Friday, January 28, 2011

How to Use Your IT Skills to Save the World

I just finished The Flooded Earth (2010) by Peter Ward, one of my most favorite paleontologists. Peter Ward is an expert on mass extinctions, particularly the Permian-Triassic mass extinction at the Paleozoic-Mesozoic boundary 251 million years ago, described in his Under a Green Sky (2007). There are several other good books by Peter Ward that provide further interesting insights into the nature of mass extinctions - The Life and Death of Planet Earth (2003), Gorgon – Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History (2004), and Out of Thin Air (2006), all of which are very good reads. The Flooded Earth picks up where Under a Green Sky left off and both books posit that mankind might be initiating a human-induced greenhouse gas mass extinction by burning up all the fossil fuels that have been laid down over hundreds of millions of years in the Earth’s crust. What differentiates Peter Ward from many climatologists is that, as a geologist and paleontologist, he looks at climate change from the perspective of deep time, rather than focusing on the past 100,000 years or so. Following the well-tested geological concept of Hutton’s and Lyell’s uniformitarianism, in which the “present is key to the past”, Peter Ward inverts the logic to point out that the past may be key to the future as well. By looking back at past greenhouse gas mass extinctions, like the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, we can get a sense of what mankind might have in store for itself if carbon dioxide levels keep rising.

The Earth’s Long-Term Climate Cycle in Deep Time
As we saw in Software Chaos, weather systems are examples of complex nonlinear systems that are very sensitive to small changes to initial conditions. The same goes for the Earth’s climate; it is a highly complex nonlinear system that we have been experimenting with for more than 200 years by pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The current carbon dioxide level of the atmosphere has risen to 390 ppm, up from a level of about 280 ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution. Now if this trend continues, computer models of the nonlinear differential equations that define the Earth’s climate indicate that we are going to melt the polar ice caps and also the ice stored in the permafrost of the tundra. If that should happen, sea level will rise about 300 feet, and my descendants in Chicago will be able to easily drive to the new seacoast in southern Illinois for a day at the beach. Worse yet, Peter Ward points to recent research which indicates that a carbon dioxide level of as little as 1,000 ppm might trigger a greenhouse gas mass extinction that could wipe out about 95% of the species on Earth and make the Earth a truly miserable planet to live upon.

This is not a fantasy. The Earth’s climate does change with time and these changes have greatly affected life in the past and will continue to do so on into the future. By looking into deep time, we can see that there have been periods in the Earth’s history when the Earth has been very inhospitable to life and nothing like the Earth of today. Over the past 600 million years, during the Phanerozoic Eon during which complex life first arose, we have seen five major mass extinctions, and it appears that four of those mass extinctions were greenhouse gas mass extinctions, with one caused by an impact from a comet or asteroid 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction that ended the Mesozoic Era and kicked off the Cenozoic Era.

