Monday Aug 17, 2009

Fixing a Pentax \*iST DL DSLR

Update: While in Beijing I had the camera professionally fixed twice by repairmen in the basement of Top City electronics. I learned that one additional screw was inside the battery compartment. And I learned that they used a bit of fine sandpaper held between tweezers to clean the contacts.

Screws which must be removed to take top off Pentax \*ist DL In the wake of the cash for clunkers scam, the planned obsolescence of a few million televisions, and some misguided efforts to prevent electronic devices from being reused or recycled outside of the U.S., the obvious solution when my digital SLR began acting up should've been to pitch it and get another one. I'd already investigated and discovered that a newer model could be purchased for less than it would cost to send mine in for repair. But since I had nothing to lose, I decided to give it a try. I'm happy to report that this minor repair was a success! One less bit of e-waste.

I intend to put more of this kind of content on so this blog can grow more focused on Sun/OpenSolaris specific issues.

Tuesday Apr 21, 2009

Happy Earth Day!

La Mancha Plains

We just returned from 9 days in Spain. We traveled from Madrid to southern Andalusia without noticing coal power plants, white skies or other environmental ugliness you'd see in many other parts of the world. We did see lots of wind turbines including one huge wind turbine blade on a semi-truck ready to be installed somewhere.

We saw these windmills towering over the plains of La Mancha 500 years after Cervantes described these or similar 'giants' in Don Quixote: windgiants

We saw many solar farms. It was really obvious that Spain is a leader in alternative energy technology. Spain already produces more than 16 Gigawatts of wind power and about 1/3rd of its electricity comes from renewable energy sources. solarispain

We stayed at cortijoloslobos, a horse farm in a beautiful unspoiled part of Andalusia. The white roof, thick walls and other design features help keep the place cool in the summer. The owners took it upon themselves to care for and try to find homes for animals left homeless during this recession. cortijoloslobos

We saw Olive groves and other farms, well suited to the dry Mediterranean climate. Andalucia We drove a Citroen diesel minivan which sipped little more than 1 tank of fuel in the several hundred mile journey from Madrid to Andalucia and back. Why don't Ford and G.M. release their small diesel engine powered cars in the U.S.? We saw more of the moorish architecture with deep set (often star shaped) ceiling windows. When my wife saw these in Istanbul, she noticed that they were very similar to the Solatube we had installed in our Wisconsin kitchen in the late 1990s, allowing in light without heat.

Stars I hadn't seen since my childhood in the southwestern U.S. desert suddenly reappeared in the dark Andalusian night, reminding me that they've always been there just above the smog, clouds and light pollution. Happy earth day! Yes, it is possible to enjoy the best of this earth and still leave something for the grandchildren.

Tuesday Jan 20, 2009

Obama smartgrid and a smart new economy

Me and LBJ

"This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels."
--Lyndon B. Johnson 1965

"A new smart grid ... will save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation."
--Barack Obama, January 2009

"The most widely beneficial stimulus investment, however, could be for the government to subsidize the improvement of the electrical infrastructure of the U.S. The grassroots adoption of solar, wind, geothermal and other clean power is stifled by the grid’s inefficiency at handling highly variable inputs and transmitting power over long distances. An investment in a 21st-century grid would encourage energy reform without particularly favoring any specific production technology."
--Scientific American How Obama can boost the economy by investing in science.

"Over medium to long distances, IT demand load migration is far more efficient than electrical supply migration. This becomes significant when some locales can produce energy at a lower carbon or monetary cost. The global sale of computational resources is more feasible than the global sale of electric generation. Demand-centric computational resource trading can replace or complement carbon trading and contribute to a more effiient use of both IT and electrical grid resources."
--Me July 2008

Good luck Mr. President there are plenty of unexplored possibilities for making a more efficient, honest, balanced and free global economy.

Sunday Oct 12, 2008

Edison bulbs banned in E.U., why not ban PCs too?

I can almost understand why governments are trying to force us to use CFs. CFs are functionally equivalent to incandescent for MOST applications while using 1/5th to 1/3rd the wattage. But if we can overlook edge cases, why stop with light bulbs? Sun Rays are functionally equivalent to desktop PCs for MOST applications while using only 1/40th the electrical power. Replacing PCs with Sun Rays would saves between 8 and 13 times as much as moving from incandescents to CFs. So why not ban desktop PCs?

[Read More]

Monday Aug 18, 2008

Intercontinental demand load balancing (outsource your carbon footprint!)

While visiting family in Wisconsin last summer, I learned that a Sun Ray client attached to servers more than 3500 miles away performed at least as well as a client at my home 8 miles away and nearly as well as clients right in the Dublin office. So, I was able to use Irish wind energy while working in a coal powered corner of Wisconsin. I wondered if this technique could be formalized into demand side transcontinental IT energy load balancing GRID? I wrote up the idea and with Sun's help, it was published in the September issue of Research Disclosure. At a time when oil prices are soaring and some are predicting that up to 50% of electricity load might eventually be devoted to IT, I can think of quite a few possibilities for this kind of grid system:

