creates the flow that is observed draining into the MacKillop pool.

I walked one tributary which took me far into the woods and increasingly into wilder country. Some bears are waking up and some coyotes are roaming so I decided to stop my journey before reaching the end. I'll finish the walk with a partner in the near future to see where the headwaters lie.

The next tributary I walked was the first tributary that meets the stream after it exits my property. I followed that stream quite a distance to a neighbors farm where the stream originates around a wet area of his field. I encountered the most debris so far on that tributary which I intend to clean up on my next walk when I have something to transport it out with. One of the main causes of debris in this area is the open fields and wind blowing stuff off properties that end up in low points in the landscape such as streams. One item that blew into the stream was Santa Claus (and some white silage wrap).

I still have 2 or 3 more tributaries that I will need to walk in order to visit the full MacKillop Pool Watershed. I'm looking forward to what I might observe and learn on these walks.

Fallen trees, dense alders, and spruce thickets are some of the obstacles that I frequently encountered as I walked the watershed. It is not a walk you do for pure pleasure. I carry a Fiskars billhook to help me get through really dense areas (and if I encounter some animal that wants me for a meal). One way to walk a watershed is by looking for "reaches" along the watershed. The term "reach" is used in geology to refer to a level, uninterrupted stretch of a stream. I find myself wanting to use the term "reach" to refer to the land beside and/or accross the stream that looks like the best way to get to the next point along the stream. When you are in the midst of many obstacles to your path, your plan is reduced to trying to "reach" the next viable point ahead.

The term "reach" is one that might be useful for entrepreneurs to have in their vocabulary. On the one hand you have a business plan which tries to map out the equivalent of a watershed, and then you have a reach which is how you actually navigate that watershed in a world full of obstacles. From where you are at, you need to continually look around you and figure out what is the best way to get upstream. There is no point in planning too far ahead given the uncertainty of the obstacles in your path so you look for a "reach" that at least keeps you moving in the right direction. And as you find and cross a series of reaches, you may eventually achieve the goal of getting to the headwater.

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Observing Flow [Agriculture
Posted on April 13, 2018 @ 09:42:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This blog is a continuation of my recent blogs on rivers and flow patterns (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

I didn't have a chance to go for my river walk for a few days so was restricted to only thinking about flow. The last couple of days I have resumed my walks and vividly observed an interesting feature of water flow called backflow.

If you watch the water in a river go past you, you probably noticed areas in the stream where water seemed to swirl away from the main body of the river flow and go backwards. It can be difficult to visualize what is going on in these areas just from observing the water ripples. Fortunately, the last couple of days there have been ice plates floating on the river that can be used to help visualize these backflow forces. In this video, you can observe the ice plates whirling back into the eddy pool.

An observation is not really an observation until you make a statement about that observation that you believe to be true. For example:

The residence time of water in a stream is increased in backflow sections of a stream.

Water stays in the river longer where there is backflow because it cannot escape the backflow forces. This seems to be what is going on based on seeing the release and continued recruitment of ice plates into the backflow section of the river.

The art of observing is also the art of making observation statements that have some generality and importance. I could formulate the observation statement "there is a yellow rock protruding from the stream" but who cares about that observation statement? It is, however, important to make mundane observations in certain contexts. If you are designing a garden or landscape for a client, it would be important to note things like "ditch is overflowing", "client has 2 dogs", "sun at noon is over the bird feeder from center of deck", etc... In the case of my backflow statement, it is a useful reminder that water does not flow at a uniform pace down a stream, the residence time of water may differ in different sections of the stream.

In Lean Startup Theory the goal is to learn about your market as quickly as you can by interacting systematically with it. There are some specific recommendations from lean startup theory about how to measure this learning progress, but one simple metric might be how many significant observation statements you are able to come up with about your market and the running of your business.

These observation statements do not have to lead to immediate benefits in performance but the idea is that as you build up observation statements, and a truer picture of the world, that there would eventually be benefits in terms of better design or better running of your business.

We are not passive observers of nature and the observations that we make are often to see what effect various manipulations might have. These active observations are also an important part of the observations statements you might generate.

One way I intend to learn more about rivers to by making more observation statements. The backflow observation statement is a starting point. It leads me to wonder if I would be more likely to catch trout in backflow sections of a river than in other sections. If true, this could be regarded as the payoff for making these observations, but the payoff for me is to enjoy my river walks more by observing and learning from nature. A more general point is to suggest that a good way to measure learning (business or otherwise) is through the number and quality of observation statements generated from passive and active observation contexts.

Bill Mollison's 1983 Permaculture Design Course offers a good discussion on observation and making observation statements. Alot of his course consisted of making observation statements, debating them, relating them to other observations and to theories, and making design suggestions based on the observation statements. Bill advised new landowners to spend some time observing and making observation statements about their property (e.g., 15 Things to Observe Before Starting Your Permaculture Design) prior to making any design changes to it as this is likely to generate better designs.

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Comfort Addiction [Entrepreneurship
Posted on April 5, 2018 @ 06:06:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I'm getting ready to go out in the blustery cold wind to do some grape vine pruning for an hour or so. Sometimes I wonder why I do it? The question presupposes that we should live our lives in perpetual comfort instead of challenging ourselves against sometimes unpleasant circumstances.

The title of this blog was inspired by an essay in George Monbiot's book of essays called How Did We Get Into This Mess? (2016). The essay is called "Addicted To Comfort" and here is a sample of the impressive protest writing on display in that essay (and the book in general):

Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural prescriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation - in public and in private - that revolves around the three R's: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chain stores. ~ p. 25

To experience the fullness of life, it is necessary to get out of your comfort zone. I expect that once I start pruning I will realize that it is not such a bad thing to be doing. I will, however, pull on longjohns to add confort. I am not a masochist.

