Computing (hardware)

THIS WEEK, the British Computer Society launched its new identity, as part of what it calls the ‘transformation’ programme. In fact it now wants to be called only ‘the BCS’, along the lines of BAA and HSBC. But I predict that those of us who have been BCS members for some time will find it hard to drop the habitual mention of British, or Computer, or for that matter Society (BCS now wants to be called a ‘Chartered Institute’ instead).

On Wednesday, 23 September, the BCS held a Member Groups Convention at the Royal Society’s building in Carlton Terrace. The BCS is home to scores of local branches, some International Sections, plus more than fifty Specialist Groups. The ‘SGs’ are volunteer-run societies, embedded within the BCS, which cater to special interests such as Fortran, computer history and conservation, project management, health informatics, security, interaction design, information retrieval, artificial intelligence… the list is a long one. In addition, there is a very active Young Professionals Group.

The activities of the member groups form a vital part of the life of the BCS, and the Convention was held so that the elected and employed officers of the Society, I mean the Institute, could tell a collection of the organisers and activists from those member groups about the BCS’s new orientation and aspirations for the future. It also gave an opportunity for those of us who work as volunteers within the BCS member groups to think about how we can contribute to these goals.

Adrian Walmsley, BCS vice-president for member services, stands beside one of the two London cabs sporting BCS marketing messages.

Adrian Walmsley, BCS vice-president for member services, stands beside one of the two London cabs sporting BCS marketing messages.

The new visual identity of the BCS is a strong green colour, suffused with yellow glowing bits, and a half-shield logo device — as illustrated on one of two taxis currently carrying the BCS’s advertising messages on the streets of London. (Appropriately, the taxi shown has WiFi inside and a satellite data uplink!). There is also a new slogan to accompany the logo — Enabling the information society — and it is this new mission statement that I want to comment on here.

Of information and computers

As Alan Turing predicted, the conversion of data and information into numbers allowed glorified electronic adding machines to evolve into general-purpose information appliances. The Lyons catering company took a revolutionary step when it commissioned the creators of the EDSAC machine at Cambridge University to design a general-purpose business computer, which made its début in 1951 as the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO computer. This was pressed into service collating the requirements of Lyons’ nationwide chain of tea-rooms, managing the inventory, and controlling the production and dispatch of baked products to the tea-shops.

Today, only the smallest enterprises are run without computers, and the management of data and information using computers is central to the operations of government and public services too. But computing is also essential to scientific research and technology development — and has itself become the object of scientific research and technology development.

I have no idea just when the term ‘Information Technology’ or ‘IT’ started to be used as a synonym for computing, but I suspect the reason was to ‘big up’ the image of computing and its practitioners to business bosses and politicians. Personally I do not like the term. Firstly, because there are many other uses for computers apart from in managing information, and calling all computing ‘IT’ ignores that. Secondly, many non-computing technologies have been employed through the centuries in connection with information, for example in the writing and printing of books.

Hence my reservations about the BCS’s move to suppress pronuncation of the C-word, while describing itself as the Chartered Institute for IT.

The information society

On the other hand, I feel very positive about the adoption by the BCS of ‘Enabling the information society’ as a statement of its mission; which I find both humble and ambitious at the same time.

Why humble? Because the slogan does not claim that computer people are the only heroes of the information society. There are, after all, other people who know a thing or two about how to deal with information: researchers, teachers, writers and editors, publishers, library and information science people.

Consider my craft practice as a writer, information designer, illustrator, photographer, typographer and media producer. I used to practice all these crafts without a computer, but without a doubt the Apple Macintosh, the PostScript language, digital cameras, all that lovely software, and of course the Internet, have been very enabling indeed.

The computer and communications industries, now thoroughly converged, are providing the world with the infrastructure and tools which information and media workers like me rely on to create, manage and disseminate information products, and various cultural creations too. And it’s not only about production: in the last two decades, what I prefer to call CCTs — computing and communications technologies — have also become the means by which ordinary people access information, enjoy cultural media creations like films and music, and communicate with each other. Thus CCTs, and the people who know how to create them and make them work, are essential enablers to all these practices.

It’s true, ‘information society’ is more of a sloganeering term than a clear definition. There is some reasonably authoritative precedent for it, however. In 2003 in Geneva and 2005 in Tunis, the United Nations held a two-part conference called WSIS, the World Summit for the Information Society. It was managed by UNESCO and the ITU, and I’m afraid the British Government didn’t take it very seriously, but at least I can say that the BCS Specialist Group community did.

