Archive for February, 2005

Economics of climate change

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

Big feature in the Globe yesterday on the economic impacts of climate change. Some major institutional investors such as pension plans and retirement funds are asking the companies they invest in tough questions about their ‘risk exposure’ to Kyoto. They want to know how much the companies will have to spend in the future to reduce emissions, how well they are positioned to deal with shifts to alternative energy sources, and what the economic consequences will be to their investments. I think it’s quite promising to see the investment and business community ratcheting up their discource on Kyoto; it almost makes it seem like they realize it’s something they’ll have to deal with whether they like it or not.

There’s a sidebar about green investing. I know most students don’t have much money to invest but it’s still interesting to read about some of the supposedly socially/environmentally responsible investments out there.

Artificial intelligence and the environment

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

The NYTimes today has an article on the future of war fought with artificial intelligence, “a 21st-century fighting force of automated tanks, helicopters and planes, remote missile launchers and even troops of robot soldiers – all coordinated by a self-configuring network of satellites, sensors and supercomputers.”

This is little different from the myriad computer models and satellite photos with which we make life-and-death decisions about the environment. Protect this habitat here. Put that dam in there. The NYTimes article reminds us of the conundrum inherent in leaving everything to the computer:

The whole point of automation is to rise above human fallibility – knee-jerk decisions, misunderstood orders, cowardly retreats. Machines are faster, more focused, impermeable to propaganda and, at least for now, they don’t talk back.

As the thinking machinery continues to evolve, the strategists will keep asking themselves the same question: Is there still a good reason to trust ourselves or should we defer to a computer’s calculations?

In other words, is it better to model the environment or better to walk in the woods? Base judgements on our spiritual connections to nature or let the computer determine the optimal solution? If nature is socially constructed, that is an individual’s mental vision built up of past experiences, biases and culture, then whom/what should we believe? Would a computer be less biased?

Podcasting the environment

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

There’s lots been written on the value of the Internet for environmental activism, such as listserves, webpages, blogs, wikis, etc.

Could podcasting be the new wave of environmental activism on the web? Check out Tired of TiVo? Beyond Blogs? Podcasts Are Here

Recursive Zoe

Friday, February 18th, 2005

Despite last night’s talk by Donna Haraway on companion animals, I am not showing Derrida’s cat. Instead I offer a recursive Zoe (see last Friday’s post). For more on recursion, which links computation and nature together, click here.

The Green TCP/IP Project

Thursday, February 17th, 2005

While browsing around to find litterature for my paper proposal, I found this interesting website: The Green TCP/IP project.
For the ones that would not know TCP/IP is the communication protocol that the internet uses. This protocol is quite old and would be energy unnefficient.

“Studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) show that about 74 TWh/yr of electricity (which is approximately $6 billion per year) is consumed by the Internet in the USA alone, of which 24 TWh/yr or 32% could be saved with full use of power management on desktop computers, currently the most common of edge devices on the Internet. Unfortunately, due to limits of existing protocols and architectures, networked desktop computers typically remain powered-up during frequent and often lengthy periods of idleness. As network devices, they are prevented from operating in an energy-efficient manner due to their need to respond to network transactions of various types without warning.”

If you check out the literature section of the website you will see that there are interesting studies on the subject.

Reflecting on Java

Thursday, February 17th, 2005

J-S’s proposal to research the social and environmental impacts of the Java architecture prompted me to see if there was anything on the social construction of Java, which led me to this. Enjoy.

Kyoto Protocol Enacted

Wednesday, February 16th, 2005

Today’s the day that the Kyoto Protocol comes into effect. If Canada fails to meet its targets in reducing greenhouse gases then it faces punishment (e.g., it will be unable to sell emissions credits). Of course, according to the article, Canada has already pushed back its industrial targets.

It has just been announced that Montreal will host the conference that is a follow-up to Kyoto in December. At this conference, some 10,000 attendees will hammer out the protocol that will supercede Kyoto when it expires in 2012. Maybe Canada actually have a concrete policy by then. And being in our city, maybe we can have an impact too. What do you think we should do?