Ben Falk echoed this sentiment in his excellent recent video on maple surgaring. Ben Falk turns philosophical in this section of the video and ends with the admonition to "Stay vigorous, don't make things too easy".

I think entrepreneurship and private investing are also exercises in getting outside of comfort zones. These snippets are useful reminders of that.

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Mapping Watersheds [Nature
Posted on April 4, 2018 @ 11:58:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This blog is a continuation of my recent blogs on rivers and flow patterns (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

If you want to understand river flow you will need to study some watershed maps. The watershed of a stream is the collector area that feeds water to that stream. Properties of the watershed determine how that watershed responds to a rain event. The watershed response determines stream flow volume.

A digital elevation map (DEM) can be used to render the surface of the watershed landscape. Other maps can be overlayed onto this map to indicate, for example, infiltration rates and hydraulic roughness. Finally, if you overlay a grid onto these maps you can compute on a cell-by-cell basis (using slope, infiltration, runoff, roughness as parameters) the contribution of that watershed cell to the stream flow. You can add precipitation to this model to compute the response of the watershed and predict flow volumes.

This is a physics-based approach (versus the more common empirical/statistical approach) to simulating and predicting stream flow. It sounds fairly simple in theory but there are many details that need to be figured out if you ever wanted to do this in practice. A good book for learning those details is Distributed Hydrologic Modelling using GIS (3rd Ed., 2016) by Baxter E. Vieux.

A Geographic Information System or GIS is a piece of software that not alot of the general public uses. Now that I have a reason to use one, to map watersheds, I began looking around for a free opensource GIS system. From my research, the premier opensource version appears to be QGIS.

I am using a windows desktop operating system for the software so I downloaded an older stable 64-bit version (2.18.18-1-Setup-x86_64.exe) from http://download.osgeo.org/qgis/windows. This is a large download that installs alot of opensource geo software for windows so expect download and installation to take awhile. The latest version (v 3.0.x) can also be downloaded and run alongside the older version if you want to experiment with a buggier version of the software without as much tutorial support as the stable version. The QGIS software can also be run on other operating systems by finding the appropriate repository to download from.

My first impression is that QGIS is full of features that would take quite a while to master. There appear to be good learning resources out there for it. It is used in industry and by governments so it is not immature software. Powerful geomatic software is now within the reach of the average Jack and Jill.

To understand river flow we have to understand the larger context of the river. That larger context is called the watershed and it can often be defined precisely based on how the land drains.

A watershed is like the market for a product or service. It may be a small watershed that supplies a small first-order stream or it may be a large watershed that supplies a third-order stream. Properties of the marketshed determine the flow of traffic to your product or service. If you have alot of time on your hands, you might use GIS systems, overlays, and grid-based computing to model how consumer traffic might flow to your product or service.

Those who advocate for a bio-regional economy often make use of the watershed concept to delimit what is considered to be the local economy. Proactively, you should make an effort to trade with those who you share a watershed with. That seems like a crazy idea in some ways but in other ways it is reflective of how things worked historically and that history still bares an imprint on current trading practices if you look at trade through a watershed lens.

Another reason to trade with someone who you share a watershed with is because if that person lives upstream or downstream from you, then you are all interconnected by the various uses that you make of the water resource. Water quality and volume is a function of the whole watershed, not just some section of it. This is a very important connection that watershed users share and could be the basis of thoughtful trade patterns. Restricting your trade to just those within a certain distance from you (e.g., 100 mile diet) can cut across watersheds. That may not be that important to you, but it is a factor that is perhaps less arbitrary than a simple distance measure for defining what is local or not.

In conclusion, mapping watersheds is useful for understanding and predicting water flows. Techniques and technologies used for mapping watersheds might also be relevant to mapping marketsheds. Finally, the quest for sustainability dictates that the marketshed and the watershed should become more aligned.

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Modelling and Modifying Flow [Nature
Posted on March 13, 2018 @ 09:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher

For the last couple of blogs I have been talking about rivers and flows (Part 1, Part 2). These blogs are inspired by my morning walks by the local river and by my reading of a book by Sean W. Fleming called Where The River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth's Waterways (2017).

The book covers different approaches to river science, more specifically flow prediction, involving neural networks, markov chains, information theory, spectral analysis, chaos theory (fractals), complexity theory (cellular automata) and monte carlo methods. I was a bit disappointed at first because I was looking for something a little more meaty about the mechanics of river flow and this seemed a bit too high level. I eventually picked up a book on hydrology for lower level details (Environmental Hydrology , 2015) which complimented Sean's faster-paced high level discussion of how river flow can be related to physics, geology and astronomy using modern tools and techniques. Sean discussed may interesting and complex topics is relatively short book (204 pages) in a way that was easy to read and entertaining. I recommend it if you have an interest in rivers and flow patterns.

To begin predicting river flow, it helps to have a time series consisting of a river flow measurement recorded at regular intervals of time (e.g., daily, monthly). Hydrologists try to predict these flows using different types of models. One type of model is an empirical one that statistically relates flow rates to dominant factors like rain fall, snow depth, temperature, previous day's streamflow, watershed topography, etc... These are often the types of models that are developed in practice for streamflow forecasting. Another type of model is a process model that uses physics equations to represent meteorological inputs and internal watershed characteristics. You run the model with the proper inputs and the model simulates expected stream flow. A final type of model is what I would call phenomenological that is based on extended observation and interaction with river flow. A beaver, for example, uses a phenomenological model to predict and alter river flows.