Led by John Lindsay, then chair of the Developing Countries Specialist Group, a group of us held a workshop in January 2003 to consider the WSIS challenge and themes, and what might be the response of professional societies working within the information sphere. (Full account of the meeting as PDF, available at the Internet Archive.)

Certainly on the UNESCO side of the WSIS organisation, the concept of the Information Society carried with it a commitment to promoting wider access to the technical means of accessing and sharing information. In preparatory papers for WSIS, UNESCO also identified the need to promote what they called ‘information literacy’, the skills people need to be able to find the information they need, evaluate its worth and make critical use of it. And information literacy was the topic we focussed on in the January 2003 BCS-DCSG workshop.

The BCS as enabler

In explaining the importance of the new mission statement, BCS President Elisabeth Sparrow spoke to the Member Groups Convention of several ways in which the BCS can work towards enabling the information society.

For a start, society needs information-oriented computer systems that are fit for purpose, and one of the BCS’s principal aims is to promote professionalism among computing practitioners. The BCS has also committed itself to bridging the gap between education, practice and research. I would expect the member groups to contribute a lot to this bridging process, because they already provide a focus for collaboration between academics and practitioners.

The BCS is a charity and has a Royal Charter which commits it to working for the public good. One of the commitments described in the transformation launch document (also entitled Enabling the information society) is to ‘Informing public policy on how IT can contribute to society’ and another is to ‘Ensuring everyone benefits from IT’.

To be honest, in recent years the BCS and its member groups have had a difficult relationship; the groups have felt under-appreciated and over-controlled, and there is suspicion that there are some BCS staff who wish the groups would just go away and let the staff get on with running the whole show. But the mood at this week’s Member Groups Convention was much more positive, and with this new expression of the BCS’s role as helping to enable the information society, we have an agenda with which the member groups can engage with enthusiasm, and to which we have a lot to contribute.

This I think is particularly true for the Specialist Groups, many of which are engaged with external ‘communities of use’ for computer and communications technologies and information-handling systems (health informatics is a good example, and so is electronic publishing). In a way we act as a natural interface between the BCS and wider communities of information users.

One informal project that I have been involved in running is the discussion community KIDMM (on Knowledge, Information, Data and Metadata Management), which started as a collaboration between members of a dozen or so BCS SGs, held a founding workshop in March 2006 and now, three and a half years on, has held three other events and has eighty members of its discussion list. Most are BCS members, but many have joined us from other communities equally committed to enabling the information society.


TANTALUM is probably not one of the elements on the Periodic Table that you’ll remember from school chemistry. Dull grey and chemically inert, its principal use is for making electronic components, specifically tantalum capacitors which are capable of achieving high capacitance in a very small volume. Therefore tantalum, despite its scarcity, is in demand for use in mobile phones, PDAs and laptop computers.

Map of militias and minerals in eastern DRC

Map of militias and minerals in eastern DRC: click to enlarge

Tragically, the value of coltan is linked to the current round of bloody wars in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The columbite-tantalite ore from which both tantalum and niobium are extracted, colloquially known as coltan, is found in relatively easy-to-work surface deposits in the provinces of South Kivu (at Mwenga, Kamituga, Shabunda, Kalehe and Kabare) and North Kivu (at Masisi, Walikale and Lubera). There it is mined by ‘artisanal’ methods, by forced and extorted labour under the control of the various militias who are terrorizing the area, and exported to the world market to fund their acquisition of weapons.

Coltan is not the only one of Congo’s rich resources that are being pillaged in this way. An estimated US $70m worth of cassiterite (tin ore) is also reaching the world market from war-torn Kivu. Indeed, from late 2002 the price of coltan took a tumble after the US Defense Logistics Agency unloaded its tantalum stockpile onto the open market, but the price of tin went up after Japan and Europe enacted safety legislation to have lead-based solder replaced with tin solder for electronics fabrication.