  • Efficient alternative to carbon tax and trade:Wisconsin and many other parts of the world is not suitable for solar, wind, tide, hydroelectric or geothermal energy. When carbon taxes are enacted, places such as these could be at a severe economic disadvantage compared to Nevada, California and other places where carbon neutral energy sources are abundant. Industries in these places have few alternatives. They could wait for superconducting electricity grids and buy energy from elsewhere, they could pay the carbon tax and buy credits from other states, they could send jobs and industry to where energy is cheap and clean, or they could use demand load balancing to keep jobs and outsource the energy demand.
  • Failsafe UPS:When I worked in South Florida, we could almost set our watches by the daily summer thunderstorms. Sometimes it would knock our power out five times a day. Even if the power glitch lasted only one second, it took the DEC servers a half hour to reboot and certainly disrupted our work day. Ideally, our servers would have been hosted somewhere where electricity was more reliable. A small solar panel (~3500 Watts) on the roof would have been sufficient to power 150 Sun Ray clients and their monitors. The lack of servers in our office would have also made it easier for our HVAC system to cope with the Florida heat.
  • Shifting peak demand: Our least efficient, most expensive and most polluting power plants usually come on line during periods of peak demand. I've heard that some utilities paid as much as $0.45/kWh for peak electricity transferred over the conventional "supply side" electricity grid. Ever since air conditioning became popular, Wisconsin electricity demand peaks during late afternoon on the hottest days of summer. By contrast, Florida power demand peaks during the coldest winter nights because thats the only time of year when simple but inefficient electric heating systems are necessary. While there may be some occasions when both Florida and Wisconsin are at peak demand, IT demand load grid balancing could transfer load between northern and southern hemispheres if necessary. Use Australian solar energy to power your data center during a cloudy Irish winter night. Use Irish wind to power your Australian data center during a windless day.
  • Optimizing peak load across timezones:One of the reasons Dublin's Sun Ray servers seemed faster to me when I was working from Wisconsin is that by noon Wisconsin time, many of the local users in the Irish timezone would have gone home. If the global grid load balancing system were smart enough, it could predict when and where server resources would become available. As timezones approach the end of their workday, they would advertise that resources are becoming available for timezones to the west. This could help flatten the daily energy demand peaks and allow us to use more efficient power sources.

If anyone has suggestions or alternative ways of using energy, I'm open to comments. Or you might want to consider writing up the idea and submitting it for possible publication at Research Disclosure. This is a useful publication service which allows the free exchange of ideas, while discouraging patent trolls.

Wednesday May 14, 2008

Spring in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Spring 2008 photo

I recently returned to a visit with the family in Wisconsin. After more than 100 inches of snow in what was one of the snowiest winters since 1979, very few people were happy to see April snow showers. But we were. After a few grey wet Dublin winters, we enjoyed the April snowfall. The snow only lasted a few hours and spring came back in full force a few days later with temperatures in the 70s.

[Read More]

Tuesday Apr 22, 2008

All time environmental boondoggle awards

It isn't always obvious to people outside of the U.S. why Joe-sixpack seems to have such a powerful allergy to conservation, efficiency and sensible environmentalism. The reason is that pseudoenvironmentalists have tried to pull the wool over his eyes many times in the decades since the first earth day, and because of the abysmal level of Joe-sixpack science literacy, they've usually succeeded. Wisconsin's Bill Proxmire was known as the founder of Earth Day and for his "golden fleece" awards for wasteful Congressional spending. In his honor, here are my nominations for the all time greatest environmental boondoggles:

  • Magnetic gasoline mpg enhancers. (Add to this the German device which detects the "tachyon signature" of nuclear generated power and stops such energy at your outlet.)
  • 1970s rooftop solar heating. Perhaps I'm being a bit unfair here. Some of these actually did produce heat, some even produced enough to pay for themselves over a decade or two. But because the qualification standards for President Carter's eco-subsidies weren't well enforced, many hideously inefficient devices were constructed. Sometimes the cost of the electricity to run the water pumps, the leakage of home heat on winter nights and other issues caused these devices to waste more energy than they saved and gave solar a bad name which hasn't yet been overcome in many parts of the U.S.[Read More]

Friday Mar 28, 2008

lights out for earth hour

World Wildlife Federation (WWF) is sponsoring the first earth hour. If you'd like to participate, just turn of your lights (and other excess energy consuming devices)...

[Read More]

Friday Oct 05, 2007

Big Green, ecology isn't just hippies living in methane powered VWs anymore

VW micro bus Great photo by kesselring

It looks like Big Blue (IBM) stepped aboard the green bandwagon, welcome Big Green! It still amazes me that arguments against ecology in the U.S. (particularly by certain A.M. talk radio hosts) quickly drift into disparaging sensible environmentalism by using the "environmental wacko" meme. If environmentalism is wacky, then I guess we're in good company with other wackos such as IBM and General Electric. When did environmentalism become so boring? I sure hope I won't have to wear a blue suit, white shirt and red necktie in order to save the earth.

UPDATE:As a counter balance to my "IBM dresscode history" link, here is a link to the history of Sun's CEO and his ponytail. I don't see anything about a VW microbus.

Wednesday Oct 03, 2007

The Hunt for Cool October

I'm not entirely sure what magnetically activated microbladder pumps have to do with magnetohydrodynamics except that both use magnets and both can be efficient, quiet and cool. It's an interesting technology for Sun to hold a patent on and probably far more efficient at moving heat from the chip than Peltier devices which only move heat out of your device with 5-6% efficiency and turn the other 94-95% of the energy into more waste heat! If they weren't so god-awful noisy, we'd probably be better off cooling our CPUs with hilsch vortex tubes.

The magnetic micropump sounds like a good idea until the time when we can recruit Maxwell's demon to haunt and cool our PCs.

Tuesday Sep 25, 2007

Strato:Carbon neutral webhosting by 2008

Blackbox next to wind turbine

I love this quote from Strato's CEO Damian Schmidt, "Bad code is a climate killer." It might not be easily visible to individual laptop or Sun Ray users, but when the power load of a runaway applet, inefficient webserver or poorly designed database engine is multiplied across the world, eventually you do see an impact on profitability, oil prices and ecology. Strato is doing the right thing by planning to be the first company to power its data centers with 100% renewable energy by 2008. Awesome! I especially like the fact that Strato is making use of Sun's Niagara technology. [Read More]

Wednesday Jun 20, 2007

Outsource your IT energy consumption with Sun Ray

I worked a few days from my home town, Racine, Wisconsin because it was the most convenient stopping off point for our trip to a Caribbean Wedding (You might not have heard the phrase, "Wisconsin -- gateway to the Caribbean?") During one Wednesday evening sailboat race I looked back at the base of the new smokestacks which will soon dominate the skyline over Wind Point penninsula. Two years ago the Wisconsin Public Service Commission made the unfortunate choice of continuing the almost exclusive dependence on coal energy. The construction of two massive new coal power plants promised to bring much-needed jobs to the area and here, deep in the rust belt, that's all it takes for almost any project to have overwhelming public support. The thermal pollution alone will impact an area of Lake Michigan the size of West Virginia.