Humans are fortunate that we can develop empirical and process models of stream flow patterns, but it is interesting that a beaver can have a profound beneficial effect on water flows using only a phenomenological model based on observation and interaction with flows. In the Devon area of England, the wildlife trust has re-introduced beavers to an enclosed 6 acre area to study how they alter their immediate environment and downstream areas. Their main findings were that 1) beavers significantly increased biodiversity in that area, 2) they altered flow patterns so that downstream areas are less likely to flood because of the impounding and slow release of water from their dams, and 3) their dams act as a filter cleaning agricultural pollutants from the streamflow. Some of that research is reported in the Devon Wildlife Trust Beaver Project Update (PDF). I would like to draw you attention to one graph from that report that shows the evolution of the dams over time. Starting from 0 dams in 2011 they have constructed 13 dams and completely altered and enlarged the flow of water through the landscape

I think it is worth keeping the beaver in mind when we think about modelling the flow of automotive traffic through a streetscape, the flow of foot traffic through a mall or store, or other flows that are of concern to us. We can certainly construct sophisticated models to explain and predict these flow patterns, but phenomenological models developed through sustained observation and interaction can also be powerful ways to understand these flows for the purposes of modifying them in beneficial ways.

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Explaining & Predicting Flows [Agriculture
Posted on March 7, 2018 @ 09:55:00 AM by Paul Meagher

On my morning walks by the river I take note of how much water appears to be flowing in the river. Lately the flows have not been that high because most of the snow has already melted and there has not been that much rain or snow for the last few weeks. Previously, when the snow melted the riverbanks overflowed onto roads and it was a very different river.

How do you explain and/or predict the flow of a river?

To predict flow you need to start by having a good measurement of existing flow. A standard technique is to measure the width of the stream and the depths of the stream at various regular intervals then sum over these trapezoidal area estimates (A = Σ ai). You would then have to measure the velocity v of the water perhaps by floating a cork in water between two markers and timing how long it takes. Once you had area and velocity measurements you could compute a flow volume (Q = A x v). This flow volume would vary from day to day.

What factors might you use to explain and predict a river flow?

Explaining a river flow is different than predicting a river flow. A big factor in explaining a river flow volume is the number and size of tributaries leading into it. This factor stays fairly constant from day to day so is not very useful in predicting the daily variation in river flow. Other factors like precipitation, ground saturation, ground permeability, evaporation, etc. might be more useful in predicting the day to day expected flows.

Most cities are built along a river. Around half of those cities withdraw a major part of their water supply from upriver. Depending on the size of the city and its seasonal demand for water, this extracted volume could be a significant factor influencing flow rate.

A home property can also be the focus of an investigation into daily flow volumes. What factors explain and predict the amount of water you use on your property on a daily basis? Those on metered water have an advantage over non-metered users in that they can figure out those factors better because they have accurate flow measurements to go by (depending on how that usage is reported).

Cashflow is another type of flow that concerns entrepreneurs and investors. What are the factors that explain and predict the cashflow of a company? What is the time frame of concern in our cashflow projections - a day, a week, a month, quarterly, etc... The time frame determines how frequently we would have to measure cashflow to determine if the cashflow model is correct. Comparing cashflow models to riverflow models offers potential insights.

Stock and flow diagrams are commonly used in systems theory to model systems dynamics. The simplist stock and flow diagram looks like this bathtub model used to explain and predict the level of water in a bathtub:

Donnella Meadows in her book Thinking In Systems: A Primer (3rd Edition, 2008) uses a slightly more complex stock and flow diagram to explain and predict the volume of living wood in a forest and also the lumber inventory associated with that forest:

There are many mathematical and graphical techniques you can use to explain and predict flows. The study of river flows offers a useful foundational metaphor for thinking about other types of flows (e.g., the flow of electricity is often understood in terms of water flows). The techniques needed to explain and predict stream flows might also be used to explain and predict these other types of flows as well. Something to think about the next time you are walking beside a river and looking for something to occupy your mind.

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Amazon Lessons [Growth
Posted on February 22, 2018 @ 08:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The Amazon is the largest river in the world. One of the reasons Jeff Bezos named his company after this river is because he intended his original online bookstore to be the biggest in the world.

Today I want to explore what it takes to be the biggest river in the world. I'm sure Jeff Bezos understands perfectly well why the Amazon is the biggest river. It is possible that he is using this knowledge to scale his own company.

One of the main reasons the Amazon river is the largest river in the world is because it has a Strahler number of 12. A Strahler number is a way of classifying streams based on the number and size of tributaries that feed into it. It is easiest to understand this numbering system by seeing an example:

The number assigned to a stream segment only increases when 1) two streams join, and 2) the number of both these rivers is 1 less then the stream they combine to form. When you get to the end of the Amazon river, adding a small tributary with Strahler number 1 does not increase the Strahler number of the river. It is only when two massive streams with Strahler numbers of 11 combine that the Strahler number of the ensuring stream becomes 12.

In the early days of Amazon the company, it grew by adding hard to find books to its inventory. Alot of small revenue streams from book sales fed into Amazon. Now that Amazon is a huge company, adding small revenue streams makes very little difference to its revenue flow. To grow significantly bigger, Amazon has to merge with some huge revenue streams such as grocery shopping and entertainment.