In this morning’s (11 Nov) edition of Business Daily on the BBC World Service radio, the focus was on cassiterite. Global Witness, through its researcher Carina Tertsakian, has been keeping an eye on the exploitation of Congo’s resources for several years. In February 2007, Global Witness called on the UK Government to call to account a Wembley-based business, Afrimex, run by Ketan Kotecha, who has been buying coltan and cassiterite in the region of Goma since 1996, to the profit of the Goma faction of the RCD, the Rally for Congolese Democracy. The cassiterite is taken out through Uganda and Rwanda, and so to the Indian Ocean coast, from which it is transported to smelters in India and China, Thailand and Malaysia. There is also reportedly a cassiterite and tantalum smelting plant in the Rwandan town of Gisenji, just across the border from Goma, operated by a South African firm (MPA) whose founders have links to the Rwandan Patriotic Front party (see 2007 article by David Barouski).

Congo has many other minerals such as uranium, cobalt, diamonds and gold. The rival militias of the FNI and the UPC in the Ituri region across the border from Uganda are involved in organising the artisanal mining and smuggling of gold, and there have been documented dealings between the FNI and the multinational company AngloGold Ashanti around the operation of a mine at Mongbwalu.

THE MURDEROUS FACTIONALISM of eastern Congo, and the motivations of Congo’s neighbours in meddling in her misery, are difficult to understand: these are convoluted ethnic tensions with their roots in the colonial past, combined with opportunistic looting. Let me attempt an explanation, as I understand it.

How ethnic tensions crossed borders

The current fighting, in which the rebel general Laurent Nkunda is currently threatening to topple the Congolese government of Joseph Kabila, is just the latest round in a chain of Congo wars from 1996 that have cost the lives of millions. However, the roots of the Kivu and Ituri conflicts can be traced back even further, and over the border into Rwanda and Uganda.

After the First World War, the Belgians who controlled the Congo also took over the territories of Rwanda and Burundi from Germany under a League of Nations mandate. The Belgian policy was to strengthen aristocratic Tutsi dominance over the Hutu, strengthening the ethnic distinction between them, just as they similarly promoted the ethnic Hema over the Lembu in the Ituri region of North Congo.

(Note: the Tutsi and Hema do seem to share some genetic traits that suggest a different and perhaps more northerly origin, compared to the Hutu and Lembu — notably a lack of sickle-cell trait and high lactose tolerance. But with intermarriage and social mixing, the Tutsi commoners and Hutu seem to have been on a converging trend that Belgian policy artificially discouraged.)

In response to Tutsi dominance, the Hutu in Rwanda organised for their ‘emancipation’ around Gregoire Kayibanda and his PARMEHUTU party. Fighting broke out in November 1959, in which thousands of Tutsis were killed and many more fled into southern Uganda and into the South Kivu province of the Congo, where they became known as the Bunyamalengi.

The Ugandan governments of Idi Amin, and then Milton Obote, refused to allow the Tutsi refugee community to integrate in Ugandan society. However, when Yoweri Museveni launched his civil war against Obote from the south west of Uganda, the so-called ‘war in the bush’ (1981–86), he recruited a large number of Tutsi refugees into his National Resistance Army. Thus when Museveni came to power, and the NRA was rebadged as the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), it contained a large contingent of battle-trained Tutsi soldiers and officers, among them the current Rwanda president, Paul Kagame, who at that time was a head of military intelligence in Museveni’s army.

The native Ugandan officers may have resented the Rwandan Tutsi role in their army; in any case, the Tutsis’ aspirations lay elsewhere. They formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1986, trained their army, and in 1990 launched an attack on Rwanda with Ugandan support. (Note: the French provided support for the Hutu régime during this fighting.) After 3 years of warfare, the Rwandan military dictatorship under the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana signed a cease-fire agreement with the RPF, the Arusha Accords, and the United Nations sent a security force, UNAMIR.

Assassination, genocide and aftermath

What happened next is a matter of much conjecture. Did Habyarimana intend to abide by the Accords, which would have ceded much power to the Tutsis? In any case, six months later, his jet plane was shot down by missile fire as it approached Kigali airport, killing all aboard. Controversity is still rife as to whether the assassination was the work of the RPF, the Ugandans, or an extreme faction among the Hutu leadership seeking to wreck the Accords.

Almost immediately, the Hutu-led army and the Interahamwe militia groups embarked on a well-organised campaign of genocide within Rwanda against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu: some 800,000 deaths in about one hundred days between April and July 1994. It is notable that the UN forces did not intervene to stop the massacre of Tutsis.

The RPF responded with an attack which occupied the north, east and south of Rwanda by June, and by July they had reached Kigali. Now France obtained UN Security Council support for a 3000-man military intervention, Opération Turquoise, which set up a protection zone in the west of the country through which two million Hutus, including the military and the Interahamwe killers, fled into the Congo (then known as Zaïre), principally to North Kivu.

