Author Archives: leokosola

Data centers as heaters

(…) in large data centers, enormous cooling mechanisms are required to maintain the optimal temperature and ensure the stability of the computer’s operation.

Because data centers needs cooling, as Nicole Starosielski mentions in the text, colder Nordic countries are good places to build data centers. Google just announced recently that it will invest a lot more to its data center in Hamina. This is good news for Finland who desires new data centers. Finland is not only looking for jobs that major investments create, but also wants the heat data centers inherently produce.

Finland has decided to stop burning coal by the year 2030. That’s why cities are in a hurry to renovate their heat and power generation.

Espoo is a good example. It has a large combined heat and power plant in Suomenoja that still burns coal. Last week Espoo announced that it will close its coal burning units entirely in five years. Here is the road map they have planned to become coal neutral Espoo.

Espoo district heating transformation plan

You can see that coal units are planned to close in 2020 and 2025 and data centers to open in 2022 and 2024. Using data centers as heat sources in cities’ district heating is not a new thing, but the plan is to build and connect more in the future. This works in a way that the hot air from data centers is channeled into underground pipes of district heating to warm water that then warms the city.

In September, City Board of Espoo decided to reserve a lot in Northern Espoo for energy company Fortum that wants to build a big data center there. All the excess heat from that data center would go into Espoo’s district heating. Many homes that now is heated by coal would then be warmed by data usage. It’s interesting how media infrastructure (data center) would be strictly connected to our basic infrastructure (heating homes). Data in this scenario is almost like a piece of firewood that keeps our flats warm.

I find this plan also interesting, because data centers use a lot of energy, but are still seen as green choice. I suppose the idea behind this is that getting green heat is harder than green power, so data centers could run entirely with renowable and nuclear power and then produce clean excess heat.

The Toaster Project

In Anthrobscene, Jussi Parikka mentions financial analyst Jay Goldberg, who encountered tablets worth 45 dollars in his work trip to China and was shocked how cheap they were.

I thought the screen alone would cost more than $45.
No one can make money selling hardware anymore.

This reminded me of The Toaster Project by designer Thomas Thwaites. It started in a similar way, seeing a new electronic appliance that is so cheap that you get mesmerized, how manufacturing this is even possible.

In Thwaites’ case it was a basic toaster that cost £3.99 in Argos.

Argos Catalog

Argos catalog around the time when The Toaster Project started. (http://www.45spaces.com/catalogues/r.php?r=spring-summer-2009)

Thwaites decided to make one himself from the beginning. He wondered: How the hell do some rocks became a toaster?

Thwaites started a journey, “faintly ridiculous quest” as he describes it, to dig up and manufacture the materials he needed to build a toaster: copper, iron, mica, nickel and plastic. He ended up spending 9 months and more than 1000 pounds for building a crappy and ugly toaster that barely works.

The Toaster Project

A finished toaster by Thomas Thwaites. Photo by Daniel Alexander (thomasthwaites.com)

But making a good or functional or pretty toaster, of course, was not the point of the project. He explains he wanted to explore large processes hidden behind mundane everyday objects, and to connect these with the ground they’re made from. This is why I think it is a suitable project to mention in the context of Jussi Parikka’s Anthrobscene.

I’m interested in the economies of scale in modern industry, the incremental progression of science and technology, and exploring the ever-widening gulf between general knowledge and the specialisms that make the modern world possible. – Thwaites

Rebuilding a smart phone or other contemporary media device from scratch in the spirit of Thwaites would be an interesting critical new media design project. Though, it needs a bit more digging, traveling and studying as you can see from this recent infographics showing periodic table and how many elements are included in cellphones.

Businessweek graphics

Boomberg Businessweek mazagine 2.9.2019, screencapture from e-magazine. (aalto.finna.fi/Record/nelli32.954927526764)

References:

Thwaites, Thomas. Toaster Project : Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch, Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aalto-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3387548.

Thwaites, Thomas. Homepage. 2019.
https://www.thomasthwaites.com/the-toaster-project/

Google’s cable investments

There was an article recently on New York Times covering Google’s undersea projects. They have a nice map of the history of undersea cables and which of them Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon “partly own, solely own or are a major capacity buyer of a cable owned by another company”.

Map published in New York Times. Graphics by Karl Russell, Troy Griggs and Blacki Migliozzi.

It looks like the share of these major content providers among all internet cables is increasing quite rapidly. And especially Google is taking lead of creating its own cable infrastructure.

There is an interview of Jayne Stowell, who oversees construction of Google’s undersea cable projects. Couple of nice comments:

“People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not,”
“It’s in the ocean.”

“It really is management of a very complex multidimensional chess board,” said Ms. Stowell of Google, who wears an undersea cable as a necklace.

There is also interviews and pictures of guys working in the cable ship Durable that Google uses for its laying operations.

“I still get seasick,” said Walt Oswald, a technician who has been laying cables on ships for 20 years. He sticks a small patch behind his ear to hold back the nausea. “It’s not for everybody.”

Recommend to read!

Here’s couple more images of what Google is planning from company blog post.

About captchas and trackers

I was excited about the large scale of media infrastructures mentioned in the introduction chapter and how things are connected but hard to see. The connection between web and biophysical world is easy to forget. Where does all the small pieces of regular websites like cookies and such come from? Who provides them and why they exist? Are they hyper-objects?

In Autumn, I studied CAPTCHA systems for a project, especially Google’s reCAPTCHA, which is commonly used captcha program on the internet. Recaptcha is a fully automated web security program that developers can use for free to protect their sites. Recaptcha’s primary function is to determine whether a visitor of the page is a human (good) or a “robot” such as spamming bot (bad).

But Recaptcha – unlike captchas before – creates secondary value too.

Recaptcha challenges are made so that they employ visitors to create useful data for Google. Recaptcha has provided useful information to digitize old books, improve Google Maps and develop machine learning algorithms.

Different captchas. (Source: back40design.com.)

Some critics have seen a connection between Recaptcha and Google’s deal with U.S. Department of Defense to analyze drone footage. Manuel Beltran thinks that while solving Google’s captcha challenges, clueless people become labour to create data that helps the U.S. Army.

Another example of blind spot in the web for humans are trackers that collect information of users. Probably most commonly used web service that uses trackers is Google Analytics. When its tracker is placed within a website, the site sends data to Google’s server. That server is located somewhere – maybe in Hamina or maybe in the United States.

Screenshot of the project website Algorithms Allowed.

Artist Joana Moll investigated the usage of trackers in websites of countries that US is enforcing embargoes and sanctions including Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and the Ukrainian region of Crimea. She scraped websites with the fitting domains of these countries.

She found some interesting use cases of US-company-owned trackers: President of Iran official website uses Google Analytics, Ministry of Defense of Iran uses Google Analytics, Ministry of Finance of Syria uses Google Analytics, and so on.

It is amusing that webmasters of these governmental websites let US corporations read data of their visitors. I argue that it happens because it is hard for people to understand that few lines of code in a website may mean something in a physical world too.

Link to Joana Moll’s project Algorithms Allowed (2017).