A stream is the visible manifestation of groundwater. The presence or absence of water stored in soil determines the flow characteristics of a river. Groundwater is like the customers that feed a business. The size of the Amazon river is a reflection of the groundwater that it has accumulated.

To compete against Amazon the company you would have to take the flow from one or more of its revenue streams. Amazon would be unlikely to notice flow lost as a result diverting small revenue streams, but it would likely notice if you tried to divert a revenue stream with a high Strahler number. The key is to not to get noticed by Amazon until you have a high enough Strahler number that you can fight back or maintain your ground. You may eventually decide to sell your flow back to Amazon.

Can a startup go from a small tributary to a huge river the size of Amazon without alot of merging? Very unlikely. The history of all the behemoths of industry is one of acquiring companies to become bigger companies. They merge like the Amazon river to become bigger companies.

In conclusion, the study of river networks may offer some insight into how companies grow over time.

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Bourbon and Bookkeeping [Farming
Posted on February 14, 2018 @ 03:56:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I just finished doing my year end accounting and tax return for an incorporated business I own and am getting ready to get started on the year end accounting and tax returns for a sole proprietorship business and a farm partnership business (with my wife). A downside to running multiple businesses is the amount of accounting and tax work involved. It can consume more and more of your time if bookkeeping is not properly managed. Every year I try to get a little better at it but I still have alot to learn. I am therefore on the lookout for palatable videos on bookkeeping and accounting and thought I would share a recent find with you.

I called this blog "bourbon and bookkeeping" because the 2 book authors in this discussion, Curtis Stone (The Urban Farmer, 2015) and Julia Shanks (The Farmers Office, 2016), agree that you may need liquid motivation to get exited about accounting work.

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Nothing Is Impossible [Design
Posted on February 8, 2018 @ 11:17:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Eliot Coleman, along with his wife Barbara Damrosch, own Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. They are both skilled growers with Eliot tending more to the vegetable side of the business and Barbara tending to the flower side of the business. They also write books for a living.

Eliot is well known as an innovator in season extension techniques and for designing new market gardening tools that have become standard market gardening tools (i.e., Tilther, Six-Row Seeder). I searched YouTube to see what Eliot was up to lately and enjoyed this recent keynote speech called Nothing Is Impossible.

Before Eliot, most growers would have thought it was fool hardy to try to grow vegetables commercially in Maine throughout the winter in unheated greenhouses. How was he able to accomplish this feat? Here are some of my answers based on this video.

1. Grit

You need a certain amount of grit, what Eliot calls stubbornness and persistence, to achieve an impossible goal or solve an impossible problem.

2. Competitiveness

One of the major motivations for Eliot to achieve the impossible was the desire to not lose his vegetable customers in the winter to California growers. You can be motivated to solve an impossible problem for many reasons, but keeping ahead of the competition is often a major source of motivation.

3. Problem is the solution

Permaculture founder Bill Mollison was fond of saying that the problem is the solution. Solving an impossible problem often requires looking at the problem as a solution to other problems. Growing veggies in winter solves the problems of market differentiation, better pricing, and pest control. Eliot is able to differentiate the produce he grows in winter from produce grown in California. His carrots, for example, benefit from being stored in the cold ground for awhile before they are harvested. They become sweeter and he is able to successfully market them as "candy carrots". Eliot is also able to price his produce higher if he is in the market with fresh veggies before other local growers. Over wintering crops or getting an early start makes this happen. Finally, growing crops in winter solves the problem of dealing with lots of insect pests that are only active in warmer temperatures. So part of solving an impossible problem is seeing aspects of the problem as the solution to other problems.

4. Practical inspiration

When we travel we often think of visiting art museums, beaches or other tourist sites. When Eliot travels he likes to visit hardware stores to see what they have that hardware stores in Maine don't. Eliot finds design inspiration in how other people solve practical problems although he probably has lots of theory to draw on as well. Eliot reminds us that another reason to visit distant places is not just to enjoy their tourist attractions but also to study the ways they solve practical problems. This might help you to see an impossible problem in a new light.

Another source of inspiration for solving impossible problems that Eliot does not mention is to study the lives of other animals and how they solve impossible problems. How is a caterpillar able to freeze rock solid but once it is warmed up it can go on about its business? How is a duck able to stay warm in a frigid pond? How is a queen bee able to maintain a sperm for several years from a one time mating episode with multiple drone bees? Humans need to freeze sperm to preserve it for that long.

One way to solve impossible problems is to see if nature has already solved a similar problem.

Partnering with inventors

Eliot has helped make Johnny Seeds (a 100% employee owned company) quite a bit of money from popular market gardening tools he helped to develop. Eliot developed early prototypes for new tools and then partnered with Johnny Seeds to manufacture and sell them. Eliot claims not to be making money of these inventions because he is primarily interested in seeing his ideas developed to the point of commercialization. I'm not sure if this type of partnering would work in other industries but it may be worth thinking about how you might partner with highly skilled people in your industry to help develop their ideas into commercial products. Rather then trying to invent things in-house, perhaps you can invest that time and money into identifying skilled practitioners and offer to support the development of their inventions to make life easier. It would be interesting to know more about how Johnny Seeds is able to benefit from Eliot Coleman's inventive mind.

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Neversink Startup Lessons [Agriculture
Posted on February 1, 2018 @ 01:52:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Neversink Farm has been releasing lots of new YouTube videos. Because of my interest in farming YouTube recommended I watch their videos. I took the bait and am glad I did.

The two main claims to fame of Neversink Farm are:

1. In 2017 they claimed to be grossing $350,000 on 1.5 acres of land. That puts them into the top 1% of farms in terms of farm productivity. See this popular video that goes into detail on their approach to farming.