Remnants of those Hutus who escaped to the Congo are now organised under the control of ex-army and ex-Interahamwe militia, as the ‘Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda’ or FDLR. Thus Rwanda, Uganda and Congo had fallen into a pattern of cross-border strife.

Rwanda and Uganda intervene in Congo

From 1994 to 1996, Paul Kagame’s new Tutsi-dominated Rwanda government took vengeance against the Hutus in Rwanda: for example, refugee camps were shelled with heavy artillery. In 1996, Kagame’s RPF forces invaded Zaïre, in part to seek out and destroy the Hutu forces there, but also to join an alliance with the Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila. Yoweri Museveni also threw the Ugandan UPDF forces into the civil war (the First Congo War) on the side of Kabila and Kagame.

The Rwandan army, the RPF, also armed and organised their Tutsi brothers who had been resident in Kivu since the ’sixties: the Banyamulenge. Acting together as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaïre (ADFL), these forces first destroyed a series of Hutu refugee camps, then turned towards the capital, Kinshasa. Lacking popular support, the old and corrupt régime of Mobutu Sese Seko collapsed — and on 17 May 1997, Kabila declared himself president of the ‘Democratic Republic of Congo’.

‘Africa’s World War’

THE SECOND CONGO WAR broke out in August 1998. In the following five years, eight African nations and 25 or so armed groups would engage in a bloody struggle that claimed 5.4 million lives – mostly to disease and starvation. The conflict was triggered when Kabila, seeking to be rid of his erstwhile allies, ordered all Rwandan and Ugandan forces out of the country.

The Tutsi Banyamulenge in the town of Goma, feeling threatened, revolted; Rwanda responded with immediate military assistance, and a well-armed Tutsi rebel group was set up: the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). Rwandan and Burundian forces entered the war, as did the Ugandan UPDF. Within a couple of weeks, these anti-Kabila forces had control of the diamond centre of Kisangani and the Inga hydropower station, and Kabila’s régime seemed doomed.

But Kabila was rescued because Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola entered the war on the government’s side. (Both Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and to a lesser extent Namibia’s San Njoma had significant mineral exploitation ventures in Congo.) Chad, Libya and Sudan also joined in on Kabila’s side, and financial support was forthcoming from US, Canadian, Australian and Japanese mining and diamond companies in exchange for concessions. Thus the Ugandan and Rwandan forces were held off.

One of the consequences for Kivu was that Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father as DR Congo President, encouraged the unification of the ex-Interahamwe and other Hutu movements into the ‘Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda’, and set them to attack the RCD and the Rwandan Army (RPA) — a dangerous game. The FDLR continued its war against Rwanda and the Tutsis of the RCD after the ceasefire, and has done so up to the present day; though its strength is much reduced, this provides the pretext for Laurent Nkunda’s refusal to stand down — he claims to be protecting Kivu’s Tutsis — and for Rwanda’s intransigence too. There are many people who wish that the perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide could simply be magicked away somewhere.

How Uganda, Rwanda & Zimbabwe looted the Congo

In 2005, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled The Curse of Gold. It documents how the Ugandan People’s Defence Force, having taken over the north of the Congo in 1998, immediately took direct control of gold-rich areas in Haut Uélé and coerced local people into mining gold (estimate: one ton, at $9 million) for their benefit. Ugandan Lt. Okumu initiated artisanal mining in the Durba and Gorumbwa mines, but accelerated it dangerously with explosives, resulting in the deaths of a hundred miners when the Gorumbwa mine collapsed.

The Ugandans were not alone in taking what they could from Congolese territory they occupied. In April 2001 a UN panel of experts investigated the illegal exploitation of diamonds, cobalt, coltan, gold and other resources by Rwandan, Ugandan and Zimbabwean forces and recommended that the Security Council impose sanctions. Their final report (Final report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) contains many detailed allegations.

Proxies, militias & those who trade with them

Although the Rwandan and Ugandan armed forces withdrew from Congolese territory in 2002, they left behind their proxies. As a result of this, but also because of other disagreements and clashes, including open conflict that broke out in 2002 between Uganda and Rwanda, the situation became much more complicated.

