% fortune -ae paul murphy

A global avalanche

I'm a rabid optimist when it comes to humanity's future. On the one hand there are serious problems to be confronted, but on the other none of the problems touted in the mass media are particularly real or threatening. The world is not, for example, running out of oil, we know how to control pandemics, the first terrorist or fruitcake dictator to use a real nuke will kill millions - but the response will put this threat out of reach forever.

In terms of publically debated issues the questions that count are things like whether nanomachines, bio-experimentation, or an asteroid could wipe us out - but all of those have well understood, if not immediately implementable, answers.

The one big question, the one no one wants to publically confront head on, is whether those parts of the world living in the 11th and 19th centuries respectively drag us down to their level or undergo what the economists call creative destruction to come up to ours. That's the issue that's been quietly driving U.S. trade policy for decades - and, as I've said before, every time Wallmart sends a job to China, you should think of it as safer, cheaper, and more effective than sending a soldier.

In that context I see last Tuesday's American election result as a step in the wrong direction, but one that has a longer term silver lining because it sets up a Rudy vs. Joe contest in 2008 in which the world wins no matter who gets elected - and eight years will go a long way to finishing the job Reagan started.

But what can we, in IT, do to help things along? here's an idea: lets be flakes - in the sense that an avalanche starts with a flake of snow - and start to think about, and talk about, global climate control.

The goals are obvious: moderation and dispersion. Moderation in the sense of not letting hyper destructive weather systems develop, dispersion in the sense of spreading rainfall and moderate weather to the one third of the world's land mass that's currently unable to support mechanised agriculture.

It is technically possible to do this. To quote my own blog from August of 2005:

The earth has about 509,600,000 square kilometres of surface area, roughly 71% of it water. Extend our area of interest 3 KM down and 12 up, and we have about 7.644 billion cubic kilometres within which climate is of direct importance to us. Heat and material transfer functions for most of the materials found in that volume are well understood, thus there are no theoretical impediments to modelling the effect that an isolated increase or decrease in solar energy input to a cone cut across these cubes will have on the cubes themselves and thence on their neighbours.

There are a few practical impediments to extending that model to cover the globe, but the theory's all there. What's missing is the both the data and the computing capacity needed. Make those available, however, and it should be possible to fully predict the effect in San Francisco next year of man made cloud cover in Beijing this year.

Getting the data is a matter of being willing to spend the money -the lack of surface differentiation in much of the globe coupled with the availability of space-based sensors make that much less challenging or expensive than it might appear. The problem has been that the combination of processing power and storage needed has not been available at any price - but they soon will be. Both IBM's grid on a chip and Sun's SMP on a chip offer the potential to do this: both directly and in terms of the computation needed to enable data reduction to the point that the required storage becomes practical.

Since then Sun's Niagara one has proven to be both easier to work with and more effective than most people expected while both Sony and IBM have demonstrated that getting the performance offered by the Cell architecture is hard but possible.

Right now, therefore, we know how to monitor the energy balance affecting every cubic unit, say kilometre, in the earth's habitable zone, we have, or nearly have, the tools to do it, and we know in principle how to modify that balance by adding or subtracting small amounts of solar energy using positionable solar mirrors and shades in orbit - the same technology needed for asteroid protection.

Bottom line? global climate control: an end to weather related loss and the rehabilitation of one third of the world's land mass for agriculture and habitation, is very close to being an engineering problem, not a theoretical one.

And that makes turning it into reality primarily a political problem because less than 15% of the world's population actually lives in the 21st century - and 100% of us would be affected. So be a flake like me: think about it first, then talk about it - remember avalanches take a long time to start, but ultimately become unstoppable.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.