2. A large part of their farming success is due to what they call a systems-based approach to farming. Part of what this means is that each vegetable is grown according to a particular system and they are always looking for ways to improve that particular system in the most impactful way. This leads to ever higher productivity on the same amount of land. A system-based approach also integrates growing with how you intend to retail your crops so it takes into account factors beyond the farm as well.

In some of Conor Crickmore's recent videos he reflects on his first year in farming and what he learned. I think they contain useful lessons for startups in industries besides farming.

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Learning From Bees [Agriculture
Posted on January 30, 2018 @ 08:02:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I am 2 chapters into a book by Bernd Heinrich called Bumblebee Economics (1979).

bumble bee economics book cover

I knew Bernd from some of his other popular science books but was curious about what the concept of Bumblebee Economics might consist of. Bernd invokes a combination of economic, energetic, and societal factors to explain why, for example, a colony splits to form two colonies. When a colony reaches a certain size, the bees can become more aggressive with each other. The area around the colony can become too large to be efficiently foraged from one location or it may not have sufficient nectar sources. The objective of the queen is to reproduce her lineage so starting a new colony is generally part of the yearly mission. Factors such as these eventually lead a colony to the decision to start a new colony.

This may be an overly complex analysis of the factors driving the decision to start a new colony. Perhaps some chemical compound in the colony hits a certain concentration and this signals that it is time to split up the colony. In the absence of said chemical compound, however, you might have to resort to more complex socio-economic factors to explain why things are as they are in bumblebee land. Hence the need for an economic type analysis of bumblebee behavior.

If bumblebees can be said to have what amounts to an economy, then what is the currency? Pollen is necessary for reproduction of the colony and the reproduction of flowing plants. Nectar is used for energy and is stored in the form of honey after it is regurgitated from their honey gut. Perhaps bubblebees have two currencies, pollen and nectar, that are traded for different purposes. You might be able to construct a measure of colony growth by measuring the amount of pollen stored and traded among plants or the amount of nectar consumed and stored as honey by the colony and its descendants.

Natural economics deals with how economies worked before the invention of money, or when the use of money was a negligible part of the economy. Perhaps thinking about pollen and nectar as currencies is misleading because bees live in a natural economy rather than the artificial economies that humans create in which money is central. It is nevertheless interesting to think about the role of pollen and nectar in the bumblebee economy and the extent to which they might be considered units of trade.

Bumblebees are social insects that join together into colonies. A colony might be equated with a franchise business model where the goal is to create new instances of itself in order to exploit new niches.

Bumblebees are part of a network consisting of flowering plants that they get energy from and help to reproduce. Different varieties of birds consume the seasonal fruit set of the pollinated plants. These birds also help to propagate plants through the undigested seeds they release. The macro-economic system of bumblebees is affected by the abundance of flowering plants and birds in their ecosystem. Each actor in this network plays a critical role and if one is harmed or enhanced the others are likely to be harmed and enhanced as well.

Comparative economics studies "different systems of economic organization, such as capitalism, socialism, feudalism and the mixed economy". If bee behavior can be explained from an economic point of view perhaps we can add bee economics to the list of economic organizations that human economic organizations could be compared to. Why would we want to? It might allow us to come up with new ideas about how economies and firms could be organized.

Biomimetics or biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. You can visit the examples section of biomimicry.org to read about such nature-inspired solutions. You could also read the book Honeybee Democracy to understand how honeybees collectively decide on where to locate their colony.

The author argues that honeybees provide a useful model (or reminder) of how democracies should be organized. You could also study bumblebee anatomy or physiology for ideas about how to design an engine or a new type of drone aircraft. Bumblebees anatomy and physiology is particularly interesting because bumblebees are active in colder temperatures that most other insects.

Deduction doesn't create anything new. You work from existing ideas, apply logic rules, and arrive at new ideas that were already implied by your existing ideas. Analogy is therefore necessary to arrive at new ideas. Taking an existing system and comparing it to another system can help you to think about the second system in new ways. If bees can be said to have an economy, a language, and democracy then they might offer us opportunities to think differently about economic organization, language, and democratic institutions. This means that we can study bees not simply because they are fascinating creatures but also because of the ideas they might inspire about how to solve complex human problems.

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The Adaptive Cycle [Growth
Posted on January 19, 2018 @ 09:20:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I recently came across a "tool for thought" called the Adaptive Cycle. The Resilience Alliance has a discussion and depiction of what the Adaptive Cycle looks like:


Source: https://www.resalliance.org/adaptive-cycle

This diagram offers a way to think about change and succession in the natural world and possibly also in the business world. The basic idea is that when a new niche opens up there are companies that are effective at exploiting that niche and a large cohort who are not. Some of the successful ones will eventually scale up, gather up more resources and occupy more land, and will become more complex to the point where a reckoning of some sort leads to a phase of release and reorganization in the context, perhaps, of a transformed niche.

As an example, we might think about a company like Facebook who were successful at exploiting a social media niche and building on that early success to become a dominant social media company. The complexity of the company only grows as it welds increasing influence in personal, community and political affairs. Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged that there are problems with Facebook and made a resolution to "Fix Facebook" in 2018. Perhaps Mark is acknowledging the need for an adaptive cycle of release and reorganization in order to evolve the company to the next stage. He may also be anticipating that if he does not signal a willingness to "fix facebook" then powerful government organizations might make that decision for him. At any rate, we may be witnessing the midpoint of an adaptive cycle where Facebook will release and reorganize perhaps like Google did when it turned into Alphabet but with some deeper fixes as well.

