Truly sustainable computing

Plenty could be written about this subject. I just want to call for change in two areas, because I believe they’d have the greatest impact here and now:

  1. Desktop computers should have a projected life span of 20 years.
  2. Laptops and mobile phones should have a projected life span of 10 years.

Why 10 years for laptops and mobile phones? Because they’re portable, they get banged up more and chances are they’re not going to look that good after 8-10 years, but they should be made to last that long nonetheless. Even if you won’t want to use them after a few years, you can sell them and someone else with a smaller budget will be happy to use them for as long as they last.

This means internal circuitry, which is most often the culprit in computing, should be made to last a looooong time. This is doable. There are cars and planes in use today with circuits made 15-20 years ago, which are still functioning properly. I think hardware meant for personal computing is purposely made to stop working after a few years, because computers are always upgraded and hardware manufacturers plan for obsolescence from the get-go.

There is a better way. Enclosures for all computing devices should be solidly made and finished. They should be stunningly beautiful and their design should stand the test of time. They should be easy to open and the innards serviced. And internal components should be made in such a way that they stand the rigors of heavy use through two decades, even if they become obsolete, market-wise. I think we’ve gotten to the point in computing where even if a computer is no longer desirable by someone who wants a fast machine, it’s still good enough for daily use by someone who does basic computing tasks.

I may live to eat the words in this paragraph, but surely USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, PCIe, 4K resolution and other goodies that are currently available should suffice for a while. I can’t imagine word processing applications or web applications requiring more than this, even 10 years from now. And if they do, a solid, serviceable enclosure and upgradeable hardware with backward compatibility for widely accepted standards and protocols should be enough to keep a computer going… and going… and going…

And once we pass that 20-year mark, why not make our next goal even bigger? Let’s plan for 100-year computers and let’s start doing it right now. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have machines made in 2015-2016 still in daily use in 2115-2116?

If you work in hardware, I’m sure you can think of plenty of reasons why this isn’t doable. It’s pretty easy to find reasons not to do something, and this applies to just about anything. But I want to challenge you to find ways to make this work, because it’s what we need to do in order to survive in the future. We can’t go on trashing the planet and taking from it indefinitely. We need to start conserving and giving back to it. We should focus on making it clean and beautiful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of phones I have to throw away after 2-3 years because they turn into unusable crap. I’m sick and tired of computers and external hardware that start to break down after 3 years, some of them right after their warranty expires. And if would see what a mess we’ve made of this world, with destructive mining for rare earth minerals used in our electronics and with mountains of electronic trash polluting the ground and water tables in many places around the world, you’d be sick and tired of this as well.

There are much better ways of doing things. FairPhone is pointing the way for mobile phones. iFixit is helping too, with online service manuals and parts. But the bulk of the work still hasn’t been done. I still don’t see 20-year computers and 10-year laptops in stores. Where are they? Who’s making them? I’d like to buy one.

Modern lawn care: a lot of hot air

One of the things I strongly believe in is the need for manual labor, especially during these highly industrialized times. I believe such work yields better results and it keeps us grounded, in touch with the earth from which we ultimately draw our living. I dislike the “modern” methods of lawn care, where one uses hedge trimmers and leaf blowers to do a job which can be done much more adequately by simpler, manual tools such as a broom and a pair of hedge scissors.

Don’t mistake me for a luddite. I use lawnmowers when they’re justified, like when a lawn requires it, because of its size, or because it can’t be cut by a push-mower or a scythe. The scythe in particular is a great way to cut grass, and it’s also a great workout for one’s back and abdomen. It’s been around for millennia. It’s only been replaced by machinery during the last couple of centuries.

If you live in the suburbs, then this next picture should be familiar to you.

That, of course, would be landscaping day, or if you happen to live within a larger community that has a lot of lawns, this would be part of landscaping week, which would happen every month, or worse, during frequent rainfall, every couple of weeks. Every day of that period, the maddening roar of the leaf blowers would be heard all over the compound, gnawing away at your brain, making it impossible to take a nice afternoon nap, or to concentrate on a project.

I find it so inefficient to blow leaves around all day, for hours on end, when a pair of men with a couple of good brooms and some rakes would make short work of those leaves, with no noise at all, no pollution from two-cycle engines, and much less dust. I’ve often seen landscaping teams use tractors to mow little patches of grass where a push mower would have done just fine, or use hedge trimmers to walk for entire yards and trim little weeds here and there, when a man could have simply pulled them up by the roots.

I associated this sort of inefficiency, expense of petrol, noise and air pollution with the US, because so much gets wasted there these days, by people who feel entitled to everything the country has to offer, even though they offer little to nothing in return. So I was surprised to find the same waste had arrived in Romania, where my wife and I currently reside.