  • In Ituri, Uganda backed an ethnic Lemba force, the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), which waged war with a Rwanda-backed ethnic Hema force, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). In 2002–3, they were openly at war for control of the Mongbwalu goldfields. The UPC were assisted with air-drops of weapons from Rwanda; in 2003, some FNI attacks were directly assisted by Ugandan troops.
  • In Kivu, the RCD had split into a Kisangani-based faction (RCD-K, later RCD-ML) backed by Uganda, and a Goma-based faction backed by Rwanda (RCD-Goma). The latter appears to have control of part of the coltan and cassiterite production.
  • Though much of the RCD-Goma faction joined the newly integrated national army in 2003, Laurent Nkunda pulled his followers out and moved to the forests of North Kivu, forming the CNDP, which is now at war with the DRC and United Nations troops.
  • As already noted, the extremist Hutu forces of the FDLR are also still in play. For a while they were aligned to the DRC forces, but now act independently. They appear to control the bulk of the cassiterite mining around Walikale and Bisie in North Kivu.

A brutal symbiosis

All these militia armies maintain their power and re-stock their arsenals by exploiting the population and the environment. In the context of Congo’s mineral wealth, one of their best means is by organising forced artisanal mining, or controlling and exploiting it, usually through an informal tax. However, this makes economic sense only because the people who organise the trade locally have links to and protection from powerful people in Rwanda’s and Uganda’ military and political élites — people who are in a position to provide the means to transport and trade the ores out to the world market.

However, there is another tier of responsibility: the unscrupulous dealers, and the multinational companies who are prepared to buy gold and diamonds, casseritite and coltan without asking too many questions. And what responsibility are we then to ascribe, say, to the mobile phone manufacturers whose handsets may be built using ‘blood tantalum’?

Closing thoughts on commodity prices

Coltan prices on the world market have ratcheted up and down over time. One oft-quoted suggestion is that Sony’s desperation to acquire enough tantalum capacitors for the Sony Playstation 2 launch in 2000, and a spike in demand for mobile phones and DVD players, drove the price of coltan from $49 to $275 a pound in 2000. Professor Rev. Ferdinand Muhigirwa SJ of CEPAS, the Centre of Studies for Social Acstion in Kinshasa, cites prices per kilo of coltan as $400 in 1999, $320 in 2005. Thus high prices were the norm when Rwandan forces and their proxies were extracting coltan from the Congo. But now? Muhigirwa quotes a mere $32 per kilo of coltan for 2008. However, he believes that artisanal production in Congo will be continued ‘as a matter of survival’.

AS COMPUTER CHIPS get more compact and run faster, they also run hotter. Attaching radiator fins to their surface and blowing air over them are the usual solutions. But what happens when chips are stacked on top of each other to improve the flow of data between them in parallel processing? The heat-producing volume increases, while the heat-shedding surface gains very little.

The Economist Technology Quarterly, bound into the September 6th edition of the magazine, reports on IBM’s experiments in water-cooling such stacks of chips. Thomas Brunschwiler of IBM’s Zurich laboratory points out that processors stacked in this way generate heat at about two kilowatts per cubic centimetre, a greater density than in a nuclear reactor. Therefore the IBM team has developed a stacked processor through which water is pumped in channels, as thin as a human hair, etched in the process of silicon-chip fabrication. Nor need this heat be wasted: in compact multiple installations such as data centres, the heat can be exploited to warm community housing or other buildings.

Water cooling can also be applied to silicon-based solar cells. Another IBM researcher, Supratik Guha, has increased the efficiency of solar power by using mirrors to concentrate 2,300 times the normal intensity of sunlight onto a solar cell. Without water-cooling, the cell could reach 1,500 degrees Celcius and melt. The cooling system means that the cell is maintained at a safe temperature of 85 degrees C, and generates a record output of 70 watts per square centimetre: a very promising technology for economical electricity generation even in high-latitude countries.

IN TERRY PRATCHETT’S Discworld fantasy novels, the Unseen University at Ankh Morpork is home to the Hex computer [Wikipedia entry]. It’s ‘circuits’ are glass tubes through which millions of ants constantly run, hence the sticker on Hex that reads ‘Anthill Inside’ — an obvious pun on the ‘Intel Inside’ slogan. You can buy an ‘Anthill Inside’ sticker for your own computer too, as well as mouse-mats and other merchandise, from Paul Kidby.

