As I See It: Al and Me
December 7, 2009 Victor Rozek
Twice I’ve traveled to Portland, Oregon, to see Al Gore and twice I’ve been punked. The first time was 16 years ago when he and Bill Clinton presided over the Northwest Forest Summit. The conference was organized because environmentalists were successfully blocking timber sales in court. The Forest Service had been repeatedly found guilty of what one federal judge called “systematic and deliberate” violations of law. The fact that the agency was peppered with former timber industry executives probably didn’t help its cause. Now, the two highest elected officials in the land were in Portland to hammer out a plan that would placate Greens, cut more trees, and be immune from that annoying rule of law thing.
Like many political events, this one promised hope but only produced a cut-the-baby-in-half solution that ultimately pleased no one, and certainly did little to save the dwindling old growth–a cautionary tale that compromise and nature don’t mix. We of the non-mainstream media were not allowed to breathe rarefied presidential air, and were herded into the bowels of the building where we watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV.
Sixteen years later, redemption. Or so I thought. Al Gore was giving the keynote address at this year’s Supercomputing Conference. Over 10,000 nerds from 71 countries were gathering to compare circuit boards; pale men strutting their wares, secure in the knowledge that smaller is better.
Acres of whiz-bang technology was on display, products of the finest technological minds on the planet. To paraphrase Jack Kennedy, it was one of the greatest gatherings of human intelligence in the history of mankind, with the possible exception of when Seymour Cray dined alone.
There were technical workshops, eye-glazing tutorials, and studious technical papers presented by serious people who had obviously limited their lifetime intake of drugs and alcohol. Application Supercomputing and the Many-Core Paradigm Shift; A Hands-on Introduction to OpenMP; Open Source Stack for Cloud Computing; and the ever popular Petascale Data Storage Workshop. In the Kingdom of the Terminally Serious, even a man with the reputation of the stiff and somber Mr. Gore had to be more entertaining.
And he was. Introducing himself as a “recovering politician,” Gore was self-effacing, erudite, and entertaining; and I would have loved to have seen him in person. But once again, we of the petite media were herded below ground to a space that served as the media room, where we were graciously allowed to follow the proceedings on a flat screen TV.
But there were compensations. I may have been forced to swallow my pride, but I washed it down with some pretty good coffee, and stuffed down my rancor with a plate of fruit and fresh pastries. Take that, Al.
Gore, however, didn’t seem the least bit envious. He began with some obligatory humor, (a woman seeing him in a restaurant told him that if he’d only dye his hair black, he’d look exactly like Al Gore), and then touched on a variety of subjects (politics, economics, technology), before getting to his new raison d’etre, saving the planet from its inhabitants.
There were even echos of the past. Gore noted that he talks to scientists and engineers who tell him they are working on devices that can scavenge carbon dioxide from the air. Well, we already have such devices, he said. “They’re called trees. Scale them and they’re called forests.” In fact, he said, “selling a rain forest for wood is like selling computer chips for the value of the silicon.” I couldn’t help but think: Man, where were you 16 years ago when you actually had the power to dictate forest policy?
Not surprisingly, saving the planet has proven to be a daunting task. And although Gore does not appear to be discouraged, he clearly understands that what is required is nothing less than a galactic shift in thinking “similar to the change in understanding brought about by the work of Galileo.” Of course, just like the tea-baggers of his day who forced Galileo to renounce his work, there are those who wish Gore would simply dry up and blow away. But in the supercomputing community Gore hopes to find allies to help him expose medievalists to the realities of the 21st century.
The problems are well known and beyond scientific uncertainty, said Gore. We have become “absurdly dependent on oil,” a “dirty, expensive, and vulnerable energy source.” CO
Getting people to act is challenging, said Gore, because we are hard-wired to react to imminent danger–like a hissing snake, or a threatening stranger. But the causes and consequences of climate change are separated by decades, and the effects are incremental, manifesting in distant places at different times. If Australia has endured severe drought conditions for years, or the Himalayan glaciers are melting, thereby threatening the water supply of two billion people, well, that’s a shame, but what does it have to do with the folks living in Los Angeles?
That’s where supercomputing comes in. Only supercomputers can crunch all the data, link cause and effect, and provide accurate modeling on which solutions can be based, said Gore. And we already have a precedent to build on. Climate change was not the first volley in Humans vs Planet. Ozone deterioration was discovered–and more importantly, understood–with the help of supercomputer models, and we acted on the information. Within one year a treaty was adopted to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs for short. (It should be noted that many of the same people who are apoplectic about climate change also denied that ozone depletion was a threat.)
More importantly, this new understanding spurred out-of-the-box thinking. CFCs were, among other things, used to clean circuit boards, and manufacturers tried a variety of substitutes none of which worked well. Then somebody asked the pivotal question: How do circuit boards get dirty in the first place? And the entire assembly process was redesigned. Clean rooms became sterile.
It was a systemic change, the kind urgently needed today, said Gore. More solar energy falls on the earth in one hour than is used by humankind in one year. What systemic changes will allow us to harness it? That is a question supercomputing can help answer. Shifting to widespread energy production will require extensive modeling. But perhaps the primary benefit of modeling is demonstrating why the shift is so urgently necessary. Gore calls supercomputing “the most powerful tool in history” precisely because it can help us understand and explain complex realities.
Moore’s Law, noted Gore, is not a law of physics, but a self-fulfilling expectation. Currently, expectations of stemming climate change are low. “The most that is politically imaginable in any country is far short of what is needed to solve the crisis,” admitted Gore. But “political will is a renewable resource.” Gore believes that political will can be strengthened if supercomputing can make climate change real enough to produce the visceral reaction that will prompt decision makers to act. But that may be a stretch. If Hurricane Katrina didn’t do it, I’m not sure computers will.
The flaw in Gore’s argument is that he will never convince those who are paid not to understand. Nor will he sway the non-reality-based community who believe climate change is a liberal conspiracy or a prologue to the second coming.
But however large the challenge, Gore believes that “we have a heavier obligation to future generations than any previous generation.” If we don’t succeed, warned Gore, “we will leave degraded prospects for each successive generation.” And it is in the fresh, passionate minds of younger generations that Gore sees the most hope. He reminded his audience that when we first stretched beyond our planet, with NASA using relatively primitive technology to journey to the cold, barren surface of the moon, the average age of the men in Mission Control was 26. I don’t know the average age of the conference attendees, but it was certainly well below 40. Consider it generational outsourcing: Cleaning up the mess will fall to those who did not create it.
Early in his presentation, Gore shared a story of what it was like to become a private citizen after eight years of close proximity to the White House. He and his wife were driving in a rented Taurus, when he looked in the rear-view mirror and momentarily panicked because there was no motorcade following behind. They stopped for lunch in an inexpensive road-side diner where the waitress recognized him. Excited, she hurried over to the adjoining table and in a loud whisper told the man there, “That’s Al Gore.” The man looked, shook his head and replied: “He’s come down a long way, hasn’t he.”
At the risk of calling the story allegorical (no moans please), it did capture the essence of Gore’s presentation. It is Al Gore’s most fervent wish that future generations will not have reason to say the same thing about the planet they inherit.