Friday, August 31, 2007

Heating with Flops

Greetings, fellow old-world primates.

Today I'm going to flesh out an idea a dear friend of mine had: that waste heat from high-performance computer facilities could be used to heat cold regions of the world.

We humans evolved our big brains in Africa, where it's nice and warm. For better or for worse, these big brains have allowed us to develop means of keeping our bodies at African temperatures even at polar latitudes, allowing us to conquer the planet.

Technology (be it fire or clothing) has always been a factor in allowing our spread into frozen zones; today I'm going to look into something a little higher-end.

Computing in Vegas

A friend of mine works for Cafe Press, an online clothing-designing company which recently moved their main data centers to Nevada. The reason for this move was an unusual one: proximity to the Hoover Dam means cheap power to run the site's computational muscle.

In fact, data centers can generate an enormous amount of heat. A thousand processors working at 100 W each consume 100 kW of electricity: about 50 households' worth. With electricity costing 15¢ per kWh, that's over $130 000 per year in electricity costs alone, and that's before factoring in cooling costs.

Computing in Siberia

Suppose instead that data centers were built where you want to generate a lot of heat anyway. that same 100 kW data center could potentially provide heat most of the required heat to a shopping mall. How economically feasible is this? Let's look into two possible scenarios. For the sake of simplicity I'm going to assume enough people will soon do the Cafe Press trick that electricity costs even out globally around 15¢/kWh.

Scenario A: 1 fixed data center in a place cold in winters.

Here, you'd build a 1000-CPU data center for $500 000, and half of the year you'd be able to use 80% of the waste heat from the data center to heat a mall. Together, you and the mall would save $52 560 in heating costs per year of operation; more if you can use some waste heat more than half the year. Even in the summer, data centers could be used to provide hot water.

Scenario B: 1 data center in a shipping container, moving from pole to pole

Sun Microsystems' "Project Blackbox" will build you a data center in a shipping container already. Imagine having a deal with two different malls, one in each hemisphere, so that the waste heat of the data center could be used always. You'd have two extra expenses: container shipping expenses (about $10 000 for the round trip) and four weeks annually of down-time, but you'd save $100 000 in heating costs. Overall, you'd have to spend 8% more (or $40 000 as a one-time expense) on your computer hardware to compensate for the downtime, but that should be just-about recouped after the first year of operation.

Three Moore's Laws

Technologically, the use of waste heat is only going to make more sense in the future. There are three relevant Moore's laws here: performance/watt, performance/$ and bandwidth/$.

The most familiar Moore's law statement is that computing power doubles every 18-24 months, but one should also look at power efficiency and bandwidth trends. Power efficiency has been climbing slower than computing efficiency, so today's $1500 PC uses more energy than a $1500 PC from a decade ago. Conversely, bandwidths have been doubling more frequently than CPU speeds. Therefore, in the future, bandwidth (especially on the backbone of the Internet) will be too cheap to matter, and the ratio of power expenditure to computer hardware expenditure is only going to increase.

Therefore re-using computer waste heat is only going to become increasingly lucrative in the future, so it's a technology that should be on the up-and-up.


It's already cheaper to operate data centers where power is cheap. I think now it's also cheaper to coöperate with public buildings (which tend to be big enough to act as thermal flywheels to smooth out diurnal heat supply needs) to supply waste heat from data centers. I haven't worked in the added costs of the data center's floorspace, so it's not yet a complete no-brainer to use computers instead of /along side of traditional furnaces, but future trends certainly seem to be pointing in that direction.

Yoursfor a Greener Cyberspace,


PS This post printed with 100% recycled electrons

Monday, August 27, 2007

How Much do You Pay Your Machines?

Greetings, Robot Lords.

The Pitch

How much do you value your free time? In Stephen King's The Stand, the Walkin' Dude comes by Mother Abigail's place in the guise of a vacuum cleaner salesman, making the pitch that he's not actually selling her labor-saving vacuum cleaners. Instead, he's selling her cool lemonade sipped in the shade on a hot day, time to lazily read a novel, or time to do essentially whatever Mother Abigail likes best. The premise is simple and appealing: we buy (or make) machines which save us drudgery, and then allegedly have more free time.

