Use GNU/Linux and help save the planet

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“A crass, purblind,....featureless heap of gangrened elephant’s sputum." Who said that and about what? Linus Torvalds describing the state of Windows coding? No. The Samba team’s opinion of the Microvell deal? Nope. Richard Stallman’s view of patents and the DRM? Nope, not that either. Give up? Alright. It was that splendid old curmudgen Kingsley Amis venting his considerable spleen on the (approximately) Eleventh-Century heroic epic, Beowulf (which I managed to avoid in my three year English degree. Phew!). Apologies to any lovers of ancient epic literature out there.

Like squirrel nutkin, I stored that little misanthropic gem in my pouch and when I was reading a series of articles about climate change and global warming it came forcefully to mind. In particular, when I saw pictures of the Himalayas of electronic waste whose production has caused so much pollution, Amis’ bile seemed to be a suitably repellant description. If that sounds like hyperbole then go here and view some of the PDFs detailing the toxic chemical substances in computers. Just to give you a flavour: based on a typical 60lbs desktop computer, lead content is 3.8 pounds, iron 12.3 pounds and plastics (from oil) 13.8 pounds and these documents detail these and other substances and their effect on the human body and the environment. They make for sobering reading.

Now, I’m not one of those naive, faintly embarrassing Linux evangelists, who is going to claim that Linux can cure piles, acne, hiccups or halitosis. But it strikes me that it does have a role to play in reducing the mountain of waste or, at least, postponing the evil day when another obsolete PC is tossed on the proverbial scrapheap.

As the upgrade cycle gets shorter and shorter, more perfectly usable PCs fall by the wayside and companies and private individuals feel constrained to purchase new machines as the current crop is deemed to be underpowered for the latest software. Leaving aside the imminent arrival of Windows Vista and its licencing arrangements, it will have many levels of choice and, if you choose the top of the range graphical option, you may well find that your hardware is underpowered in terms of processor, memory and graphics card. As regards Microsoft’s recommended minimum requirements, this is clearly a case of caveat emptor. The minimum specification might run but it will run like a Citreon 2CV powered by a rubber band. The average Windows user, short either of cash or technical expertise, will be between a rock and a hard place. They cannot upgrade and are forced to stay with an earlier version of Windows (either no longer supported or about to be abandoned) at the whim of the corporate priorities of big business. They are well and truly stitched up.

Are Windows users, not by choice, the worst polluters of the planet relative to GNU/Linux? Well, not intentionally but the lifecycle of a machine running Windows must be shorter than that of a conscientious Linux user who can prevent that old 400MHZ Celeron PC with 128MBs of memory gathering dust in the corner from heading for the scrapheap. He or she can use it to try out new live CDs, especially the ones specifically designed for low spec machines. Damn Small Linux (DSL), Puppy Linux and Feather Linux spring to mind. The chances are that if you can’t run one of them on your oldest computer then it has passed into the pages of digital history. RIP! There’s a brilliant account by Howard Fosdick of digital CPR on an very old Thinkpad laptop which exemplifies this.

What if you don’t like the windows managers or the software selection these parred down distros offer? No problem. If you are willing to invest in a learning curve you can remaster your live CD to include/exclude all the features you don’t want from software to services. If this is not enough, you can always recycle an old PC as a non-graphical server on an internal network or a dedicated hardware firewall, which will require few processor or memory overheads, or use it as a base for learning about the innards of Unix (recompile that Kernel, build that RPM package you always promised yourself you would). Should you still decide to dispose of that old PC, the Linux community can help out here too.

There are many organisations and Linux Users’ Groups (LUGs) around the world that will not only save your computer from a premature trip to the dump or a recycling plant in the developing world but will use it to train people to build machines and install a version of GNU/Linux on them. Not only will users get a cheap computer and an introduction to the benefits and advantages of GNU/Linux, they will have done their part—albeit a small part—for planet Earth.