Few people want such behemoths in their back yard but most of us use the services this electricity provides. The Great Lakes states aren't ideal for most alternative energy sources. Norway and California have higher mountains for hydropower, Iceland and New Zealand have more potential for geothermal, Florida, Texas and North Africa have better potential for solar energy. Ideally we could transport alternative energy from places where it is more easily produced. For example, Ireland could produce 7 times its energy consumption in wind energy. Denmark occasionally produces more than 100% of its consumption from wind power and Iceland is close to acheiving carbon neutrality by utilizing its geothermal and hydroelectric resources. But overhead power lines add their own visual pollution and provide a vulnerable target for lightning strikes and wind damage. Until stable, room temperature superconductors are a reality, I\^2R losses will make it impractical to plug our PCs into a cheap utility halfway around the world.

But then I thought about the energy I was using while working remotely. My Sun Ray client was consuming about 4 watts of coal power, the monitor consumed another dozen or so but my local consumption was much less than it would have been if I'd used a Windows P.C. Most of my IT energy needs were being serviced by a utility in Ireland and a percentage of this electricity was generated from an offshore wind farm. I was working squarely in coal country where every kilowatt/hour I consume produces over 2 pounds of carbon dioxide, but I was using wind power. Could this be extended to corporations and expanded so that IT service providers could set up their servers where energy is cheap and clean? I will tell you that it is technically possible. I had expected that the trans Atlantic use of a Sun Ray client would be slow because of the latency in what I assumed would be one or more satellite hops. But for what I was doing (email, terminal, web browser, office applications), the Sun Ray performance was fine. In fact I found that for email it was faster than the laptop. When I select a message on the laptop, the entire contents of the email had to come through VPN from the IMAP server to the client on the laptop and rendered on the screen but when I select a message on the Sun Ray, most of the work was being done locally on the server in Ireland and only the relatively small final rendered email text was compressed and transferred to the client. I intended to video the Sun Ray vs Laptop comparison for upload to joost and demonstrate that I could easily run the client from a couple of cheap 1 foot square amorphous Solar panels but I ran out of time.

Someone could profit from this by advertising: "Reduce your IT energy bill and carbon footprint, move your IT business logic to our servers in sunny Australia!" (or windy Ireland, wavy Scotland...) Would this work? Do real-world companies, governments and other IT consumers pay for the hunk of hot hardware on their desk, or do they really just want the service that that hunk of hot hardware provides?

I suppose by posting this here I ruin my chances of being the world's first IT energy consumption outsourcing consultant but I like working for Sun and if someone else succeeded at this, it would be good for everyone... except possibly the guy who had planned to sell 1215 train car loads of coal to WE Energy's Oak Creek plant every day.

Tuesday May 29, 2007

Fraunhofer Institute study shows economic and ecological advantages of thin clients

A recent study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT in Oberhausen, Germany showed that thin clients can significantly reduce costs, energy consumption and CO2 output. The study considered production, transportation, use and disposal phase of traditional "wintel" PCs vs typical thin clients and the servers necessary for their use. While its important that a respected institute for environmental science did this study, in my opinion, the study underestimated the potential savings in energy usage and CO2 output. The study did not specifically consider Sun Ray ulta-thin clients (4 Watts), but even the 14-19 Watt IGEL thin clients considered in the study required much less energy than a typical desktop PC (68-96 Watts) in the use phase. The study concluded that, "Even when including the cooling power for the server, which has been estimated conservatively as twice the required power, thin clients use significantly less energy than PCs (factor 2)".1 Obviously when you add production, transport and disposal costs, thin clients win hands down. Thin and ultra-thin clients don't yet meet the average hacker or gamer's desktop needs, but for most enterprise uses, the advantages are becoming clearer every day. You can find a pdf report on the full study here.

1The study appeared to overlook the fact that typical enterprise use of desktop PCs also requires a server.

Article resubmitted to correct spelling in title, article and permalink. Thanks Rudi!

Monday Apr 09, 2007

Greenpeace's eco-friendly rating, do they know we exist?

BBC recently reported Greenpeace's eco-friendly ratings of 14 companies. Some Slashdotters found it noteworthy that Apple is dead last on that list, but I wonder what criteria they use to select the 14 companies. I'm not sure this is a list Sun should strive to be on until Greenpeace demonstrates sound scientific methodology in their selection criteria. Because some Greenpeace members have used counterproductive persuasive techniques, some might consider discounting Greenpeace studies entirely, others such as the BBC reporters who wrote this article, seem to think Greenpeace speaks for all environmentalists. In any case, I think Greenpeace should know about our 80 watt servers and our 4 watt Sun Ray ultra thin client desktops. I'd like to see Greenpeace adopt a new ecotechnology metric, landfill space occupied per months of useful life per user:

Cubic Centimeters/Months Before Obsolete/user = cc/MBO/U.
kg/Months Before Obsolete/user = kg/MBO/U.

The Sun Ray 2 desktop client dimensions are 28mm X 122mm X 204mm (696cc). They don't seem to become obsolete, at least not in the way that a typical wintel P.C. does. I use 2 Sun Rays, one from 2006 and one from 1999, functionally they are almost identical, the main reason for upgrading to the newer one is that it uses less energy and is capable of higher display resolutions. But I'll pretend that the original SunRay 1s are obsolete now and assume that the new one will have a similar life. That gives about 7 years of useful life and I'll also assume that each client is only used by one user. So that's just under 100cc per year per user, not even as much landfill space as an uncrushed soda can would consume. Their mass is 0.37kg which would give 0.05kg/MBO/U. I wonder how Lenovo measures up?