Here people still use scythes to cut the grass in the countryside. It’s a wonder to behold a good scythe-handler. A single man can make short work of an entire hillside in an afternoon. And it’s even more beautiful to hear the noise a sharpened scythe makes as it cuts through long grass: a metallic whoosh, coupled with a slight singing of the blade at the apex of its swing. Every other noise of nature is perfectly audible: the birds, the bees, the distant bleating of sheep, the breeze blowing through the grass and the edge of a forest nearby… It’s wonderful!

And yet, the noxious use of leaf blowers and hedge trimmers has found its way into Romanian cities, probably brought here through the export of popular American culture. Here, too, we can see workers parading through our street and through the city center with leaf blowers and hedge trimmers, making a huge noise of it all, for days on end. It’s such a pathetic (and polluting) spectacle. The noise is unbearable. Here we have tall brick buildings, built by the Saxons. These cities seem made for echoes. The wall of noise obliterates everything around. It bounces off the walls and can be heard hundreds of yards or kilometers away. It’s such a waste.

It was but a few short years ago that the city would hire scythe-men to come and cut the grass. In a few short hours, with a few swoops of the scythe, they’d be done, and someone would come after them to gather up the cut grass. It was peaceful and quiet. Now, we’re polluted with noise, and the blasted filthy smoke from the blowers and trimmers.

The sad part is that here, the public lawns found on streets and in city parks are not of the scale found in the States. They’re small. And Eastern European grass is soft. If one must use more modern machinery, they could easily switch to push mowers and be done in the same amount of time, without all the ridiculous noise and smoke.

Aside

Marine mammals, underwater sounds and shipping noise

A neat talk by Peter Tyack at TED, entitled “The Intriguing Sound of Marine Mammals“, in which he explains the effect of human noise on the sounds made by marine mammals, and what’s being done to correct the situation. A few tidbits:

  • Better propeller designs decrease propeller noise by up to 90%
  • Insulating the engine chamber from the hull reduces engine noise by up to 99%
  • Slowing down the ships by 50% decreases overall noise and reduces fuel consumption by 30%

There’s also a cool cartoon at the end of the talk, called “Good Vibrations”, made by Jeremy Clapin.

Green IT Week: June 1-7, 2010

ComputersOFF.org is hosting a virtual Green IT Week from June 1-7. This is an issue that’s of particular importance to me. Having been an IT director, I know how much power the combined laptops, desktops and servers of an organization can consume, and how much pollution is generated by the disposal of computer hardware (see this post, and this one as well).

I’ve written about this topic since 2004. Here are three of my articles that deal with saving energy in IT:

Green IT deals with two things:

  1. Electronic Waste: Minimizing the negative impact of information technology use on the environment, and
  2. Energy Efficiency: Using information technology to help solve environmental issues

They’ve put together a few facts that help to drive home their message, so I’m going to quote them below.

By turning off your computer each night or when not in use (i.e. lunch times, weekends, when in meetings at night) for a year you save as much energy as it takes:

  • to run a clock radio for 1,392 weeks
  • to make 9,280 bags of microwave popcorn
  • to wash 464 loads of washing
  • to use your blow dryer for 5,568 hours
  • to vacuum for 464 hours
  • to produce 3,480 plastic bags
  • to run your microwave 24 hours a day for a week
  • to boil your kettle for 24 hours a day for 268 days

By turning off your computer tonight when you leave work you will save as much energy as it takes:

  • to run a clock radio for over 3 weeks
  • to make over 20 bags of microwave popcorn
  • to wash over 1 load of washing
  • to blow dry your hair over 12 times
  • to vacuum for over 1 hour
  • to light a 100 watt light bulb for over 10 hours

For both companies and individuals, there are some really easy actions they can take to reduce their energy use, including:

  • Turning off computers, games consoles and TVs when they are not in use
  • Setting your computer to “sleep” after 15 minutes of inactivity (this reduces the power it uses because “sleep” mode is a lower-energy use mode for the computer to operate in)
  • Turning devices off at the power point (because even in standby mode your appliances are using electricity)
  • Buy green energy (to help push electricity suppliers to convert from coal based production – which creates greenhouse gases and requires mining – to sustainable technologies like wind power)
  • Buy and use a laptop instead of a desktop computer. Laptops only use 190kW (average) of electricity per year.

Want more of these neat factlets? They also have 100 Green IT Tips. They’ve put together a video as well, where various celebrities endorse the cause.

Make sure to check their website from June 1 to June 7 for more good info about Green IT.

Turning trash into usable products

Ann Wizer from XSProject Foundation (as in “excess”) is making custom-designed bags and other products from non-recyclable plastic waste found in Indonesia and the Philippines. She buys the raw materials from trash pickers, whom she pays at above-market rates, and, using trained artisans, creates beautiful products from trash that would be clogging landfills, streets and waterways in those countries.

