Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Complexity Squared

It appears the Infrastructure! focus on the June 14, 2009 issue of the NY Times Sunday Magazine has struck a nerve with many people in the blog sphere as it covers interesting aspects of the underlying costs and complexities of civilization starting with data overload and ending up with urban renewal and high speed train access in America (???). Regarding the data bit (no pun intended), it's rather obvious the web has changed computing forever.

"Data centers worldwide now consume more energy annually than Sweden. And the amount of energy required is growing, says Jonathan Koomey, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. From 2000 to 2005, the aggregate electricity use by data centers doubled. The cloud, he calculates, consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world’s electricity.

Much of this is due simply to growth in the number of servers and the Internet
itself. A Google search is not without environmental consequence — 0.2 grams of CO2 per search, the company claims — but based on E.P.A. assumptions, an average car trip to the library consumes some 4,500 times the energy of a Google search while a page of newsprint uses some 350 times more energy. Data centers, however, are loaded with inefficiencies, including loss of power as it is distributed through the system. It has historically taken nearly as much wattage to cool the servers as it does to run them. Many servers are simply “comatose.” “Ten to 30 percent of servers are just sitting there doing nothing,” Koomey says. “Somebody in some department had a server doing this unique thing for a while and then stopped using it.” Because of the complexity of the network architecture — in which the role of any one server might not be clear or may have simply been forgotten — turning off a server can create more problems (e.g., service outages) than simply leaving it on."

In comparison, consider mass transit in America or the lack thereof...

"This is a story not about Amtrak but about trains, and the problem with any story about trains in America is that you often find yourself thinking about Amtrak, and you often find yourself thinking about how nice it would be if you weren’t thinking about Amtrak. This is especially true when you’re actually riding on Amtrak, which happened to be the case one morning in March when I boarded the Pacific Surfliner in downtown Los Angeles for a 500-mile trip, mostly up the coast, to Sacramento. Anyone who lives in California can tell you that this is folly: other ways of traveling from Los Angeles to Sacramento are quicker and less frustrating and not much more expensive. You can fly in 90 minutes for around $100. Or you can drive in six hours for less than $50 in gas. For $55, my Amtrak journey was scheduled to take at least 12 hours 25 minutes. With any luck, I would arrive there by 9 p.m. And it was fairly obvious to me that I would need some luck, because my ticket to Sacramento had not bought me a train ride, exactly, but a train-bus-train ride. In San Luis Obispo, I would get off the Surfliner and board an Amtrak bus; in San Jose, I would get off the bus and board a different train to Sacramento. There was little room for error: a slow train and I would miss the bus; a slow bus and I would miss the second train. It’s true I could have taken other trains to Sacramento instead, but these had their own drawbacks. The Coast Starlight, for instance, which runs north along the Pacific Coast from L.A., doesn’t involve any buses, but travel time is an estimated 13 hours 44 minutes. What’s worse, the Starlight, a k a the Starlate, is a train of such legendary unreliability that it is not so much a train as an anti-train. In the past it has been known to run 11 or 12 hours behind schedule and post an on-time percentage in the single digits."

Now that we know Amtrak is a raging success, Remaking Paris explores the enormous difficulties of remaking the 'burbs' into something decent, a task which will cost the French billions and take years to finish.

"One of the first things Sarkozy did after he moved into the Elysée Palace was to convene a meeting of prominent architects and ask them to come up with a new blueprint for Paris. “Of course,” he said, “projects should be realistic, but for me true realism is the kind that consists in being very ambitious.” His job was to clean up the city’s working-class suburbs, and at the same time build a greener Paris, the first city to conform to the environmental goals laid out in the Kyoto treaty.

The results, a year later, may be the beginning of one of the boldest urban planning operations in French history. A formidable list of architects — including Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel, Djamel Klouche and Roland Castro — put forward proposals that address a range of urban problems: from housing the poor to fixing outdated transportation systems to renewing the immigrant suburbs. Some have suggested practical solutions — new train stations and parks — while others have been more provocative, like Castro, who proposed moving the presidential palace to the outskirts.

The architects will continue to refine their ideas over the next year, so it is unclear what form the final plan will take. And Sarkozy has yet to say how he would pay for such an ambitious undertaking. Whatever their chance of being realized, however, these proposals force us to rethink what it means for Paris to be Paris, and how to fix our faltering cities. At a time when “infrastructure” has become a catchword of politicians around the world, these plans offer a glimpse of what a sustainable, more egalitarian city might look like and the role government might play in shaping one."

After reading all of this, I am forced to ask inconvenient questions like, who will pay for these projects (and others like these) and is this the right way to go? Building high speed train service in CA will cost a cool 33 billion while Obama has proposed 13 billion to do the same for the US as a whole.

  • Question, how much does CA get and do they have the funds to pick up the slack, especially when CA is broke, (like the US) and lacks the wherewithal to do anything of consequence.
  • Question 2, how many people will use the service and what impact will the emergence of web driven telepresence and immersive tech have on travel itself and...
  • Question 3, would CA benefit more by repairing the current service to make it reliable and efficient and charge a nominal fee like $10 to encourage use of same thus saving billions of dollars it doesn't have while reducing pollution and the use of cars on it's overused interstate highways. In fact, wouldn't it be better to rebuild mass transit without resorting to high speed tech because existing tracks will not work and the cost for same, as seen by the NY Times article, is totally out of hand.

It's food for thought.

Another reason for hesitation on believing whether any of this wonderful stuff will happen centers not only on the fact peak oil is alive and well (and no longer providing cheap money to the economy) but also on tech itself because rolling out cheap, efficient and reliable technology able to replace the oil driven systems of today will be am extremely expensive and heart wrenching process at best due to the inherent vagaries of the real world. Read A Telling Statement to see why.

Living within one's means is a good thing, something I intend to learn more about after chancing upon the gem seen below. Looks like another $26.40 will leave my pocketbook in pursuit of reading something truly worthwhile like Leon Kier's The Architecture of Community.

"This book is Mr. Krier''s gift to the coming generations-who, otherwise, have been left saddled by us with little more than extravagant debts in every way you could imagine. They are going to have to inhabit what remains of this planet, along with whatever remains of its resources, when we are gone, and Mr. Krier''s heroic, often lonely labors, have produced this indispensable beacon of principle and methodology to light their way home." (James Howard Kunstler from the book's afterword )
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