We are living in a very strange time in the history of the Earth. The Earth has been cooling for the past 40 million years, as carbon dioxide levels have significantly dropped. This has happened for a number of reasons. Due to the motions of continental plates caused by plate tectonics, the continents of the Earth move around like bumper cars at an amusement park. With time, all the bumper car continents tend to smash up in the middle to form a huge supercontinent, like the supercontinent Pangea that formed about 275 million years ago. When supercontinents form, the amount of rainfall on the Earth tends to decline because much of the landmass of the Earth is then far removed from the coastlines of the supercontinent and is cut off from the moist air that rises above the oceans. Consequently, little rainwater with dissolved carbon dioxide manages to fall upon the continental rock. Carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere tend to increase at these times because not much carbon dioxide is pulled out of the atmosphere by the chemical weathering of rock to be washed back into the sea by rivers as carbonate ions. However, because the silicate-rich continental rock of supercontinents, which is lighter and thicker than the heavy iron-rich basaltic rock of the ocean basins, floats high above the ocean basins like a blanket, the supercontinents tend to trap the Earth’s heat. Eventually, so much heat is trapped beneath a supercontinent that convection currents form in the taffy-like asthenosphere below the rigid lithospheric plate of the supercontinent. The supercontinent then begins to break apart, as plate tectonic spreading zones appear, like the web of cracks that form in a car windshield that takes a hit from several stray rocks, while following too closely behind a dump truck on the freeway. This continental cracking and splitting apart happened to Pangea about 150 million years ago. As the continental fragments disperse, subduction zones appear on their flanks forcing up huge mountain chains along their boundaries, like the mountain chains on the west coast of the entire Western Hemisphere, from Alaska down to the tip of Argentina near the South Pole. Some of the fragments also collide to form additional mountain chains along their contact zones, like the east-west trending mountain chains of the Eastern Hemisphere that run from the Alps all the way to the Himalayas. Because there are now many smaller continental fragments with land much closer to the moist oceanic air, rainfall on land increases, and because of the newly formed mountain chains, chemical weathering and erosion of rock increase dramatically. The newly formed mountain chains on all the continental fragments essentially suck carbon dioxide out of the air and wash it down to the sea as dissolved carbonate ions.

The break up of Pangea and the subsequent drop in carbon dioxide levels has caused a 40 million year cooling trend on Earth, and about 2.5 million years ago, carbon dioxide levels dropped so low that the Milankovitch cycles were able to begin to initiate a series of a dozen or so ice ages. The Milankovitch cycles are caused by minor changes in the Earth’s orbit and inclination that lead to periodic coolings and warmings. In general, the Earth’s temperature drops by about 150 Fahrenheit for about 100,000 years and then increases by 150 Fahrenheit for about 10,000 years. During the cooling period, we have an ice age because the snow in the far north does not fully melt during the summer and builds up into huge ice sheets that push down to the lower latitudes. Carbon dioxide levels also drop to about 180 ppm during an ice age, which further keeps the planet in a deep freeze. During the 10,000 year warming period, we have an interglacial period, like the Holocene interglacial that we now find ourselves in, and carbon dioxide levels rise to about 280 ppm.

Thus the Earth usually does not have polar ice caps, we just happened to have arrived on the scene at a time when the Earth is unusually cold and has polar ice caps. From my home in the suburbs of Chicago, I can easily walk to an abandoned quarry of a Devonian limestone reef, clear evidence that my home was once under the gentle waves of a shallow inland sea several hundred million years ago, when there were no ice caps, and the Earth was much warmer. Resting on top of the Devonian limestone is a thick layer of rocky glacial till left behind by the ice sheets of the Wisconsin glacial period that ended 10,000 years ago, as vast ice sheets withdrew and left Lake Michigan behind. The glacial till near my home is part of a terminal glacial moraine. This is a hilly section of very rocky soil that was left behind as a glacier acted like a giant conveyer belt, delivering large quantities of rocky soil and cobbles to be dumped at the end of the icy conveyor belt to form a terminal moraine. It is like all that dirt and gravel you find on your garage floor in the spring. The dirt and gravel were transported into your garage by the snow and ice clinging to the undercarriage of your car, and when it melted it dropped a mess on your garage floor. This section of land was so hilly and rocky that the farmers of the area left it alone and did not cut down the trees, so now it is a forest preserve. My great-grandfather used to hunt in this glacial moraine and my ancestors also used the cobbles to build the foundations and chimneys of their farmhouses and barns. There is a big gorge in one section of the forest preserve where you can still see the leftover effects of this home-grown mining operation for cobbles.

