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Monday, 15 March 2010

We should go to work on climate change

Like many others, I am concerned to the point of alarm by the scientists’ warnings about our planet, and worried about the lack of international accord and serious commitment to act. So I try to heed the advice to save energy at home. I turn off unwanted lights and look at where I can install low energy bulbs. I am uncomfortable when I fail to turn off the video recorder and TV, leaving them on standby. I have installed cavity wall insulation and the recommended level of loft insulation. I wear jumpers and keep the thermostat turned down.

However, the media focus on all of us domestic energy users does I believe distract attention from the rampant energy waste in the business and public sectors (and, yes, the offices of the press themselves).

At work, I visit many different company offices, and they almost all endowed with excellent natural lighting, to the extent that on sunny days, the blinds are pulled down to reduce the glare and the heat. Yet the office lights stay on all day, every day. Recently, on a quiet day in the office with the sun flooding in and almost everyone else out, I thought I might take the radical step of turning the lights off. I couldn’t even find a switch.

Every office I see these days has scores of computers, screens, printers, scanners, photocopiers, coffee machines, shredders and so on which remain powered on for the 120 hours a week they are not in use, as well as the 50 hours that they might be used. None has any instruction from the employer as to turning off when not in use. Indeed, at one office I worked in recently, I was specifically instructed not to turn the PC power off, so that central IT could if it needed install software upgrades over the network overnight.

Where I have been working recently, we use laptops which plug into a docking station at the desk. There is no way to turn off the docking station except by crawling under the desk to find the plug, so this runs permanently on standby. Do companies consider these factors when deciding which manufacturer’s laptops to acquire? Of course not, it doesn’t even register.

And what about heating (and air conditioning)? I doubt if many offices are insulated to the degree that my home is. Consider also if you will the retail park warehouse - a vast open space, expensive to heat (but heat it they must, or the Shops, Offices and Railway Premises Act will enable the staff to walk out), and often an uninsulated metal shell of a building.

Of course, in summer, if it is hot in my house I open the windows. In an office, the heat builds up thanks to the sunshine - the Greenhouse effect again - even with blinds pulled down, so more power is fed into the air conditioning, which as always results in too hot and too cold spots in different parts of the building. In an office, you can never open a window.

Local authorities are not much better. Do we really need comprehensively lit back streets at 3am? Do we need traffic lights at pedestrian crossings throughout the night?

Things are no better when it comes to transport. My own car I try to use more sparingly, and attempt to drive in a way to reduce fuel consumption. Yet I see no real attempt by industry to reduce fuel consumption or journeys, unless they perceive a competitive advantage, or publicity in some kind of ‘green gesture’. I am now more aware of the impact of taking flights to go on holiday, and so probably fly less than I did. But business trips continue as they always did – the only constraint I ever hear of is in terms of the costs.

I try to travel for work more by public transport than by car these days. But the government has made it much harder here than in other countries I have worked: here, public transport is painfully expensive, there is no co-ordination between companies, and local bus services are frankly useless – infrequent, expensive, unreliable, and poor route coverage. Can it be right for the environment that use of a car is not only much more convenient, but also much cheaper than public transport?

Recently I have been using the trains from Paddington, mostly the commuter trains rather than the intercity, but it is noticeable that both are diesel driven, not electric. When I observe the massive amounts of exhaust these trains produce, I realise that these too use a lot of energy. But more concerning for those who live alongside the railway must be the diesel smoke they produce: some of these trains, especially when starting away from a station, produce prodigious amounts of smoke. If these were road vehicles, I doubt whether they would pass an MOT. Furthermore, why is it that a train typically waits in Paddington for at least 15 minutes, and sometimes for much longer, but still the engines are kept running the whole time? Is it so hard to start them up again?

It is time that Government started to give a real lead. There are many ways they could really kick off energy consciousness, but the lack of action smacks of business demands being more important than the environment.

They could set real thermal insulation building standards for new commercial premises as well as homes to be more ‘carbon neutral’, instead of weak guidelines. They could encourage micro-generation with incentives for solar panels and turbines for both commercial and domestic buildings, as they have started to in Germany and elsewhere. And they could make a real attempt to discourage fuel use by the road and air sectors of industry. But action in these areas is likely to be incremental and cautious.

The Government also argues that our country cannot take steps in isolation which reduce our international competitiveness – but isn’t that exactly the kind of selfless restraint they are encouraging us to take as individual citizens?

However, companies can themselves start to take action. Let's see businesses develop energy policies and provide guidelines to staff to minimise the rampant energy waste that goes on in every business in the land today.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Decline and Fall

There is a natural cycle of dominance on this planet. The great geological ages have come and gone, the climate moves from ice age to global warming, the dinosaurs gave way to the mammals and ultimately to humankind.

Much the same happens to human activities. Within the last 100 years we have seen the position of dominant superpower pass from the Britain of Victoria to the United States, and now perhaps we are seeing that starting to move to China.

And so it is with ICT platforms and corporations. When I was a trainee programmer in the 1970s, one company dominated computing: IBM. At its heyday, almost 7 of every 10 mainframe computers sold were IBM's. Its competitors - the likes of Univac, Burroughs, Honeywell, Britain's ICL all failed to match 'Big Blue'. So what went wrong?

Well, the invention of the microprocessor. Still IBM could have kept its position: it had the first real 'Personal Computer' - indeed, IBM is responsible for the current widespread use of the term 'PC'. However, in a misjudgement of earth-shattering proportions, it allowed the IPR of the first PC operating system, DOS, to remain with the small subcontractor producing it - Microsoft. The rest, as they say, is history. Software, not hardware, was where the money was moving. IBM is by no means a small company now, but it is no longer such a market dominating force, and is now better known for services and business software than for hardware.

Which takes us to Microsoft. Its software is everywhere: most modern PCs run its Windows operating system, and so do a large proportion of the computer servers which run the significant business systems and networks that drive commerce. We all know Outlook, Word, Excel and so on. The de facto standard document types are .doc, .xls, .ppt - indeed, the very existence of such ways of describing file types is because of Windows.

But the first signs of decline are already detectable. Microsoft is dependent on us all buying licences for its software - and with a saturated market, that means we must buy new versions of old programmes, hence the huge publicity for the launch of Windows 7. But there are two trends, each still a trickle rather than a flood, but swelling in volume: software that is free for personal use, and the Cloud.

Free software is often open source, usually collaboratively developed; in the case of business use, it earns money for its developers through implementation and support services. The Cloud refers to software that is hosted on some remote server somewhere - where exactly the user does not need to know, any more than where a web site is hosted - and is accessed over the internet. This is typically charged as a simple fee per user per annum.

Many see the Cloud as the future for, at least, general office applications such as email, messaging, document sharing and intranets, and here one company is surging to the fore: Google, with its Google Apps offering.

The concept is appealing: many companies struggle to maintain their Microsoft Exchange servers, with volume constraints on mailboxes, down time for maintenance, constant upgrades and patches, and the overhead of resources to look after all this. Google Apps offers a service where almost all the business needs to do is configure its user accounts, and use the service. These applications still look a bit immature in places, but make up for that by taking a fresh approach to the user interface, and in speed of use (depending of course on the web connection).

It won't suit everyone, and there are still issues which some companies are nervous about, such as data security (not that Microsoft is exactly a byword for unhackable software), but nevertheless the ease of use, minimal staff overheads, and most of all costs currently often estimated at well under half those of an Exchange model, are creating a fast growing community.

Now Google is not exactly a small company already, and with Google Apps looking like one vision of the future, it would not surprise me to find that in ten years' time, Google will have become the dominant computer company of its age.