Strangely, another connection between ants and computing has come to my attention. The connection is formic acid — the simplest carboxylic acid, with chemical formula HCOOH. The Southern Wood Ant, Formica rufa, which is Britain’s largest ant, is able to squirt this insecticidal acid several feet from an acidopore on its abdomen, and uses it as a weapon in the savage battles that often take place in the Spring between neighbouring colonies. The English naturalist John Ray, a Fellow of the Royal Society, first isolated formic acid in 1671 by crushing up ants and distilling them, and the name of the acid comes from the Latin word for ant.

Formic acid is now manufactured chemically and has a number of industrial uses: for example, I have watched Malaysian rubber-tappers add formic acid to organic latex to cause it to congeal into raw rubber.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a research group has devised a simple and safe proton-exchange fuel cell powered by formic acid. The cell converts oxygen and formic acid into carbon dioxide and water through a reaction that takes place on a palladium catalyst. The cells are said to be more efficient than direct-methanol fuel cells, and formic acid is also a safer fuel in case of leakage, as methanol is poisonous and can cause blindness.

Wood Ant, <i>Formica rufa</i>

Wood Ant, Formica rufa

The university has assigned an exclusive licence to manufacture formic acid fuel cells to Tekion, who are developing hybrid Formira™ power modules containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery and a direct formic acid fuel cell, for use in laptops and mobile telephones. Which is why we can imagine running a laptop on ant juice.

‘DIGITAL NOMAD’ is a term that’s come to describe people whose primary place for using a computer is anywhere and everywhere as they move from meeting to meeting. You recognise them by this trait: as soon as they arrive, they are looking for a power socket to give their exhausted laptop a fresh ‘fix’ of electricity. The truly serious cases also suffer from anxiety if they are not wirelessly connected to the Internet. And there’s something of a paradox about being wirelessly Internetted — but forced to crash to earth at frequent intervals to recharge.

There are laptops which offer radically better battery performance: this was one of the aims, and indeed achievements, of the team who built the One Laptop Per Child XO machine. In the high street you can also find the ASUS EeePC, with WiFi 802.11n connectivity and up to eight hours of battery power, achieved in part by replacing the hard drive with a solid-state one (as in USB memory sticks).

Dell recently announced the Latitude E4300 laptop which is said to give up to 14 hours of continuous battery operation, yet runs Vista and has a proper hard disk. Since most laptops in this class manage only two to three hours on battery, you may well wonder by what feat of engineering this is achieved. The truth, as usual, is a little more nuanced.

The E3400 is a hybrid system:it’s as if it had a EeePC personality living inside the case alongside Vista. The ‘Latitude ON’ feature means users power up the machine in 5 seconds to a simplified environment providing a small range of communication facilities: wireless and wired networking, web browsing and Skype. In this mode, the E3400 works well as a ‘thin client’ machine for Net-centric operations. If the user needs to work in Windows apps, they can continue to boot up into Vista.

The secret is Splashtop, an innovative operating system solution from Chinese-American start-up company DeviceVM. Computers with Splashtop installed have a modified BIOS, and pressing the power button boots up a compact GNU/Linux OS. The startup screen gives immediate access to a Web browser (based on Firefox 2), photo browser, music player, Skype or chat – or a button to fire up the main heavy-lifting operation system, which can be Windows or Linux.

The ASUS EeePC is based around Splashtop, where it is rebranded as Express Gate. ASUSTek announced in May 2008 an intention to deploy Splashtop across a wide range of laptops, motherboards and desktop systems.

Details of the workings of the Dell Latitude E4300 and its little brother the E4200 are as yet unclear, but one report suggests that the Splashtop-based Latitude ON system uses a dedicated low-voltage processor. I would guess, therefore, that the estimates of 14 to 19 hours of battery operation are based on a mix of Splashtop-based net-centric operation and Vista-based orthodox working. Which, for many digital nomads, may accurately reflect the working day, though I personally would prefer to have at least a reasonable Open Source word-processor available within the Splashtop environment.

GLOBALLY, COMPUTERS USE A LOT OF ENERGY; and given the dominant role of fossil fuels in electricity generation, computing is therefore responsible for a lot of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ‘carbon footprint’ of computing is thought to equal to that of aviation (about 3% of global energy use); some put its burden as higher, and it is clearly increasing fast.

Targeting data centres and the desktop

Attention falls in particular on the impact of data centres, where thousands of machines are racked up to store data, host Web pages, process transactions etc. The density at which these machines are co-located means that for every watt spent on computation and data access, another watt is spent extracting heat, so they are sinners twice over. There has also been a tendency at data centres to ensure operation 24/7 by running the machines full time regardless of the computational load, by over-provisioning, and by adding a layer of uninteruptable power supplies to the infrastructure.