The Effect of Climate Cycles Upon Life
The long-term climatic cycles brought on by these plate tectonic bumper car rides have also greatly affected the evolution of life on Earth. Two of the major environmental factors affecting the evolution of living things on Earth have been the amount of solar energy arriving from the Sun and the atmospheric gases surrounding the Earth that held it in. For example, billions of years ago the Sun was actually less bright than it is today. Our Sun is a star on the main sequence that is using the proton-proton reaction and the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle in its core to turn hydrogen into helium-4, and consequently, turn matter into energy that is later radiated away from its surface. As a main-sequence star ages, its energy producing core begins to contract, as the amount of helium-4 waste rises, and it shifts from using the proton-proton reaction to relying more heavily upon the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle which runs at a higher temperature. Thus, as a main-sequence star ages, its core contracts and heats up and it begins to radiate more energy at its surface. For example, the Sun currently radiates about 30% more energy today than it did about 4.5 billion years ago, when it first formed and entered the main sequence, and about 1.0 billion years ago, the Sun radiated about 10% less energy than today. Fortunately, the Earth’s atmosphere had plenty of greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide, in the deep past to augment the low energy output of our youthful, but somewhat anemic, Sun. Using some simple physics, you can quickly calculate that if the Earth did not have an atmosphere containing greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, the surface of the Earth would be on average 590 Fahrenheit cooler than it is today and would be totally covered by ice. So in the deep past greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, played a crucial role in keeping the Earth’s climate warm enough to sustain life. People tend to forget just how narrow a knife edge the Earth is on, between being completely frozen over on the one hand, and boiling away its oceans on the other. For example, in my Chicago suburb the average daily high is 240 Fahrenheit on January 31st and 890 Fahrenheit on August 10th. That’s a whopping 650 Fahrenheit spread just due to the Sun being 470 higher in the sky on June 21st than on December 21st. But the fact that the Sun has been slowly increasing in brightness over geological time presents a problem. Without some counteracting measure, the Earth would heat up and the Earth’s oceans would vaporize, giving the Earth a climate more like Venus which has a surface temperature that melts lead. Thankfully, there has been such a counteracting measure in the form of a long term decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, principally caused by living things extracting carbon dioxide from the air to make carbon-based organic molecules which later get deposited into sedimentary rocks, oil, gas, and coal. These carbon-laced sedimentary rocks and fossil fuels then plunge back deep into the Earth at the many subduction zones around the world that result from plate tectonic activities. Fortunately over geological time, the competing factors of a brightening Sun, in combination with an atmosphere with decreasing carbon dioxide levels, has kept the Earth in a state capable of supporting complex life.

Greenhouse Gas Mass Extinctions
But as I always say, a vice is just a virtue carried to an extreme. Geological history now shows that an overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can bring on a greenhouse gas mass extinction. The classic case is typified by the Permian-Triassic (P-T) mass extinction at the Paleozoic-Mesozoic boundary 251 million years ago. Greenhouse gas extinctions are thought to be caused by periodic flood basalts, like the Siberian Traps flood basalt of the late Permian. A flood basalt begins as a huge plume of magma several hundred miles below the surface of the Earth. The plume slowly rises and eventually breaks to the surface of the Earth, forming a huge flood basalt that spills basaltic lava over an area of millions of square miles to a depth of several miles. Huge quantities of carbon dioxide bubble out of the magma over a period of several hundred thousand years which greatly increases the ability of the Earth’s atmosphere to trap heat from the Sun. For example, during the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, carbon dioxide levels may have reached a level as high as 3,000 ppm, much higher than the 390 ppm of today. Most of the Earth warms to tropical levels with little temperature difference between the equator and the poles and with daily highs that can reach 1400 Fahrenheit. This shuts down the thermohaline conveyer that drives the deep ocean currents. Currently, the thermohaline conveyer begins in the North Atlantic, where high winds and cold polar air reduce the temperature of ocean water through evaporation and concentrates its salinity, making the water very dense. The dense North Atlantic water, with lots of dissolved oxygen, then descends to the ocean depths and slowly winds its way around the entire Earth, until it ends up back on the surface in the North Atlantic several thousand years later. Before submerging, the cold salty water of the North Atlantic picks up large quantities of dissolved oxygen, since cold water can hold much more dissolved oxygen than warm water, and this supply of oxygen from the surface keeps the water at the bottom of the oceans oxygenated. When this thermohaline conveyer stops for an extended period of time, the water at the bottom of the oceans is no longer supplied with oxygen, and only bacteria that can survive on sulfur compounds manage to survive in the anoxic conditions. These sulfur-loving bacteria metabolize sulfur compounds to produce large quantities of the highly toxic gas hydrogen sulfide, the distinctive component of the highly repulsive odor of rotten eggs, which has a severely damaging effect upon both marine and terrestrial life. As the hydrogen sulfide gas bubbles up from below, the sky turns a dingy green from all the hydrogen sulfide gas in the air and the oceans, choked with sulfur-loving bacteria, eventually turn a greasy purple and totally anoxic because of all the dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas. Nearly all fish species and other complex marine life die off in the oceans, as the surface waters too eventually lose all oxygen to support complex life. The hydrogen sulfide gas also erodes the ozone layer as the ozone of the upper atmosphere is lost as it oxidizes the hydrogen sulfide gas. This allows damaging ultraviolet light to reach the Earth’s surface which destroys the DNA of plant and animal life alike. Oxidation of hydrogen sulfide gas in the atmosphere, combined with the dramatic drop in oxygen producing life forms on both the land and in the sea, also causes the oxygen level of the atmosphere to drop to a suffocating low of 12%, compared to the current level of 21%.