As far as I know Sun Ray 2s use lead-free solder now but still, the idea is to keep these things out of landfills. Maybe next years model should be made of something biodegradable on the off chance that some of them wind up in a landfill instead of ebay. It looks like Sun originally priced the Sun Ray1 at $495. Are there any PCs from 1999 still selling on eBay for over 50% of their original list price? Are there many desktop PCs from 1999 which can be used with the latest P.C. operating system?

Tuesday Mar 27, 2007

Science Newsflash, temperature causes CO2 not vice-versa

I heard this fascinating science tidbit on NPR's Living on Earth program:

"It appears that temperature appears to drive CO2 and not vice versa." -- U.S. Senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma (former chairperson of the U.S. Senate committee on the environment)

I only had a few years of university Chemistry and only a B.S. in physics so I may have missed the chapter on carbon alchemy that great physics minds like Einstein, Hawkins and Inhofe are aware of. Actually in a way he is correct:

C + O2 + heat ---> CO2

(o.k. heat and temperature aren't the same thing but we'll pretend) In simpler terms:

Carbon (e.g. Coal) + Oxygen + heat ---> CO2(Carbon Dioxide)

Was Inhofe was correct all along? No. As Al Gore responded, "One scientist said it's a stronger consensus than on anything except perhaps gravity." A grade school student can prove that burning carbon creates carbon dioxide. Any university lab can demonstrate that an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide traps more heat than an atmosphere with less. I'm unaware of any dispute over the strong evidence that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen over the past century. There is also good evidence that average global temperature is rising. The only serious doubt is whether human contribution to CO2 is a significant factor in global climate. There may be arguments against human caused global warming (e.g. If any solid evidence of a warming trend is found on Mars) and there are arguments against the Kyoto treaty (e.g. Industries are encouraged to move towards exempt economies with already high coal usage.), but Inhofe represents a weird political paradigm where so-called conservatives are more interested in conserving their own mindset than they are in conserving the ecological balance of our planet.

Monday Jul 31, 2006

Round cloud

Circular cloud It's a fun game to play with any kid. What does that cloud look like? A hefalump? A duck? A cloud? A circle? I think the cloud in this photo was even closer to a perfect circle before I asked my wife to take this photo. It broke up a few minutes later. I'll have to ask the people at if they know of any atmospheric phenomena which cause perfectly circular clouds. Microcomets, atomic testing, alien craft, dumb luck? ;-) The sun was a few dozen degrees to the left, but this wasn't like any Sun dog, I've ever seen.

Update:(1/Aug/2006) Someone at Irish astronomy found an interesting explanation for some circular cloud patterns. Mount Etna apparently blows smoke rings. But Lambay and other nearby volcanos have been extinct for millions of years. So, I'll chalk this one up to "dumb luck." The same evening while skipping stones on the estuary, my daughter and I found a pebble shaped like an equalateral triangle. Aren't pebbles are supposed to be shaped like this? I'll just have to keep a camera handy for the day when I spot something else unusual in the sky, such as a circle accompanied by the symbol for pi. Until then...

cat /dev/random | strings | grep "For being ignorant to whom it goes I writ at random, very doubtfully"

Friday Jul 14, 2006

House approves server energy conservation bill!

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of HR 5646, "a bill to study and promote the efficient use of computer servers in the United States." This bill passed the house by a margin of 417 to 4. I hope it gets through the Senate, it looks like oil prices are pushing towards $80/barrel.

Sunday Jul 09, 2006

kite sailing freighters

I was wondering when someone in the shipping industry would come around to inventing the obvious, a kite assisted ocean freighter. Kudos to Skysails for being the first.

Saturday Apr 22, 2006

Earth day in a Rubbish Sanctuary

Rubbish sanctuary.

When we moved here we were told the place in this photo was a bird sanctuary. Today it remind me of the rubbish strewn river that moved Iron Eyes Cody to tears in the old Keep America Beautiful ads. I thought about organizing a clean-up, but it would require dozens of expensive skips (dumpsters) and the type of earth-moving equipment which is in high demand by the hyperactive construction industry. I've seen cleaner landfills. At least the concrete swan doesn't have bird flu.

There are about 5 acres of parks and other green space within a 10 minute walk of our home. Unfortunately, most of it acquires a new layer of broken glass and other rubbish every weekend. This dumping has probably has more to do with lazyness than the 7.50 Euro bin charges. Friends told me that such "trashing the landlord's property" is a leftover from colonialism. If so, it's really out of place now that Ireland is independent and has the highest home ownership rate in the world. Landscape pollution does vary by country. Cairo, Tokyo and Hong Kong had less trash even though they have 8-10 times the population. Ever since the "Keep America Beautiful" ads, U.S. landscape pollution is usually in the form of advertising billboards and graffiti. Some of Antalya's 1970s architecture wasn't beautiful, but I didn't see any graffiti there. There is an unintentially humorous bit of graffiti near our home, apparently from a street gang called THE WORRIERS. Oh dear, Oh my! Maybe the culprit meant to spell "the Warriers?" ...or even "The Warriors" (Thanks for the correction Johann, this is why I don't write my blog in spray paint!)

The best "earth day" news I can come up with is that we were able to organize a second recycling bin to compensate for the fact that green bin collection is only once a month. I also heard that Sun Ireland is powered (at least in part) by offshore wind energy.

Monday Nov 14, 2005

Sunrise on the age of efficiency

My sailing instructor used to say, "Anyone can sail when there's wind." When the wind is good, it doesn't matter if your boat is heavy with untrimmed, blown-out sails and a fathom of green slime on the keel. But the most recent race I sailed with my dad and nephew was during the doldrums of August, when the Lake Michigan breeze slackens and the energy to power a sailboat is no longer in free abundance. Tell-tail threads droop from the halyards, pipe smoke from the crew of a wooden ketch hangs in the folds of their sagging spinnaker. The fleet separates. Those who know how to use every wave and breath of wind move to the front. The rest are left behind swatting flys and watching dead fish float past. They may not finish at all.

