SciTechBlog
April 21, 2010

In defense of supercomputing

Posted: 11:00 AM ET

I visited the seventh-fastest computer in the world today, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, about an hour east of San Francisco, California.

At first, I thought the idea of "supercomputing" seemed pretty 1990s. Supercomputers fill enormous rooms, suck down gobs of power and don't seem quite as sexy these days as tech that can fit in your hand.

And seventh-fastest? I mean, it's not first.

But, on a tour of the federally funded lab, Brian Carnes, one of the managers of this supercomputer, taught me a thing or two.

First of all, the stats were impressive:

_ One computer network here can do more than 700 trillion math problems in a second
_ The computer sits on an area that's nearly the size of a football field

More important, perhaps, are the applications the supercomputer supports.

[Side note: I can't vouch for all that's going on on these whirring machines because much of it is classified and signs all around the computer area remind employees not to tell visitors too much: "Unclassified discussions only," one sign read].

Some scientists at this lab use huge equations and mounds of data to try to predict what our warming climate will look like in the future. The computer crunches those. Others are trying to predict what will happen to the country's nuclear weapons stockpiles as they age - which is a safety issue, Carnes says, regardless of your stance on nukes.

The lab here is in an arms race of its own these days.

By 2012, it plans to add a new computer to the system, called "Sequoia."

Then, Carnes and others hope, the lab will have the world's fastest computer.

That means more math problems per second. More scientific research.

And another point for bragging rights.

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Filed under: climate change • computers • data centers


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April 9, 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane - really!

Posted: 10:51 AM ET
Global Hawk in flight
Global Hawk in flight

Flying higher, farther and without a pilot.

NASA's Global Hawk plane can fly to altitudes of 60,000 feet – way above normal flight paths – and as far as nearly half way around the world. It does this completely automatically, without the aid of a pilot or controller.

The plane follows a preprogrammed flight path and can stay aloft for nearly 30 hours while staying in contact with NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center via satellites. The Global Hawk maiden voyage took it over the Pacific and Arctic oceans to study the atmosphere over those bodies of water.

Researchers hope that the plane's range and endurance will make it ideal to sample and measure greenhouse gases, ozone and air quality over a wide area in a short period of time.

"We can go to regions we couldn't reach or go to previously explored regions and study them for extended periods that are impossible with conventional planes," said David Fahey, co-mission scientist and research physicist.

Scientists expect the high altitude flights to let them measure dust, smoke and pollution that cross the Pacific from Asia and Siberia and affect U.S. air quality. The Global Hawk is scheduled to make four more flights this month over the Pacific and Arctic areas.

Global Hawks – obviously not retro-fitted with scientific sensors – are also used by the U.S. Air Force for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They were recently used after the Haiti earthquakes to provide more than 3,600 images of affected areas to help with disaster relief.

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Filed under: Aviation • climate change • environment • greenhouse gas • NASA • Space


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November 4, 2009

Cloud computing's CO2 lining

Posted: 10:04 AM ET

On my scavenger hunt into cloud computing, I learned there are few if any ways to compare one cloud computing company to another. Say, for instance, you wanted to upload the contents of your laptop to "the cloud" of the Internet. It would be hard if not impossible to get a comparison about how well companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon and IBM provide this service, which is sometimes called "cloud storage."

One emerging and important way to make these comparisons, though, is energy efficiency.

The computer farms that make up the cloud are energy-sucking machines. It costs more to cool the computers than to run them. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says 1.5 percent of all electricity consumption in the country in 2007 came from the data centers that house these cloud computers. And that electricity use is expected to double every five years as we store and process more info in the cloud. (View the EPA's full report to Congress on the subject).

But not all clouds are equal. And the EPA and an industry group called The Green Grid have made it part of their missions to give consumers ways to compare the emerging cloud power-houses.