The combination of severe climate change, changes to atmospheric and oceanic oxygen levels and temperatures, the toxic effects of hydrogen sulfide gas, and the loss of the ozone layer cause a rapid extinction of about 95% of all species over a period of about a hundred thousand years. And unlike an impacting mass extinction from an incoming comet or asteroid, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, a greenhouse gas mass extinction does not quickly reverse itself but persists for millions of years until the high levels of carbon dioxide are flushed from the atmosphere and oxygen levels once again rise. In the stratigraphic section, this is seen as a thick section of rock with decreasing numbers of fossils and fossil diversity leading up to the mass extinction, and a thick layer of rock above the mass extinction level with very few fossils at all, representing the long recovery period of millions of years required to return the Earth’s environment back to a more normal state.

A Human-Induced Greenhouse Gas Mass Extinction
The good news is that even if we do pump up the carbon dioxide level of the Earth’s atmosphere to 1,000 ppm over the next 100 – 150 years, it might take a couple of thousand years for a greenhouse gas mass extinction to begin to unfold, so we do have some time to think this over before proceeding along this path of self-destruction. The bad news is that human beings tend to live for the moment and are not very much concerned with anything more than a few months out. The person who chopped down the first tree on Easter Island was probably thinking about the same things as the person who chopped down the last tree on Easter Island. Throughout history, human beings have had a tendency to squander resources until none were left and then to move on. Unfortunately, this strategy seems to fall short when applied to an entire planet. But why should we worry about people living 2,000 years from now? Please remember that people are probably no smarter today than they were 200,000 years ago when Homo sapiens first appeared. All this carbon-based energy technology stems from the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, which led to the first commercially successful steam engine invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 (see A Lesson From Steam Engines for details). But don’t forget that we are enjoying the technological benefits of the second Scientific Revolution, not the first. The first Scientific Revolution was initiated by Thales of Miletus in about 600 B.C. when he began to explain natural phenomena in terms that did not rely upon mythology. Luckily for us, the Greek Scientific Revolution failed. Otherwise, there could have been a technological explosion by 400 B.C. that dramatically increased the population of the Earth to 9 billion people. There could have been billions of people back then running around in SUVs burning up all the oil and coal thousands of years ago, leaving us with none and a carbon dioxide level of 1,000 ppm that initiated a greenhouse gas mass extinction. You could be sitting here today, with a green sky and purple ocean, hungry, sweltering, and miserable on an Earth barely capable of sustaining life!