The last couple of decades weren't very interesting for those who believe in efficiency. Efficiency doesn't attract attention when resources are cheap and abundant. The font size of "miles per gallon" in car advertisements shrunk, as did the actual mpg values. A similar effect was seen in the computer industry. When chip density, CPU clock speed and memory were in steep exponential growth, efficiency engineering was put on the back burner. This resulted in a world where millions of lines of bloated inefficient code went unnoticed because by time software shipped, the hardware was fast enough to hide performance problems. It also resulted in a layer of "old" PCs in our landfills, which may have had only a couple of years of useful life.

It seems likely that the age of solving every problem with "brute force", liters, horsepower and GHz will come to an end. Oil has more than doubled in price since 2003. And whether or not we soon notice a flattening of the Moore, MIPS and Memory curves; administrators are already bumping into space, air conditioning and circuit breaker limitations in their server labs. So, for the first time in a couple of decades, efficiency is relevant. I've long suspected that Sun was in a good position to take advantage of a new age of efficiency. It's reassuring to see that others within Sun share this view. Efficiency isn't a lost art, it was just misplaced for a while.

When I taught sailing, I used the iceboat "Debutante" as an example of what is possible when wind is used efficiently. In 1938 on Lake Winnebago near Oshkosh, Wisconsin the Debutante set a record speed of 143 m.p.h., in a 72 m.p.h wind.

Friday Nov 04, 2005

Science and Alaskan north slope oil

I hesitate to bring up politics in my blog. I encounter enough politics whenever I speak with an American accent an Irish pub and I encounter enough controversy over whether GNU or CDDL is better or whether bash should be the default shell in Solaris or whether there is a property bubble.

But I'm most tempted to express my views when politicians or lobbiests take advantage of scientific and technical illiteracy. A good example is oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A budget bill supporting this is ready to pass in the next couple of days. What bothers me about this is the way it is being sold.

From ABC news:

"Drilling supporters, including President Bush, who has made opening the refuge a top energy priority, argued that the country needs the estimated 10.5 billion barrels of oil that lies beneath the coastal plain. The oil represents a key to improving the country's energy security, they said."

Bush's estimate of 10.5 billion barrels is actually slightly less optimistic than the DOE's most wildly optimistic estimates of 16 billion barrels with a 95% probablity that there is less than this. 16 billion barrels of oil sounds impressive, doesn't it? Drill away, right? The problem is that the U.S. currently use over 7 billion barrels/year. (Here's a cool website which lets you explore the oil consumption data.)

ANWR would run dry in little over 2 years. But we can't possibly pull it out of the ground that fast. DOE's estimate of peak ANWR production is 1.55 million barrels per day. During the peak of an ANWAR 'gusher', it would only produce 7% of U.S. daily needs. The other 93% would have to come from elsewhere.

Those in the oil industry must know that we can't drill our way out of energy dependence, so why are they selling ANWR as a panacea? I could almost believe claims that the oil could be extracted without another Exxon Valdez were it not for this attempt to fool the public.

A basic level of science literacy should be taught in the schools so that the majority of the population can understand that conservation is a crucial part of any viable energy policy.

Tuesday Sep 27, 2005

Irish energy saving ideas

When I first visited Ireland in the mid 1990s, I was impressed with the charity, kindness and humor of people I met here. I was also impressed with their innovation, especially in energy efficiency. One friend showed me a flat-topped mountain that was used for hydroelectric storage, her brother considered converting the family car to run on (compressed "natural") gas, instead of petrol.1 Another friend is investing in wind energy. I even learned of a solar heated bed and breakfast, not far from Sun Ireland.

For a couple of weird decades, it wasn't economical to innovate energy efficiency within the U.S. Gasoline and electricity were so inexpensive that you could waste it without even noticing. It became fashionable to drive military vehicles and illuminate the undersides of trees. Here are some energy saving ideas I learned since moving to Ireland. Not all of these are yet available in the U.S. but I hope they will be soon! Unlike the petrol pills, fuel-line magnets and other snake oil that was promoted during the 1970s energy crisis, most of these ideas are known to work. They're in common use here in Ireland where energy has always been expensive. Anyone from other parts of the world where these technologies are ordinary and obvious can ignore this!

I first encountered a tankless power shower while visiting a cousin in rural Japan. Instead of paying for the energy required by the laws of thermodynamics to keep a huge tank of water (and pipes to your showerhead) hot all day, these tankless heaters only heat the water used. Another energy saver in this photo is the small window above the door. These windows and skylights help reduce the need for indoor lighting.2

These Phillips hybrid night lights are pretty cool. Flip the switch once and it's an amber L.E.D. night light. Toggle the switch quickly and it becomes a white 9W compact fluorescent. Incidently the light shining through the blackout curtains in this photo is from the school across the street. There is a widespread belief that insanely bright "security" lights repel more crime than ordinary lights. A few nights ago a lad stood directly under one of the brightest school lights and used the illumination to help aim the stones he was throwing at the houses in our row. Some school districts in the U.S. found that by turning off security lights, they reduced vandalism.

Sometime in the 1970s it became unfashionable to use the sun and wind to dry clothes in the U.S. My florida apartment had rules against drying clothes, as do many residential neighborhoods. In much of the rest of the world, solar/aeolian clothes dryers are a sign of practical wisdom. Ireland doesn't have the ideal climate for this, so sometimes clothes must dry on radiators inside of the house. But even on a wind, cloud and spitting rain day like today, I was able to dry a couple of loads before the heavy rains came. If clotheslines work in Ireland, they would certainly work in the U.S., especially in the desert southwest. When we were kids, our family would camp in Utah and Arizona during the summer. One day when the humidity was 4%, we spilled a container of root-beer Koolaid. It evaporated before it rolled off onto the ground!

One day last winter I saw snow sticking to the thatched roof of this cottage near our home. Since the temperature here rarely falls far below freezing, snow on the roof is an indication of good insulation. I've heard that a thatch roof can have an R-value of at least 20, much better than (oil-based) asphalt shingles. When we first visited Ireland we met some men installing a thatch roof near Doolin. They told us that they were installing a turkish straw roof which should be replaced about every 40 years. This is much longer lasting than a typical asphalt shingle roof. O.K. some ideas might not be as practical as others.