In March this year, at the Royal Society conference on ubiquitous computing, I heard an interesting presentation by Professor Andy Hopper of the University of Cambridge, on the subject of Computing for the Future of the Planet. More recently, Andy reprised this topic as the inaugural lecture of the UKCRC. I recommend visiting Andy’s site where you can find his presentation slides, and the paper he has submitted to the Royal Society for publication.

I found myself in agreement with Andy’s ideas about locating data centres close to sources of renewable energy and ‘moving the bits’ rather than moving electrical power long distance and suffering transmission losses. I also applaud the work his team is doing on virtualisation, moving jobs around the data centre so as to shut down as much of the system as possible when it isn’t needed. But I confess I baulked at his urging that the personal workstation, the PC as we have come to know it in the last quarter century, should be abolished in favour of network-centric storage and services accessed from ‘thin client’ machines.

Defra purges the desktop

I recently attended a meeting of the Carbon Footprint Working Group set up by the British Computer Society. CFWG harnesses the energies and expresses the concerns of the BCS’s Ethics Forum, the Data Centres Specialist Group and the Communications Management Association. Of particular note is the work being done on a voluntary code of conduct for data centre operators, and a project part-funded by the Carbon Trust to develop software to help data centre management model the energy use of their systems and play ‘what-if’ experiments to find ways of being more energy efficient.

However, CFWG’s concern doesn’t end with data centres. At that meeting, we heard an interesting pair of linked presentation by Bob Crooks of the British government’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and by Richard Lanyon Hogg of IBM UK which provides Defra with extensive IT support.

IBM helped Defra conduct an audit of the energy cost of its ICT systems, using meters and thermal imaging cameras. The results showed inefficencies in many unexpected locations. A frequent culprit was departmental print servers. The survey has led to many reforms, including the abolition of many desktop systems and their replacement by laptops: Richard showed off the Lenovo ThinkPad which is now his sole machine for portable, home office, desktop and hot-desk use.

A plea for the peripheral

Laptops are great things. The need for them to run on battery power has been a great driver in the direction of energy efficiency. I wrote most of this blog text on an Apple PowerBook G4 laptop, on buses and in hospital waiting rooms. But I wonder — what kind of compromises does one accept by trying to use a laptop for everything? Energy efficiency is a good thing; so is human efficiency.

There are three kinds of work I do that are more efficiently accomplished by being done on my ‘desktop’ machine (actually, my Apple Macintosh G5, the largest computer I’ve ever had, is a tower system that lives in a trolley beside my desk, not on it).

  • Media publishing work in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. It is a great benefit to have as much display space as possible, for two reasons — to see the document being worked on, in both extent and detail; also to have rapid access to the horde of control palettes. Otherwise one wastes much time calling up and dismissing palettes, and scrolling around the document surface: not very efficient!
  • Video editing work. Here the actual products being edited do not need so much display area, but two 720 x 576 video previews need to be accomodated size by side, and editing efficiency is enhanced by seeing a big horizontal slice of the ‘timeline’ at reasonable magnification. Plus, video editing can require the simultaneous use of many peripherals: in my case, at least one large and fast external drive, and a FireWire link either to my camcorder or my Sony DSR-20P digital VTR. Desktop machines can support more simultaneous connections to peripherals.

Now, arguably these publishing applications are one for which even Andy Hopper would make an exception. Editing video on a thin client system is certainly out of the question. But of course, these are specialisms which it would be rare to find in an office environment.

However, consider my third scenario, which can hardly be unusual among knowledge workers:

  • Working across many windows — It’s not uncommon for me to be writing a paper or a contribution to an online discussion (or this blog), composing text in one window while referring to several Web sites, PDFs and emails, each in their own window. I arrange the windows so I can tell enough by the bits poking out which contains what. At the moment I find I have 15 applications running, which isn’t unusual for me; and 8 open windows plus 7 minimised to the Dock — again, not unusual for me. This behaviour, which I find efficient in terms of research and writing productivity, is supported by the ‘affordances’ of a 1680 x 1050 pixel Apple Cinema Display.
NEC-8201a laptop

NEC-8201a laptop, circa 1983 – 32k of storage and a comms link to my Mac

But, hey! I have at times to remind myself that in 1986 I was working on the 512 x 342 pixel monochrome display of a Mac Plus. Many dialogue boxes in modern applications are bigger than that!

