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Gary Richmond [opinions]

Use GNU/Linux and help save the planet [gnu/linux] [reuse] [recycle] [ewaste]

“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.


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