There's nothing magical in this photo, it's just an off button which turns the television completely off. If every appliance which wasted energy when it was turned off had one of these, we could shut down a few power plants.

When I was in Wisconsin, I met someone who spent $1500 on lawn care. We paid 7 Euro for this rotary lawn mower. There are better mechanical lawn mowers available, but even this one does a better job than most gasoline powered mowers. It only takes about 15 minutes to mow the front and back. I never understood why the kids at my high school who had barbells and other muscle building equipment all had gasoline powered lawnmowers. Rotary mowers are quiet too. My daughter and I can talk while we mow the lawn. The other energy saver here is the rarely used car. It was made in 1987, the year U.S. automobile fuel economy peaked. Reagan was still president and Clinton had not yet signed the "SUV exemption" to fuel efficiency standards. The 1.7 liter BMW engine seems at least as powerful as the 3 liter engine in the 1996 car I drove in the U.S. I'd like someone to explain why that happens. Is it the higher octane fuel here or just the fact that European cars are lighter and have fewer anti-smog devices? On the other hand, I've seen tiny European cars driven in such a way that I'd be amazed if they didn't burn fuel faster than a Hummer. Speed is just one of the many factors under our control which can save money. Back in the U.S., my 1987 LeBaron (about twice the size of an average Irish road) averaged nearly 40 mpg at 40 mph on level Florida roads. This dropped to about 25 mpg at 65 mph. The air conditioner knocked off another 6 mpg.

I wonder what an Aran farmer, Icelandic fisherman or Norwegian oil rig worker would think of the belief that President Carter's sweater made him appear weak? Before we moved here, we'd never heard of sleepcoats such as the one our daughter is wearing in this photo. Even Fiona the bear wears an Aran sweater. The current U.S. President is talking about conservation again, but regardless of whether these words are followed by actions, individuals can make a difference.

1 I don't buy gasoline (or petrol) very often here but it seems to be hovering around $5.50-$6.00/gallon. I think it exceeded $3.00/gallon long before I moved here. 2 My Wisconsin home had something called a "Solo tube" which piped roof light into the kitchen.

Sunday Sep 25, 2005

Irish water conservation ideas

Yesterday I noticed a poster on the D.A.R.T. advertising a water conservation website called The government declared that water should be free, so we don't have water bills. Unfortunately free water discourages conservation, just as cheap energy discouraged conservation elsewhere. Even in this land of plentiful rain, occasionally there isn't enough water to go around. None of the suggestions on are as severe as some I've heard in California or Oregon (e.g. don't flush) and AFAIK the government doesn't regulate how much water your toilet can use during a flush, but this tip should raise some eyebrows in California or Oregon:

Use a basin to rinse/clean your fruit and vegetables.
Instead of letting the tap run, use a basin to rinse/clean your fruit and vegetables. Why not use the leftover water to give your pot plants a drink?

Separated by a common language? And I was just starting to figure out the correct usage of 'Craic.'

Wednesday Jul 06, 2005

Estimate of potential Sun Ray impact on Kyoto targets

Whenever the Kyoto agreement is in the news I think of my short visit to that beautiful city. I also think about how unfortunate it is that politics can prevent things from getting acomplished. The Kyoto agreement has some significant flaws1, but that's no excuse for ignoring the problem. So I started to think about some of the simple ways of conserving energy I learned after moving to Ireland. I'll post them here when I get a few together. But right now I just wanted to share another quick back of the envelope calculation comparing PCs and Sun Ray clients.

I'll apologize ahead of time for mixing english and metric units and for the very rough calculations, here goes. A modern desktop PC consumes about 70W when idle. CRT monitors add another 60W, so the total would be 130 Watts. Sun Ray 170s use about 40 Watts, so you're looking at a 90 Watt savings over the PC+CRT.

90W \* 8hr/day \* 365.25 days/year = 262980 Watt hours or about 260 Kilowatt/hours per year. A typical coal power plant puts about 2 pounds of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into the air for every kilowatt-hour consumed.2 So for each desktop PC we replace with a Sun Ray, we could save 520 pounds of CO2/year. There are about 575 Million PCs in use worldwide of which at least 100 million are in the United States. So...if we could replace all desktop PCs and CRTs with Sun Ray 170s:
(100 million PCs \* 520lbs CO2/PC)/2000 lbs/ton 
                = 26 million tons of CO2/year in the U.S. 
Worldwide it would prevent 150 million tons of CO2 from being released each year.

Yes, it's a very rough order of magnitude estimate, but it sure looks like Sun Rays could make a dent in the Kyoto targets. I didn't even calculate that the cost of cooling nearly doubles the consumption estimate for each PC. My upgrade to a Sun Ray 170 didn't noticibly slow the oil consumption counter on, but it's a step in the right direction.

1One of the weirdest flaws is that Kyoto doesn't consider the effects of local climate. Warm winters have actually reduced U.S. energy consumption in the recent years and put the U.S. closer to its unsigned proposed targets than many signatories. Another is that Kyoto encourages industries to move from CO2 efficient economies such as Denmark to less efficient "coal burning" economies in the Kyoto-exempt world. While this might help level the worldwide economy, it could actually increase global CO2 output.
2 "Clean coal" usually refers to the reduction of NO2, SO2, Mercury and other toxic pollutants. The U.S. environmental protection agency doesn't currently consider CO2 as a pollutant. So-called "clean coal" usually produces just as much CO2 as dirty coal.

Update:I've corrected the original number based on the 40W typical consumption of SunRay 170s. To get the original numbers you'd have to turn off a reading lamp too.