And what about my first laptop? The NEC PC-8201a (see right) had just six lines of forty-column type display. That required something like an orator’s sense of what point you had reached in the argument evolving just to the north of your fingers.

Ironically, you don’t get much more space when composing text for WordPress…

As we may think

One thing I felt about the Defra/IBM response to the challenge of controlling energy consumption by IT, as expressed in the CFWG meeting, was that their choices about ‘End User Devices’ were effectively limited by what technology is currently on the market. What if we allowed ourselves the luxury of imagining the EUD of the future? Would it look like a Lenovo laptop? Would it look like a PDA?

I hope it would be more modular than a laptop, for the sake of the environment. On my bookshelf, for I can’t bring myself to get rid of it, is a nice white Apple G3 iBook whose motherboard got fried a few months ago. To repair it would be expensive. Yet destined for the grave along with it is a perfectly good XVGA colour LCD display, CD-writer etc. Seems a waste. (I guess I could prise out the RAM chips and put the hard disk in an external drive box.)

I’d like the EUD of the future to be a small core device that can be extended like crazy to suit the task and environment at hand. Maybe it would be about the form factor of the Asus Eee PC (see Flash presentation), with small tolerable keyboard and trackpad, wireless networking and Ethernet, a daylight/backlit energy-saving screen somewhat like in the One Laptop Per Child XO machine, and about 16 Gb of flash memory. I envisage a clip-on base that provides bulk storage, mains power, a secondary battery or fuel cell and more expansion ports. For efficient desktop use, a better keyboard and mouse could be attached.

But for me, the real breakthrough would be how my envisaged device would work with external displays. Some models of Apple PowerBooks already show the way in their ability to hook up to large external displays and run a fully interactive desktop and applications over two displays at once. Let’s explore this further. What about being able wirelessly to hook up to a number of displays, some of them forming part of the Desktop, some perhaps temporary repositories to which a document window could be copied for viewing and possibly some touch-screen interactivity?

In response to Andy Hopper, I guess what I am indicating is:

  • I want an environmentally responsible computer, or ‘End User Device’, and one the energy requirement of which scales according to how much work, and what kind of work, I am doing with it.
  • I don’t like the idea of entrusting my bulk storage to the Internet, and needing access to the Internet to do any serious work, which is what the ‘thin client’ model suggests to me.
  • I would like to look beyond the ‘one size [laptop] fits all’ approach that to me is implied by the choices Defra has made for its staff.

I guess I’m asking for a lot, but there’s nothing new there!


How is Defra tackling climate change? — page links to science notes.

Computing & Information Processing for the Future of the Planet — four-page op-ed paper by Conrad Taylor in PDF form, prepared for a meeting of the BCS Geospatial Specialist Group on 10 July 2008

On the radical energy-saving architecture of the XO laptop, see A Conversation with Mary Lou Jepson (hardware designer of the XO) in ACM Queue.

This week on the BBC World Service, a radio programme featured interviews with kids scavenging scrap copper and iron from broken computers, illegally imported from Western countries and dumped at the Agbobloshie waste site near Accra, in Ghana. On 5th August, an accompanying article by BBC West Africa correspondent Will Ross was posted, on the same theme.

Ghanaian kids were interviewed as they set fire to bundles of cable, then threw dirt on them to extinguish the acrid, toxic fires. They were looking for the copper to sell for scrap.

Greenpeace has taken the lead in researching the dumping of Western IT equipment in Ghana. Their researchers have taken soil samples from the Accra scrap market, finding high concentrations of such dangerous contaminants as lead, phlalates and dioxin.

The broken computers are landed in containers at the port of Tema: in the period of research, containers were seen being landed from Holland and the UK. There are international laws banning the export of computer waste, but the companies who engage in this poisonous trade get round it by falsely labelling the shipments as usable second-hand equipment. In fact, says environmental journalist Mike Anane, about 90% of the discarded equipment is useless, broken junk.

For me, the most gutting thing about this story is that many of the dumped machines showed clear markings revealing their previous ownership: Richmond upon Thames College, Southampton City Council, Kent County Council, London Guildhall University. Organisations like this had better wake up and ask the companies on whom they depend for equipment end-of-life management just what the hell they are playing at.