What is true of Facebook and Google may be true also of smaller companies. In the startup literature there is the concept of a "pivot". A startup may launch with the conviction that a certain business model will be successful and eventually realize that the business model is not working. At that point they might persist in their folly giving it "one more chance", they might fold the company and call it a day, or they might "pivot" to a new business model that is more likely to be viable and test if that is so. The psychology of sunk costs often makes it very difficult to recognize the need for and motivation to pivot.

One suggestion might be that instead of framing these major decision points as exceptional "pivot" moments we might frame them as part of an adaptive cycle and expect to encounter multiple release/reoganization phases as a company regenerates itself in response to a changing niche or changing corporate objectives.

In conclusion, the Adaptive Cycle is a tool for through that is meant to help you think about how growth and succession happens. Nature appears to generally follow this cycle (i.e., animal or plant death and subsequent nutrient recycling are the release and reorganization phases in the diagram). The Adaptive Cycle concept may not have much usefulness for thinking about company dynamics but it is worth googling the concept a bit more before you draw that conclusion. I have not done justice to the extensive research behind the concept but decided to blog about it because I think the diagram is a potentially useful "tool for thought" for startups and more established businesses facing the challenges of growth and succession.

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Solar Panel Economy [Future
Posted on January 10, 2018 @ 12:22:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I recently came accross a site called The Next System. The reason was to find an article by Peter Victor and Tim Jackson called Towards a New Green Economy (November, 2016). I'm still in the process of reading that article.

Alot of the articles in this site are trying to articulate what the "the next system" will be. Much of it focused on what the next economic system will be.

I think it is an interesting question to ponder ... what the next system will be?

Adding the term "system" implies a level of interconnectedness among the components that rules out smaller innovations that affect us in more limited ways. 99% of innovations that are hyped probably fall into that bucket.

So the next system will be interconnected in certain ways that produces some massive, hopefully desired, outcome.

It might also be nice if the next system wasn't 50 years away, the closer in time the better.

One candidate for the next system would be a Solar Panel Economy. A solar panel economy is simply an economy where the solar panel area increases exponentially every year with a Gross Domestic Solar (GDS) index being used instead a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) index to measure the overall health of the material economy.

A solar panel economy may not sound as sexy as a new green economy which is a more abstract goal. What I am proposing is a very specific goal for the next system that would be measured by a specific growth indicator. The indicator may have usefulness only over a certain period to be replaced with some other indicator once we have achieved sufficient growth in solar panel area.

A solar panel economy is one that an increasing number of people can participate in as solar technology continues to get cheaper, better and more accessible.

A solar panel is the specific enabling technology for a larger solar power system that can be installed in homes, apartments with the right orientation, or sheds for motive benefit. It doesn't have to be a big installation and people with cheap outdoor solar lights are arguably slowly easing into that economy. They are gaining some experience and perhaps starting to see other opportunities for the deployment of solar panels.

I'm not suggesting that other sources of renewable energy are not important or significant or shouldn't be included in some calculation of the health of the material economy. Solar panel technology is arguably a bit different in terms of how accessible and deployable it is relative to other renewable technologies and for that reason should be highlighted in some way in how we measure material progress.

Part of what inspired this suggestion is my own tinkering with the main components of a solar power system: a 100 watt solar panel, a charge controller to trickle charge a deep cycle battery, an inverter to convert battery dc power to ac power that also has convenient electrical plugins attached to it, and some wires and car starter cables to interconnect everything. Trying to scale up solar power to just a 100 watt system opens up your eyes to what the next system could be in way that is difficult to appreciate until you have tried to assemble a small scale solar power system. The potential to be "off grid", for example, opens up opportunities for where you might build and what you might build.

Setting up a small scale residential solar power system is possible, it can happen now with off-the-shelf technology, and most people can begin to participate as long as they don't electrocute themselves. For these reasons, perhaps the solar panel economy will be the next system?

This probably sounds like cheer leading for the solar panel industry and to learn some of the downsides you should read the critical activism book Green Illusions (2012) by Ozzie Zehner. I am just putting the solar panel economy idea out there and suggesting that as more people start to assemble the next power system in their homes, apartments and shed and share their experiences then that could spark the solar panel economy that I am predicting is on the near term horizon.

Energy drives everything and when we start changing the energizing system for an economy to solar we should be measuring that growth using a Gross Domestic Solar index and perhaps eventually using GDS as a proxy for the health of the material economy. In the material economy we now require a decoupling of environmental impact from GDP growth that might only be possible with the advent of a solar panel economy.

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Invest In Nature: Part 2 [Investing
Posted on January 3, 2018 @ 07:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In part 1 of this blog series I argued that time, not money, is primarily what needs to be invested when one decides to invest in nature. Shortly after releasing that blog the Polar Vortex hit and I was reminded that investing in nature can be difficult, bordering on unpleasant, when the weather is harsh. This can test your resolve to continue investing just like down periods in any business will. Do you pull out of that investment when things get difficult or do you soldier on?

I think there is a compromise that can be made. You can invest in nature by being in nature but you can also invest in nature by learning about nature so that your experience of nature is more stimulating. So if you would ideally like to spend 2 hours a day in nature, you might spend the full 2 hours outdoors, but when the weather is not so hospitable, you could invest, say, 1 of those hours reading some books about nature that will enhance your appreciation of nature and perhaps motivate you to spend the other hour in nature.