The Sokal Affair

Tuesday, February 15th, 2005

An interesting thing I discovered while trying to gain some more background on relativism, was various accounts of the Sokal affair. The Sokal affair was something of a big deal in the Postmoderist world, wherein Alan Sokal, a physics professor at NYU, wrote a deliberately nonsensical paper in his own words, “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, and submitted it to Social Text, a postmodern journal published by Duke.

The same day his article was published, he revealed in the journal Lingua Franca that in fact his article was meant as a parody. Of course, scandal ensued, with the story being picked up by many newspapers around the world, and various angry articles written about it.

In defense of Social Text, they are not a peer reviewed journal for the reason that they wished to promote more original research, and thus provide less of a guarantee about the accuracy of its articles. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that if someone like Chomsky were to write an incomprehensible treatise on nothing, many journals would be tempted to publish it simply on the weight of his name alone.

There are many sources of knowledge about the hoax, Sokal’s Website and Wikipedia provide a good overview.

Of course, I’m sure many of us have toyed with the idea of doing something similar, in both arts and sciences: whether to insert jargon in order to bewilder whoever happens to be marking it, that they will hopefully be fooled into believing the work is credible, or that they will be too baffled (and too proud to admit it) to comment on it. In high school, I played with this a little bit, where I would use two very uncommon words (correctly) in essays in close proximity, followed by a completely made up word that sounded ok. On one occaison, the first two words were underlined, however the third wasn’t, leading me to believe my teacher looked up the first two in the dictionary, and then seeing that they checked out, gave me the benefit of the doubt. Of course, Sokal took this a step further, by openly rubbing it in the faces of those who had bought his self described parody.

The hoax also serves to highlight the disconnect in academia which exists in many places between the arts and sciences. I can’t say I’ve ever really discussed social construction, relativism, or postmodern thought in university prior to this class (although I’ve only taken three arts classes) and I don’t imagine I’m alone. Likewise, I don’t imagine too many arts students have taken a lot of physics or mathematics courses. I suppose it’s a product of having undergraduate education becoming so focused, I feel like it’s not uncommon for people in the same field to be completely unaware of each others specializations.

Science, computer models and politics

Monday, February 14th, 2005

In politics all it requires is a little tweak of the computer model, perhaps a change in the units of analysis, and you get the result that the politicians want.

From: Ecological Society of America: grants, jobs, news
Subject: Survey: political intervention in science pervasive at USFWS

Hello everyone,
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) held a press conference to announce the disturbing results of a survey of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field scientists: political intervention to alter scientific findings has become pervasive within the agency. At field offices around the country, USFWS scientists tell of being asked to change scientific information, remove scientific facts or come to conclusions that are not supported by the science. As a result, the scientists say, endangered and threatened wildlife are not being protected as intended by the Endangered Species Act.

Despite agency directives to scientists not to reply to the survey even on their own time nearly 30% of the scientists responded. You can find a summary of the survey, its methodology, and a summary of results broken down by region here or by clicking here.

The survey paints a vivid picture of the systemic abuse of science and the need for change. Results show that:

Large numbers of agency scientists reported political interference in scientific determinations. Nearly half of all respondents whose work is related to endangered species (44%) report that they have been directed for nonscientific reasons to refrain from making findings that protect species. One in five have been instructed to compromise their scientific integrity, reporting that they have been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a USFWS scientific document.” In the Southwest region, that number was even higher -closer to one in three.

Agency scientists reported being afraid to speak frankly about issues and felt constrained in their role as scientists. 42% said they could not publicly express “concerns about the biological needs of species and habitats without fear of retaliation,” while 30% were afraid to do so even within the agency. A third felt they are not allowed to do their jobs as scientists.

There has been a significant strain on staff morale. Half of all scientists reported that morale is poor to extremely poor; only 12% believed morale to be good or excellent. And 64% did not feel the agency is moving in the right direction.

Political intrusion has undermined the USFWS’s ability to fulfill its mission of protecting wildlife from extinction. Three out of four staff scientists felt that the USFWS is not “acting effectively to maintain or enhance species and their habitats.”