In April, the EPA will unveil an “Energy Star” ratings program for data centers, according to Michael Zatz, manager of the EPA’s Energy Star program for commercial buildings. The program is voluntary, so not everyone will report their efficiencies, but a number of companies, including Microsoft, are already on board.

Here's an site with more information on this emerging program for green data centers. Scroll down half-way to find a list of some companies involved. Also check out Green Grid for a list of computing companies that are working with that group towards a more energy-efficient future for computing.

And let me know what you think. Is it a big deal that so little information is available about cloud computing? What would you like to know that's not being shared?

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Filed under: climate change • cloud computing • consumer tech • data centers • Energy


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October 26, 2009

UN sets universal standard for cell-phone chargers

Posted: 01:03 PM ET

I have a box in my home office that is full of cords and changers - those for phones, laptops, cameras and all kinds of other gadgets.

It's a total mess. But some news out of a UN tech group may help me clean up my act.

The International Telecommunication Union, a branch of the United Nations, recently passed a universal standard for cell phone chargers - those cords that connect your phone to an electrical socket. In addition to reducing consumer headaches, the ITU expects the approved connectors - which will be in the micro-USB format - to reduce e-waste and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 13.6 million tons per year, according to an ITU news release.

Here's the statement from Malcolm Johnson, director of the ITU’s telecommunication standardization bureau:

This is a significant step in reducing the environmental impact of mobile charging, which also has the benefit of making mobile phone use more straightforward. Universal chargers are a common-sense solution that I look forward to seeing in other areas.

As CNET and the BBC point out, it's unclear how many mobile phone makers will adopt the standards since the recommendations are not mandatory.

And, as a colleague of mine noted, this all may be moot in the not-to-distant future if wireless charging devices become more of a reality. Those lose some efficiency, though, so it will be interesting to see which line of thinking prevails in the charger world: efficiency or convenience.

The ITU says its standards require chargers to be about three times more energy-efficient than unrated chargers.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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Filed under: cell phones • climate change • greenhouse gas • ITU


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May 1, 2009

iReport: a city without cars

Posted: 05:22 PM ET

In case you missed them, here are three cool user-submitted videos from CNN's iReport.com.

The first shows a car-free day in Jakarta. The city looks pretty eerie without any cars on the streets. Check out the photos, and also this story from the Jakarta Post, which says pollution is greatly reduced when there aren't so many people driving. More there:

According to the Jakarta Environmental Management Board's (BPLHD) 2008 data, dust particles in the air on Car-Free Day drop by 34 percent on average, carbon monoxide (CO) drops 67 percent and nitrogen oxide (NO) 80 percent.

Twenty-two car-free events are scheduled this year, 12 of them on Jl. Sudirman and Jl. Thamrin on the last Sunday of each month.

Next up, San Diego iReporter Chris Morrow interviews Gary Vaynerchuk, a fast-talking Internet wine critic, about how to hold an effective conversation on Twitter. Check out the critic's site (he's known for drinking throughout his reviews, so they're usually most interesting by the end) and also Morrow's Twitter feed. [disclaimer: Morrow misspells Vaynerchuk's name in the video]

Finally, watch this young traveler's take on the H1N1 outbreak (formerly known as swine flu). Sort of in defiance of his post's title - "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!" - the reporter overall is a voice for calm amid the rising illness toll.

Also check out CNN's H1N1 coverage, swine flu topics on Twitter and iReport's discussion on school closings.

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Filed under: Cars • climate change


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April 24, 2009

Biofuel loses fight with California pollution regulators

Posted: 10:00 AM ET

The biofuel industry has lost its battle against California regulators over rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from various fuels, including corn-based ethanol.

artcorngi

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) late Thursday approved the controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which would force fuel producers to lower their “carbon intensity” of their products by 10 percent by 2020.

“They have made a huge mistake in demonizing first generation biofuels,” said Brooke Coleman of the New Fuels Alliance, a biofuel lobbying group. Coleman called the new rules a “biased regulation that drives investment away from all biofuels.”