Three books that am reading to help me appreciate nature more are:

  1. The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature (2012) by David George Haskell. About a biologist who revisits a square meter patch of old growth Tennessee forest (which he calls a Mandala) regularly throughout the year and records his observations and thoughts. This is local investing taken to an extreme. Where Henry David Thoreau travelled a great deal Concord, David Haskell has chosen to visit the same small patch of land repeatedly throughout the year to better understand how nature changes through the cycle of a year.
  2. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (2005) by Tom Wessels. If you walk in a forested landscape, there are often signs that indicate what has happened in the past which resulted in the landscape you are currently seeing. This books provides you with ideas and clues of what to look for and what they mean. It will make walking in a forested landscape more stimulating.
  3. Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival (2003) by Bernd Heinrich. Bernd is one of the best scientific nature writers and in this book he discusses the many ingenius ways that animals survive under conditions that we would perish in.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are reportedly both avid readers who spend any free time they have engaged in reading. Where they may read books that help them to better invest their money, those who wish to invest their time into nature might prefer to read books that help them to enjoy their time in nature more.

On a different note, this painting titled Lake Superior Painting X by Lawren Harris fetched 2.47 million at an auction in 2014.

When I took the picture below the colors and shapes reminded me of Lawren Harris' more abstract nature painting which often featured dead trees that had a structural and symbolic beauty to them.

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Invest In Nature: Part 1 [Investing
Posted on December 19, 2017 @ 01:33:00 PM by Paul Meagher

If you google the phrase "invest in nature" you will encounter companies discussing various green projects they are funding. There will also be complaining about how government should be doing more to help the environment. This is certainly one way you can understand the phrase "invest in nature": it is about how to allocate funding to fix or improve some aspect of the natural world. The purpose of this blog, however, is to offer another interpretation of what "invest in nature" should mean.

I propose that "invest in nature" refers primarily to how you allocate your time, not your money. In fact, you can invest heavily in nature without spending a dime if you are spending a lot of quality time in nature.

Time as Money

Investing time into nature is a real investment because you could be doing other things with your time. Instead, you are investing your precious time into getting out and doing stuff in nature. As you get older, time is more precious than money which makes the investment of time into nature even more significant.

Partially or Fully Invested

When you are out in nature you can be checking out your smart phone, listening to music and chatting to people on the phone. There is nothing wrong with that and nature is a nice backdrop for all these activities. It is time in nature but you are not fully invested in nature while you are there. You may be getting exercise or going from point A to B but you are probably oblivious to alot of what is happening around you. If you are going to invest in nature consider whether that means spending time there doing other things or whether you intend to be fully invested in your surroundings. Some of benefits of an investment into nature can only be realized if you spend some of that time fully invested in what is happening around you.

No Regret

There are alot of investments you can make that are cause for regret afterwards. When you invest time into nature you don't regret it.

Return on Investment

Does investing time into nature benefit the investor in the long term? Some aging research suggests that one of the keys to a long life (100+) is spending a good amount of time in nature gardening, walking, exploring and so on. That is only one type of benefit you might expect and perhaps not even the most important.

What benefit a person derives from investing in nature is a deeply personal issue. What benefits I get out of it, and what benefits you get out of it, don't have to be the same.

One of the benefits I get out of nature, for example, is the experience of natural beauty for which there is no substitute. Like this Icy Splendor I encountered exploring a new walking path last weekend.

Nature Is All Around You

Nature pervades everything. Nature may be more difficult to recognize in the city but it is still omnipresent. Nature interfaces more with the built environment in the city than in the country and this interfacing is often quite interesting to observe. For example, the reservoir for our town water supply drains into a concrete spillway that takes it to a structure designed to slow the water down before it merges back into a stream. This video, which I call, Interface, illustrates how the built and natural merge in an interesting way.

Local Investing

You can invest your time into traveling the world in search of the next natural wonder to explore or you can be like Henry David Thoreau who said "I have traveled a good deal in Concord". Within a 50 mile (80 km) radius of where you live there are likely many areas you have never explored and it may take a lifetime to fully explore all of nature in that area. It may take some planning to find new local places to explore and visit but that is also what it means to invest in nature.

Investing locally is often viewed as a good thing. Investing your time exploring nature in your local area can be the foundation of any monetary investing into nature you may ultimately decide to do. Investing time into nature as the foundation for investing money into nature.

A Holiday Mantra

Lately I have been using the phrase "invest in nature" as a mantra to remind me to get out and do things in nature and to reflect on how I want to spend that time. I'm especially excited to have a few days off over the holidays to explore nature without the rush to get back to work. Maybe you can use the mantra "invest in nature" over the holidays to remind you to devote some time to getting outside to enjoy and learn about nature. You will have no regrets over the holidays if you invest time into experiencing nature.

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SMART Christmas Trees [Agriculture
Posted on December 12, 2017 @ 09:13:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This morning I read an article about Dr. Raj Lada's research on SMART Christmas trees. A primary goal of his research was to slow down how long it takes for Balsam Fir trees to lose their needles. This is a problem for consumers that don't want Christmas tree needles all over their living room, and for the producer who wants to ship their product further afield without worrying about needle drop.

Many factors control post-harvest needle drop from how well hydrated the tree is, what type of hydration is used (don't use clorinated water), where it is positioned (away from a heat source), how it is transported (covered with burlap if travelling a longer distance) and so on. Genetically, however, there are also factors that can prevent needle drop such as how much of the plant stress hormone Ethelene the tree produces. Ethelene ripens fruit and also has an effect on how quickly needles drop. Dr Lada has developed a variety of Christmas tree that produces less Ethelene and is able to retain its needle 2 to 3 times longer (potentially up to 3 months). This is a big deal in the world of Christmas tree retail and production.