Perhaps we can work our way out of this mess with some additional geoengineering. After all, we seemed to have geoengineered our way into this mess in the first place, so maybe we can geoengineer our way out too. People have suggested that we could inject sulfate particles, or aerosols, into the upper atmosphere like volcanoes do when they blow their tops, to reflect incoming sunlight. Or we could use robotic ships to increase the cloud cover over oceans by injecting water mists into the air. I have read about a proposal to build 10 million computer controlled carbon dioxide scrubbers to extract all of our current emissions at a cost of several hundred billion dollars per year. The only problem with the proposal is what do you do with 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide gas each year? That’s a lot of gas to inject into sandstone reservoirs! Geoengineering on such scales is going to be expensive. Imagine the reverse situation. Suppose the Earth was found to be dramatically cooling for lack of carbon dioxide and we had to artificially pump up the carbon dioxide level of the atmosphere to stave off the ice sheets from an impending Ice Age. Imagine if we had to pay billions of people to explore for and produce all the oil and coal we use today and then burn it in cars and plants that did nothing useful beyond generating carbon dioxide. Suppose you were required to spend several hours per day running a machine that simply spewed out carbon dioxide and cost you several hundred dollars per week to operate. Such efforts would present a major impact on the world economy. Granted, there are a whole host of ingenious geoengineering solutions being offered, but they all have side effects, and l am afraid that lots of the side effects are not even known and would not become apparent until the geoengineering solutions were put into effect. Clearly, the safest approach is to simply stop emitting carbon dioxide by switching to solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, and wave energy sources. A viable fusion reactor would certainly do the job too, but the joke is that fusion power is the power of the future and always will be. Unless we get serious about these alternative energy sources very quickly, the future does not look very bright.

The problem is that we have known about this problem for over 50 years and have done absolutely nothing about it! When we first began measuring the carbon dioxide level of the Earth’s atmosphere at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii in 1958, the carbon dioxide level was rising at a rate of 0.95 ppm per year. Now the carbon dioxide level is rising at a rate of 2.39 ppm per year. In the coming years, it will be rising at a rate of 3 or 4 ppm per year as the demand for energy explodes with the increasing demand from the emerging economies of the world. Even now, the carbon dioxide level of the Earth’s atmosphere is rising about 1,000 times faster than it did during the period that led up to the Permian-Triassic mass extinction 251 million years ago. So we don’t have that much time to waste. Economically recoverable oil will be gone in about 50 years, so over the next few decades we will need to switch to coal on an ever increasing basis to fulfill the increasing appetite for world energy. Coal is pretty cheap, and my suspicion is that coal will always be a little cheaper than the alternative sources of energy for quite some time. It never seems to be the right time to begin switching to the alternative forms of energy. Either the world economy is humming along splendidly and we don’t want to damage it with a burdensome conversion cost, or the world economy has tanked and we don’t want to make things worse. So it seems that there never will be a good time to make the energy conversion to renewable sources of energy. And as global warming in the 21st century begins to produce a rising sea level, increasingly extreme weather conditions, and shifting rain patterns that create droughts and regional floods, as outlined in The Flooded Earth, there will be even less economic incentive to make the transition due to a lack of available funds, because so much money will need to be diverted to dealing with the consequences of global warming. Plus, we will always be faced with Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons (1968). If the United States and Europe do convert to renewable energy resources, but China, India and the other emerging economies do not, then the problem will still continue. Global warming is not an environmental problem, like others that the world has successfully addressed. Most environmental problems can usually be corrected in a few decades or so by halting the production of one offending organic molecule and substituting a more benign molecule in its place, such as we did with the phasing out of Freon. Global warming, on the other hand, is a worldwide geophysical problem that might take hundreds of thousands of years to correct. But there is a way out.