Carbon intensity is what fueled the controversy. It’s a rating system meant to classify each fuel by how much greenhouse gases they produce for every unit of energy that they create.

CARB Chairman Mary Nichols touted the board’s decision, predicting that the new rules will reduce air pollution, create new jobs and “continue California’s leadership in the fight against global warming.”

Makers of ethanol said the rating system unfairly ties their U.S.-made corn-based fuel to mass deforestation – not in the United States – but in developing nations. Ethanol critics say the entire biofuel industry should bear global responsibility for clearing of trees to make farmland to grow crops that will be used to make the fuel.

The rules have taken on a pretty high profile since they were proposed. Several U.S. states are considering similar measures and even the European Union watching with interest.

In the months that the debate has been raging, people have been voicing a lot of strong opinions about this issue. So, what do you think about the ruling? Fire away!

In other news, CNN's iReport wants to know what you think of iPhone apps. How do you use them? What's your favorite? Tell us about your iPhone app experience!

Filed under: climate change • Energy • environment • Ethanol • Fuel • Uncategorized


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April 7, 2009

Arctic sea ice getting thinner

Posted: 06:10 PM ET

Thanks to satellite images, we've known for years now that the Arctic ice cap is shrinking. Now comes sobering, if not surprising, new evidence that shows the ice cap is thinning as well.

NASA scientists who track Arctic sea ice cover from space announced Monday that this winter had the fifth lowest maximum ice extent on record. The six lowest maximum events since satellite monitoring began in 1979 have all occurred in the past six years (2004-2009), according a joint report by NASA and the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado.

Sea ice thickness has been hard to measure directly, so scientists have typically used estimates of ice age to approximate its thickness. But last year a team of researchers led by Ron Kwok of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., produced the first map of sea ice thickness over the entire Arctic basin.

Using two years of data from NASA's Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), Kwok's team estimated thickness and volume of the Arctic Ocean ice cover for 2005 and 2006. They found that the average winter volume of Arctic sea ice contained enough water to fill Lake Michigan and Lake Superior combined.

The older, thicker sea ice is declining and is being replaced with newer, thinner ice that is more vulnerable to summer melt, according to Kwok. His team found that seasonal sea ice averages about 6 feet in thickness, while ice that had lasted through more than one summer averages about 9 feet, though it can grow much thicker in some locations near the coast.

"Ice extent is an important measure of the health of the Arctic, but it only gives us a two-dimensional view of the ice cover," said Walter Meier, research scientist at the center and the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a NASA press release. "Thickness is important, especially in the winter, because it is the best overall indicator of the health of the ice cover. As the ice cover in the Arctic grows thinner, it grows more vulnerable to melting in the summer."

The report comes as the privately funded $4.3 million Catlin Arctic Survey, a three-month, 621-mile expedition by three British explorers, journeys to the North Pole to measure the thickness of the polar ice cap. Their findings will be presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.

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Filed under: climate change


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April 2, 2009

Renewable energy could threaten wildlife

Posted: 12:27 PM ET

In a weird sort of environmental paradox, the Natural Resources Defense Council on Wednesday released maps of the American West showing areas that would be damaged if they're developed for renewable energy.

Renewable energy expansion is a priority of the Obama administration, but some of the land that could be used for wind or solar power also is home to endangered and threatened species.

It's an interesting example of environmental issues butting heads. Environmentalists generally support renewable energy projects because they reduce the amount of heat-trapping gases going into the atmosphere - and therefore help to slow global climate change. But this could be a sign they may oppose some wind and solar projects.

NRDC says the issues don't have to be in opposition. Careful planning could solve the conflict, the group says.

You can check out the maps on Google Earth.

Here's one example: a birding group mapped areas of Wyoming where the sage-grouse lives.

In my previous life as an environment reporter in Oklahoma, I wrote about how wind farms in that state are crossing paths with a funky bird called the lesser prairie chicken. The bird is so popular it even has YouTube videos.