The Catch

In reality, our time-savers often end up owning us instead. It takes a lot of time, energy and money to maintain every piece of equipment we buy. On the other hand, I have a lot more free time than any subsistence farmer I've heard about, so there must be a good side to this tech too. How do we know if a given piece of labor-saving tech is worthwhile?

The Players' Salaries

One interesting analysis is to figure out what effective wage you're paying your labor saving device for your extra free time. Everything doesn't always boil down to money: it's not as if chores are equally onerous (I enjoy gardening more than cleaning the bathroom), but quantifying the hourly rate of free-time-saving makes for an interesting analysis nonetheless. Here's a summary table, then I'm going to talk a little more about some entries. Here "machine wage" isn't how much you pay per hour of operation - it's how much you pay per every hour of labor it saves you. I've ordered this list in descending order of utility.

ItemPriceCost/yLifetime (y)Hours saved/weekHours savedTotal CostMachine Wage

Dishwasher 500
5 3 780 500 0.64
Non-stick fry pan 100
20 0.05 52 100 1.92
Lawnmower (electric)
4001 10 0.25 130 410 3.15
Newer computer 1500
2 1 104 1500 14.42
Kitchen Mixer200 1 20 0.0096 10 220 22
Melon baller 10
10 0.00064 0.33 10 30
Car 5000 2000 5 1 260 15000 57.69

  • I'm a dishwasher evangelist. I've been responsible for (or at least influential in) the decisions of no fewer than 5 households I know to acquire a dishwasher by hook or by crook. (If you're renting, look into portable dishwashers - that's what I own.) Until today I just always had a hunch that dishwashers were good time-savers, but the hard numbers really nail it for me. Operating a dishwasher (in hot water and dish soap) costs about the same as washing by hand, and by my analysis my $500 dishwasher will save me 780 hours of scrubbing. Since I value my free time more than 64¢/hour, owning a dishwasher is a no-brainer.
  • I just bought a $100 super-high-quality frying pan, with (I kid you not) embedded diamonds as the non-stick coating. So far I have no complaints performance-wise: I get an even heat and the food has been scrumptious every time. As a side effect, I estimate that I spend about 3 minutes per week less cleaning, since now I can use this pan instead of my older stainless steel pan (which was a pain to scrub). Those 3 minutes per week over the 20 years the pan should last amount to 52 total hours saved, so I'm "paying" this machine $1.92/hour for the privilege of not washing dishes.
  • If I were to buy a new computer (something I dream about way too often) I might spend about 1 hour less per week waiting for my numbers to crunch (I'm a "power user": I run intensive numerical operations on a regular basis; for word-processing I doubt a newer computer would save more than a minute or two per week). If the new computer I'd keep for about 2 years, then it would save me about 104 total hours, so upgrading now (for $1500) would be like paying the machine $14.42 for every hour I save not waiting for that progress bar to end.
  • I broke down and bought one of those designer kitchen mix machines the other year. We barely use it, truth be told. If it were to save 15 minutes twice a year, this $200 machine would save us 10 hours of work over its 20-year lifetime. (Inside, I doubt it will save that much time, but the truth hurts sometimes.) It really sucks power too, so I guess its lifetime cost (price + power) will be $220; meaning we're paying it $22 per hour that it saves us. (Note: this mixer brings an invaluable quantity of ancillary joy to my better half merely by gracing our kitchen - which is precisely why this kind of analysis didn't have the last word.)
  • We also own a melon baller! If it saves us 2 minutes a year (we hardly use it), we're paying it $30/hour for the privilege. Maybe single-purpose kitchen gadgets should be contraband.
  • Last (but not least) we don't own a car. I can get to and from work without one (and, considering the parking around where I work, biking is faster), even though it makes doing errands a little more tricky. I estimate I spend about 1 hour more per week doing errands because I can't just hop into a rust bucket. (Aside: if I were to offset time I don't have to spend in the gym because I bike, this 1-hour figure could very well be negative!) In any case, were I to buy a car, over 5 years it could well cost $15,000 in insurance, depreciation, maintenance, parking and fuel. For each of the 260 hours it would save me, I'd be paying it $57.69: a pretty lousy deal. I guess I won't be buying a car until my lifestyle requires one.
The Last Inning

On that note, let me hand it over to you. The numbers I've presented are highly personalized and might not apply to you. I do a lot of serious computing, and even for me a new computer only barely makes sense. I live close to work, so biking is a great option. We do a lot of entertaining, and thus a dishwasher is pretty much essential. If you truly need a car, or if you don't entertain or run scientific computing experiments your personal table is likely to be quite different. Still, I encourage you to do the same sorts of analyses before listenening to the Walkin' Dude.