In one of numerous essays submitted on the topic of improving scientific integrity at USFWS, one biologist wrote: “We are not allowed to be honest and forthright…I have 20 years of federal service in this and this is the worst it has ever been.” Another scientist reported that Department of Interior officials “have forced upper-level managers to say things that are incorrect.” A manager wrote: “There is a culture of fear of retaliation in mid-management.”

Encouragingly, it is clear from the survey that USFWS scientists are committed to and proud of their work and believe in the potential of the agency to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats. However, political intervention is having a chilling effect on the ability of USFWS scientists to carry out the agency’s mission.

UCS has joined with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to design and conduct surveys of several government agencies to document the abuse of science and determine the pervasiveness off the problem. The surveys will assist the scientific community in documenting that the abuse of science is an ongoing, serious concern. We are looking into ways that the results of the USFWS survey can be used to further a more thorough investigation of this problem.

It has taken decades to build worldclass scientific staff at the USFWS and other government science agencies. The future ability of the agency to fulfill its mission will be severely hampered if this political interference is allowed to continue. To restore scientific integrity at the USFWS, at least two reforms are needed: there must be protections for scientists who are asked to take actions that violate their scientific integrity and the Bush administration must recognize at its highest levels that manipulating or suppressing science for political reasons is unethical.

signed: Michael Halpern, Outreach Coordinator Restoring Scientific Integrity in Federal Policy Making Campaign Union of Concerned Scientists, Dean A. Hendrickson, Ph.D. Curator of Ichthyology, University of Texas, Texas Memorial Museum, Texas Natural History Collections, others.

See also last week’s LA Times, U.S. Scientists Say They Are Told to Alter Findings

No more phones in your dormitory

Saturday, February 12th, 2005

The Washington Post has an article on universities debating whether to ‘pull the plug’ on landlines (i.e., traditional phones) in their dormitories. Apparently so many students have cell phones that they rarely use the landlines. Historically, universities have used surcharges on the phone calls to finance the landlines (and more, because the article says that the phone service used to be a “cash cow”). Now they’re sinking lots of money into a service that the students seldom use.

To cover students, such as international students, who do not own cellphones the universities are thinking of loaning them cellphones. But wait. It doesn’t stop there.

[Washington, DC’s] American University already feels unplugged. The campus is wireless, so students can type e-mails and study on laptops from couches, the steps of the library and benches outside. Snatches of one-sided conversations drift by as students walk to class talking on their cells. Next fall, the university will provide business school students the latest BlackBerry devices.

Another interesting tidbit from the article is how youth have socially reconstructed the purpose of the phone call. Explains one such student:

“It used to be you’d call someone because you had a reason to call,” said Ian Johnson, 28, a graduate student at American. “Now you call because you’re bored waiting for the bus to come. . . . It’s almost a noise pollution.”

So here we have the connection to the environment. Cellphones are the new noise pollution.

For other environmental reasons, this may not be a good university policy. See Expert spells it out: health fears mean young should not use mobile phones.

Do computers “feel” strain?

Saturday, February 12th, 2005

I am in the middle of scanning a few maps for my ecological restoration class. I put down a map presenting the number of thunderstoms…. in the United States and pressed scan…

Next thing I knew, I caught myself FEELING BAD for the computer! I felt sorry for having to put the computer through such great strain, by asking it to import an image via a scanner. Why did I have this feeling? Becuase the scanner window in photoshop was shaking as the lamp was moving inside the scanner. Or, at least to me it was shaking – same as a person would shake in fear, anxiety or shock. I guess what was really happening is that the window was flashing – light, dark, light, dark… I’m not sure why this is, but I’m sure it has a very logical and precise explanation.

Do we personify computers like we personify Sally the cat or George the dog? Are they any people that name their computers? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard family members or friends say, “give the computer a rest”. I wonder if couples argue overthe decision of whether to get a pet or computer to add to their homes.