Wednesday Jun 01, 2005

Arklow offshore wind farm and other energy news

This is good news, Ireland's first offshore windfarm went live a few days ago. It's 10 miles offshore and each 104 meter radius G.E. is rated at 3.6 Megawatts. Awesome! I think there is already a sailboat race planned to go past there. It was also interesting to hear that Warren Buffet was investing in a Scottish energy company. One of Scotland's energy companies is investigating wave energy. Between Scottish waves and Irish wind, we could probably supply most of the E.U.s energy needs.

In other environmental news, my great Aunt is president of an Iowa renewable energy organization. She started using biodiesel in her new car partly because it was cheaper than regular diesel. She sent me this irish biodiesel link but the only diesel I use is to heat my house. My next door neighbors use turf, which is sort of renewable, if you don't mind waiting a few thousand years. What's the catch to biodiesel? I think it's that governments don't collect as much tax from biodiesel. I began using ethanol blended gasoline 10 years ago because it was taxed less and therefore cheaper than regular gasoline. A few years later it was mandated and it became more expensive!

Now the bad news. Someone has measured a slowing of the gulf stream. It's time to put on a wooly sweater.

Friday Apr 22, 2005

Earth day today

A few weeks ago when my parents visited, we took the cheapest flight we could find to Europe, which was to Copenhagen...the most expensive city in the world. So much for being penny wise. We visited Hamlet's Kronberg castle in Elsinore, took a canal tour, walked around Nyhaven and reintroduced my parents to the snowy weather and Kringle they left behind in Racine Wisconsin. We built our daughter's first little snowman while we were waiting for a train. On the short train ride between Copenhagen and Elsinore, we saw this offshore wind park. I thought it was interesting because I once suggested a Lake Michigan offshore wind park as replacement for one of the three coal power plants being planned near Racine. The map above shows class 2 wind onshore, only 200-300W/m2 on a 50m platform but class 3-5 offshore which could be up to 600W/m2 (well above the "break even" point for wind energy.) On certain windy winter nights, Denmark produces more than 100% of its energy from wind, so it is certainly possible.

and offshore wind park near Copenhagen

I spoke with a power industry expert about the rising consumption and the industry's belief that electricity demand will continue to grow rapidly. I have some doubts about that. Between 1970 and 2005 the economy of Wisconsin grew rapidly and baby boomers came of age. Now nearly every Wisconsin home has an electric clothes dryer, an electric dishwasher, air conditioning, halogen lights, color television(s), desktop PC(s) and outdoor lights. None of these devices were common in 1970. A few trends have gone in the opposite direction. CF lights use less than 1/2 the energy of incandescents, microwave ovens use less than ordinary ovens. Modern water heaters, televisions, furnaces and air conditioners are much more efficient than their mid 1970s ancestors. In Ireland and Japan I encountered energy conservation technology I'd never thought of such as tankless water heaters. I'm optimistic that an offshore windfarm could make coal plant #1 unecessary and energy conservation and technology could make coal plant #2 unecessary...unless someone thinks of another really inefficient way of using electricity. John Muir, a Scottish-born Wisconsin naturalist, helped inspire president Teddy Roosevelt with the idea of a national park system and Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson founded earth day on April 22, 1970. I don't think we're out of ideas for improving our relationship with the world we live in.

"The ultimate test of a man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard." -- Gaylord Nelson

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." -- John Muir

Sunday Feb 06, 2005

Sailboat beats Dublin Bus

Dublin Bay entrance This isn't the best time of year for sailing in Ireland but the weather cooperated on Saturday. We sailed my friend's boat to Dun Laoghaire to have it assessed for a possible trade up. This was the least amount of wind I'd sailed in in Dublin, about 15-20 knots out of the west veering west-southwest. Eyghtheen-24's aren't the fastest sailboat design on the planet, but we averaged a respectable 5.7 Miles/hour. It took us about 2 hours and 13 minutes to travel the 12.7 miles across Dublin bay.

Ideally we would have taken the DART back, but the weirdly planned upgrade project makes it impossible to DART from Dun Laoghaire to anywhere north of Connolly station for 18 months of weekends. So we took Dublin Bus from Dun Loaghaire to near the GPO, walked to the number 42 bus stop and took the 42 bus home. Because of the DART problem, traffic in Dublin was terrible so this journey took more than 2 1/2 hours. This made me wonder why no one has taken advantage of high oil prices and reintroduced sail assisted ferries for locations such as Dublin Bay where the wind is nearly always strong. A modern sailing catemaran could probably cover the distance twice as fast as my friend's sailboat, which would certainly make it competitive with Dublin Bus.

Update: Of course I'm not the first to have thought of this, a hybrid wind and solar powered ferry is already operating in Sydney.

Update: To put things in perspective, (and put me in my place!) Ellen MacArthur sailed 27,000 miles around the world, averaging 14.5 mile/hour 350 miles/day to set a new world record. Way to go Ellen! This is an awesome acheivement which isn't very well understood by today's narrowly focused sports media. The article I linked to seems to have transposed multihulls with monohulls in a few places. Multihulls
capsize and when they do it is nearly impossible to recover. One transoceanic multihull sailer had to cut his way out from the bottom of a multihull a few years back. Another thing you'll notice about multihulls is that the mast must be thicker and stronger to compensate for the fact that the boat can't "heel over" to absorb some of the energy of wind gust. Imagine putting an enormous sail on a telephone pole sized mast and then hearing the mast creak in a rapidly rising wind. Do you take the sail down? If something breaks, there is no one around for a thousand miles...

Thursday Sep 30, 2004

SUN beats HP, IBM, APPLE, TI, MICROSOFT... in EPA's BWC campaign

O.K. I have no idea how Microsoft placed, certainly not in the top 20. Sun tied with Cisco for 5th place in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Best Workplace for Commuters (BWC) campaign. Kudo's to Intel for ranking first, we'll get you next year! The great thing about this competition is that everyone wins. Employers pay less in energy and real-estate costs and get more productive employees, employees have less stress, more money, less unproductive time away from their families on the road, insurance companies pay less auto and life insurance claims, cities spend less tax money on transportation infrastructure, prosperity is geographically more evenly distributed... The only real losers are those who sell oil. And with the price hovering around $50/barrel I'm not shedding many tears.