Rule your 'bots with an iron fist!


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Middle Ground Meat?

Greetings, omnivores.

Today I'm going to talk a little about animal welfare, and how we might improve it without getting angry at anyone.

Lately some animal rights protesters have been harassing someone close to me (I'm not going to go into details), and it started me thinking about ways in which animal rights activists might improve animal welfare most effectively. I think there are two main inefficiencies with current animal rights activity: extremism and lack of perspective.

Problem 1: Animal Rights Activists Tend to be Extremists

"You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar...*"

There are three general stances you could take on animal welfare:
  1. Animals suffering is equivalent to human suffering, so feed lots are equivalent to the WWII concentration camps (reflected in some ad campaigns).
  2. Animals are cute but tasty: let's try to make them reasonably happy as long as we can still eat bacon.
  3. Animals are here for human use. Some animals (mosquitoes come to mind) use us without the slightest regard for our well-being, so to hell with our looking after them.
While you can legitimately defend all of the above ethically, those who take stance #1 often feel entitled to, say, bomb the houses of animal researchers. While I acknowledge that you can't "prove" any value system is right or wrong, in general it's a good idea not to espouse any belief system which tells you it's OK to murder, for practical (if not ethical) reasons.

Even if you do believe murder is justified in a few circumstances, it's bad PR to kill your enemies. Homicide undermines your soft power like nothing else. I bet the above bombing did more to inoculate potential animal rights supporters than the combined forces of all the starched-shirted science-defending geeks ever to mumble through a justification of animal use at every cocktail party the world has seen.

Problem 2: Animal Rights Groups Lack Perspective

There are over 250 million egg-laying hens in the United States: almost one per human. There are likewise millions of dairy cows and livestock pigs. Many of these animals suffer for the sake of thrift: it's cheapest to pack animals into the smallest space that won't kill them.

Still, the three biggest animal rights causes I hear about are fur, pâté de foie gras, and medical research. A more quantitative statement: a Google search for "fur activism" turns up more hits than "laying activism."

What do fur, foie gras and medical research have in common? Not everybody comes home from their day quantifying drug toxicity to grab their mink stole on their way to a nice bistro: animal rights activists figure they can win more sympathy from people to counter less-common animal uses. They even turn poverty into a virtue: most of us can't afford blue fox coats while we're starting out, but PETA would have us believe we haven't yet bought fur because we instinctively know it's wrong. Moreover, a lot of rich people feel guilty about being rich (I can treat the root of this problem, incidentally. Please leave your contact info below.), making it easier to attack the morals of self-doubting millionaires.

In short, animal rights groups attack fringe animal usage since these are the issues they think they can "win." If I were them, and if I were really interested in animal welfare, I would recognize that many of us want to reduce animal suffering and would pay to do so (at least a little), so what we really need to do is have animal rights organizations set up a scoring system for farm animal welfare.

A lot of people would pay 20¢ more for eggs from hens which suffered 50% less pain. However, we have no way of really knowing how good each farm is. The time has past (or hasn't yet come) to paint each farmer Joe as a miniature Hitler: what I'd like to see are livestock comfort ratings on beef, milk, pork, chicken and eggs. Make them fair and standardized, and just watch if you don't find a significant minority of consumers support farms that would improve the lives of tens of millions of our fellow creatures.


Polarizing the debate on animal usage is a losing strategy: too many of us won't give up using animals in some form. Many animal activists use terrorist tactics to intimidate minority animal users. Regardless of whether you think animal rights should be equivalent to human rights, it's a better strategy to use market forces to relieve some suffering from mainstream animal uses; that's the easiest way to reduce animal suffering overall.

Chomping tenderly,


Reader poll: Who's a vegetarian, and why? How much extra would you spend on your daily food knowing your meat animals suffered less? How many of you would like the taste of happy meat better, if only through the placebo effect? Please leave me comments.

* Maybe animal rights activists think of the stuck fly's suffering, and so use vinegar deliberately to warn them from the trap?