I certainly won’t grieve over the “death” of my computer when its time comes – i will be happy to replace it with a better one… I don’t know if all you cat lovers would feel the same way about your cats, and we certainly wouldn’t feel that way about a family member.

My vote is to for computers as material objects that have no emotional significance in our lives.

See is believing

Friday, February 11th, 2005

I linked to this site in the last post, but I wanted to mention it again because it’s cool:, publishing information about new technologies that can save the world

Some examples of pages on the site:

A clickable map that shows the impacts, good and bad of cell phones

GPS mapping: Risking lives

The battle over maps and names


Friday, February 11th, 2005

There’s a lot being written about Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse (most recently the NYTimes). Mr. Diamond is of course the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he argues that societies rose or fell dependent on their ability to cope with warfare (both the impacts of and tools for), disease and industrial development. Guns, Germs, and Steel won the Pulitzer Prize, the first Pulitzer, I believe won by a geographer.

In his new book, Diamond argues that the success of cultures/colonies can be attributed to a culture’s willingness to face the limits of its local environment (and increasingly the global environment). Now I am no big fan of structuralist and determinist arguments, that civilization hinges on what it’s been dealt, such as an icy climate or on what it’s dealt out, such as a depleted rainforest, but I am obviously sympathetic to the cause.

What struck me was a little comment in an interview he did in Salon Magazine

Interviewer: Perhaps one difference between ourselves and the Inuit is that we can rely more on technology to buffer the effects of pollution. Many people these days, for instance, use Brita filters. To what extent can we and should we count on technology to protect us?

Diamond: That’s a really key question, and one that I’ve discussed with some of the most thoughtful people in the business and financial worlds. One was Bill Gates. Bill Gates is a very thoughtful person. I was really impressed by him. Nevertheless, he said — in a diffident, self-deprecating way — “Well, I think technology will solve our environmental problems, and so I’m not so concerned about them as I am other things.” But I think that he’s wrong — I know that he’s wrong.

Let me give you an example. I was born in 1937 so I remember the revolution in refrigerators that happened in my childhood, the introduction of Freon and CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons]. The refrigerator gases that were used in my childhood were things like ammonia. Of course, if they leaked they were toxic, and therefore it was hailed as a breakthrough when these supposedly nontoxic gases, the CFCs, were introduced. They were tested and under earth conditions they appeared to be perfectly benign. What people couldn’t predict was that under stratospheric conditions CFCs get broken down into substances that destroy the ozone layer, and it took 20 years to get that well established. And I see that as a metaphor for why technology alone won’t solve our problems, namely that there are lots of technologies out there and they have unexpected side effects.

So Bill Gates figures we’ll invent and compute our way out of environmental degradation and therefore collapse. We in the West have yet to reap the unintended consequence of electronics production and waste. However, the developing world keenly feels the effects of, for example, coltan in the Congo , computer waste in China). How do we compute our way out of that? Replace the coltan with something that’s potentially as destructive? Enforce green computing initiatives but ignore the damage that’s already been done to public health? Sometimes I think we’re in the midst of a collapse but don’t know it yet.

Computer Bugs

Friday, February 11th, 2005

Zoe at the keyboard
Zoe is impeding serious work (probably has strong opinions about the spirituality of Rachel Carson).

via Prof. Lisa Sideris, jointly appointed between the Faculty of Religious Studies and the School of Environment

Distributed computing project has bad news for climate change

Wednesday, February 9th, 2005

A recent report in Nature covers the first findings from the distributed computing project, The report finds that global temperatures could rise by up to 11C. This is two times the amount of other studies.

The project is remarkable because it utilized distributed computing. Distributed computing spreads out the computer processing and analysis among multiple CPUs (the chips in your computer that do the number crunching). Often these chips are located in separate computers. What’s even cooler is that the distributed computer can be your home computer. Instead of using an incredibly fast computer with multiple processors or a supercomputer, you download the software to your own PC, which runs the program while your computer is idle. The application generally shows up as a nice screensaver.

Distributed computing was first used by the SETI@Home (SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Life) project, in which separate PCs sift through packets of radio-telescope data, looking for evidence of extraterrestrial communication. It has since moved on to analyzing data for pulsars and studying protein-related diseases.