Russia's cabinet ratified the Kyoto agreement today (Clinton signed Kyoto, knowing that U.S. congress would not ratify it.) Since most developing nations are exempt, Russia and Canada are the two large signatories with continental climates most similar to the U.S. Local climate is a variable Kyoto doesn't consider, but if Russia and Canada can pull it off, the U.S. should be able to. How about this as a new challenge to replace the space race? The U.S. led the world in the reduction of CFCs, DDT, PCBs, Lead, mercury, asbestos, why is it dragging its feet on CO2? It would take a shift from a 19th century industrial way of thinking. Efficiency is more important than power, productivity is more important than time or place. It might not be a coincidence that previously agricultural societies such as Ireland have done well in adopting IT and a 21st century way of thinking.

Tuesday Aug 10, 2004

Persistence of technology... Part 2: Sustainable hardware

Like many science techies, I like to keep up with the latest technology. But I also have a concern for the environment. So I end up with a museum of old computers in my basement and attic. I hate to put them in a landfill, yet what can I do with them? Fortunately a few electronics recycling organizations have been founded and some manufacturers have offered to bear the cost of recycling consumer electronics. In addition to this, software such as the linux terminal server project allows new uses for old x86 hardware.

But that's solving the problem after the fact. Is it possible to design long lasting computer hardware? I have heard legends of a particular company's server running unmaintained in a bricked over wiring closet for years. Should we expect hardware to last 25 years or at least 10? Is it too much to expect that our computer's case and power supply can be reused for two Moore's law doublings or at least through the next OS upgrade? Some companies rely on proprietary standards and planned obsolescence to force customer upgrades before they would otherwise be necessary. But shouldn't consumers demand the ability to upgrade components, software and services without having to visit the landfill every eighteen months? Moore's observation has held over the past couple of decades, but as this curve flattens and disposal costs increase, it will become less cost effective to replace hardware on such a short time scale.

When we need a brighter or more efficient light we don't have to replace the lamp or light fixture we just replace the bulb. Twenty years ago we expected this level of servicability from other appliances. We could give a television a new life by replacing a $10 tube. Individual components were much less reliable but the end product tended to last longer. Today a blown $1 fuse or dead battery is likely to mean that your treasured piece of technology will end up in a local landfill mountain or polluting the devloping world

Open Standards

My career as a "desktop mechanic" started in a surplus electronic parts store and progressed to the servicing of Zenith 286 PC hardware. These computers used a passive backplane which made it possible to repair or upgrade video, CPUs, disk controllers and memory by simply swapping cards. There was no need to replace the case or motherboard. But when bus standards and case form factors changed these computers were also condemed to the landfill. Open standards are the key to sustainable hardware. Imagine if the internet were based on a proprietary protocol which was tied to a single vendor's OS and hardware. That vendor would have incentive to frequently change or "upgrade" the protocol but each change could force millions of consumers to replace their hardware.

The sustainable computer

How would I design a computer that minimised its landfill footprint? When I wrote this a couple of weeks ago I wasn't sure it was worth publishing. I thought maybe no one else would care about this. But now I see that the hyper transport motherboard in Sun's new Java workstations appears to be designed for modular expansion. And Sun isn't stopping here. What if there were no motherboard at all but instead a collection of electronic scrabble tiles that fit together to make a computer. If you needed a bigger cache or faster CPU, just replace a tile. Someday maybe you'll only have to recycle a 2 centimeter semiconductor square that weighs a couple of grams instead of a 30kg box.

Yet another green advantage to ultra thin clients

I've been using a SunRay as my primary work desktop since I began working at Sun in the spring of 2001. I think they're one of the coolest bits of technology we have and I was happy to learn that they use very little electricity when compared to the typical desktop P.C. But when I started to think about designing a sustainable IT infrastructure it struck me that ultra-thin clients are ideal. When Sun Ireland upgrades to a new OS, do we send a bunch of these to the landfill? Heck no, the sysadmin upgrades the OS or software on the server, the clients do not change at all! When we want to upgrade hardware, can just add another CPU or more storage to the existing server. There's seldom need to swap out old server hardware and there is certainly no need to swap out clients! In the unlikely event that we decide to upgrade the clients, instead of scrapping hundreds huge boxes full of fans, heavy metals, 300W power supplies, motors, wires and gears... we recycle a little box with no moving parts. Any organization which uses SunRay servers can immediately reuse another company's SunRay clients by simply plugging them into their own corporate network.

I'm not sure whether to put this entry in the Environment or the Sun category. I think it's pretty cool that it would fit into both!

Monday Jul 26, 2004

Wind and tide in Malahide

I helped a friend fix up a sailboat he purchased from a racer in Donegal. We replaced broken parts, checked for leaks, slapped 6 layers of tar paint on the keel and 2 layers of anti-fouling bottom paint. We were anxious to take it out Friday but we learned that it is only possible to get in and out of Malahide estuary within 3 hours either side of high tide. So we waited until Saturday when small craft advisories indicated winds up to force 7 (near gale.) Fortunately "Another whiskey" was equipped with a roller furling jib. 1/3 of a jib was plenty enough to get us up near the Howth Yacht Club racers at Ireland's eye and then out to Lambay. A 15kw wind turbine stood as the only obvious reminder of post 19th century civilization on the green island of cattle, wallabees and birds. We managed to log about 20 miles without ever hoisting a mainsail. It took much longer to get back home because wind and tide were against us. The current out of Malahide inlet runs over 3 knots and was harnessed to power tidal mills more than 350 years ago. Ireland's wind energy potential is also enormous. Wind potential has been estimated at more than 500% of Ireland's electricity consumption. A few entrepreneurs have decided to take advantage of this. Unfortunately U.S. political momentum, subsidies and environmental loopholes are currently weighted in favor of fossil fuels. A century from now maybe Chicago will be known as the big smoke and Dublin will become the windy city!



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