The Chinese have a saying: the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Reusing a puffing and wheezing old computer by installing a minimal GNU/Linux distro and staving off the day when it trudges forlornly to the scrapheap is at least a baby step in the right direction.



Papa's picture
Submitted by Papa on

Anyone who reads the Free Software Magazine knows _where_ the journey is headed. I believe the stumbling point is more a matter of 'how to take the first step'. It is all too easy for experienced GNU/Linux hands to say, "Just get yourself some [Distro of Choice] and start saving a bundle of money, not to mention trees and dying PCs."

Well, that just ain't so, as we say here in the wilds of western Kentucky. Follow the intricately interwoven plan to see how one instance of GNU/Linux was supported by Management...

1.) Demonstrate the need to upgrade an existing SQL server.
2.) Acknowledge that hardware costs are a constant (Server class machine, RAID 5 storage.)
3.) Acknowledge that Redhat Linux and Postgresql are very cost effective alternatives.
4.) Acknowledge that "we" can always pay full price for the BigNameSoftware (BNS) version of Server and SQL Server.
5.) Suggest that if the very low cost GNU/Linux alternative actually doesn't work then it is a simple matter to put BNS software on the same hardware and just 'pay the price'. (Special Note: Management is willing to take risks _if_ they can be assured that an iron-clad fall-back position is guaranteed.)
6.) Implement the GNU/Linux and Postgresql solution.
7.) Remind Management (gently) how really cost effective this solution is.

Practically demonstrating cost-effectiveness while maintaining a 'traditional' fall-back position is the key to convincing Management of the value of FLOSS. Let's face it, todays business environment is not resistant to change. It is however, very uncomfortable with the prospect of failure.

My next big 'problem' is getting Management to cut the 'voluntary donation' check to cover programming essentials (Pizza & Beer) for the good folks at Postgresql.

William "Papa" Meloney

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dfego's picture
Submitted by dfego on

I think that perhaps the savior in this situation isn't really GNU/Linux itself, but rather computer users who are technically savvy or have a desire to learn a bit more about computers. Sure, LiveCDs make it easy to make it all happen, but really, that old hardware finds itself being used by someone who had use for it (and who would be seeking it out) anyway. So yes, indirectly, GNU/Linux's increasing ease of use can help extend the lives of computers otherwise left for dead, but it's still going to be those people willing to go the extra mile that make it happen, and the percentage of those who both have the will and corresponding motivation to get it done are probably rather low.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Beowulf is actually pretty cool.
Especially if you don't think of it as "literature".
I mean, come on, it's about where this monster is coming and killing people every night and it's, like, immune to weapons so it keeps on terrorizing the place for ten years until this hero comes and *wrestles* it, and he rips its arm off!
And then when the hero is way older and he's a king, someone steals something from a dragon's treasure, so the dragon gets pissed off and comes burning everything in sight. And so the hero (being older and a bit more careful and wily) figures that if he goes after it straight he'll get burned to a crisp--so he has a special big heavy all-metal shield made that he can hide behind. And so he goes with his top guys to kill it--but he tells them to stay back, because as the king it's his problem. And most of them do, they're like scared spitless of the dragon. But one of them says hey, I'm supposed to be this guy's warrior and protect him, no way am I going to hide while he gets himself killed. So he goes in there and helps out, and between the two of them they do in the dragon, but the king gets killed. The guy with guts enough to help inherits the kingdom. The end.
It's like a blockbuster ultraviolent movie from the ninth century. Sure, maybe the critics turned out to like it in the end too, but basically it's about totally kickass guys wrestling monsters.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Read it in the Seamas Heaney translation (actually, by the middle I was reading it in the Olde English-- even though it initially seems even more foreign than Latin). I'm looking forward to the upcoming movie version, written by Sandman's Neil Gaiman.

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Gary Richmond's picture


A retired but passionate user of free and open source for nearly ten years, novice Python programmer, Ubuntu user, musical wanabee when "playing" piano and guitar. When not torturing musical instruments, rumoured to be translating Vogon poetry into Swahili.