What You Can Do as an IT Professional
So how do we get 6 billion people to cooperate in reducing carbon dioxide emissions if it requires the self-sacrifice of the individual for the greater good of all? Clearly, given the limitations of human nature, if that is our only recourse, we are all doomed. However, in the past decade or so we have been able to get nearly 6 billion people to cooperate through the spread of capitalism and the globalization of the world economy brought on by high-speed fiber optic telecommunication networks and the spread of IT technology. This was not accomplished through the self-sacrifice of the individual. Instead, it was accomplished through the amazing “Invisible Hand” of Adam Smith, which allows the self-interest of the individual to benefit society as a whole. The only way we can possibly solve this problem is by making it easier and cheaper not to emit carbon dioxide than to continue on with business as usual, and IT technology is the only thing that can do that. IT is a truly transformative force in the world today. Just look to the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the spreading revolt throughout the entire Middle East, all the way to Iran. In the past decade, the United States spent over a trillion dollars toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and now it appears that all you need is the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and some blogs like this one.

This is where you come in as an IT professional. IT technology has tremendous potential for reducing our consumption of energy and reducing emissions. For example, I work for a really great company that instituted a “hoteling” initiative several years ago. Now I only go into the office about one day per month for special “in-person” group meetings. These “in-person” meetings are also broadcast as webconferences too, so basically I just go into the office once a month for old times sake. All you need is broadband connectivity to a good VPN, some email and instant messaging software, some voice over IP telephony software, and some software for webconferencing for meetings and group collaboration efforts and you have a virtual distributed office network! Your company probably has a lot of this already in place. Our set-up is so good that it passes the equivalent of a Turing Test, I cannot tell if my co-workers are in the office or out of the office when I work with them.

Let me describe my typical workday. Middleware Operations supports all the infrastructure software installed upon 200 production Unix servers, including Apache, Websphere, JBoss, Tomcat, ColdFusion, CTG, MQ, OFX, and many third party custom software products. We install application software into these products and keep the whole thing up and running on a 24x7 basis. As a member of Middleware Operations, I work very strange hours, including nights, weekends, and holidays. We are on pager duty one week per month, being Day Primary one month and Night Primary the next. We only work 40 hours per week, but we don’t get to pick which 40 hours! For example, when on Night Primary for Middleware Operations, I might work a few hours from 1:00 – 3:00 AM troubleshooting a problem before my first Change Management teleconference meeting at 9:00 AM. This meeting is a teleconference where Change Management, MidOps, UnixOps, NetOps, and Application Development go over all the upcoming scheduled change tickets to look for scheduling conflicts. I call into the meeting from my laptop using voice over IP software and view the change calendar report on an internal website. During the Change Management meeting, only about 5% of the change tickets really apply to Middleware Operations, so I check on all the pending change tickets in our queue that I need to approve for Middleware Operations. While I am listening into the meeting and approving tickets, I will also get instant message pop-ups from project managers and Application Development programmers with questions about the status of pending change tickets or answers to questions that I have emailed them about concerning their implementation plans, or I might get an instant message pop-up from a staff member in Bangalore India with an update on some of the installs that happened the previous night. I also work my email at the same time during the meeting. Later in the day, I might join a webconference for a walkthrough of an install plan for an upcoming change ticket with Application Development. During that meeting, I might get an instant message pop-up from a team member who lives in Indiana, or I might initiate an instant messaging session with him to discuss a technical problem on one of our websites. When on Day Primary, I might also get paged into a conference call for a website outage via my BlackBerry. On these voice over IP conference calls we might have 5 – 10 people using a group instant messaging session to troubleshoot the problem. I might have 20 or so windows open while troubleshooting, looking at monitoring tools and logged into a large number of Unix servers, to look at logs and to restart software components as needed. Later in the day, I might join a webconference for a demo of a new software technology that is being introduced. Sometimes, I need to train a new team member. To do that I set up a webconference so that the trainee can see what I am doing as I explain how a certain piece of software works. I can also promote the trainee to be the moderator of the webconference and watch the trainee go through what I have just demonstrated. Many times I will get paged by a frantic developer to approve a change ticket late in the day, when I would normally be driving home in a car and useless to all, but I just log back into our VPN and spend about 20 minutes going over the install plan before approving the ticket. I might even get paged to approve a last-minute ticket at 9:00 PM, but I just quickly login again to review and approve it. To keep things from getting out of hand, I simply keep a running tab of the time I actually work for my employer. When I do some work, I just record my start and end times, and then credit the hours worked to my employer’s running tab. When I begin work each day, I simply debit 8 hours from my employer’s running tab and only work the hours my employer actually needs me to perform duties, so some days I might only work 5 or 6 hours before logging off the VPN. In this way, I can work a 40 hour workweek, which is quite rare in IT, but from the perspective of my employer, I am always available when needed, like a time-sharing operating system, even though much of the time I am “idle” and doing other things like living my personal life with my family. When my laptop acts up, I open a ticket and somebody from desktop support uses software to take over my laptop remotely to fix it. Even when I do come into the office for a special “in-person” meeting, none of the above work processes really change! I do not physically walk to meeting rooms because that is a waste of time, I simply join the teleconference as usual. When I have to work with a team member sitting a couple of cubes away, I don’t walk over to her cube either because my old eyes cannot see her screen from more than 2 feet out. Instead, I just open a webconference, like I would do if I were working from my home office. So whether I am in the office or out of the office, I use software to work exactly the same way, regardless of where I am located physically in space. Some of my teammates even go out to events and run errands while on pager support and use a high-speed wireless card to connect to our VPN when necessary, but I like working from my home office at a nice desk, so I stick around the house while on pager duty. During my whole workday, I do not touch nor generate a single piece of paper the whole day long. With all this IT technology, it seems time to me to turn our obsolete 20th century office buildings into condos with high population densities that limit the amount of traveling people need to do in their daily lives.