What do you think? Can we ditch fossil fuels and protect wildlife? What should be the priorities?

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Filed under: Animals • Birds • climate change • endangered species • Energy • environment • Politics • solar energy


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March 27, 2009

Ready for Earth Hour?

Posted: 04:53 PM ET

You've heard of Earth Day. Now get ready for Earth Hour.

The El Capitan theatre in Hollywood is one of many famous structures planning to switch off its lights during Earth Hour. Photo: Getty Images

A global initiative organized by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour is asking people and institutions around the world to turn off their lights for one hour Saturday night - 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. in whatever time zone you're in - to conserve energy and make a statement of concern about climate change.

Earth Hour began in Sydney, Australia, in 2007, when 2.2 million homes and businesses switched off their lights for 60 minutes. Last year 50 million people turned off their lights, according to the project's Web site, www.earthhour.org. Such global landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Rome’s Colosseum, the Sydney Opera House and the Coca Cola billboard in New York's Times Square all stood in darkness. (No word on Las Vegas, though.)

This time, organizers hope that 1 billion people worldwide - almost one-sixth of the Earth's population - will switch off their lights. More than 2,400 cities and towns in 82 countries - plus such floodlit icons as Paris's Eiffel Tower, Egypt’s Great Pyramids and New York's Empire State Building - are already on board, according to the Earth Hour site.

(The site doesn't say anything about whether participants should stop using all electricity during Earth Hour, so if you stay home and watch TV in the dark you might be OK.)

As with any public venture these days, Earth Hour leaders are using the Web to rally folks to their cause. An Earth Hour group on Facebook has more than 628,000 members, an Earth Hour video has been watched more than 57,000 times on YouTube and Earth Hour was the top-searched topic Friday afternoon on Twitter.

Tweets ranged from statements of support to such comments as "[I] will be cranking out as many jigawatts as possible during Earth Hour. I even plan to run both cars in the garage."

One man's Facebook post, titled "Why Earth Hour is stupid," argued that the initiative will simply waste energy unless power plants lower their production during this time. People could conserve electricity more efficiently by unplugging unused household appliances, he wrote.

So what, if any, are your plans for Earth Hour? And why?

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Filed under: climate change • Energy


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March 20, 2009

Spot climate change in your backyard

Posted: 04:54 PM ET

As you may have read, the Obamas are planting a vegetable garden. Seem like big news? Perhaps not, but I have a feeling one reason this tidbit is currently the No. 1 read story on the NYTimes homepage is that many Americans are itching for a lost connection to the land and the outdoors.

spring bloom

Some see the organic garden as a distraction from Obama’s gaffe over the Special Olympics or the ever-present AIG bonus debate, but it seems like it also hits on something larger.

Just take a look at what iReporters are saying about what they’ve learned from past generations about saving money and fending for themselves. (Post your 'victory garden' stories here). Many bring up gardens. And, in a recent interview with a four-generation family, younger members talked about how they wish they had the same survival skills their grandparents did. Gardening is chief among them.

I’m no master gardener. I tried for the first time last year: the jalapenos and Roma tomatoes were delicious, but mostly were overshadowed by the hip-high weeds that I let grow up between them most of the summer. But it was fun to try.

So, in that spirit, here are a couple tips for trying out your green thumb and learning a bit of science this season:

1. Become a volunteer scientists: Hoards of backyard scientists across the country again are participating in Project BudBurst. Check out their Web site and be part of a group effort to map the blooming of plants. Your small effort can help scientists track big trends, like climate change.

2. Learn about your local environment: Check out this USA Today story on planting maps - they’re changing, perhaps because of global warming. Learn what the climate is like in your area to better understand what will grow and when.

3. Find local food: Across the country people are banding together and sharing resources to get fresh food locally. Some join food coops, others, like guerrilla gardeners, take over public spaces to make group gardens. Local farmers' markets are another option.

Feel free to share you stories in the comments or on iReport.

Filed under: climate change • environment • gardening • science


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About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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