An excellent synopsis of the climate change project can be found at the BBC. They report that “More than 95,000 people have registered [to download the software], from more than 150 countries; their PCs have between them run more than 60,000 simulations of future climate. Each PC runs a slightly different computer simulation examining what happens to the global climate if levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere double from pre-industrial levels – which may happen by the middle of the century. ”

Of course, the accuracy of any model is just as dependent on its underlying assumptions as its computational power. So it will be a while before we can assess the accuracy of the dramatic temperature rise predicted by the project. However, distributed computing holds great promise for climate change, especially as the models increase in complexity and are reaching the upper limit of what can be feasibly and affordably accomplished in standard computing frameworks.

(An irreverent note. To date, distributed computing has been devoted to very serious projects. However, I’m waiting for the first silly project. How about a Shakespeare project that simulates millions of monkeys? I’d download the software.)

Get an iPod for Christmas?

Wednesday, February 9th, 2005

As we discussed in class, one of the environmental promises from the new information economy is the emergence of virtual goods. Bill Mitchell calls it “dematerialization”. We will increasingly read e-books instead of paper books and listen to mp3s instead of buying difficult-to-decompose compact discs.

Feel great that you got an iPod and are therefore helping the planet? Check out the latest offering from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition: From ipod to iwaste: trash in your pocket. Why are we targetting Apple?. Maybe dematerialization isn’t the solution to environmental degradation it’s sold to be.

Feel guilty yet? (Paraphrasing Charleton Heston, “Take my iPod? When you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”)

Technology and Religion

Wednesday, February 9th, 2005

Our origin is a great mystery, but it may not be so mysterious soon. Research into the “God Particle” in Geneva is being undertaken, to try and recreate the same conditions that resulted just after the big bang. It is known that the creation of the world with all the steps involved, all the chemical processes and exact sequence of events, was a very rare thing to have occured. In fact the odds were against us, so it seems that there must have been someone or something behind the engineering of this sequence of events. There must be some purpose that we are here. The fact that humans have been given the capacity to produce endless amounts of bits of information, reveals that we are intelligent agents, but for what purpose? I do not know. In the human body, our DNA is made up of proteins, which are engineers in themselves, very complex machines, really. But now that we know how they work, we can change our evolution patterns. We have become engineers of life itself, and this is not something we had real direct control over hundreds or thousands of years ago, this is a new emerging science. So where do we draw the line? And now that we have cracked these DNA codes, we are trying to reverse engineer the process to find answers…is this what our engineer would have wanted? It seems that technology has become the new religion, as we put so much faith in it…

Ticking time bomb, part 2

Wednesday, February 9th, 2005

Madhav Badami, a professor in Urban Planning and the School of Environment at McGill, points us to an academic article on the global hazards of e-waste:

Iles, Alastair. 2004. Mapping Environmental Justice in Technology Flows: Computer Waste Impacts in Asia. Global Environmental Politics 4(4): 76 – 107 .

In the 21st century, technology and material flows constitute an ever-growing set of global environmental change. In particular, electronic wastes are emerging as a major transnational problem. Industrial nations are shipping millions of obsolete computers to Asia yearly; Asian countries are emerging as generators of e-waste in their own right. This article argues that an environmental justice approach can help illuminate the impacts of technology and material flows. To do so, however, environmental justice definitions and methodologies need to account for how and why such flows occur. Using the case of computers, the article analyses some factors shaping the e-waste recycling chain, shows how e-waste risks depend on design and manufacturing chains, and evaluates inequalities in the ecological and health impacts of e-wastes across Asia. It proposes a definition of environmental justice as obviating the production of risk, using a framework that brings together the global production system, development models, and regulatory action.

It’s an interesting read because environmental justice is rarely conceived of as an international phenomenom. And, with the exception of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, environmental justice rarely considers hi-tech.

Is Climate Change Awareness an Innovation?