Through its work, the Foundation is protecting the environment, reducing poverty, and teaching locals how to sustain themselves through the work of their own hands. The end results are beautiful, as you can from the photos and the embedded video below. The cause is noble, the work is noble, the means are innovative, sustainable and ennobling, and so I think Ms. Wizer and her XSProject Foundation deserve our applause for the wonderful work they’re doing.

Embedded video from CNN
Turning trash into usable products (CNN)

xsproject-bag-1

xsproject-bag-2

xsproject-bag-3

* I would have linked to their online catalog of products, but at the time of writing this, it seems to be down.

Images used courtesy of XSProject Foundation.

Is global warming a cyclical event?

While most agree that global warming is occurring, they do not agree on the root cause. Some say global warming is caused by man, mainly by CO2 emissions, while others say it is part of a larger picture of cyclical global warming and cooling events that have occurred throughout history. Unfortunately, the debate is mostly one-sided, with man-made global warming proponents getting most of the media coverage, and the cyclical global warming proponents ostracized and denigrated as false scientists.

A new salvo was launched recently against the man-made global warming side, with the publication of an article by Danish professor Henrik Svensmark, entitled “While the Sun Sleeps”. As the title alludes, Mr. Svensmark believes the sun shows reduced magnetic activity and is about to go into a period of hibernation, which means a period of global cooling will likely begin soon. The full translation of the article from Danish to English is available on Anthony Watts’ blog, and I encourage you to read it. Here’s a quote:

When the Sun is active, its magnetic field is better at shielding us against the cosmic rays coming from outer space, before they reach our planet. By regulating the Earth’s cloud cover, the Sun can turn the temperature up and down. High solar activity means fewer clouds and and a warmer world. Low solar activity and poorer shielding against cosmic rays result in increased cloud cover and hence a cooling. As the Sun’s magnetism doubled in strength during the 20th century, this natural mechanism may be responsible for a large part of global warming seen then.

That also explains why most climate scientists try to ignore this possibility. It does not favour their idea that the 20th century temperature rise was mainly due to human emissions of CO2. If the Sun provoked a significant part of warming in the 20th Century, then the contribution by CO2 must necessarily be smaller.”

As for me, I’m still on the fence about this, but I’m leaning toward what Svensmark says. It makes more sense to me. While there’s little doubt that the Earth has been warming for the past few decades, that weather patterns are screwed up, and that pollution and emissions are running rampant and must be reduced drastically or eliminated where possible, I’m still not sure we’re behind the global warming phenomenon.

What tilts the balance of my opinion further away from man-made global warming is the face being used for the campaign — that of Al Gore. Try as I might, I can’t stomach the guy. When I think about his claim to inventing the internets, and his electricity-chugging lifestyle (which goes in stark contrast to what he’s saying when he speaks publicly), and his face, which just isn’t the face of a man that should be trusted — I’m sorry, I just have to look for more proof before I believe what he’s got to say. I’m also still in shock that the man got a Nobel Prize for the stuff he talks about — after all, he’s little more than a pusher of carbon credits, which are dangerously close to a green, global Ponzi scheme in my book.

Who knows, I might be wrong about Al Gore — he may be genuine for all I know — and in that case, I hope the agenda he and his supporters are pushing goes through, but right now, I believe global warming is cyclical, and only time will tell for sure who’s right.

More importantly, I believe global pollution must be addressed regardless of who’s right and wrong on global warming. Our environment is on the verge of collapse due to all the crap we’ve been pouring into it since the 1800s. Pollution is a real threat to our survival, as countless studies have shown. Let’s do something about that, right away.

Concerned about swine flu? Know who to thank for it

To all those people who are worried about swine flu — you should thank the pig farming industry for it, and the rotten politicians who keep it going the way it is, even though it’s one of the worst polluters in the US. It’s no wonder new viruses are getting cooked up in those industrial pig farms, given the conditions in which they keep the pigs.

And perhaps you should also thank your local landscaping companies, who, about this time each year, dump tons of pig offal around your communities at outrageously high prices. Along with the smell, you’re also getting a dose of swine flu, trichinella and other intestinal parasite eggs, and who knows what other poisons, cooked up nicely in fermented pig manure.

sow-with-piglet

Enjoy all this, and keep in mind you’re the one financing the whole shebang when you buy pig meat and you hire landscaping companies based not on how sustainable and non-polluting their methods are, but on how tall they can make your pansies and grass grow…

:!: Updated 5/3/09: Wired Science confirms my hunch that the pig farming industry is to blame for this virus in an article entitled “Swine Flu Ancestor Born on US Factory Farms.