The term SMART is an acronym for Senescence Modulated Abscission Regulating Technology. The first SMART seedlings were planted this year so we'll know better in a few years whether such trees will command the premium price developers and growers are hoping for.

Better color, aroma and pest resistance are other attributes that SMART Christmas Tree developers are looking to add to the Balsam Fir gene pool.

This research illustrates a few points:

  1. Don't take anything as a given. Many of us endure fallen needles without thinking this attribute might be improved.
  2. What makes things SMART is not just electronics based. In this age of global warming, we may need alot of our plants to become SMARTER in order to adapt. See Kernza for an example of a SMARTER grain seed.
  3. Industry, Government and Academia can work together well when there is a clear problem to be solved (e.g., needle drop problem) but industry alone lacks the expertise and capital necessary to properly address it.

Ironically, the Christmas Tree Research Centre is slated to shut down after Christmas of this year due to lack of ongoing funding. Dr Lada believes that there is alot more work he could be doing to improve Christmas tree traits. My conjecture is that after hitting his home run on addressing needle drop, other attributes are not considered as important to solve. You apparently cannot rest on your laurels for very long these days.

Part of the Christmas Tree research project involved touring around to find the best Balsam Fir tree specimens to select from. Needles were donated by the owners of this Christmas tree to the research project.


Source The Chronicle Herald

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Scale Planning [Agriculture
Posted on November 30, 2017 @ 09:01:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I recently decided to scale up the water holding capacity of my farm property by purchasing a used 2000 gallon plastic tank. Here is what the beast looks like:

This was not a carefully planned purchase. There was a good deal on it ($250) and I envisioned a few possible uses for it on the farm so I purchased it before someone else got it. Now that I have purchased it, the concept of scaling up seems much more visceral and real and is the inspiration for my thoughts about scaling up today.

1 US gallon of water (3.785 L) weights approximately 8.34 pounds or 3.78 kilograms at 62 °F (17 °C). 2000 gallons of water would weight 16,680 pounds or 8.34 US tons. When I said this to my wife she said it would take ALOT of water to fill it up. That is true, but we have a big roof on our farm property to potentially collect the water from.

In the left side of the photo you can see a 1000 liter water tote (264 US gallons) that is currently collecting water off a side roof on the barn. That tote can be filled within 4 hours in a heavy rain event. I'd estimate that I could fill the 2000 gallon water tank at least half full (1000 gallons or approx 8000 lbs) in one such rain event by collecting water from one side of the main roof - the right side. When I drop off the tank, I may end up placing the rain collector around there for now. I'll wait til next spring to hook it up.

So one principle of scaling up is that you should have the capacity to scale up before you do so. I could have filled the big tank with runoff from the farm house more slowly but I was mainly thinking of using my barn roof when I purchased this tank. A 2000 gallon tank seems to me to be the size of tank appropriate to collecting rain off a much larger roof surface such as a barn. I can cycle through emptying and filling the tank more quickly with barn roof runoff. The equivalent idea in business might be to make sure you have the person power in place before you start scaling up a line of business. Match scale to capacity.

Another aspect of scaling up is that there are multiple consequences of scaling up, not just one. I am scaling up my water holding capacity, but I am also scaling up my water pressure in ways that I haven't tried to calculate yet. All of the vines and trees I've planted are located down hill from the farm. When I tried to gravity feed irrigation from my 1000 liter water tote I was disappointed with the non-existent pressure I was getting. I eventually had great pressure when I attached a transfer pump to the water tote.

I don't know right now what water pressure I should expect from a discharge valve at the bottom of an overflowing 2000 gallon tank. The normal state for my smaller 1000 liter tank is to be full. When rain events happen on a full tank an overflow pipe positioned at the fill level keeps the tank from filling the tank any higher. There is alot of downward force involved in a full 2000 gallon tank. I'm sure some Texas or Alberta oil field worker could enlighten me quickly. They could probably also enlighten me on the ground preparation work that should be done and perhaps the best way to elevate the structure if I decided I wanted even more pressure.

The point is that when you scale up, you don't just scale up on your desired dimension (more water) you also scale up in other dimensions which may (more pressure) or may not be (more groundwork required) positive outcomes but which will need to be addressed in your planning. The more you can quantify the outcomes across all dimensions the better your scale planning is likely to be.

Another aspect of scaling up is having a use for your scaled up capacity. I must admit that I currently don't make much use of the water I do currently collect so why should I bother collecting even more water? One answer is that it would be better NOT to use a transfer pump as a long term solution to pressurizing my irrigation water. The larger water holding capacity will allow me to pressurize my water more and perhaps allow me to realize my original gravity-based irrigation plans for the vines, fruit trees, nut trees and my home gardens. If that is true, I will be able to take advantage of the increased storage capacity and gravity pressure to help my plants grow better.

Finally, suppose that I start collecting water and find a use for the larger capacity of available irrigation water. That might be a good time to make the decision to scale up further by adding another 2000 gallon tank. In other words, don't prematurely over scale your operation. I would like to have more water holding capacity but there is a sensible limit right now as to how far I should increase my capacity. Likewise, when scaling up a business operation, is there some natural limit to how far you should try to scale up in this iteration of your business?

To conclude, scale planning is important for any business that plans to grow which I have tried to illustrate with the example of scaling up my farm water holding capacity with a bigger water tank. This is a relatively simple example of scaling up but it nevertheless illustrates some of the issues involved.

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