Monday, February 7th, 2005

After our class discussion about ignorance of people about climate change and passionate wake up call from Jennifer in the Blog :), I wanted to bring up an interesting analogy that I think there is between convincing the village people that boiling their water is good in the article “Diffusion of Innovation” vs convincing people (mostly westerners) that something is going wrong with earth and that stopping polluting is good.

Just has boiling water didn’t go well with the village beliefs, stopping polluting/consuming doesn’t seem to go well with western beliefs/habits of consumption/capitalism/etc… The reality is that we are brainwashed 24/7 that we have to buy more and more stuff… disposable goods, fashion, marketing & more marketing all good incitatives to make us consume more & more (this is just a few examples).

We can continue the analogy with the scientist trying to convince the people of the village by explaining them
the scientific reasons to boil the water vs the environmentalists trying to explain the scientific reasons to stop polluting. A very little percentage of the population actually understand anything of it. It comes in one hear and goes out from the other; or it is rapidly forgotten under… just everything else. Furthermore the environmentalists themselves are marginalised… although it is less and less true they are still seen by a lot of people as tree huggers, hippies and dreamers… whatever.. the point is that most people don’t relate to them, just as nobody in the village relate to the westener scientist.

So my conclusion is that climate change awareness (and environment-friendly habits) is an Innovation that currently (and unfortunately) goes against western values. As westeners have been conquering the world and propagating their values all over the globe during the last centuries… I think that we are in big troubles. It’s going to take much more than regulations, sensibilization or a Tsunami to change the way people think.

There is already a few early adopters, but how are we going to manage to diffuse that innovation to the rest of the people? This is a hard problem and maybe quite critical, but we could (& should) probably inspire ourselves and learn from the diffusion of other innovations.

pins 1, 2, 3 and 6

Sunday, February 6th, 2005

Here is another obscure item but I think you’ll like it…

In practically every modern office building and indeed in many homes, you will find hundreds if not thousands of metres of network cabling. I’m referring to the cables, slightly thicker than telephone wires, that run through walls and ceilings, are stapled under carpets, and connect computers, printers and servers to hubs, switches, and routers. They are almost always blue although sometimes the shorter ones are grey. Look around McGill and you’ll spot them; the ceiling in the basement of Burnside is a good place to look.

These days most network cabling is ushielded twisted pair (UTP) – inside that blue or grey outer sheath are a series of small copper wires twisted together, each one wrapped in its own insulation. Well before the advent of computer networking, voice communication was already requiring huge quantities of UTP cable but the modern local area network (LAN) increased the demand for this kind of cabling exponentially. It would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to estimate the amount of UTP cabling in use today. Increasingly, organizations are switching to fibre optic cables for longer distances; these cables carry thousands of times more data than their copper counterparts. And the migration to voice-over-IP technology that essentially combines voice and data on one cable is also reducing the use of UTP cabling. But the resource use by cabling of all types cannot be ignored.

Imagine all the plastic and copper needed for all that cabling and imagine what will happen to it all when eventually fibre replaces all of it. But this post is not about the basic environmental consequences of network cabling, there’s a more interesting tidbit to share…

Those blue network cables are 4-pair, which means there are 4 pairs of wire, 8 conductors total, inside each cable. At the end of the cables are RJ-45 connectors, they sort of look like oversized phone connectors. But here’s something that most people don’t know: only half of the conductors in a 4-pair UTP cable are needed. Ethernet networks, even gigabit ethernet, only use 4 wires. According to official Ethernet cabling specifications, the other 4 wires are reserved for “future use.” Now imagine all that cabling all over the world, half of all the wires inside those cables are unused, completely wasted. You could create a perfectly functioning network cable with 2 pairs instead of 4. In fact, many of the cheaper cables you find at FutureShop or RadioShack are made this way.

Why did this happen, you might be thinking. Why would they come up with a standard that only uses half the capacity of the cable? Could it go faster if they used all the wires? All good questions and maybe ones I will answer in my paper…

Some links with cabling specs, you may have to scroll to find relevant info:
Cisco Documentation
Part of course outline at Del Mar College
Information from a cable vendor