I strongly believe that a distributed office platform greatly benefits both me and my employer because it allows me to be much more productive and flexible in delivering my services, and I believe a distributed office platform could work for most office work in general. Imagine how much energy could be saved and carbon dioxide emissions reduced if nobody commuted to work! The reason people still physically travel to a central location for office work stems from a change in work habits brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, craftsmen worked out of their homes. It was the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution that brought us together, but the steam engines are gone now, so why are people still driving to the office? I think it is just a holdover of 20th century thinking. Imagine that everybody in the world had been working from home offices for 20 years, using a distributed office platform, and somebody in a meeting came up with this really great idea. We should all spend an hour each morning and an hour each evening driving a car around in circles, spewing out carbon dioxide, and useless to all. This would improve productivity because it would help to reinforce the idea that work is a hardship to be suffered by all. After all, you really are not “working” unless you are suffering, and driving around in circles is surely a way to suffer. I have been in the workforce for 36 years, and I have also run across a lot of people who confuse “being at work” with “doing work”. They may spend the whole day in the office “working”, but they do not do anything constructive the whole day, beyond bothering people who really are trying to get some work done!

We have the technology to solve this problem. What really is needed is a change in thinking. As I pointed out previously, as IT professionals we are all warriors in the Information Revolution. So if your company has not instituted a similar program, gather up a little courage and email your CEO a proposal explaining how moving to a virtual distributed office system based upon telecommuting can save your company and fellow employees a great deal of time and money, while improving productivity at the same time. Just ask him how much it costs each year to operate the company’s office buildings and pay the property taxes. You can play a significant role in fixing this problem through the implementation of IT technology, so put your IT skills and abilities to work!

For Further Study Please See Professor David Archer's Excellent Course on Climate Change
For a more detailed exploration of climate change, please see Professor David Archer's excellent course on climate change entitled Global Warming I: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change on Coursera at Just search the course catalog for "global warming" to find it. You can also listen to the Coursera lectures directly from a University of Chicago website at This is an excellent course that goes into much greater detail than this brief posting.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

No comments: